This fortnight a guest blog by one of my excellent script readers, now shadow script editor on the 2023 Channel 4 screenwriting course, Polly Creed –
THE IMPORTANCE OF FIRST IMPRESSIONS
Over the last seven weeks, I’ve read almost three hundred scripts, submitted as part of the Channel 4 Screenwriting Course. It’s been a real joy and taught me so much, both about reading and writing. As a writer myself, the thing that will stick with me most is remembering the fact that the person reading my script is also a human. They are flawed and impatient, agitated and imperfect. They get hungry and tired and might be reading your script on a good day or a bad day.
Most likely, they will be reading your script, willing it to be good. When I read a script, I certainly want to be swept away by my enthusiasm for it. I want to laugh and cry and root for the characters you have so lovingly crafted. I write too so I know how much effort and thought goes into each and every submission.
However, in spite of that, I’ve also realised how much ‘human-ness’ gets in the way. I’ve been amazed at how quickly I jump to a snap judgement about a script. Within the first ten pages, I’ve normally decided – subconsciously, at least – whether I like a script or not. It’s therefore so important to make your script easy and engaging to read for the person reading it.
I’ve read so many script blogs and sites, where people go on about beginnings and first impressions. Annoyingly, though, it turns out that this is completely true. Endings are important, but it’s that initial investment in the characters and the world you’ve built that’s really key.
These are some of the personal lessons I’ve learned from the last few weeks about what makes a strong first impression. They’re mostly things that everyone whines on about and are definitely not original, but were really driven home to me over this process:
So tricky to nail, but important. Together with the logline, they’re the very first thing you learn about a story. Try to come up with something arresting and intriguing, something that captures the spirit and genre of the work you’re writing. Avoid clichés and blandness, and don’t make them too wordy and long (there are some exceptions, but rarely). Though saying that, don’t build a whole story around a punny title.
Not to be neglected. This is the first pitch of your script. Keep it short, snappy (ideally, one sentence), and really try to drill down and distil the world of your script.
The 5 ‘W Questions’ are useful for this: WHEN and WHERE is set? WHO is your protagonist? WHAT are they trying to do and WHY? HOW are they being stopped from doing this?
I think WHAT and WHY are particularly useful as they also make you think harder about your character’s journey through the narrative.
Formatting is boring, but also so important. Even if you’ve written the next It’s a Sin or Derry Girls, if a script is horribly formatted, the person reading it is probably not going to enjoy reading it very much (and might even give up, if it’s too tricky). You don’t need a fancy bit of software for this, just make it simple and confident on the page.
Make sure you choose a clear, appropriate typeface in a reasonable font size (don’t try and make your font huge just to fill the page).
Keep it simple. Don’t overload the script with camera angles. You don’t need to talk about zooms and mid shots, or number scenes, unless it’s really, really necessary. This will make it impossible to read fluently and can all be done later in the process.
Similarly, be careful with writing simultaneous and/or overlapping dialogue. Often this is very difficult to read on the page and can just be noted as a direction.
Long, wordy, overwritten stage directions are also super tricky to read. Keep it short and to-the-point. Maintain a healthy balance between dialogue and directions.
Make sure the beginning of each scene is clearly labelled and that you are consistent with how you do this.
Proofread your script carefully. I’m personally terrible with this and I also hate grammar/spelling snobbery. However, accuracy and precision does help to build a good impression. You don’t want the reader to trip over typos or omitted words. This takes them, momentarily, out of the story. Friends can be really useful for reading over a script with fresh eyes.
Another formatting point: accents and dialect. Speech, written down phonetically, can be really hard to read. Often, it can make the writing impenetrable to read and break the flow of the dialogue. If done badly, it can also come across as patronising or inauthentic, particularly if you’re not from the place/community you’re depicting.
For example, if you were writing a scene from Only Fools and Horses, where DELBOY (40s, true Cockney) says something like:
Now, brace yourself, Rodney.
You can say just that. You wouldn’t need to write:
Nawh, brace yerself, Rodney.
You want your script to be a delight, a pleasure to read. This can be lost – no matter how good the script – if the person reading it has to decode every word and phrase. Let the actors do the work for you.
Establish tone and get the story going
Establish the world of the story within a few pages and hook the audience in. Don’t take too long to get warmed-up. Something needs to get the story moving and make us invested (an inciting incident). Don’t leave this until page 20, or the person reading might well give up.
Avoid clichéd openings
Don’t try to replicate something you’ve seen before, or something that you feel is television-y (this was a big thing that I’ve learned). Most likely this will just feel contrived or boring. Really try to come at the story sideways, if you can. Find an intriguing, immediate way to open.
V/O and narration
Voice-overs can be a great way to introduce a protagonist (Carrie Bradshaw is an icon). But ask yourself if you’re telling, rather than showing. Would this piece of exposition be better dramatised in a piece of action or a conversation? Too much voiceover can also interrupt the narrative flow.
It’s 2022. Don’t introduce a female character by needlessly mentioning her weight, body or sexual attractiveness. Especially if this is all you say about her. Especially if you don’t give her a name. Also don’t describe women’s breasts. Just don’t. I would also really, really question any opening that begins with an act of violence against a woman/a woman being killed. This story has been told over and over again.
Consider names and how you describe characters. Are you perpetuating a racist/ableist/classist stereotype? Have you done the research about their name or this context? Do you really need to say it at all?
The biggest lesson I’ve learned about first impressions is about heart and authenticity. It sounds so cheesy to say, but the scripts that have immediately bounced off the page are the ones where the writer really has something to say; they draw on lived-experience or tackle an issue that the writer really cares about. This is so striking and normally hits you within the first few pages (or even first few words). They have something special that you can’t quantify or break down in a blog post. They end up being effortlessly original and engaging, just by virtue of coming from a place of truth. Stories with soulfulness and humanity stand out much more than those that are plotted down to each semicolon. Be brave and put yourself out there, because your reader will know immediately.
Thank you very much Polly!
ONE DAY INTRODUCTION TO SCREENWRITING COURSE
I’m delighted to say I will be running this course for the first time since 2019 – in London on Sunday March 12th. I have persuaded two brilliant guest speakers to contribute sessions –
Producer LAURENCE BOWEN, who runs one of the top UK drama-producing indies, Dancing Ledge Productions, makers of shows such as THE RESPONDER, WEDDING SEASON and THE SALISBURY POISONINGS. Laurence and Dancing Ledge also have a great and deserved reputation as a supporter and funder of new screenwriting talent.
…and screenwriter KITTY PERCY, a graduate of the Channel 4 screenwriting course, writer of acclaimed feature film, SHE WILL, who has extensive experience as a writer of both film and TV.
More about both on the course webpage.
The day will conclude with a social / networking event where you will have the opportunity to swap writing stories and experiences with each other as well as meet a few specially-invited industry guests.
We will be accepting entries on a first come / first served basis. All the information about the course, including how to sign up are on the course web page –
The next newsletter will be on Friday February 10th,
January 27th 2023