Genre: Writing a Gripping Thriller by Charles Harris

Let me keep you in suspense for a little while. In my view, a thriller is a film in any genre but with added fear. Fear and suspense dominate the thriller – an almost constant sense that something frightening is about to happen – or is happening right now. This contrasts with a classic action-adventure, where the dominant emotion is fast-moving excitement.

collateral - thriller genreThe most common thrillers are crime stories (Collateral, Cape Fear, Psycho), though there are many spy thrillers (The Spy Who Came In From The Cold), psychological thrillers (Side Effects) and comedy thrillers (Charade). For obvious reasons, it’s more difficult to create thrillers from certain genres, such as sports, though I know of at least one – Rollerball. And the 2011 movie Margin Call is a gripping financial drama thriller. All good stories contain suspense – however in a thriller the suspense is cranked up (for you fans of Spinal Tap) to number 11.

Emotion

Genre starts with emotion, and as we’ve seen a thriller is all about fear. However, other genres in the film will demand their own emotions too. If your thriller is also a crime story, for example, you also need the emotions that audiences expect from a crime story – primarily injustice and/or mystery.

In Collateral the story centres on an innocent taxi driver who is hired by a man to drive him round LA, only to find that he’s chauffeuring a ruthless hitman conducting a series of hits. Worse, the cops think he’s the killer. Miss out the injustice of his plight, and the mystery of who the final victim is to be, and you miss a large part of what the audience needs.

Establish your villain

The second step is to identify your antagonist. To build up the fear that must run through the story, the villain of your thriller will need to be powerful and ruthless. Like the hitman in Collateral, he must be ready and able to inflict harm at a moment’s notice.

The threat must be seen as early as possible. Most often, that threat will be violent – hence the dominance of crime stories as thrillers. The current BBC 4 Australian thriller series The Code combines both crime and spy genres. The first episode opens with a dead body and a politician betraying a colleague. We are in no doubt from the start as to where the danger lies.

(The 2013 movie Side Effects is a rare example where the threat is not so much one of violence or death as the destruction of a man’s career and marriage).

Despite resembling the monster in a horror movie, a thriller antagonist shouldn’t be all-powerful. He must be human. In the best thrillers, we understand the antagonist’s motivations, even if we don’t sympathise – making the danger feel all the more real.

This also adds to the suspense by both making the villain less predictable and also offering a greater amount of hope. Like a light that shows up the darkness, the possibility of hope ironically serves to highlight the fear.

Thriller protagonist

At the same time, a thriller needs a particular kind of central character. As we’ve seen, there are parallels with horror, but in a horror story the protagonist is very much a victim, with only his wits to save him. In a thriller, the central character normally has more than that. She has skills she can, and does, draw on.

In the gripping 1967 film Wait Until Dark, the protagonist, Susy, is blind and being terrorised by vicious criminals. But despite her disability she has intelligence and resources to fall back on. For example, she manages to black-out the lights so as to even up the odds. Of course, the villains find a way round that, and the suspense mounts.

In The Code, Ned, a journalist investigates a suspected cover-up. The forces against him are vicious and unpleasant, but unlike in a horror movie, he has people he can call on, investigative skills he can use. Even his brother, who seems to have autistic tendencies, is relatively high functioning, especially when it comes to hacking computers.

Moments of terror

All thrillers need moments of sheer terror. The best kind of terror scenes combine unpleasant violence with sudden surprise. However, not too often – in this genre having too many big moments will reduce their effect. Stephen Spielberg tells how test audiences responded well to a shock moment in Jaws. But as soon as he tried to repeat the effect, the original stopped working!

In Wait Until Dark there are only thee major shock/terror moments in the entire film – but they are brilliantly effective. Thus a thriller concentrates on building tension, giving the audience few moments of release.

The problem with developing thriller characters

For all this, it’s crucial that we have reasons to care about the protagonist – which means she must be rounded and credible. However, in thriller so much emphasis goes on raising the stakes and developing the fear factor, that there is considerably less screen time available for developing character. Other films can use complex subplots to enhance characters, showing different traits and moods. But spend too much time away from the suspense and a thriller begins to droop.

This probably presents you with your biggest challenge – balancing the needs of the plot with finding time to evolve characters who are credible and three-dimensional. There’s no easy answer, you have to examine every single moment to see what you can squeeze out of it.

Thriller is a deceptively challenging genre. It takes energy, focus and enormous attention to detail. But it’s also a very popular genre, and if you get it right the rewards can be enormous – not only in financial terms but also artistic satisfaction.

