I’ve had a hugely enjoyable week with three days of courses – on Tuesday my STORY, IDEAS AND CHARACTER ‘masterclass’ at the Indie Training Fund (who this week merged with Creative Skillset to become ‘SCREENSKILLS’ in case you’re interested); and then on Wednesday and Thursday 2 sessions with the BBC writersroom 2018 Drama Room intake (15 writers selected from their annual Drama script submissions for 6 month mentoring and script development).
On both of these courses, I asked the writers to find an idea from 2 pages of newspapers and create the best feature film or TV show pitch they could get from their particular pages. The results were astonishing – and I’ve had a very enjoyable time listening to some very exciting, imaginative pitches for a lot of shows that I would very much like to see on our screens.
I want to say a massive thank you to all the writers involved for their whole-hearted, committed approach to these exercises – they put in a lot of effort (and had the courage to pitch their ideas in rooms full of about 20 people).
I’ve used this and similar exercises many times on courses and they nearly always produce brilliant stories and pitches. It seems to me that the more parameters, the more limitations, the less time you give, the better the ideas that come out of the exercise.
But the ideas I’ve been listening to over the last three days, created through ‘artificial’ games and exercises, are also better than nearly all of the ideas that I’ve been pitched in proper writer meetings over the last year. I say this a little reluctantly. As you may have gathered I try quite hard to be positive in these newsletters. But if there’s one area of screenwriting that I’d say writers need to think more about, it’s this area – creating ideas that are likely to be picked up by producers. (This is both true of writers when they initially pitch their ideas at the start of the Channel 4 course and in development meetings I’ve had outside of the Channel 4 course).
And this is true both of verbal pitches but perhaps even more so of written pitches and outlines which seem to be fiendishly hard to get right.
So here are some related thoughts –
This should go without saying but I’m going to say it anyway! Particularly if you’re a new writer with no TV track record (but actually this applies all writers of any level of experience) the ideas you pitch don’t just have to be good – they have to be exceptional. No self-respecting indie is going to commission you to write even an outline for £500 unless they are genuinely excited by the idea and think that it has a hope of cutting through and being attractive to the decision-makers, the commissioning executives.
There is no allowance for the fact that you’re a newer writer. Whoever you are, you are directly competing with Jed Mercurio and Sally Wainwright. Your ideas don’t just have to be as good as their ideas (who’s going to pick your similar idea over writers with track records like theirs?) it has to be considerably better.
So the ideas you pitch have to be outstanding and exceptional. And when you pitch them you have to believe this. And if they’re not outstanding and exceptional because you haven’t fully thought them through yet, but you’re just trying them out in meetings in their early development phase, then you shouldn’t be pitching them.
Instead you should try them out on your friends, loved ones or more particularly those who you trust to give you constructive but, above all, brutally honest feedback. (You’ll find teenage children are very useful in this respect).
It’s a great time for newer writers to be pitching new ideas because there are quite a few precedents at the moment of shows from brand new writers being picked up and even made (by both traditional broadcasters and SVOD’s). But they’re only being picked up because they are outstandingly good ideas – and because the writer has gone into a meeting with an indie and managed to persuade a script editor, then an executive producer, then a commissioning editor (and probably several other people besides) of the uniqueness and excellence of their idea.
Not only that – but you also need to persuade those who hold the purse-strings that YOU are the best writer for this story – indeed that you are the ONLY writer who could tell the story you want to tell.
Listening to so many great ideas this week has really made me think about what a good TV drama idea is, what it looks and sounds like.
There were a couple of ideas that were pitched to me yesterday that were epic – stories that were spread over several years in a life and over different continents – about struggle, hardship and ultimate redemption. Be ambitious in the ideas you pitch. Don’t limit yourself and your ideas. Go for scale, ambition and the EPIC! Go for BIG ideas.
Titles. In another exercise I get writers to come up with completely random titles and then create stories from the titles. Two of the titles that generated cracking stories – THE WINTER IS COMING and SEVEN WAYS HOME. Strong, imaginative titles like this can spark strong, imaginative stories.
(So many good ideas have come up this week through (frankly) quite silly games and exercises. But I think the silliness is really important. Creativity is so much easier in a playful environment. It should be FUN, it shouldn’t be sitting staring at a computer screen until your brain bleeds.)
The devil is in the detail. Stories and characters come alive through telling detail – particularly visual detail. Memorable visual images and moments between characters can stand out (rather than more generalised descriptions of character qualities).
Following on from this was a discussion of the mundane aspects of our lives that contain insightful, defining characteristics – what we eat, what we buy at the supermarket; what we wear; what newspapers we read; our mode of transport; social media profile and activity. If you can imagine all of this for your character, you have gone a long way to creating an utterly unique, clearly-defined person. So often it’s these authentic, idiosyncratic details that bring characters to life.
I’m going to carry on these thoughts about ideas, pitching and how you generate new stories and invent new characters in 2 weeks time…
CHANNEL 4 SCREENWRITING COURSE 2019
The final script total for the 2019 course was (gulp) a whopping 2800 which myself and my small team of readers have now begun to read and discuss. If you entered – thank you very much. It will be a good few weeks before we have any news but we really appreciate the level of interest in the course and are delighted that so many people submitted scripts. I’ve already read several cracking scripts and I can see the choice of the final 12 is going to be ridiculously difficult. But it’s a really exciting process discovering so many talented new dramatic writers, reading so many wonderful stories.
A message from excellent 4screenwriting alumna DREW MARKE –
****FEMALE WRITERS WANTED****
A Call to Arms for our scribing sisters!
The 14th of December this year will mark 100 years since the first woman in the UK cast a vote. The first time a woman had a say in who would make the decisions that affected her. It would take another ten years for all women to be granted that right, but still, it was a momentous occasion worth celebrating, don’t you agree? Earlier this year we formed a female creative collective to develop a piece of work to commemorate this centenary, and as a response to #MeToo and the Time’s Up movement. On the 14th of December 2018, at Above the Arts Theatre in Leicester Square we will be celebrating this groundbreaking event with an evening of pieces, produced, directed, written, and performed by women.
We are still looking for some additional writing for our show and we would love submissions of monologues, duologues, songs, or spoken word which hold up a mirror to contemporary female experience, or are inspired by or based on the achievements of extraordinary women, or the gagged, mute, invisible and hidden; those who have been airbrushed from history. With that said we would really like a selection of pieces which not only examine oppression but are celebratory, that are bold and unapologetic or posit an alternative way of being; an opportunity to re-write the narrative. Each piece should be no longer than 10 minutes. At this stage in proceedings, what we can offer with regards to remuneration in that the profits from the show will be equally divided amongst those taking part.
It is our intention for this to be the inaugural event to launch an ongoing, collaborative group of creators who get together on a monthly basis to discuss issues and stories, current and historical, that matter to women, and will inspire and inform our future work as individuals and as a collective. We want to keep the conversation alive, and to make our contribution towards the issue of gender equality as well as give opportunity to women in our industry who are still woefully underrepresented. As Emmeline Pankhurst said, ‘You have to make more noise than anybody else…you have to be there all time’!
Applications are open immediately, and will be closing on October 21st at 16:00, please email them to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Breaking Into UK Film And TV Drama: A comprehensive guide to finding work in UK Film and TV Drama by Matt Gallagher
Finally this week I’d like to recommend a book. One of the excellent delegates on my ITF course this week was Matt Gallagher. He told me nothing about this book but I happened to come across it, had not heard of it before and, having flicked through it, I think it’s a really excellent guide to many areas of the TV and film industries in the UK.
The next newsletter will be on Friday October 19th
All the best
October 5th 2019