Tag 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.

Screenwriter Interview – Jed Mercurio (Part Two)

In Part One of our interview with screenwriter Jed Mercurio, we talked about the process of developing his phenomenally successful drama series Line of Duty.

Here, Jed discusses with Script Angel’s Hayley McKenzie how he deals with notes, his process for developing new ideas and the challenges of writing science-fiction.

Hayley: As well as being the screenwriter, you’re also an Executive Producer on many of the shows you write and create, so you could presumably push stuff through. How do you get fresh eyes on the work?

Jed: Occasionally we’ll have a difference of opinion but we tend to just talk it through. If people are really opposed to something, it’s normally not a black and white thing, it’s normally a sense that something isn’t working or it could be better, and we just keep talking it through. So the editorial process is that at the start I have a meeting with Simon Heath and our script editor Priscilla Parish, and just say roughly what the series is going to be in terms of the launching off point. Then when I deliver the script they come back to me with their thoughts and we get into the practicalities of it.

H: How much time do you spend developing your characters once you’ve settled on your precinct?

J: I don’t develop characters separately from the story, they go hand in hand. I think about the kind of character who will fit the story.

H: Can you talk a bit about your writing day. Do you do set hours?

J: No, I tend not to beat myself up about that. As long as I’m on schedule for the week, that’s ok.

H: When you’re intensively focused on one project if you’ve got a greenlight, how much time are you able to invest in other ideas?

J: Right now I’m totally focused on writing the fourth series of Line of Duty, but when I finished my writing commitments on the third series I was writing other things. Even though at that point I already knew we’d be doing series four, I wanted to get some other things into development so I worked on some pilots of scripts for new series that I then delivered. None of them have yet been greenlit, but none of them have been killed yet either. So once I’ve finished writing the fourth series of Line of Duty I’ll go back and do more work on those based on the feedback from the broadcasters. And maybe if I’m lucky one of those might be greenlit.

H: When you knew that you had a little bit of time to develop other ideas, where had those ideas come from? Do you have an ideas notebook?

J: No, they’re more things and areas that I’m interested in. I will kind of note down any ideas but usually what happens is that they’ll stay with me. I’ll be thinking about them and potentially reach a kind of threshold point where I think, that’s going to work and I want to do it – I want to make that programme. Then it’s a case of having to find someone interested in working with me on it; a production company or a broadcaster. And not always do they respond positively. Sometimes I have ideas and no one is interested, so I have to drop them and come up with something else.

H: What kinds of shows did you love watching growing up?

J: My favourite show in my early childhood would have been Star Trek, then I started watching things like Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere.

H: You’ve written science-fiction yourself, with Invasion: Earth, would you like to do more science-fiction?

J: I would, but I think that it’s a very difficult sell in the UK. I would tread very carefully. If there was a science-fiction idea that I really wanted to do and I believed there was a way of doing it that didn’t fall foul of the tv landscape, then maybe I’d do it.

H: Do you think that there are more opportunities for science-fiction shows on channels like Netflix and Amazon?

J: I’m not sure that there are more opportunities there but I think that they’re probably a safer environment. I think that the terrestrial channels feel that they need to have a very broad appeal. Doctor Who has kind of reached the point, where it’s no longer a sensitive test for audience interest in science-fiction. Like in the 1980s where Margaret Thatcher had been prime minister for so long that asking who the prime minster is, was no longer a sensitive test medically for dementia. While it’s great that Doctor Who remains a successful and admired show, I don’t think that it helps us in our understanding of how you can make science-fiction, get it on air, and make sure it’s supported by the broadcasters. I think that’s an area where to be honest I don’t have a good answer.

H: Your *first show was Cardiac Arrest, and at that stage you were a working doctor and hadn’t been screenwriting at all. Did you learn the craft of screenwriting by writing that show?

J: Yes, I was lucky that I was kind of given an apprenticeship by people who were really invested in it. The fact that they were coming back to me with notes on the script and they wanted to make them good so that the thing got made, meant that people who do that for a living were really focused on that shared goal. It’s different from writing in isolation and sending scripts off and getting rejection letters or maybe getting some encouragement, which is nowhere near as intense or focused or detailed, so that meant that it was a really steep learning curve for me. We were in development for a couple of years on that show so there was plenty of time for me to understand the identity of the series and how to write the scripts. Then when it went out, because it was fortunately successful I was able to keep progressing on the second series. I become more serious about storytelling and I read books about it and went on courses. I didn’t slavishly follow those things. There were some things I agreed with and some things that I didn’t find helpful, but they did give me better analytical tools in terms of storytelling and judging my own work, in the way that when I first started the people who were involved had better analytical tools than me to be better able to say why something wasn’t working.

