Tag Archives: script development

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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Book Review: The Art of Screenplays by Robin Mukherjee

Screenwriting is a creative process and like all creative things, it’s a bit messy. Not that you’d think it reading some of the screenwriting books out there. Robin Mukherjee’s The Art of Screenplays: A Writer’s Guide is a rare thing – a screenwriting book that talks about story structure but never loses sight of what it’s really like to be a writer, in the middle of that messy, exciting, sometimes bewildering creative process.

book review - the art of screenplays - robin mukherjeeThe book covers the key areas of screenplay development; how to gather, ferment and communicate story, understanding structure through observation, exploring character, developing theme and the art of writing dialogue. It’s all in there and you’ll learn everything you need to know to craft your polished script but in a way that resonates with you.

His section on the early stage of developing a story was particularly helpful because it reflects that very random, bitty part of the process that so many screenwriting books skip over. It’s hugely reassuring to hear that you’re not alone in starting with moments and scenes and ideas and characters and plot beats all in a confused muddle and not necessarily even part of the same piece of work. Yes, the finished screenplay will have a very particular form and shape and there are expectations it probably should meet if it’s to ‘wow’ the industry. But The Art of Screenplays dives in to the swamp of ideas and ‘stuff’ with you and helps you to navigate your own way from the creative muddle to that finished script.

It’s become one of the books I recommended most often to writers. Because it’s written by such an experienced screenwriter, it really speaks to writers. So many screenwriting books are analytical; they are great at dissecting what makes up a successful screenplay, so you know what you’re aiming for. Some even take you through the process, step by step, in a very specific order – first you have your concept, then you add some characters, and so on until, voila – you’ve crafted the perfect script! But none of that has ever felt connected to the experience of actually creating something original.

It is also one of the most beautifully written books about screenwriting that I’ve ever read. So often our screenwriting books are dry, bullet-pointy affairs. This is not. This is a book to immerse yourself in. It’s a book you will learn a lot from whilst, I hope, having actually enjoyed reading it.

Screenwriting Craft – Using Your Inner Critic

We all know that you can’t create original, interesting stuff with you inner critic whispering in your ear. I’ve been in brainstorming sessions where people were judging ideas before the ink was dry on the flipchart paper, stifling creativity and giving nothing the chance to grow or develop. Creativity comes from a freedom to fail, or at least to suggest something which might be bonkers but which might spark an idea that is perfect.

Image courtesy of Jim Tsinganos

Image courtesy of Jim Tsinganos

The freedom to think and generate ideas without judgement is crucial to creativity. So learning to banish your inner critic is a vital part of the creative process. But that inner critic, that voice that says ‘that’s rubbish!’ can also be your best friend if you learn to harness it.

Creating stories is not a linear process. Some screenwriting books might make it sound like you are supposed to come up with things in a sequential order;  decide what you want to say (theme), create a character with a flaw that needs to be overcome (internal journey) and a want that will drive the story forward (quest/goal), craft a plot that will create obstacles to achieving that goal.

But no writer I’ve ever worked with actually creates like that. Stories develop more organically than that. There’s a moment that you observed on the bus when some guy was arguing with his mate. There’s that film you watched last week that got you thinking about how differently people grieve and what loss is. There’s that person at work whose sunny disposition got you wondering if he’s compensating for some terrible trauma at home. There’s that newspaper article that got you thinking ‘what if we really could go on holiday to the moon?’

It’s a jumble of thoughts and images and people and moments and ideas. To begin with, it doesn’t make any sense. Now is not the time to worry that it makes no sense. Now is the time to run with those moments and ideas and see where they take you. Banish your inner critic.

But eventually, those ideas and characters and story moments begin to take shape. You find connections. Characters are starting to change because of the situations you’re putting them in.  You’re beginning to discover which character or story has the most resonance for you. For some writers this is when you’re outlining your story. For others the urge to get the scenes down on paper is overwhelming and you’re already bashing out a first draft of the script.

Either way, this is the time to invite your inner critic back into the room and ask for their help. This is when they come into their own. We’ve all watched films and tv shows that we’ve secretly (or maybe even publicly) slagged off. Critiquing material already out there is part of the learning process. We can not only say ‘that didn’t move me’ but we can see the mechanics underneath that caused that failure; I didn’t care about the character, the story world logic wasn’t consistent, the dialogue didn’t ring true.

That instinct and skill you’ve developed for recognising the flaws in other people’s work, you now need to bring to our own. Our inner critic has a tendency to just tell you ‘it’s crap’ but if you question them, you can find out why. What exactly about this isn’t working or needs to be better?

