Last Saturday I did a zoom talk on screenwriting for the BFI Film Academy. The last 15 minutes of the session consisted of me answering questions from the attendees but there were so many questions that I could only answer a small selection, SO in this newsletter I will be attempting to answer a few more of the excellent questions that were posted.
Thank you to everyone who listened in and for taking the time to write these really interesting questions.
‘I am a journalism graduate – how might I apply my skills to screenwriting, do you know any scriptwriters who come from a similar background?’
Yes, I know of quite a few writers who have come from a journalism background and I think this is a great starting point for screenwriting. Screenwriting, whether your story is fictional or based on a true story, so often depends on or is greatly enhanced by a basis in research and a journalistic approach. As the writer of any story, it’s important that you take the time and trouble to immerse yourself in the world you’re writing about – so that you re writing from a position of authority and truth, rather than giving us received, second-hand perspectives of the story world. Research and how you use it and dramatise it is such an important part of good dramatic storytelling.
I think a journalistic background also gives you a strong instinct for and understanding of what makes a great story. Journalism is all about sourcing, presenting and writing stories in a compelling way – and so is screenwriting.
Some of the brilliant screenwriters we’ve had on the Channel 4 screenwriting course in the last 10 years who had a journalistic grounding – Audrey Gillan, Anna Symon (a background in documentary film-making), Jiwon Lee, Eva Wiseman, Polly Vernon.
How do you decide what scenes to cut from a screenplay?
There was actually a great ‘Scriptnotes’ podcast episode on exactly this subject very recently.
I’d say there is a basic rule of thumb to address this issue – 2 main questions – does the scene advance / change the story? Does the scene advance / change our knowledge / understanding of the character? If the answer to both of these questions is a clear ‘no’ then it may be a scene to cut – although there is one other important question – ‘is the scene funny?’ I think a funny scene is one instance that over-rides story considerations.
On a BBC script-editing course I was running quite a few years ago, I remember Ashley Pharoah talking about the first ever episode of his BBC series LIFE ON MARS, which was over-running so in the edit they did a cut that retained all the essential story-beats but cut out most of the humour. The result – an episode that simply didn’t work. It was only when all the humour was reinstated that the show regained its true (and brilliant) identity.
ON the SCRIPTNOTES podcast, there is discussion about why as a writer you can sometimes justify including the less interesting scenes.
But one of the keys to good storytelling on screen is the very simple idea of including the interesting scenes and leaving out the boring scenes. In every story, some of the key decisions you have to make as writer is what to show on screen and what to omit. I read too many scenes in which the real drama happens off-screen and is then discussed dispassionately by characters after the event. Don’t do this! The simple and much-quoted ‘SHOW DON’T TELL’ has become a script-editing cliché for a reason.
I can’t remember who first came up with, ‘A scene is a unit of change in a story’ but it’s a very useful guide. If a scene doesn’t change the status quo of your story, then you should question its reason for being in your story.
As a writer you are recommended to write something everyday, does this include things like treatments and planning documents, or focus on the creative?
This should absolutely include planning, writing treatments, outlines etc – and writing these documents should feel creative! This is a really important part of any screenwriter’s work. We all have our different modus operandi. In the much-imitated words of script editor-supreme Hilary Norrish, writers are either ‘vomiters or plotters.’ Whatever works for you in accessing your creativity and enabling your best work is fine – there is no one way to do it.
For some, the more planning you do, the more work on outlining, planning and structuring your story, then the more creative and free-flowing your writing will be when you come to the writing of the script, free of the anxiety about not knowing where you’re going from scene to scene. And even if you plan your story meticulously in outline form before writing the script, it doesn’t mean you can’t / won’t then pleasantly surprise yourself with new, better ideas when you’re in the flow of writing the script.
But you shouldn’t also under-estimate the non-writing part of writing – dreaming, ruminating, toying with ideas, spending time in the outside world with positive writer’s intent – spying, eaves-dropping, day-dreaming, people-watching, making notes about ideas and characters, stories that spring to mind – all of this is invaluable, just as important as that time tapping away on the computer keyboard. So don’t be tyrannised by computer word-count as a measure of writing progress.
Are there any books you would recommend?
I still think STORY by Robert McKee is one of the best. There are so many brilliant ideas about what makes a brilliant story, so many of the important storytelling principles.
INTO THE WOODS by John Yorke is also great.
Of lesser-known screenwriting / storytelling books, I think THE ART OF SCREENPLAYS by Robin Mukherjee is very good; and Rib Davis’s two books on DIALOGUE and CHARACTER are also excellent.
Alexander Macendrick ON FILMAKING and DAVID MAMET on directing are two other craft books that have great insights about storytelling for the screen.
THE SCIENCE OF STORYTELLING by WILL STORR is an interesting analysis of how story works with many applications to screenwriting
Other interesting, lesser-known screenwriting books: The Story Book by DAVID BABOULENE; Difficult Men by BRETT MARTIN; And Here’s The Kicker by MIKE SACKS.
But there are so many fascinating books about screenwriting and dramatic writing that it’s hard to give a short list like this. For instance, a lot of the books about writing for theatre (eg David Edgar, Steve Waters, Stephen Jeffries) are also great for screenwriters.
And don’t forget the internet and podcasts eg ‘Scriptnotes’, mentioned above has a back-catalogue of over 450 episodes all about screenwriting from two hugely experienced, outstanding US screenwriters.
Apart from short films are there other mediums you would recommend writers using to get their work out there?
I touched on this in the talk, using my dramatic monologue podcast series www.tributepodcasts.co.uk as an example of how screenwriters / dramatic writers can get their work noticed. The podcast market is booming – but even now, there aren’t that many examples of podcasts that showcase dramatic writing. If you can find the right USP / format, I still think this can be a great (and cheap!) way to get your writing noticed.
The obvious alternative to short films is fringe theatre. There are so many different venues / companies who feature new writing in many different forms (eg one of the 5 mentee writers I talked to late on Saturday had written a ‘Rapid Response’ to a Theatre 503 play and got their work put on in this way).
Using script-readings as a showcase for your work – whether it’s live or online – is another great way to get your work noticed. Having actors perform your work is invaluable and will bring out so much more in your work than a cold read off the page.
You could also think about getting your work noticed in other forms as a way of segueing into screenwriting. If potential employers like your work as a poet, journalist, songwriter, blogger, stand-up comic, they will be more likely to be interested in your work as a screenwriter. If you have something you are burning to say, some writing you want to do, then set up your own blog and put it out there on the internet. Good writing is good writing wherever it’s about and in whatever form we find it. For instance, I first became a fan of Nick Hornby’s writing in a weekly column he had in The Independent (I think – or was it in ‘The Sunday Correspondent’?) a long time ago. His article was a highlight of my week – and I have looked out for his new work ever since then.
The next newsletter will be in a week’s time on Friday May 22nd – another (really excellent) guest blog, this time by screenwriter and 4screenwriting alumnus, PAUL WILLIAMS.
I hope you have a great week in the meantime and are managing to maintain morale and creativity despite everything that’s happening,
All the best
May 15th 2020