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

I agreed to take on this blog post with some trepidation. Why? Because, in my opinion, script structure is a hot potato of “How to…” blogging. It’s like religion; those who subscribe to a system will doggedly defend their beliefs, and “structure atheists” who insist that there is no structure in their stories won’t be tempted either.

Not only that, but structure is my personal nemesis. Of all the storytelling elements, it’s the one that can lurk under still waters of pithy dialogue, good characterisation and entertaining story in a script. It is often the problem when I delve into something that “isn’t quite working properly”. It’s the one that many writers find the least instinctive when working on their stories, and it’s taken me years of reading to get a handle on it. I feel like it’s time to settle the score on script structure.

There are many ways to skin (and Save) The Cat

Go to Google Image Search and type in “screenplay structure”; the various structure diagrams can look like something from a Dan Brown novel. This can give the impression that schools of thought on structure are vastly different. However, this simple but brilliant diagram by JT Velikovsky (himself the creator of StoryAlity, the result of his doctoral thesis into screenwriting) breaks down the terminology and templates used by different schools of thought on screenplay structure.

storyality - screenplay syntagms

It’s interesting, laid out visually, to see as many similarities as well as the differences. So are they worth reading if they’re all saying something similar? Absolutely.

Story gurus, or indeed any take on screenplay structure, show a ‘way in’ to storytelling. Although different gurus will have different emphases on certain aspects of story, or may have a different writing style, the more you read the more attuned you’ll be to how stories are crafted.

Making structure work for you

Another worry that newer writers have about structure is that it limits creativity. This needn’t be the case. Scott Myer’s brilliant blog Go Into The Story uses the pithy slogan “tools, not rules” to approach story structure – and I second that as a way of learning to love structure.

Structure helps provide both logic to the storytelling, and emotion in presenting events in a meaningful context. The key is that the structure must work to the premise / idea you want to tell, rather than letting the structure dictate the story.

Here are some ways in which films have made the structure work for their particular story:

Work your structure around your concept: Annie Hall and the Usual Suspects are structured by a character remembering events, meaning that relevant parts of story can be told out of order to intrigue – but not confuse – the audience. Four Weddings and a Funeral structures its story around the events of five ceremonies. Memento tells a story about memory in reverse segments from end to beginning, consistently undermining what we know of the characters with each reveal of what’s come before.

Moving the elements around: Brad Johnson’s article in ScriptMag magazine brilliantly illustrates this point, using two films that fit the necessary story moments in Act I, but execute them in very different ways. Back To The Future’s first act involves a lengthy set-up of Marty’s home, school and love life that exceeds the usual ‘rule’ of an early inciting incident (usually around page 10). However, when the Inciting Incident does come – the terrorists arrive to steal the plutonium from Marty and Doc Brown – both Marty and the story are ready within a couple of pages to make a quick leap to travel back in time and delve into Act II. The Hobbit, by contrast, has an early Inciting Incident – the dwarves and Gandalf arriving at Bilbo’s house – but a longer period of resistance (some critics say too long…) before Bilbo is ready to accept his journey. If you want to read more on this the article is here.

Is structure always to blame? Sometimes when something ‘feels wrong’ in a script, we think that the structure isn’t working in the story, when occasionally it can actually be structure’s way of showing you that there’s a better, cleverer way to deliver your story point. Whilst it’s still true that the structure should fit the story you want to tell in the majority of cases (see above), here’s a recent example of the reverse in practise:

A writer wanted to take a character on a long central journey, but wasn’t quite sure how to deliver the ending. After back and forth on some interesting ideas they’d come up with, we looked back at the structure of their first act, which was really strong, and how mirroring those beats in the final sequence would underline the character change. This helped the writer decide not only where they wanted the character to end up, but also to create a satisfying ending. Voila – an example of structure helping story!

Obviously this hasn’t even scratched the surface of structure in film and TV, so over the coming weeks Hayley, myself and other guest post writers will delve back into this and other topics for the Writer’s Toolbox series – articles you can use to improve your craft as a writer. Stay tuned…

But in the meantime, Joe William’s post gives some of the differences between writing for film and TV and touches on structure – check it out here.

TV Drama Writers’ Festival – A Review by Kulvinder Gill (Part Two)

The TV Drama Writers’ Festival had 22 sessions scheduled. In Part One  I reviewed  Tony Jordan’s Keynote Speech, So You Want to Write a Feature? and Writers for Sale.

TV Drama Writers Festival 2014 schedule300dpi

In Part Two I review the following sessions:

  1. Drama on YouTube
  2. The Two Tones with Tony Hall & Tony Jordan
  3. Selling Your Idea
  4. New Markets: Do we still need broadcasters?

4. Drama on YouTube

Rosie Allimonos, the “Head of Content Partnerships, Original Channels, Google, EMEA” presented this session on Drama on YouTube.

Allimonos began the session with some context-setting statistics:

YouTube gets one billion global visitors per month – and is the second biggest search engine (after Google – who also happen to own YouTube).

Approximately 100 hours of video are uploaded every 60 seconds.

40% of all YouTube visits are now from a mobile device – indeed YouTube works seamlessly across all devices and browsers.

This means that writers and producers can present their work to a global audience and earn a share of the advertising revenue by participating in the YouTube Partner Program.

To make content discoverable, YouTube have introduced “Channelisation”. The idea is to get video uploaders to treat their YouTube account as a channel rather just a repository for videos.

The other key tool to attract and keep viewers is the “Subscribe” button. Subscribers to channels are notified when a new video is uploaded.

