Tag Archives: screenwriting tips

New Year Writing Resolutions

The world doesn’t owe you a screenwriting career. Harsh, but true. So, like everyone before you, you’re going to have to go out there and make it for yourself. And you can. Here are my top tips for new year writing resolutions to help you on your way.

Surround yourself with your biggest cheerleaders. Dementors are great in Harry Potter but not in your life. Avoid people who don’t believe in your dreams and instead spend time with people who do.

Find support groups online and in real life. Join a local Writers Group like Stratford-upon-Avon Screenwriters or Them There Northerners. Facebook and LinkedIn have numerous screenwriting communities and on Twitter search and use #scriptchat #screenwriting #amwriting to find other people talking about writing and screenwriting.

Make time for your writing every day. I know it’s tough with so many demands on our time, but you’ve got to put the hours in. And don’t kid yourself that you need a big expanse of writing time; if you wait for that to materialise you’ll be waiting forever! Carve out small chunks of time in your normal day, whether it’s your lunch-break, in the evening or early morning, even if it’s only for half an hour. But make it part of your daily routine.

Study the craft. Whether you take classes or self-study, there is a way to develop your screenwriting skills that suits you. There are numerous M.A Screenwriting courses; Creative Skillset list their accredited courses and any internet search will throw up hundreds more. There are short courses to suit everyone, anything from several months to one-day. If you don’t want spend money on a course, you can learn a huge amount simply by watching films and tv and reading their scripts. But don’t just be a passive consumer, be an analyst; break it down, work out how the writer has crafted their characters and story structure to manipulate you emotionally. Whether you’re watching comedy or horror, thriller or drama, the job of the writer is to make the audience feel (and hopefully to think as well), so how did the script make you scared, amused, excited, frightened?

Develop your screenwriting skills. The old adage ‘writing is rewriting’ really is true. So to make sure your rewriting is improving the script and you’re not just going round in circles, find people whose feedback you trust. That might be through peer review or via a paid-for script feedback like those on offer at Script Angel. If you go for peer review, make sure the person giving you feedback is at least as good a screenwriter as you, and preferably much better! If you opt for a script consultant, make sure they’ve got industry experience reading for well respected production companies and contests or have script edited professionally. Good feedback should offer practical solutions to the problems and weaknesses it identifies and should resonate with you as the right direction in which to take your project. Great feedback will inspire you to write the next draft.

Get your writing out there. No-one will know about your great script unless you make it visible to them, so do whatever you can to get your script as widely read as possible. Research the best screenwriting contests and target those offering what you most need, be that cash prizes or getting finalists’ scripts read by producers. The industry is looking for new writing talent and they’re looking to agents and the well respected contests as their filters. Target producers making the kind of films that your screenplay could become. I know the vast majority of production companies won’t take unsolicited material, but there are a handful that do and if they don’t, then get your script solicited by querying them. Don’t be a stalker but do be smart and tenacious in making yourself and your script visible to the industry.

Be true to yourself. Yes you should understand the market, but honestly, there’s an audience for just about every kind of film and therefore a place for every kind of screenplay. Of course there are more opportunities in some genres than in others but you don’t need to write a low-budget gangster thriller just because lots of them get made if that isn’t your cup of tea. Don’t write what you think others want to read. Write for yourself. Every successful screenwriter I’ve worked with has caught the attention of the industry with the script they were most passionate about. It might not be the thing that actually gets made but if it’s utterly compelling it will get you noticed.

Don’t give up. Anything is possible and as Lucy Hay wrote recently, ‘why not me?’. Someone is going to be the next big screenwriting talent to make a splash, so why shouldn’t it be you? The professional screenwriters I’ve worked with and interviewed for the Script Angel blog (Chris Lunt, Tripper Clancy, Robin Mukherjee, Jamie Crichton) all wrote on spec for years before their dreams of a screenwriting career became a reality. They didn’t give up, and neither should you.

Why I’ve Learned to Love Story Structure – Part 2 by Xandria Horton

I mentioned in a previous post why I know first-hand that structure can feel for some like their script nemesis. This blog post outlines some more thoughts I’ve found useful of ways to think about structure:

orange is the new black script angel story structure

Structure: micro and macro

Structure is most often referred to in the macro – the number of ‘acts’ in your script and its shape as a whole. But structure is less often thought of in the micro; the way in which your story delivers a single scene. Each scene has a status quo which is interrupted by something (ideally) dramatic, where a unit of story is delivered to the audience (almost certainly) through conflict, and the result is a changed situation. It’s easy to forget that it is this level that can shape the clarity and tone of the script.

Structure: when is a problem the story, and when is it how it’s put together?

When there’s an issue in your script, one of the biggest questions is whether it’s the story or plot – which are usually intertwined in the writer’s head – that’s at fault. Is it something that doesn’t quite sit right in the dynamic of your character’s journey and what happens (content), or is it because of where a piece of information sits in the script and how it is delivered (context)?

