Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Reasons to Blog

As the modest readership of the blog slowly builds, I notice that I receive more first time guests than those who are recognised as ‘returning visitors’ (Mum? Stop it now). So I thought it might be a good idea to say a little about what this blog is about, why I’m doing it and how I see it developing.

First of all: Hello! And thanks for dropping by. If you’re just a casual surfer of the interweb who has typed in a search for ‘sexy Swedish twins 21st’ but have inexplicably been referred to a blog about screenwriting, I humbly apologise. I am not responsible for such web searches and their often tenuous (to the extreme) recommendations. But hey, feel free to stick around for a couple of minutes anyway, there might be something you like.

For those who’ve put in a more dedicated search on screenwriting issues and have found your way to my blog, I heartily welcome you, and hope you find something useful in my ramblings. If there’s a topic that’s not covered, or not covered in enough detail, feel free to get in touch via email or by posting a comment.

What’s it all about Danny? I’m glad you asked. As the name implies, this is a blog devoted to what it’s like scriptwriting and script reading in the UK (& Ireland) market. As an established script reader for six years and an aspiring writer for more than I care to count, I wanted to share and discuss what I’ve learnt about the process so that it could become a useful resource for UK writers as most books, guides and gurus are geared towards Hollywood.

Sounds good, but why bother? I have had various roles in TV and film while I flirted with the idea of committing myself to become a writer but whenever I would try to find out the specific ins and outs of what it’s like in the UK market, the information would be a bit too vague and generic. I am completely passionate and obsessed with screenwriting and I wanted to find someone or somewhere that fuelled this fire but apart from a handful of reliable resources (Writers’ Guild, Shooting People, Scriptwriter Magazine, Script Factory: all linked on the sidebar) they didn’t go into the detail that I craved.

Also, after six years of reading scripts all day and all night, I have developed my own opinions and approach about writing a good screenplay, and my thoughts here represent what bustle around in my head on any given day. If I don’t express them on paper (or internet), I might well go mad and become that geek who dreams about Courier pt 12 (I did have a dream about structure once, honest).

In addition, I wanted to raise my profile. When I gave up everything to become a writer, I thought hard graft and dedication would see me through but it’s not quite enough. You need a name, and you need a face. So I started this blog in August (already I have made new friends and contacts, and the potential for work) and I made a no-budget short film as my first attempt to put up or shut up.

Bully for you. What next? Well, the blog is still only a few months old but I’m quite pleased with the articles, contributions and reaction it’s received. I’d like it to become a regular pitstop for both aspiring and professional writers, and possibly develop into an open forum of comment and opinion (guest posts, Q&As, pitches).

A couple of weeks ago, I did my first Q&A for the blog, with Working Title (thanks again Justin), about the development process, and I hope this will be the first of many top insights from industry insiders about a variety of hot screenwriting issues (web search now has ‘hot sexy Swedish twins’, my page count is going to soar).

So there you have it - why, what, how. Thanks for checking the blog out. Come back and say hello sometime. If you'd like to know more about me and my work, feel free to check out my website for full details.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Right Approach

I can understand people’s objections and reservations regarding the excessive planning method of storytelling. After all, it thoroughly demystifies the process and reduces the author’s chances of making that delightful spontaneous and emotional connection with his story (which is the joy for so many writers).

Personally, I use both methods (planning/spontaneous) depending on the project. For some scripts, I have to work out who the characters are and what the story is about, and this will usually be in detailed outline or treatment form. In others, I simply let my mind go and see what comes out.

It’s whatever works for you. It’s understandable to have reservations about either approach but I do get suspicious of writers who are over-defensive to the point of aggression on the topic. Chill out. It doesn’t matter how you get there, it’s the finished story that counts.

If you're writing for television, a scene by scene breakdown is obligatory before you write the first draft script so no matter what your preferred style or predilection, you're gonna have to get down and dirty with the rest of us.

Before I started writing the script I’m doing at the moment, I was trying to decide which approach to adopt. The idea had been with me for a while and the characters were starting to form so I thought I’d outline and be prepared.

However, whenever I sat down to do this, I found the sequences and structure difficult to summon and articulate. This continued for a while and the process turned into procrastination but still the idea and characters were bustling around in my brain.

So I decided to start writing the script to see what would happen. And to my surprise, the plot started to unfold with a clarity and purpose that for some reason, I could not put down (or maybe did not want to) in outline form.

After I finished the first twenty pages, I got very excited because I could see where the story was going and what it was about when previously I only had a vague notion of where it was headed. The key events yet to occur would follow me around while I was doing something else entirely (like watching TV) and I would be hungry to get back to the script to continue the story.

And I thought ‘maybe I should outline now’ but I said ‘sod it’ because I’d be breaking the excitement and momentum I’ve built thus far. I’m in the middle of the script at the moment and I’m eager to talk about it and the idea and the characters but I fear I’ll jinx it so I’m just going to wait until I finish and then send to my agent to get his honest opinion.

It’ll be done before Christmas where I’ll have the time and opportunity to bring myself back to reality. The realisation that ‘oh my god, this is awful’ is always a possibility whenever you review your work when previously you had enjoyed every minute of telling the story.

But that’s story for you. It doesn’t mean it’s rubbish, it just means it needs work. You’ve followed the organic process of storytelling and now it’s telling to go back to the outline stage and work it out properly, dummy. Perhaps. It’s back to the drawing board one way or the other.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Living the Dream

Q: I was thinking about taking the plunge and going freelance doing some script reading and giving myself time to write. And I was wondering if you had any advice on the matter.

It's very exciting taking the plunge but also very daunting. Getting work as a feature scriptwriter is nigh on impossible in the British market. It takes a lot of graft and years of momentum to get that lucky break (unless you write that great genre script that lands in the right place at the right time: you do hear about people doing this but it’s a bit like getting four or five numbers in the lottery, the real jackpot is the Hollywood sale). There are more opportunities writing for TV but similarly getting into a position where you can be considered for the jobs can prove quite tricky. Getting an agent will help in this area however.

As a start, script reading offers invaluable insight into what people are writing and how they're doing it. Most of the spec scripts are mediocre but the ones being made usually have a certain edge, or quality, or professionalism that is important to recognise and implement in your own work. Basically, when I started reading, I wanted to learn everything about writing a script and see what was out there - what was selling and what wasn't etc so when it came to my own work, I'd be one step ahead (it's worked but not in any high profile way, yet).

However, while script reading is great, it is poorly paid and it takes up a lot of time. When you first take the plunge, reading will be the only outlet to actually pay the bills (that is if you’re lucky enough to get work as a reader, see Script Reader UK post, link on the right). The standard rate nowadays for ‘coverage’ (a script report) in the UK is £45 and some pay £50 (like the Film Council). It's the £50 gig you want as reading 4 scripts in a week is £200. Not much but enough to pay the basic bills (very frugal living indeed). Reading 8 or 12 scripts is not uncommon, and more money obviously, but fatigue may set in especially if you're busy writing your own scripts or cursing level 22 of Crash Bandicoot on the PlayStation.

