This week I’m indebted to my very excellent team of readers for the 2019 CHANNEL 4 SCREENWRITING COURSE for sharing their thoughts and responses about what has been an intense reading process that we’ve all just undergone in finalising the shortlist of 34 writers for interview.
I’m hugely impressed by my readers’ insights – I think their observations are highly perceptive and will be of great value to screenwriters.
Every reader reads 100+ scripts. Each script is only guaranteed a 20-page read. With 100+ scripts, finite hours in the day, and a dwindling lifeforce, a reader is only going to read beyond page 20 if a script has engaged them. There are several tips one could offer here. But I am going to focus on one: have a meaningful premise and then plot it in such a way that its dramatic question keeps evolving.
For example, let’s say my series is a romcom about two characters called, I dunno, “Ray” and “Philip”. As the writer, I have also decided two things: 1) By Episode 6, I want my randomly named characters to consummate their relationship; 2) At the start of Episode 1, they don’t know each other.
Many scripts submitted this year would write Episode 1 as a bunch of incidents and verbal exchanges in which characters are introduced and by the end of which Ray and Philip are aware of each other’s existence. What does this mean? It means the story for the whole episode is “Ray meets Philip”. Hardly a dynamic, dramatic or gripping premise – really, just one beat stretched over dozens of pages.
So, I need to break down the journey to Raylip’s consummation into interesting or meaningful staging posts. Perhaps a more useful story for Episode 1 is “Philip realises there is something special about Ray”. Well, it gives us something to play with. However, many of the scripts submitted this year would plot this story as: 1) Ray meets Philip; 2) They have a long conversation; 3) As Ray walks away, Philip realises there is something special about him. Again – hardly dynamic, dramatic or gripping.
Although the story of the episode (Philip realises there is something special about Ray) is one piece of the series arc (Ray and Philip Get It On), how that episode’s story is plotted can to an extent be self-contained and deploy all of the usual story-telling tools (e.g. inciting incident, turning point, complication, resolution, etc.) so that its beats take place in a plot that develops, has movement, and maybe surprise. Consequently, Episode 1 keeps you turning the page and is a satisfying narrative experience whilst also establishing the characters, tone, style, and premise of the overall series.
To illustrate: Philip turns up to the first Script Reading meeting late, apologising for the Nutella* fingerprints on his notes, he was throwing out an old jar that was past its best-before date; nervous before his master, sweet-tooth’d Ray can’t believe anyone would let a jar go out-of-date; Philip jokingly suggests Ray would drink a jar down in one go, Ray scoffs that of course he can, Philip thinks he’s lying, an argument escalates and Philip challenges Ray to prove it next week or else get thrown out of the Script Reading Members Club; despite counsel from fellow readers, Ray goes into training but can never manage a whole tub; meanwhile, Philip attends a Channel 4 H&S course and begins to regret his actions; Ray realises he will fail and be thrown out of the script reading circle, he weeps as he reads his last few scripts; at the next meeting, defiant Ray disgorges a tub of Nutella into his mouth, but dehydrates quickly and begins to struggle, H&S trained Philip springs into action and tips the undried tears from the scripts into Ray’s throat for lubrication; Ray thanks Philip, his status as script reader safe for now and… as Ray walks away, Philip realises there is something special about him.
Obviously, this is nonsense and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. But the point is: 1) You can plot a story a million different ways, but many of the submissions don’t plot they simply parse out a premise; 2) A pilot episode needs to introduce characters, its world and series questions, but a good way to do this is through the prism of a self-contained narrative serving a broader arc; 3) With the plot settled on, you can organise your script along a series of evolving questions that help propel the reader forward (e.g., will Philip get to the meeting on time? Will nervous Ray make an idiot of himself at the meeting? Will Ray get kicked out of the Script Reading Club? Can Philip stop Ray from doing something foolish? Will Ray die eating a jar of Nutella?) – thus maximising your chances of a reader reading beyond page 20.
*N.B. Yes, I am eating Nutella as I write this.
How to write a winning script in 5 cliches
1) Write what you know
This doesn’t mean that if you run a bakery in Brighton, you can only write Brighton based bakery dramas. It means everyone knows something— grief, loss, shame— in a way that nobody else does, and that something-only-you-know is the magic ingredient to any script. The best scripts I read were the ones that were the most honest about this something, whether the setting was post-apocalypse England or a hospital or an office. If it’s real to you, it’s real to me, and if it’s real to me I’m going to care.
2) Get in late, leave early
Every line on the page is precious space, don’t waste it. If the point of the scene is that Annie is pregnant, I don’t need to see Annie going to the pharmacy, getting the test, finding a toilet, waiting for it to be free… just show me the test. Get in, get out, keep moving. A slow pace is the first thing to stop me reading on in a script.
3) Tell your story in the simplest way possible
There’s a fine line between complex and complicated. There seems to be an urge for new writers to prove themselves by adding time jumps, multiple character threads and dream sequences, but this doesn’t actually prove you can write. Good stories generally know how they want to be told, and good writing is learning how to tap into that. If a story needs a flashback, it will tell you so.
4) First impressions count
Frankly, when I open a badly formatted script, I mark it down in my head. Good formatting not only makes the reading easier, but gives me a sense of the writer’s professionalism and commitment to their craft. Not everyone can afford Final Draft, but free alternatives like Celtx are easy to use and come out beautifully.