Charles Harris is an award-winning writer-director and a director of Euroscript. His new book Complete Screenwriting Course is being launched this week, published by John Murray Learning. He’s also going to be at London Screenwriters’ Festival, Friday 24 to Sunday 26 October 2014, in the Euroscript Room. Find out more about this, his blog on screenwriting and his book at http://www.charles-harris.co.uk

Screenwriting Craft – Using Your Inner Critic

We all know that you can’t create original, interesting stuff with you inner critic whispering in your ear. I’ve been in brainstorming sessions where people were judging ideas before the ink was dry on the flipchart paper, stifling creativity and giving nothing the chance to grow or develop. Creativity comes from a freedom to fail, or at least to suggest something which might be bonkers but which might spark an idea that is perfect.

Image courtesy of Jim Tsinganos

Image courtesy of Jim Tsinganos

The freedom to think and generate ideas without judgement is crucial to creativity. So learning to banish your inner critic is a vital part of the creative process. But that inner critic, that voice that says ‘that’s rubbish!’ can also be your best friend if you learn to harness it.

Creating stories is not a linear process. Some screenwriting books might make it sound like you are supposed to come up with things in a sequential order;  decide what you want to say (theme), create a character with a flaw that needs to be overcome (internal journey) and a want that will drive the story forward (quest/goal), craft a plot that will create obstacles to achieving that goal.

But no writer I’ve ever worked with actually creates like that. Stories develop more organically than that. There’s a moment that you observed on the bus when some guy was arguing with his mate. There’s that film you watched last week that got you thinking about how differently people grieve and what loss is. There’s that person at work whose sunny disposition got you wondering if he’s compensating for some terrible trauma at home. There’s that newspaper article that got you thinking ‘what if we really could go on holiday to the moon?’

It’s a jumble of thoughts and images and people and moments and ideas. To begin with, it doesn’t make any sense. Now is not the time to worry that it makes no sense. Now is the time to run with those moments and ideas and see where they take you. Banish your inner critic.

But eventually, those ideas and characters and story moments begin to take shape. You find connections. Characters are starting to change because of the situations you’re putting them in.  You’re beginning to discover which character or story has the most resonance for you. For some writers this is when you’re outlining your story. For others the urge to get the scenes down on paper is overwhelming and you’re already bashing out a first draft of the script.

Either way, this is the time to invite your inner critic back into the room and ask for their help. This is when they come into their own. We’ve all watched films and tv shows that we’ve secretly (or maybe even publicly) slagged off. Critiquing material already out there is part of the learning process. We can not only say ‘that didn’t move me’ but we can see the mechanics underneath that caused that failure; I didn’t care about the character, the story world logic wasn’t consistent, the dialogue didn’t ring true.

That instinct and skill you’ve developed for recognising the flaws in other people’s work, you now need to bring to our own. Our inner critic has a tendency to just tell you ‘it’s crap’ but if you question them, you can find out why. What exactly about this isn’t working or needs to be better?

That nagging doubt in your head that the subplot isn’t really connected to the main story, that sequence you had fun writing isn’t actually moving the story on, that character you know you don’t really know – you’re probably right. If you secretly know it’s a problem, chances are, it is and a producer, script reader or script editor, with their strong story instincts, tonnes of experience and finely tuned script analysis skills, definitely won’t miss it. So, now’s the time to listen to that inner critic, the one telling you ‘you can do better’, hone in on those weaknesses and address them.

Those tangents, those bits left over from when the idea was focused in a slightly different area, you know they need to go. You do have to kill your darlings, to cut the moments and characters you’ve so lovingly created, because you know that this script will be better, stronger, more powerful without them. But they’re not gone forever, they’ve just waiting in that bottom drawer of ideas saved for another day, for another story set in another time and place.

Career Tips For Up-and-Coming Screenwriters by Drew Marke

Tips on what to do after you’ve made it onto the first rung of that elusive ladder…

If you’re like me, you’re a newbie writer. You’ve won a screenwriting competition or you’ve been selected by a new writers scheme such as BBC Writers Room or the Channel Four Screenwriting Course. So now you may be asking yourself WHAT NEXT? How do I convert this opportunity into a fully-fledged writing career?

labyrinth - screenwriting career tipsFirst of all, now is definitely not the time to rest on your laurels. In fact, quite the opposite. This early stage in your career is both tough and crucial; some days it will feel like you’re climbing a ladder, making some headway and other days you’ll feel more like Alice in Wonderland, trying to find your way through the labyrinth in the Queen’s Garden, feeling like you’re getting nowhere.

So based on my own experience so far and because I’m a blog junkie who can (and will) pull knowledge from other, more experienced writers who are a bit further up the ladder, here are some tips that may help you get to that next step in your career. Use at will:

GET AN AGENT?

This always seems to be a hot topic in screenwriting circles. After you’ve got that initial break, is it the right time to get an agent?

