Category Archives: Screenwriting

Script Formatting

Worries about screenplay formatting leave some screenwriters in a panic, terrified that one slip-up could see their precious script chucked in the bin. While most good readers are far more interested in the content of your story than your presentation, getting the basics right helps to make your script a more engaging read.

script format 3

The basic screenplay format has evolved to help you make your vision clear to the reader and in turn allow a production team to capture that vision on screen. Some rules are pretty hard and fast, while others have a degree of variation and flexibility.

Here are my tips on making script formatting work for you.

Let’s start at the beginning.

1) Front Page / Cover Page
This should contain the project title and your name centred, and your contact details, and/or your agent’s details, in the bottom left corner.

————————————————————————–

Desk Wars

By

Hayley McKenzie

 

 

Hayley McKenzie
Script Angel Towers
London NW1
myemail@myemail.com

————————————————————————–

Don’t add photos or images. Keep it simple.

Some screenwriting software has templates; if you’re using these be sure to delete unnecessary elements eg ‘based on, if any’.

Don’t add your WGA registration number, even if you’ve chosen to register it, unless it’s specifically asked for.

For tv scripts, I’d recommend the following layout:

Desk Wars

Episode One

By Hayley McKenzie

 2) Page Numbers
Essential. Top right is the most common position but bottom right is also sometimes used.

3) Scene Headers (aka Sluglines)
This tells us where the scene takes place.

These are always ALL CAPS. Underlining and/or bolding are ok but not necessary – again, the rule of thumb is keep it clean and simple.

It should contain the following information only:

a) Interior or Exterior
Written as INT. or EXT.

b) Location type
Stated as simply as possible.
EXT. COTTAGE.
You don’t need to preface with adjectives, like ‘Pretty Cottage’ or ‘Small Cottage’. You can use the action lines to give more detail if necessary, for example, that it’s pristine or dilapidated.

c) Time of day
You only need to define as either DAY or NIGHT.
EXT. COTTAGE. DAY
Some screenwriting software templates allow for multiple variations eg Dusk or Dawn or Late Afternoon but I wouldn’t recommend unless it’s absolutely essential for the reader’s understanding of the story.

The elements within a scene header are typically separated by a dot:
INT. COTTAGE. DAY

Or you can separate the DAY/NIGHT element with a dash ‘-‘
INT. COTTAGE – DAY

Areas within a location
Dealing with areas within a location, for example rooms within a house, can be done by defining the larger location first, followed by the area within it:

INT. JOANNE’S HOUSE. BEDROOM. DAY

I’ve also seen it done the other way around:

INT. BEDROOM. JOANNE’S HOUSE. DAY

Alternatively, you can merge the two elements to shorten it to:

INT. JOANNE’S BEDROOM. DAY

Whichever version you choose you must stick to that format and make sure every scene header is formatted the same way. Consistency is the key.

Later and Continuous
Indicating how this scene relates to the previous scene can be done by adding Later or Continuous to the end of the scene header:

EXT. COTTAGE. DAY

Mary runs to the front door. Fumbles for her key.

 
INT. COTTAGE. DAY – CONTINUOUS

Shaking, Mary slams the front door behind her and slumps to the floor.
 

Most readers don’t object to it, but to be honest it’s rarely necessary as we can guess that the action is continuous from the juxtaposition of the scenes and their content.

When your scene is set inside a moving car
I’ve seen professional writers, directors and script editors disagree about how best to convey this. Technically the car is not a location but a prop, so the scene header should just read:

EXT. COUNTRY ROAD. DAY

Mary grips the steering wheel of her car as she hurtles down the lane.

Although this is technically correct I find it harder to digest as a reader, because the scene header creates a visual image of a country road but then when I read the action lines after it I have to adjust the image I’ve just created by creating an image of your character in a car.

As a reader I find the clearest and most efficient way for me to visualise the scene is something like this:

INT/EXT. CAR. COUNTRY ROAD. DAY

This way I can easily create a visual image of your characters in a car and the car travelling in an exterior location.

4) Action Lines
These describe the action taking place.

Don’t forget to put your character’s name in ALL CAPS the first time we meet them and always indicate their age.

Avoid indicating camera angles or shot directions, e.g. CLOSE-UP.

For more information, check out my article on Writing Great Action Lines.

5) Dialogue
What a character says (their dialogue) is indicated under their character name:

MARY
You didn’t?!

The dialogue should be indented, not centred. I’ve struggled to replicate it here but just read any produced screenplay and you’ll see the correct position for the dialogue.

To indicate that we can hear a character speak but can’t see them you use V.O (Voice-Only / Voice-Over) or O.S (Out of Shot):

MARY (V.O)
You didn’t?!

To indicate a character’s action or attitude as they speak you can add a direction in parentheticals, though they should be used sparingly:

MARY
(shouting)
You didn’t?!

Characters speaking another language
There are no hard and fast rules for this but in my experience the following gives the clearest indication of your intention in the most efficient way possible.

Assuming that your screenplay is written in English, always write dialogue in English, even if it is to be spoken in another language.

If it’s just an occasional line then it’s best to indicate the language to be spoken in the parenthetical.

MARY
(in French)
You didn’t?!

If one or more characters speak in another language throughout a scene then you can continue to use the above method for every piece of dialogue, although this does start to feel quite cumbersome to read. Alternatively, I think it’s ok to simply indicate the language one or more character will be speaking in at the start of the scene in a note in the action lines: N.B Paul and Mary speak in French throughout the scene.

