This week, the 2nd part of the readers’ feedback about the script submissions for the 2021 Channel 4 screenwriting course.
The Originality Myth
This year, each reader leapt headfirst into five-hundred of your scripts. Although we all – by the very nature of the work – had different experiences, in our meetings it quickly became evident just how much of our reading experience was shared. Mike and Issy gave such insightful, sensitive and detailed advice and feedback to writers in the last newsletter, I wasn’t sure I had anything further to add.
This got me thinking about how astonishing it is (especially considering the reading group never actually met ‘in real life’ this year) that our responses to the process coincided as they did.
And following on from that, isn’t it totally remarkable that over three-thousand-eight-hundred writers sat in over three-thousand-eight-hundred different spaces, and that many of them encountered exactly the same challenges? Desperately tried to understand the same emotions? Made the same mistakes, and probably felt the same kind of elation when they landed on that perfect line? Grappled with the same subtext? Sometimes, quite literally wrote the same story, albeit from a slightly different perspective. There’s something so humbling about that, and of course, profoundly unifying too.
Yet, as a writer, all that you are told time and time again is to ‘be original’. I’m continually fascinated by that as a provocation. So many of my most memorable moments of script-reading have been when I find connection or similarity between what I’m reading and something else I’ve read or experienced.
What does ‘be original’ actually mean? How can it, truly, ever be useful to be told to be original? Is there a single writer out there who is not somewhat intimidated, angered, or at worst completely deterred, by those dreaded words?
So, I thought it might be useful to use this space to unpick what people might mean when they drop the ‘O’ bomb.
First, here’s what I think they don’t mean:
- To seek originality, you don’t need to take a reader to [insert planet name here]
- You don’t need to invent your own language, an entirely new dramatic structure or the existence of a unique non-human life-form
- You don’t need to shock us with epic injections of plot that send our heads spinning
- You don’t actually even need to take us beyond a school assembly hall; a house; a community garden; a Morrison’s car park.
I think there’s a huge release to be found in taking the pressure off yourself to somehow re-invent the wheel. Honestly, keep us in your protagonist’s bathroom for 75% of your script if that’s what your story needs.
Much of the best art is praised for its ‘originality’, but if you take a moment to look at it closely you’ll often find that what makes it sing is rarely based on its utterly innovative concept on its own. It’s always much more to do with the questions, ideas or metaphors at its heart. The framing device you give me might offer access to your story, but what really hits me is what it’s showing me about myself, that guy down the road, and the world around me right now.
“You’re wrong”, I hear you say, “Black Mirror basically did all the of the things you said that writers don’t need to do”.
True, but the real secret there is that its power wasn’t actually a result of its innovative concepts. Yes, some of them were very, very cool and clever. But they were, of course, just the containers for its ideas. When we watch Maxine Peake being chased by robot dogs, we aren’t gripped simply because of the idea of the robot dogs – we connect with it because of the feelings it allows us to tap into through a surprisingly simple story and metaphor.
Some of the most exciting scripts I read for C4 Screenwriting this year were those that took everyday objects, settings, conflicts, and recognisable characters and stories, and added just a tiny pinch of new perspective. What ‘originality’ really is, is showing us the same things we see everyday, but offering us the opportunity to see them afresh.
Lastly, a piece of advice that I really feel deserves to be continually reiterated: keep watching stuff. This likely being the year we’ve all watched more TV than we ever have before, I am more certain than ever that the best possible training ground for any writer is in experiencing the work of others. I can’t tell you how many writers have expressed the anxiety that watching other’s work might stunt their own ‘originality’, suggesting that by somehow ignoring the whole canon of exceptional, catastrophic, or indeed very average writing that everyone else is doing will somehow make you more original. I promise you, it’s not true. Watch, read, listen, digest, imitate, learn, look out the window. Let yourself stop searching for that elusive ‘originality’ and I promise you, you’re far more likely to find it.
A few thoughts from this year –
Do you want to read it?
It seems quite basic, and that’s because it is but you’d be surprised how many scripts are hard to break down. Making your script a page turner right from the start is paramount to success. As a reader, you want each script you consider to be a winner (you really do), however if you struggle to follow narrative from the beginning then your initial enthusiasm can melt, quite rapidly, to apathy.
It’s tempting to include a snazzy technique – such as a jump between different timeframes – at the beginning but it’s always worth considering whether this actually adds anything to the mix or rather ends up disorientating the reader.
Some of my favourite scripts this year had a linear structure. It gives you the opportunity, especially if you have been reading a lot, to get comfortable with a new world and characters quickly and ultimately makes converting casual intrigue to sustained interest all the easier.
Emphasis on the First Five (or Ten) Pages
As readers, in our last session, the question was asked whether anyone had read a script they’d recommend even though the first ten pages weren’t great. The answer was a resounding no. This is pretty striking and our group all agreed on the disproportionate value of nailing those first few pages, because if you don’t win the reader round from the off it’s going to be a real uphill battle.
Can you pitch it?
Some of the best scripts I read could be explained easily – or at least teased easily.