If you do have the opportunity to get script reading work, my advice would be to take advantage of all your contacts to get as many reading gigs as possible (in my heyday, I was reading for Pathé, Working Title, WT2 and Miramax) as this will help to keep churning over, and perhaps get a few other sideline jobs to maintain something that resembles a salary (script editing, teaching etc). Of course, the key focus is writing your own work so it's important to establish a routine and discipline which enables you to read scripts but write your own as well. I pretty much read in the morning and write in the afternoon. It's not set in stone but it helps if there are lots of scripts to read in any given week (I read much fewer nowadays as my writing opportunities increase but will do a glut of reading if I have the time or if money’s slow in coming through).

All this talk is all very well but life is more complicated than just saying ‘I’m giving up my job and going to be a writer’. There are numerous considerations and practicalities involved, all unique and with varying significance to each person who’s about to go freelance. Is my wife going to hit the roof? Will my girlfriend stand by me? How will I buy food and clothes for my two year-old son? Who will pay for Dad’s medical treatment? What is the least I can earn that will ensure I can pay my way? How can I guarantee some sort of income? Will I ever socialise again? What will my friends think? How am I going to afford the wedding? Will I miss a payment on the car? On the loan? Should I sell my flat/house? Maybe I should move back in with Mum. Should I move to Hollywood? Am I nuts?

There are no easy options but despite it all, the dream of writing for film and/or TV will usually win through, and will guarantee its own set of problems and frustrations as the effort inevitably takes its toll on your life and relationships. But fate will sometimes offer you a glimmer of hope or keep a leg in the door of destiny so that all your effort and sacrifice (and those of your loved ones) hasn’t gone to waste. It takes time, it takes effort, it takes talent and it takes luck. A crap shoot of determination and chance that will either make or break you but will nearly always be worth the effort, no matter what the outcome.

Making the decision to go freelance, no matter what profession, is a risky and exciting prospect. But it’s essential to have a good idea of what’s ahead of you or what you’re up against if you’re going to realise your dream. And if you do realise your dream, be happy that you’ve “made it” rather than be disillusioned and unhappy by your choices, or the reality that greets you.

“They don’t want you until you have made a name, and by the time you have made a name, you have developed some kind of talent they can’t use. All they will do is spoil it, if you let them.” Raymond Chandler (in a letter to Dale Warren, 7 November 1951).

Friday, November 25, 2005

Sketches & Sitcoms

Q: I have just written my first attempt at a sitcom - what should I do?

It's great that you've written a sitcom pilot - they're really hard to write - but I think the best advice I could give is to write a half dozen really good sketches to impress potential comedy producers/commissioning editors.

If you'd like to get work writing comedy, this is the best way to go about it. Sitcom scripts are so notoriously difficult to get right, they're unlikely to be looked on very favourably (because so many aren't very good). Sketches, not sitcom pilots, are the currency of the comedy market, especially for new writers. If you can impress and be funny in a few sketches, then you'll get work on sketch shows for radio & TV which will then lead to the holy grail: writing the sitcom.

So many sitcoms rely on the characters and their effective characterisation for most of the humour to work, that’s why sitcom pilots are so hard to gauge if they’re any good or not. A quality gag will always help but it’s very subjective and most jokes we’ll have heard before. Generally, the comedy generates itself from the characters and the situation they find themselves in (a situation that’s usually opposed to the characters’ normal routine).

Check out James Henry's blog (you know the one). He's part of the writing team for Green Wing and he explains how he got the gig (through a sitcom competition I think but after he won that, he was commissioned to write sketches for Smack the Pony before landing Green Wing - both shows are produced by TalkBack).

James has written a very good comedy pilot called Romeo Loves Jools which you can read on his website (or an excerpt I'm not sure). Also check out the Bearded Ladies’ blog. They’re a sketch group currently going through the comedy ranks - expect to see them with their own TV show soon (although they rejected my sketches, godammit). And the BBC have tips about getting started in comedy here.

I worked for Caroline Leddy at Channel 4 back in the late 90s (bloody hell where has it gone?) and I watched her commission Smack the Pony, Chris Morris, The Book Group (not to mention Spaced, fab, and Black Books, also fab, got to work on it). She’s Head of Comedy and Film now - she rocks - and she oversees the department’s Comedy Lab initiative.

As far as I’m aware, the Comedy Lab is still bubbling away. It’s a strand where they're willing to give new writers a break with more original or alternative fare. Still, unless your script is comedy gold, it's best not to submit directly by yourself. Attach your project with a production company first, preferably one of the regulars like TalkBack, Hat Trick or Objective, and your script will have a much better chance of getting through.

When I worked in the comedy department we received a lot of sitcom scripts that were 99% dire (no real understanding of the genre and very far from funny) while those who submitted sketches usually failed to raise a smile because they were sloppy or immature attempts at humour that only drunken friends could appreciate. Those that were clearly laid out in a professional format and had a proper gag or joke within the first page or so were instantly recognised and called in or referred to someone else. But these were literally 1% of the submissions, very few indeed.

So, it’s best to write about a half dozen really good sketches (which is better than a dozen mediocre ones) and then send them to leading comedy producers like the production companies mentioned above. If they're any good, truly, you'll be called in or referred to someone who can give you work and then develop your career so you can eventually write that sitcom. Radio 2, Radio 4 and BBC7 also have regular opportunities for comedy writers (Radio 4 is the usual breeding ground for all the comedy talent we know and love today).

Also, it’s probably worth mentioning that most comedy scripts are commissioned on a comedian’s work or reputation, not a writer’s. TV comedy likes to deal with performers and comedians who can translate their humour and presence to the small screen. That’s why the Edinburgh Festival is such a hotbed of activity for deals and pick ups (whoever wins the Perrier Award usually gets a TV pilot at least). That’s what comedy writers are up against but if it burns in your soul, then there’s no reason why you can’t be the next Graham Linehan, Arthur Mathews or David Renwick - people who let their comedy genius do the talking.

“Dying is easy. Writing comedy is hard.”

Check out the Writers' Guild report on Writing Comedy for the Internet:-

"The future for comedy writers is either incredibly exciting or incredibly depressing. There will be either a huge number of new opportunities or it will become impossible to make a living. The glass might be half-full, but equally everyone in the pub might have finished their drinks and be waiting for you to buy the next round."

Thursday, November 24, 2005


When you dramatise exposition effectively, it has the potential to become the subtext of your scene. What the audience will be interested in is the behaviour and dialogue of your characters and they will subconsciously try to work out what really is going on regarding the story.

Subtext seems to be one of those elusive and difficult to grasp terms of storytelling but it doesn’t have to be the case. Once you have a solid understanding of your characters and start dramatising the story in its correct manner, subtext will automatically layer itself within the characters’ actions and dialogue.

It works best when the audience is in tune with what’s going on in the story. A plain scene involving the exchange of breakfast condiments between a married couple can become rich with drama and emotion if we know that their daughter was killed in a car crash the night before because the wife was drunk driving.