Content creators have been attracted to YouTube because of the creative freedom (it is a non-editorialising platform), the ability to have a direct conversation with fans and because it gives access to new types of funding such as sponsorship and brands.

Rosie Allimonos showed some examples of successful drama formats on YouTube.

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries was a contemporary adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice told in the form of video blogs – or vlogs – ranging from 2-8 minutes in length. 100 vlogs were released “as live” over the course of 12 months during 2012-2013. The first episode has had 1.75 million views and the channel has over 250,000 subscribers.

ThisIsDRAMA is a UK based channel producing gritty urban shows. The first episode of their football comedy drama 5ASIDE– released to coincide with the World Cup – has had over a million views and the channel also has 123,000 subscribers.

At the other end of the spectrum is WIGS  – a YouTube channel with Hollywood production values and stars that is aimed at a female demographic. The opening episode of their web series Blue starring Julia Stiles has had over 13 million views.

The Partner Program revenue split from the advertising placed around the videos is 45% YouTube and 55% content creators. YouTube is a completely non-editorial platform and takes no rights in the content. This also means YouTube do not put up any development money – so the content creators take all the financial risk.

However, YouTube does provide “Spaces” with access to equipment and post-production resources which is available free to creators with at least 5000 subscribers and “whose account is in good standing”. There is only one YouTube Space in Europe and it is in Central London.

Rosie Allimonos summarised the key takeaways as Content, Community and Conversation. Her advice for creatives was to target a specific community, let the story influence the production values and engage with the audience.

5. The Two Tones: Tony Jordan and Tony Hall

This cheeky (but accurately) titled session was less of an interview – more of a laid-back conversation – between Tony Jordan and the new BBC Director General Tony Hall.

Tony Hall agreed pretty much with Tony Jordan’s keynote speech about putting creativity at the forefront. Hall said that although ratings matter, the BBC should be all about taking creative risks, being edgy and pushing boundaries.

The Director General described the BBC’s intention to be more enabling by providing “risk capital”. Hall wants a BBC where it’s okay to say “Really glad we tried that – it didn’t work – so let’s try something else”. Hall believes moving BBC3 online – where shows will no longer need to fit specific time slots – will result in more challenging programmes.

“Taking creative risks” was the watchword of the day.

6. Selling Your Idea

Writer Peter Bowker chaired this session on how writers should pitch to production companies. On the panel was fellow writer Toby Whithouse, Jane Featherstone, the Chief Executive of Kudos and Chris Aird, Head of Drama, BBC Scotland.

Chris Aird gave the standard reply that submissions have to be via an agent and if the script was really good, they would meet the writer.

The surprise was Jane Featherstone – Kudos has a development team who look at submissions which are mostly from agents but not always. Featherstone admitted that when she receives an unsolicited submission directly to her email, she will forward it onto the development team and it will eventually get read. Featherstone also said that whilst she admires chutzpah – if the same idea has been rejected three times, it’s time to move on!

On the question of how fully formed a pitch should be – Toby Whithouse replied that a pitch should have the DNA of a show – i.e. what is not going to change.

Whithouse described his working method – he comes up with the idea or precinct first, then steps back to work on the characters, writing biographies of all. He felt what made Being Human work is that all the characters were in place first, before the supernatural element was even introduced. On the shows Attachments and No Angels, everything was storylined including individual episodes.

Peter Bowker revealed his father’s advice for his first pitch meeting in London: “Have three ideas and wear a big coat!” It is easier for a producer to say no to one idea – so it’s best to have lots of pitches.

Pitches should have no attachments – i.e. actors – storyline is everything, followed by the episode script. The consensus is to cast in your head – and not on the script – it is too risky.

Peter Bowker described his typical pitch document – four pages, beginning with the pitch, followed by the character breakdowns and episode outlines. Sometimes, he might foreground a character and include sample quotes.

Chris Aird said to write from the heart rather than second guessing the market. The advice was not to ape somebody else’s voice or to deliberately set out to create a transatlantic show as it would lose what made it unique in the first place. Featherstone added that it was the specificity of an idea that made it attractive.

Finally Jane Featherstone’s key advice: “Know the landscape before you pitch” – watch TV, the shows and the channels – and always watch the first episode of everything as someone is bound to ask your opinion on a new show.

7. New Markets: Do we still need broadcasters?

Writer Barbara Machin chaired this session on the impact of the new distribution methods and markets on both writers and traditional broadcasters. Helping her to make sense of the changes were Sky’s Acting Head of Drama, Cameron Roach, BBC Worldwide’s Global Editorial Director Liam Keelan and writer-showrunner Jed Mercurio.

The recent revolution in the media and broadcasting landscape can be likened to a Big Bang resulting in an expanding universe. In addition to the old media of terrestrial, cable and satellite television, there is now a plethora of online and streaming platforms – YouTube, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and so on. Even individual brands are hosting content – Mid Morning Matters with Alan Partridge was shown on the Australian lager company Foster’s Funny website.

Barbara Machin asked each of the panellists in turn about the effect of the new markets on the industry and writers.

First to comment was Sky’s Cameron Roach and he talked about how modern audiences have an enthusiasm – a hunger – for drama. Series finale episodes have now become events and have to be watched live for fear of spoilers.

A channel needs just two or three of these “noisy content” shows to push subscriptions – as for example House of Cards and Orange is the New Black have done for Netflix.

Roach pointed out that the situation is such that a show brand can now overtake the brand of the channel itself – for example some viewers are convinced Downton Abbey is BBC!

For Sky, pre-recognition is very important. The second series of Mid Morning Matters with Alan Partridge will be broadcast on Sky Atlantic.

