Tag Archives: scriptwriting

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.

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.

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!

 

 

Investing In Your Screenwriting Career

We’ve all heard that it takes 10,000 of practice to become a virtuoso piano player or tennis champ. While the hours might be debatable there is little doubt about the principle behind it; to get better at something you have to actually do it, a LOT! Are you really investing enough of your time in your screenwriting to make the progress you want?

notepad and paperHere are some of the best ways to invest in yourself as a screenwriter:

1) Join A Writing Group (locally or online)

Pros: It’s probably free, you can use it to make commitments about how much writing you’ll do in between get-togethers and get your group to hold you to it, great for peer review of each other’s scripts.

Cons: You might be in a group of writers with less experience than you so might feel you’re not learning very much.

Tips: Be open to meeting new people.

2) Take A Class or Course

Pros: You can find courses running a few weekends or a year or more, it encourages you to make a time and financial commitment so you’re more likely to put the work in, good courses set homework which further encourages you to get the writing done.

Cons: Although many courses offer some feedback on what you’ve written, the time pressures on course leaders means the feedback can be very limited, teaching can be a bit generalised.

Tips: Figure out what you want to get out of the course and then find one that best suits your needs.

3) Go On A Writing Retreat

Pros: It forces you to invest a chunk of uninterrupted time you might struggle to achieve any other way, being in a different environment encourages new ways of thinking so you don’t keep repeating thought patterns, improving your chances of producing something new and different, chance to meet other writers.

Cons: It is essentially a holiday so it’s a relatively pricey way of getting quite a short chunk of writing time.

Tips: Decide what’s most important to you (location, retreat leader, feedback opportunities) and then research what’s out there.

4) Attend A Screenwriting ConferenceLondon Screenwriters’ Festival, Screenwriters World Conference (L.A or New York), Great American Pitch Fest

Pros: Most have great pitching opportunities, committing to it gives you a deadline to polish work you can pitch there, intensive, immersive, chance to meet lots of other writers and hear from industry experts.

Cons: Might feel a bit pricey for a few days, though LSF has a payment plan to spread the cost.

Tips: Commit early then plan a schedule to get work ready, building in time to get feedback on your scripts / pitches and rewrite accordingly before you go.

5) Get Professional Feedback On Your Script

Pros: Notes should inspire a constructive rewrite, screenwriting advice is tailored to you and your writing strengths and weaknesses.

Cons: Can be pricey and quality of feedback ranges enormously.

Tips: Get recommendations from fellow writers and check out the credentials of those offering feedback.

6) Find A Mentor / Coach

Pros: A good mentor will give you personalised script feedback on a portfolio of work, set goals and deadlines with you, offer support and advice, they are interested in helping you develop as a screenwriter.

Cons: Pricey, you need to put the writing in to make it worth your time and money.

Tips: Make sure you give yourself enough time every week to do the writing so your mentor regularly has work to respond to.

 

 

 

New Script Feedback Services

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Well, it’s been a busy old year for Script Angel. So busy in fact that I’ve expanded the team! I’m delighted to announce that Xandria Horton has joined the Script Angel team as a Script Analyst.  Check out Xandria’s bio here.

Xandria will be offering the following service through Script Angel:

Script Analysis Report – These notes provide constructive written feedback (2-3 pages) on your script. Xandria will assess the strengths and weaknesses of the story and writing execution. She will provide suggestions for developing the script, targeting key areas for improvement. If the script is part of a longer-form piece (television series or serial) you can submit a few pages outlining story ideas for subsequent episodes. This service usually has a relatively fast turnaround but does not offer any follow-up consultation to discuss the notes.

I’ve also expanded the range of feedback services I offer:

Development Notes – These detailed notes provide in-depth constructive written feedback (4-5 pages) on your script or treatment. In addition, I offer a follow-up meeting (via phone or Skype video) to discuss the notes. For scripts which are part of a longer form piece (television serial or series) I will also read supporting material, such as brief outlines for subsequent episodes, and provide feedback on the overall project.

