This fortnight, channel 4 screenwriting course 2022, script reader feedback Part 4, from Matthew Hirons.
Matt is a shadow script editor on 4screenwriting 2022. He has a Distinction in MA Screenwriting from Liverpool John Moores University, where he was also awarded the Stephen Butchard Prize. And he has worked as a reader for companies such as Big Light Productions, Hurricane Films, Pinewood Pictures, Mammoth Screen, Mad as Birds Films and more.
Home is Where the Story is
‘While I’ve been giving my poor old eyes a rest after completing the gargantuan task of reading 400 scripts for the Channel 4 Screenwriting Course, I have been thinking about what a pleasure it has been to read so many brilliant and varied stories, afforded an insight into people’s passions, loves, fears, anxieties, and dreams. Over the course of the 6 weeks I have travelled to London during the Second World War, I have been granted access to a radical lesbian community, I’ve sampled Birmingham’s nightlife, the charms of Great Yarmouth, and even, rather presciently, glimpsed a future Earth that is no longer habitable. I’ve eavesdropped on countless therapy sessions, attended Oxford University, and even infiltrated a cult or two.
You’ve probably read the common line in film reviews from time to time – ‘[location] feels like a character’. It might sound like a cliché, but I can attest that it’s a hell of a compliment because all of the scripts that have since stuck in my mind had a real sense of time and place. Respective writers made me feel as though I had been dropped into certain countries, cities, towns, communities, homes, workplaces, and eras. They open your eyes to a place and time that you might have zero experience of, which is, after all, one of the main reasons we dive into a story – to see lives that are different to our own.
A strong setting can also be integral in adding further context to your story and characters. If your story can only be told in this very specific town, then chances are you could be on to something unique. Derry Girls, for example, couldn’t be set anywhere or anytime else (and not just because the location is in the title), and take Francis Lee’s Ammonite, for example, which tells the story of a forbidden love between two women on the Cornish coast in the 19th century. A specific time or place can influence everything in your script, from characters, to dialogue, to tone and atmosphere. A distinctive setting can make your story more memorable.
There’s no surprise that many recent big successes in TV mine from the writers’ personal experiences in order to convey a real sense of time and place, be it Shane Meadows’ The Virtues, Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, or Russell T Davies’ It’s a Sin. Of course, when you hear the ancient screenwriting adage of, ‘Write what you know’, it isn’t to be taken literally, although evidently, based on these successful examples, it can help. No writer today attempting to dramatise the First World War, for example, was fighting in 1914 France, so it simply means that if you want to write outside of your own lived experience that you need to do three things – research, research, and research some more.
The biggest issue I encountered with scripts when it came to setting was a difficulty in pinpointing where the story is set. The moment the reader becomes confused we are immediately taken out of the story because we’re not connecting with the emotions that a story is tapping into in this moment. Instead we’re scratching our heads and wondering if the writer has done enough research. A common problem is not knowing if a story was set in either the UK or the US, and it’s often in the dialogue where writers trip up because characters could be using words like, ‘mate’, ‘bruv’, ‘biscuits’, and ‘crisps’, and then in the same script say things like, ‘trash’, ‘yard’, ‘highway’, and ‘diaper’. A British reader may not necessarily know how kids in America’s deep south speak, but chances are they know how they don’t speak, and I think all of us, reader or not, are hardwired to detect a lack of authenticity. With that in mind, you could flash a caption telling us where the story is set at the beginning, or even have distinctive establishing shots of landmarks (how many films start with images of the Empire State Building and Statue of Liberty, for example?), but if there is a lack of authenticity it doesn’t matter if you straight up tell us where the story is set, we’re simply not going to believe it.
Consider factual accuracy in relation to time and place too, especially if your story incorporates real moments in history. Continuing with the WWI analogy, if your story set in 1916 suddenly depicts the attack on Pearl Harbour, instantly we can tell that the writer hasn’t carried out enough research into their desired setting. This might be an extreme example, but I’ve been reading scripts for a long time now and have come across my fair share of gaffs. And trust me when I say that if something doesn’t seem quite right, we readers don’t have to be scholars to sense it, we will turn to Google and fact check, which, again, distracts us from immersing ourselves in the story. Fact check your own story so whoever is reading it doesn’t have to.
This is all also somewhat true of fictional settings, whether it’s a made up place or the story takes place in the future. A good story, even if it’s fantasy or science-fiction, often reflects the real world we live in even if it has a fictional setting. After all, Batman’s Gotham City is pretty much a gothic take on the Big Apple, while the sandy planet of Arrakis, explored in recent blockbuster hit, Dune, is unmistakably a reflection of the Middle-East, both in appearance and thematic content of the story.
No setting is automatically a bad one, but you might be wondering what location cropped up the most in my batch of scripts, and I can say with confidence that the answer is overwhelmingly London. This isn’t just true of the Channel 4 Screenwriting Course submissions of course; London is also disproportionately portrayed in shows that actually make it onto the tele too. This is to be expected somewhat – the capital is a cultural melting pot with a huge population and no end of unique lived experiences – but it is always worth considering whether your setting is an original one for the stories you’re telling. Always remember that there is a whole world outside of London. Ask yourself what dynamics of your story and characters could change if you relocated the action from London to Manchester, Scotland, a village, or a small seaside town (so long as your plot allows for it).
I want to end my post with a message for those that are unfortunate not to be shortlisted for interviews. I’m a writer myself, so naturally I too have experienced my fair share of rejections, and each time I saw someone win a screenwriting competition or chosen for an initiative, I automatically assumed that their script must simply be better than my own and overwhelmingly be The Best™ of the bunch. But this whole experience has been eye-opening for me. The other readers, Philip, and myself, disagreed and debated over many scripts. There is no science to this process, and frankly I was blown away by the amount of quality on show, and there will be many writers that have already had success in some form, including those who have had plays performed at illustrious theatres and many who have already signed with big time agents. Nobody would say that their writing isn’t good, so don’t ever think that yours isn’t either. At the end of the day, only 12 writers can be selected for the course, so there will be many of you who are unsuccessful here but will undoubtedly go on to have incredible careers. Keep working on your craft and telling your stories, because nobody else can do it like you do.
Keep in mind that many of the shortlisted scripts will have something in common though – a distinctive setting that can make a great story even better.’
Thank you very much Matt for your generosity and insights.
The next newsletter will be on Friday February 18th.
February 4th 2022