Some say yes. Some say no. Some cry Catch 22 and say that production companies won’t read your work without an agent, but then agents won’t look at the work of an amateur writer without a commission or similar.

Firstly, let’s dispel a couple of myths:

Myth: Agents won’t look at the work of an amateur writer without a commission.

Truth: Some agents are actually willing to read work from new writers, even those without a commission, especially if they’ve received recognition like winning a competition. An even smaller number of agents will look at your work even if you haven’t had any sort of breakthrough. Whether they’ll actually take you on at this point is another story. If your work is good enough, and I mean stand-out-can-hold-its-own-amongst-working-professionals stand out, then the agent may say to you: come back when you’ve won an award or got a commission – essentially something they can use as collateral to try and get you (more) work. So when you do get that breakthrough award, get in touch with the agent. Until then, there’s no harm in waiting. Having several achievements under your belt when you next approach them will only work to your benefit. You may even garner interest from more than one agent.

Myth: Production companies won’t read your work without an agent.

Truth: In large part, yes. But some production companies do look at work from newer writers without an agent, even companies that don’t accept unsolicited material. Caution: please don’t use this as an excuse to send an unsolicited email to 100 production companies with your script attached. Send a short personalised query to a few production companies, (preferably those who have produced programmes in the same genre as your script), asking if they would be willing to read your work, or alternatively phone and ask. If you choose this option, you have to be prepared to deal with a LOT of rejection. But if you are okay with that and can do this without annoying them with a deluge of calls and emails asking if they’ve read the script you sent to them – like two days ago – then you may reap awards, namely establishing a relationship with these companies, or having that producer or development exec recommend you to an agent. Two birds with one stone. Boom!

So with all that said and done, should you approach an agent after your first break? It’s completely up to you. But whatever you do, don’t rush the decision. Treat it like marriage. You don’t know how long the union will last, but make the decision to walk down aisle on the basis that it will last forever.

SET GOALS

Knowing what you want and putting a plan in place to realistically get there is a good thing. Of course the main goal for a lot of writers is to see their own original work onscreen or in the movie theatres. It can and does happen, for some writers right off the bat, such as In the Flesh‘s Dominic Mitchell and HBO Girls’ Lena Dunham. But these examples are rare. The road to getting your own series commissioned can be long and risky. Production companies and commissioners want proof that if they hire you to write your own series of say six episodes, you can deal with notes, redrafts and deadlines. And most of all that you can deliver the goods.

So after your initial break, you have to figure out ways to prove to them that you can deliver. Figure out your next step. Will you produce a short or maybe make the jump to your first feature? Is your aim to write an episode on a continuing drama (soap) in order to get your first commission? Do you want to produce a web series?

When contemplating options like those above, think about why you’re doing it before you decide if it’s the right way to do it. For instance, are you making a feature to make money or to showcase your work on the festival circuit? Are you producing a web series to gain an audience following for your writing or to show those in the industry what you can do, in the hopes that it will help you land your own TV show quicker? If you pursue the continuing drama route, do you want to become a writer for hire or eventually chase your own series?

No route is easy and often it takes time, money and energy, but knowing where you want to go and your plan to get there will give you focus and alleviate that feeling of meandering in your career.

KEEP WRITING

I went to a Q&A recently which featured a well-known writer in the UK. Something they said both shocked and inspired me. Even with a few TV show hits under their belt, at one point they wrote seven spec scripts/pilots in a row and NONE of them were picked up. Yes, seven! Their advice (and caveat) was to keep writing new material, even if one of your projects is green lit. You never know when that project will go into production and therefore when you will be paid. It could be months. It could be years.

So keep on developing new ideas and writing, preferably producing at least 2 new scripts a year no matter what happens after your breakthrough, because the most common question you will be asked not only as a new writer but at every point in your career is: what else have you got?

WEB SERIES

Making a web series or a webisode of some sort can be highly beneficial to your career. In some cases, it has actually made careers. Ask the writers of C4’s Run, Daniel Fajemisin-Duncan and Marlon Smith, who got a series commissioned off the back of a webisode; or Steve Stamp et al who got a pilot commissioned for a series called People Just Do Nothing after producing a YouTube series; or the creators of US show Broad City Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, who are now in their second season.

A webseries has several benefits: it can prove that your writing translates well from paper to screen; if you decide to get involved with the production, it can demonstrate your skills as a producer as well as a writer (note that the Broad City writers are executive producers on their show); you have more creative freedom to realise your vision because in truth you will have to make a lot more compromises when you work professionally in film or TV; and finally, you can build an audience for your work, which is great all round for your work and, let’s be honest, your ego!