Of course, subtext also works extremely well at the beginning of your screenplay (see examples in yesterday’s post) and in this case, the audience is willing to try to work out what’s happening rather than being told. And that’s what audiences do best really. They work things out. They want to figure out who a character is and where the story is going, and they’re quite clever in these particular areas. It’s our jobs as writers to ensure that the story doesn’t become too plain or predictable, to keep the audience hooked or entertained with unexpected story developments.

It has been said that subtext should drip off every page of your script but that’s a bit of misleading notion as it creates an automatic stumbling block within the writer’s mind about how he’s expressing his story. In these instances, the writer can become too focused with creating oblique or tenuous links to subtext but will leave the scene cold and unmoving, or confusing and dull.

There’s usually some aspect of subtext at work in every scene anyway so don’t torture yourself by thinking there must be a richer and deeper level to your drama. Storytelling is so multifaceted that once you achieve one aspect of plot or character, three other areas will automatically fall into place.

Don’t fret too much at the first draft stage. Tell the story first, then read it to see if all the scenes, characters and dialogue are doing their job. If not, rewrite with a more astute mind towards subtext and clarification of story.

Academy Award nominated screenwriter (and mum to Jake & Maggie) Naomi Foner has this to say about subtext and exposition: "People don't talk in full sentences. There's subtext in real dialogue. I would cite something like this: You're in a restaurant, you're waiting for a guy who's really late and you're pissed. When they walk through the door, you don't give them a big speech about how late they are. Usually they say, 'Oh, sorry I'm late,' and you just say, 'It's OK,' but it's not OK. In a movie there are a lot of ways of showing that subtext. You have an opportunity to use people's faces, details, and visuals to counter the dialogue to actually have dialogue that's full of subtext and not put the subtext in the dialogue. That's very important. You have to know how to do that."

You can read an interview with the Writers’ Guild of America about her new film (Bee Season, a very good script), writing dialogue, and how the end is the hardest part of any good story.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Writer Choice Vs Character Desire

Not much of a lull is it? It’s only reminded me how sad and obsessed I am about keeping up-to-date with all things on-line, and all my regular screenwriting fixes. Spending some quality time with the muter though and she’s toddled off into London’s west end to do some Christmas shopping to which I say: see ya!

Picking up on some of the topics covered on the last few posts, the matter of exposition struck me as something that is a bit of a hot potato because it’s essential in the storytelling process yet somehow must be invisible and subconscious to the audience.

Achieving the invisible and subconscious is hard, damn hard. Script reader’s sensitivities towards exposition are turned up to eleven, which is unfair on the screenwriter really because we’re holding up Academy Award winning standards to judge the way you inform us that Dad has been an alcoholic for the last 10 years ever since his son died of leukaemia and his wife left him for Mindy next door.

We hear exposition all the time. Sometimes it’s acceptable, as in you’ll recognise it as exposition but it won’t be too clunky and you’ll be willing to let it go. Sometimes it’s horrible (“Hey sis, how many years since Mom died?”) and sometimes it’s interesting exposition where you’re gagging to find out about that first alien invasion back in ’43 or when Michael Biehn brings Linda Hamilton up to speed in the Terminator while they’re being chased by Arnie.

A good way to avoid the clunkier aspect of exposition is to make sure that it’s used in a dramatic context, or as McKee would say: “make your exposition ammunition.” For those out there who defensively dismiss the advice of gurus and bristle at the thought of reducing your characters and story to well-worn techniques and mantras, there is a deeper way to understand why your exposition is fouling up your screenplay.

Basically what it comes down to is what the writer wants to get across about the story as opposed to what the character wants to do in any given scene. Most writers are keen that their audience understand every bit of information about the characters and story, and so will go to obvious and painful lengths to provide them with what they need to know.

These moments of exposition usually come crashing in the first ten-twenty minutes and that’s why readers will get a good sense of whether the writer can actually write or whether the writer has reverted to the safe and easy option of foul exposition, and thus making for a dull and disappointing read.

The problem is the characters are behaving and speaking in the way the writer wants them to but not in the way the characters usually do. They’re being functional and perfunctory to the story because the writer will provide them with the basic dialogue and action that will move the story forward in an obvious and uninspiring way.

But when you have fully defined characters with their own voice and behavioural traits, then the characters speak through the medium of the writer, and the story runs along with a keen sense of drama and interest.

I’ll give you two examples of what I’m talking about, one from The Insider written by Eric Roth and Michael Mann (1999) and the other from Ghostbusters written by Dan Ackroyd and Harold Ramis (1984).

In The Insider, the first ten minutes introduce us to Al Pacino’s character first and his position as a producer for 60 Minutes. This is done in a tense and taut sequence where Pacino tries to arrange an interview with a Middle Eastern terrorist. It provides us with dramatic exposition about who Al is and what he does.

But that’s not the example. When we meet Russell Crowe’s character, he’s seen packing up from work, a bit grim looking. We don’t know who he is or what he’s doing. He goes home. His daughter is watching cartoons. Russell, still looking tense, pours himself a stiff drink and says to his daughter: “It’s a bit early for cartoons isn’t it?”.

His wife comes in and Russell’s summoning up the courage to tell her what’s on his mind when there’s a cry from the bedroom and Russell races to help his daughter with an asthma attack. He’s desperate and fervent, and it’s clear he would do anything to protect his family.

As an audience member, I’m really interested and involved in what’s happening because the key exposition hasn’t been served up to me on a plate by the writer & director. What’s happened is that Rusty’s been fired. The stakes are raised by the fact that he needs to provide suitable health care for his family, and he will go to any lengths to protect them especially his asthmatic daughter.

But take a look at that line of dialogue while he pours himself a whiskey: “A bit too early for cartoons isn’t it?” It’s almost imperceptible and probably wouldn’t even register on the audience’s radar but it reveals a lot about his character (& what’s going on), and Rusty’s performance heightens the character’s unease and stress level perfectly.

The other example, from Ghostbusters, involves the first ten minutes also but specifically, how it introduces each of the main characters. After the librarian gets spooked by the ghost in the opening sequence, we cut to Bill Murray’s character who’s testing two volunteers to see if they have any psychic talent.

One’s a geek, the other volunteer is a pretty but vacuous blonde. The scene is played so that Bill Murray favours the blonde’s answers, even though she’s getting them all wrong, while he continually persecutes the geek with small electric shocks, even when he guesses a response correctly.

It’s a really funny scene but it tells us all we need to know about Bill’s character - Peter Venkman - without us stopping to think. He’s a scientist but he doesn’t act like a scientist. He’s funny, he’s charming, he’s an oaf. Clearly unprofessional but loveable nonetheless.

And just when he’s about to get lucky with the blonde, in bounds Ray Stantz (Dan Ackroyd) full of boyish enthusiasm and zeal about the prospect of paranormal activity in the library that they have to check out. CUT TO the library where they hook up with Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis). It’s no fluke that Egon’s already there: he’s bookish, stiff, a bit of a nerd and studiously listening to one of the tables as Peter & Ray arrive.