H: Cardiac Arrest, which had a lot of comedy in it, was followed by The Grimleys which was a very warm comedy piece. Since then your work (Bodies, Line of Duty, Critical) has been tonally more serious. Which is the real Jed?!

J: I suppose as a writer I’m probably more comfortable writing the kind of social realist precinct dramas that I have been writing since The Grimleys. I think that’s probably what I’m going to carry on doing. But I do love comedy and when I was writing Cardiac Arrest I tried to get a lot of humour in but I found that a lot of it got cut. We shot it, and it worked, but then it would get cut; to make the running time of the episode work the humour came out, so I just felt a little bit frustrated, and that made me want to write comedy, and get all that out of my system, which I kind of did with The Grimleys. I certainly watch a lot of comedy and I’m probably not as troubled as you might imagine from what I write in my drama.

H: Could you be tempted back into comedy writing?

J: I’d do it if it was the right thing, but I think that it would be a tough sell for anyone to commission me to write a comedy.

H: Have you created a screenwriting identity?

J: I think that people would have more confidence in commissioning me to write a thriller or a precinct drama rather than to write something that was different from what I’ve been writing in the last ten years.

H: Finally, what advice would you give to new writers?

J: Watch a lot of tv and write a lot. Don’t keep just going with the one idea and polishing it endlessly. Write an idea, then get it out there. And if people love it, then great, and if they don’t then be prepared to move on and come up with the next idea that’s better. Keep writing and keep moving forward.

Thanks Jed!

*From Doctor to Screenwriter. – Jed talks about how he came to screenwriting and how his breakout show Cardiac Arrest came about in this short interview with BBC Writersroom.

Screenwriter Interview – Jed Mercurio (Part One)

If you love your television drama you’re probably one of the nearly 5 million people who have recently been watching the third series of BBC2’s smash-hit drama Line of Duty. line of duty series 1-3

Script Angel’s Hayley McKenzie was lucky enough to sit down with the show’s creator, the brilliant  Jed Mercurio, to talk about the show, his screenwriting process and career.

SPOILER ALERT! Just a word of warning, they do discuss story from all three series of Line of Duty so if you want to avoid spoilers, best watch the box-set now!

Hayley: Congratulations on the third series of Line of Duty, it’s been a huge success. You must be delighted.

Jed: Yes I’m very happy with how it’s gone down. When something’s in the can and ready to go out you never have any idea how it’s going to be scheduled or promoted, and whether enough of an audience comes to that first episode and then likes what they see enough to keep coming back.

H: Can I take you back to the beginning of Line of Duty when you were first developing the idea and can you talk us through that process, when you first decided on doing something in this precinct.

J: It was probably in gestation for a good number of years; the idea of doing a cop show and then finding what felt like a distinctive angle on it which was police corruption. Although that had been done before there was nothing in recent times that focused on police corruption. In fact a lot of cop shows portrayed a very conventional positive image of the police. And although we’re not trying to portray a negative image of the police we are acknowledging that police misconduct occurs and that’s the focus of the drama. But also we decided that it was important for the drama that we weren’t having corrupt officers who were out-and-out villains, that we were having shades of grey so that the audience would be divided and that was always part of the concept. The other part of the concept was to make it a returnable series. Although the first series was viewed as being a serial we’d always said to the BBC that if it was successful the investigators could come back and they would have a new character to investigate.

H: So how early in that gestation period are you going to a production company and pitching that idea?

J: Very early. It kind of arose out of conversations I was having at World Productions, which initially were with Tony Garnett who I’d known since I’d done Cardiac Arrest. He and the company had a real track record of doing really good and interesting cop shows, so it felt like a very good match in terms of my creative ambition and the company’s experience. But the main creative relationship has been with Simon Heath at World and we saw the series the same way, we had the same ambition for it and that’s not always the case and I’m very fortunate that we’ve seen eye to eye throughout the development of the show.

H: And how much work on paper are you having to produce in order for Simon to then pitch it to the BBC? Are you writing a full treatment?

