Monthly Archives: August 2014

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.