BBC Worldwide’s Liam Keelan insisted traditional broadcasting was not dying and pointed to research that showed that 85% of all TV viewing is still live.

There is a growing demand for drama and more drama is being made – helped by a shift from film to TV. BBC Worldwide has responded to these changes by doubling its investment in drama over the next five years.

Keelan argued that writers create content and do not care about the delivery system. He believed that broadcasters and online platforms can all co-exist. For example, the comedy The Wrong Mans starring and written by James Corden and Matthew Baynton was a co-production between the BBC and the American streaming service Hulu.

Writer and showrunner Jed Mercurio also believes that the different content creation platforms can be complementary. He pointed to the fact that the second series of Line of Duty benefitted from that complementarity with 50% of the audience coming via catch-up. However, for the final episode, the majority of the audience watched live – which ties in with what Cameron Roach observed about series finales being events.

Mercurio also flagged up that in the US, there are big differences between shows on networked and subscription channels in terms of what is acceptable with regards to language, violence and sex.

In the UK, this same polarity occurs but it is between different terrestrial broadcast channels – for example, BBC1 or ITV1 versus BBC2 or Channel 4.

This means that in the UK, we can make those US subscription cable type shows with the adult content for terrestrial TV. Mercurio terms this “Horizontality” meaning in effect we have one UK terrestrial broadcaster.

However, there is another polarity – both in the US and the UK – and that is between the rich and poor – those who can afford subscription TV and those who cannot.

Barbara Machin asked the panel how quality has been affected by these new markets.

Liam Keelan said there was no negative impact on quality or scale – it was actually a “mixed economy”. The online markets attracted certain genre shows that are not found on terrestrial – the so-called smart and noisy content that Cameron Roach referred to earlier.

Jed Mercurio wondered whether some writers could have a primary commissioning relationship with the online streaming platforms. He thought there was a danger that a minority of writers would benefit tremendously.

These noisy content shows would not be written by new – or even established – writers but by an elite of big hitting writers – which Mercurio feared would result in a distortion in the industry.

Jed Mercurio did not use the term “Premier League” but to me it very much sounded like that was what he feared was going to happen.

The BBC Drama Commissioner Ben Stephenson was in the audience and he made a telling point at the very end of the discussion – he was surprised no one had questioned what effect these new markets and platforms would have on the BBC licence fee.

Final Thoughts

Overall, there were three key points I personally took away from the Festival.

1. Take more creative risks

2. Create “noisy content”

I suspect these first two are related!

3. The future is online.

This third point needs some elaboration. To me it seems clear now that with the proliferation of internet streaming services, more and more scripted drama (and comedy) will be online – possibly exclusively online. I believe that will be the new default – so much so that “web drama” will lose its prefix and just become known as drama again.

I also suspect that Jed Mercurio’s warning that the new markets may lead to a sort of 21st century “closed shop” of commissioning open to a select few writers will happen. But it hasn’t happened yet, and during this (possibly brief) period of flux and change, there is – and I’m going to borrow a phrase from the BBC here – a window of creative opportunity.

And right now that window is still open to everyone.

And that leaves me excited.

And wanting to write.

Kulvinder Gill is an Indian-born, Scottish-educated, London-based writer specialising in comedy, sci-fi and horror. His Writers’ Guild profile page is here and his Twitter handle is @KulvinderGill

TV Drama Writers’ Festival 2014 – A Review by Kulvinder Gill (Part One)

This was the fifth TV Drama Writers’ Festival but the first one to be hosted in London. The first four festivals were held at the Leeds College of Music and were spread over two days – this time round, the venue was Central St Martins in Granary Square behind King’s Cross and it was a one-day affair.

So was this another example of BBC cuts? The 2014 schedule comprised a total of 22 sessions – compared with 30 at the 2013 Festival. This year a writer could attend a maximum of 8 sessions – compared with 10 last year. In purely quantitative terms, the Festival was about 25% smaller but the BBC also reduced the ticket price by an average of 40% making what has always been an excellent value for money event, even better value. (Indeed, a few days before the Festival, the BBC Writersroom website confirmed that the event had sold out.)

Despite this leaner Festival, there were no cut backs in the quality of the speakers, not surprising, given that the Festival agenda and schedule is driven by a team of writers – refreshed every year – making it an event organised by writers for writers.

As much as I enjoyed the annual trip to Leeds, I prefer this streamlined one-day Festival and found the new venue much more spacious and practical.

I attended 7 sessions, missing only the final “Unstoryfiable” talk by Adam Curtis. I chose sessions based on my main interests – specifically new media and obtaining practical advice on selling scripts.

The sessions I attended were:

  1. Keynote speech with Tony Jordan
  2. So You want to Write a Feature?
  3. Writers for Sale?
  4. Drama on YouTube
  5. The Two Tones with Tony Hall & Tony Jordan
  6. Selling Your Idea
  7. New Markets: Do we still need broadcasters?

1. Keynote

Last year at the 2013 MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, actor and producer Kevin Spacey spoke about TV enjoying its “third Golden Age” and declared that the “King of television is the creatives“.

For his own keynote speech, Tony Jordan the 2014 Chair of the TV Drama Writers’ Festival, followed up on Spacey’s pronouncement and asked : “If Content is King, Where’s Our Crown?”

Jordan’s point is that at a time when the demand for scripted drama is greater than ever resulting in drama actually defining channels – both on traditional TV and the new online platforms – why is the business side leading the way and not writers?

