CHANNEL 4 SCREENWRITING COURSE 2021 – READER FEEDBACK PART 2

Posted by admin  /   January 20, 2021  /   Posted in Thoughts on Screenwriting, Uncategorized  /   Comments Off on CHANNEL 4 SCREENWRITING COURSE 2021 – READER FEEDBACK PART 2

Hi There,

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.  

Tamar Saphra

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.

Tommy Winchester

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.

  1. 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. 
  2. 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…

Coronavirus

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.

Setting

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?

Be surprising

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. 

Basics

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.

Tom Williams

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. 

Maria Odufuye

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

Phil

PHILIP SHELLEY

www.script-consultant.co.uk

www.tributepodcasts.co.uk

Jan 22nd 2021

4SCREENWRITING – READER FEEDBACK FOR WRITERS Part 1

Posted by admin  /   January 06, 2021  /   Posted in Thoughts on Screenwriting, Uncategorized  /   Comments Off on 4SCREENWRITING – READER FEEDBACK FOR WRITERS Part 1

Hi There,

I want to wish you all a very HAPPY NEW YEAR and let’s hope it’s a big improvement on 2020 (despite rather unpromising first impressions!).

This week and in the next newsletter on Jan 22nd I’m sharing with you feedback from the script readers on 4screenwriting 2021. I had some brilliant readers this year and I’m really pleased to be able to share their responses to the reading process with you – I think they have some hugely valuable, insightful things to say. And I want to say a huge thank you to them for taking the time and trouble to write these notes and agree to let me share them with you  –

Reflections on reading for the 2021 course & advice for writers:

Indisputably, 2020 has been a hard year for creatives. Although for many writers – seasoned and aspiring alike – a period of time stripped of the usual distractions may have seemed like a gift, a sign from the universe to grab this opportunity to finally write up that idea that’s been rattling around your head for months. Historically, being forcibly sequestered has produced some of the greatest works of literature; Mary Shelley was inspired to write Frankenstein when inclement weather confined her to Byron’s villa in Geneva one summer…Samuel Pepys wrote a pretty good diary during the bubonic plague I hear…and the framing story for Boccaccio’s Decameron is a group of youngsters telling tales to amuse themselves during an epidemic.

Nevertheless, collaboration is a huge part of the creative process, and many of us have been starved of regular contact with human beings –this, along with everything else this crazy year has served up, undoubtedly impacts the work produced. Reading five hundred scripts in just over five weeks has been a fascinating (and surprisingly exhausting) insight into what has inspired writers to put pen to paper this year. Loss was a common theme; I read a lot of moving stories about working through grief, or trying to run away from it, and a lot of pieces about feeling lost in life and struggling to find direction….and a lot of people had been inspired to write about the apocalypse – I wonder why! An overwhelming number of scripts opened either in sweaty nightclubs or looking out over the sea with waves crashing dramatically. Are these the places where people have their most profound thoughts, I wonder, or is this a symptom of hundreds of writers with cabin fever, longing for escape? It isn’t easy to be original, especially when you want to tap into the zeitgeist and draw out something universal that the reader can connect with. The standout scripts were those with memorable characters and which were full of heart. More often than not it was the honesty and warmth in the story telling which engaged me and took me on a journey – far away from my living room.

My advice for writers submitting next year would be to really think about tailoring your submission for this competition – your script has to stand out from hundreds of others, and there are simple ways to ensure your script is seriously considered. Having said that, these are things you should be doing with your spec/pilot anyway. Firstly, please go back to basics, add page numbers, number your scenes, get a friend to check your spelling and grammar. It surprised me how many scripts were poorly formatted and filled with typos.

Secondly, consider whether you really need a large number of characters. You shouldn’t need a long character list with descriptions – you should be using dialogue and action to paint a picture of the character. When you’re reading so many scripts in such an intense amount of time, every character introduced means more brain energy, and I often found myself getting confused or frustrated when time was spent flitting between a large cast of characters, spending time introducing them, instead of getting into the story.

This leads me to my next recommendation; within your first ten pages, you need to invite the reader in. Something needs to happen to kick off the story and engage the audience. Show (don’t tell!) us something that only YOUR protagonist would do. Or if you want to throw us into the deep end and let us catch up, something interesting and surprising needs to happen, I would say, in the first five pages. There were a lot of scripts where nothing really happened within the first ten to twenty pages. Pilots are tricky at the best of times: it’s a balancing act between ensuring scenes are working hard to earn their place in story terms, and also giving the emotional core of the story time and space to develop. Think about light and shade – whether or not your script is a comedy in genre, humour is a great way to help us connect with your writing. Just make sure the comedy is grounded in truth and isn’t gratuitous.

Lastly, really spend time thinking about the Channel 4 brand. Think about the different broadcasters and their audiences – watch, watch, watch! Before you write, look at the shows that are out there. If your idea is similar to a show that’s already been made, what’s your spin on it? Can you subvert it? Use it as a jumping off point to then make it your own. Be aware of what’s out there, so that you can ensure your script can mark itself out as original and different. When you think about Channel 4 – what words come to mind? For me it’s words like irreverent, topical, challenging. How does the tone of your script meet the criteria?

So many of the submissions I read were full of passion and I really do applaud the creativity, determination, and discipline it takes to create a piece of work and get it to a place that’s ready to submit, especially on your own, and especially, in 2020. It’s been a wonderful experience to be part of the process, and I can’t wait to see which writers make the shortlist!

Isabelle Barber

I’ve been making these notes as I’ve been going. There is nothing ground-breaking in here (we spoke in the meetings about energy-sapping prologues and scripts that start with people waking up), but I’ve tried to expand on my notes to provide some stuff that may be helpful. I’m really aware of the balance between guidance/reflections and being prescriptive – I’m aware how straightjacketing bad advice can be!

My headlines are:

  • The first 10 pages is so important. When you have to get through up to 17 scripts a day, if you haven’t grabbed me within the first 10 pages, it’s really not looking good. So, writers should really try to hit the ground running.
  • I have a gut feeling (which I’m struggling to articulate) around the idea of ‘having something to say’. I felt like lots of the scripts I read wanted to bang a drum rather than explore a story/idea/character (especially true of the plays). The scripts that worked best for me had a multiplicity of world views which collided to either comedic or dramatic effect. If there is a singular right answer to the conundrum your story sets up, perhaps drama isn’t the best way to express it…? Although I’m a little stumped about how to express this in a way that doesn’t discourage people from being provocative.
  • I felt a dearth of joy. Please bring me joy. I’m not even saying “we live in dark times, we need something to lift our spirits yada yada yada”, I’m saying; the scripts I responded to most felt like they had been written with joy; they had energy and life (even if they weren’t ‘upbeat’). If you are able to bring some joy to the stories you tell and the way you tell them, please do!

Here’s some expansions on the notes I was making as I read. These are the things that I wanted to say to the writers:

Dramatic prologues: this relates to that phrase ‘get the hooks in early’; it’s great advice, but make sure you really think about what will hook your audience’s attention. So many scripts I read began with a prologue which contained an explosion, a car chase or a dead body – which on the surface sounds highly dramatic and exciting. Sometimes this worked a treat…but often I was left feeling indifferent by these ‘dramatic’ openings, and I started to question why. I think it was because I had been given no reason to care. It’s not enough just to have something ‘big’ (like an explosion) happen in the opening pages, especially when you then flash immediately forward/back, and we have to reengage with a whole new situation and set of characters. The key is to find a way to make me invest in what’s happening; if you’re going to open with a piece of action, make sure there is tension and conflict in this scene and we care about the characters involved, so that we want to find out more. One of your main jobs as a storyteller is to make me care about the characters and this is never more important that in the opening pages. If you can open a script in an exciting way, whilst also making us care about the characters/what happens, you’ll certainly hook me in.

Where to start: Conversely, some scripts took a good while to reach the action: your protagonist’s day might begin with an alarm clock going off and teeth being brushed, but ask yourself, is this where their story starts? I don’t mean to sound facetious, but I know what getting out of bed looks like, I do it every day, so unless the beginning of your character’s day is also the beginning of the story, and something about their morning routine is important in their journey through the episode, I’d say find another place to start (we’ll presume they’ve cleaned their teeth).

