Screenwriting is strange because you start imagining a purely visual story — but the first stage is to reduce it to a written outline — then you have to turn it into this very formulaic, rigid screenplay (with its own codes and catchphrases and even its own font!), before someone else comes along and interprets it, and hopefully, at some stage, with a lot of collaboration, it will return to a visual form! The challenge of screenwriting is to make a drab text document inspire vivid visuals in every reader.

Reducing a visual idea to a screenplay is like your idea being dehydrated and vacuum packed — someone producing your script is like the dehydrated script being rehydrated! It becomes three dimensional again.

Thank you to 4screenwriting writer Jack Holden for this screenwriting wisdom, inspired by listening to actors reading aloud and bringing to a life a section of his excellent course screenplay.

The end of May is always an exciting time of year for me – when I get first sight of nine of the year’s Channel 4 screenwriting course scripts (and final drafts of the three scripts I’ve worked on with three writers). This year’s scripts are no exception – in fact they are among the strongest group of scripts I think we’ve ever had on the course.

The first day of the final weekend get-together of the course at Channel 4 consists of a group of ten talented actors doing readings of a 15 page section (this section chosen by each of the writers) from these final course scripts. This is a chance for the writers to hear their words come off the page in the hands (and voices) of skilled actors.

It’s an intense but always enjoyable and hugely entertaining day.

As with every year, the range and variety of the scripts is mind-boggling. And this range and quality; and an appreciation of what a privilege it is to be in at the inception of such exciting scripts by such talented writers got me thinking about aspects of screenwriting and in particular the qualities that makes a good script stand out from the crowd. Here are a few of my observations from the day –

It struck me how every single script, even though they’re all written in Final Draft (or other screenwriting software) looks different on the page. The proportion of dialogue to action is always different, the layout on the page is always somehow distinctive. I’m not saying there’s a right or wrong here – but it’s worth considering how your scripts look on the page – and what that says about the rhythm and style of the way you write, the way you tell stories.

Every single one of the scripts feels, in some way, political – not party political but political with a small ‘p’. Even when it’s not overt, all of the scripts have a strong political and personal agenda. Under the surface of the story, every one of these writers has something personal and particular to say – and how they say it is distinctive and interesting enough to make their stories stand out – whether it’s about gay activism in the 1970’s, told through the prism of a true story; about racism and culture clashes for a newly-arrived Ghanaian couple in rural Wales; an examination of attitudes to alcohol and the drinking culture in the UK; the perspective of rarefied, exclusive Oxbridge culture from a black POV; a story about a hostel for the homeless in London; a story about toxic, violent misogyny on the internet and how it escapes into the real world…I could go on. Every single one of these stories triggers a debate, a conversation that needs to be had.

At the same time though, none of these scripts feel didactic or preachy. These political, social agendas are wrapped up in accessible, idiosyncratic and engaging characters and their stories.

This choice of subject matter, the stories these writers choose to tell, is a big part of the definition of voice. The stories you choose to tell define you as a writer. Obviously the way you treat, tell and dramatise these stories is also a defining factor in voice – but I think one thing successful writers who have a strong, engaging voice have in common is that the stories they tell are a big factor in defining the sort of writers they are.

A rather more random point! Animals in stories – several of the scripts had minor story stands that involved creatures – in one instance a cat, in another a bee, in another a dog. Somehow the way these creature were used in the stories was memorable in the way it conveyed humanity through the connection between the characters and the creatures. One of the examples was straight out of Save The Cat although (spoiler) the reverse was true. The moment we met the cat, I feared for its life (because of the nature and tone of the story) and somehow this was a memorable, impactful storytelling detail.

Economy and circularity of storytelling. There is nothing more pleasing in screen story than set-ups that are paid-off – but paid off in a way you weren’t expecting. There was one script that did this particularly well. Every seemingly tiny and unconnected detail did in fact have a connection – and led to a reveal, to something bigger and different to what we might have expected.

Scale. Another of the scripts stood out for me because of its ambition. Not only did this script have something big and challenging to say politically, it was also graphic, impactful, provocative and challenging. It almost feel like a ‘state of the nation’ piece.

Another felt epic in a different way – the story of criminality through the perspective of a somewhat disenfranchised Somali man, who lives in NW London and works the security night shift at Brent Cross shopping centre – and, desperate to break out of the financial traps that have closed around his life, becomes prey to a criminal gang. This perspective of crime and amorality from the POV of a grounded Anglo-Somali family struggling to get by in 2024 Britain has so much to say about our world but from such a fresh, intriguing, authentic angle.

I feel like I could do a similar, impassioned pitch on every single one of the 12 scripts.

Moments and images in scripts that have stayed with me – a young woman’s crisis dramatized through the moment when she sits in her bedroom eating dog food from the tin (one of the scripts with an impactful animal strand!); a young non-binary character and an older man on a car journey, accompanied in the back seats by the ghost of, respectively, their recently-deceased mother and father; a heist / raid carried out by 4 characters in John, Paul, George and Ringo masks; an eagle dropping the carcass of a savaged sheep from a great height into a group of shocked people leaving a rural pub (more animals!); and, more simply, a man, sitting alone in a hospital ward, touching the tiny hand of his premature baby in a hospital incubator.

All images that have stayed with me from these lovely stories.

The whole day demonstrates so many different perspectives, we meet so many disparate weird, fascinating people (not the writers but their characters!).

There is so much joy, exuberance and attitude in the writing.

This is also a really positive reflection on the script editors who helped these writers settle on these ideas and who encouraged such boldness and commitment in their writing. I’m biased but I believe strongly in the value of a good script editor who releases, enables and encourages these writers to take creative risks, to write distinctive and ambitiously different scripts – and for the writers in the way they respond and embrace these challenges. We ask a lot of both writers and script editors in a very short space of time and it’s so exciting to see how they all step up to the challenge.

The next newsletter will be on Friday June 28th.

Best wishes



Twitter: @PhilipShelley1

Friday June 14th 2024