Phone calls – 1 sided and intercutting
To indicate that the character we’re watching is speaking into the phone simply add this as a direction within the parenthetical.

MARY
(into phone)
You didn’t?!

To cut between two sides of a phone conversation you need to indicate that we’re going to INTERCUT. I find that the clearest way to do this is to establish both locations and then indicate that you want to cut between the two:

INT. MARY’S HOUSE. DAY

Mary picks up the phone and dials.

INTERCUT WITH:

INT. JOANNE’S HOUSE. DAY

Joanne jumps at the ringing phone. She picks up.

JOANNE
Hello?

MARY
You ready?

6) Scene Transitions
This indicates how the scenes are edited together, for example CUT TO: or FADE TO: and they are placed on the right hand side of the page.

They are not needed in a spec script. If you decide that you really want to include them then you must include them after every scene – beware that it will add massively to your page count!

7) More and Cont’d
You can use More and Cont’d to indicate that a character’s dialogue continues on the next page.

Most screenwriting software does this automatically but don’t worry if yours doesn’t – it’s helpful but not a necessity.

8) Scene Numbers
These should not be included when writing on spec, although they are incredibly useful when in active development with a script editor and essential for production.

9) Flashbacks
As with many elements there are a few ways you can indicate flashbacks. My preference is the following:

INT. MARY’S HOUSE. DAY – FLASHBACK

Scene contents here, then at the end of the scene….

END FLASHBACK

10) On-Screen Captions
To identify an on-screen caption use the following:
SUPER: London, 1852
The ‘Super’ is an abbreviation of ‘super-imposed’. I’ve also seen the following which is fine:
CAPTION: London, 1852

11) File Format & Naming
Don’t forget that you are naming your file so that is makes sense for the recipient. When working in development on multiple drafts with a writer I always date each draft. However, when you are sending your script out to someone for the first time it’s better not to include a date or draft number:
Desk Wars by Hayley McKenzie – Episode 1 Script.pdf

Whatever software you’ve used to create your script you should always convert to PDF for sending it out.

12) Screenwriting Software
There is no denying that Final Draft is the industry-standard software for film and television, in both the UK and US. Script Angel offers a discount on Final Draft software here.

There are other screenwriting software providers, some of which are free; Movie Magic, Celtx, Writer Duet, Fade In, Scrivener, Adobe Story, Amazon Story Writer, to name just a few. And, given that you’ll be converting your script to PDF anyway, you just need to find a software that feels right for you.

In all script formatting, clarity and consistency are key so that the formatting doesn’t draw our attention away from the story.

Book Review: The Art of Script Editing by Karol Griffiths

This insight into the art of script editing is a must-read not just for aspiring script readers and script editors, but also for emerging screenwriters as they master the skills of rewriting and working with notes. In her hugely informative book, experienced script editor Karol Griffiths guides you through the world of script analysis and script editing.

the art of script editing

The book is that perfect blend of truth-telling and encouragement, walking you through the practical analytical skills you’ll need to determine what is and isn’t working in a script, whilst always keeping one eye on the writer who might be in receipt of your analysis.

There is a lot of information out there about script analysis and identifying weaknesses in the various script elements, from genre and story structure to theme and dialogue. While Karol’s book covers all of these, what makes it unique is her emphasis on diplomacy and delivery – essential skills for the script editor who must work with a writer to help them produce the strongest possible script.

While many people claim to know how to give script notes, too many have only ever had to write a written report and then walk away from the project and/or writer. What sets script editors (like Karol and myself) apart is having the skills and experience of delivering notes in a way that allows the writer to feel positive about the rewrite and turn in a much improved next draft. Her sections on how to prioritise notes and take a first meeting with a writer are hugely informative and give an insight into the real development process which is mostly hidden from emerging writers.

There are also fantastically helpful sections that are a valuable resource for the new script editor, including how to prepare a script for production, the reality of script editing on a fast-turnaround television show and what to do when your producer and writer don’t agree.

Whether you’re an emerging screenwriter curious about the professional script development process, or an aspiring script reader/analyst or script editor, this book is a valuable resource.

Karol Griffiths is a film and television script editor, providing script development support through her own script consultancy and at Script Angel, where she offers both a 3-Month Script Development Service and a 6-Month Screenwriter Mentoring Service.

 

Time To Write

We all lead busy lives and feel the pressure to cram every waking moment with useful activity. But sometimes, to really think deeply about our writing, what we most need is time without distractions.

We’ve all become adept at multi-tasking, but when we cram every hour with multiple tasks we can tick off our ‘to-do’ list, we’re not multi-tasking at all, we’re simply snatching tiny bits of time for each task.

nature - blue sky with cloud

Fitting your writing around a day-job is a challenge faced by almost all screenwriters in their early days. And while having a routine and writing a little bit every day is crucial if you want to get two spec scripts completed every year, sometimes you need more than that. You need time away.

You might be able to use your annual holiday to focus on your writing, although family and friends might have other ideas! Or you might decide to really get away from it all and go on a screenwriting retreat.

Escaping from work, chores, family and friends will help you to reconnect with your writing, whether you’re exploring new ideas, struggling with a knotty story problem or trying to find your characters. Sometimes you need to give yourself the time and space to nurture yourself and your writing.

 

Psychology for Screenwriters: Character Starting Points by Phil Lowe

I’ve reached the end of my series looking at how to use psychological models to build convincing characters with real dramatic potential. In this final blog, I wanted to mention a few which didn’t make the cut for various reasons, but which remind us firstly that there are several different ways to get a fix on your character, and secondly that there are a lot of models out there. This is more of a whistle stop tour than you’ve been used to from me, so you’ll need to do some further research on those you find interesting.

