Storytelling lessons from THE RESCUE


Hi There,

One of the most memorable films I have seen in the last few months, one that has really stuck with me, was a documentary, THE RESCUE.

I was so excited by this film – it is the most wonderful piece of storytelling. I actually watched the film during the process of reading the very many script submissions for the 2022 Channel 4 screenwriting course. As ever, this was an intense experience. Hugely enjoyable but also quite hard work. With so many scripts to get through (for myself and the 7 readers – a total of 2831 scripts) I encourage the readers to take a fairly brutal approach to the scripts – only from necessity. We don’t have the time and the money to read every page of every script. Our task is to find 12 writers of talent who we want to work with for the next 6 months. We have to feel a real sense of excitement when we read the scripts.

As with every year, I read so much good writing, so much writing to admire and enjoy.

Too often though some of the good writing feels misdirected. The quality that I yearn for most – because there isn’t enough of it – is to be swept up by a story, to really care from my guts about what happens to the characters in the story. This doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be a big, headline story (like THE RESCUE). For instance one of the scripts that stood out for me this year was a two-handed stage play about a couple’s struggle to conceive a baby, the pain and anguish they go through to try and have a baby together. This was a comedy drama and worked on both levels. And while its subject matter and the style of the story-telling was familiar (see TRYING for instance) crucially I cared about the characters and was emotionally invested in what they were trying to achieve. The stakes for them were high and on one level the story was visceral – about the need to fulfill a deep, instinctive, human desire. I cannot overstate the importance in story of this underlying premise – that the story is about something elemental, fundamental to the human condition.

TRYING and Australian series THE BUMP are both interesting examples. I have thoroughly enjoyed both of these shows. Both could be characterised as light comedies and to some extent stand or fall on whether not you find them funny. But, for me, what makes them work is my emotional connection with the characters. In TRYING the question that compels me to keep watching is – are Jason and Nicki going to be successful in adopting a child? And in BUMP, the question is, will Oly cope and thrive with her new, unexpected baby?

Stories don’t have to be complicated to work. In fact many of the best story ideas are disarmingly simple.

Here are some of the notes / responses to some of the scripts I read that haven’t compelled me or pulled me emotionally into their stories –

‘Interesting situation but it never takes off. Found it hard to identify the characters or really see the point of this.’

‘Quite interesting subject matter not dramatized very effectively.’

‘I enjoyed this, lots of good writing – characters, dialogue, sense of place but the story is too slow and it lacks bite and pace. Frustrating. I really wanted to like it but just not quite enough going on.’

‘Fluent over-written dialogue. Almost intriguing at first but too slow. All just chatty dialogue. No sense of drama or momentum.’

‘Amiable and fluent but gentle, whimsical, lacks real edge. Tone feels too gently comic – I wanted to care more about these characters. Too much done through dialogue.’

‘It’s good but I don’t really care, doesn’t quite work as comedy or drama. Lots of good writing but no dramatic imperative.’

‘Well plotted, professional. Very readable. The characterisation isn’t quite good enough – the characters aren’t vivid and I don’t care enough about them. Slightly inconclusive ending. Ultimately I found this too restrained, not enough real drama. Intriguing but doesn’t have real punch.’

Do you see a theme in these responses? I go into every script I read, really wanting to love it. When I don’t, I feel disappointed in myself – particularly when (as with so many of these) I can see objectively that the quality of the writing is good – but I just don’t care enough. And I think this is a feeling that all the readers share.

It seems to me that both of these questions, both of these shows (TRYING and BUMP) are underpinned by a very basic human emotion and relationship – the bond (or not) between a parent and child. This is something we can all relate to on a primal level. And so much of the best drama is predicated on deep, primal (rather than intellectual) ideas and premises.

I only get to read the scripts the readers recommend to me – ie the pick of the bunch – and even with these top-notch scripts, the fraction that really gets me in the guts, that really makes me care about the characters and what they need – is very small.