J: No, with the original pitching process, once we had a pretty solid idea of what the concept was, which would be something I would be able to write up in a couple of pages, then we went and spoke to a commissioner at the BBC and explained the idea to him. He was excited about the idea sufficiently to commission a script. But prior to that, I needed to deliver something on paper, so I delivered something about five pages long that was a summary of what the concept of the show was, the main characters and how the episodes would work. And also just the overall format of the show, which was that it was serialised, that it would have a closed ending story for the cop under investigation but an open ended story for the investigators, and if successful we would do a second series in the same format. So a lot of it was just practical and technical which allowed a broadcaster, from a business point of view, to see what they’re commissioning.

H: Once you’ve got that interest, what’s the next stage for you in terms of mapping out those episodes?

J: With the first series there was a very early document, which was I think was a page, about how the story would develop after the first episode. But that was before the first episode had actually been written. Then I outlined and wrote the first episode script and by then the series arc was already out of date. So we tend to work episode by episode, although there’s an overall understanding of where we’re heading which was very important in series one because we were more under the microscope as a new series. So within the production company and within the broadcaster there was a certain level of surveillance about what we were doing. As the series have gone on people have asked fewer questions about where the series was going.

H: And presumably they’ve needed to see less on paper in order to be confident about where the story is going?

J: That’s right. Recommissions tend not to be based on a pitch for the next series. It’s more the fact that the series has been successful for them and they want more. And it’s much more about when can you deliver the next series. Once there’s a commitment to that next series, that’s when they ask, what will the next series be? And so again, we can say, we’ll follow the same format and with series two it was a short while after we’d been recommissioned that I pitched the idea of the ambush and the officer that was under investigation.

H: Many writers are still discovering their process, especially in television where you’re managing multiple hours of story. How do you practically go about juggling that much story? Are you using index cards, are you white-boarding?

J: I write it down as an outline. An outline for an episode of Line of Duty is typically between five and ten pages. And what I write down in the outline is a description of what happens in every scene, and sometimes I even write down particular lines of dialogue that might encapsulate what someone is saying. I might summarise the conversation or I might summarise the action, but it just allows someone reading it to follow the flow of the story. And that for me is also a break-down of how much story I need and whether the episode reaches a satisfying conclusion, by which I mean that it propels the audience into wanting to watch the next one. So what I tend to do is break it down into ten minute segments because it’s not a commercial hour with ad breaks there’s no real act structure. Obviously if I’m writing a commercial hour then I do think in terms of the four acts in a British commercial television hour. For an American script often it’s a six act structure. You do have to have some idea of what each chunk of story will achieve. Because that doesn’t exist on the BBC hour I tend to write in ten-minute chunks, just so I’ve got some idea of where I’m going with the story.

H: And when you go to script on these episodes that you’ve outlined, how much is changing?

J: It varies. If the outline is working, then great. But if it’s manifestly not working then I’m not going to carry on flogging a dead horse, so then I may take a step back and rethink that episode outline. I may even go back to delivering a new outline and starting the process again, or I might figure it out as I go along – so I might just keep writing scenes that seem to work and when I reach a scene that isn’t working, I’ll throw that away and do something different.

H: Line of Duty was a change of precinct for you, having done medical with Cardiac Arrest and Bodies, how much research did you have to do to feel confident writing about a precinct you didn’t have personal experience of?

J: I didn’t feel I needed to do a huge amount. I felt that a lot of the ways in which an institution, a professional corps, behaves was transferrable from medicine to the police. In respect of the details of the law and procedure, I didn’t want to do my research before I wrote it.

H: So, story first?

J: Yes. I read a few things that were in the area I was interested in, which was about the target culture in the police, and the bureaucracy, so I specifically sought those things out. And then in terms of writing the procedure, we had advisors who gave notes on the script in terms of points of law and points of process.

H: And those long interview scenes, which the show has become famous for, was it hard to convince people you could sustain the tension over that length of scene?

J: We did it for the first time in the third episode of series one. That was a scene that ended up being about ten pages long. It went through a process. When I first wrote it, it was about five pages long. And I felt that it was an opportunity to put Tony Gates (Lennie James’s character) on the spot, and it felt like, maybe we should just keep going at him, see how far we get. And also I was kind of aware that we weren’t doing the kind of police interview that was contingent on one small fact that someone pretends not to know or lies about, and that comes out then everything collapses like a house of cards. We don’t do that. So, it was an organic process. When we filmed it and cut it together, everyone was happy with it, then when it went out, everyone was happy with it. So when we came back for series two, it felt like something other shows weren’t doing, that we’d kind of piloted, so we were going to push it a bit further.

