Weekend course London May 16 – 17.

A course for screenwriters of all levels of experience. Run by PHIL SHELLEY and PHIL GLADWIN. With special guest speaker literary agent MATTHEW BATES (Sayle Screen). How to write a successful screenplay – and how to attract industry interest in your scripts.


Hi There,

Last Monday I went to –


at Bloomsbury Publishing in London.

Matt Haig is a brilliant novelist (I thoroughly recommend THE HUMANS – which he has now also written as a screenplay). The master-class was mainly about novel writing – but much of what he talked about is equally applicable to screenwriting, and was packed full of great insights and fascinating ideas about writing in general. In fact there was so much good stuff that this is Part 1 of 2 – Part 2 to follow next week –

‘Character – people who are interesting – is the single most important aspect of story.

‘Character is plot and plot is character’ F Scott Fitzgerald.

If you start with the character, every other element will spring from the character. Being able to relate to / identify with character is one of the things that makes a story memorable. There is no better starting place for a story than character.

Characters need to be believably human or identifiable – not necessarily likeable, but to have the complexity and interests that we can relate to in other people.

For instance, Thomas Harris’ most memorable character is a magnificent serial killing cannibal.

There are two types of character – an ordinary character in an extraordinary situation; or an extraordinary character in an ordinary situation. Sometimes the two ideas overlap in the same story (eg Harry Potter is both at different times – he starts off an as an extraordinary character in the world of the ‘Muggles’, but then becomes ordinary in the context of the extraordinary Hogwarts).

The best character I’ve written – the one I’m happiest with, the most complex – was in the book that has sold the least – ‘The Possession Of Mr Cave.’

It’s important to remind yourself that YOU are not your character. Sometimes your characters will have traces of wish-fulfilment but you have to have that slight distance, and know more about your characters than they know about themselves

Eg Terence Cave – he believed he was a good man who had been through traumatic experiences (his wife and son had died too young) and he was left to protect his daughter. But in doing so, he endangered and stifled her. He ends up accidentally killing his daughter’s boyfriend and doing other hideous things – but he thinks he’s doing them for the right reasons.

There are many contrived ways to build your character – but no better way than asking questions of your characters.

(Matt gave us each a brilliant list of the sort of questions you should ask your characters – more of which next week)

You want to know how your character will react in certain situations. This is the stuff that makes people who they are, the stuff that makes readers care.

Characters shouldn’t just serve the plot – the plot should serve the characters. You have to know the ins and out of the person you’re writing about – are they for instance weak or strong? Do they have a strong morality?

When you’re writing, you as a writer have to decide who you care about most as you write them. You have to remember people need to care about your characters.

There has to be a contradiction, a conflict, within every character eg Henry IV – Prince Hal is torn between a life of fun and drinking, and his duty towards his country. What is interesting about him is that internal tug-of-war.

And that’s often a big internal character conflict – the duty to society vs. our own desires for ourselves. Between what society expects us to be and what we would like to be. That’s a strong inner tension / friction.

Sometimes it might feel easier just to keep writing the story and discovering it in that way – instead of taking that extra time to get things right – attention to the individual characters.

Writing any fiction is always a question of exploration – using questioning as your central method for creating character.

One of my favourite books is THE OUTSIDERS by SE Hinton. Not the most highbrow of books, but it’s the one that meant most to me as a teenager. As a teenager I didn’t fit in that well. As a ‘latchkey kid’ I would spend time in the local library after school reading. I read all of SE Hinton’s books (a female author who seemed to understand the male brain better than anyone I know) and she writes in the first person.

In THE OUTSIDERS there are about 10 main characters but each is defined against each other in subtle, defined ways (the same characters recur in about 7 other SE Hinton books). These characters became friends to me.

From age 24-26 I got serious depression – I was back living with my parents in my childhood bedroom. I read THE OUTSIDERS again – the only book I could read when I was in a state of total depression. My favourite sentence in a novel is the opening sentence from THE OUTSIDERS –

“When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.”

This one sentence symbolised so many things for me, and it instantly makes me connect with those characters again.

(NB  Matt Haig’s new book is the excellent REASONS TO STAY ALIVE, an autobiographical study of his experiences of dealing with depression)

You only need three characters for a story – you have a love triangle and you have endless story possibilities – to create intrigue. Don’t create characters without a reason.

The hardest part of any story is the start. I start with pen and paper, away from my computer – things they might say, what they are, who they are, notes. Stuff that you know won’t end up in the finished draft – so that it removes the pressure, makes it more like the mindset when you’re writing an email. Writing stuff that you know isn’t going to go into the story – be brave, working out what works, what doesn’t. About not putting on an authorial voice, just writing as yourself.

At the moment I’m writing a story about the young Father Christmas – the downside of this is that he’s just so good – it’s hard to find complexity in him. The test is finding stuff that goes against the character’s conception of themselves.

My aim is clarity. I try to see stuff from a reader’s perspective. At the end of the day you’re telling a story for the reader.’

Until next week – and Part 2 of my notes from this excellent master-class, including Matt’s invaluable ‘INTERVIEW WITH YOUR CHARACTER’,

All the best




March 6th 2015