YOUR STORY ON THE PAGE
Me and my team of 7 readers are now in the thick of reading the 2k+ scripts submitted for the 2022 C4 screenwriting course. As it does every year, this process inspires and educates us about screenwriting, makes us think about how screenplays work at their best.
So I want to say a few words about that journey of the story in your head to the script on the page, how best to convey the story you want to tell.
It’s always important to think about the nature of a script (whether it’s for stage or screen) and how different it is to a book, newspaper article or poem – all of which are designed to be just that, are all at their final stage of creation. Whereas a screenplay is a blueprint for the next stage – the film that we’re going to see on the screen.
For me, the abiding principle with screenplay presentation is that the script should enable the reader to imagine as closely as possible how this will play on screen. The script should enable you to visualise and imagine this story on screen, it should convey how the story will play out on screen – no more, no less.
However, it’s not quite that simple. In the area of the industry in which I mainly work, the scripts I’m reading are not (in the short term at least) going to be shot / made. It is more realistic and helpful to see them as examples of the writer’s work at their very best that will open industry doors, showcase the writer’s skills and lead to them being offered other screenwriting opportunities.
And if you’re a new writer trying to get your work noticed, there are several imperatives that are even more pressing for you.
In particular – hit the ground running. Make sure the opening of your story really grabs the attention of the reader, is really effective and engaging.
Alongside this, try to make sure that you are setting up the dramatic and narrative proposition of your story as quickly and clearly as possible. There is nothing more discouraging for a reader than struggling to work out what it is they’re reading – who the lead character is, what tone the show is aiming for, what the big dramatic and thematic questions are at the heart of your script. Too often I read scripts that lack this clarity or only begin to establish this some 20 or 30 pages into the script – and I then feel like I have to go back to the start of the script and re-read and re-assess what I’ve already read with the knowledge I’ve acquired too late.
Clarity of both presentation and storytelling is key. In general, the best scripts are the easiest to read. They immediately put the reader at their ease, make you feel like you’re in safe, confident hands.
This is not just about narrative clarity, it’s also about linguistic clarity – writing with fluency, economy and simplicity. If as a reader, you’re stumbling over sentences because they are clumsy, poorly constructed or don’t quite make sense, it’s demoralising.
If you want to be taken seriously as a writer, you need to be able to write clearly, fluently and accurately.
This clarity of storytelling is a very hard thing to achieve – it’s about getting what is in your head clearly onto the page. So often, writers don’t see that key parts of the story are still in their head and haven’t made it onto the page in the way they need to. Because they have been living with this story for so long, it’s really easy to take important story information for granted; and it’s really hard to be objective about how your script reads on the page. This is where a third party can be really helpful. Give your script to someone you trust who has no preconceptions about your script and listen carefully to the questions they ask you about the story – analyse what they have understood and what they have missed.
As ever, there are certain screenwriting tropes that come up again and again when you’re reading the quantity of scripts that we’re reading at the moment – bills in envelopes with red writing as an indicator of financial difficulties; starting your script with people getting up in the morning; the false teaser / opening – then cutting back to the real start of your story. None of these are things you absolutely shouldn’t do. But if you are using familiar storytelling tropes like this, ask yourself why, what you can do to make them feel fresh and unexpected – or look for more interesting alternatives.
From an initial observation of this year’s scripts, the quality that seems to be most elusive and also the hardest to define, is the ability to tell a story in a gripping, pacy and compelling way. This is dependent on so many things. It’s about establishing and knowing (as a writer) the narrative purpose of every single scene and every beat within a scene. It’s thinking about the cuts between scenes and how these cuts energise and enhance the story. It’s about telling your story as visually as possible, about dramatizing rather than discursively explaining. It’s about demonstrating that you have an instinct for the dramatic in the way the characters interact, in the way the story moves from scene to scene. It’s about getting your audience to ask questions of your story – withholding key story and character information in a way that makes the story feel tense and compelling.
It’s about your choice of subject matter – make sure that you’re writing about something, about people, that feel exciting and relevant, telling stories that feel inherently dramatic. It’s about creating a story world that feels intriguing and mysterious – but it’s also being sure that at the right point in your story you’re paying off all these intriguing questions that you’ve set up.
It’s writing about something that clearly means something to you, that is honest, that speaks of your own truths. However specific and particular these truths are, if they are true to you, they will feel true to your reader / audience, even if they are not issues of which your reader has first-hand experience.
One of the scripts that has stayed with me is about a central character’s experience of a very particular medical condition. The specificity of the observations could only be taken from real experience. They shine a light on a condition about which little is known – and they dramatise wider issues about our attitudes to work, relationships, privacy, personal priorities that feel universal.
We are aiming to hold interview for the 2022 C4 screenwriting course at the end of November – so if you haven’t heard back from us by the start of December, it means you haven’t been called for interview. But I will be sending out emails to everyone who applied at some point in December.
Thank you for taking the time and trouble to apply – it is a real privilege for us to be able to read and enjoy so many fascinating, original and excellent scripts.
The next newsletter will be on Friday November 12th.
October 29th 2021