H: How do you as the writer make sure that you’re sustaining that narrative tension right through a scene lasting five to ten pages?

J: A lot of it I could take for granted because a situation in which someone is very clearly hiding something, being confronted by a bunch of people trying to find out what that is, can be interesting in itself, and we know that from the fact that people have responded the way they have to those interview scenes. Because that’s taken for granted, I feel I’ve got a platform to write the scene. I don’t feel that I need to be doing something more in the writing to sell the scene. So when I come to those interview scenes, I never think, this is going to be a certain length, I just write the scene based on the information that the characters have at that point in the story and I explore it pretty organically. I know certain things that are important to the story and always each interview scene has a single, fundamental story point. At the end of it someone’s standing within that group has shifted, and a piece of information has come out that propels the story forward. And that’s all that’s really required.

H: How are you directing that on the page? So for example in the last episode of the third series, those interviews with Steve and Dot, we know that something has changed because Kate reacts to something they’ve just said. How are you conveying that on the page?

J: I’ll write ‘she writes a note’ and I’ll write what that note is. So I’ll be as explicit as possible. And that’s what we shoot, but that’s not necessarily what ends up in the final cut. So then in the edit we’re watching the scene cut together, and we’re not sitting there ticking off each of those moments that were in the script, instead we’re asking whether as a whole we need all of those moments. I certainly take the philosophy that if I’ve written five of those moments of Kate making a note, and we only end up with two or three, that’s ok as long as we’ve got the point across. I do feel though that if I’ve only written two of those and then we’re in the cut and they’ve not worked, then we’ve got nowhere to go because we can’t create more at the stage. So I’m often over-writing things in the knowledge that they can be cut back.

H: How much of future series’ stories are you planning and seeding ahead?

J: The Caddy and Tommy Hunter feature in series one but it wasn’t until we were commissioned for series two that I went back. We’d established an embedded corrupt officer and we felt that it would be great to use that more. The same process applied to series three, I felt a need to reinvest in that story and the same applies to Lindsey Denton’s story. When we made and delivered series two we all felt that it had a closed ending – Lindsey Denton’s going to prison for life. Just as in series one, Tony Gates’s story had a closed ending because he’s dead. Opinion was divided about whether Lindsey was really guilty or not, in a moral sense, which was intentional.

H: So when you were writing series two and we’re investigating the ambush on Tommy Hunter, did you know at that stage what lay behind his story, which you’d then use in series three?

J: No, again, it was about exploiting the resources we already had. We could have invented a different protected witness and a different cover-up for series three, but actually the fact that we had existing characters who could fulfil that role, felt neater, simpler and leaner and more satisfying in storytelling terms.

END OF PART ONE

More from Jed in Part Two of our interview, in which we talk about dealing with notes, developing new ideas and advice to new writers.

A huge thank you to Jed for taking the time out of his busy schedule to talk to us.

 

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.

 

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.

TV Drama Writers’ Festival 2014 – A Review by Kulvinder Gill (Part One)

This was the fifth TV Drama Writers’ Festival but the first one to be hosted in London. The first four festivals were held at the Leeds College of Music and were spread over two days – this time round, the venue was Central St Martins in Granary Square behind King’s Cross and it was a one-day affair.

So was this another example of BBC cuts? The 2014 schedule comprised a total of 22 sessions – compared with 30 at the 2013 Festival. This year a writer could attend a maximum of 8 sessions – compared with 10 last year. In purely quantitative terms, the Festival was about 25% smaller but the BBC also reduced the ticket price by an average of 40% making what has always been an excellent value for money event, even better value. (Indeed, a few days before the Festival, the BBC Writersroom website confirmed that the event had sold out.)

Despite this leaner Festival, there were no cut backs in the quality of the speakers, not surprising, given that the Festival agenda and schedule is driven by a team of writers – refreshed every year – making it an event organised by writers for writers.

As much as I enjoyed the annual trip to Leeds, I prefer this streamlined one-day Festival and found the new venue much more spacious and practical.

I attended 7 sessions, missing only the final “Unstoryfiable” talk by Adam Curtis. I chose sessions based on my main interests – specifically new media and obtaining practical advice on selling scripts.