There are so many scripts I read in which I can see (and admire) the skill of the writers in their construction of character, in snappy, well-observed, distinctive dialogue, in world-building, in the authenticity of the place they’re writing about.

But IMO all of this is of limited value if you aren’t giving us a story that means something to these characters and therefore to the audience.

As a reader I want to feel an emotional connection with the characters and to understand and engage with what is at stake for them.

All of the structural principles in the world matter not a jot if you haven’t got this emotional kernel at the heart of your story. For instance, you can give me the cleverest murder plot, an ingenious whodunit – but if there isn’t that visceral, emotive aspect to the story, that recognisable human response of fear, grief, vengeance, compulsion – then all the cleverness in the world is wasted.

Story needs to tap into and evoke extreme emotions.

I think the biggest thing this comes down to is your choice of story material. You need to worry less about the writing and more about the story. You should see yourselves as vessels of amazing stories, see your job as communicating amazing stories, getting them out there into the world, the stories that you think need to be told. You shouldn’t see your scripts as writing exercises. If the story is strong, the writing will look after itself. You need to remove your ego from the process and just give us the stories that need to be told.

Too many of the stories I have read this year have been inherently undramatic. With these stories, it doesn’t matter how good the quality of the writing is, they’re going to struggle to take off.

On the other hand, if you choose a story that is clearly dramatic and emotive, then even if the quality of the writing isn’t that polished or sophisticated, the story will still cut through and have an impact on the reader / audience.

This isn’t just an issue for new writers, it’s an issue for all writers and all commissioning editors. So, for instance, on ITV recently, a story that could have been a brutal, honest, characterful and honest look at the inherently dramatic and compelling issue of domestic violence became an empty, shlocky ‘psychological thriller’ – which had zero psychological truth or honesty to it.

Which brings me back to THE RESCUE, which was such an eye-opener and inspiration. Watching this film was an intense experience, I was on the metaphorical (even literal!) edge of my seat throughout its 140 mins running time. At its centre, this is the story of the rescue of the 12 11-14 year old Thai children’s football team and their coach after 16 days trapped in an underground Thai cave. This is an inherently dramatic story. We know immediately what is at stake – the lives of these young boys.

But what was extraordinary about this documentary (aside from the skill of the storytelling) was the richness and complexity of the story. The film focused mainly on the (largely) British team of amateur, hobbyist, to some extent socially dysfunctional, cavers who were central to the success of the rescue operation. Theirs was the predominant point of view that carried the story. But there were so many sub-plots amongst them and the other ‘characters’ – so many utterly personal challenges and obstacles, so many knotty personal dilemmas. And so many brilliant uses of the best dramatic narrative devices – for instance, the emotional use of objects in, for instance, the image of the boys’ bikes, waiting at the mouth of the caves to be reclaimed by their owners, watched over by a tearful mother. An incredibly powerful and counter-intuitively (because it was dramatized through an object rather than through a person), personal, humanising image.

At every turn, another obstacle is raised in the attempts to free the boys. Rarely have I seen a story of such dramatic richness. But what underlies the film is an absolutely elemental human instinct – a mother’s love of their child. This is the unspoken emotion that compels the audience’s attention and – vitally – their emotions.

Does your script do this? Whether it’s comedy or drama, it needs to.

A piece of storytelling as good as THE RESCUE throws so many of these scripts into sharp relief.

One of the interesting things I learnt from the Q&A following the film’s screening was just how many versions of this story are being made – whether as feature films, documentaries or books. And this didn’t surprise me at all. Because from the film and from the Q&A I got the impression that another 27 equally gripping feature films could be made from this material, all of which would be equally valid and equally emotive and gripping. (Producer John Battsek talked about some of the sub-plots they had to reluctantly leave on the cutting room floor).

The next newsletter will be on Friday June 24th,

Best wishes



Twitter: @PhilipShelley1

June 10th 2022