Every year, I have a hugely enjoyable and educational 7 weeks in which myself and my team of 7 readers read and discuss the scripts submitted for the Channel 4 screenwriting course. Many of the readers have been kind enough to take the time to write about their experience and what they have learnt and pass it back to you, the writers, in this newsletter.
This year the readers have outdone themselves – and for the next few newsletters, I will be sharing their (and my) feedback on the process – the purpose of which is to help you all write the best scripts you can.
To start with, an outstanding piece of writing about writing by MAUD DROMGOOLE.
At my request, Maud gave me this (overly modest) biographical information –
‘Maud is a writer from South East London. Her background is predominately in theatre and radio. She is currently working on her first commission for television.’
Anyway, I’ll shut up now and pass you into Maud’s more than capable hands —
‘It’s been an amazing gruelling experience reading this many scripts; I have learnt SO much. Namely that writing is really really really hard. I am a writer too and know intimately what it costs to write a script. Approaching each script with new energy and respect for the time, vulnerability and creativity it has taken to produce has been emotionally exhausting. But a complete pleasure too, and invaluable to my own writing. In about week two I came to the very unfun realisation I would have rejected my own scripts. Which was horrible, but very useful. I’ve made a list of questions to drill myself on which I thought might be helpful to share.
Is it as short as it possibly can be? Make it one sentence. Boil it down to the barest essentials. Boil it down again. Don’t worry about detail. Practice. I have had to write a log line for each of the 400 scripts I’ve read over this course and it’s definitely made me better at it. Practice on shows you’ve seen. Ask yourself:
- Can I tell who this story is about? This might be a single protagonist, or a town, or a couple, or a motley crew of some kind.
- Can I tell what they want? What’s the goal? What would be the happily ever after?
- Can I tell why they want it now? What is the inciting incident that makes this story happen now?
- Can I tell why it’s going to be hard for them to get it? What is my story engine, is there a fertile central conflict to the show that can keep giving me more story?
- Does it make me want to read the script? A dull or confusing logline can make me dread opening a script. Look at your logline in isolation, without knowing all the gems and gorgeous detail in your script, is it interesting?
- Is it definitely as short as it possibly can be? You don’t need to spell out all these things, just give me enough information so I can work it out. A simple sentence like ‘A clownfish sets out across the ocean to find his captured son.’ can actually answer all of the above.
What’s exciting about it? This is the first meat a reader will encounter of your script; it forms an instant impression. I emotionally bond with a script I’m reading and a good opening makes me forgiving of messier stuff further on; a weak opening is hard to come back from. A reader really wants your script to be good; we do it because we genuinely love them and all we want is to find a great one. It is tiring, we are human and it’s easy to glaze over, but a good script will announce itself and tell you to wake up, pay attention. What shows the instant quality of your script?
Does the first impression reflect my script? What’s it about? Who’s it about? What’s the tone? It’s fine to put us in one world and then subvert our expectations – but be careful – if I like the first world, I may not want to leave; if I don’t then what am I doing there. If it’s ‘you think this is going to be really boring and then WHAM, by the time I get to the wham I am usually bored and it’s hard to climb back from – consider starting with the wham.
Does my story need to start here? I don’t need to see a character get out of bed in the morning to know that they did. I don’t need to see them have an ordinary life before your story hits, to guess they probably did. Could you cut the first page? First ten? Could it start at the end of the first episode? Pilots aren’t set up, they are episodes in their own right and should show off your storytelling skills. They need to be a true expression of your logline and have a mini arc that reflects the arc of the series as a whole.
Can I work out at least half the logline from the first 10 pages (5 if it’s a half hour)? If not, that’s a problem. Announce your story early, it’s why we are here.
Do I need a teaser? ‘Teaser’ has a variety of definitions and I think it causes confusion. It can mean, generally, a hooky mini act pre title credits, or it can mean specifically, a flash forward hooky mini act pre title credits, that throws you into some action further down the line. You absolutely don’t need either. Both can be really successful, but the latter is definitely overused. Audiences are bright and after most of the teasers I have read I haven’t thought ‘WTF how did we get here’ I’ve thought ‘cool, what happens next’ and then have been so disappointed to be thrown back six months to find the body of the episode is just telling me how we got to a situation I had already grasped.
Is it clear what a viewer would see? Does it contain only that information? Don’t put backstory in your screen directions. Something like, ‘this is Jean, her husband died of measles three weeks ago’ is useless. Your job is to work out how and if to impart that information. Your reader is your audience and shouldn’t be privileged with any information a viewer wouldn’t be, we want to see how the story unfolds.
Is there any story in it? Images are nice but they need to mean something. The sea on its own, looks dramatic, but actually has no drama in it at all, it’s just the sea.
Is it as short as it can possibly be? – Big blocks of screen directions give me a chemical sinking feeling. Every word you spend describing what someone is wearing is a word I’m reading where nothing is happening. Do I need to know what the clock on the wall looks like? Maybe yes, I read one script that had a Jamaican hummingbird clock on the wall, which as a choice detail felt culturally significant, allowed me to quickly picture the rest of the room and the man in it and chimed with the fact he had time running out, and a legacy to reconcile; I read a load of scripts where the clock was noted alongside a litany of other meaningless household objects and I felt my brain wither as I read them.
General questions to ask yourself
Could it be shorter? Don’t waste a word in your whole script. The scripts with no fat on them are thrilling to read. In every single scene I should understand something new and something should change.
Why have I written this script? I don’t need to know why you’ve written it, but you do, and if you don’t I probably won’t enjoy the script.