Does it excite you to talk about the story? Does it feel smooth or do you find yourself stumbling through an explanation? If you do find a simple explanation difficult then it might be worth considering what you can do to make your story more straightforward. I know as a reader it’s much better to be presented with one good idea, well-executed, rather than loads of things thrown onto the page and left for you to decipher.
Being part of this process was a challenging and humbling experience. I felt like I was living a month in each day – existing in so many varied and detailed fictional worlds. It was absorbing and exhausting in equal measure. Imagine watching 18 hours of totally different TV pilots every day for 6 weeks – an inspiring but disorientating, mammoth challenge! When I let go of the pressure of reaching my script-tally each day, I was able to tap into what a privilege it was to be one of the readers on this course. To be exposed to hundreds of writers finding and refining their voice was nothing short of awe-inspiring. It takes tremendous guts to spill your soul onto a page, and then enormous discipline to work and re-work that material and share it with others. This awareness also helped me remain humble and curious rather than jaded as a reader.
For me, the best scripts were a little out of the ordinary, with a strong sense of vision and voice and a lightness of touch that meant it was easy for me to lose myself in the story and forget the page count. They were also authentic stories where the worlds felt real and I felt something reading them.
The less good scripts for me were ones that were less self-aware, didn’t explore anything new, or tried to explore something in a similar way to popular material that already exists.
Tips for writers
First impressions count – It’s worth making sure that you get a reader’s attention in the first 5-10 pages.
- Think tactically – While it may be that your story feels like the length of a film (which it may well be!) bear in mind that there can be more room for error over more pages. Market wise, broadcasters are actively seeking out shorter format material so it may also be savvy to prove you can write something well-structured and original with a lightness of touch in 30 pages.
- Trust your voice -Being able to write in a certain style or follow a certain trend is skillful, but C4 are looking for what YOU have to say, and how you see the world in a new, fresh light.
Rhiannon Grace Allen
The first thing I’d like to say is a big thank you for the effort of all the 500 writers whose scripts I read for this year’s course. There were some truly beautiful, challenging and touching stories that I had the privilege of reporting on and fighting for in this process. Well done.
Now that’s been said, I’d like to focus on some of the things I think were missing or misjudged in my batch…
I only read two scripts (out of 500) that mentioned COVID-19. This is a staggeringly small ratio. It’s understandable that, for many, it would be the last thing you’d want to think about, but I think this reflects a deeper issue of writers shying away from immediate, real life issues. TV can be a powerful form of collective therapy, allowing us to process and understand trauma. Be brave. Tackle big issues.
Detail, not detailed
What specifically defines your protagonist? What small detail makes this character different? Without wishing to sound like a screenwriting manual, these questions weren’t answered enough. Everyone has intriguing quirks. Don’t drown us in description, but be economical, specific and intriguing with your characterisation.
If your story goes INT. BEDROOM —> INT. KITCHEN —> INT. CAR —> INT. OFFICE, you may need to rethink. It’s a visual medium – show us somewhere interesting. How do your characters interact with their surroundings and what does that say about them? Whose domain are we in? If it is an office scene, how can you make it active, specific and interesting?
If your plot is at all predictable or prescriptive to C4, chuck a grenade in there and see what happens. As a reader, more than anything, I want to be surprised. Early. Uproot expectations at least once in the first ten pages (please, no more teasers though). Rather than relying on convention, go out swinging in your own original way and make your story urgent – it’ll help you stand out from the crowd.
Finally, make sure your script is proofread and formatted correctly. I had the early bird batch this year and it was still an issue. Clarity is underrated.
Be wise with what you put in the first 5-10 pages. As a reader I want the protagonist to be the first person I see or hear and if not, why? You need to draw us into the story world within those pages and feed us enough information about the world and characters to keep us there. Don’t waste it on characters that have no ability to propel your story or ones that we may never see again. It’s hard for us as readers to immerse ourselves in a world when after 5 pages, the protagonist isn’t who we thought it was due to having not met them soon enough.
I would also suggest that you ask yourself, then ask yourself again, is this original? What is the USP of my script? Following that, watch lots of TV and read lots of scripts, from doing so I’m sure you’ll find your answer.
Thank you so much to my team of brilliant, generous readers for taking the time to commit their thoughts to paper and share these incredibly valuable insights.
But (at the risk of coming on like an Oscar acceptance speech) I want to reserve the biggest thanks to you the writers for taking the time and having the commitment and courage to not only complete your scripts but to send them out into the big bad world.
As several of the readers have said, it really is a privilege and the most excellent script-editing education for us to be able to read this huge number of scripts in such a short space of time. At times it is mentally exhausting but on the better days, it’s like being at your own, personal London / Sundance Film Festival, enjoying an exclusive and highly privileged glimpse at the future writing talent of the UK TV and film industry.
In other news, this week the emails went out to the 31 short-listed writers, pairing them up with industry mentors on the new CHANNEL 4 SCREENWRITING COURSE MENTORING SCHEME. These mentoring partnerships will run concurrently with the 4screenwriting course and will introduce these further 31 writers to industry contacts who will, I hope be able to open even more doors for them.
I am hugely indebted to the 31 producers, script editors, development executives, agents and screenwriters who have so kindly agreed to mentor these short-listed writers.
The next newsletter will be on Friday Feb 5th,
All the best
Jan 22nd 2021