Six-Month Script Editing and Mentoring Service – You can engage my script editing services for a six-month period. This flexible service offers Development Notes on multiple projects (be they scripts, treatments or outlines) over multiple drafts during that time. In addition to the Development Notes on your chosen individual projects, I will offer support and advice helping you to prioritise projects, target your development and produce a strong portfolio of work to advance your screenwriting career.

Ideas Review Service (Written Notes + Consultation)  – I will read up to five ideas (of up to 2 pages each) and provide written notes on their strengths and weaknesses, followed by a meeting (via phone or Skype video) to discuss the notes.

Ideas Review Service (Consultation Only) – I will read up to five ideas (of up to 2 pages each) and provide a consultation (via phone or Skype video) to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each idea. This service doesn’t include written notes.

I’m currently fully booked until the end of March 2014 and am now taking bookings for next April. Xandria has availability right now.

If you want professional help to make your film or tv script the best it can possibly be, just email me hayley@scriptangel.co.uk and I can let you know rates and current turnaround times.

Here’s to a fantastic 2014!

Screenwriting Podcasts

Want to immerse yourself in the world of screenwriting? Listen to screenwriting chat and words of wisdom in these fab podcasts:

UK Scriptwriters Podcast – http://dannystack.blogspot.co.uk/p/uk-scriptwriters-podcast.html

Nerdist Writers’ Panel – http://www.nerdist.com/podcast/nerdist-writers-panel

What Are You Laughing At – http://www.comedy.co.uk/podcasts/british_comedy_podcast/

Script Magazine TV Writer Podcast – http://www.scriptmag.com/multimedia/podcasts/

John August Script Notes Podcast – http://johnaugust.com/podcast

Jeff Goldsmith Q&A – http://www.theqandapodcast.com/

BAFTA Podcast – http://www.bafta.org/

The Empire Film Podcast – http://www.empireonline.com/podcast/

On The Page Screenwriting Podcast – http://onthepagepodcast.com/

If you know of any others worth a listen share in the comments below.

Practise Makes Perfect

Watching the extraordinary achievements of the Olympic and Paralympic athletes this summer made me appreciate more than ever that if you want to be successful at something, you’ve got to knuckle down and practise.

For screenwriters of course that means practising your writing by simply writing – LOTS! But it also means studying your craft; analysing successful screenplays, reading books on screenwriting or attending seminars and talks by others who’ve analysed thousands of movies and screenplays. It means identifying areas of your craft that you’re not as strong on (story structure or character or dialogue) and finding techniques to help you get better at those elements.

But great writing alone rarely enables you to succeed and there are other aspects to being a successful writer that you’ll need to master. Perhaps you’re lousy at networking or pitching. If you hate pitching (and I know a LOT of writers who do) then practising is vital if you’re to get good at it – at the very least you want to be comfortable enough doing it that you don’t turn into a blubbering wreck when an Executive asks you about your new movie idea.  And who knows, you might discover you’ve got a real knack for it and find yourself desperate to go to a huge pitch festival and get on that stage to pitch with the best of them.

In an industry built so heavily on personal recommendation, networking is another aspect of the job that lots of writers dread. As with pitching, it requires practice so my advice is to get out there and get doing it!

The forthcoming London Screenwriters’ Festival is a great place to learn tips on your craft, practise your pitching and your networking.  I’ll be speaking there and, of course, networking too so come and say hello.  Don’t forget that if you use Discount Code ‘SCRIPTANGEL2012’ you can save £22 off the ticket price.  Let me know if you’re going and I hope to see you there.

Be honest with yourself, identify those areas that you’re really not so great at, and put the work in to get better at them. With hard graft in the right areas you’ve got a great chance of making it as a successful screenwriter.  Good luck!

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Essential Reading for Screenwriters

Here’s my recommendations:

Poetics by Aristotle

The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler

Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field

Story by Robert McKee

Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder

The 21st Century Screenplay by Linda Aronson

Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale: The Final Chapeter by Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook

The Insider’s Guide to Writing for Television by Julian Friedmann and Christopher Walker

If you know of others that have really helped you, let us know by adding a comment.