What have I given of myself? Don’t fake it. Writing a good script is a very generous and exposing thing to do. You don’t have to be a tortured artist, but you do feel love and you do feel pain in a unique and special way. If you can write from the heart and share that with me, chances are I’ll feel it too. If you fake it, I probably won’t.
Have I been lazy? Have you done the work? Is it as good as it possibly can be? Have you done your research? Do you know your characters? Is any of it your first thought? Because it was probably someone else’s first thought too, try your fifth thought. When you read back over it is there a bit you skim over? Cut it.
Have I made it easy on the reader? Is it a pleasure to read? You are the only person who can see the show that this would be and your script is our guide into your head. Take us by the hand and show us where we are going. Introduce us to the new people that pop in and the new places we are going. Let us know you are in control, know where we are going and we can trust you.
Is it visually told? Coming from a theatre background (as quite a lot of applicants seem to) there is a whole new toolbox to play with; don’t neglect it. You can travel the world in a second, you can make your metaphors grizzly breathing animals, but more importantly you can home in on miniscule details. Get up close and personal, story tell with the touch of hand, the quiver of a lip. Play with it. Go big. But remember to go small as well, so much emotion hangs on the minutiae of how we move, touch and look.
Is there enough story? If you’re struggling to keep finding story it’s probably a problem with the story engine. A good story engine can generate loads of story out of the same central conflict. It’s not about throwing events at a script, it’s about finding the most specific and knotty journey to push your character from where they are at the beginning to who they are at the end.
Do my characters have agency? I read so many otherwise beautiful scripts whose characters were simply acted upon by the world. They need some control over their story, even if they fail at every attempt. Characters are made by how they bend the narrative around themselves, the best characters are active characters that get themselves into terrible trouble by just trying to achieve simple goals. Let your character shape the action.
Is there growth? On the flip side of that, the action should also shape the character. I want to see characters pushed to change by the events of a script. Watching someone transform is thrilling, and whether they are becoming someone who can accept love or becoming someone who can inflict torture, I want to see the exact moments those cogs start turning differently in their head, and I want to fully understand why. Think hard about your characters. How are they fundamentally different by the end? Have you put the key moments that change them on screen?
Could it be funnier? Always yes, however harrowing or brutal your script, it could always be funnier.
What happens next? If you’ve written a pilot, I wanna have suspicions of where it’s going. If it feels like the end of the story, however good it was, it’s unsatisfying. What is it we don’t know? What little things have you dropped that are still niggling at us? Hook forward and leave your reader buzzing with it.
Can I make it a human tension? If you need to give me some information, can you make that information active. All the least favourite tropes among readers this year (piles of bills unopened, voice over, direct address…) stem from the fact they are missed opportunities for drama. We are being told the information, but we aren’t feeling the impact of the information. I have been told so many times that conflict means drama, drama mean conflict and show don’t tell that while both absolutely true, they’ve become a bit meaningless to me. I find ‘can I make it a human tension?’ an easier question to action, at both a story engine and detail level. Remember, a huge tension doesn’t have to be a huge fight. If you want to show someone has money trouble, them not being able to buy the drink the girl they fancy is asking for, is more tense than a letter on a table.
Have I interrogated my stereotypes? Does the sexy dead girl need to be sexy? Does she need to be dead? Does the drunk Irishman need to be drunk? Does he need to be Irish? Are your women actually shrill bolshy feisty nagging ball-busting frigid stuck up battle axe teases who are undeniably beautiful even in death but definitely don’t realise how attractive they are? Maybe. Are they?
Does every character fulfil a different function in my story? If no, cut them.
What slot is it for? Where do you imagine this show going? Is it the right length/structure? Constraints are good. They make you really consider what you are precious about keeping.
Could it be an essay? No one watches drama to be taught a lesson. Your script should play with questions you yourself don’t know the answer to, if you know all the answers you’re limiting the drama. Doesn’t matter how much I agree with you, moral purity is boring.
Is it proofread? I am dyslexic and I could work on this document a thousand years and not get all the spelling right. But spelling mistakes when I notice them still stand out as an indication the script is underworked. Ask for help, people are generous.
Is it formatted right? This shouldn’t be important but it is and you want to give yourself the best chance. BBC has downloadable templates and there’s lots of free software too. You don’t need to go out and buy Final Draft; Celtx or similar free software are fine. Remember, all the energy being used on working out how to read your script isn’t being spent working out the story and the characters and the heart.
Is it sexist? Don’t be sexist
Is it ableist? Don’t be ableist
Is it racist? Don’t be racist
Is it classist? Don’t be classist.
Is it boring? Don’t be boring.
Do I have a reason for ignoring any of this advice? Great, go for it, nothing is prescriptive, no one knows everything about screenwriting (and most definitely not me), and if we didn’t break the rules we wouldn’t keep making great art. If you have a reason to disagree with any of this then you are right, you should trust your gut.
Questions not to ask yourself.
What’s my voice? Don’t overthink it. You have it, it’s yours, it’s something other people say about your work and it’s not for you to worry about or try to cultivate. Think of it like your own human actual voice that comes out your mouth. It exists and is inherently you. The second you think about it or try and make it one thing or another you corrupt it and it comes out sounding affected. Trying to write something in someone else’s voice is like putting on an accent, with training you might get really good at it, but it’s not you. Write you.
Should I give up? No! You got this. You wanna do it and you wanna be better at it. It’s hard. KEEP GOING.’
Thank you SO much Maud.
The next newsletter will be on Friday December 10th,
All the very best
November 29th 2021