Make it easy for us to love your script: when there are almost 4000 entries to a competition like this, try your hardest to make it easy for us to engage with your work. Ultimately, of course, it will be your storytelling and the quality of your writing that will mark you out, but it’s worth doing everything you can to make sure that your talent isn’t obscured, by something as irrelevant as dodgy formatting. Researching industry standard formats will help your scripts look the part, but most importantly, they will be easily readable so that we can engage with your script from the moment we pick it up.

This process: On this note, it is worth thinking really hard about whether the specific script your submitting is really suited to this process: bear in mind that the readers might be reading 10’s of scripts a day, so if, for example, your script is a film which takes 30-40 pages to really get going, is it necessarily going to cut through the rest of the pack? I try really hard to approach each script with a fresh brain, and give your work the time and care it deserves, but it is definitely the case that scripts that grab/entice/charm you from page one, and deliver a story which is crisp/punchy/surprising/exciting are, inevitably, the easiest to engage with. Your film script might be finely wrought and slowly burn towards a delicately devastating conclusion, but it also might not be the script which jumps most quickly off the pile. If you have multiple options to choose from, it’s a balance between trying to exhibit your voice as vividly as you can, and also submitting the best script for this specific process.

Directions: In the same way that you might work on dialogue so that it has the biggest impact with the greatest economy, apply the same principle to your directions. Bring the world to life, but don’t feel the need to stuff your directions with description. Overloaded directions can really slow the pace of a script down and, as a consequence, lessen its impact.

Make sure your character wants something (even if they feel like the world is against them): I read a lot of scripts about the predicaments facing twenty/thirty-somethings in a world of precarious work, looming pressures from social media, no prospects of owning a home, and a general sense that they should be achieving more. It’s clearly a feeling shared by many people, and lots of the scripts I read contained sympathetic characters and witty dialogue but they often ran out of steam because, well, nothing really happened. It’s a tricky task to write about a young adult character who feels an overwhelming sense of inertia or ennui, whilst also giving them a strong want to drive them through a story (especially when their feeling of directionlessness is the point!), but remember how important action is. Your character doesn’t have to be involved in some crazy-exciting plot, but make sure that they want to achieve something and they pursue it with energy – even if that something seems small to the outside world, if it feels important them, it will feel important to us and we’ll want to know what happens.

Devices: I read a lot of scripts that used elaborate storytelling devices such as cutting between past, present and future, or using a lot of voice over to guide us through the story. Cutting back and forth between times periods worked best when it was really necessary – i.e. there was something in the fundamentals of the story that required the episode to develop concurrently between different periods. When it worked least well was when it felt like a linear narrative had been carved up and reordered to disguise an otherwise conventional plot. Equally, a device like a voice over really alters the relationship with the audience, so again, the device works best for me when it feels like it is essential to the DNA of this story, and the writer is using the voice over to influence the way the story is being received. By contrast, it worked least well when it was simply a way of getting across exposition. Finding interesting ways to tell a story is great but make sure that the form and content work harmoniously together.

Imagination and Joy: this is personal taste, but I really responded to scripts which, through their force of spirit bought their characters to life with a sense of joy. I’m not trying to suggest that I want to read light-hearted scripts, but the ones which stick out fizz with humanity – even if they are depicting a bleak situation.

Michael Bryer

Once again a huge thanks to Issy and Mike for sharing their insights. More of the same in a fortnight’s time,

Until then,

All the best

Phil

PHILIP SHELLEY

www.script-consultant.co.uk

www.tributepodcasts.co.uk

January 8th 2021

THINGS I WISH I KNEW BEFORE 4SCREENWRITING – Sarah Milton

Posted by admin  /   December 08, 2020  /   Posted in screenwriting & script-editing courses  /   Comments Off on THINGS I WISH I KNEW BEFORE 4SCREENWRITING – Sarah Milton

Hey! I’m Sarah Milton and I was on the 2019 4Screenwriting course. Do you remember that year? It’s when we weren’t all drowning in hand sanitiser and could hang out in the same room as our friends. What a world!

Pandemic aside though, Philip has kindly asked me to write a guest blog. When he emailed me, he’d put together a thorough and helpful list of wonderful ideas to inspire what I could write about. However, recently I’d tweeted offering my support to any writer with questions about applying for the course (as the closing date was approaching) and found myself reflecting on what I wish someone had told me before I started… So, I came back with a pitch of writing some of those thoughts up, and well, the course must have worked because my pitch sold!

By the time this blog is published, I think many of you reading this will have received word you didn’t get on the course this year and a handful of you will have been invited to interview. I want to caveat this with the fact that I had three consecutive no’s before I got a “yes”, and that is the general consensus with everyone I’ve spoken to who’s done the course: keep going, keep applying, keep hustling! I’ve jotted some advice down specifically for you too, below.

Unlike a few of my peers in the 2019 cohort, I had never, ever written for TV before… Ever. I didn’t actually know what a treatment was when I started. The script I submitted at the end of 2018 was my first attempt at a television pilot on an illegally downloaded old version of Final Draft (Don’t tell anyone though…). I had only ever written theatre before, and thought I’d have a whack at translating one of my plays into a screen format after trawling through the BBC Writers Room’s catalogue of free scripts. Having applied 4 years in a row, it was a genuine surprise when Philip invited me to interview for 4Screenwriting. It was pure shock when the email dropped inviting me on the actual course…

The next 6 months were truly incredible. Intense, overwhelming, joyous, inspiring and a complete whirlwind. And, as I look back on them, and the journey I’ve had since, there are some things I hope are useful for me to impart… Here goes nothing:

It’s OK to ask questions – Philip invites the most incredible speakers on your first intensive weekend. Really well reputed producers, development executives and writers. It’s fascinating, exhilarating and thus exhausting, so make sure you’re well rested for it. It’s most likely that 2021’s course will start on Zoom, but usually the course takes place in Channel 4’s boardroom. This is very exciting and you feel really special when they give you your branded lanyard for the day at reception, but this also made me really hesitant to ask questions. When I didn’t understand what people meant when they said “TX dates” or “slates”, I nodded along. However, on reflection, there was actually a lot of reluctance to ask questions in the room from all of us at first! If you find yourself nodding along or anxious to ask, I implore you to just go for it rather than frantically googling on your toilet breaks – it’s very likely someone in the room has the same query and is too scared to ask as well.

Your ego will try and get in your way – Similar to my point above about fearing asking questions, your ego and desire to please will try and takeover. It will make you second guess your gut instincts, and it will try and make you write an idea that you think will please Philip, your script editor, and ultimately Channel 4. Do not fall into this trap! You’re on the course because your voice struck a chord with the script readers this year – it’s your voice that they want. Write what you want to write, not what you think the industry wants to read… And that’s a given wherever you are as a writer. Your voice and mind are your USP and I reiterate this point below, as it’s important!

It’s not all about the scripts – Treatments, outlines and pitches are like marmite. You either love them or you loathe them. I used to be the latter, because I wasn’t good at them, because I’d never done one, let alone practised. In theatre, there’s a bit more fluidity and exploration in developing work, but in TV there isn’t as much give when you’re trying to sell an idea. I’ve since grown to enjoy writing pitches much more now I’ve started getting better at them. So, start now!

It’s not a competition – At the end of the course, there’s a wonderful night of drinks where you get to meet loads of industry folk, who are also all there to meet you and your fellow writers (although, the wine measures are very generous so that may also have something to do with the attendance rate…!). But, it’s not a competition, even though it may feel like an intense version of Supermarket Sweep at first when you’re trying to say hello to, and remember*, as many people as possible. Yes, it’s an opportunity to make connections but it’s also about celebrating that you’ve finished.

*I don’t mean to brag but I actually had a great technique for this night, and if you ever find yourself at a networking event, I do recommend it. When introduced, repeat their name and production company to them to help you plant it in your brain, and then every half hour/45 minutes, pop to the loo and write down all the names and their companies you can remember on your notes’ app so you can google their email and follow up the next day! I was so thankful I did this as I got a few generals from this before getting an agent, so try it!