BBC TV Writers’ Festival 2012

This year’s festival kicked off with an inspiring opening speech from the brilliant Peter Bowker about ambition in television drama.

I then headed to a session with Lucy Gannon titled ‘Get Real’. Lucy’s list of television credits is awe-inspiring but I could also recollect a period when her name seemed to disappear from the authored television drama landscape so I was interested to hear her thoughts on sustaining a career over such a long period of time.

Lucy was honest and frank about the highs and lows of writing for television.  She’s worked with some brilliant producers, directors and script editors over the years, and some not so brilliant. Lucy was adamant that a good script editor can make you run, rather than plod and that their job is a hard and valuable one which should be respected.  She said being a successful writers brings you into the spotlight but that the spotlight could just as quickly move off you and onto others. But even when she wasn’t being commissioned she never stopped writing. At the time it felt like everyone else was wrong but looking back she wonders if perhaps what she was writing during that period was not quite as brilliant as she might have thought it was.  In a later session on making disability visible in television drama, Lucy felt strongly that successful writers are privileged to have a voice that will be heard and that they have a responsibility to use that opportunity wisely. Her passion for writing was clear as she said that she would not live long enough to tell all the stories she has to tell and that is “really annoying”.

The brilliant Ashley Pharoah did a session on the art of pitching with some great tips and very funny anecdotes. While in the U.S pitching is a very polished process, in the UK his experience was that it didn’t matter how much you mumbled and laughed and struggled (though I wouldn’t recommend the mumbling bit!), as long as your passion for the project came through. Interrogate your idea before you pitch it and then have faith in it. Most importantly, you have to know why you want to write that project, what the truth is you want to tell and why only you can tell it.

There was an interesting session on Comedy Drama – a term that everyone concluded was reductive but was a useful way into the conversation. The panel was chaired by the lovely and talented James Wood and included Danny Brocklehurst, Sally Wainwright and Ben Stephenson who, to his credit, was there for the whole 2 days of the festival. All of the panel agreed that the shows we would classify as comedy dramas are really dramas with a sprinkling of comedy and a lightness of touch in the execution. Ben felt particularly strongly that a sixty-minute comedy drama couldn’t just be situational (as a thirty-minute sitcom might) but had to have a strong story motor. In a later session Toby Whithouse remarked that ‘Being Human’ is often referred to as a comedy drama but while his twenty gags in an hour of drama is considered funny, twenty gags in just half an hour of a sitcom but make it a spectacular failure.

To round off day 1 there was a keynote debate titled ‘Changing The Face of Drama’ in which a talented and passionate panel made a plea for the industry to represent the 10 million disabled people in this country in the dramas we write and commission. Lucy Gannon and Jack Thorne have both written television dramas that were about characters with disabilities but felt strongly that it was the responsibility of all writers to do more. Also on the panel was actress Lisa Hammond who gave a brilliant, articulate speech which really pinpointed many of the obstacles that appear to be in our way and offered solutions to each and every one of them. From my experience it is a fear of getting it wrong that most hampers us from even attempting it. Lisa also felt strongly that writers should just write brilliant characters and then advocate that those characters could be played by an actor with a disability.

Day two started with a fast, articulate and insightful masterclass from John Yorke on Storytelling Physics. Here are the titbits I tweeted on the day:

“Out of our quarrels with others we make rhetoric, out of our quarrels with ourselves we make poetry” – WB Yeats, in other words, from the conflict within ourselves we make art.  Conflict lies at the heart of us – we are all animals (with primal urges, needs and desires) but capable of rational thought and trying to moderate our behaviour to live in a group/society. Look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for an overview of this.