It’s extremely effective screenwriting (and performances naturally). Both examples tell us what we need to know without making it obvious or banging the exposition on our heads. And this is the problem with a lot of spec scripts that I read every day. They’re laden and leaden with poor and unmotivated exposition that do nothing to either characterise the players or dramatise the story.

The writer is using his characters and plot as explanation and information rather than the characters reacting to the drama and situation of the story. It’s writer’s choice versus character desire. It’s something that easily marks the more assured and professional writer from the overzealous and amateur wannabe.

Professional scribes still fall foul of the trap every day - Scott the Reader gave an example of sloppy writing from a script he was reading recently - but this is usually down to complacency rather than naïve and inexperienced notions of drama.

One thing is for sure, the problem of what the writer wants to convey as opposed to how the characters want to behave is a constant source of aggravation and frustration for dramatists the world over, and will continue to do so until the art of story is taken over by MP3 “script problems solved!” downloads in the (not too?) distant future.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Male/Female writers

Q: I was wondering from your experience of script-reading if male and female writers tend to write different kinds of scripts? Is it rare, say, to have a woman writing a thriller or an action movie? Would the industry take the script less seriously because of it? I heard JK Rowling used her initials so boys wouldn't be put off reading her books because she was female.

To be perfectly honest, I rarely know or acknowledge what sex a writer is before I read the script. What I look at is the title of the film and then check how many pages the script is before I start reading. And then when I do the report, I’ll type in the writer’s name and that will usually be the first time I’ll know who’s written it and what sex they are (unless I’m told before hand like: “I’m sending you over Richard Curtis’s new script” or the name is of an androgynous nature like “Nicky Pearce”. I made that up but if there’s a Nicky Pearce out there, hello!).

But it’s an interesting question and I would have to say that most scripts I read are from men. There seems to be considerably fewer women screenwriters or wannabe screenwriters than the plethora of Alpha Dogs who grunt themselves on to paper in the hope of Hollywood glory. And like you point out, it is uncommon for a woman to write a thriller or action movie. I’m sorry if this fulfils a stereotype here but the scripts that I do read from women are usually romcoms or relationship dramas.

More important however is your query about the industry taking a script less seriously if it was written by a female. This, I can categorically state, is nonsense. I don’t know if it exists in publishing or any other writing field but in screenwriting I don’t think the producers or execs care where it’s come from as long as it’s a good script. JK Rowling may have used her initials so boys wouldn’t be put off reading her books but let’s face it, JK has a cool ring to it and makes a much better moniker.

If a woman has written an action film or thriller and has doubts whether the industry will take it seriously, then she has nothing to fear. Getting your script in the hands of someone in the industry who’s willing to take a look is a hard enough task as it is (sometimes even with an agent) but you can be rest assured that all scripts are judged and considered on their content only.

Occasionally, if a script has a woman protagonist and the female characters are well-written, I may check to see if it’s written by a bloke or not. I realise that this isn’t really done the other way around (if a women writes good male characters, no-one says a thing) but it is a general tendency for the industry to give a male writer extra credit if he writes well for women, something which is unfair and no doubt frustrating for female writers and actresses everywhere (in a recent Creative Screenwriting podcast, the female cast of Rodrigo Garcia’s “Nine Lives” took issue of the question as to how they felt a male writer captured the female characters so well).

So while there’s a growing equilibrium between male and female in society, you will get the inevitable bias in some areas but in screenwriting terms, it doesn’t matter if you’re Matt or Martha. If you’ve got a good script, no matter what genre or gender bending nature, producers are going to want it, and you.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Lost: Revealed

For those fed up with series one currently being aired here in the UK and can't be arsed to sit through more maguffins and red herrings, check out an interview with two of the exec producers as they gush about series two HERE.

Of course, while it is generally all bollocks and mis-direction, they do discuss MAJOR SPOILERS so don't you dare click if you don't want to know what happens to a couple of key characters. Honestly though, I couldn't care less if the island and its members sunk/drowned/disappeared (delete as appropriate) in their own sense of deluded mystery and were never seen again.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Irish scripts

My mother's watching The Gilmore Girls, which I don't she's seen before but she seems fairly hooked so it gives me time to sneak in a post.

In answer to Berns's query about what Irish screenwriters are submitting to the Film Board, well it seems a right mix of all that she mentions. The worst ones seem to be the typical Dublin gangster, crime, drugs, lowlife scripts because they're so derivative and cliché. The concept and characters really need to be original and distinctive for the stories to have any appeal, and unfortunately, the majority of them don't.

Other scripts include period dramas about Irish history. These can be hit and miss. While it's great to mine the rich culture and interest of Ireland's past, some follow a tired and cliché route of poverty and famine without giving us real characters or a story to care about. Alternatively, some of these period dramas are quite compelling and interesting because they'll have a strong sense of story and genre, and will receive a strong recommendation.

The ones that annoy me the most are the scripts that are written with an American frame of mind or tone or sensibility. This is borne out of screenwriters who want to emulate the entertainment value of American films and place it within an Irish context. Generally, this doesn't work. However, affluent Dublin romantic comedies or dramas seem to be on the up, a kind of mixture of Hollywood and Richard Curtis with a Dublin accent. But again, these are very hit and miss.

And then there are the scripts that are actually set in America but state in the development notes that they'll transfer the characters and action to an Irish setting. Yeah right. These usually make the least impression as they're poor attempts at genre without any discerning hook or interest.

That's about it really. A fair few treatments for horrors and ghost stories come in, and modern horror scripts that utilise Irish myths and folklore are on the rise so in a typical batch of 20 submissions, it's a real mixed bag of story and genre and only a small handful are chosen to receive development support.

For all those out there obsessed with formatting your script, check out The Artful Writer's definitive guide to the pedantic art.

I'm about to miss an afternoon of glorious sport while I go shopping with me Mum. Although maybe there's an omnibus of The Gilmore Girls on to keep her quiet...

Thursday, November 17, 2005

A Little Lull

Right in the middle of doing script reports for the Irish Film Board - twenty have to be done by Monday, I’ve done four but at least the reading part is over with - so I thought I’d take a break and put up a post. A proper break would be a shoulder massage by a nubile eighteen year-old but let’s just hold that image for a moment before reverting to the usual method of work displacement: putting on the kettle for a cup of tea.

Aaah, Barry’s Tea. The Irish cuppa. Unbeatable.

Reading for the Irish Film Board is slightly different to the normal process of script reading. They courier a box of scripts to you, typically between 15-20, and you usually have two-three weeks to get them done. The submissions come with synopsis and development notes so when you read a script and end up thinking ‘oh my god, what’s going on?’, you can revert to the synopsis and notes to check where you are. This also helps when you get to do the coverage because you have automatic comments and criticism to dispense that are gleaned from the clarity of the synopsis as opposed to what the script is actually dramatising, and vice-versa.

The Film Board’s coverage doesn’t ask you to do an in-depth synopsis like standard reports so that lowers the workload considerably and it gives you more time to be more constructive and helpful in your comments because the reports are made available to the writers/applicants on request. I really enjoy this aspect. Most script reports tell the exec that the script is not worth pursuing but with the Film Board’s coverage, you can be a bit more human and supportive with your criticism, and projects can be resubmitted if the writers want to work on where the Film Board think the script needs improvement.