The course never really ends – Philip will champion you forever, and if he liked the script you submitted but you didn’t get on the course, he will remember you. He will talk about you to other writers and industry professionals casually, like a proud guardian. I’ve lost count how many writers  from previous years he’s mentioned in conversation and it’s from a genuine place of care and excitement around stories and their tellers. This is usually the same with the script editor you work with too.

Philip will always happily receive an email from you post course, or a tweet that calls on his experience or expertise if you didn’t get on the course. You will also make friends and peers for life that will enrich your understanding of the industry and you will be there for each other through the rejections (which will 100% still happen FYI! Read Annalisa D’Innella’s amazing three-step process for dealing with rejection here!) and the successes.

And finally some thoughts for those who weren’t successful this year:

-Utilise the BBC Writer’s Room script library. Read, read, read as well as write: it will make your scripts better. Particularly scripts you’ve seen on screen first, whether you like them or not, so you can see how the work has translated from the page.

-Get familiar with treatments and pitches and start practising them too! It’s just a great career tool to start mastering, and will serve you on and off this course. These are harder to get hold of, but ask your writing friends to share their successful pitches/treatments and also check out Chris Lang’s (Unforgotten, ITV) generous sharing of pitches, treatments and scripts on his website. I found these so helpful last year!

-Remember, your voice is the only thing that can sell you and help you stand out in submission windows like this. Write what you want to write. Not what you can write, not what you think is palatable or popular, not what you think will impress, but what shows off you and your passion and your voice. I got onto the course with a story I am still pitching to this day. I believe in it, can talk passionately about it, I know I won’t lose faith in it and it is inherently my voice, my dialogue and my style. Stick to your guns and trust your voice.

-However brilliant this course and its reputation is, remember, it is not the be all and end all and it certainly does not determine your worth or talent as a writer – none of these programmes do! So many working writers haven’t done this course. So many working writers haven’t done a BBC writers course. So many working writers do this course and still find their preference to be theatre work. If you love writing and want to be a writer, you will do it with or without courses like these. It’s so easy to lose the faith with every rejection, and it’s so easy to think it’s never going to happen if you don’t get on one of these courses, but that simply isn’t true. 

I hope that was helpful – I’m sure many writers have shared similar thoughts over the years, but sometimes you do need to hear things more than once for them to fall into place. I certainly do!

If you’re reading this after the year our industry and our world has just had, you clearly love your work and you still believe in yourself…. Hold on to that – that’s the magic. Keep writing, keep going, keep sharing your voice. It will be worth it.

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Thank you so much to Sarah for this brilliant, inspiring and incredibly helpful blog.

NB We will in fact be contacting all 4screenwriting applicants this coming week (the week of Dec 16th).

I will be taking a newsletter break over Christmas and the newsletter will be back on Friday Jan 8th. I hope you all have as good and enjoyable Christmas and New Year as possible, given the circumstances. Let’s all look forward to a very different 2021 and the wonderful prospect of being in rooms with people again!

I also want to say a massive thank you to everyone like Sarah who has contributed to this newsletter this year, to everyone who subscribes to and reads these newsletters and to everyone who has got in touch with me to carry on the discussions or send me kind, positive messages. Your feedback is hugely appreciated, particularly in the last few months. I look forward to resuming the conversation in 2021,

Phil

xxxx

PHILIP SHELLEY

www.script-consultant.co.uk

www.tributepodcasts.co.uk

@PhilipShelley1

December 11th 2020

REJECTION – Annalisa D’Innella guest blog

Posted by admin  /   November 25, 2020  /   Posted in Screenwriters and Industry Interviews, Uncategorized  /   Comments Off on REJECTION – Annalisa D’Innella guest blog

Hi There,

This week a guest blog by screenwriter ANNALISA D’INNELLA, who has been on the Channel 4 screenwriting course this year.

Annalisa is working on original projects with several independent production companies.  She also has a series in development with Channel 4.  She is represented by Casarotto Ramsay & Associates.  

——————————————–

Looking through the list of topics Philip suggested I could cover for this guest blog, one of them jumped out and sang to me: REJECTION.  Yes.  Rejection.  I can write about rejection.  I am a self-appointed rejection expert.  So much so that I have, over the years, developed a Three-Step Personal Rejection Coping Strategy that I deploy as soon as the dreaded gut- punch drops into my inbox.   Allow me to share it with you. 

Most writers have wilderness years – a period of time when you learn your craft.  I had an embarrassingly long wilderness stretch.  I sat alone at my desk writing terrible script after terrible script in the certain knowledge that all my friends and family secretly pitied me.  During this period, I would send these terrible scripts off to schemes and competitions and they would – quite rightly – be rejected.  As time passed, I noticed a pattern emerge.  The rejection emails would make me feel furious and miserable for exactly two days.  On the third day, I would, inexplicably, perk up.  So Step 1 of my coping strategy is to tell myself – this is going to hurt.  But in exactly 48 I will feel better. 

Most screenwriters are relentless optimists.  We have to be.  No matter how many times we are knocked down, the urge to create will always force us back on our feet.  And, for me, this process always takes exactly 48 hours. 

Step 2 is buy a punchbag.  (this step is self-explanatory)

There’s another kind of rejection common in our industry.  The one that falls under the heading ‘bad luck’.  You’ve worked for a year on a script about, say, snowboarding.  The commissioner loves it but has just greenlit a massive snowboarding show.  It’s nobody’s fault.  If anything it validates how brilliantly zeitgeisty you are.  But it still hurts.  For this occasion, I present to you: Step 3: mark the demise of your script-baby with (overblown if possible) ceremony and ritual.  For me, this means wearing black.  The sheer melodrama of the practice is usually enough to amuse me out of my self-pity. 

I once explained to my actor friend, Kevin, that I was ‘in mourning’ for a project that had perished.  He understood instantly: ‘that’s genius’ he responded.  ‘Send me a selfie’.  He does it too now.  Like a Victorian widow.  (we should buy veils).   

The pilot I wrote this year for 4Screenwriting 2020 received five competing option offers and is now in development with Channel 4.  On hearing the news, I called Kevin who hooted in jubilation while I remained shocked and wordless.  I had no idea how to process what was happening.  ‘Wear yellow!’ he commanded.  So I did. 

When I was a child, I wanted to be an actor.  My mother (an actor herself for a short time) had warned me against the profession. ‘You can’t be an actor, darling’ she regularly chimed ‘you’re TERRIBLE at rejection’.   Rejection still knocks me flat every time. I’m still sensitive.  My self-esteem crumbles all too easily.  But I’d like to think I’m getting better at it.

The other reason my Mother was against my joining the acting profession was because I am disabled.  I was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa – an incurable degenerative eye condition – when I was 14 years old.  Her protective instinct is completely understandable.  She didn’t want me to fall in love with acting only to experience the heartbreak of having to abandon it when my eyes packed in.  My Dad (a visual artist) steered me away from painting for the same reason.  They were terrified for my future (though they did their best to hide it).  How would I have relationships, a family, any sort of job?  These seemed reasonable questions when I was young.  Blind people were invisible.  We’d certainly never met any in person.  And we never really saw them represented on screen.  Indeed, the Hollywood versions of blindness all seemed to be young women who were either tragically inspirational or about-to-be-murdered.  In our ignorance, we didn’t think blind people could have jobs – let alone jobs in show business.  How wildly ill-informed and wrong we were.   

Last year, I met an actor who was in a huge, high-profile National Theatre production.  She’s visually-impaired.  She told me the team had adapted elements of their back-stage protocol to make it easier to get on and off the stage.  We’d only just met, and I’m not a hugger, but I hugged her.   

I write scripts about all sorts of different subjects.  I don’t always write about disability, but I have come to feel an increasing responsibility to create brilliant roles for disabled actors.  Disabled people make up 20% of the population (not that you’d know it if you watch British drama).  No matter what my scripts are about, I will always create at least one great role for a disabled actor.    

I love my job.  I write because I’m foolish and optimistic.  I write because I’m a problem-solver.  I write because I can’t seem to stop myself.  And because it’s where I feel most at home.   I hope that, today, any disabled kid who wants to write or act will feel there’s a home for them in our industry.  Because – as long as they can learn to cope with the relentless rejection – I think there is. 

