I’m just coming out of my annual November immersion in the script entries for the 2014 Channel 4 screenwriting course. I’ve spent pretty much the whole of the last month either reading script readers’ feedback or the script entries for the course. (and spent the last three weekends running different screenwriting courses! – but that’s another story for a different day).
So I’m at that time of year where I have been thinking a lot about what makes the best scripts stand out. Here’s a check-list of some of the qualities of the best scripts I’ve read this year –
OBJECTIVITY \ PERSONAL PREJUDICES – The first thing to say is that it’s inevitably a highly subjective process. I ask my script readers to be objectively analytical and detailed in their responses to the scripts, and I ask the same of myself. BUT at the end of the day, the scripts that get short-listed are those to which I’ve had an emotional response – where objective analysis goes out of the window. There are always certain scripts that I just LOVE – whether it’s because they move or excite me, make me laugh – and often with the best scripts, all three.
So, if yours wasn’t one of the scripts chosen this year, then you should console yourself with the fact that the list of 12 scripts I will choose for the course is a different list to what any other individual would choose. Just as everyone’s script is different and reflects something about themselves – so is the reader’s response. As a writer, it musn’t matter how many knockbacks you get – ultimately you only need one (significant!) person to like your script. And everybody’s response will be different, everyone brings their own baggage and set of personal prejudices to your script.
This is brought home to me every year by the fact that I rarely, if ever, agree 100% with my script readers. There are always scripts that they love and that I’m not so keen on, and scripts that I love and they don’t. And however much we discuss the relative merits of a script, it still doesn’t change that initial, visceral response. As both a reader and a writer, you have to trust your instincts – while at the same time acknowledging that all our instincts are individual and unique.
CHARACTER – as ever memorable characters are at the heart of many of the best scripts. There are several characters from the best scripts who I can’t get out of my head – whatever tone \ genre the script is – these are usually characters with big problems but real humanity. Usually characters who have a major personal issue that they need to resolve. And not just a plot issue – also a major emotional issue, character flaw \ issue. Characters with whom I engaged on a personal level. Characters who meant something to me – because they clearly mean so much to the writers.
HUMOUR – a strong comic undercurrent, a sense of humour, are such valuable elements of a script – one of the scripts I enjoyed most this year was poignant, moving and worked on every level, but what I really loved about it was that it made me laugh out loud several times. I actually got my nearest and dearest to read a couple of sections because I knew they’d also laugh at it – this is gold-dust. Of the several hundred scripts I read, I’d estimate that three made me laugh out loud. Which may be more a reflection of me than the scripts – but at the same time a sense of humour in a script stands out for me like a shining beacon.
BIG IDEAS – if I had one general criticism of the submitted scripts, it is that too few of them tackled really big ideas. You only have to watch the news, read any newspaper, look at the internet, to find a wealth of fantastic, big stories. But so few people seem to write scripts about these big ideas. Too many of the unsuccessful scripts are focused on small domestic situations – clearly it’s possible to write brilliant, compelling scripts about anything – but if you’ve got a big, original, attention-catching idea at the centre of your script, it’s so much easier to make it stand out. There are so few scripts about, for instance, the big political issues of the day, about climate change, about international terrorism, about governments spying on their citizens, about the prison system (to take 4 random big ideas). These – and so many others – are stories that need to be discussed and that will stand out from the crowd. And there are so few scripts based on real factual incidents, so few bio-pics.
A COMPELLING DRAMATIC PREMISE – but your story doesn’t necessarily have to be about an original big idea – if it’s got an inherently dramatic premise, something that’s compelling and universal. Whether it’s about even familiar subjects like (for instance) death, love, divorce, immigration, imprisonment – if the writer has something to say about it, and explores it with depth and commitment, then that too will stand out.
STORY-TELLING ABILITY – this is something that isn’t so often talked about as the more obvious aspects like character and dialogue – but some of the best scripts stand out for their narrative sophistication – for their ability for instance to structure several connected sub-plots around a compelling main plot, scripts that show an instinct \ expertise for cutting between different story strands with energy and pace. And if it’s a pilot episode script, the ability to deliver real story impact while setting up subsequent episodes compellingly. With the best pilot scripts, I finish feeling disappointed that I can’t go straight onto episode two. I think a lot of this is about knowing and studying your craft as a writer – about watching a lot of TV drama, reading a lot of scripts, and thinking about how story structure works at its best – it’s about having a passion and fascination for your craft. It’s quite rare to read a script by an inexperienced writer that shows real instinct for visual and multi-layered storytelling. And what these talented writers usually have in common is that they watch a lot of TV drama and love it.
ORIGINALITY TEMPERED WITH HUMANITY – one of the scripts that impressed me this year was, objectively, lacking on a few fronts – above all, it lacked a really muscular, developing narrative. But where it scored was that I’d never really read a script like it before, it took me into a world I felt I knew very little about, and it felt thoroughly human and real, in that all its characters were ordinary, flawed, objectively unsuccessful and at times unlikeable – but overriding all this, there was a sense of humanity – all the flaws were recognizably, universally human. The script struck me as being about how we all struggle through life, making it up as we go along, desperately trying to make sense of something that makes very little sense. Although it was a script about ordinary, flawed people doing ordinary things, it made me think about life on a much grander level – which is a very tricky thing to pull off. It was also one of those scripts (see above) that the reader didn’t like at all and which I loved.
CLARITY – this is something the best scripts have in common. They are easy to read. This is usually to do with the quality of the writing but it’s also to do with the presentation, and the clarity of the premise and story-telling. When you’re reading a lot of scripts, the question of how easy a script is to read becomes disproportionately important. If you read the first two or three pages of a script and you can’t understand what’s going on, it quickly becomes demotivating. With many of the best scripts, from page one you get a strong sense of the characters, and the directions are written so that you can visualize them clearly. So – once you’ve ‘finished’ your script, put it way for a while, then get it our again, and try to read it from the perspective of someone who is coming to it fresh and knows nothing about it – assume no knowledge on the reader’s part. This sort of objective re-reading of your own work is incredibly hard but extremely important.
Untl next week,
All the best
Dec 5th 2013