FUNDING

If you have awards on your writing resume, this is probably a good time to apply for film funding. BFI, Film London, BBC Writers Room, and our very own blog right here on Script Angel are great resources to find out about funding schemes and competitions. Remember, the people behind these funds don’t just want to hand out money to anyone who claims they’ve got a great idea, they want to promote new, up-and-coming talent, especially talent that’s already proven they can deliver and can/will use the funds to advance their careers.

So use whatever awards or success you’ve received to “humble brag” (a great phrase I came across recently) on that funding application form and maybe you’ll bag the fund to make that great project you’ve got in your head (and hopefully on paper) a reality!

CREATING YOUR OWN OPPORTUNITIES

Just in case you missed it the first time, this is not the time to rest on your laurels. Don’t stop doing what you did before you got your initial break. Keep networking. Keep building your contacts. Keep LinkedIn-ing. Keep putting your work out there to competitions and schemes. Approach up-and-coming producers and directors who are in a similar position to you and also share your vision, and collaborate on a project.

Essentially, keep going as if you’re chasing your first break and never stop.

THANKS

Katy Perry (yes, I’m quoting Ms. Perry) says it takes a village to doll her up and prep her for her performances. Well, it also takes a village to make a successful writing career. By this I mean the people who are willing to read your work and give you notes for free, the industry professionals who give you advice, mentor you, champion you and/or recommend you for assignments.

I believe you should never forget those who helped you to get to where you are. Check in on them once in a while to say hi and maybe even thanks!

FINANCIAL PLANNING

A writer’s career is unstable, even when you’ve achieved success. Never assume the money you earn at any given point will last forever. Say, for example, you’ve just got a writing assignment and have been paid a decent if not handsome sum, if you think that money is enough to last you six months, do a financial plan that stretches the money so it lasts for a year. Because you can never, ever predict when your next assignment and pay cheque is coming in.

LASTLY, PACK A SANDWICH

It’s a long journey ahead of you… stay positive and good luck!

Drew previously worked as a project manager and freelance video producer before turning to screenwriting. Over the last few years Drew has produced several shorts (winning a Film London award in the process) and a food show web series (7xeps), which gained online audiences in the UK, Europe and US. Drew recently took part in the Chanel Four Screenwriting Course and is represented by Lindsey Bender at United Agents.

Why I’ve Learned to Love Story Structure – Part 2 by Xandria Horton

I mentioned in a previous post why I know first-hand that structure can feel for some like their script nemesis. This blog post outlines some more thoughts I’ve found useful of ways to think about structure:

orange is the new black script angel story structure

Structure: micro and macro

Structure is most often referred to in the macro – the number of ‘acts’ in your script and its shape as a whole. But structure is less often thought of in the micro; the way in which your story delivers a single scene. Each scene has a status quo which is interrupted by something (ideally) dramatic, where a unit of story is delivered to the audience (almost certainly) through conflict, and the result is a changed situation. It’s easy to forget that it is this level that can shape the clarity and tone of the script.

Structure: when is a problem the story, and when is it how it’s put together?

When there’s an issue in your script, one of the biggest questions is whether it’s the story or plot – which are usually intertwined in the writer’s head – that’s at fault. Is it something that doesn’t quite sit right in the dynamic of your character’s journey and what happens (content), or is it because of where a piece of information sits in the script and how it is delivered (context)?

I’d love to hear any tools that you have for this process, but for me it’s getting the writer to test it in different ways: if it’s a feature, what’s the overall message or theme of the script – and does this scene fit within that? If this scene were removed, what would be the result on the larger plot? What would the opposite outcome of this scene look like? It’s also often useful to see in its simplest form (cue cards, scene by scene outline). Other suggestions are welcome!

Structure’s Toolkit

Below are some common elements in scripts that relate to structure:

The circular narrative: this is frequently used in TV and feature specs alike (and particularly in comedy). The opening scene of a script presents a scenario, usually a tense/climactic situation, after which the narrative jumps back in time to present the events leading up to this moment.

  • This structural tool succeeds or fails on whether the scene you are ‘hooking’ the audience with is sufficiently extraordinary and creates enough narrative questions (not only “how did they get here?” but “how are they going to get out?”). Ideally, assumptions created by presenting this scene out of context are subverted as a result of experiencing the story as a whole. As I’ve already mentioned in my X Factor blog post however, this can be a way that writers who know there isn’t enough story in the first 30 pages of their script can inject some narrative questions. However, this can also be a legitimate way to present two disparate story elements side-by-side.