The sessions I attended were:

  1. Keynote speech with Tony Jordan
  2. So You want to Write a Feature?
  3. Writers for Sale?
  4. Drama on YouTube
  5. The Two Tones with Tony Hall & Tony Jordan
  6. Selling Your Idea
  7. New Markets: Do we still need broadcasters?

1. Keynote

Last year at the 2013 MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, actor and producer Kevin Spacey spoke about TV enjoying its “third Golden Age” and declared that the “King of television is the creatives“.

For his own keynote speech, Tony Jordan the 2014 Chair of the TV Drama Writers’ Festival, followed up on Spacey’s pronouncement and asked : “If Content is King, Where’s Our Crown?”

Jordan’s point is that at a time when the demand for scripted drama is greater than ever resulting in drama actually defining channels – both on traditional TV and the new online platforms – why is the business side leading the way and not writers?

Tony Jordan decried the industry’s obsession with brands and wanting instant hits. He referenced the famous William Goldman quote “Nobody knows anything” – as well as Henry Ford’s (probably apocryphal) “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Jordan was unimpressed with Netflix’s claim that they “ran the numbers” and knew their subscribers would watch House of Cards – citing the counter example of Chris Chibnall writing hit drama Broadchurch as a spec script because he wanted to tell that story and not because of audience data.

Whereas Spacey in the MacTaggart Lecture offered examples and pushed the case for art and commerce collaborating together to make great work – Jordan was more bolshie, arguing that it was time for writers to pick a side – creative or commercial – or as he put it Freddie Mercury or Bananarama.

Tony Jordan urged writers not to chase commissions blindly – not to cynically search for that the gap in the market or the “next big thing”. His rallying cry to writers was “Be creative” and seize the crown by doing good work.

2. So you want to write a feature?

A session on writing feature films might seem out of place at a TV Drama Writers’ Festival but this was specifically about writing low budget features for the latest three-year Microwave scheme – a partnership between Film London, National Lottery, Creative Skillset, BFI and BBC Films. The BBC Films contribution means the Microwave produced features will have their TV premiere on the BBC.

The session was presented by Olivier Kaempfer who was the producer of Borrowed Time, a Microwave funded film and is now a senior executive at Microwave itself – giving him a unique insight into both sides of the scheme. Kaempfer also brought along guest Jules Bishop, the writer and director of Borrowed Time.

In its earlier funding rounds, Microwave produced a total of 8 films – all of which received a theatrical release – the best known probably being Shifty (2009) and ill Manors (2012)

Over the next three years, the new round of Microwave plans to select up to 36 film-making teams for training and mentoring, with the ultimate aim of producing six features with a budget of £150,000 each. Microwave will provide £100,000 with the individual producers of each film having to raise the remaining £50,000. Also for the first time, there is development money (up to £10,000) for the shortlisted film-making teams plus an additional £25,000 for each completed film to help with distribution and marketing.

The film-making team must consist of a writer, producer and a director – with a minimum of two people – so writer-directors are acceptable but one-person taking on all three roles is not. Also a full script is required and the writer and director cannot have had a feature theatrically distributed before. Applications have to be made via a UK registered limited company based in London. Full details are on the Microwave site.

The deadline for the 2014 round is 30th July – so unless you have a film-making team with a completed script ready to go – there is probably not enough time now. However, the scheme is running again in 2015 and 2016 – so getting teams and scripts ready for the next round is a more realistic goal.

Getting the right mix of writer, director and producer is crucial as the film-making team may have to work together for three years or more. Jules Bishop’s Borrowed Time for example was submitted to the 2009 round, shot in 2011 and distributed in 2013. To assist with the formation of film-making teams, Microwave have set up a Facebook group called Film London Talent Connect to help writers, producers and directors to network.

Olivier Kaempfer described the perfect Microwave film as one where if there was more money available, the film would still be the same but the crew and cast would be better paid.

The challenge for writers is to write with the constraints of the budget in mind. The example Kaempfer gave was of a scene set at night in a moving car. Kaempfer suggested that writer should ask themselves a series of questions: Does the scene have to be in a moving car? Can it be in a parked car? Does it have to be in a car at all? Does it have to be at night? This is a process not unfamiliar to television writers!