Tony Jordan decried the industry’s obsession with brands and wanting instant hits. He referenced the famous William Goldman quote “Nobody knows anything” – as well as Henry Ford’s (probably apocryphal) “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Jordan was unimpressed with Netflix’s claim that they “ran the numbers” and knew their subscribers would watch House of Cards – citing the counter example of Chris Chibnall writing hit drama Broadchurch as a spec script because he wanted to tell that story and not because of audience data.

Whereas Spacey in the MacTaggart Lecture offered examples and pushed the case for art and commerce collaborating together to make great work – Jordan was more bolshie, arguing that it was time for writers to pick a side – creative or commercial – or as he put it Freddie Mercury or Bananarama.

Tony Jordan urged writers not to chase commissions blindly – not to cynically search for that the gap in the market or the “next big thing”. His rallying cry to writers was “Be creative” and seize the crown by doing good work.

2. So you want to write a feature?

A session on writing feature films might seem out of place at a TV Drama Writers’ Festival but this was specifically about writing low budget features for the latest three-year Microwave scheme – a partnership between Film London, National Lottery, Creative Skillset, BFI and BBC Films. The BBC Films contribution means the Microwave produced features will have their TV premiere on the BBC.

The session was presented by Olivier Kaempfer who was the producer of Borrowed Time, a Microwave funded film and is now a senior executive at Microwave itself – giving him a unique insight into both sides of the scheme. Kaempfer also brought along guest Jules Bishop, the writer and director of Borrowed Time.

In its earlier funding rounds, Microwave produced a total of 8 films – all of which received a theatrical release – the best known probably being Shifty (2009) and ill Manors (2012)

Over the next three years, the new round of Microwave plans to select up to 36 film-making teams for training and mentoring, with the ultimate aim of producing six features with a budget of £150,000 each. Microwave will provide £100,000 with the individual producers of each film having to raise the remaining £50,000. Also for the first time, there is development money (up to £10,000) for the shortlisted film-making teams plus an additional £25,000 for each completed film to help with distribution and marketing.

The film-making team must consist of a writer, producer and a director – with a minimum of two people – so writer-directors are acceptable but one-person taking on all three roles is not. Also a full script is required and the writer and director cannot have had a feature theatrically distributed before. Applications have to be made via a UK registered limited company based in London. Full details are on the Microwave site.

The deadline for the 2014 round is 30th July – so unless you have a film-making team with a completed script ready to go – there is probably not enough time now. However, the scheme is running again in 2015 and 2016 – so getting teams and scripts ready for the next round is a more realistic goal.

Getting the right mix of writer, director and producer is crucial as the film-making team may have to work together for three years or more. Jules Bishop’s Borrowed Time for example was submitted to the 2009 round, shot in 2011 and distributed in 2013. To assist with the formation of film-making teams, Microwave have set up a Facebook group called Film London Talent Connect to help writers, producers and directors to network.

Olivier Kaempfer described the perfect Microwave film as one where if there was more money available, the film would still be the same but the crew and cast would be better paid.

The challenge for writers is to write with the constraints of the budget in mind. The example Kaempfer gave was of a scene set at night in a moving car. Kaempfer suggested that writer should ask themselves a series of questions: Does the scene have to be in a moving car? Can it be in a parked car? Does it have to be in a car at all? Does it have to be at night? This is a process not unfamiliar to television writers!

Kaempfer said Microwave is looking for scripts that “resonate as a London story” – this does not necessarily mean social realism as they are very keen on “diverse genres”. At the end of the day, the script “just needs to be brilliant”.

Note – for film-makers and production companies based outside London, there is the iFeatures scheme which funds films with budgets of up to £350,000. The deadline for this year has passed but there may be future rounds – the website to bookmark is here.

3. Writers for Sale

Although the Writers for Sale session featured two writers and two execs, Bryan Elsley co-creator of Skins dominated the debate with his quietly pragmatic and authoritative take on the industry.

Also on the panel with Elsley was Levi David Addai who wrote My Murder for BBC3 and co-created Youngers for E4 and Sophie Gardiner Channel Four’s Drama Commissioning Editor. The BBC Drama Executive Producer Hilary Salmon chaired the session.

Salmon began by continuing the “Content is King” theme with mention of a “Sellers’s Market” for drama. Bryan Elsley responded that writers never feel like it’s a Seller’s Market. He cited production companies wanting more and more initial work such as treatments for free.

Salmon also asked how writers decide who to send a new script to. Elsley said it was all about personal relationships – about working with people who believe in you – “belief is at the heart of everything”.

Levi David Addai agreed – it was all about the people behind the production companies – and getting on well with them – rather than the production company itself.

Bryan Elsley also stressed the importance of money. He spoke about how some production companies now no longer pay the 100% future use fee on the first day of principal photography – an advance that many writers absolutely rely on. Elsley added that writers are aware of and remember the companies that do not pay the future use fee – and this obviously impacts on how loyalties and relationships are formed.

Elsley said that his own production company pays writers for everything – but he also cautioned writers that when they are paid for something, that is when they lose ownership. He suggested that in some cases, having the freedom to walk away and keeping your project can be to a writer’s advantage.

Sophie Gardiner observed that the industry was not very good at giving writers on soaps other opportunities. It was also mentioned that going in the opposite direction, writers with lots of experience had to start all over again when writing for soaps.

Levi David Addai spoke of his own unhappy experience of working on a soap – he felt it wasn’t his characters, it wasn’t his story and in the end writing continuing drama wasn’t for him.