———————————————

Thank you so much to Annalisa for being generous enough to take the time to write this and share it with us.

The next newsletter on Friday December 11th

Best wishes

Phil

PHILIP SHELLEY

www.script-consultant.co.uk

www.tributepodcasts.co.uk

@PhilipShelley1

November 27th 2020

CHANNEL 4 SCREENWRITING COURSE 2021 – UPDATE

Posted by admin  /   November 12, 2020  /   Posted in screenwriting & script-editing courses, Uncategorized  /   Comments Off on CHANNEL 4 SCREENWRITING COURSE 2021 – UPDATE

Hi There,

CHANNEL 4 SCREENWRITING COURSE 2021 – UPDATE

Because of the huge number of scripts we received this year, the timetable for the interviews has been pushed back. The interviews won’t now be taking place until well into December. We won’t be getting in touch with anyone for a few weeks yet.

As discussed in the last newsletter, I received a lot of great suggestions (thank you!) about how we can do more to recognize and support the many brilliant writers who apply, beyond the 12 we choose for the course.

I’ve now spoken to the C4 drama department about this and we’re going to do two things –

  1. We will draw up a long-list of outstanding scripts submitted (we won’t be able to offer all of these writers interviews for the course). As we’re only about halfway through the reading process I’m not sure how long this list will be but I estimate about 50 scripts. Once we’ve chosen the 12 writers for the 2021 course, we will try to find industry mentors to pair up with each of those (approx) 38 writers, to mentor them for the 6 months that the course is running (Jan – June 2021) ie a sort of shadow course. The mentors will be there to offer advice and answer questions to these long-listed writers. These mentors will either be people who work in development in TV drama (& comedy) or writers who already have some experience of the industry – including writers who have come off the 4screenwriting courses in the last few years. What this mentoring will not involve will be these mentors giving detailed script feedback. We want to make it as easy as possible for potential mentors to come on board; and it’s not realistic to expect them to do this sort of time-consuming work on top of working away at their own careers. I very much hope that at some point next year, mentors and mentees will be able to meet up in person, not just on zoom etc.

NB If any of you industry script editors / development executives and screenwriters who read this newsletter would be interested in mentoring, please get in touch!

  • We will be doing a press / social media announcement, listing both the 12 course writers and these other long-listed writers towards the end of the 2021 course in May 2021. Hopefully this will be a big help in alerting the industry to all 50 writers, not just the writers who have come off the course.

There were plenty of other excellent suggestions and we have focused on two of the more easily achievable ones, ones that didn’t involve huge amounts of work (and money) to deliver; but this is very much a work-in-progress and we are still open to other ideas and schemes to help match the many hugely talented writers who submit scripts for the Channel 4 screenwriting course and potential employers in the TV and film industries.

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Some observations about writing & story from the reading I have been doing over the last few weeks of the scripts submitted for the 2021 Channel 4 screenwriting course.

The reading process for myself and the team of 8 script readers is a very particular one. It’s intense and mentally wearing – trying to keep up the same energy and mental receptiveness for script after script day after day week after week. Inevitably many of the scripts merge into each other and, even when there is a lot of merit, many scripts don’t stand out or really leap off the page.

This makes the first 5 or 10 pages of each script disproportionately important. The first few pages need to stand out and really grab the reader’s attention (and then once they’ve leapt over this all-important first hurdle, they need to keep surprising and to maintain momentum and quality).

There is a difference between the reader’s experience of a script and the audience’s experience of a TV show / film. In the context of the 4screenwriting script-reading, reading a script is a more demanding experience than watching a film.

So, for instance, one of the reasons that the trope of having a dramatic teaser sequence followed by a caption ‘5 WEEKS / MINUTES / MONTHS EARLIER’ becomes wearying is that often the step back in time demands a mental reset and readjustment, meeting a new set of characters and setting when we’d just got used to the characters and setting of the teaser.

The other reason this trope becomes wearying is that when, like us, you are reading a lot of scripts, this device starts to feel terribly over-familiar and over-used. As a reader, you have to stifle the internal groan at yet another script that uses this device. However, I’m certainly not saying you should never use this device. This device can work brilliantly when used well. There are no rules to good storytelling – except for ‘Be Entertaining.’

Another recurring element is the script that opens with a character waking up in the morning. As with the above example, there is nothing wrong about this ‘per se’ – but when you read a lot of scripts that do this, it starts to feel predictable and unexciting.

Last week, in the thick of reading many scripts, one particular scene stood out and instantly pulled me into the story. It stood out because there was real tension to the scene, a sense of danger and conflict in the subtext of the scene. As I read this scene, it made me think about how this sense of tension and jeopardy is missing in so many scripts. There are so many scripts that are admirably well-written but don’t pull you into their stories because there is this lack of real narrative tension, of a character facing some sort of danger and the writer causing us to feel something, to fear for the character in danger.

At one stage I read two scripts successively that were both very strong but incredibly different. The first was a stage play that was overtly intelligent – smart, articulate characters and dialogue, a play that explored really interesting and important issues. A really impressive read, clearly written by a writer of real talent.

The next script I read was far less showy, a small-scale, clearly autobiographical comedy drama about a teenager growing up and trying to recover from a parent’s premature death in a provincial UK town. This script had none of the coruscating wit of the previous script, it wasn’t as obviously dramatic. But it completely won me over in a way the previous script didn’t because it felt more sincere, honest and heartfelt. I engaged with the flawed, uncertain characters in a way I didn’t with the previous script. I think the takeaway from this is to make sure that you inhabit your characters as fully as possible – and to make sure that the story you’re telling feels honest, reflective of your own truths – rather than being calculated to impress and show off.

With every year, the overall standard and quality of the scripts we receive seems to improve. But every year I seem to read so many scripts that I admire more than I love.

Many of the scripts I enjoy most are set in communities or story worlds that I know little about, that are new to me. Stories that teach me about different, unfamiliar characters or story worlds (whether that’s the world of drag queens, Jehovah’s witnesses or a working class Belfast family) and feel both absolutely specific to that community of characters but also emotionally universal.

I think it’s important as a writer to think about the politics of writing and how attitudes change and develop over the years. For instance, one thing I used to read a lot of and which used to be on TV weekly were crime dramas about the brutal murders of women. This is a trope that seems to be less ‘in fashion’ than it was and that’s good news. Some of these scripts now stand out uncomfortably. It’s so important to examine your agenda, your reasons for telling the stories you’re telling. As a storyteller it’s so important to challenge the accepted status quo.

The next newsletter will be on Friday November 27th.

Until then

Best wishes

Phil

PHILIP SHELLEY

www.script-consultant.co.uk

www.tributepodcasts.co.uk

@PhilipShelley1

November 13th 2020

ONE PAGE PITCHES – THE SEQUEL

Posted by admin  /   October 28, 2020  /   Posted in Thoughts on Screenwriting  /   Comments Off on ONE PAGE PITCHES – THE SEQUEL

Hi There,

MORE ON ONE PAGE PITCHES

I know this is an area I’ve discussed in the past – but here are a few more observations inspired by 2 zoom sessions I ran recently with a BBC writers room group. In session 1 we talked about some of the principles behind effective, successful pitches. Then the writers came back 2 weeks later with 2nd draft 1 page pitches and 30 sec verbal pitch of their project.

VERBAL PITCHES

The less successful ones got bogged down in over-detailed chronology of the plot. Particularly as I only gave each writer 30 secs to tell us about their idea (and ruthlessly cut them off when their time was up!) what I was looking for was the USP – the uniqueness and distinctiveness of their project.

When discussing it, I likened it to them asking me if they should be watching ADULT MATERIAL by Lucy Kirkwood and me telling them why they should watch it – ‘It’s a brilliant, warts and all, examination of the contemporary porn industry in the UK, about the damage it causes, the toll it takes on both the ‘actors’ and the audience, about its growing pervasiveness, all told through the prism of a woman in her 30’s who has been a ‘porn star’, has made a very decent income, has a husband, kids and a seemingly positive attitude to the work – but as she comes to the end of her shelf life, we see the psychological damage it has done, of the deep problems and ripples in her life…’ That’s my first (written) attempt at expressing what is so compelling about the show. There’s no plot, a mention of the central character, but mainly it’s about the themes and political / social intent of the show and how powerful this is.

