This week, based on scripts I have read recently, a few random tips \ thoughts about screenwriting.
DON’T KILL YOUR CHARACTERS IN RANDOM ACCIDENTS
Despite the fact this obviously happens a lot in real life (apologies for the cheery opening!) there is usually something deeply dramatically unsatisfactory in a story when you’ve successfully set up strong characters and an interesting situation, to kill off a character in a chance accident – a car crash, terminal cancer or whatever. Too often this just feels like it undermines all the good work of setting up characters successfully – as a reader \ viewer sometimes these type of random deaths feel like you’ve just wasted your time investing in the character in question, and your trust in a story \ writer starts to wane! An interesting example of where scripts shouldn’t be like real life.
WRITE DIRECTIONS THAT CAN BE SHOT
As many of you who have used my script consultancy will recognize, I come over like a bit of a scratched record about this. I read too many directions that tell me where a character has come from, what they are secretly thinking, what flaw in their childhood caused them to be who they are today. As I read these internalized directions, I can hear a director on my shoulder yelling in my ear, ‘I CAN’T SHOOT THAT!’.
THINK LIKE A FILM-MAKER NOT A NOVELIST
Similar to the above – don’t internalise, externalize, in your screenwriting. Screen directions are about what the audience can see on screen, not about internal thoughts. Above all directions are about CHARACTER ACTIONS – they’re about people DOING THINGS. Be wary of excessively passive directions – over-describing the layout of rooms in a house or what a character is wearing, but particularly what a character is thinking. Too many directions I read give actors an impossible job in describing the extraordinarily complex emotions actors are supposed to convey with a single expression. Remember – stories are about the actions characters take.
Too many writers forget that this should be at the heart of every script. If you can inform and educate us at the same time – great. But for goodness sake entertain us! I’m regularly surprised by scripts I read where the writers seem to have somehow ignored \ forgotten this basic principle! Scripts need to be exciting, funny, emotive, controversial, terrifying – but above all entertaining and not BORING! A corollary of this, I think, is to make sure there is a sense of HOPE and ULTIMATE POSITIVITY in your script. Too many writers mistake misery and pessimism for integrity. The worst writing sin is to be boring! Assume that people who read a lot of scripts have short attention spans – (because we do!).
I sometimes think this is the most important advice I can give writers. Somehow it too often gets lost in the process – BE ENTERTAINING!
YOU CAN’T WRITE A SUCCESSFUL SCRIPT WITHOUT A VERY GOOD IDEA
You can write a well-written script, a script that we can possibly admire without a good idea. But it won’t be really enjoyable, entertaining or successful. Recently I have read a plethora of very well-written scripts that failed to engage me emotionally – because I either didn’t know what they were about \ what they were trying to say – or I wasn’t interested in what they were about.
So, from my POV, there are too many derivative scripts about – for example – drug addicts, students getting pissed, BUT there aren’t enough scripts about (ooh I don’t know-) contemporary politics, factual dramas about incredibly heroic people we know little about, the experiences of the British army in overseas wars, complex but real, contemporary character-driven relationship dramas (all off the top of my head!). Good ideas don’t necessarily have to be startlingly original (although it helps!) but they do need to be inherently dramatic.
You need to be coming up with the sort of idea that people will read and think, ‘Wow, I wish I’d thought of that!’ The sort of idea that you see in a listing as a one line pitch and think – I HAVE to watch that. If you go about things the right way, I don’t even think these ideas are that hard to come up with (as the delegates on our ‘TwoPhils’ screenwriting courses demonstrate time after time) – but so few scripts I read really excite me because of the strength and originality of the big idea behind them.
A couple of examples of the sort of thing I mean. 2 of the successful 12 scripts that were chosen from the 3000 entries to the 2012 Channel 4 screenwriting course were about – 1. Asexuality. A stage play about two couples, one partner in each relationship was asexual – ie they had no sexual instincts – the play was about asexuality and how being asexual made normal relationships so difficult. 2 A play about a traditional ‘old Labour’ supporter, a working class Londoner in his 60’s, who is seduced by the policies of the British National Party – a fascinating, personalised look at highly inflammatory political issues. Obviously there is a big element of the subjective about this – but think about the sort of ideas that excite you as a viewer \ reader.
And try to find the idea that is noteworthy and attention-grabbing.
MAKE YOUR SCRIPT AS GOOD AS YOU CAN BEFORE SUBMITTING IT
I read too many scripts that haven’t been properly proof-read – but proof-reading should be a small but unavoidable part of reworking and honing your script. I referred a couple of weeks ago to Laurence Marks’ (humorous) use of the Hollywood term ‘maturing in wood’ – the practice of putting your first draft script away in a draw for a couple of weeks or so before coming back to it with a (relatively) fresh perspective. This should be part of your normal working practice. Once you’ve written a draft, you should re-read it, re-work it, read it out loud, improve every aspect of it – if I find 4 typos on the first page of a script, I know that a writer hasn’t given their script the best possible chance of success.
WRITE WITH CLARITY AND ECONOMY
Too many scripts are difficult to read – clumsy sentence construction, inelegant phrasing, poor use of language. Part of being a writer is writing as well as you possibly can – with economy, wit, elegance and brevity – using the English language with clarity and intelligence (I’m talking mostly about directions here).
But more than this, I read too many scripts that have sections I simply don’t understand or can’t visualize. This goes back to ‘WRITE DIRECTIONS THAT CAN BE SHOT’ but it’s also about clarity of story-telling. Make sure you tell your story clearly, so that it’s easy for the reader to follow and understand. There’s nothing more demoralizing when reading a script than having to keep going back to re-read sections you’ve already read because you simply don’t understand them.
THE AUTHORITATIVE GUIDE TO WRITING AND SELLING A GREAT SCREENPLAY
We still have places available for our next ‘Two Phils Weekend Screenwriting Course‘, with special guest BRADLEY QUIRK, in central London on the weekend of July 13-14 – your last chance to catch our course before late September.
BRADLEY QUIRK is creative executive at Pathé UK. Before this he worked for the British Film Institute and the UK Film Council. In other words, he has been working on scripts at the heart of the UK film industry for the last few years, and will provide a wonderful overview of the writing opportunities in feature films for UK screenwriters.
‘Two day weekend screenwriting course in central London Kings Cross venue July 13-14 run by Phil Shelley – script consultant, script editor, producer – and Phil Gladwin – script consultant and screenwriter.
On Day One we cover the craft of screenwriting – with sessions on creactivity, generating original ideas, story structure, dialogue, creating characters and how TV drama series work.
On Day Two we go into the business of screenwriting – how you go about forging and then maintaining a career – with sessions on written and verbal pitching, networking, how to get work as a screenwriter; and a session with our special guest, film executive and screenwriter BRADLEY QUIRK, (Pathe UK, BFI, UKFC).
Look at our new dedicated courses website –
– with fuller information about the course, and a lot of glowing video and written testimonials.
Book early to get our reduced ‘early bird’ rate and a free screenwriting book.’
Until next week
All the best
June 7th 2013