What’s your character’s emotional makeup? The EQ-I

I think I deserve some kind of award for doing a whole series based on business psychology without using the buzzphrase “emotional intelligence”. Sadly, my winning run ends here, with a model that helps you think about how your character’s emotional literacy affects their interpersonal effectiveness.

Psychology for Screenwriters - Phil Lowe - EQi2.0Model(SM)

Writers are supposed to be masters of cause and effect, and this model is built around it. Start at the top of the wheel: the better I know myself and my emotions, the better I can express to others how I’m feeling, the better the quality of my interpersonal relationships, the more effective decisions I can make, the less stressed I am. If you were a management client of mine in my day job, that’s the virtuous circle I’d be helping you to build. Of course, in my other guise as a writer, the last thing I want is for my characters to develop world class emotional literacy. I want them to be so hideously un-self-aware that they express themselves clumsily, destroy relationships, make disastrous decisions and stress themselves to the limit. This model gives you lots of options to mess with your characters’ heads.

Each component of the cycle in the diagram has three sub headings, and the full questionnaire would give you a rating on each. This is where it gets subtle. The EQ-i is great for looking at the contradictions that can hold a character back. Look under Self-perception: what if a character were to score high on Self-Actualisation (setting ambitious goals and wanting to achieve) but low on Self Regard (not believing themselves to be capable of achieving those goals)? Apart from thinking “hey, they sound like a writer”, you can see how just that one contradiction could give you a simple way into a character’s internal conflict.

A quick example: Jo Gillespie (Sheridan Smith) in the current ITV series Black Work. She combines high Independence (the ability to act without referral to others, in theory a good thing) with low Impulse Control (she doesn’t think before charging off on a whim) – which, as a policewoman, is unlikely to help her stay out of trouble and turns her Independence score into a liability.

What “type” of person is your character? The Enneagram

This is already popular with many writers. I don’t use it in my own professional coaching work, but I hear it recommended regularly. Like temperament theory it has roots in models of personality going back over a thousand years.

Psychology for Screenwriters - Phil Lowe - enneagram

The advantage of using this model to build character is it helps you get round the danger of making your character such a recognisable type that they become a cliché. Here’s where the lines on the diagram come in. You start with the character’s basic type (choose your label from the nine on offer), but each type will be nuanced by traits of the type that sits to either side, and also by the types to which the lines connect them. For good measure, under stress they will appear like a warped version of a type that is opposite to them.

A quick example: Sarah Travers (Cara Theobold) in the current BBC1 series The Syndicate. She is primarily a Helper (a servant who is also looking to be loved), with hints of Reformer and Achiever (she wants to do the right thing, as well as she can). The lines to Individualist and Challenger create a tension in her relationship with Sean – yes, she’s looking for love and security, but she can be suddenly and fiercely independent when crossed – and it’s Challenger which the Enneagram predicts is most likely to appear under stress, which gives her character its steely edge and stops her coming across as too good to be true.

What’s your character’s basic energy with other people? The Insights Wheel

The Insights model draws on the same Jungian psychology as the Myers-Briggs, another model popular with writers (but, sadly, more complicated to describe in a few words). This is another useful model when you want to get a quick fix on a character. In the real world, sales people use it to develop a hypothesis about a potential client they’re meeting by focusing on, initially, a choice of four basic “energies”: Cool blue (detached, reflective and objective thinker); Earth Green (quiet, values and relationship driven); Fiery Red (action oriented, reality-driven) and Sunshine Yellow (radiant, friendly and enthusiastic). Allow for the possibility of crossover energies between these four and you get the wheel below, with eight energies.

Psychology for Screenwriters - Phil lowe - insights-eight-type-colour-wheel

A quick example: Rust (Matthew McConaughey) in the first series of True Detective was an interesting example of an Earth Green, reminding us that “relationship oriented” for the introspective Green is very different from the outgoing, black slapping relationship orientation of the Sunshine Yellow. Rust is a dark, brooding, apparently isolated character, but his orientation towards personal values and authenticity in relationships was what brought him into conflict with his opposite in this model, the Fiery Red “Director” Martin Hart. Rust at first glance might not seem to fit the label “Supporter” in the diagram, but that’s the danger of making assumptions about labels – in his own way, Rust will support someone whose integrity he trusts.

So, the tour ends; and my head of Marketing reminds me to remind you to have a look back over my blogs in this series, and cherry pick those models which resonate most with you. Like the personalities in the models I’ve covered, as writers we are as distinctive as our characters, and your most authentic work will come from working with a model you feel at home with. There’s certainly no shortage of them. As always, approach with caution and please don’t psychoanalyse your friends, but if you’re working with fictional characters, anything that helps is fair game.

Phil Lowe is a scriptwriter and novelist with a professional background in business psychology. http://www.phil-lowe.com. Follow him on Twitter @grumpyrabbit.

Screenwriter Interview – Daisy Coulam

Daisy Coulam is a British screenwriter who has written for ‘EastEnders’ and ‘Casualty’ (BBC) and last year wrote the new hit ITV show ‘Grantchester’. Here she shares with Script Angel’s Hayley McKenzie her screenwriting journey.

