CREATIVITY FOR SCRIPTWRITERS 1 day course London June 21st.

A course for scriptwriters in all media – TV, film, radio, theatre – designed to help you generate exciting ideas and characters, and give your creativity a boost with a day of fun, stimulating writing exercises. Run by TV drama script editor, producer and script consultant PHILIP SHELLEY with guest speaker writer ANDERS LUSTGARTEN

Hi There,

It’s been a fascinating, fulfilling week delving into story. I’ve been working simultaneously – through my website and the Channel 4 course – on a number of different projects with a range of different writers, and as I’ve been working on the scripts, thinking about what makes a compelling story, I’ve as ever been trying to keep up with the latest TV fiction – from the brilliantly insightful, very funny W1A and the excellent new series of REV,  to the touching last episode of UNCLE and working my way  – rather late in the day! –  through the wonderful series 1 of HOUSE OF CARDS.

I just watched episode 8 written by Beau Willimon – if you know the series, it cuts between Frank spending the weekend at his old college in Charleston, celebrating the opening of the ‘Francis Underwood library’, meeting up with old college friends; and Peter Rousseau back in his home town trying to win over the electorate after he has been responsible for allowing the shipyard to close , with the loss of several thousand jobs.

It may not sound like much, out of context and in that rather dry synopsis, but it was completely gripping. And what it consolidated for me – after time spent working on various scripts – is that CHARACTER IS STORY. Without compelling, identifiable, credible and engaging characters you don’t have a story – you just have plot. In HOUSE OF CARDS, FRANCIS UNDERWOOD and PETER ROUSSEAU are both brilliantly conceived characters – both, without question, objectively unlikeable – both successful politicians in their very different ways, men who have sacrificed much ( and trodden over the bodies) to get where they are.

What this episode did brilliantly though was to show the flickers of humanity and vulnerability behind the successful ‘men in suits’. It showed at what cost both had achieved their ends. In terms of narrative development the Frank (A story) had little real movement – the big narrative political issues were in effect put on hold for an episode; the Peter (B story) had a little more movement – a significant political victory – but again this was more about a character journey – a moment of learning and insight for the very flawed Peter Rousseau.

This show made me think about the scripts I’ve been reading this week – for instance, a script that has come out of the NSPCC that raises the issue of sexual  abuse of underage teenage girls – the issue is hugely important and frighteningly prevalent (I’ve learnt) but this script is not tub-thumping propaganda – it’s a brilliantly human story about one particular 13 year old girl, who has the same interests and insecurities of millions of other 13 year olds – but falls between the cracks in what is a horribly plausible and hugely credible character study. Both protagonist and antagonist  are beautifully observed characterisations – and this is what makes the script sing.

I’ve also been reading a brilliant character comedy set around a crumbling Irish mansion and the family who inhabit it – the story given a supernatural spin by the ‘Holy Well’ in the gardens that is a character in its own right. Again, this comes alive off the page because of the detail and idiosyncrasy of its characters – all highly original – but identifiably human.

And finally, a beautifully structured thriller set around the characters who work in a hum-drum Manchester accountants office. The conceit at the heart of this serial is that the boss has discovered that one of his staff has been downloading the darkest of dark child pornography on the spare office computer. The first episode is about the investigation into who is responsible, with the same story being told in succession from three different character points of view.

This fresh structural approach works brilliantly – but again it would be nothing in itself without the detail and definition of the characterisations – all of which are intriguing, credible and complex enough to keep you turning the pages, more and more anxious to find out what the hell is going on here.

So, a very exciting week in terms of the quality of the work I’ve been reading \ working on. Which shows me how high the bar is, in terms of the quality of writing you need to be producing to get noticed – but also a recognition that if you work hard enough, study your craft, and write stories with passion and emotional commitment, then your work will get noticed.

I feel confident that with all three of these projects I will be able to report back more about how they’ve been noticed \ picked up in the next few months. I will be very surprised if all three don’t open doors for these three writers.

Above all, what I’ve taken away from these three scripts is – it’s all about CHARACTER. If you have created \ discovered a character that really fires your imagination – a character like Beau Willimon’s FRANCIS UNDERWOOD, then the characters will drive your story for you.

Other shows I’ve been watching this week – I worked my way through DAVID HARE’s 3 x 90’ opus for the BBC, with Bill Nighy at the centre as MI5 officer Johnny Worricker. I had very mixed feelings about these films. I suppose my first thought is – why is it only these grand old men of theatre – David Hare and Stephen Poliakoff – who get opportunities like this on the BBC? I’ve heard David Hare speak about his forays into screenwriting – and he’s a brilliant public-speaker –

This old newsletter includes an account of the talk he gave at the 2013 London Screenwriters Festival. He speaks very convincingly when advocating the antithetical idea of ‘telling not showing’ and boy does he practice what he preaches. This was 4 ½ hours of determinedly dialogue-driven drama. Some of the dialogue was just – well, excessive – but what you could say about these films were that they explored some really big, relevant political ideas about a politician’s responsibilities, about the Establishment, about abuse of power and wealth. And he stands out for the ambition and scale of his work. IMO there aren’t enough writers writing about these big, important issues.

For what it’s worth, I enjoyed PAGE EIGHT, thought TURKS AND CAICOS was all chat and not enough drama, tuned in rather reluctantly to SALTING THE BATTLEFIELD (didn’t understand the title – can you explain??) but was gripped by it. At the same time, I sat through all three wishing he’d do a bit less telling and a bit more showing, and thinking that he is still at heart a playwright rather than a screenwriter. Ultimately Beau Willimon (Dialogue-heavy though his scripts are too) understands \ feels screenwriting in a way David Hare doesn’t.

But to give credit to the BBC – when they can produce shows as interesting, original and diametrically different as SALTING THE BATTLEFIELD, W1A and REV in the same week, it’s pretty impressive!

Until next week,

All the best



Twitter: @philipshelley1

April 4th 2014