In this batch, it’s been pleasing to see a few resubmitted scripts that I’ve read before that weren’t quite up to scratch but have taken on board the Film Board’s suggestions, and my script report, to develop the script accordingly. Sometimes, their development notes will refer to the ‘useful comments and suggestions’ by the reader (you still remain anonymous) and that’s such a joy as opposed to the usual way readers are often referred to: “illiterate, talentless, wannabe, interns”. So, if anybody out there is reading and has submitted to the Film Board, the readers aren’t your enemy.

Even in normal production companies, the reader may be disinterested in you personally but he’s still your friend as he wants the script to impress and engage his story sensibilities. It’s fair to say that when this doesn’t happen, a reader can often be damming and critical of your work but hey, they’re only doing their job. It’s nothing personal.

What with the script reports, the pitches, my scripts, the continuous scrabble for any kind of work and my mother’s visit, I’m not going to be on-line very much over the next week or so and there may be a little lull. But if there’s a question or an area that you would like answered or covered, please feel free to get in touch. It helps to have subjects that I can respond to and write for instead of racking my brain wondering what people out there might want to hear about (the above could have bored you rigid for all I know). Anyway, slán* a while.

*Slán: Irish for ‘goodbye’, pronounced 'slawn', like yawn.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Work Work Work

Yesterday was a good day. Nothing happened: I didn’t get a commission, I didn’t sell a script, I didn’t go outside. I just got a lot done. It’s strange how a bulging in-tray and a few deadlines will actually help you focus on getting stuff started and finished. At least it works for me. When I have an open-diary in front of me, I’m far more likely to procrastinate and fiddle, and not do very much at all.

So today, I’m going to carry the proactive momentum forward and keep my head down, and get some work done. I’m not even going to check emails, surf the internet or update the blog. Oh... hold on. Scratch that. As soon as I finish this post (ahem), I’m going to disconnect all virtual ties and sit in my kitchen reading scripts until lunch time, and then in the afternoon work on my existing projects and pitches. I’ll go out today at some stage for some fresh air, probably after lunch just to clear my head and stretch my joints.

Oh the glamour. The excitement. The veritable showbiz buzz.

It’s mid-November so unlike the Christmas adverts that actually started on the 29th October (shame on you, damn you all to hell), I’ll soon begin my year-end retrospective where I’ll examine how this working year has shaped up as opposed to the last (what new work have I done), and how I can celebrate Christmas and the forthcoming New Year (what’s happening now, oh god will I be able to pay January’s rent).

Typically, towards the end of November going into December, not a whole lot happens commission-wise because of the festive rush, or at least that’s the way it’s gone in recent years, and so I’ve tucked away any great expectations until the New Year. From a psychological viewpoint, this is a plus as I get to focus on my spec scripts without having the nagging sensation that I should or could be earning some valuable dosh through a commission or two.

The script reading never stops, unless you want it to, so that provides some handy cash for the pressies that need to be purchased. For now, I’ll see how the pitches I’m working on will work out - it would be great to get a positive response before Christmas - while I psychologically clear the slate to write two - two! - new spec scripts before the year’s out. I’ve already started the first one and hope to finish that in two weeks’ time (I say finish, get to very rough first draft would be more accurate). The other one I’ll write over the dull periods of the Christmas holiday. This gets them done but it takes January and February, at least, to get them into presentable shape.

Right. I’m off. The whole day without checking the interweb. For a hilarious and painfully truthful breakdown of how a working day usually pans out, check out Denis McGrath's typical working day. I, will see you, later.

** UPDATE **
Well, I lasted until 17.15. Partly because I was knackered and wanted to stop working but partly because I got a phone call saying: "didn't you get my email?", so I had to check. And I find I had posted the same post twice, what a twat. Deleted now. We can all sleep easy.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Genre Part 3

Bit of a bonkers week this week with work. Plenty of scripts to read and do the reports as well as preparing separate pitches for four new TV projects. These pitches will come in the shape of one or two page outlines, and one comes with the proviso of a few sample scenes to highlight what the outlines are proposing. And my Mum is coming to visit, bless her.

One or two page outlines might not sound very much but they’ve got to be right, so a lot of work goes into trying to make the pitch as strong as possible. It would be great to bypass this pitching process and just be offered the work straight up but no matter how frustrated or disenchanted you may become with the routine, always remember the golden rule of the development process: “never burn your bridges”.

From the batch of scripts I read today, some came with development notes on how the writer would like to improve the story in the next draft. These notes make for interesting reading. By and large, they spot the script’s recognisable faults and it’s heartening that they realise where the story needs to be improved, and are willing to put in the necessary work. However, some development notes make a superficial namecheck on the two mainstays of screenplay craft - “characters need work”, “structure needs to be tighter” - and instead waffle on about how they want to make a commercial mainstream film that will appeal to the Friday night audience.

There’s nothing wrong with this at all. In fact, it should be positively encouraged. But what’s missing is the right kind of original style and content for the proposed genre films, and that’s why they’re failing to make the development grade. I touched on it in previous posts about how producers/directors/development execs are looking for a script with an ‘original voice’, a story that has ‘something to say’. We may think of these types of films as highbrow or intellectual but the audience is craving something distinctive and interesting too. And they deserve it in their genre films. What an audience will actually end up paying to see is another debate entirely.

When you’re a new writer and you’re fuelled by your passion for the genre or blockbuster film, it’s not enough to simply whack out a cop movie that you think is just as good as the rest that are out there. And it’s not enough to read a screenplay book, attend a seminar, and write a professionally formatted script that ticks all the structural and development boxes. You’ve probably got a better script but the likelihood is that you’re allowing yourself to slip into derivative storytelling or offering up familiar characters, situations and story lines. It may well be better than the latest film you’ve seen at the flicks but as yet, you haven’t earned the right to get your script picked from the pile and passed on to the Hollywood conveyor belt.

This is what differentiates your work from the others: your ability as a writer. Are you a writer, a real storyteller with a passion to engage, excite and drag an emotion from your audience or are you someone who loves films and wants the thrill of getting your script made? The scripts I read today had all the hallmarks of people who have a passion for movies but had little spark or ingenuity about storytelling. They were poor attempts at genre scripts.

We need genre scripts but just because they’re ‘genre’ doesn’t mean they have to be familiar, or by-the-numbers, or crushingly predictable. Justin Trefgarne from Working Title said: “People want to write movies but they don’t want to do the living to get there. It’s not a God-given right – it’s a calling, something that takes over your life so you have to find the voice – the essence – that demands for this thing to be seen.” I can tell what you’re thinking now: “A-ha. My genre script kicks ass. It’s got a terrific idea and the story rocks. Shut up Stack, you haven’t a clue”. But hold on a minute. Pour yourself a drink. Sit down with your script. Read it. And ask yourself: is it really good? Is it really original? Is it bringing something new, fresh and distinctive to the table, does it really fire my belly when I think about it?

