This week, Part 3 of the feedback from the script readers for the 2022 CHANNEL 4 SCREENWRITING COURSE, this fortnight, from BECKY LATHAM, deputy literary manager at the RSC and freelance dramaturg.
‘I was one of the seven readers for the Channel 4 Screenwriting Course this year. As I write this there have been two weeks distance between now and reading my 400th script. Most prominently, I still feel supremely privileged for having had access to so many stories. I’m in awe of the writing talent in this country.
One of the highlights of the script readathon was the series of meetings with Philip and the other readers. If you were one of the writers who submitted a script this year, rest assured that your script was read and considered by a team of dedicated and brilliant readers. It’s nerve wracking to hand your work over and I can’t express enough how much care was taken.
Philip invited the readers to provide some thoughts on the reading process. Here are a few from me….
Do(n’t) sweat the small stuff
The reality of reading for this course is that so many of the scripts we receive are ‘good’. In many of our readers’ meetings we discussed scripts where the writing was confident and concise, where the setting or subject felt uncommon and intriguing, where the dialogue was neatly observed or produced an audible laugh. And yet, with only 12 places on this course and finite resources when it comes to mentoring opportunities or connections to be made, we can’t put forward all the good scripts we read.
What are we looking for then? What makes a ‘good’ script ‘great’? And, more importantly, how do you make your good script better?
When setting off, your priority here should undoubtedly be story, character, style, voice, etc. The main components of the script need your immediate attention. There are some excellent resources available to help you get your script into the best possible shape. To enable you to write the script you want to write.
Once you have your first confident draft, it’s then a good idea to do a polish. For the purpose of this blog, here’s the bit that interests me. Those fine details that perhaps until now you didn’t have the capacity to consider. To write a first draft is a massive achievement but don’t throw your laptop up in the air in celebration just yet. The journey is far from done.
Sometimes I would read a script with potential, but I would be switched off by some of the finer details which indicated to me that the writer hadn’t given them much thought.
In my opinion, the small choices that a writer makes can have a huge impact. Don’t underestimate the notion that everything you include in your script will be considered by the reader.
Find a redrafting and editing process that works best for you; I am not suggesting each writer needs to spend hours and hours poring over every word or grammatical choice. However, if you make some interesting choices in those small spaces, then that’s exciting and unexpected. Genuinely, they feel like a breadcrumb trail of small little treasures that can enliven the whole script.
Here are a few of those small choices to consider:
No one would argue that a good title makes a good script, but, for better or worse, it does have an impact on how we enter your story. Our first engagement with your script is the title. I can be dazzled or deflated by a title. If a title piques my interest, I can guarantee you’ve won my loyalty for longer than one that didn’t.
Think of your title like an invitation to an event. You want to make someone feel excited to turn up rather than obliged to attend.
If you’re struggling to land on a title, distill your ideas down to the core concept and come up with a list of phrases or words. You’ll need to do this for your logline anyway. It’s a good exercise in articulating exactly what your script is. For the title, you don’t need to settle on one idea immediately. Try putting some post-it notes up near where you write and see which one you gravitate towards after being saturated with a few options.
The title provides an opportunity to communicate the essence of the script. What do you think is the main thing a reader or audience member will take away from it? What core element propels your script forward?
If the answer is something to do with tone, then offer a suggestive and kinetic title. Something which gives clear indication of a palpable feeling or atmosphere in your script. Something which hints at the breadth of the world about to be entered.
For example: I May Destroy You
I’m expecting high stakes and elements of tragedy or revenge. It’s a dangerous and provocative title that also manages to articulate doubt. There’s a fierce vulnerability to it.
Or, The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel – I don’t know what makes Mrs Maisel marvellous, but I want to find out. To me, this communicates whimsy and playfulness and nostalgia. It also references a character, which leads me on to….
If the world of your script is propelled forward by a particular character, if the story centres their experience, then using their name can be handy for a simple but accurate title.
For instance, Ted Lasso
However, being even more explicit can work in your favour. Take Stath Lets Flats which is a great example of a title that gives you character, the concept, and is also fun on the tongue. It’s irreverent yet accurate.
If you partner your script with a title that uses metaphor, then you enter a playground of possibility. You leave space for interpretation.
This Way Up – Aisling Bea’s title conjures the visual image of a box being handled in the ‘right’ manner. It puts forward the directive that there is a correct way to handle something, that things have a right position. Her script, of course, in its exploration of mental health and human oddity, works against this in every way.
Ultimately, you want to matchmake your script with a suitable name.
Don’t overshadow or misrepresent your story with a title that has the wrong kind of impact. Try and steer away from titles which feel tediously familiar.
Don’t be afraid to wink at your audience.
You don’t need to do literary gymnastics with a character description, but you should also think of your characters as real people, not as stock types. Our first introduction to the character is the description you give us. Make them individuals. You have a real chance to be playful or inventive here and invite us to do the same in how we imagine your characters.
If you use any of the following combinations: ‘strong but feminine’; ‘surprisingly yet undeniably attractive’; ‘overtly sexual but with a deeply apparent vulnerability’, then I would strongly urge you to reconsider.
Stage / Screen Directions
We read stage / screen directions. All of them. Make them as engaging as your dialogue and empower them to help you tell the story.
Could you cut some of your scene descriptions without impacting the story? If yes, then do.
Are there certain phrases that you’ve used which ring false for the character, but you can’t quite bear to part with them?
Be ruthless. Cut them. If you’re that attached to them, find another use for them. Like on a post-it. Or a cake.
My advice would be to pay attention to the small details because your reader will notice them. Prioritise story over demonstrating skill but don’t miss opportunities to showcase your thoughtfulness.
If it helps, try not to think of these smaller choices as flourishes. They shouldn’t feel superfluous. And paying attention to them shouldn’t feel like showboating. Rather, you’re showing that your expression is clear and precise, rather than falling back on something familiar and overused. A series of lazy choices can avalanche.
Or, if you’d rather, think of them more mischievously, then use them as an opportunity for play.’
Thank you very much Becky for these invaluable writing insights.
The next newsletter will be on Friday February 4th.
January 21st 2022