Kaempfer said Microwave is looking for scripts that “resonate as a London story” – this does not necessarily mean social realism as they are very keen on “diverse genres”. At the end of the day, the script “just needs to be brilliant”.

Note – for film-makers and production companies based outside London, there is the iFeatures scheme which funds films with budgets of up to £350,000. The deadline for this year has passed but there may be future rounds – the website to bookmark is here.

3. Writers for Sale

Although the Writers for Sale session featured two writers and two execs, Bryan Elsley co-creator of Skins dominated the debate with his quietly pragmatic and authoritative take on the industry.

Also on the panel with Elsley was Levi David Addai who wrote My Murder for BBC3 and co-created Youngers for E4 and Sophie Gardiner Channel Four’s Drama Commissioning Editor. The BBC Drama Executive Producer Hilary Salmon chaired the session.

Salmon began by continuing the “Content is King” theme with mention of a “Sellers’s Market” for drama. Bryan Elsley responded that writers never feel like it’s a Seller’s Market. He cited production companies wanting more and more initial work such as treatments for free.

Salmon also asked how writers decide who to send a new script to. Elsley said it was all about personal relationships – about working with people who believe in you – “belief is at the heart of everything”.

Levi David Addai agreed – it was all about the people behind the production companies – and getting on well with them – rather than the production company itself.

Bryan Elsley also stressed the importance of money. He spoke about how some production companies now no longer pay the 100% future use fee on the first day of principal photography – an advance that many writers absolutely rely on. Elsley added that writers are aware of and remember the companies that do not pay the future use fee – and this obviously impacts on how loyalties and relationships are formed.

Elsley said that his own production company pays writers for everything – but he also cautioned writers that when they are paid for something, that is when they lose ownership. He suggested that in some cases, having the freedom to walk away and keeping your project can be to a writer’s advantage.

Sophie Gardiner observed that the industry was not very good at giving writers on soaps other opportunities. It was also mentioned that going in the opposite direction, writers with lots of experience had to start all over again when writing for soaps.

Levi David Addai spoke of his own unhappy experience of working on a soap – he felt it wasn’t his characters, it wasn’t his story and in the end writing continuing drama wasn’t for him.

The subject of the writers’ room on dramas was also raised. Elsley’s opinion was that here in the UK, the writers’ room is still unfinished business, a half-way house that pays lip-service to the US model. Elsley believes that writers are not in the room just to write but also to produce. He made the point that US shows have no traditional UK producer role – with the line producer taking on the technical and administrative duties and the writer being the creative showrunner.

However, Elsley also warned that the UK should not slavishly copy the US writers’ room model – he pointed out they were “editorially narrow” with a lack of diversity in participation and editorial control.

The discussion also turned to the touchy subject of script editors. Bryan Elsley thought the role of the script editor had changed over the years. He felt that script editors used to be on the writer’s side but are now on the producer’s side. Elsley blamed the problem on lack of training and development of script editors and particularly their disempowerment – they were reduced to passing on messages from the producers with no editorial power themselves.

Sophie Gardiner criticised the lack of opportunities and entry-level schemes for new or emerging writers. Channel Four received some kudos for their Screenwriting Course and also their Coming Up series (on which Addai got his first television commission).

The session ended on an uplifting note when writer Chris Lunt spoke from the audience to point out that his script Prey for ITV which starred John Simm was his first broadcast credit – demonstrating that it is still possible for a new writer to get commissioned and produced.

In the next article I’ll review Drama on YouTube, The Two Tones with Tony Hall & Tony Jordan, Selling Your Idea and New Markets: Do we still need broadcasters?

Kulvinder Gill is an Indian-born, Scottish-educated, London-based writer specialising in comedy, sci-fi and horror. His Writers’ Guild profile page is here and his Twitter handle is @KulvinderGill.

Cinema or Living Room: Writing for Film and TV by Joe Williams

With the emergence of VOD platforms and cheaper forms of digital film production, there has never been a more exciting time or as many opportunities to create film or TV content as there is now.

tv vs film

TV in particular is said to be going through a ‘Second Golden Age’ with shows such as True Detective, Broadchurch, Breaking Bad and Sherlock rivalling or even superseding films in terms of public discussion.