Great characters are at war with themselves – there is a battle between who they really are and the facade they wish/choose to project to the world. There is a clear relationship between a character’s want and their facade and between their need and their flaw/true self. The traits that prop up their illusory self are what create their problems and the traits that they suppress are those which will allow them to overcome the obstacles, heal them and make them whole. Inciting incidents are explosions of opposites – the protagonist is confronted by the embodiment of everything they are not. In archetypal stories characters go on a journey to get not what they want but what they need and the ego-driven goal is abandoned.

John ended this tour-de-force with the bombshell that “none of this will make you a better writer”! I’d argue that it should never be used to at the beginning of the writing process but that understanding how archetypal stories are structured will give you the tools to fix stories and make them more powerful and more satisfying to an audience. As a script editor, they’re invaluable!

Next up was ‘The Reality of Film’ with the very talented and approachable Joe Oppenheimer. Joe’s opening statement was a brilliantly honest one that in film “you’ll earn less money, have less influence in the project and fewer people will see your work than anything you do in television”. It’s the director (not the writer) whose name will attract other talent and finance and drive the project forward.  Joe pointed out that the maximum production budget for a UK film that was unlikely to export well would be roughly £5million and that audiences have to spend just as much to see a low-budget film as they do to see an expensive, shiny, Hollywood blockbuster. Writers (via their agent) can approach BBC Films directly but they are not producers so they prefer to receive projects from production companies.  BBC Films are looking for films which embrace the specificity of being set in Britain but which have a universality that will allow them to export well. You also have to remember that because of the finance involved and the number of production partners required, the number of people who have to say ‘yes’ to a film is far greater than it is in television. I would also add that everyone who’s putting money into your film will want (and have a right to have) a say in your script. Expect a lot of notes!

Next up was ‘Meet the Commissioners’ with  Ben Stephenson (BBC), Laurie Mackie (ITV), Sophie Gardiner (Channel Four/E4) and Huw Kennair-Jones. (Sky).  All made clear that projects reach them via their in-house development teams or via independent production companies. Laura Mackie stressing the importance of finding the right production company for you and your project. All the commissioners are looking for a range of projects and all were adamant that a project needed to really feel like it fitted their channel and that the writer/producer understood their channel’s output. Chair Peter Bowker asked how they felt about projects that had already been rejected by other channels and none seemed to have a problem with this. Huw Kennair-Jones stressed that he wanted a Sky project to feel like it couldn’t work on any other channel but all agreed that if their channel felt like the right home, it didn’t matter if it had been turned down elsewhere.

Last up for me was a very funny and informative session with Jack Thorne and Toby Whithouse talking about ‘The Rules of Reinventing the World’. Both felt strongly that you must have a really strong vision for your piece and that establishing the rules of the world are a key part of the development process. Jack had to evolve the mythology of his world as the production budget restraints became apparent – from a character disposing of bodies by turning a lake to acid (shimmering gold) to setting fire to them in a caravan. Both found that the necessity of working on very low budgets made them better writers, forcing them to be creative in the solutions to production problems and constraints.

The BBC TV Writers’ Festival was a great opportunity to hear from those at the top of their field, to catch up with old friends and make new ones. Thanks to BBC Writersroom for organising it and see you there next year!

Creating Great Characters

Great characters are essential in any good drama or comedy and it’s not enough to know what happens to your characters in your story, you need to know your characters inside and out.  Characters need to be deeply developed and there are lots of ways of doing it.  One useful tool is to work through a list of character questions.

Below is a substantial list of character questions.  Feel free to attach a “why” question after any item in the questionnaire to generate more details. Although some questions may seem trivial or irrelevant to your character or story, thinking about them may spark other ideas.

When you’re going through the character questions, bear in mind that there may be a difference between what your character would say in answer to these questions and what you know to be the truth about them.  Ask yourself if there is any mileage in that, either dramatically or comically?

After all this work try to boil it down to a 200 word summary.  Think about the dominant character traits and flaws.  Try thinking about how those traits and flaws get them into dramatic conflict and/or and comic situations.

When you’ve developed your character you should be able to answer the following questions about them:

Who am I?

Where have I come from?

How do I feel about where I have come from?

How do I feel about where I am now?

What do I want?