The flashback and montage:

  • Whilst many writing resources have now come around to the fact that flashbacks, montages, dream sequences are not just lazy storytelling, this doesn’t mean that writers don’t sometimes rely on them in a way that delivers lazy storytelling.
  • Flashbacks should create drama in their own right and move the plot forward in the present, despite dealing with something from a character’s past. Bang2write has a great post on this here, which also delves into other often misused storytelling tools such as voiceover and dream sequences.
  • The flashback has had a revamp of late: Orange Is the New Black uses flashbacks as an integral part of its structure, which both humanises the inmates by presenting them in a world we recognise and creates ironies between their past and present lives. It also provides the occasional pressure release from a claustrophobic story world. Other recent UK TV like Utopia and The Honourable Woman made some bold and – I think – successful choices by carrying out large portions or entire episodes in the past, which then constantly informed the storytelling in the present, rather than dipping back and forth.
  • And as for montages, whilst they’ve moved on somewhat from Rocky (Team America, anyone?), they often aid a script to deliver a character change, but should never be in lieu of scenes that chart a character’s emotional journey – the audience want to see these up close. A good example of this is Groundhog Day; we skip the hundreds of days in which Bill Murray’s character learns to ice sculpt, play the piano, learn about Andie McDowell and generally become a better person. However, it doesn’t montage the scenes in which his character is challenged or he develops a better emotional understanding.

Multiple storylines a.k.a. ‘plate spinning’

  • Whether this is for a feature with an ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ story, or an episode of Downton Abbey or Game of Thrones, structuring and interweaving multiple storylines is what allows you to keep your stories moving forward. The difference is whether the viewpoint you create revolves around a central protagonist or an ensemble cast of characters.

Twists vs. Dramatic Irony

  • Structure constantly negotiates whether to let the audience in on one a piece of information before a character in the script (dramatic irony) or hold back so the audience experiences it at the same time – or even after the protagonist (plot twist). When you learn information and how is important in any story, but particularly in genre stories, where the audience can feel involved at key moments of the storytelling, e.g. playing “armchair detective” in Crime. Far from holding back on the plot, the more thought-out clues the audience can invest and speculate in to create plot twists, the better.

Experiencing something first hand vs reported action

  • Generally, it’s more dramatic for the audience to witness first-hand an event in the story, although there are some caveats to this. I frequently see traumatic events in the protagonist’s backstory shown in flashback or in the prologue, when it is possible to show this in a less conventional way. Also, on some occasions, it can be very moving if the plot understates the importance of an event by not flashing back or showing first-hand: examples include Thomas J’s death in My Girl, the fate of the girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List and the famous climactic scene in Se7en.
Yeah Brad, we know  structure can sometimes be tricky...

Yeah Brad, we know structure can sometimes be tricky…

So this is just a few thoughts to steer clear of structure potholes, identify structure issues and be aware of some of the more popular structure shortcuts (and when you might not want to use them). Feel free to add them to your structure ‘toolkit’ – and post below your own suggestions, or how these concepts have worked (or not worked) in your own writing experience.

Screenwriting Contests

Placing in a well respected screenwriting contest can bring your writing to the attention of the industry. Here’s my round-up of the best film and television writing contests in the UK and US. This list is updated at the beginning of every month so do subscribe to the blog to get future updates straight to your inbox.

banner script angel screenwriting contests

Top Tip – get feedback on your script ahead of time to be sure you’re submitting the best sample of your writing.

Fresh Voices Screenplay Competition – Deadline: 6 October 2014 (late) / 6 November 2014 (final).

Screencraft Action & Thriller Script Contest – Deadline: 15 October 2014 (final). Feature scripts up to 140pp.

Blue Cat Screenplay Competition – Deadline:  15 October 2014 (regular) / 15 November 2014 (final).  Accepting shorts and feature length scripts.

Cinequest Screenwriting Competition  – Deadline: 17 October 2014 (late) / 7 November 2014 (final). Features and shorts.

Industry Insider Screenwriting Contest – Deadline: 18 October 2014 (final). Turn a provided logline into a killer spec script to win meetings with top L.A producers and managers.

Universal Pictures’ Emerging Writers Fellowship - Deadline: 30 days or 500 submissions AFTER scheme opens for applications on 21 October 2014. US residents only.

Tracking B Feature Script Contest – Deadline:  26 October 2014 (extended)

Screencraft Screenwriting Fellowship – Deadline: 1 November 2014 (early) / 1 December (regular) / 15 December (final). Accepting feature scripts, one-hour tv pilots and half-hour tv pilots.

4Screenwriting – Deadline: 3 November 2014. Accepting screenplays (film or tv), stage plays and radio plays. Only applicants who do not have a broadcast credit as a television or film writer may apply. Open to residents of UK and Ireland. Applicants must be available to attend the course in London on specified dates.

London Independent Film Festival Screenplay Contest - Deadline: 7 November 2014 (early) / 30 January 2015 (regular) / 6 March 2015 (final).  Short & feature length scripts.

European Independent Film Festival Script Competition – Deadline: 23 November 2014 (early) / 21 December 2014 (regular) / 11 January 2015 (late) / 8 March 2015 (final). Short scripts 5-50pp & feature length scripts 80-130pp. Looking for scripts NOT aimed at mainstream Hollywood film markets.

