Tag Archives: screenplay craft

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.

 

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Fusing Genres by Bobby Del Rio

When I was first starting out as a writer, I made the decision to constantly write the opposite of what I had previously written. I won a playwriting award in university, and parlayed that momentum into some media attention as a young playwright in Toronto.

genre word art 2But with the ensuing media attention I received in the next couple years, I realized that there was still an awful lot about writing I didn’t know… I decided that the only way to keep evolving was to start writing the OPPOSITE of what I had built a reputation for. (At the time, since I was in my early 20s, I was known for teen drama.) I also didn’t want to get pigeonholed as being a particular “type” of writer, and the media does have a tendency to want to ‘define’ you (mostly for the benefit of their readership/audience, I think).

With every subsequent script, I started trying my hand at new genres. I didn’t necessarily think of them as genres at the time, but that’s what I was doing. I started out in teen drama, then moved to boisterous comedy, then tried my hand at naturalistic relationship drama, then started experimenting with absurdism, then romantic comedy, then gangster movies, etc.

After about a decade of consciously learning particular genres, I began to combine them.

That’s when my writing career really started to take off.

I’ve had many writing jobs in the last couple years, and I attribute this mostly to my conscious effort to fuse genres. If you really look at today’s most recognized screenplays, many of them could certainly be considered hybrids. Tarantino does it constantly (Django Unchained was Western + comedy + revenge thriller), Christopher Nolan (Inception was film noir + science fiction), Woody Allen (constantly blending comedy + tragedy), Spike Jonze (Her was romantic comedy + dystopian cautionary tale), etc.

We can argue about which specific genre elements were utilized in the above examples, but nobody can deny that those scripts feel fresh, original and DIFFERENT. For me, it’s fairly simple: If you build on the archetypes of the past, you can create something original in the future.

A simple (but effective) entry point for me in recent years has been saying to myself: What genres should I combine next? I just wrote/directed a feature film adaptation of my best play, The Market. When I began writing the play, I purposely set out to combine many tropes from genres I described as “uber male”. I took film noir, crime drama, buddy comedy and Wall Street action movies and combined them into one. The audience reaction (usually male) was unlike anything I had ever experienced as a writer (when we did the play). Many men absolutely loved the script, and I believe it’s because I was literally utilizing recognizable tropes from movies they loved in the past.

Many different people kept telling me my script reminded them of other movies they had seen in the past. That’s because I knew the genres I was fusing extremely well.

I believe there is a real opportunity moving forward as screenwriters to combine genres that people haven’t really seen before. We live in a very complex and deeply integrated world. The internet has made it quite easy for people to become experts on genre. You can watch entire television series from the 80s effortlessly, you can watch every single horror movie online if you have the time (which many people seem to be finding), etc.

People know genre inside and out these days, so I think it’s quite difficult to write a script that plays in only one world. Those scripts tend to feel outdated, like the audience has “seen it before”. Part of the reason my scripts tend to feel original for producers (which I’ve heard again and again) is for the simple reason that I am combining genre elements they haven’t seen before in the same script.

I believe in the notion that there are only 7 original plotlines in the history of the planet. Every script is a variation thereof, so for me, it makes perfect sense to simply start combining elements of those original storylines into one another.

Dialectical idealism is the principle that new things arise from previous incarnations of itself. That is an oversimplification of complex Hegel theory, but the general point remains: What is new is predicated on the perception of things that are old.

While it should be stated that one cannot fuse 2 genres together until one is experienced with the tropes of BOTH genres, it’s an excellent way to create unique combinations of possibilities. Now having written 60 scripts, what keeps me going creatively is that I might hit upon some magical ‘formula’, some new way of writing a script that completely changes the game for me…

But above all, writing should be FUN. While many of us who do this as our job can feel overwhelmed by the consumer politics of it all, I believe that stretching beyond your comfort zone as a writer is the way to achieve the feeling of freedom and creativity. Try combining elements from genres that seem completely unrelated. You might be surprised at how well the puzzle pieces fit together…

In summation, Bob Dylan said it best: The Times They Are A-Changin’.

Bobman

Bobby Del Rio is a published playwright and working screenwriter. He just wrote/directed the feature film The Market, and has many other feature screenplays completed for producers around the world. http://www.bobbydelrio.com

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.