What’s in the way of what I want?

What do I have to do to get what I want?

Give a two or three word description of yourself.

What is your most obvious blessing or strength?

What do you perceive as your greatest strength?

What is your most obvious flaw or weakness?

What do you perceive as your greatest weakness?

Was there any event or cause of these weaknesses?

Physical Traits

How old are you?

What is your gender?

What is your species/race?

How tall are you?

How much do you weigh?

What is your general body type, frame, bone structure, and poise?

What is your skin colour?

What is your hair colour?

What is your hair style?

Do you have any facial hair?

What is your eye colour?

Does it change?

How attractive are you? How attractive would others say you are?

What is your most distinguishing feature?

Do you have any scars, tattoos, or birthmarks? If so, how did you acquire them?

What do these distinguishing marks look like? Do they have any special significance? Where are they located?

What is your handedness (left/right)?

Do you resemble some currently known person?

Do you wear a uniform?

What kind of clothing do you wear?

What is your clothing’s style or level of sophistication?

What size are you for various pieces of clothing?

Do you wear makeup?

Do you wear glasses/contacts?

What sort of vocal tone do you have?

Do you get sick?

Do you have any unusual or nervous mannerisms, such as when talking, thinking, afraid, under stress, or when embarrassed? If so, are there any reasons behind them from your past?

Do you have an unusual gait or accent? If so, where did you acquire them? Are there any circumstances where they become more (or less) evident? How do you feel and react if made fun of for any of these things?

If your features were to be destroyed beyond recognition, is there any other way of identifying your body?

History

Homeland / Community

Where is your homeland?

What are its people like?

Are you aware of its history?

Are you patriotic or a social outcast?

What are your opinions of home?

Where is your home town?

What was the area like and how did it affect you?

What was the social class of the area?

Did you witness any historical events? If so, how did that event impact you?

What about your race, growing up were you in the majority or a minority?

How were you treated by other nearby races? Were you persecuted for your race?

Did this impact your outlook in any way? Did it affect your personality?

How do you feel about other races?

Do you have any justification from your past experience for holding such views?

How do you view the heroes/legends of your country?

Childhood

Briefly describe a defining moment in your childhood and how it influenced your life.

What was childhood like for you?

Was it calm and peaceful or turbulent and traumatic?

Were there any traumatic experiences in your early years (death of a family member, abandonment, orphaned at an early age, etc.)?

What is your earliest memory?

What are your best and worst childhood memories?

Did you have any childhood friends?

If so, who and where are they now?

Are you still close to them or have you grown apart?

What stupid things did you do when you were younger?

Which toys from your childhood have you kept?

Why? What do they mean to you?

If you didn’t keep any, why not? What did you do to them all?

Do you have any deep, dark secrets in the past that may come back to haunt you?

What conflicts might arise from your past?

Are you who you claim to be?

Family

Parents

Who were your parents?

Were you raised by them?

If not, then why didn’t they and who did raise you?

What is your father’s full name?

What is your mother’s full name?

What did your parents and/or foster parents do for a living?

What was their standing in the community?

Did your family stay in one area or move around a lot?

How did you get along with your parents?

How would your parents describe you?

What was your parents’ marriage/relationship like?

Siblings

Do you have any siblings?

If so how many and what were their names?

What was your birth position in the family (i.e. first born, middle, last born)?

How did you get along with each of your siblings?

What was the worst thing they did to you, what was the best?

What were the worst and best things you did to/for them?

Family

What was your family life like?

Are any or all of your family still alive?

If so, where are they now?

Do you stay in touch with them or have you become estranged?

Draw out your family tree, including living and dead relatives.

Do you love or hate one member of the family in particular?

Is any member of the family special to you in any way (perhaps, as a confidant, mentor, or arch-rival)?

Are there any black (or white) sheep in the family (including you)?

If so, who are they and how did they “gain” the position?

If this person is not you, then how do you feel about them?

Do you have a notorious or celebrated ancestor?

If so, what did this person do to become famous or infamous?