The subject of the writers’ room on dramas was also raised. Elsley’s opinion was that here in the UK, the writers’ room is still unfinished business, a half-way house that pays lip-service to the US model. Elsley believes that writers are not in the room just to write but also to produce. He made the point that US shows have no traditional UK producer role – with the line producer taking on the technical and administrative duties and the writer being the creative showrunner.

However, Elsley also warned that the UK should not slavishly copy the US writers’ room model – he pointed out they were “editorially narrow” with a lack of diversity in participation and editorial control.

The discussion also turned to the touchy subject of script editors. Bryan Elsley thought the role of the script editor had changed over the years. He felt that script editors used to be on the writer’s side but are now on the producer’s side. Elsley blamed the problem on lack of training and development of script editors and particularly their disempowerment – they were reduced to passing on messages from the producers with no editorial power themselves.

Sophie Gardiner criticised the lack of opportunities and entry-level schemes for new or emerging writers. Channel Four received some kudos for their Screenwriting Course and also their Coming Up series (on which Addai got his first television commission).

The session ended on an uplifting note when writer Chris Lunt spoke from the audience to point out that his script Prey for ITV which starred John Simm was his first broadcast credit – demonstrating that it is still possible for a new writer to get commissioned and produced.

In the next article I’ll review Drama on YouTube, The Two Tones with Tony Hall & Tony Jordan, Selling Your Idea and New Markets: Do we still need broadcasters?

Kulvinder Gill is an Indian-born, Scottish-educated, London-based writer specialising in comedy, sci-fi and horror. His Writers’ Guild profile page is here and his Twitter handle is @KulvinderGill.

Cinema or Living Room: Writing for Film and TV by Joe Williams

With the emergence of VOD platforms and cheaper forms of digital film production, there has never been a more exciting time or as many opportunities to create film or TV content as there is now.

tv vs film

TV in particular is said to be going through a ‘Second Golden Age’ with shows such as True Detective, Broadchurch, Breaking Bad and Sherlock rivalling or even superseding films in terms of public discussion.

The UK has no shortage of distinctive and talented writers working in both formats; yet despite this, there are only a few who equally move between both mediums. Examples of these ‘format hoppers’ include: Abi Morgan, Jeff Pope, Peter Morgan and Dennis Kelly. At the same time, iconic writers such as Jimmy McGovern, Sally Wainwright and Russell T Davies have carved out enduring careers exclusively in television, while Jane Goldman, John Hodge and Hossein Amini have concentrated on film.

I personally adore both and will happily jump from Sherlock to Sherlock Holmes in the blink of an eye. Having also worked in film and TV development, Hayley has kindly asked me to share a few thoughts about writing for both mediums and what can be expected in the development process.

Structuring Your Script: Arguably the greatest difference is the amount of freedom in terms of length and structure. When writing film scripts, entire pages can be added and discarded often with little consequence to the overall film. In TV, a script’s length is poured over, especially in production where a read-through will typically be timed. The length of your script is even more pronounced if you have to factor ad breaks when writing for broadcasters such as ITV or Channel 4. While working on the Channel 4 Screenwriting Course, we would discuss the importance of creating a strong inciting incident at the end of ‘Part 1’ (around p12-15), to ensure a potentially fickle audience would be hungry for more. In film, you are able to delay this to a later point, giving you the freedom to write closer to your own pace.

If you’re writing for TV, your series also has to compete with any number of distractions in the home from the kitchen to your iPhone (in my case, guilty as charged!), so the need for attention-grabbing material is more pronounced. When your film is on general release, you can take comfort that the audience is locked in and hopefully free from distraction. Of course, many TV writers relish these challenges and such constraints can push you to write taut and tightly structured scripts that still allow your vision to shine through.

The Development Process: A common complaint heard in film or television development is the lengthy amount of time it takes to get projects off the ground. Even so, there is still often a clear difference between the mediums in terms of the amount of time spent developing projects. In film, you are typically allowed to work to your own timescale within reason. Even if you have a creatively strong script, it can still take months or even years as the producers delve in to the quagmire of film financing. In TV, the time scale is notably accelerated, particularly if you find yourself working for hire on an existing series. This does not necessarily mean that TV is the quickest way to getting your writing out there, as a variety of issues from the broadcaster’s end can come into play before your work reaches the screen. Either style can work for you depending on your personality but when writing for both mediums it’s worth preparing for lengthy periods of waiting, punctuated by occasional bursts of energy.

Broadcasters and Distributors: In the British film industry, while there are many distribution companies with distinct identities (Artificial Eye generally release ‘art-house’ films, while Lionsgate tend towards action genre titles), there is generally less consideration of where your script will end up during the writing process. While no TV broadcaster would wish to compromise a screenwriter’s vision, when assessing material they still look for stories that will sit comfortably alongside their current slate. Therefore, when writing your TV script, it can occasionally be worth bearing in mind where you want to see your show transmitted. Say you’ve written a gritty crime drama, do you want to see it in the company of Luther (BBC), Broadchurch (ITV) or Top Boy (Channel 4)?

Directors: In television, despite the influx of ‘auteur’ directors, the writer is still traditionally in a greater position of influence in contrast to film. To give an example, whenever Abi Morgan pens a new TV series, such as The Hour, she tends to take centre stage in terms of its promotion. This is in contrast to her film work, in which she has generally taken a backseat in the public eye to either the director (Shame) or the subject matter (The Iron Lady). The world of film is undoubtedly exciting and writing for it can offer more structural freedom, but it is still, at least in the public eye, the medium of the director.