Hayley: Huge congratulations on the success of your drama Grantchester (ITV) which has been recommissioned for a second series. Can you tell me a bit about the project and its journey from idea to production?

daisy coulam - screenwriter interviewDaisy: Thank you! Diederick Santer and Dom Treadwell-Collins who were working at Lovely Day approached me with the book. I knew Diederick from EastEnders days and he thought I’d like the sad gentleness of James Runcie’s writing and characters. He was totally right. I read the book in 2 hours on a train journey and fell in love with Sidney, Geordie, Amanda, Leonard, Mrs M and Dickens.

We expanded a couple of ideas in the book to make serial strands – like Sidney’s wartime past and his love triangle with Amanda and Hildegard. But basically the blue print of the series was all there in the novel.

It took 2 years from acquiring the book to getting the commission. I was on honeymoon when I heard that we’d got the green light. My husband and I celebrated with beers in the middle of the Costa Rican rainforest which was pretty surreal…

HM: Have you always written stories? When did you realise that you wanted to be a screenwriter and that it could be a career?

DC: I used to write stories when I was little – they were always pretty ropey and I never finished a single one of them. I was a procrastinator even then… I’ve always loved films and TV and reading though so maybe that set me in good stead.

I never considered writing as a career until I became a script editor in my twenties. I loved working with writers and it seemed such an appealing way of life. Being freelance, having control over your own working day etc.

I applied for the BBC Writers Academy using a script I’d re-written at The Bill (ITV). I never considered that I’d get on the course – there was so much competition and I didn’t feel like a ‘real writer’ – but when I did, it was like everything clicked into place.

HM: What was the first script you finished and what made you write it?

DC: I have a confession to make – I’ve never written my own spec script. The first script I wrote properly was my EastEnders commission via the Writers Academy. What made me write it? Fear of being sacked! To be honest, that fuels every script I ever write – I’m not sure the anxiety of being hoisted off a project ever goes away.

HM: How did you get people in the industry to notice your writing?

DC: I worked my way up from the inside – first as a runner then a script editor and storyliner. There are a multitude of ways in to writing but this route worked for me. You learn so much working on a production and you meet a lot of lovely people (people like you Hayley!). These people then go on to work on other shows and before you know it, you’ve got yourself a network. Without having to do one of those scary networking events where you get nervously drunk and can’t remember what you’ve said.

I was lucky. I had friends who trusted that, even when my first drafts were dodgy, it would all work out. I think writers need that space to make mistakes. Because – let’s face it – no one writes a perfect first draft.

If you do, I salute you – you’re my hero!

HM: How did you get an agent?

DC: My way of getting an agent was a little topsy-turvy. I didn’t find one until I’d finished the  BBC Writers Academy. Bianca Lawson who worked at Casualty at the time put me in touch with Hugo Young at Independent. He’s a dude and has been my agent ever since.

My advice about agents would be – don’t worry about it too much at first. I know that’s easy to say but there seems to be this horrible Catch 22 – you can’t get a job without an agent – you can’t get an agent without a professional piece of work.

Try and be relaxed about it – focus on writing something you’re proud of. The agent will follow…

HM: Emerging writers often feel that if they could just get their first screenwriting credit then the work will start flooding in and they’ll be able to sit back and pick the opportunities. Is it really like that?

DC: Yes and no. There’s no doubt about it, once you get a credit on IMDB  people sit up and take notice.

But that’s not to say you can take your foot off the pedal. ‘You’re only as good as your last script’ is horribly accurate. In my experience, you have to keep proving yourself script after script.

There will be bumps along the road – I’ve been sacked – most writers I know have at some point. It’s an ego-bruising experience. But you have to learn from it, pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get back to work.

On a positive note, you inevitably improve as you write more. My latest scripts are miles better than my first ones. And you get tougher – the knocks hurt but not quite so much.

HM: How many projects are you actively working on at any one time?

grantchester - daisy coulam - screenwriter interviewDC: I must admit, I struggle with this. At the moment, I’m working on Grantchester Series 2. But I have three other projects on the go which have had to take a back seat for the moment. In my experience there’s a very fine line – take on too much and you burn out, take on too little and there’s a risk that in a year’s time, you’ll still have nothing off the ground.

I think you just have to work on instinct. If you’re weeping at your laptop at 10 at night whilst consuming a family pack of Jelly Babies, then you’ve probably got too much on your plate…

Learning to say no is bloody hard. But it’s absolutely necessary.

HM: Are you focused on television drama or writing for other platforms, like feature films?

DC: There’s so much going on in Television at the moment – and so many wonderful shows being produced – that I’m very happy where I am. I’d love to write a film one day but the right idea hasn’t shown itself to me yet. I’m ever hopeful that it’ll pop into my head one day fully formed…

Do you always have to write a spec script to pitch a project to a producer or are you pitching with a two-line idea or a treatment?

DC: If you can boil your idea down to two lines, then I think you’re onto a winner. If you’re itching to write the script, that’s fine. But be aware that people in those (generally terrifying!) meetings want you to be able to sell your idea succinctly.

HM: What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to someone starting out?

DC: Don’t be discouraged. You will experience knockbacks and rejections. This doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. Keep the faith – you are great!

Conversely, have the humility to realise that you’re not ALWAYS great. If someone gives you notes on a script, listen to what they say. If the notes make you angry, it’s probably because deep down you know they’re right. Or it could be that they’re wrong and haven’t read your script properly. But mostly it’s the former. Damn them…

I’ve found that sometimes it takes just one person to believe in you before everyone else follows suit. If you can find that one person – be that a producer or script editor – stay in contact with them. Not in a stalkery way. But if you have a genuine connection with someone, you never know where they’ll end up and where that will lead you.