That nagging doubt in your head that the subplot isn’t really connected to the main story, that sequence you had fun writing isn’t actually moving the story on, that character you know you don’t really know – you’re probably right. If you secretly know it’s a problem, chances are, it is and a producer, script reader or script editor, with their strong story instincts, tonnes of experience and finely tuned script analysis skills, definitely won’t miss it. So, now’s the time to listen to that inner critic, the one telling you ‘you can do better’, hone in on those weaknesses and address them.

Those tangents, those bits left over from when the idea was focused in a slightly different area, you know they need to go. You do have to kill your darlings, to cut the moments and characters you’ve so lovingly created, because you know that this script will be better, stronger, more powerful without them. But they’re not gone forever, they’ve just waiting in that bottom drawer of ideas saved for another day, for another story set in another time and place.

What Writers Can Learn from 4Screenwriting by Xandria Horton

One of the things that I love about Script Angel is its focus on opportunities for new writers, so the blog seemed an obvious place to summarise my recent experience as a Shadow Script Editor on Channel 4’s talent initiative 4Screenwriting – with some thoughts other writers can take from it.

4sw logoWhat is 4Screenwriting and why is it brilliant?

4Screenwriting is a broadcaster-affiliated talent scheme run by highly experienced script editor Philip Shelley, currently in its 4th year. For each year’s twelve selected writers, they are given six months to take an idea through two drafts of a commercial hour (46’) script, creating the first episode of a series or serial (ideally with Channel 4 in mind). The course also has a script editor training element; allowing shadow script editors a chance to develop their skills by working to industry-proven script editors.

The writers get a “sandbox” version of a script commission, with a small amount of funding, set deadlines and opportunities for notes from their script editor team at each stage – as close as you can get to a real script commission, without the production element.

Once the course is completed, writers can use their spec script as a calling card in the industry, creating a buzz with literary agents and production companies who are keen to be across talent coming through and hopefully resulting in meetings that further their careers. Success stories are numerous, most recently with alumni Anna Symon and Cat Jones, who have both gone on to write for primetime TV series.

So, with insights from me and my excellent fellow shadow script editors Carissa Hope Lynch, Harriet Davis and Joe Williams, I’ve pooled some tips writers can take from our 4Screenwriting experience:

Working with the professionals

The scheme introduces writers to the process of working with a script editor, which can be strange for writers used to working alone. It also introduces to writers the concept of the dreaded deadline!

What can you learn from this?: whilst you may have in place trusted feedback-givers, there’s really nothing like the impartial and constructive notes you will get from a good script editor or industry-proven consultant. In terms of meeting deadlines, it’s important that you make all and any writing deadlines you agree to. However, if something happens that is beyond your control, the best way to handle it is:

1/ to flag this as soon as possible to the appropriate person;

2/ tell them realistically what you can deliver and when; if one element is more urgent than the others, can you prioritise this and deliver within the original time frame?;

3/ agree a new deadline and move heaven and Earth to make it!

Network a.k.a. ‘it’s good to talk’

The scheme provides opportunities for writers to talk to others at similar points in their career, which can be greatly useful, both personally and professionally.

What can you learn from this?: Meet with your writer peers! Find or start a writer’s group on Meetup (they are all around the country) or attend events such as The London Screenwriter’s Festival or BAFTA Rocliffe and seek out friendly faces in the opportunities to mingle.

What’s in a TV idea?

Unsurprisingly, some ideas will only really reveal whether they will work in a series or serial format – if at all – after some exploration, so some writers had to use backup ideas or go back to the drawing board to find the right idea to progress to script stage.

What can you learn from this?: If you want to work in the industry, it’s essential you’re across British output; it’s as simple as that. Whilst it won’t ensure that every idea you come up with is a bona fide TV idea, you’ll get industry knowledge as to who is making what, and watching TV widely (UK, US, internationally) will develop your instincts on which stories intrinsically work in a TV format and which may be more suited to film or theatre. Even if it’s just the opening episode of every new series, it’s really useful to watch TV as broadly as you can.

Also, if you’re ever in a pitching situation (e.g. pitching to a producer for an episode commission on an existing series or pitching to a production company your own series ideas), however married you are to your favourite idea, it’s always useful to have a couple you’ve worked up a little as well in your back pocket, just in case you need them!