Cinestory Screenwriting Contest - Deadline: 15 December 2014 (early) / 15 January 2015 (regular) / 15 February 2015 (late) / 25 March 2015 (final). Screenplay 85-130pages.

Script Pipeline Screenwriting Contest – Deadline: 31 December 2014 (early) / 1st May 2015 (final).  Feature length screenplays.

Script Pipeline TV Writing Contest – Deadline: 31 December 2014 (early) / 1st May 2015 (final). Any length script, pilot of original or spec of existing show.

Hamptons International Film Festival Screenwriters’ Lab – Deadline: usually January. Feature length screenplays only. (Opens for submissions November 2014)

CAPE New Writing Fellowship – Deadline: usually January. Sponsored by NBC Universal and Warner Bros. For Asian American and Pacific Islander writing talent. Original tv spec and feature film screenplays accepted. (Opens for submissions 1 December 2014)

Disney/ABC Writing Fellowship - Deadline: usually May. Applicants must be able to prove US employment eligibility. (Opens for submissions May 2015)

To look out for at a later date:

Torino Film Lab – various European script development initiatives throughout the year.

L.A Comedy Shorts Screenplay Competition – Deadline: usually January. Categories for short film script, feature film script and tv sitcom pilot script.

Nashville Film Festival Screenwriting Contest - Deadline: usually January.  Screenplays 80-120pp, short script under 40pp, half-hour tv comedy script 22-35pp, one-hour tv drama 45-65pp.

Red Planet Prize – Deadline: usually January. UK entrants only.

Nickelodeon TV Writing Program – Deadline: usually February. Spec scripts for one of their listed shows.

Sitcom Mission – Deadline: usually March. Submit 15 minute sitcom script for tv, radio or stage.  Aimed at UK residents.

Film Bazaar India Screenwriters Lab – Deadline: usually March. Applicants must be Indian passport holders.

Coming Up 2014 (Channel4 & Touchpaper Television) – Deadline: usually April.

The Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting:  Deadline: usually May. Screenplays 90-120pp.

Nick Darke Award – Deadline: usually April. Submit 750 word pitch for film, radio or stage play idea plus 20pp writing sample.

Scriptapalooza –  Deadline: usually April. Screenplays 80-140pp.

The PAGE International Screenwriting Awards – Deadline: usually April – Short scripts up to 40pp, feature screenplays 80-120pp, TV drama pilots 50-70pp, TV comedy pilots 25-45pp.

Big Bear Screenwriting Competition – Deadline:  usually April  -Screenplays 90-130pp.

Edinburgh International Film Festival Talent Lab – Deadline: usually April. Open to screenwriters, producers & directors. Feature films only.

Austin Film Festival Screenplay & Teleplay Competition – Deadline: usually April  Feature scripts 90-120pp, teleplays (original pilot or spec of existing show) 45-70pp, sitcom scripts 22-40pp.

Sundance Screenwriters’ Lab - Deadline: usually May. Feature length screenplays. U.S residents only.

Screenwriting Goldmine Competition  – Deadline: usually May – Film & TV scripts 45-120pp.

Toronto Int’l Film Festival Talent Lab – Deadline: usually May. Open to filmmakers & screenwriters with minimum 1 feature or 2 short films, maximum 2 feature films. Open to international applicants.

Warner Brothers Writers’ Workshop – Deadline: usually May. Spec script of selected existing shows. Must be available to attend workshops in Los Angeles.

Screamcraft Horror Script Contest - Deadline: usually May – Feature screenplays up to 140pp in Horror genre.

Screamfest Horror Film Festival Screenplay Contest - Deadline: usually May.  Feature screenplays 75-130pp in Horror genre.

Rawi Screenwriters Lab (the Royal Film Commission, Jordan) – Deadline: usually June. Arab screenwriters only.

Moondance Film Festival Screenwriting Contest – Deadline: usually June. Feature screenplays, tv script 30′, tv script 60′. For scripts addressing social issues.

Sir Peter Ustinov Television Scriptwriting Award – Deadline: usually July. Submit 30-60 minute television drama script. Applicants must be under 30 and non-US residents.

Big Break Screenwriting Contest- Deadline: usually July.  Teleplays 25-70pp / Screenplays 80-120pp.

Slamdance Writing Competition –  Deadline: usually July – TV pilots up to 80pp, feature screenplays 90-150pp.

John Brabourne Awards – Deadline: usually July. Financial support to up and coming talent who may have suffered set-backs. UK residents only.

Screencraft Comedy Script Contest - Deadline: usually August – Feature screenplays up to 140pp & short scripts up to 20pp.