Hayley: Thanks Daisy!

Daisy: No worries!

Mapping Character Change Using Psychological Theory by Phil Lowe

I’ve tended to focus in this series on personality models which emphasise how different we all are, as it’s generally the differences between characters which lead to drama. But let’s break the rule for the last in the series and look at a model which says we are all exactly the same when it comes to responding to a change in our circumstances – and which creates drama through a battle we have with our own psyche.

If you’re doing your job as a writer, your characters will spend a lot of time wrestling with some kind of change: losing a job, getting a job, receiving bad news, meeting a new partner, finishing with an existing partner, having an accident, being betrayed… Without change there is no drama. And our ability to understand the impact of change on a person comes from the “transition curve”, courtesy of a doctor who took one of the most dramatic changes of all – dealing with a diagnosis of terminal illness – and used it to map how we respond to any change.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross made extensive studies of the reactions of terminally ill patients on learning the facts about their condition. When she put her observations together, she found that each and every terminally ill individual went through a series of identifiable stages in the process of coping, or attempting to cope, with the reality of death. If you were to plot the stages over time, and graph them according to how positive one feels, you get the curve below.

character changeAfter a brief period of shock, you see that the curve goes upwards. How can such bad news result in a positive reaction? The answer is that the positive feelings are essentially self-deluding, for this is the stage of Denial. The stance here is ‘It isn’t true: the tests must be wrong; I’ve never felt better.’

If the patient can be convinced of the reality of the situation, this positive stance is wiped out at a stroke and the patient advances quickly to the next stage, Anger. This is emotion born of frustration and impotence, and all logic is abandoned, before a semblance of apparent logic returns in the stage of Bargaining. The archetypal example of Bargaining is doing a deal with God (“Cure me and I’ll do good deeds for the rest of my life”). And when Bargaining doesn’t work, then Depression takes over (“I can’t cope with this, I might as well give up now.”)

If the patient can be coaxed beyond this, they reach the point of Acceptance, the point at which one decides to face what is happening and use the remainder of one’s time positively. This will require some experimentation, until the truly positive final step is achieved and the patient has a way of living which is authentic and embraces their condition.

Notice anything, narrative structure enthusiasts? Is this not a little like the arc of a character through a story? Is the stage of Acceptance not unlike that moment at the end of Act Two (or Act Four, if you’re trying to impress the new head of BBC Drama) when a character accepts the need to change and sets off to make what s/he has learned about him- or herself work? Does the Denial stage not bear a passing resemblance to the “refusal of the call” stage of the Hero’s Journey? Because what does a good story do if not present your protagonist with an enforced change, and then watch how they come to terms with it? This is why the transition curve is so powerful – it connects us with a deep human truth which unites us all, and which is reflected in stories told throughout history.

But before you start making all your characters terminally ill, this curve applies to any change, even positive ones. What does every lottery winner say? “This win won’t change me” (while you smugly think “hah, you’ve clearly never read about Denial being the first reaction to change – you’re going to suffer, mother****er”. Or maybe that’s just me). It doesn’t even have to be used in the service of Drama. Sitcoms rely heavily on Denial, Anger and Bargaining stages: The battle against the need to change is a staple of British comedy, from One Foot In The Grave to Fawlty Towers. Of course in a sitcom the character mustn’t change, so they are doomed never to reach Acceptance.

A comedy told as a complete story, though, will go through the whole curve. In the recent Melissa McCarthy vehicle Spy Rick Ford (Jason Statham), the alpha male obsessive foreign agent, is driven first by Denial (ignoring the rule to stay out of the mission), then Anger (becoming more and more of a loose cannon), Bargaining (as he tries to make an unnecessary partnership with Susan Cooper work) and finally, the Acceptance that Susan has done a good job. We leave him experimenting with a new phase as… I won’t spoil the ending for you. RomComs are another great example: the characters spend much of the film in Denial, Anger or Bargaining, as they each resist the call to change represented by their relationship antagonist. The film’s crisis is the point where they must Accept their need for each other, whereupon one of them runs to the airport and… you get the point.

So whatever genre you work in, ensuring that no character experiences change without triggering the transition curve will bring great authenticity to your script. And don’t only think about the major change that runs through the arc of the story; within one block of dialogue, if it’s doing its job properly, a character will be pushed out of his or her comfort zone and will inevitably display at least some Denial, pushing back to try and preserve the status quo.

This is my last blog in the series – but like any human being, I will go straight to Denial and do another farewell one shortly.

Phil Lowe is a scriptwriter and novelist with a professional background in business psychology. http://www.phil-lowe.com. Follow him on Twitter @grumpyrabbit.

Writing Like Alfred Hitchcock by Tony Lee Moral

Alfred Hitchcock famously said that the three most vital elements of a film are ‘the script, the script, the script.’ He worked closely with his writers to construct the film, from the very beginning, on paper. Rarely would he take any writing credit himself, but guided his writers closely through every draft, paying attention to detail, with a preference towards telling the story through visual rather than verbal means.

Writing Like Alfred HitchcockHitchcock’s preferred writing collaborators were playwrights, novelists, screenwriters, and short story writers. When looking for source materials for his thrillers, he often turned to novels and short stories from established writers like John Buchan, Maxwell Anderson, Thornton Wilder and Patricia Highsmith.

