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.

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

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.

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.

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!

Creating Characters by Alan Flanagan

As part of the Script Angel Writer’s Toolbox series, writer and script editor Alan Flanagan looks at the tricky task of building your characters.

Have you ever tried to be the most interesting person at a cocktail party? To look like the smartest person in your class? To make someone fall in love with you?

rp mcmurphy one flew over the cuckoos nest

It’s not fun, and yet as a writer you’re left with the Herculean task of making an audience care deeply about your characters, not just in ninety minutes but usually in under twenty — and ideally under ten.

So how do you build a human being without raiding your local graveyard?

Facts, Facts, Facts

When building any character, remember the iceberg rule. You need to know about ten times as much about your character as your audience will ever see.

Build a character profile, including their family history — parents and siblings definitely, grandparents can be helpful — and place of birth, their education, professional history, taste in lovers, taste in friends, taste in food. There are no right or wrong answers here, but you will find yourself forming a concrete version of this person from which it will be impossible to deviate when you sit down to write your script.

Remember, a character who feels specific is “universal”, but a character who feels non-specific is just “generic”.

Point Of View

Secondary to facts, an interesting exercise for a character profile can be to question your character on various facets of their lives. This isn’t just about their biggest fear or their proudest achievement, but their personal opinion on anything from Afghanistan to Miley Cyrus. Everyone has an opinion on big issues, even if (tellingly) that opinion is no opinion at all.

Character & Plot

Often the main reason we get into this business is because of our desire to spin a good yarn. But by building a concrete character you will time and again see opportunities for the facts of your characters life to intersect beautifully with your story.

For example, consider a character’s profession. Think of how Memento‘s Leonard used his background as an insurance investigator to anchor his sense of self. Or how American Beauty‘s Carolyn Burnham was so perfectly encapsulated by her zealous cleaning of a house. Profession can also helpfully delineate characters, as the multifarious characters in Orphan Black (all played by the same actress) find differences in being a cop, or a drug dealer, or a researcher.

And that’s just profession, which is one tiny detail in your list of facts. Think of what else a character profile can offer you.

The Stereotype Trap

“Write what you know”, right? While every writer draws on their own experience — whether they intend to or not — it’s important to bear in mind what that phrase means.

Having read hundreds and hundreds of scripts, it’s clear that the characters writers are bringing to the screen are predominantly male, predominantly white, predominantly straight, predominately… predominant. Do you want to see a character you’ve seen a million times, or one whose story you’ve never seen before?

It also says something about how we see the “write what you know” dynamic. “What you know” isn’t about your gender, sexuality, race — it’s about humanity, and that doesn’t see such simple boundaries.

Next time you’re working on a script, consider how a character would work if you flipped their gender, changed their ethnicity, gave them a disability. It won’t change their character outright, nor should it, but it may throw up unusual character moments and interesting plot points you hadn’t considered.

Bringing Your Character To Life

Once you’ve nailed down everything about your character, the obvious question is how to get them down on paper. Here a couple of key elements come into play:

First Moment: On the page a reader is usually being bombarded by characters and information, so it’s vital that the first sight we get of a character is a fair approximation of who they are. Do they come crashing through a window? Tumbling out of their neighbour’s wife’s bed? Cowering from a knock at the door? Far too many characters enter a script doing nothing, or doing something that is either bland or a poor indication of who they are.

Look: This is packaged with the above, but consider how your character looks. Avoid commenting on their attractiveness, because it tells us nothing — what is a “pretty” girl? Instead, rely on unusual adjectives — “sly”, “clipped”, “bullish” — and focus on what part of a person’s look really tells us about them. Are their shoes scuffed? Is their hair pulled back painfully? Chewed nails? Smeared lipstick? Red eyes? Gleaming pocket watch? Be specific but be concise.

Dialogue: Writing good dialogue is a difficult, some might say impossible, skill to learn. It relies on a combination of brevity, levity, plot necessities and a true voice that comes from eavesdropping on other people’s conversations.

What you can decide straight off is the general style of a character’s voice. Think of their background, their education, their attitude to life. Are they all long words and dripping bon mots? Or are they constantly dropping their g’s and speaking in metaphors? Are they clipped, one-word robots or loquacious, excited know-it-alls?

Relationships: Characters don’t exist in a vacuum. If you want to define your character early and well, put them in a situation with someone they are deeply connected to. It could be by hatred, by love, by family, by law, but deep relationships breed deep reactions — showing who your character really is.

The Wants & Needs: In drama, as in life, people want things. And in drama as in life, this often doesn’t correspond with what they really need.

When we introduce a character, we not only introduce their personality, but we implicitly introduce their flaws, and what they really want and need in their lives. In any scene, a character should be aiming to achieve something – and a scene without goals and change is a dead fish.

But on a wider scale, any story should look to exploit its character’s flaws and needs. This could be done traditionally but subversively, as in Frozen where the hidden need is a sisterly connection. Or a flaw could be exploited to teach a lesson, as in Requiem For A Dream‘s series of interlocking tragedies. Or a character’s flaws could be cured, but then undermined, as in Chinatown‘s reforming of its protagonist, only to have him lose everything in the end.

Always remember that audiences aren’t looking for someone to like, they’re looking for someone to love. And we only love people we feel we know, people who are beautiful and damaged and as flawed as we are. Anything less will ring hollow.

Bio: Alan Flanagan is a writer and script editor who works for Big Finish Productions on the series ‘Dark Shadows’, as well as script editing for Canadian festival WildSound and being artistic director of theatre company Refractive Lens. Twitter: @parallelevision

Alan is currently performing his one-man show Dupont & Davenport at the Edinburgh Fringe, which tackles what happens when we can’t tell the difference between grief and love, and how we let someone go when technology makes it almost impossible. It runs until Friday 8th August, 1.25pm, at George Next Door, 9-11 George IV Bridge.

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