This fortnight, the final guest article from the 7 script readers for the 2022 Channel 4 screenwriting course by Sylvie Markes (as you’ll see, written a little while ago!).
Sylvie is a shadow script editor on 4screenwriting 2022. She works in development at Bonafide Films and has recently wrapped as Assistant Script Editor on BBC’s MOOD.
‘It has been an amazing experience being a reader for 4screenwriting and a real privilege to be given access to someone’s creativity with each script so thank you to everyone who applied. It’s been a few days since we finished our allotted 400 scripts in 6 weeks and it feels like it’s only now that I’m back in possession of my imagination, reclaiming my brain from inhabiting all the incredible stories we’ve been reading. Whether you’re successful with your application or not, the fact that you’ve written a finished script is inspiring in itself.
At the risk of sounding pompous, I think that stories have the power to change the world so I want to share a few things I’ve noticed about issue-based or political scripts. The best can create change from the ground up, stir debate, alter opinion and undermine stereotypes. Whilst all scripts are underpinned by politics as all life is, I’m primarily talking about scripts where the writer has set out to talk about or highlight a certain thing or ‘issue’.
Intertwine the personal and political, the micro and the macro story:
The biggest test for a political or issue-based script is to make someone care about your characters and their predicament when they wouldn’t have otherwise. People don’t want to be bashed over the head with a writer’s point of view with every character backing up their central argument. That’s not what an audience signed up for and if they did sign up for it, then as a writer, you’re already preaching to the converted and your script won’t be changing anything. For viewers to care about your characters, the political or public stakes (for example their fight against climate change) must also be personal. Perhaps they lost a family member as a result of pollution. A human story filled with true to life characters is much more moving than hearing statistics, no matter how awful the numbers are. Make sure that the public cause your character is fighting also has a personal bearing on their life. The BBC’s THE HONOURABLE WOMAN is one example of using a micro, personal story in order to explore the macro story of the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
Multidimensional characters who drive the plot:
There’s a tendency with political or issue-based scripts for the characters to serve the plot in order for the writer to convey a specific thing or idea. This is a danger area which will prevent emotional connections to your characters. This is why it’s even more important to make sure your characters are fully fleshed out living beings, which will ensure that no matter how different a viewer is to your character, they’ll be able to put themselves in your character’s shoes and relate to their actions.
With all scripts, your characters have the power to both perpetuate a stereotype and complicate it – it is always better to complicate it. No one person is either wholly good or wholly bad and the same should go for your characters. A scene that has kept reappearing in my head ever since I watched it is Shane Meadow’s THE VIRTUES when the protagonist confronts his childhood abuser. Despite our hope that this abuser is so obviously evil that he has devil horns and a tail, he too is a victim, heightening the poignancy of the scene and the story.
Show not tell
With all scripts, it’s important to show what’s happening in the story rather than tell it, but I’ve noticed that in issue-based or political scripts, there’s an even greater likelihood for characters to remain static whilst relating their story. A character is simply less interesting if they’re not being active and a scene is more emotive if you show a character’s reactions to something in the present rather than them narrating their past emotions to another character. The viewer wants to feel like they’re close to what the characters are experiencing. Part of the joy of being a listener or viewer of a story is working out what might happen, so think of scenes like puzzle pieces that you provide for them to piece it together by themselves. By the same token, the screenwriting maxim ‘arrive late and leave early to a scene’ is helpful so that the viewer is forced to work out what’s happening rather than it being force-fed through expository dialogue.
The best political script I read this year in 4screenwriting snuck in its politics (exploring the Windrush scandal) hidden under layers upon layers of human stories so that only at the end did you realise the overall message of the piece, making sure it never felt didactic. There were also clever and emotive moments whereby all of the characters at some point were shown to be both empowered and also disempowered, never just heroes or villains.
Thanks again for providing us with such amazing scripts to read. As Ernest Hemingway once said, ‘writing is rewriting’.
P.S for a general screenwriting tip – choose a different name for your characters other than your own. If you’ve got the same name as your characters then you’re inviting speculation as to whether you’ve based them on yourself. Even if your namesake is the coolest character alive, that’s another thing for a reader to judge you on that’s not based on your writing ability.’
Thank you so much to Sylvie and to all the 7 readers on 4screenwriting 2022 for doing such a brilliant job and picking out so many excellent scripts but also for taking the time and trouble to write about what they learnt and observed from the intense experience of reading 400 scripts over 2 months.
Script Development & Script Reading Q&A on zoom – Sunday April 24th 10-12.30
I will be running this 2 ½ hour session for the 3rd time on April 24th for a maximum of 8 people. This is for anyone who is interested in working as script reader, script editor or development executive; or those already working in the industry looking to move onto the next level. As well as trying to help each of the delegates with their specific interests and ambitions, it is also a great opportunity to build your industry network with 7 other like-minded people.
All the details are on my website – https://script-consultant.co.uk/script-reading-development-qa/
Finally, applications for the 2022 – 2023 BBC Studios Writers’ Academy are now open (until April 3rd).
The next newsletter will be on Friday April 1st.
March 18th 2022