As the author of three books on the Master of Suspense, including a ‘how to’ write a thriller, called Alfred Hitchcock’s Movie Making Masterclass, I was naturally inspired by his stories and screenwriters when constructing my screenplay, Playing Mrs. Kingston, which I subsequently turned into a novel. The story, set in 1950s New York, is about a woman who is asked to pretend to be a rich man’s wife, but when he is murdered, the woman’s boyfriend is accused. I was particularly inspired by those source novels Hitchcock adapted into memorable films, especially The 39 Steps by John Buchan, Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith, and The True Story of Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero by Maxwell Anderson. In tone, my novel resembles some of Hitchcock’s most famous movies such as Notorious, Dial M for Murder, Marnie, Rebecca, and The Wrong Man.

Hitchcock’s films follow the conventional three-act structure in stories as diverse in plot as Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest, Psycho and The Birds. In the first act, it’s setting up who the characters are and what the situation of the whole story is. The second act is the progression of that situation to a high point of conflict. And the third act is how the conflicts and problems are resolved. The third act has the highest point of conflict, just before the resolution, and it builds to a climax that is bigger emotionally than anything that has happened in the second act.

Good writing is subtext, reading between the lines, rather than ‘on the nose’ dialogue. Much of the dialogue in Hitchcock’s best screenplays, such as Notorious, Rear Window, and North by Northwest, is indirect, with layers of meaning. Nobody says anything straight; the dialogue is oblique, but perfectly understandable. It’s more interesting to say things through a literary device and have people remember the lines. Good dialogue should have a rhythm and be full of conflict, like Guy Haines’ epic tennis match in Strangers on a Train, a verbal volley match, until someone scores the point. In my novel Playing Mrs. Kingston, there is much verbal sparring between Catriona, the protagonist, and Radcliffe, the detective, who is chasing her in a high stakes cat and mouse game.

Hitchcock always tried to tell the story in cinematic terms, not in endless talk. He was a purist and believed that film is a succession of images on the screen; this in turn creates ideas, which in turn creates emotion, which only seldom leads to dialogue. He also believed that not enough visualizing was done when writing a screenplay, and instead far too much writing dialogue. A movie writer types a lot of dialogue in his word processor and becomes satisfied with that day’s work. There is also a growing habit of reading a film script by the dialogue alone. Hitchcock deplored this method, which he saw as lazy neglect.

Effective visualizing occurs during the opening of Rear Window, an example of Hitchcock working beautifully with his scriptwriter John Michael Hayes. Hitchcock uses a succession of images of items around L.B. Jeffries’ apartment to tell the story of how he came to break his leg, why he’s in a wheelchair and what his occupation is. All this is done with the use of the visual rather than dialogue. In Hitch’s 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, in the scene at the Albert Hall with James Stewart and Doris Day, Hitchcock and his writer Hayes had written dialogue for Stewart to say when he chases Day up the stairs in the climatic sequence. But Hitchcock felt that without dialogues, this whole final sequence where the assassination is about to take place – of a central figure from some nameless country – would be stronger. He discovered he didn’t need dialogue at all.

Tony Lee Moral is a documentary filmmaker and author of three books on Alfred Hitchcock, (including ‘Alfred Hitchcock’s Movie Making Masterclass’  published by Michael Wiese Books) and specializes in mystery and suspense. His novel ‘Playing Mrs Kingston’ has just been published by Zhamae Press.

Creating Your Character Mix Using Temperament Theory by Phil Lowe

After last month’s look at what drives your character, this time we’re back to the fundamentals of personality, thanks to an old chestnut that goes right back to the ancient Greeks – the idea that the human race can be divided into four temperaments (“temperament” being defined here as “a configuration of observable personality traits”). The most famous four-way classification came from Hippocrates, the father of medicine, who believed that an imbalance of bodily fluids (hold the “ewww”s, we’re not going there) caused each of us to be one of Choleric, Phlegmatic, Melancholic or Sanguine.

Character mix - Four temperamentsIn the 1970s David Keirsey and Marilyn Bates popularised temperament theory by linking it to arguably the most widely used personality questionnaire, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (also a favourite of writers). Presumably because of some drama of their own, Keirsey and Bates went their separate ways; for our purposes I’m going to use the terminology from the former’s most recent work on the subject. As always, think about a character or group of characters you’re working on as we take a whistle stop tour of the four temperaments.

The Guardian: Guardians see themselves as dependable, loyal, and hard working. They are “good citizens”, conservatives (with a small “c”) who respect authority and like structure. In a relationship they are supportive, as leaders they go for stability. George Bailey (James Stewart) in It’s a Wonderful Life is a great example of a Guardian protagonist, holding tradition and community together in the face of a greedy antagonist.

The Artisan: Artisans, like Guardians, dwell in the real world, but are constantly changing it rather than preserving it; they tend to take a playful, sometimes unconventional approach to what they do, and are prone to spontaneous and impulsive behaviour. They make great troubleshooters and adaptable companions. The narrative energy in Far From The Madding Crowd comes from Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) trying to remain an Artisan in a world which expects women to be Guardians. She shuns convention, and behaves with an inconsistency which confounds the men in her life.

The Idealist: Ideas rather than reality are the concern of Idealists, and the ideas they work with are to do with the growth and development of people and society. They work from intuition and are happy dwelling on deep philosophical questions about the nature of existence – so they can be intense as friends or lovers. Where the Artisan will take you on an unexpected but practical journey, the Idealist will take you on a limitless spiritual one. Tom Hollander’s eponymous character in Rev and Giselle (Amy Adams) in Enchanted both demonstrate the Idealist’s struggle to bring harmony and optimism to the grimy imperfect world they inhabit.