I’d love to hear any tools that you have for this process, but for me it’s getting the writer to test it in different ways: if it’s a feature, what’s the overall message or theme of the script – and does this scene fit within that? If this scene were removed, what would be the result on the larger plot? What would the opposite outcome of this scene look like? It’s also often useful to see in its simplest form (cue cards, scene by scene outline). Other suggestions are welcome!

Structure’s Toolkit

Below are some common elements in scripts that relate to structure:

The circular narrative: this is frequently used in TV and feature specs alike (and particularly in comedy). The opening scene of a script presents a scenario, usually a tense/climactic situation, after which the narrative jumps back in time to present the events leading up to this moment.

  • This structural tool succeeds or fails on whether the scene you are ‘hooking’ the audience with is sufficiently extraordinary and creates enough narrative questions (not only “how did they get here?” but “how are they going to get out?”). Ideally, assumptions created by presenting this scene out of context are subverted as a result of experiencing the story as a whole. As I’ve already mentioned in my X Factor blog post however, this can be a way that writers who know there isn’t enough story in the first 30 pages of their script can inject some narrative questions. However, this can also be a legitimate way to present two disparate story elements side-by-side.

The flashback and montage:

  • Whilst many writing resources have now come around to the fact that flashbacks, montages, dream sequences are not just lazy storytelling, this doesn’t mean that writers don’t sometimes rely on them in a way that delivers lazy storytelling.
  • Flashbacks should create drama in their own right and move the plot forward in the present, despite dealing with something from a character’s past. Bang2write has a great post on this here, which also delves into other often misused storytelling tools such as voiceover and dream sequences.
  • The flashback has had a revamp of late: Orange Is the New Black uses flashbacks as an integral part of its structure, which both humanises the inmates by presenting them in a world we recognise and creates ironies between their past and present lives. It also provides the occasional pressure release from a claustrophobic story world. Other recent UK TV like Utopia and The Honourable Woman made some bold and – I think – successful choices by carrying out large portions or entire episodes in the past, which then constantly informed the storytelling in the present, rather than dipping back and forth.
  • And as for montages, whilst they’ve moved on somewhat from Rocky (Team America, anyone?), they often aid a script to deliver a character change, but should never be in lieu of scenes that chart a character’s emotional journey – the audience want to see these up close. A good example of this is Groundhog Day; we skip the hundreds of days in which Bill Murray’s character learns to ice sculpt, play the piano, learn about Andie McDowell and generally become a better person. However, it doesn’t montage the scenes in which his character is challenged or he develops a better emotional understanding.

Multiple storylines a.k.a. ‘plate spinning’

  • Whether this is for a feature with an ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ story, or an episode of Downton Abbey or Game of Thrones, structuring and interweaving multiple storylines is what allows you to keep your stories moving forward. The difference is whether the viewpoint you create revolves around a central protagonist or an ensemble cast of characters.

Twists vs. Dramatic Irony

  • Structure constantly negotiates whether to let the audience in on one a piece of information before a character in the script (dramatic irony) or hold back so the audience experiences it at the same time – or even after the protagonist (plot twist). When you learn information and how is important in any story, but particularly in genre stories, where the audience can feel involved at key moments of the storytelling, e.g. playing “armchair detective” in Crime. Far from holding back on the plot, the more thought-out clues the audience can invest and speculate in to create plot twists, the better.

Experiencing something first hand vs reported action

  • Generally, it’s more dramatic for the audience to witness first-hand an event in the story, although there are some caveats to this. I frequently see traumatic events in the protagonist’s backstory shown in flashback or in the prologue, when it is possible to show this in a less conventional way. Also, on some occasions, it can be very moving if the plot understates the importance of an event by not flashing back or showing first-hand: examples include Thomas J’s death in My Girl, the fate of the girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List and the famous climactic scene in Se7en.
Yeah Brad, we know  structure can sometimes be tricky...

Yeah Brad, we know structure can sometimes be tricky…

So this is just a few thoughts to steer clear of structure potholes, identify structure issues and be aware of some of the more popular structure shortcuts (and when you might not want to use them). Feel free to add them to your structure ‘toolkit’ – and post below your own suggestions, or how these concepts have worked (or not worked) in your own writing experience.

Reader-Proof Your Script – The ‘X’ Factor – by Xandria Horton

Since joining Script Angel, I felt I should take some time here to introduce myself. Only polite really, since if you buy a Script Analysis Report, you will be getting notes from me on which elements of your script are working well and suggestions for things that can be improved in your next draft.

ten out of tenThere are lots of good ‘Reader-Proof your script’ blog posts out there*, designed to ensure your script will get past the dreaded script reader, but this blog has the ‘X’ Factor. The ‘Xandria’ Factor.