What do people assume about you once your ancestry is revealed? Do you try to live up to the reputation of your ancestor, try to live it down, or ignore it?

Relationships

Friends

Do you have any close friends?

If so, who and what are they like?

What is the history of their relationship(s) with you?

Do you currently have a best friend whom you would protect with your reputation or your life?

If so, who are they and what caused you to feel so close to them? What would have to happen for you to end this relationship?

When you get together with friends what do you talk about?

How close are you to your friends?

What do they know about you?

What do they not know about you?

What do you know and not know about them?

Enemies

Do you have any bitter enemies?

If so, who are they, what are they like, and what is the history of their feud with you?

Have you defeated them before?

How might these enemies seek to discomfit you in the future?

Romance

Do you live with anyone (housemates, roommates, relatives, friends, near-strangers, family friend, spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend, lover)?

Are you married or in a relationship? If so, where did you meet? What attracted you to one another?

Have you begun your own family?

If not, do you ever want to have a family of your own someday?

If so, with who or what type of person?

What type of person would be your ideal mate?

What would you be willing to do to protect such a person?

Is there anything you wouldn’t do to protect such a person and if so what?

Would anything change your mind on this issue and if so, what?

List any past serious relationships that you have had, and give a brief overview of the relationship(s).

Have you lost any loves?

How did you handle the situation (short & long term)?

Who is/was the greatest love in your life?

What are your general reactions to an attractive member of the opposite sex who lets you know they are available?

What is your sex life like now and in the past?

Wider Relationships

What valuable or important contacts do you have?

How did you come to know them?

Which person(s) or group(s) are you most loyal to?

How do you think others generally perceive you?

If someone crossed your path, what would you do?

Who is your most trusted ally?

Who do you trust, in general?

Who do you despise and why?

Is your image consistent?

Do people see you in similar ways?

Do you deliberately present yourself differently in different situations, and how?

For what would you die for?

Who do you turn to when you’re in trouble?

What is the worst thing someone has done to you?

How do you get along with others in the same field and/or work environment?

How can you be blackmailed, beaten, and tricked?

Who would miss you, should you go missing?

Who might protect you?

Who might be convinced to sell you out?

Are you a member of any special interest groups?

What is your level of involvement?

What is your current status with local law-enforcement?

Do you have a record of cooperation or non-cooperation with authorities?

Do you have a file with local, national or international law enforcement?

Personality / Beliefs

Dreams / Goals

Do you have any dreams or ambitions?  If not, why?

What are your short term goals (what would you like to be doing within a year)?

What are your long term goals (what would you like to be doing twenty years from now)?

If these goals seem at odds with each other or with your dreams, how do you reconcile the differences?

How do you seek to fulfill these dreams, goals and ambitions?

Do you, or did you, have any role models? Do you have any heroes or idols, either contemporary or from legend?

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Fears

Do you have any great rational or irrational fears or phobias? If so, what are the origins of or reasons behind them?

What, if anything, would it take for you to be able to overcome this?

How do you react when this fear manifests itself?

Are you willing to discuss, or even admit to, the situation?

Money

What are your current financial circumstances?

How does this compare with past financial circumstances?

How does it compare with your expectations?

What are your attitudes regarding material wealth?

Are you miserly with your share of the wealth, or do you spend it freely?

Are you greedy or generous?

Do you see wealth as a mark of success, or just as a means to an end?

If you won the lottery, what would you do?

Interactions

How do you generally treat others?

Do you trust easily (perhaps too easily) or not?

Are you introverted (shy and withdrawn) or extroverted (outgoing)?

Are you a humble soul or blusteringly proud?

Do you act differently than you feel (concealing your true thoughts)?

How do you feel about being alone, in small groups, in large groups?

What are your most annoying habits?

What habits would you find most annoying in friends?

How do others typically react to you?

Why, in your opinion, do they act that way?

Do you get angry easily? Who or what makes you angry?

Do you laugh easily? Who are what makes you laugh?

What about you is heroic? What about you is dastardly?