It’s the same when you’re initially pitching your ideas, trying to interest producers etc. You don’t want to get into a recounting of the plot, a ‘This happens then this happens and they do this etc etc. If you do you will invite unwelcome questions about the detail and logic of the plot and you won’t be telling the reader anything about what is brilliant and unique about the show.

WRITTEN (ONE PAGE) PITCHES

Here are some of my general responses to the 13 outlines that I read and fed back on –

Make sure you give us the writer’s name, prominently at the top of the page – ie PROJECT by WRITER NAME. This is quite simple but it amazed me how many of the writers didn’t do this. It was almost as if psychologically they were anxious about taking ownership of their idea!

Also, make sure your (or your agent’s) contact details are also prominently displayed on the document.

Format – what is this? – feature film? 10 x 60’ series? 8 x 30’ series? 4 x 60’ serial? Tell us this right at the top (and something about which channel / broadcaster it’s intended for if this is something you have strong feelings about).

The structure of the document is so important. Generally I would always suggest CONTEXT before CONTENT. You need to start your document with the big idea, the dramatic proposition / logline, the tonal approach. Expressing clearly in one or two sentences what this is – in a way that will enable your reader to immediately understand the idea and see its dramatic / comic potential.

The opening block / paragraph needs to grab the reader’s attention with the brilliance / originality of the idea.

Then you need a slightly longer block expressing the project’s key elements – which may or may not include – genre, your personal connection to the material, why you think this is an important story to tell. Basically, anything that you think is going to excite us about the project, and anything that is going to give a valuable context to the detail of the story.

ONLY THEN should you go onto give us the crux of the story. At least give us a character (or two) who are central to the story who are engaging, fascinating and whom we’re going to care about. Make sure this central character has a compelling and (almost) insoluble dilemma.

And while we’re on character, make sure you’re clear about (and are conveying, if it’s a critical part of the concept) whose point of view we’re experiencing the story from, which character has ‘ownership’ of the story.

Too many of the 1 page pitches I read started with too much plot that I struggled to make sense of, before ending with a very brief paragraph of global overview. This global overview needs to be at the start, not the end – so it enables me to understand the context of the story, why you’re telling it and the tonal, specific writer’s approach.

Make sure the document reflects something of your qualities as a writer. If it’s drama, instill the way you write and structure the document with a sense of drama. Likewise, if it’s a comedy, imbue the document with a sense of humour. A one page pitch for a comedy needs to be funny and to demonstrate how this story is going to play funny.

Specifics rather than generalities. Give us as many specifics as possible – about the characters, the setting, the events. And make these specifics as idiosyncratic and distinctive as possible. For instance, in one of these 13 pitches, what (bizarrely) stayed with me was a reference to a Honda Civic as a benchmark for a mediocre, unfulfilled life. The specificity of this symbol of mediocrity struck me as being perceptive and funny. And I could SEE it (so important).

TITLES – again these need to be as distinctive, attention-grabbing and memorable as possible (while also being helpfully reflective of the tone and content of the show). Too many of the titles in this exercise felt bland, familiar, uninformative and uninspiring.

What is your project about on a deeper level? What are the (again) specific themes and subjects you’re addressing? For instance, one of the pitches was about grief, about one woman’s attempt to deal with her partner’s death through immersing herself in her young son’s football team. But the word ‘grief’ was never mentioned – it should have been, this was the central issue behind the show.

The writer. In these 1 page documents, the reader needs to get a sense of the writer, in particular, the writer’s relationship to their material. This could come out in the style and tone of the writing of the document (flippant / jokey? Angry / passionate? Ironic /detached?) but it could be more ‘on the nose’ than that. It’s OK to directly address why you think this is a story that demands to be told and why you are THE writer to tell this story. (One of the ideas was written in the voice of the central character – this instantly gave it a life and energy that some of the more straightforward ones didn’t have – think about different, unexpected and imaginative ways in which you can make your pitch stand out).

Too many of the writers gave me too much backstory rather than actual, on-screen story. And too often it was also hard to tell which was which. The reader needs to get a sense of how the writer plans to organise and structure their story material over the course of the series and beyond (if it’s a series you’re pitching). How and when you intend to reveal key story information can be a very persuasive element in selling the story and ability of the writer to tell it.

For new – and experienced – writers, it’s so important to keep restocking your catalogue of brilliant ideas, of stories you’re burning to tell; and of working, reworking and perfecting your one page pitches so that they articulate and sell these ideas as coherently and effectively as possible.

Only one of the 13 pitches really made me buy into the writer’s agenda for needing to tell their story. This personal connection to and passion for your story is so important and persuasive.

It’s also important to remember just how brilliant your ideas need to be in order to interest potential producers. You are in competition with Sally Wainwright, Jed Mercurio etc. In order to get commissioned your idea needs to be much more attention-grabbing, unique and exciting than ideas from these established writers who will be seen as less of a risk than a new writer.

These documents are very hard to write. So keep working at them in the same way as you would a script. With draft after draft, trying it out on the right people, getting feedback, honing, editing and improving until it’s as good as it can possibly be.

—————————

Last week I asked for your suggestions about what else we could be doing to support the writers who come close but don’t get onto the Channel 4 screenwriting course; and about how we can spread the word about these other excellent writers to potential employers.

I want to say a huge thank you to the very many of you who got in touch and for all your brilliant ideas. I will discuss the best and most practicable ones with the Channel 4 drama department and will definitely implement some of them. Watch this space – hopefully I will have more news soon.

And, I must say, after the reading I’ve done over the last couple of weeks, I feel even more passionately that we must do more to support and encourage more than the 12 writers we choose for the course.

Helped hugely by my brilliant team of readers and their recommendations, the last couple of weeks of reading has been like my own personal Edinburgh Festival / London Film Festival combined, in terms of the quality, originality and pure entertainment value of so many of the scripts. I feel truly privileged to be able to read the work of so many new, talented dramatic writers. So many of the scripts I’ve read would grace our TV screens, cinemas and theatres; and so many of the scripts are so much better than so much of the stuff that does get produced.

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Finally this week I wanted to share with you a recent tweet by screenwriter Peter Bowker –

‘In five years as Heads of Drama at Granada TV – Sally Head and Gwenda Bagshaw made Prime Suspect, Cracker, Band of Gold, the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes, Fry and Laurie’s Jeeves and Wooster, Maigret and Medics. The thought just occurred to me so thought I would share.’

Like Peter, I was lucky enough to work with Sally and Gwenda at Granada. In fact they gave me my first ever job as a script editor. At the time it felt like the golden age it’s turned out to be – people who worked in the department and on those shows included Nicola Shindler, Paul Abbott, Jimmy McGovern, Kay Mellor, Neil McKay, Julian Farino, Patrick Spence and so many other brilliant people, too many to name-check here. But it was such a great environment to learn in; and Gwenda Bagshaw was the most excellent, generous mentor. The one thing everyone says about the Sally and Gwenda team is that there were always plenty of laughs – such an important part of any creative setting.

The next newsletter will be on Friday November 14th,

Until then –

Very best wishes

Phil

PHILIP SHELLEY

www.script-consultant.co.uk

www.tributepodcasts.co.uk

October 30th 2020

STORY

Posted by admin  /   October 14, 2020  /   Posted in Thoughts on Screenwriting, Uncategorized  /   Comments Off on STORY

Hi There,

With my team of eight excellent script readers, I am now well into the very enjoyable process of reading scripts from the 2021Channel 4 screenwriting course applications.

We received far more scripts than we’ve ever received and already I’m struck by the high quality of the submissions. The range, imagination and originality of the stories being told is striking; I have already read several scripts that could go straight onto our TV screens and would be hugely enjoyable – which I find baffling when I scroll through current viewing options and struggle to find many shows that really excite me.

Having to select a mere 12 from the thousands of scripts we read is challenging and also frustrating – we have to turn down so many writers who would be outstanding candidates for the course. It’s also exciting knowing already that we’re going to be working with another crop of brilliant writers next year.