I wrote two genre scripts a couple of years ago which I thought were going to be my fast track ticket to success. At the time, I thought they were fresh, original and exciting but I realise now that what I had was two well written scripts, not two great stories. I consciously used some familiar elements of the respective genres so as not to alienate my target audience from my tales but this was my biggest mistake. And now, I read scripts every day that remind me of my own attempts at genre. They’re trying hard to come up with quirky comedy crime flicks or spooky ghost stories but they’re reverting to the same old tired routines and situations that we’ve seen a million times before.

Why is this? Is it because it’s what we’ve seen before so we want to emulate it for ourselves, ‘only better’ (because we’ve written it)? Or is it because TV and cinema drags the wannabes from their sofas and lures them into thinking they can dazzle and entertain with their particular take on the genre? We need more. We need life. Insight. Emotion. Understanding. Humour. Fun. Excitement. Empathy. And when we prove we have all that in our writing, the studios will feel confident to allow us to write mindless genre guff that perpetuates all of the above. Go figure.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

New Look

Sorry, I cracked. I. Just. Couldn't. Take. Those. (F****g). Pink. Links. Anymore.

Every time I'd check my favourite blogs, I'd come back to my page to find it blinked into invisibility because of the pink links. This doesn't happen for everyone, I know, but it was driving me nuts.

So there you are.

However, I didn't realise I'd lose most of my links and what nots. It's taken me months to get this far (I'm such a non-techie head) so give me a few days to restore the blog back to what it was with the links and previous posts.

I would link to Lee Thomson's blog - I think it's - and his counter discussion to my argument that we should want to write for more UK TV rather than ignore it in favour of US fare. It sparked off some interesting comments by UK writer Stephen Gallagher and Canadian scribe Dennis at Dead Things On Sticks blog.

It's Saturday, tea-time. It was a good day of international sport (rugby & football) so I'm off for a few beers and a chicken casserole before I settle down for the (pen?)ultimate episode of Jed Murcurio's uncompromising medical drama Bodies on BBC3. I'll get round to bringing the blog back up to scratch over the weekend...

Friday, November 11, 2005

Writing for Existing TV Series

Yesterday, 6:00am. I wrench myself out of my slumber to catch a train and tube that will take me to King’s Cross so I can make it to Leeds on time to teach the new students of the MA screenwriting course how to write for existing TV series (module 2). At the back entrance of my train station, I go to purchase my tube ticket from the unsupervised ticket machine. It’s dark and cold. My debit card gets stuck in the slot.

My fingers fail to grapple with the two millimetres of card that are within reach and I curse and kick the machine. I skedaddle to the front of the station and tell the station master what’s happened. He tells me to go back to the machine and wait, he’ll send someone to help. I scoot back to the machine. My debit card is gone. I kick and curse once more, this time in the vain hope that the machine has swallowed my card.

It’s unlikely so I phone up Lost & Stolen Credit Card line. I get through to an automated response: “Please press the fourteen digits of your credit card”. Me, quite loudly: “how can I f***g do that when it’s just been f****g stolen!”. The automated response seems to have understood: “Transferring you to an operator”. But the station master comes up the steps and in true David Blaine style, produces my debit card from his pocket.

Someone saw the card and managed to get it out when I left it unattended. Big relief and thanks (to whoever it was). I’ve got my card but I’ve missed my train. Still, there’s a train in a couple of minutes which may get me to King’s Cross in time for the train to Leeds. I go to the front of the station. Big queue for the Ticket Man so I try one of the machines. But my card has been damaged in the previous machine so it doesn’t work.

The train arrives. I rush to the head of the queue and ask if I can butt in and buy my ticket. A lady agrees. Humanity is alive and well in south London. The train is on the platform, the doors close. I get my ticket and race to get on board. With a millisecond to spare, the doors shut in my face. I look up the side of the platform towards the driver. The train doesn’t move for a few seconds but with a satisfied hiss, it leaves the station.

Suddenly, I’m that freak on a train platform. Shouting and cursing to no-one. A loon to be avoided. Not even the station master can look me in the eye. The next train is cancelled. It’s twenty minutes before the next train arrives. By the time I get to King’s Cross, I want to kill myself. The ticket for Leeds only allows me to travel on the time that I booked so I queue at the Travel Centre to explain my predicament. After I finish my spiel, the Ticket Man stares at me as if I’ve just told him I’ve slept with his wife. He takes my ticket, stands up, and walks off, presumably to phone my local train station to check if my story is true.

He comes back minutes later, says nothing, scribbles on a piece of paper and stamps it with British Rail’s approval. Special permission to travel on the next available train to Leeds which leaves in exactly one minute’s time. Cue Vangelis’s ‘Chariots of Fire’ as I dodge the morning commuters all the way to platform 1 to spring like a baby lamb on to the 8.05 train to Leeds. It truly is a miracle. In the end, I am only half an hour late for my teaching session.

For ‘Writing for Existing TV Series’ the students pick a television show they like and I guide them through the process of writing an episode. While it doesn’t exactly emulate the atmosphere and approach of a writers’ room, it’s a lot of fun as we analyse the shows, study what makes them work and try to come up with suitable story lines. This year the students have chosen Nip/Tuck, 24, Desperate Housewives, Scrubs and the UK supernatural series Hex.

It’s really difficult, especially for the students as they have to do most of the work. I’m there to help them understand to nuts and bolts of the process. We look at the typical number of scenes in any given episode and how many story lines are included, developed, resolved and carried forward. Is there an A plot, B plot, C plot? What kind of structure does the show adopt? A teaser and four acts (standard hour issue) or a teaser and two acts (half hour)? Teaser, three acts? What’s the style, pace, tone? What characteristics make it that kind of show as opposed to everything else?

It’s great because usually I’ll end up learning a hell of a lot too. There’s nothing I enjoy more than studying what makes good drama and the best of US drama certainly has a lot to offer in terms of style and craft. The students nearly always choose American dramas to write instead of homegrown UK fare (which always baffles me - surely you’d want a sample script of a UK show to get some work after you graduate?). To be fair, the course has some foreign students who have no interest in writing for UK soaps like Coronation Street or EastEnders but it is interesting to witness the disdain and cynicism towards UK drama from those who say they want to write TV in this country.

I’ve been doing the module for the last four/five years now and somewhat surprisingly, one of the best results came two years ago when a couple of students wrote episodes of The West Wing. They did a really good job. It wasn’t exactly Aaron Sorkin but they managed an impressive display of The West Wing’s trademark style and content.

So much so, the Head of Screenwriting sent the scripts to his US contacts for evaluation. They responded that they were functional and efficient - representative of a lot of TV spec scripts - but nowhere near the standard of being made or being hired: a good student script. The hardest show we’ve tried to write for has been The Simpsons. It seems that being funny is far more difficult than being dramatic.

But the one thing that students learn every year is that writing for TV is much, much harder than they ever realised and by the end of the module have acquired a whole new appreciation and understanding of what it takes. They sometimes reevaluate their criticism of UK shows and realise that the same talent and craft is being used but that it’s usually a different style and tone that’s in place because of the specific tastes and culture of this island.