Good formatting also means giving me a maximum of five lines of action description per paragraph, labelling your time jumps, and proof reading to make sure you’ve put all the right character names in the dialogue. These kinds of mistakes slow down my reading of the script, and even if the story is good it’ll be hard to shake the negative first impression.
5) Trust your reader, have confidence
Cut your adverbs. Cut any line that starts with ‘he/she feels’. Cut any recapping of the plot so far, or reminding of the stakes. Don’t tell me what’s happening in the story, tell me your story. If it’s strong enough, I’ll get it, and I’ll like it all the more for trusting me to get it
Think really hard about who your characters are and why your reader or audience will want to spend time with them. Will they have seen a character of this description (eg, a disillusioned millennial stuck living with their parents, a lonely middle aged male detective) before, and if so, how is this version different? Perhaps they’re in a completely unfamiliar setting, or genre? The key is to be distinct without feeling contrived: if you’re having to work too hard to distinguish your character from their cinematic predecessors, it might be a sign that you need to choose someone else as a focus for your story.
Don’t neglect plot. Compelling characters and good dialogue alone won’t keep us hooked – or, crucially, suggest an aptitude for writing TV, which demands scope. And don’t let the plot fizzle out, either: structure your writing carefully to ensure that the characters’ circumstances need to keep evolving right until the end.
Finally: the submissions that stood out were those that left the strongest emotional impact. This doesn’t need to mean high drama, either: some of the most touching moments were in the quietest scripts. What those scripts shared, however, was a degree of focus in the writing that allowed us to become completely absorbed by the story and characters. Without this, it’s impossible to let your critical faculties relax enough to be really moved.
Nancy Napper Canter
Conversation vs. Dialogue:
Lots of dialogue fell into the trap of just being conversational. Of course you want your dialogue to give the illusion of two (or more) people talking naturally but it has to do more for your story than just that, because dialogue in drama (and comedy) is not just people talking. There was a trend in the scripts I read for lots of ‘banter’ (for want of a better word) between characters. The problem with a lot of this type was that there was a sense of fun in these scenes for the writer writing it but it wasn’t adding anything to the scene or the overall story. If you’re a fan of this style then go back to a TV show or film you admire that does it and analyse how it’s done within the context of the scene as a whole. Don’t take into account just the dialogue but all the elements of the scene in how this works.
For the purpose of making a point about dialogue, and this is a really basic example; think of a conversation between two people about a cup of tea and how they like it, which probably at face value isn’t going to be interesting or dramatic, but it could be depending on the characters, the situation, and your voice as a writer.
For example; A wife comes home to her husband and he hides his mistress under the bed and the unsuspecting spouse begins a conversation about if he wants a cup of tea, now there is dramatic impetus to what otherwise would be a mundane conversation. Then what if perhaps the unsuspecting spouse actually knows about the mistress under the bed but still starts this conversation, there are so many elements to play with. The situation informs how the characters act and speak, they’ve got motives, and you’ve got the opportunity for subtext, tension, and therefore; drama.
Or for comedy you only have to think about how well something like The Royle Family tackled seemingly mundane life and conversations and turned them into comedy gold – mainly through absolute clarity of character and their relationships and interactions with each other.
What’s it about?
The less successful scripts I read were unclear what they were about. When we write our reports for Philip we are asked to write a simple Logline or synopsis of what we’d read and there were quite a few occasions where this was difficult because there was a lack of clarity and purpose to the beginning of the scripts. Even if you’re dealing with a complex or surprising plot the premise, generally, should be clear in the opening pages. As a reader (and/or viewer) we want to know what we’re signing up for.
What’s the point?
As a side note to that there were quite a lot of scripts inspired by the politics of our time. If you’re tackling an issue you really need to be clear what your message is and if your plot is really the best vehicle to explore that issue. There were some writers that tackled issues such as #metoo and #timesup, and racism, and sexism, but although their intentions were sincere they missed the mark in actually communicating what I think they were trying to say. If you’re going to tackle anything like this you really have to be clear on what your message is and interrogate how you tell that as a dramatic story.
I’d say one of the main weaknesses in the unsuccessful scripts was plot. There could be a great premise and characters but the plot itself wasn’t engaging or told in an interesting or surprising way. Most writers could have afforded to push themselves harder in finding the best plot to tell their story in a more original way.
And from someone far more prolific and worth listening to than me….
A really useful and concise piece of advice on writing is David Mamet’s memo to the writers of The Unit. Read it, it’s really useful, and be honest with yourself about your own writing and where it could improve and if you’re doing these things. https://gideonsway.wordpress.com/2010/04/06/david-mamets-letter-to-the-writers-of-the-unit/
I will keep this brief, as the wise words of the other readers have covered much of our experience. The main thing to say is essentially:
Create characters that you care deeply for, and the reader will care too. This will root them in your plot, ensuring you make the right decisions for their story.
Slightly off topic but important, one pattern that it would be great not to see repeated:
Please treat your female characters with the same respect as you do male characters. If I have to read another character description along the lines of ‘she’s 40 but looks good for her age’, I may scratch my eyes out.
It was a pleasure reading so many inventive, moving scripts – please keep writing!
Thank you so much to Ray, Lily, Nancy, Paul and Amy for taking the trouble to share their insights – and for the brilliant work they have done as readers for the 2019 C4 screenwriting course. And thank you to all you writers who have had the courage and commitment to your craft for submitting your scripts and giving us the privilege of enjoying your stories.
The next newsletter will be on Friday Dec 14th – in which I will let you know about a new SCRIPT MENTORING initiative I’m starting through my website.
All the best
November 30th 2018