Now, obviously I’m not claiming I have anything near Simon Cowell-levels of money or power to greenlight your project, or that any audience participation or buzzers are used in my script development**. But I do have experience with both juggernaut companies who produce hit TV series and films across the globe and the plucky new indies who have clout through their gumption and know-how. This has given me a brilliant insight into the ideas that get across the commissioning line and those that don’t. Outside of Script Angel and with my Script Reader hat on, I am only one of a series of gatekeepers that a writer needs to excite with their script, which includes producers, film funding agencies and TV commissioners. Scary!

Most scripts by their very nature start their lives as precious, personal and intimate stories you nurture in the dark, only bravely unveiling them once you have expended hours of sweat, tears and toil. We particularly appreciate this at Script Angel, and so here are some tips to reader-proof with the ‘X’ Factor, based on things I have personally found can help – or hinder – your story.

Give your story the best intro that you can: are you starting page 1 of your script with one of these openings?

  • The start of a protagonist’s day, from when they are asleep in bed;
  • The main character’s answerphone message or a message left for them that gives large amounts of exposition;
  • A flashback (a historical human sacrifice or ritual that curses something to lay dormant until modern day or a detailed unveiling of the protagonist’s childhood trauma);
  • A dream sequence – particularly one that is interrupted by an alarm signalling the start of the protagonist’s day;
  • An arresting opening scene that then jumps back in time 24 hours / 1 week / 3 months earlier, which can imply that the writer wants to script to start with something exciting, and knows deep down there’s not enough story in the beginning of their script.

Obviously, you may find brilliant, original and inventive ways of making any of these tropes work, but these are frequently used and can therefore be a ‘red flag’ to readers in terms of how original or fresh the ideas appear to be. Of course, we hope that we’re wrong, but first impressions are important.

Bechdel Revisited: this is all about ‘intros’ in description. Whilst bad characterisation is by no means limited by gender, one virtually unique problem to female characters is an introduction along these lines: “JANE (20s), attractive, walks in”. Whilst contradictions, conflicts and desires virtually ooze out of the best comedy and drama characters, if the first and/or only thing the script has told us about your character is that she’s pretty, all this tells us is “THIS CHARACTER EXISTS TO BE A LOVE / LUST INTEREST”. As the brilliant former Vogue editor Diana Vreeland says, “Prettiness is not a rent [women] pay for occupying a space marked ‘female’.” What else do we need to know about your female character? Do they need to be attractive?

Tell me where I am, when I am and who I should be following: a script opens with several people talking around the dinner table. How do we know who is your main character? And, more broadly, how do we know when and where we are? Of course, there’s getting the world established and there’s getting the story going, but the more you write, the easier it will be to find a balance.

Keep me oriented in the script: one skill that can really make a script a joy to read is a writer who keeps the reader oriented in their story – even giving each scene a clear opening image. Think visually, without prescribing the camera angles unless it’s needed to follow the story. This will make action setpieces (car chases, fights etc) a real pleasure to read, and the best are usually simply written.

Don’t write the story you think I want to read: and by this I don’t literally mean me, I mean that you’re writing a script based on a recent success (Breaking Bad, Happy Valley, Peaky Blinders) rather than the story you are actually interested in. This is part of developing your own voice, which takes a lot of work. However, you’ll only ever write your best spec script once you’ve developed a style that is truthful to you. Obviously, many writers will want to write on established series or soaps, in which case you will aim to keep an element of your own voice but ensure that your writing fits into a pre-existing tone and structure.

Remember that I want your script to be good: I think it bears repeating; whether it’s developing a script through Script Angel or even being a dastardly reader, I want your script to be good. I will be willing it on from page 1; I will ignore that typo on page 4 if there aren’t three more by page 12***; I will look for the trail of story breadcrumbs you’ve left and try to make sense of any small plot or character questions I have, in quiet confidence that your story has me in safe hands and all will be answered to my satisfaction. And I’m no different to any other reader. We rejoice when we find a character who feels truthful and interesting and we can invest in their journey; and we want to go to our producer friends and bosses to tell them that we’ve found a script they’ll want to make.

So next time you’re thinking about submitting a script, ask yourself the age-old question: does it have the ‘X’ Factor..?

*If you’re looking for a couple of those other good articles, here they are:

http://www.writersstore.com/bulletproof-your-script-against-reader-rejection/ http://www.bang2write.com/2012/09/7-things-readers-can-tell-about-your-script-on-page-1.html

**Currently. Of course, that could be the Next Big Thing, who knows.

*** Which implies that you’ve not taken the time to read it over before sending it out, which can be frustrating. However, if you’re doing a last-minute rewrite on a shooting script, unless it changes the meaning, we will be more forgiving!

Xandria Horton is a Script Analyst for Script Angel. You can find out more about Xandria’s script feedback services here.