Your Characters: Another factor to influence your writing is the different directions you can take your characters in. When writing a film script you can decide your characters’ endpoints and use it to inform their actions. Television offers you the chance to keep on developing the characters while knowing who will be cast in the roles so you can write to their voices. What’s more, TV can allow you the opportunity to re-invent your work based on background characters. Kryten in Red Dwarf and The Fonz in Happy Days are both breakthrough characters that emerged long after their pilots were written.

Ultimately, it’s a question of personal preference whatever medium you choose to write for in terms of working habits and your own creative instincts. As mentioned, many writers have succeeded in finding their voices in both fields and given the increased opportunities in terms of technology and platforms, it’s very possible to wear two hats or one, depending on what fits you best.

Joe Williams is a freelance development consultant working for numerous film and television production companies. He has previously worked in development for Scott Free Films, Sprout Pictures and Channel 4’s Drama Department. Joe recently also participated in the Channel 4 Screenwriting Course as a Shadow Script Editor. You can follow Joe on Twitter @josephmwilliams

 

Screenwriting Contests – updated July 2014

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 check the list of blog posts on the right to make sure you’re on the most up-to-date version and subscribe to the blog to get future updates straight to your inbox.

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

I heart stories 2BBC Writersroom Script Calls - Deadline:  7 July 2014 – Children’s tv (comedy & drama). LATER SCRIPT CALL: September/October 2014 – Stage and radio drama.

Big Break Screenwriting Contest- Deadline: 15 July 2014 (regular) / 31 July 2014 (final).  Teleplays 25-70pp / Screenplays 80-120pp.

Screencraft TV Drama Pilot Script - Deadline: 15 July 2014 (regular) / 1 September 2014 (late) / 15 September 2014 (final).

Cinequest Screenwriting Competition  – Deadline: 18 July 2014 (early) / 26 September 2014 (regular) / 17 October 2014 (late) / 7 November 2014 (final). Features and shorts.

Slamdance Writing Competition –  Deadline: 22 July 2014 (late) / 29 July 2014 (WAB extended) – TV pilots up to 80pp, feature screenplays 90-150pp.

Tracking B Feature Script Contest – Deadline:  27 July 2014 (early) / 14 September 2014 (late) / 26 October 2014 (extended)

John Brabourne Awards – Deadline: 31 July 2014. Financial support to up and coming talent who may have suffered set-backs. UK residents only.

Shore Scripts Feature Screenplay Competition – Deadline: 31 July 2014 (regular) / 31 August 2014 (late) – Feature screenplays 80-120pp, short screenplays 3-20pp.

American Zoetrope Screenplay Contest - Deadline: 1 August 2014 (early) / 1 September 2014 (final) –  Screenplays 82-145pp.

Screencraft Comedy Script Contest - Deadline: 1 August 2014 (final)- Feature screenplays up to 140pp & short scripts up to 20pp.

Northern Ireland Screen: New Talent Focus – Deadline: 1 August 2014. Northern Ireland residents only. Applicants must not have a screenwriting credit on a produced feature film.

Fresh Voices Screenplay Competition – Deadline: 11 August 2014 (early) / 8 September 2014 (regular) / 6 October 2014 (late) / 6 November 2014 (final).

New York Screenplay Contest: Deadline: 20 August 2014 (extended). 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: 21 August 2014. Film & tv, all genres. Win six months of script editing & mentoring with Script Angel’s Hayley McKenzie.

One In Ten Screenplay Contest – Deadline: 1 September 2014. Screenplays 90-125pp. Must feature at least one primary character who is gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

Screenplay Festival – Deadline: 1 September 2014 (final). Feature length screenplays and teleplays over 60pp (no max).

Blue Cat Screenplay Competition – Deadline:  1 September 2014 (early) / 15 October 2014 (regular) / 15 November 2014 (final).  Accepting shorts and feature length scripts.

Universal Pictures’ Emerging Writers Fellowship – Deadline: opens 3 September 2014. Deadline is 30 days later or when 500 submissions have been received, whichever is sooner. Feature length screenplays 85pp-125pp. Genres accepted: comedy, romantic-comedy, action, adventure, thriller.  Semi-finalists will be required to submit a second original, feature-length script.

BAFTA Rocliffe New Writing Forum – Deadline: 4 September 2014 (early) / 25 September 2014 (final). Film screenplays.

Little Brother’s Big Opportunity – Deadline: 3 October 2014. Win paid tv drama development commission.

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

To look out for at a later date:

Underwire Film Festival Short Script Competition – Deadline: usually August. Short film scripts only. Female screenwriters only. Entrants must be British or residing in the UK.

Script Hot House from Write2Screen – Deadline: usually August. UK residents only. Successful applicants receive script development programme.

Berlinale Talent Campus (Script Station) – Deadline: usually September

Channel Four Screenwriting Course – Deadline: usually October. 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.

Screencraft Screenwriting Fellowship – Deadline: usually January.  Accepting feature scripts, one-hour tv pilots and half-hour tv pilots.

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

Hamptons International Film Festival Screenwriters’ Lab – Deadline: usually January. Feature length screenplays only.

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.

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.

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

Cinestory Screenwriting Contest - Deadline: usually March. Screenplay 85-130pages.

London Independent Film Festival Screenplay Contest - Deadline: usually March – short & feature length scripts.

Disney/ABC Writing Fellowship – Deadline: usually March. Applicants must be able to prove US employment eligibility.

European Independent Film Festival Script Competition – Deadline: usually March. Short scripts 5-50pp & feature length scripts 80-130pp. Looking for scripts NOT aimed at mainstream Hollywood film markets.

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

Guiding Lights Mentoring Scheme -

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.