So, come on, let’s hear it for UK TV writers. To name but a few: Paul Abbott (Shameless), David Renwick (One Foot in the Grave), Jimmy McGovern (Cracker), Ashley Pharoah (Where the Heart Is), Tony Jordan (EastEnders), Russell T Davies (Queer as Folk), Stephen Merchant (The Office). Style, talent and kudos to rival the best of what the US has to offer.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Four Functions of Dialogue

Although a person’s character is defined by what they do and not what they say, how and what they choose to speak usually indicates a great deal about themselves, especially in relation to writing for the stage or screen. While you could muse and contemplate the ‘invisible qualities’ that make up a good story, dialogue in a screenplay is the most identifiable form of the process and arguably the most important aspect of how your characters and plot will be judged.

When pushed or bored, readers and execs will speed-read your carefully worded prose and neat narrative description in favour of getting to the meat of your scene: what the characters are saying. The dialogue will invariably become representative of the plot and character development, and will take on the responsibility of making your story funny, dramatic, quirky, interesting and engaging. No pressure then.

Writing good dialogue is a hard task. A lot of bad scripts make the error of regurgitating familiar lines from TV and other films, or trying to copy Quentin Tarantino and David Mamet (sometimes combined). It’s usually easily evident if the writer doesn’t know their characters very well if they start to talk in dodgy Americanisms when it’s a drama set in a UK tax office.

And UK writers attempting an American story usually fall into the trap of repeating commonly heard slang and phrases or un-researched technical terms (cops, attorneys) without giving the characters their own voice or point-of-view. In addition, some writers will attempt lengthy and quirky monologues but unless you’ve got the talent and humour of someone like Tarantino, this is probably best avoided. Even he can mess it up: when David Carradine began his ‘superhero’ spiel towards the end of Kill Bill 2, I was like ‘enough already! Get to the fight.’

Basically, dialogue in your script carries four main functions: exposition, characterisation, subtext and humour.

Exposition: to convey to the audience the key information of the plot and characters (“How long have you worked here Tom?”). Exposition is present in every film and is wholly necessary in the storytelling process. The problem with exposition is that it should be invisible and in most scripts, the writer will take the easy option of getting the information across (see example above).

McKee has good advice regarding this problem: “make your exposition ammunition”. This means that the characters use the information that they know about themselves in order to hurt or amuse or confront each other. Script readers hate bad exposition. It’s like someone farting in a lift. It’s awkward, unsettling and it reeks.

Characterisation: to give characters their own voice and point-of-view. How someone speaks usually says something about what they think of themselves and how they would like to be perceived by others. Let’s take a perfectly plain piece of dialogue - “Hello. How are you?” - and give it to three different characters: Bart Simpson, Joey Tribiani and Dracula.

Bart would probably characterise the greeting with something like: “Hey, how’s it hanging man?” as it’s true to his cheeky personality. Joey may switch it to his inexplicably winsome chat up line: “Hey, how you doing?” while Dracula may unintentionally ham it up a little with: “Greetings…” before chowing down on your neck. Too many characters in too many bad scripts speak with the same voice. There’s no discernible distinction between who or what is being said.

Subtext: because quite often what is being said has an alternative emotional meaning. A man and woman’s pleasantries at breakfast (“how did you sleep?” “pass the toast” “coffee?”) can take on a whole different meaning if the audience is aware they’ve spent the whole night arguing and it’s the end of their relationship. Subtext is most effective when the audience is in tune with what’s going on and understand the character dynamics.

Some say that every scene should have its subtext but that doesn’t mean that every line of dialogue has to have a hugely significant emotional underbelly. Scenes have their own separate purpose and your giraffe scene at the zoo may be just a little bit of comic relief where any attempt at subtext or something more significant would be inappropriate.

Humour: no matter how dour or depressing life gets, there’s always room for a little humour. A script without some amusing aspects of dialogue is a dull and draining read. Humour adds dimension and humane qualities to a character, and helps the audience connect with them and the story a bit more.

A ‘drama’ doesn’t mean it has to be a serious and po-faced examination of the human condition. Give us something to smile about. And if it’s a comedy, you’d better make sure there’s something to laugh at.

There are probably many sub-groups and considerations to add to these four main functions but a post about ‘dialogue’ seemed like the natural succession to the previous article about characters vs plot. Dialogue is the audience’s way in to understand and appreciate the characters, and how to assimilate the key aspects of your story. ‘Having a good ear for dialogue’ is indeed a gift but one that can be honed and developed by careful observation and understanding of people’s discourse and behaviour.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Character Vs Plot

A lot of wannabe writers have taken on board the rules and regulations of many screenwriting books and gurus. This has led to some advantages. Scripts are certainly better written in terms of screenwriting style, and display a keen awareness of the structural demands of the three-act template. Great. They make my day easier as a script reader because they’re efficient and professional to a certain degree.

But. There’s something missing. There’s no heart. No soul. The main characters of the story are being overlooked. They are not given any time to breathe and develop. The plot is taking centre stage with the characters backing up the action rather than being the ones leading the narrative. The script has no theme, no discerning emotion. It may touch on one or two character moments but generally won’t develop an emotional through-line or ‘story arc’ for the protagonists to expand.

Someone, somewhere, I don’t know who I don’t know where, came up with this nugget: “scenes should be no longer than three pages”. Whoever claimed this must have a lot of clout and respect within the industry because it’s clung on to for dear life in the scripts that I read on the spec pile. As more and more scripts whiz by their plot, characters and action with scenes no longer than three pages, it seems that writers are petrified of upsetting the reader/exec too much, and keep the story moving at all costs in the fear of never, ever making a sale.

This, and I can’t stress this enough, is poppycock. My own experience, and personal preference, has led me to believe that your script will be judged and appreciated based on how much the reader/exec will engage with your characters, and be involved with their particular predicament right up until the unpredictable ending.

In my Q&A with Justin at Working Title, he refers to “the underlying, invisible qualities present in a piece of work... the ‘mythic’ quality to a film – the thing that makes a work memorable, important and dramatically whole.” While there are a lot of characteristics present in a screenplay to generate this ‘invisible quality’ - tone, pace, structure, emotion, theme - the responsibility largely rests with your characters to conjure these main emotions into your story.

Perhaps this is why there’s the never ending debate between ‘genre scripts’ and work of a more personal nature. It’s not that difficult to follow the rules of a particular genre, and join the dots of its applicable structure to make a polished and presentable piece. After all, you’ve seen the latest Hollywood blockbuster and it’s devoid of any discerning qualities. You can do better, right?

The trouble is that while it may be a workable script, the fact that you’re a new “unknown quantity” as a writer will usually prevent a production company or agent looking on your work with the favour you desire. Sure, the execs require a writer to know the demands of format & structure but far more important is the writer’s particular insight and point-of-view with regards to the characters and theme of the film. The theatre has become the first port of call for many a film company because on the stage, the writer’s original voice is clear, expressive and significant, and playwright qualities are easily transferable to the big screen.