Shore Scripts Feature Screenplay Competition – Deadline: usually August 2014 (late) – Feature screenplays 80-120pp, short screenplays 3-20pp.

New York Screenplay Contest: Deadline: usually August. Accepting feature scripts (over 70pp), short film scripts (under 70pp), tv scripts, sitcom scripts, stage plays, television concepts.

London Screenwriters’ Festival & Script Angel Screenwriting Contest -   Deadline: usually August. Film & tv, all genres. Win six months of script editing & mentoring with Script Angel’s Hayley McKenzie.

American Zoetrope Screenplay Contest - Deadline: usually September 2014 (final) –  Screenplays 82-145pp.

One In Ten Screenplay Contest – Deadline: usually September. Screenplays 90-125pp. Must feature at least one primary character who is gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

Screenplay Festival – Deadline: usually September. Feature length screenplays and teleplays over 60pp (no max).

Berlinale Talent Campus – Deadline: usually September.

Script Angel in the City of Angels

Last weekend was the Screenwriters World Conference in L.A. It was a great opportunity for me and the 100s of writers attending to hear directly from the screenwriters, managers, agents and producers working in Hollywood today.

screenwriters world conference pic

There were many fabulous sessions on the craft of screenwriting; writing the spec, writing for tv, writing the micro-budget film, writing web series, writing subtext, writing the emotional core, writing compelling characters, writing horror. Whatever your screenwriting interest, there was someone with experience in that specialism there to help you get to grips with it.

What struck me was that not just the delegates but the speakers too were incredibly well-read on the craft of screenwriting. There was a strong sense that becoming a great screenwriter is about learning your craft. Most of the people I met, whether aspiring delegates or experienced speakers, have read a huge number books on screenwriting and continue to want to study the craft in order to become more skilled at it. It was not so much being a slave to a set of screenwriting rules but rather having as many tools in your arsenal as possible to help you tell the story you want to tell. I might have read 20+ screenwriting books and been a professional script editor for over ten years but I certainly came away with a big new list of screenwriting must-reads. TOP TIP: Learn your craft by reading screenwriting books, watching films/tv and reading scripts.

As well as honing their craft the delegates also had the chance to hear how to develop their screenwriting career. Certainly, the question that I get asked the most is; how do I get my writing noticed?  I know from experience the frustration that new writers feel on trying to ‘break in’ to an industry that looks like a closed shop. Of course it’s not, and new writers are getting noticed, getting repped, getting meetings and getting gigs all the time.  For me, the sessions on establishing a screenwriting career were of particular interest so that I can better help my writing clients to develop their screenwriting career in UK and the US in both film and television. TOP TIP: Learn who’s who by reading the trades.

My writing clients have had great success and got representation following wins or finalist placings in the prestigious screenwriting contests like the Nicholl Fellowship, but I was keen to hear whether the big managers and agents really take notice of contests. I made sure to attend the session on Getting An Agent with Jake Wagner of Benderspink, Josh Dove of Haven Entertainment, Zac Frognowski of Grandview and moderated by Script Mag Editor Jeanne Bowerman. Since none of these guys take unsolicited approaches, how do they find new writing talent? The answer was recommendations from colleagues, contest placings and other filter platforms like The Black List. TOP TIP: Learn who is getting deals for their writers by reading the trades.

Of course not all screenwriting contests are equal but they definitely see the most prestigious contests as a kind of vetting process. Jake makes sure he and his team take a look at all the finalists of contests like Script Pipeline. In addition, the Nicholls circulate the loglines and contact details of their quarter-finalists to the industry so if you do well in the big screenwriting contests your work is getting seen by people you couldn’t otherwise get access to. TOP TIP: Research the contests that give their finalists great exposure.

Many producers, agents and managers also attend pitching sessions like the one held at SWC, as well as at other prestigious events like Story Expo, The Great American Pitchfest, and the London Screenwriters’ Festival. Pitching at events like these can get you read-requests and, if they like what they read, that all-important general meeting and the start of a working relationship. TOP TIP: Attend pitching events to start meeting and building relationships with managers, agents and producers.

The big take-away for me was that yes, it’s tough but it is also possible to make it. If you hone your craft, write killer material and develop a strategy for your career then becoming a professional screenwriter is within your reach.

Creating An Original TV Drama Series

We all know that writing a killer feature film script is hard but how about creating a pilot script for a drama series; something that will be compelling not just over an hour, or a series of hours, but over years?

downton abbey

I’ve been working a lot recently with a couple of talented Script Angel clients who are creating original tv series on spec. Developing a new series is an ambitious undertaking and not something I’d usually recommend early-stage writers to attempt. After all, creating a single protagonist story over ninety minutes is challenge enough. But my writers love television drama; they are avid viewers, know the medium and envisage a career writing for it. In the UK you can’t impress a television exec with a spec of their own show, so writers have to create something original in order to demonstrate their abilities both to create original shows and to write on existing shows.

