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!
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.
Once again a huge thanks to Issy and Mike for sharing their insights. More of the same in a fortnight’s time,
All the best
January 8th 2021