Last Saturday and Sunday was the first weekend of this year’s Channel 4 screenwriting course. This first weekend is intended to introduce the 12 writers to Channel 4 drama in particular and screenwriting and the way the TV industry works in general. We had some great guest speakers and a thoroughly entertaining, and instructive two days.
I wanted to share a few of the highlights with you…
Writer David Nicholls (One Day, Great Expectations, Cold Feet, etc) talked us through the chronology of his career. It was instructive that even a writer as successful as David has not had the smoothest of rides. He talked us through the many peaks – and far fewer troughs – of his career. But what he said made me think about how important it is how you respond to setbacks as a writer. He talked about how his TV writing career stalled after his first original TV series, RESCUE ME, but how he then had ideas and opportunities for novel writing, and how the impetus gained from the success of his novels re-energised his screenwriting.
David is admirably modest – but at the same time it was clear it hasn’t all been ‘plain-sailing’. And if HE’s saying that, then for the rest of us, it’s even clearer that there will be knocks along the way – it’s often how you ride them out and respond to them that is key.
Nick Marston – agent with Curtis Brown – talked about how important it is that writers ‘write on their own terms.’ He talked about how the writers he responds to are those who have something to say, have an agenda to their writing. He said that as writers, when you develop an idea, you need to feel very strongly about it because the development process can be very long!
Director Charles Martin – who has just directed 4-part serial RUN for C4 which will be on our screens later this year, advised writers to try and get into an edit suite and observe directors \ editors editing a drama show \ film – it will teach you so much about effective screenwriting.
His other tips-
Don’t give information – create drama.
Economy is key – in TV drama even a two page scene is long. Come into scenes late, get out early. Analyse your story beats – and don’t repeat them.
This is one I really like – when writing directions, use verbs and adverbs, not adjectives ie Directions should be about events, action – more than description. Actors need actions, not descriptions. It should be about what they’re doing, not how they’re feeling.
As screenwriters, be production-savvy.
David Mamet has written some of the best screenwriting books – particularly ‘On Directing.’
Ronan Bennett (writer, Top Boy, Public Enemies, Hidden, The Hamburg Cell etc)
Ronan referenced this excellent article – particularly the ‘plumbing’ analogy – ie good story-telling is like plumbing in that you need to construct the pipe-work so that the water \ story flows. The craft \ art debate.
He talked about the essentials of screenwriting and how they can’t be ignored – how your story needs a protagonist; and how that protagonist has to have a dramatic need – a need to achieve something in the story – and how (usually) this ‘need’ should be concrete, tangible not cerebral. And how there need to be hurdles, obstacles in the way of our hero achieving this.
The film Ronan referenced in this regard was TOY STORY – a wonderful piece of story-telling. Which led to a discussion about how brilliant the story-telling also is in TOY STORY 3. (Toy Story 2 isn’t bad either!)
And if you need an example of outstanding screen story-telling, look no further than series 1 of Ronan’s script, TOP BOY, which you can find on 4OD. Series 2 will be on our screens later this year.
His other tips –
– see if you can improve a scene by taking out the last line.
He also talked about finding the projects you feel passionately about as a writer – the reader \ viewer will respond to your passion.
He talked about text and sub-text. One technique he has is to write a scene then on the right-hand scene of the page write what the characters are REALLY saying (ie the sub-text) then play \ experiment with swapping text \ subtext lines around and see how that affects the scene.
Ronan talked about being observant as a writer, spying on people in public. He showed us lines of dialogue that he’d noted on his mobile phone.
Hilary Norrish – Hilary is one of the most well-regarded script editor \ script executives in the UK. She has worked on some of the best British drama of the last few years – The Boys Are Back, The Shooting of Thomas Hurndall, Ten Days To War, Omagh, Low Winter Sun, In A Land of Plenty – and you should look out for Top Boy series 2 and Complicit (written by Guy Hibbert) on Channel 4 later this year, both of which she script-edited.
Hilary reminded the course writers that the writer is ALWAYS the ‘primary creative’.
In her experience ‘Writers are either ‘vomiters’ or ‘plotters’! Both approaches are equally valid.
*About characters – something an actor once said to her ‘People resist their conditions’ ie characters are interesting when they have inner conflict – when what they say masks who they are.
Connected to what Charles Martin said about length of scenes – one of the extraordinary things about the C4 film COMPLICIT, which Hilary highlighted – is that there are 3 scenes of about 8-10 pages – look out for these scenes when the film is shown in Feb.
* That evening on TV I was watching Oprah Winfrey interview Lance Armstrong – you won’t find a better example of ‘People resist their condition’! Or of sub-text. Armstrong was deeply incoherent – but his face, his body language and what he didn’t say – said SO much.
If you’re thinking about how to create characters, I’d urge you to watch this interview (which was also deeply annoying in many ways) and study how utterly fascinating and loaded with sub-text Armstrong’s incoherence was.
‘THE AUTHORITATIVE GUIDE TO WRITING – AND SELLING – A GREAT SCREENPLAY’
Finally, this weekend Phil Gladwin and I are running our ‘The Authoritative Guide To Writing – And Selling – A Great Screenplay’ class in central London, with special guest literary agent TANYA TILLETT. We have ONE place left on the course – in case you feel like making an impulsive, last-minute decision to spend this weekend getting out of the snow and rain and immersing yourself in all things screenwriting.
Here’s the link –
or email me: firstname.lastname@example.org with a phone number and I can call you with all the details.
Until next week
Jan 25th 2013