Script Pipeline Screenwriting Contest – Deadline: usually May.  Feature length screenplays.

Script Pipeline TV Writing Contest – Deadline: usually May. Any length script, pilot of original or spec of existing show.

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.

What Writers Can Learn from 4Screenwriting by Xandria Horton

One of the things that I love about Script Angel is its focus on opportunities for new writers, so the blog seemed an obvious place to summarise my recent experience as a Shadow Script Editor on Channel 4’s talent initiative 4Screenwriting – with some thoughts other writers can take from it.

4sw logoWhat is 4Screenwriting and why is it brilliant?

4Screenwriting is a broadcaster-affiliated talent scheme run by highly experienced script editor Philip Shelley, currently in its 4th year. For each year’s twelve selected writers, they are given six months to take an idea through two drafts of a commercial hour (46’) script, creating the first episode of a series or serial (ideally with Channel 4 in mind). The course also has a script editor training element; allowing shadow script editors a chance to develop their skills by working to industry-proven script editors.

The writers get a “sandbox” version of a script commission, with a small amount of funding, set deadlines and opportunities for notes from their script editor team at each stage – as close as you can get to a real script commission, without the production element.

Once the course is completed, writers can use their spec script as a calling card in the industry, creating a buzz with literary agents and production companies who are keen to be across talent coming through and hopefully resulting in meetings that further their careers. Success stories are numerous, most recently with alumni Anna Symon and Cat Jones, who have both gone on to write for primetime TV series.

So, with insights from me and my excellent fellow shadow script editors Carissa Hope Lynch, Harriet Davis and Joe Williams, I’ve pooled some tips writers can take from our 4Screenwriting experience:

Working with the professionals

The scheme introduces writers to the process of working with a script editor, which can be strange for writers used to working alone. It also introduces to writers the concept of the dreaded deadline!

What can you learn from this?: whilst you may have in place trusted feedback-givers, there’s really nothing like the impartial and constructive notes you will get from a good script editor or industry-proven consultant. In terms of meeting deadlines, it’s important that you make all and any writing deadlines you agree to. However, if something happens that is beyond your control, the best way to handle it is:

1/ to flag this as soon as possible to the appropriate person;

2/ tell them realistically what you can deliver and when; if one element is more urgent than the others, can you prioritise this and deliver within the original time frame?;

3/ agree a new deadline and move heaven and Earth to make it!

Network a.k.a. ‘it’s good to talk’

The scheme provides opportunities for writers to talk to others at similar points in their career, which can be greatly useful, both personally and professionally.

What can you learn from this?: Meet with your writer peers! Find or start a writer’s group on Meetup (they are all around the country) or attend events such as The London Screenwriter’s Festival or BAFTA Rocliffe and seek out friendly faces in the opportunities to mingle.

What’s in a TV idea?

Unsurprisingly, some ideas will only really reveal whether they will work in a series or serial format – if at all – after some exploration, so some writers had to use backup ideas or go back to the drawing board to find the right idea to progress to script stage.

What can you learn from this?: If you want to work in the industry, it’s essential you’re across British output; it’s as simple as that. Whilst it won’t ensure that every idea you come up with is a bona fide TV idea, you’ll get industry knowledge as to who is making what, and watching TV widely (UK, US, internationally) will develop your instincts on which stories intrinsically work in a TV format and which may be more suited to film or theatre. Even if it’s just the opening episode of every new series, it’s really useful to watch TV as broadly as you can.

Also, if you’re ever in a pitching situation (e.g. pitching to a producer for an episode commission on an existing series or pitching to a production company your own series ideas), however married you are to your favourite idea, it’s always useful to have a couple you’ve worked up a little as well in your back pocket, just in case you need them!

Writing to act breaks – a punctuation metaphor

For 4Screenwriting the brief was a script that would fit within a Channel 4 schedule, rather than a BBC full hour slot, so it was a new experience for many writers to write to ‘act breaks’.

What can you learn from this?: how this works this will vary depending on your story (and your broadcaster). However, we came up with a useful way of thinking about the shape of the story with act breaks:

If your story is a paragraph and each scene is a sentence, how you utilise punctuation is a great metaphor of writing to act breaks; ending those sentences before a break to ensure that the viewers’ interest is piqued. What’s the screenwriting equivalent of scene ending with a ‘?’, an ‘!’ or a ‘…’?

Many thanks again to the input from my fellow shadow script editors on this article; to the very brilliant and experienced script editor I worked to, Jamie Hewitt; to the three brilliant writers I was lucky to work with; and of course to Philip, for tirelessly working to make the course go as smoothly as it does each year. If you ever see him at a 4Screenwriting networking event, he won’t miss a moment to connect a writer to agents and production companies that might be useful to them. 4Screenwriting is a brilliant experience for writers and script editors coming through – long may it continue!

 

 

The Bottled Water Tour of 2014 by Tony Lee

A very warm welcome to writer Tony Lee who is guest blogging this week on his experience as a Brit doing the meeting-rounds in L.A.

So a couple of weeks ago I was in Los Angeles for an entire week, partly due to the fact that I was a guest at the Gallifrey One convention but also for a variety of meetings, catch ups and get togethers across Los Angeles. This is my second year of solid meetings and I thought I’d talk a bit about them, and what I did – and more importantly what I learned.