The UK has no shortage of distinctive and talented writers working in both formats; yet despite this, there are only a few who equally move between both mediums. Examples of these ‘format hoppers’ include: Abi Morgan, Jeff Pope, Peter Morgan and Dennis Kelly. At the same time, iconic writers such as Jimmy McGovern, Sally Wainwright and Russell T Davies have carved out enduring careers exclusively in television, while Jane Goldman, John Hodge and Hossein Amini have concentrated on film.

I personally adore both and will happily jump from Sherlock to Sherlock Holmes in the blink of an eye. Having also worked in film and TV development, Hayley has kindly asked me to share a few thoughts about writing for both mediums and what can be expected in the development process.

Structuring Your Script: Arguably the greatest difference is the amount of freedom in terms of length and structure. When writing film scripts, entire pages can be added and discarded often with little consequence to the overall film. In TV, a script’s length is poured over, especially in production where a read-through will typically be timed. The length of your script is even more pronounced if you have to factor ad breaks when writing for broadcasters such as ITV or Channel 4. While working on the Channel 4 Screenwriting Course, we would discuss the importance of creating a strong inciting incident at the end of ‘Part 1’ (around p12-15), to ensure a potentially fickle audience would be hungry for more. In film, you are able to delay this to a later point, giving you the freedom to write closer to your own pace.

If you’re writing for TV, your series also has to compete with any number of distractions in the home from the kitchen to your iPhone (in my case, guilty as charged!), so the need for attention-grabbing material is more pronounced. When your film is on general release, you can take comfort that the audience is locked in and hopefully free from distraction. Of course, many TV writers relish these challenges and such constraints can push you to write taut and tightly structured scripts that still allow your vision to shine through.

The Development Process: A common complaint heard in film or television development is the lengthy amount of time it takes to get projects off the ground. Even so, there is still often a clear difference between the mediums in terms of the amount of time spent developing projects. In film, you are typically allowed to work to your own timescale within reason. Even if you have a creatively strong script, it can still take months or even years as the producers delve in to the quagmire of film financing. In TV, the time scale is notably accelerated, particularly if you find yourself working for hire on an existing series. This does not necessarily mean that TV is the quickest way to getting your writing out there, as a variety of issues from the broadcaster’s end can come into play before your work reaches the screen. Either style can work for you depending on your personality but when writing for both mediums it’s worth preparing for lengthy periods of waiting, punctuated by occasional bursts of energy.

Broadcasters and Distributors: In the British film industry, while there are many distribution companies with distinct identities (Artificial Eye generally release ‘art-house’ films, while Lionsgate tend towards action genre titles), there is generally less consideration of where your script will end up during the writing process. While no TV broadcaster would wish to compromise a screenwriter’s vision, when assessing material they still look for stories that will sit comfortably alongside their current slate. Therefore, when writing your TV script, it can occasionally be worth bearing in mind where you want to see your show transmitted. Say you’ve written a gritty crime drama, do you want to see it in the company of Luther (BBC), Broadchurch (ITV) or Top Boy (Channel 4)?

Directors: In television, despite the influx of ‘auteur’ directors, the writer is still traditionally in a greater position of influence in contrast to film. To give an example, whenever Abi Morgan pens a new TV series, such as The Hour, she tends to take centre stage in terms of its promotion. This is in contrast to her film work, in which she has generally taken a backseat in the public eye to either the director (Shame) or the subject matter (The Iron Lady). The world of film is undoubtedly exciting and writing for it can offer more structural freedom, but it is still, at least in the public eye, the medium of the director.

Your Characters: Another factor to influence your writing is the different directions you can take your characters in. When writing a film script you can decide your characters’ endpoints and use it to inform their actions. Television offers you the chance to keep on developing the characters while knowing who will be cast in the roles so you can write to their voices. What’s more, TV can allow you the opportunity to re-invent your work based on background characters. Kryten in Red Dwarf and The Fonz in Happy Days are both breakthrough characters that emerged long after their pilots were written.

Ultimately, it’s a question of personal preference whatever medium you choose to write for in terms of working habits and your own creative instincts. As mentioned, many writers have succeeded in finding their voices in both fields and given the increased opportunities in terms of technology and platforms, it’s very possible to wear two hats or one, depending on what fits you best.

Joe Williams is a freelance development consultant working for numerous film and television production companies. He has previously worked in development for Scott Free Films, Sprout Pictures and Channel 4’s Drama Department. Joe recently also participated in the Channel 4 Screenwriting Course as a Shadow Script Editor. You can follow Joe on Twitter @josephmwilliams