How do you deal with conflict?

How do you deal with change?

Are you a leader or a follower?

Are you deliberate or spontaneous?

What is your most embarrassing moment?

What trait do you most deplore in yourself?

What trait do you most deplore in others?

What trait do you most admire in yourself?

What trait do you most admire in others?

Spirituality and Faith

Do you believe in god(s)?

Do you believe in life after death?

Do you believe in fate?

Are you devout or impious?

Do you actively worship and proselytize or do you simply pay lip service?

What lengths would you go to defend your faith?

Was your faith influenced or molded by anyone special?

Do you belong to the orthodox church, or a fringe element thereof (and is the group accepted, frowned upon, or considered heretics)?

How has this impacted your faith and life?

Is your church an accepted religion where you grew up or did it have to conduct its services in secret?

How did this affect your faith and life?

Have you ever been persecuted for your faith?

If so, when and how did you handle it?

How do you feel about magic, myth, and the supernatural?

Do you remember your dreams? Describe a typical dream you might have. Describe your worst nightmares.

Morality

Can you kill?

When did you decide (or learn) that you could?

What happened and how did you handle it?

When do you consider it okay to kill (under what circumstances)?

When do you consider it wrong to kill (under what circumstances)?

What would you do if someone else attempted to (or successfully did) kill under your “wrong” circumstances, what would be your reaction?

What if it were your enemy? What if it were your friend? What if it were an innocent?

What would you do if someone shot at (attacked) you?

What would you do if something were stolen from you?

What would you do if you were badly insulted publicly?

What would you do if a good friend or relative were killed by means other than natural death?

What is the one task you would absolutely refuse to do?

What do you consider to be the worst crime someone could commit and why?

Politics

Do you think or feel you know what is going on in the world?

Do you think or feel you know what is going on in your community?

How do you feel about government (rulers) in general?

Do you support the current government of your homeland?

If so, how far are you willing to go to defend the government?

If not, do you actively oppose it? Do you belong to an anti-government organization?

If so, describe the group and its aims.

What form of government do you believe is the best (democracy, monarchy, anarchy, aristocratic rule, oligarchy, matriarchy) and why?

Have you ever been persecuted for your political stance? If so, describe the occurrence and how it affected you.

Are you a member of any non-religious group, cause, order, or organization? If so describe it, its goals, and membership.

How loyal are you to this group and why? How did you become a member? If you are a former member, did you leave voluntarily or involuntarily and why? Was it under good (amicable) conditions or bad? Are you being sought or hunted by the organization? If so, by whom and with what intent (to murder you, to force your return through blackmail or coercion, to spy on you and make sure they do not reveal any of the groups secrets)?

Is there any race, creed, alignment, religion, class, profession, political viewpoint, or the like against which you are strongly prejudiced, and why?

Lifestyle / Hobbies

Home Environment

Where do you live now and where would you like to live?

What kind of home do you live in (flat, house)?

Do you own or rent?

How close are the neighbours?

Is it a good neighborhood?

Do you have a lawn? What about a flower garden? Does your house have an attic or basement?

What does your furniture look like?

Do you buy antiques? What are your walls covered with? Wallpaper, art, photos? What sorts of curtains do you have? Frilly lacy ones, venetian blinds, pull-down shades?

Do you keep your house clean? Is it dusty? Is the bathtub moldy or coated in rust? Do you clean it yourself?

What does your desk or workspace look like – small and cramped, huge and expansive, covered in drifts of books and papers or neatly ordered and clean? Can you find what you’re looking for when you need it?

What colour are your sheets? Satin or cotton? Patterned with flowers, or covered with pictures of toy robots?

Do you have any pets?

Do you keep a calendar or address book? Where do you keep it?

Routines

What is your normal daily routine?

How do you feel and react when this routine is interrupted for some reason?

What would you do if you had insomnia and had to find something to do to amuse yourself?

Relaxation / Hobbies

What do you do for relaxation?

What things do you do for enjoyment?

What are your hobbies?