First off, if you’re having meetings, make sure they’re booked. Don’t just rock up to a door and go ‘hi, any chance of a chat?‘ as cold calling doesn’t work in the main, as most production companies are on studio lots. Which means a studio security to get through first. That said, there’s every chance of being able to cold email someone going ‘hi, I’m in the area on Tuesday, any chance of a chat?‘ as long as they know you. How do they know you? Well, the chances are you’ve already spoken to them at festivals, conventions, networking days or even (as a couple of my friends have done) mild stalking on LinkedIn. Get to know them. Get a dialogue going with them. Then, when you’re in the area, let them know.

Now, here’s an important thing, don’t bother booking months in advance. These guys don’t know what they’re doing next week. So let them know a few weeks beforehand that you’ll be around, and then attack again a week before, nailing down some times. Don’t give them the chance to set the stage, give them two or three options.

‘Hey, I’m around on Tuesday. What’s best, 11am or 2pm?‘ If they say they can’t do Tuesday, ask if they can do Wednesday. If they can, offer to move things around so that they can be seen. Work to their schedule, but within your constraints.

It also helps if they know your work, or have seen your work. If they’ve never seen a single thing that you’ve written, rocking up with five pitches only shows you can pitch. Have a screenplay finished, something that you could even have sent in advance, as well as other ideas and pitches in your pocket.

Don’t be star struck. It’s difficult, I know. One of my meetings was upstairs from Aaron Sorkin on the Warner Lot, in a room with walls laden with movie props and awards. Remember that they’re willing to see you because you might offer them something they need. They’re not being a charity case here, they’re looking for product and you have some. Be confident. Drink the bottled water – trust me, you’ll need it.

Never sit in front of a window, if just gives them distractions. If you’re in a cafe or a Starbucks, lean in so that they unconsciously lean in as well. Don’t shut them out of the process, let them contribute to the story and take their notes on board – they might know better than you.

Now. The pitch. There are people out there who have done so many of these, and the things they always tell me are almost the same as what I was told in sales school twenty years ago. First off, people buy people. More importantly, within the first few seconds someone will decide if they like you or not. And if they like you, they’ll humour you more, allow for more mistakes. So, don’t walk in like a bulldozer. Talk to them, get to know them. The chances are that during this part of the conversation, you might learn that the pitch you have? Totally not right for them. This gives you ammunition.

The thing I tell everyone to do? When in LA, hire a car. Driving in LA is super easy. Yes, there are buses and cabs, but having a car (I’ve found) is an instant ice breaker. How is it driving in LA? How big is the car? Play up the Alien in Los Angeles, it’s an icebreaker. But more importantly, you give the impression of a writer who’s confident and comfortable in LA. Producers like that.

Never be late for a meeting, so before you confirm everything check the distances on Google Maps and double the time it says. That’ll give you enough time to arrive and get five minutes to plan your day. Learn what ‘Validate’ is – never pay for parking if you don’t have to. Try to keep your meetings in the same area, a bulk of Production companies are in Burbank, which makes things easy, but Burbank is a big place and you might accidentally find yourself on a Freeway. Not good. And one of my days was Santa Monica – Burbank – The Valley – Glendale – Sunset Strip. Plan for delays!

Have plenty of business cards, and never be shy in giving them out. You never know who’s going to be in the meeting. Ensure you have a working phone with a data plan, as well – meetings often get moved on the fly and if you have to wait for wifi to get your emails, it might be too late. I have an unlocked iPhone and I have a T Mobile US Sim. Every day I use it I pay $3, but I get unlimited calls, texts and 4G data. So I’m good to go.

If it’s a lunch meeting on site? Don’t eat a large breakfast. On one day I made the mistake of expecting a very light lunch and had a breakfast with some friends at 9am at the IHOP. That’s INTERNATIONAL HOUSE OF PANCAKES, and should give you an idea of how big the portions are. At 10am I leave for Dreamworks and my lunch meeting at 12pm. But while driving I learn it’s now been moved to 11.30am. Which isn’t a problem to get to, but when we arrive I learn that Dreamworks give AWESOME lunches, full buffet affairs – and I’m two hours from a stupidly large breakfast. I ate light. And felt bad.

Always always ALWAYS find out what else the producer is up to, you never know what you can get involved in. One of my meetings ended with them talking about a series of books they’re reading and discussing which one of these books would be a good fit for me to adapt into a film. Another is working on a series involving a set of books that are my favourite books ever, so naturally by the time we finished discussing those, he knew that I was enthusiastic, quick with ideas and flexible – without a single word of any of my projects being spoken.

Enjoy the time between meetings. Look around the local sites. One of my meetings was at Hollywood and Highland, so I took some time to visit Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Two of my meetings were on the Warner Lot, and after the second of these I was able to stroll around the lot itself, watch some filming, visit a couple of stages. All of this reminded me exactly why I want to do this for a living.

Don’t kill yourself, but pack the time in. Explaining to a producer that I had twelve meetings in three days showed a) I was busy but also b) I was in demand. The fact that many of these meetings were PURELY because I was only around for three days is irrelevant.

I had twelve meetings between Tuesday and Thursday. One was a catch up at a comic company. Three were with television companies. One was an independent producer I met at San Diego who wants me involved on a project he’s doing. The other seven were with film companies who wanted to hear about my movie ideas. Of which I had one scripted, and one in treatment. Of those seven, five wanted to see the treatment when it was finished. Four wanted to see the film I’d finished already and three had other projects that, down the line I could be involved in.

If I get nothing from these, I still walk away with the same amount that I would have had if I hadn’t gone to them. And that’s what you have to remember. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. And as I play the post-meeting email tennis, I know that I gave it my best shot.

Tony Lee is a New York Times #1 Bestselling author of comics, books, audio adventures and screenplays. Find out more about Tony’s work here and follow Tony on Twitter @mrtonylee.