But it focuses my mind on thinking about what else we could be doing to support the writers who come close but don’t get onto the course; and about how we can spread the word about these other excellent writers to potential employers.

I had a phone call from a very good literary agent last week who talked to me about how the industry is hungry for new voices, for writers who have a unique story to tell – and how demand is outstripping supply.

This is something I’d really like to be able to address – the big question is how?! Any suggestions very welcome (seriously).

WHAT I’VE BEEN WATCHING / READING

CRIMINAL

Just raced my way through the 2nd (frustratingly short) series on Netflix. I really like the format of this show. Artificially restricting the action to the three interiors (interview room, observation room, corridor) could in theory make this a bit dry and repetitive. But as is so often the case when you impose artificial limitations, it can actually release and enable imagination and creativity. What this format enables is a real focus on the guest characters being questioned and the stories they’re telling. And because it all takes place in these visually uninteresting settings, the audience fills in the story gaps and questions with their own imaginative responses in a way that is really satisfying. The writing of the characters is brilliant – some really complex, fascinating and twisted characters, and some great story hooks. It also makes for some great performances – from the regular characters but in particular from the guests – Sophie Okenedo, Kit Harrington, Sharon Horgan and Kunal Nayyar.

But the main thing this series teaches me is the importance of format when you’re creating a new series. The format of this show is disarmingly simple – but incredibly effective; and, importantly, eminently achievable and repeatable. Hats off to series creator and writer, George Kay.

PLATFORM SEVEN by LOUISE DOUGHTY

I’m currently reading this novel and, like CRIMINAL, the thing that I find most striking and successful about it is the simplicity and clarity of the initial premise – a story told from the POV of a ghost (someone who committed suicide by throwing themselves in front of a train) in Peterborough railway station. It’s such a simple idea but enables the writer to observe people in transit, on journeys; and set up a powerful mystery from the start that the reader needs answering – why has this woman killed herself?

What we can learn from documentary storytellers

Three of the very best things I have seen in recent months have been documentaries –

The Rise Of The Murdoch Dynasty (BBC)

Once Upon A Time In Iraq (BBC)

The Last Dance (Netflix)

All three shows are outstanding and I can’t recommend them highly enough. I also think, from a fiction / screenwriting point of view, all three are hugely inspiring.

Here are some notes I wrote about these shows –

Takeaways – characterisation – the parallels between MURDOCH & SUCCESSION

Characters that are larger than life – Sassaman (OUATII), Murdoch, Max Moseley (Murdoch) – such rich, vital, compelling characters.

The message. The political resonance

The dynamics of power – how Saddam taught his interrogator lessons about politics in Iraq, how Saddam (the prisoner) ran the sessions. How the interrogator felt an ‘aura’ from Saddam – status.

Powerful story comes from placing your character in extreme situations, taking them out of their comfort zones e.g. a war zone. Revealing and dramatising character is about how they respond in these heightened situations of crisis.

How the passage of time brings new perspective, an examination of how we change, what we learn, how trauma stunts or inspires us – eg the girl who loses an eye, the boy who loses a leg; the photographer who blames himself for the death of a soldier; Sassaman – from colonel in his prime, setting the agenda, to retired ex-army man trying to spin a buck by lecturing on leadership, trying (and failing) to make sense of his Iraq experience (OUATII).

Dramatising the heightening of senses – when time slows.

Emphasizes the power and primacy of story – the best stories like this feel like they should be essential viewing. How many fictional dramas and comedies feel like this? (The best ones do – I May Destroy You, There She Goes).

Shows this good change you the viewer as a person, make you see the world in different ways, make you rethink the world.

The Last Dance – taps into something within all of us – competition, achievement; the celebration of excellence; the politics of an organisation.

Are your lead characters as magnetic and compelling as Sassaman, Murdoch, the Bulls manager?

Rags to riches stories – achievements realised against all odds and despite the forces of opposition.

These stories are elemental – OUATII is about good and evil. But it’s about so much more – the human cost of careless, short-term, cynical, vote-catching decisions by politicians; how we all have a personal responsibility to fight for what is right, to be active against the forces of darkness

An illustration of how dialogue illuminates character. ‘No joke, I played chess with the guy and he beat me both times. He beat me in three moves and then I said you ain’t going to beat me again and I’ll be damned, he beat me in 5 moves. I don’t know how the heck he did it to this day.’ (Brandon Barfield, one of the military police who guarded Saddam, talking about Saddam and their relationship). Colloquial, chatty, casual dialogue – but it has such layers of meaning. The relative status of the two men; the fact that Saddam buddied up to him enough to play chess with him; the fact he was brilliant at chess; the hint of dark powers. And finally a metaphor for the whole US / Saddam relationship. That’s how to write dialogue!

It teaches us that politics is drama and that all drama is political.

The dramatic power of visual imagery (eg the bulldozer crushing satellite dishes, ep5)

The dramatic / emotional power of a late / withheld story reveal (ep 5 Mosul Eye). How you structure your story is so important.

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The power of ‘story’ – as articulated (brilliantly) by John Yorke. Story is dynamic and active and unpredictable – John’s fascinating application of story to the Brexit vote and Trump election. ‘Make America Great Again’ is a more compelling story than ‘Together Stronger.’

https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p075crt1

To vote for Brexit was to vote for change, for shaking up the bad old ways, for progressive change, a step forward to something new and improved; to vote stay in was to maintain the old, stale, unsatisfactory status quo – voting stay in wasn’t as dynamic as voting leave. (Not my view – by JY’s articulation of how the leave vote was made to sound more attractive and compelling.)

The next newsletter will be in two weeks on Friday October 30th,

All the best

Phil

PHILIP SHELLEY

www.script-consultant.co.uk

www.tributepodcasts.co.uk

@PhilipShelley1

October 16th 2020

ROCKS / RED / WRITING

Posted by admin  /   September 30, 2020  /   Posted in Thoughts on Screenwriting, Uncategorized  /   Comments Off on ROCKS / RED / WRITING

Hi There,

Last week I went to a cinema for the first time since I can’t remember when (March / Feb?). If I’m honest, it felt odd and a bit unsettling rather than wonderful to be back in an actual cinema, but what was great was the film I saw – ROCKS, directed by Sarah Gavron, written by Claire Wilson and Theresa Ikoko, from a story by Theresa Ikoko.

This is without doubt one of the best British films of recent years and watching it gave me a great sense of joy and pride. Pride – because Theresa was one of the writers on the Channel 4 screenwriting course in 2016 and it’s wonderful to see her talent there for all to see on the big screen. Theresa wrote a brilliant script on the course, LINES, about three young boys caught up in an adult world of drugs and money. Like LINES, ROCKS burns with love and humanity. It’s a perfect antidote to the sadness and confusion of our current age and I urge you to see it.

Although Theresa is such a talent she would have undoubtedly got there anyway, it made me very happy to be a part of her journey as a writer. I’m delighted that everyone gets a chance to see this film and experience her sensibility, her take on the world.

ROCKS really is the most wonderful expression of her writing voice – a unique, emotionally universal story of family, love, hardship and struggle, beautifully told with warmth but also craft and guile.

The story is deceptively simple but does everything you need to do to tell a character-led story effectively. What is at stake is very simple but very clear – and of fundamental importance to the characters. It’s a broadly relatable story about a very specific and under-represented UK community. It’s a film imbued with love and affection, a film that should be compulsory viewing for all bigots and racists, to remind them that we all have a story to tell, that even the most inarticulate, under-represented stories are worthy of our time and charged with a quiet dignity and grace.

For me, seeing this film reminded me why we run the Channel 4 screenwriting course – to give new talent like Theresa the chance to get their voice heard in the industry, to make their mark in a fiercely competitive world. The characters in the film are characters we don’t often see portrayed positively as they are by ROCKS – in fact we don’t often see these sorts of characters in fiction at all. This is another thing that we pride ourselves on with 4screenwriting – trying to find writers who tell these sorts of stories that feel different – fresh, surprising and for that reason important.

The film reminded me of so many of the other success stories from the course in recent years – and, with entries closing later today (Friday Oct 2nd) it excites me for the weeks of reading ahead, knowing that we are undoubtedly going to be discovering and unearthing more gems like Theresa.