What pastime (that you participate in regularly) gives you the most enjoyment?

What pastime (that you participate in regularly) gives you the least enjoyment?

What do you do on Friday and Saturday nights?

What do you do on a Sunday afternoon?

Where do you go when you want to have fun?

What books do you read?  Scientific textbooks, historical novels, myths and legends, maps, cookbooks, romances, news magazines, science fiction, fantasy, horror, the newspaper, short stories?

Do you read the newspaper? If so, which sections and how often?

What (if any) are your favourite forms of art?

What is your idea of a good evening’s entertainment?

What are your hangout places?

Do you go to a bar after work?

What music do you like? Do you have a favourite artist, band or bard?

How do you exercise? Work out at the gym, walks in the morning, run marathons, play sports, couch potato?

Food

What is your favourite food?

What is your favourite drink?

What is your favourite treat (desert)?

Do you favour a particular cuisine?

Do you savor the tastes when eating or “wolf down” your food?

Do you like food mild or heavily spiced?

Are there any specific foodstuffs that you find disgusting or refuse to eat?

Are you allergic to any food?

Do you cook your own dinners? Are you a good cook, a gourmet, or a terrible cook? Do you eat out? Are you on a diet?

Favourites

What are your favourite colour(s)?

Is there any colour that you dislike?

Do you have a favourite (or hated) song, type of music, or instrument?

If you have a favourite scent, what is it?

What is your favourite type of animal?

Is there a certain type of animal that you hate or fear?

Are you allergic to any kinds of animals?

Do you have any allergies?

Travel / Environment

How do you get around locally?

Any fears in traveling?

Do you get seasick, airsick, motion sick?

What sorts of general belongings or equipment do you take when traveling?

Where do you go on holiday?

Where would you go if partner/children/obligations/finance permitted?

What place would you most like to visit?

Do you enjoy “roughing it”, or do you prefer your creature comforts?

Do you prefer the town or the country?

Career /Training

Education

Where and how were you educated?

Who trained you in your class or job?

What was your relationship with your teacher(s)/mentor(s)? How did you happen across this teacher or mentor?

Was your mentor kind, stern, cruel, indifferent?

Is this person or institution still in existence?

What is your level of intelligence and is it reflected in your education or job?

Were you a prize student or did you just barely pass?

Look at your skills. How did you acquire them (especially the unusual ones)?

Job

What job do you do?  How do you feel about it?

Do you plan to do this job for the rest of your life?

Were you forced into your profession by parents or peers?

Did circumstances dictate your choice of profession?

Have you ever done anything else for a living?

Have you ever received any awards or honours?

What have you done that was considered “outstanding” in your occupation by others in your field?

What are your long-term goals in work?

Describe any traumatic experiences in your present occupation that have affected you deeply in some way.

How do your relatives and friends view your present occupation?

Is there anything that you don’t currently know how to do that you wish you could?

Are you envious of others who can do such things in a good-natured way or are you sullen and morose about it?

What are your relationships with your colleagues, juniors and bosses?

Miscellaneous

Do you feel you are in the mainstream of things?

What do you worry about most?

What has been the high point of your life?

What is the biggest mistake you have made in your life?

What is your biggest regret?

What is your highest priority in life?

What is the “newest thing” in your life?

What is the “newest idea” in your life?

What advice would you give the younger generation? The older generation?

Do you feel the world is changing too fast or not fast enough? Explain.

What is your attitude to technology?

What keeps you awake at night?

What would you rescue from your burning house?

Have you written a Will? What does it say?

If your life were to end in 24 hours, what 5 things would you do in those remaining hours?

What would you like to be remembered for after your death?

Name

What is your name?

Have you changed it?

Do you have a nickname? If so, how do you feel about it?

What does your name say about your parents?

If you have changed your name, what does this say about you?

N.B Think about what were popular names in the year your character was born.  Try to avoid giving your characters similar sounding names and ideally make every character’s name start with a different letter – eg not Susie and Sarah but perhaps Susie and Beth.