Tag Archives: story development

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.

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.