(I started writing a list of the names of the really exciting writers who have been on 4screenwriting in the last few years but it got too long.)

For the 12 graduates from the 2020 course, things are already starting to happen – but the industry climate is without doubt more difficult now than it has been in the last few years. And this year’s writers are at the moment missing the all-important opportunity to meet up face-to-face with potential employers. There are some advantages to zoom and online meetings – the ease with which they can be organised, how it levels the playing field for writers who don’t live in or near London – but we are all undoubtedly missing that face-to-face contact as well. But this year’s 12 writers are one of the most outstanding group of writers from all of the 10 years of the course so far and I know they will all have similar successes to Theresa Ikoko’s in the years to come if they approach their writing and the industry with the same positivity and creativity as Theresa.

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I see this week that Nicola Shindler is leaving Red Productions to start a new company. As a TV drama producer, Nicola Shindler and the company she founded, Red, is unsurpassed – she has been a flag bearer for the absolute best of UK TV drama over the last 20 years or so, with the most amazing CV.  She is a reminder of how vital brilliant creative producers are in finding and supporting writing talent and in generating and creating outstanding drama and telling important stories. She is a lesson to all writers that finding outstanding producers to work with is key to your success. Her CV is extraordinary – working with Russell T Davies on shows from ‘Queer As Folk’ to ‘Years & Years’; with Sally Wainwright on shows from ‘Unforgiven’ and ‘Scott & Bailey’ to ‘Happy Valley’ and ‘Last Tango In Halifax’; with Daniel Brocklehurst on shows like ‘The Driver’ and ‘Exile’ and currently with writers like Simon Nye, Sarah Solemani and Amelia Bulmore,

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You may have seen two weeks ago, I included a quote from Little Dorritt by Charles Dickens because it seemed to sum up so brilliantly the bigotry and stupidity  of our current government in their rapid race to the bottom – holding up values of insularity and ignorant self-importance in their justifications for Brexit etc, And then shortly afterwards, Boris Johnson said this in Parliament, ‘There is an important difference between our country and many other countries around the world: our country is a freedom-loving country. If we look at the history of this country over the past 300 years, virtually every advance, from free speech to democracy, has come from this country. It is very difficult to ask the British population uniformly to obey guidelines in the way that is necessary.’ Johnson is like the broadest Dickensian caricature of bigotry, stupidity and hatefulness.

The next newsletter will be on Friday Oct 16th,

All the best

Phil

PHILIP SHELLEY

www.script-consultant.co.uk

www.tributepodcasts.co.uk

@PhilipShelley1

October 2nd 2020

4SCREENWRITING 2021 Q&A FOLLOW-UP

Posted by admin  /   September 17, 2020  /   Posted in screenwriting & script-editing courses, Uncategorized  /   Comments Off on 4SCREENWRITING 2021 Q&A FOLLOW-UP

Hi There,

Last week I held a zoom Q&A to answer any questions about the 2021 CHANNEL 4 SCREENWRITING COURSE. In this newsletter I will answer some of the questions I didn’t have time to get to, and answer some of the ones I did a bit more fully and coherently!

Entries for the course are now open until 5pm on Friday October 2nd.

Since entries opened, I have been sent quite a few questions, 90% of which are answered on the FAQs section of the webpage. So please make sure you have read this page thoroughly before sending me questions. If the information you’re looking for is on the web page, I won’t respond to your message – I have to prioritise my time and focus on reading the scripts. To be blunt, I have deleted quite a few emails over the last few days without responding – because the questions asked are either answered in the FAQs or show a lack of initiative.

Please can I also ask you to make sure you submit your script before the final day for submissions (Oct 5th). In the past few years, so many people have tried to submit on the last day that the website has slowed or crashed and then I get a lot of messages from writers fearing they’ve missed the deadline. Please try to avoid a stressful day by submitting your script ASAP. Avoid the last minute rush!

You used the term ‘subversive’ several times. Can you expand on what you mean by that? Thanks!

I mean, if you’re going to write in a conventional genre (eg crime, medical) it makes sense to go for a more C4 version of the genre, to ‘subvert’ the genre as a C4 police show like NO OFFENCE did.

I have a question about the type of writing that should be submitted: Should we take factors like budget, corona virus restrictions and ease of casting into account to show we understand the limitations of what can practically be produced, or is the sky the limit with creativity?

The latter – ‘the sky is the limit with creativity.’ We are primarily interested in your unique voice and point of view as a writer. At this stage, issues like budget and a script that is ready for production are less important.

With such a vast amount of entries, how does the reading process work? And – really hope it’s okay to ask this – what is the fee paid to writers who are successful?

I have a team of 7 script readers (although it may be 8 or 9, depending on the number of scripts we receive). Each reader is allocated 1/7 of the scripts and writes short reports for me on each script. They also grade each script. I read all of the scripts that are given the higher grades – and any others that look promising. We also have a weekly meeting to discuss the scripts read that week. This process goes on for 6 weeks.

Yes, the writers are paid a fee for coming onto the course but I’d prefer to keep the amount confidential.

How many applicants are long listed/short listed for interview? What are the interviewers looking for from the interviews vs the written applications? What criteria are applied when selecting course participants?

About 35-40 writers are short-listed for interview. In the interviews we discuss the ideas the writers are interested in writing if they get on the course; their interest in screenwriting in general and C4 drama in particular; their other writing work and life experience.

What proportion of course participants have got representation since the course?

Particularly in the recent years of the course, almost everyone who gets onto the course gains representation by a literary agent either during the course or soon afterwards.

Is a writer’s age a barrier to being a successful candidate?

Absolutely not. We try to have as broad a range of voices on the course every year – in terms of – gender, age, ethnicity, where the writers are from / live, sexuality / gender politics, theatre / screen background, disability, writing experience, etc.

Channel 4 has a remit to deliver ‘high quality, alternative content that challenges the status quo’ – is there interest at Ch 4 for dramas that tick all of those boxes and may include  older protagonists? Does CH4 ’s understanding of diversity include age of characters portrayed as well as gender, race, disability, LGBTQ?

As above, absolutely yes. One of the main reasons the course exists is to encourage and foster unique, diverse voices in every category.

Asking for a friend but if a person had applied for the scheme several times previously, would that count against them?

Absolutely not. One of the writers on this year’s course had applied every year since 2011 before he finally got onto the course in 2020. One of the most persuasive things is a writer who applies for 3 or 4 years in a row with different but equally impressive scripts. We take note of as many writers as possible every year – not just the 35-40 whom we shortlist for interview.

Should the writing sample ideally be the sort of thing that could appear on Channel 4? If so, realistically, how often are writers selected whose writing sample was for radio or stage? 

We are looking, ideally, for voices that have some connection to a Channel 4 sensibility – but this is very hard to define and we often take a chance on scripts that are brilliant but only very loosely connected to a C4 sensibility. Numerous writers have got onto the course with theatre scripts; and several with radio scripts.

What CAN’T you teach someone on the C4 screenwriting course?

Good question! Well, we select the 12 writers from a huge pool so we are very lucky to be so spoilt for choice. And every year we love the scripts by the writers we choose and we know that we’re working with 12 writers of real talent.

I suppose the one thing we can’t teach (although we very much encourage it and talk about it a lot on the course) is the initiative and self-starting motivation you need to make a successful career as a dramatic writer. You don’t just need to be able to write, you need to develop a knowledge and awareness of how the industry works, of where you fit into the industry, seek out potential employers, the right agent and make sure that you can do justice to your ideas and your identity as a writer in meetings and pitch documents. As I say, we talk about this a lot but I’m not sure that we can ‘teach’ this.

Are there any specific genres / styles Ch 4 is looking, or have a preference, for? (Or any genres that should definitely not be sent in?)

That’s for you to research – watch C4 drama, read up about what they’re looking for. BUT one of the joys of the course is that writers often write ‘what they think should be on C4, not what is actually on C4’ (to quote C4’s head of drama). We are looking for something fresh, original, distinctive, ground-breaking. But I wouldn’t say there are any genres that you shouldn’t send in. Just be sure that your script is doing something interesting and distinctive within that genre.