Writing to act breaks – a punctuation metaphor

For 4Screenwriting the brief was a script that would fit within a Channel 4 schedule, rather than a BBC full hour slot, so it was a new experience for many writers to write to ‘act breaks’.

What can you learn from this?: how this works this will vary depending on your story (and your broadcaster). However, we came up with a useful way of thinking about the shape of the story with act breaks:

If your story is a paragraph and each scene is a sentence, how you utilise punctuation is a great metaphor of writing to act breaks; ending those sentences before a break to ensure that the viewers’ interest is piqued. What’s the screenwriting equivalent of scene ending with a ‘?’, an ‘!’ or a ‘…’?

Many thanks again to the input from my fellow shadow script editors on this article; to the very brilliant and experienced script editor I worked to, Jamie Hewitt; to the three brilliant writers I was lucky to work with; and of course to Philip, for tirelessly working to make the course go as smoothly as it does each year. If you ever see him at a 4Screenwriting networking event, he won’t miss a moment to connect a writer to agents and production companies that might be useful to them. 4Screenwriting is a brilliant experience for writers and script editors coming through – long may it continue!

 

 

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.

Can You Teach Screenwriting?

 Guest Post by Anthony Povah

A few eyebrows were raised recently when Hanif Kureshi summed-up creative writing courses as ‘a waste of time’ – especially given that he teaches one of them. Now, it’s not for me to argue with the revered novelist, but imagine if this attitude pervaded other professions:

“Yes, the brain tumour is perfectly operable… Dr. Smith will be performing the surgery. No… he didn’t go to medical school… thought it would constrict his creativity as a surgeon…”

class of uni studentsI know it’s a ludicrous example, but why would anyone serious about writing reject opportunities to learn? Now, I’m not suggesting everyone signs up for MAs in Creative Writing, and I get worried when I see courses called ’10 secrets to making it in Hollywood’. But to succeed, you need to be open-minded about creative writing courses and actively seek out opportunities to work with others.

There’s lots of options out there, so you should be able to find something that works for you. For me it’s short courses, and I recently completed a fantastic two-day workshop in Salford run by ex-Corrie storyliner Gill Creswell (www.storylining.co.uk).

Gill called day one “a Masters in a morning” and covered the fundamentals of story structure before sharing the framework TV execs use to deconstruct the three-act structure. To ‘bring it alive’, we then used it to analyse an episode of ITV drama ‘Mrs Biggs’.

In the afternoon, each participant was asked to pitch an idea for a short feature that we could develop as a group during day two. So, I pitched an existential drama set in a nursing home. I thought it was fantastic; the protagonist was an elderly lady struggling with the choice of carrying on living or taking her own life. Gill paused… gently demolished my idea with just three words – ‘who’s the antagonist?’ – and completed my lesson in structure.

We kicked off day two by voting for which idea to develop. Needless to say, mine wasn’t chosen – which was just as well as the one that won was excellent. We were then plunged into a day of group story development, building the feature scene-by-scene using the techniques learned on day one within a writers’ room environment.

Which brings me onto the most important thing I learned: if you want to succeed, you better learn to play nice with others. Regardless of medium, collaborative storylining is now the norm and in order to get produced, you’ll have to withstand the critical eye of other writers, producers and execs. So learn how they think and how to working collaboratively.

Luckily, there was a great mix of writers on my cohort: two published novelists, a playwright, a journalist, a screenwriter (myself) and a novice keen to learn about the writing process (indeed, we found that the techniques Gill taught apply equally to TV drama, soaps, features, novels or plays).

I had a fantastic two days. I love playing with other writers and more seriously, making contacts with people who can help develop my career. The atmosphere was fun and supportive; I got to work with some great people, learned a lot about structure and came away motivated to keep writing.

Writing can be a solitary pursuit, but becoming a successful writer – whatever your goals – isn’t. Checking out different techniques, sharing experiences and learning to work collaboratively is crucial to developing your career. So hunt out opportunities, then get out there and learn, share and grow.

About Anthony: Born in Liverpool, Anthony Povah has been an environmental campaigner, jewellery salesman, jazz musician and international arms dealer. He holds qualifications in economics, philosophy, management and the martial arts. This is all true. Anthony’s childhood love of writing was recently rekindled and he is currently looking for a studio to pick up his first TV drama series. He has completed several creative writing courses including ones led by Daragh Carville (Being Human, Smoke) and Gill Creswell (Coronation Street). Anthony is a client of Hayley McKenzie (Script Angel) and plans to complete a creative writing course run by the Open University later this year. He is married and lives in Lancashire.