The Rational: Problem solvers, lovers of complexity, seekers after knowledge – the Rationals share with the Idealists an impulse to turn away from the here and now, but in the Rationals’ case it’s in order to build logical theories and models. The old joke (don’t get too excited) about a scientist who takes apart a thing that works in practice to make sure it works in theory (OK, you can stop guffawing now) could have been said of a Rational, who is likely to be ingenious, sceptical and independent. They don’t have to be maverick, but in drama they often are: Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) in Age Of Ultron allows his quest for scientific perfection to get in the way of his fellow superheroes’ unity.

Fictional characters are not interesting in themselves, but become interesting when they rub up against other characters who are not like them. And this is where temperament theory can give you a quick and simple way of testing the variety of your character mix, since the last thing you want is a group of characters seeing the world the same way. I’ve been thinking about the BBC series W1A, and how skilfully writer John Morton subtly differentiates characters who at first glance are all doing the same thing – talking bollocks and passing the buck.

In a typical meeting scene, the obvious Guardian is Neil Reid (David Westhead), rejecting anything that isn’t practical; but Ian Fletcher (Hugh Bonneville) also acts as a Guardian, aiming to build consensus and make things work in practice. Siobhan Sharpe (Jessica Hynes) plays a largely Artisan role, spontaneously introducing new schemes and threatening the existing order. Purists might say she doesn’t dwell sufficiently in the real world to be a true Artisan; an alternative candidate is Lucy Freeman (Nina Sosanya), the producer who will always pull a creative but implementable idea out of the hat. The resident Rational is Anna Rampton (Sarah Parish) whose laser stare is generally followed with a focused demolition of a proposal; and the Idealist in the perennial meeting is Simon Harwood (Jason Watkins), totally divorced from the real world but relentlessly positive in taking everyone somewhere nebulous. Outside of the meeting room, hapless intern Will (Hugh Skinner) is also an Idealist, totally impractical but always looking for a chance to bond.

The joy of being a writer rather than a psychologist is you aren’t trying to help characters make the best of their personal traits; until we get to Act Three, we’re far more interested in characters bringing out the worst of their temperaments. It could be through comic exaggeration, as in W1A; or through meeting opposition from a different temperament: a Guardian trying to get an Idealist to be pragmatic, or a Rational trying to cope with an Artisan’s unpredictable spontaneity. Remember, there are more than four types of people in the world, so be careful of cliche; but if you have four main characters and are looking for a starting point to differentiate them, temperament theory can be a lifesaver.

For more on David Keirsey’s work on temperament, visit www.keirsey.com.

Phil Lowe is a scriptwriter and novelist with a professional background in business psychology. http://www.phil-lowe.com. Follow him on Twitter @grumpyrabbit.

Creating Conflict Using Personality Theory by Phil Lowe

In this series of blogs, I’m bringing together my career as a writer with my “proper job” as a management coach and facilitator; I work by day with classic personality models which, by night, I use to help create authentic characters. In my last blog, I looked at a psychometric model called the SDI and how it can help you with character motivation. This time, I’m going to use a classic behavioural theory to unpick another staple of every story – conflict.

Model (c) K Thomas and R Kilmann

Model (c) K Thomas and R Kilmann

The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Inventory was developed in the early seventies by Kenneth Thomas and the appropriately named Ralph Kilmann. “Conflict” means any situation in which my needs, opinions, goals, differ from yours. Because what everyone wants in a conflict is to resolve it, I choose a “mode” – a strategy – that I believe will resolve the conflict most effectively in the immediate term. I could choose the most effective mode because I’m thoughtful and mature (great in life, useless in drama), or I could choose a mode which just makes things worse (hint: best choice for fictional characters).

There are five modes, plotted on two axes. The vertical axis asks to what extent it’s important to you in a conflict situation to get the outcome you want – this determines how “assertive” your approach is. The other axis asks how important it is to you that the other person gets the outcome they want; this determines how “cooperative” you will be. Think about a character you’re working on at the moment as we look at each mode in turn.

Competing is assertive and uncooperative; in other words, I focus on getting the outcome I want regardless of what you want. But don’t assume this mode always involves shouting, stabbing or blowing things up; a health and safety inspector who has found a breach of regulations in your office will adopt this mode in a quiet and reasonable way. And you don’t have to be powerful: the underdog’s refusal to be yoked is also Competing.

Accommodating is cooperative and unassertive. If I’m using this mode, I will agree to do things your way because what’s most important to me is you getting what you want. This isn’t necessarily because I’m a patsy; it depends on my long term goal. I might believe that conceding something now which isn’t so important to me will make me more likely to get what I want later.

Avoiding is neither assertive nor cooperative; I’m not focusing on the outcome at all. I’m delaying, parking, sidelining the conflict. It could be for good reasons (we need more information, or things are getting heated) or for bad (I don’t have the courage to say what I want, but I can’t bear to give in.)

These first three modes we can think of as primal and instinctive. Put in a corner, an animal will either fight (Competing), roll over (Accommodating) or run away (Avoiding), so it’s worth thinking about what your character’s default is, because it’ll almost certainly be one of these. (Note for loyal readers of this series: you can see how the SDI motivators Red, Blue and Green might fuel the choice of Competing, Accommodating and Avoiding respectively). The remaining two modes, then, are less instinctive because in using them, I have to focus on both what I want and what you want, which requires conscious effort. For this reason they are less inherently dramatic, but have their uses.