Do the scripts submitted need to have a UK setting?

No – but think carefully before submitting a script not set in or about the UK – how much UK / C4 TV drama is not set in the UK? (Indian Summers is a rare example – but this was a series that had a lot to say about the UK.)

Is the CV used as part of the application process to whittle down to the final writers or is the decision solely based on your view of script quality and voice?

Initially the script is the only thing we read. We look at the CV when thinking about the short-list for interview – we try to have as wide a range of experienced and as many inexperienced writers as possible on the interview short-list.

Would you be able to tell us a little more about who the readers are that will be sifting through submissions this year? A decade’s experience of submitting has led me to the hypothesis that understanding who the gate keepers are is integral to opening the gates!

Good question! We receive a lot of applications to be one of the course script readers. The selected script readers are usually aiming to become TV drama script editors and normally already have extensive experience as script readers / dramaturgs in TV and / or theatre. We select 3 or 4 of the team of script readers to go onto become trainee script editors on the course, shadowing more experienced script editors. These shadow script editor roles are of great interest as one of very few formal script editor training / entry schemes in the UK TV drama industry. So the calibre of the readers (arrived at through applications that include CVs and sample script reports, then sending the interviewees a test script to write a report on, then an interview) is very strong. Over the 10 years of the course, many script readers on the course have gone onto become successful and respected script editors, producers and executive producers in UK TV drama.

Will submitted scripts need our names/details on or are they being read anonymously?

They will need your names on.

Is the aim for submitted scripts to have them read in their entirety or will it only be the first 10-15 pages of each?

I advise my readers to read a minimum of 20 pages of each script. Each reader needs to get through 200+ scripts – so I encourage them not to finish scripts if by p.20 they are clearly not top-12 contenders. Unfortunately, we don’t have the time or resources to give feedback to applicants. The readers’ brief is to find the 50 or so most exciting scripts. But I make sure that the readers have read enough of each script to be sure that they’re not missing something outstanding.

Do scripts need a logline/short synopsis upon submittal?

No.

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SCRIPT MENTORING

I run a script mentoring service through my script consultancy (nothing to do with the C4 screenwriting course) and we currently have capacity to take on one or two more writers.

www.script-consultant.co.uk/script-mentoring/

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Finally this week, a quote about the state of the nation –

‘It was uphill work for a foreigner, lame or sound, to make his way with the Bleeding Hearts. In the first place, they were vaguely persuaded that every foreigner had a knife about him; in the second, they held it to be a sound constitutional national axiom that he ought to go home to his own country. They never thought of enquiring how many of their own countrymen would be returned upon their hands from diverse parts of the world, if the principle were generally recognised; they considered it particularly and peculiarly British. In the third place, they had a notion that it was a sort of Divine visitation upon a foreigner that he was not an Englishman, and that all kinds of calamities happened to his country because it did things that England did not, and did not do things that England did.

They believed that foreigners were always badly off, and though they were as ill off themselves as they could desire to be, that did not diminish the force of the objection…they believed that foreigners were always immoral…that foreigners had no independent spirit…’

No, not a critique from this week’s New Statesman about the state of the conservative party – but Charles Dickens from LITTE DORRIT, published in 1857. Plus ca change…

The next newsletter will be on Friday Oct 2nd

All the best

Phil

PHILIP SHELLEY

www.script-consultant.co.uk

www.tributepodcasts.co.uk

@PhilipShelley1

September 18th 2020

4SCREENWRITING Q&A Sept 10th 1-2

Posted by admin  /   September 03, 2020  /   Posted in screenwriting & script-editing courses  /   Comments Off on 4SCREENWRITING Q&A Sept 10th 1-2

Hi There,

I hope you have all (like me) had the chance of a short summer break even if it wasn’t far from home (I haven’t left home at all!) with your batteries creatively recharged for September and the new academic year. Let’s hope the f***ing virus starts to recede and that we can all meet up again in person sometime soon.

CHANNEL 4 SCREENWRITING COURSE 2021 – ONLINE Q&A Sept 10th 1-2pm

I’ve been enjoying the positive response from Channel 4 Drama and the wider TV drama industry to the 12 excellent scripts that came off the 2020 Channel 4 Screenwriting course – and am now gearing up for the 2021course.

NB My website will be open for entries from Sept 14th to Oct 2nd. Everything you need to know about entry criteria and the course should be on the webpage. But I will be holding a one hour online Q&A on Microsoft teams this coming Thursday Sept 10th from 1-2. I haven’t quite finalised all the details yet – but will be posting the link on Twitter very soon – @PhilipShelley1 – so if this is of interest and you have questions you need to ask, you can ask me on Twitter in advance (or by email if you prefer) and then I will answer them in person on the day.

SCRIPTS + CAREERS

I’ve been thinking about this recently about what makes for a standout script and then what it takes to initiate and then sustain life as a working screenwriter.

I received a script through my script consultancy website recently by a first time writer – and from page one to page 40 (the end) I was pretty much blown way by it. It was charming, beautifully observed, funny, poignant, distinctive, utterly original and just one of the best things I’d read for some time.

I arranged to talk on the phone to the writer and offer to help, and to send it to some suitable potential employers. I discovered it was the first script this writer had ever attempted – which surprised me. But my enthusiasm for the script surprised him even more!

I know that people in the industry will read this script and enjoy it, will want to meet this writer, find out more and talk about working with him. So that was very exciting.

But it also made me think about where he goes from here. Writing one excellent script is fantastic – but capitalising on the script and then following up on it with more equally good scripts is another whole set of challenges.

We also had some very inexperienced writers on this year’s Channel 4 course – one exceptional writer who was still at uni while she was on the course, to whom the world of screenwriting is very new. Since the course ended a few short weeks ago, she has had offers for representation from a number of agents, which is obviously a great position to be in. But now the real work of making this count, starts.

It makes me think about writers at the other end of the scale in terms of experience – and how you need to constantly keep moving forward as a writer, challenging yourself and keeping in touch with the realities of the industry and the wider world around you.

You may have seen that the last Inspector Morse film – The Remorseful Day – was repeated on ITV recently, a show I script-edited. Watching it, I was reminded of some of the things I really liked about it, but also some of the things that I found creatively frustrating about it. Pretty much the whole creative production team from Colin Dexter down were white men of a certain age and a certain socio-political outlook. It’s a very monolithic drama that played successfully to the ITV audience of the time – but even by the end of the Morse era, the attitudes of the show seemed outdated and a little stale. In THE REMORSEFUL DAY, women are largely seen as sex objects and supporting characters, and most of the men they look up to are in their 50’s, 60’s – ie the same profile of much of the creative team on the show. The show really needed a shake-up.

So, even with the example of the success enjoyed by producers, writers, director of this show, it’s important that as creatives we don’t stand still, that we all keep moving forward, challenging ourselves, confronting and exploring the new political realities and attitudes of the day. The world changes rapidly and if, as writers, we don’t keep up, we become irrelevant. As a writer friend a while ago, in a maudlin bout of self-reflection said, the industry saw the likes of him as male, stale and pale.

It’s so important for writers at any stage of their careers that they don’t get culturally, politically, socially left behind; it’s tough as you get older but it’s important that whatever age you are, that you have a passion and excitement for what you’re saying and for the industry in which you’re working, and that you have something unique to say through your work.

This new writer who I referred to earlier has written something that is clearly deeply personal and meaningful to him – and this makes it universally relatable. But there’s something refreshing to me in the fact that he has no idea just how good his script is! Whether he will capatalise on the strength of this script remains to be seen, and whether he has more good scripts in him, whether he will be able to thrive within the collaborative and sometimes challenging environment that is TV comedy and drama. But all writers need to move forward, to be constantly pushing the boundaries of their work, looking outwards at what is happening in the outside world and how it sparks them as writers. The world doesn’t stand still and neither can you as writers.

Everyone can improve – you are never the finished article, you have to keep moving with the times. End of lecture.

The next newsletter will be on Friday Sept 18th.

All the best

Phil

PHILIP SHELLEY

www.script-consultant.co.uk

www.tributepodcasts.co.uk

TWITTER: @PhilipShelley1

Sept 4th 2020