It’s reminded me of the challenges we face in developing that pilot episode script, which must do so much more than just entertain in its own right.

1) Be consistent. You might only be expected to write the script for episode one on spec (please don’t waste time writing the others) but in order to write the pilot you have to know your show inside and out. The pilot script must look and feel just like any other episode in the show. Having sat on the other side of the fence I can tell you that there’s nothing more frustrating than reading a pilot script that feels like one kind of show and then reading the series proposal which is pitching something entirely different! You need to have a clear vision for the series and the pilot episode must sell that vision.

2) Where to start? So how do you begin to shape your original Drama Series? The characters and setting will play a major role in the success or otherwise of your series. However, knowing what story form your show will take will help you to begin envisioning what your episodes will look and feel like.

3) The episodic series. Drama series can take two distinct forms. The first is the ‘episodic’ series, sometimes referred to as ‘story of the week’, whereby there is a new story each week and it concludes at the end of the episode. There are regular characters who return each week and often a recurring setting but the primary plot driving each episode is set-up and paid-off within one episode. One advantage is that viewers can miss episodes and still enjoy the show – you don’t need to have seen last week in order to enjoy this week. Most crime dramas take this form whereby the crime is investigated and ‘solved’ at the end of the episode; CSI, Sherlock, Castle, NCIS, Death in Paradise and also Call the Midwife.

4) The serialised series. In this form we tell stories over multiple episodes. These shows usually have a central character but also a significant ensemble cast around them in order to spread the story weight over multiple hours. Most episodes will move stories on for a number of regular characters. This is where a whole new skill-set comes into play as you develop multi-protagonist storylining. Examples include Downton Abbey, Mr Selfridge, Breaking Bad.

5) The best of both? Of course you can combine the two and it’s typical for even episodic series to have a serialised element for their regular characters. Many of the UK’s long-running one-hour shows (Casualty, Holby City) started as almost purely episodic but became more serialised over the years in order to give the regular characters more rewarding material, thus also rewarding long-term viewers. Indeed, in the current climate it would be unusual for an episodic series to have no serialised element for its regular characters.

6) The story engine. Figuring out where your show will sit on this story form spectrum will help to determine where the drama will come from in your episodes. What is the central conflict at the heart of your show? Deciding how much screen-time is spent on the story of the week (if there is one) and how much on unfolding series-long story arcs will help you know what your pilot episode and all subsequent episodes will look like and where to focus your attention in developing the show. Of course, both your characters and your stories need to be awesome but in a serialised series the characters are even more important because they are your story engine.

7) Have a central character. Even with an ensemble cast we almost always come in to the show through one main character. Over time the show might expand out to give more weight to other characters but you can bet your bottom dollar the show didn’t start like that. If you go back to the pilot episodes of any long-running show it’s very clear who the focus of that episode is. Casualty today might look like an ensemble show with no lead character but the pilot episode was entirely focused on male nurse Charlie Fairhead. Downton Abbey began life focused on Lord Grantham, The Paradise centred on shop girl Denise, Orange Is The New Black focuses on Piper, Mr Selfridge might have a great ensemble cast but the title of the show tells you who is at its heart. You might have lots of great characters but we need to watch that first episode and know ‘whose story is this?’ The answer should be the same for the rest of the series.

8) Make them flawed. I can’t stress this enough. There is nothing worse than a boring central character whose most apt description is ‘nice’. While in a long-running series you may never complete your characters’ journeys as you would in a feature film story, you still need to know what that ending would be. Knowing your character’s flaws allows you to exploit them dramatically. The theme of the show (what it’s really about) is usually dramatised through your central character’s flaw. Your central character also needs to be in opposition to something / somebody and preferably to lots of things to give you an abundance of story riches to choose from.

9) Where are we? The story world, precinct or setting can have a major influence on your show, particularly on its tone and style. DCI Banks and Death In Paradise might both be cop shows but with one set in Yorkshire and the other on a Caribbean island they couldn’t be more different.

10) Establishing tone. Be consistent and make sure that your stories, characters, setting and writing style all work together to create a show that has a clear tone. Is it light and warm, easily consumable like Downton Abbey, Mr Selfridge, Call The Midwife, Castle or NCIS, or tough and challenging but rewarding like Peaky Blinders, The Wire, True Detective or The Americans.

Putting all that together is hard. You need a story engine that can run for years. Your characters need to be flawed enough to be interesting but with enough redeeming qualities that we’ll keep watching them. But if you get it right, and the pilot script is executed well enough to sell that coherent vision, then you could really impress and, who knows, even get your show commissioned!