Compromising is an expedient mode: I get some of what I want, and you get some of what you want. We each give a bit, the conflict is not fully resolved, but enough to move on.

Collaborating has the aim of finding a resolution which fully meets the needs of both parties. As a result, it is a time consuming mode which requires lots of exploring of issues (i.e. talking), and this makes it problematic dramatically. Having said that, one character persuading another to collaborate rather than compete where the stakes are high can make for compelling drama.

So, what are your options? Well, if you like your scenes full of opposition, just have 90% of characters use the Competing mode. This is the basis of Game of Thrones, EastEnders and most action thrillers. Character development, though, is stymied by what is in effect a game of “yes it is/no it isn’t” (“You’re not my mother!” “Yes I am!!”). It’s when conflict modes shift over time that we get a sense of arc. Let’s look at a recent TV example, the BBC series Last Tango in Halifax.

Notice first how the premise carries conflict within it: a middle aged couple marry and unite two families. First, anything involving inheriting a step family means conflict; but also Alan and Celia are from different social classes, so conflict is hard wired in. Celia’s middle class family’s mode of choice is Competing, not because they are evil but because they are used to getting their own way. When Celia and Caroline square up to each other, we get an entertaining impasse (the lesbian wedding subplot of series three, leading to a bout of Avoiding). Meanwhile Caroline’s use of Competing is contrasted with her ex-husband John’s lack of assertiveness, which leads him to veer between Accommodating and Avoiding. Sally Wainwright gets drama from these less whizz-bang modes by making him try to assert himself (see his rambling proposal to Caroline that he move back in, which takes ages and leads to her simple “no”, which he Accommodates).

Gillian and her father Alan carry a working class sense of being at the bottom of the heap, and this is reflected in their tendency to work a triangle of modes between Accommodating, Avoiding and Compromising (Wainwright makes the latter mode dramatic in Series 3 by having Alan’s illegitimate son Gary make repeated demands of them; Alan’s final acceptance of the air tickets is a Compromise which we know can only be a partial resolution – tension results). Gillian dreams of Competing, but can never assert herself in the moment. In her we see the dramatic consequence of using Accommodating when you’d rather Compete: a series of passive-aggressive actions, like her fling with the ex-boyfriend. In her head she’s getting back at fiancé Robbie; but in practice she’s Avoiding – because it’s all behind his back. This stores up the tension which fuels the final episode in Series 3.

And that gives us a key to using these modes to give more depth and interest to your conflict: create a cause and effect chain. I’m in conflict with someone – I choose a mode without thinking – it doesn’t work – that makes me feel ((insert emotion here)) – so I change modes and try again. Like the textbook says, structure is character (unless you want to start a conflict about that…).

The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Inventory is published in the UK by www.opp.com, and in the US by www.cpp.com

Phil Lowe is a scriptwriter and novelist with a professional background in business psychology. http://www.phil-lowe.com

Want A Screenwriting Career? Here’s What You Need To Be Doing

If you have a passion for screenwriting and you want to make it your career, you’re already way ahead of the game because most people haven’t even figured out what they want yet, let alone how to get it.  And if you’ve finished your first draft screenplay, you’re ahead of the thousands of others who are still only thinking about writing theirs.

want a screenwriting careerSo you should give yourself a huge pat on the back for getting this far. But it’s a long road from your first draft of your first script to a screenwriting career so here’s my top tips for what to do to get there.

The good news is, there is a lot of help out there once you start looking for it. If you’re prepared to invest your time and a bit of money in your screenwriting career there is plenty of information, support and opportunities to help you develop your craft and your understanding of the business.

The Craft

Mastering the basics of screenwriting is tough. Writing a good story and telling it visually for the screen is no easy task. But there are lots of screenwriting books and articles out there to help you master the basics of formatting, story structure and characterisation.

But a good script isn’t enough anymore because the spec piles are awash with well crafted scripts written by people who have read all the books, studied the scripts of their favourite films, done a Screenwriting M.A and learnt the basics of screenwriting.

To stand out in that pile you need your script to be amazing. The first step is to get feedback, which might be from fellow writers (ideally ones more skilled than you are right now) or from a professional script analyst or script editor. But don’t just put it away in the drawer, USE IT! Rewrite your script. Put it away for a few days or weeks. Then read it again, alongside the notes you got on the last draft. Have you really addressed all of those notes? If not, rewrite again. Keep rewriting until your script is not just good but brilliant.  I’ll be doing a session for members of the London Writers Café later this year on ways to elevate your script so that it really wows.

The Business

However brilliant your spec script (or even a pile of brilliant spec scripts) it won’t get you a screenwriting career if no one in the industry has read it. So how do you get your writing noticed? It probably feels like a closed shop, an impenetrable fortress, but I promise you it isn’t. New writers are breaking in, getting signed by agents and getting their first commission all the time.

In the age of the internet there is no shortage of information about the industry and a myriad of opportunities to get yourself noticed. Read interviews with screenwriters who broke through in the last five years. Read the trade publications to keep abreast of spec sales and tv commissions – you can get a discounted membership to The Tracking Board by signing up for the Script Angel Newsletter.  Research screenwriting contests and producers looking for new material. Pick the brains of those working in the industry or come on my Screenwriting Craft and Career Workshop  (28 February 2015) to find out where producers and development executives look for new writing talent.

The help and advice is out there.  And if you put the work in to develop your craft and your understanding of the screenwriting industry, you can turn your hobby into a career.