Of course, there are notable exceptions to the ‘genre’ approach. New writer Richard Smith got his psychodrama script, Trauma, made last year with Marc Evans directing and Colin Firth starring. It didn’t make a splash at the box office but having the benefit of reading the script prior to production, it did have a unique edge and tone with regard to its style and story. Also, fellow blogger James Moran is in post-production with his feature debut Severance. I haven’t read that script but I’ll bet there’s something about it that makes it a genre flick a cut-above the rest (an attractive or unique hook, and characters you care about - check out James’s blog for a run down).

The debate between ‘commercial and mainstream’ tastes and more distinctive, emotive fare will no doubt rage on but ‘commercial and mainstream’ doesn’t have to mean that your characters get overlooked by the plot’s need to crank up the action at every turn. Think of your favourite genre films and they’re probably led by a distinctive central character who we care about and is three-dimensional with their particular personal foibles. John McClane, Indianna Jones, Martin Riggs (in the first Lethal Weapon anyway), Peter Parker...

Let your characters breathe. Give them time to talk to each other. I don’t mean pointless every-day conversation. Provide them with scenes that embellish or develop their characterisation. Something funny or dramatic or interesting, something to make us engage and raise our empathy even more. Once we care about a character, we’ll follow the story no matter what. And you can go over three page scenes to achieve this.

I think on Wordplay’s Hall of Fame posts (check them out now, I’m not going anywhere), someone said, and I’m paraphrasing, “that your first act is your set-up, and the third-act is your pay-off. The second act is where you get to write the film you really want to write - between your characters.” It’s a neat notion. You don’t have to follow this exact structural mark up of course but hopefully there’ll be a few valuable moments in our scripts that make our characters more human, fully defined and three-dimensional in order for their story to really entertain and inspire the audience.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Something for the weekend...

The Beeb are on a roll. Not content with giving you the opportunity to submit for The Afternoon Play, and that plum prime-time gig next year, they’ve just announced a comedy apprenticeship thing where they have set aside £150,000 to nurture new TV comedy writers. Successful writers will be paid £10,000 each to be part of a show’s production and shadow the writers while they tear their hair out trying to come up with gags. Find out more HERE.

And for those with time to spare or no-one to go out with, I can recommend no better hang out than Wordplay’s Hall of Fame posts. Free, invaluable and indispensable advice that covers the A-Z of screenwriting, from Adapting Short Stories right down to pearly pearls given by people called Zak and Zoditch. Better than any screenwriting book, probably.

For those unconvinced about my unabashed praise for Creative Screenwriting’s weekly email, you can peruse what they have to offer HERE.

Have a great weekend.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Six Feet Under

** mild spoilers **

So, Six Feet Under is finally dead and buried. Did you catch the finale on E4 the other night? What a show. I’ve been a huge fan since the beginning. Ending it now is probably a good idea. The characters were beginning to go in directions that I wasn’t fully convinced about - Nate was really starting to grate, and he was the one I most identified with - and it’s always good to end on a high note rather than outstay your welcome.

But what about that final montage? Wow. As a viewer, I was completely overwhelmed and emotional with the style and presentation of the characters’ fate. It’s been haunting me these last few days and looking at it now as a writer, I am hugely impressed, inspired and envious of Alan Ball’s bold but extremely effective choice. The music by the way is ‘Breathe Me’ by Sia, available on iTunes, already downloaded thank you very much.

Last year, I was at a weekend workshop with John Yorke, Head of BBC Drama, and he said he would love to find a UK version of Six Feet Under. But I don’t think he meant that he wanted a series about a UK-set family funeral home, and the dysfunctional relationships therein. I think what he meant was that he would love to find a show that had a similar richness and complexity of character.

A series that was bold and ambitious, contemporary and identifiable. Something that stretched the creative boundaries of television drama whilst still remaining true to its emotional core and expectations of its audience. Never once do the flashbacks, dreams or fantasy sequences feel overly contrived or unnecessary. And of course, a show that has at its heart a subject matter that touches us all, a universal theme about life and death, and the delicate balance between both.

Alan Ball and his team of writers Jill Soloway, Kate Robin, Bruce Eric Kaplan, Scott Buck, Rick Cleveland, Nancy Oliver and Craig Wright (do you think I had to look them up? sheesh, as if) have truly raised the bar and I salute them for their hard work and diligence over Six Feet Under’s brief spell on this earth. Ok, so I fantasised about being part of the writers’ room, so what. I’m a geek, I admit it. I’ve got the box-sets and listened to the commentaries (usually very illuminating by the way, Alan Ball in particular gives good directing tips) and co-show runner Alan Poul also deserves a mention for his excellent contribution (he gives good commentary also).

So, I hope we will all mourn the passing of one of the most daring and dark and funny shows that has been on TV. I know there are those who don’t enjoy it or never got into it, which is fair enough as it’s not to everyone’s tastes (viewing figures in the UK were never spectacular) but from a writing point-of-view, it really was something to treasure and behold. May it rest in peace.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

BBC Drama Opportunity

The BBC have announced a terrific opportunity to get a prime-time, hour long, stand-alone drama on BBC One for broadcast summer of next year. And you don't need to have an agent nor do you need to have prior television experience.

"We want a good mix of writers, and this can include writers who are completely new to television.

[The plays] can be about anything. We want a good mix of subject and tone, but they should have a strong story and be character-driven.

They must be mainstream, contemporary and UK based, but they should be bold and ambitious and want to challenge, question and provoke.

We are looking for ideas that are from the heart - on a subject, or exploring an issue, that you are passionate about."

For full details - go to the BBC writersroom HERE.

This is it, this is what you've been waiting for. Go for it.

Cinematic Storytelling

Here's an interesting article by Jennifer van Sijll (who teaches screenwriting at San Francisco State and consults on film and television projects in Los Angeles and San Francisco). Thanks to Alby James, Head of Screenwriting at Leeds Met Uni for the link.

"Let’s assume you have a great story. You’ve got a great hook, premise, structure, theme and characters. Despite these necessary qualities, it’s still anyone’s guess if you’ve got a great screenplay. Why? Because having a great story is only half the job. To get to the finish line, you also need a story that’s rendered cinematically. When the studio readers read your script they need to be able to imagine it up on the screen. If they can’t, you may have a great radio play or a budding novel, but it’s not a screenplay unless you write it as one.

Classic Script Examples

One of the quickest ways to understand how to write a cinematic script is to study some classic examples: Take a look at ET, Witness, Chinatown, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, or Raging Bull. None of these are written by writer-directors. For writer-director scripts you might read The Professional, Bound, Barton Fink, Pulp Fiction, Dead Man, The Piano, Boyz N the Hood or The Sixth Sense.

What these scripts have in common, whether written by screenwriters or writer-directors, is that they rely on cinematic tools to advance their stories. These writers use everything: sight, sound, motion, camera angles, camera lenses, transitions, editing, locations, graphics, and color, etc to tell their story. Of course these are not employed all at once, or even in every script, but are enlisted according to the needs of a specific story. Rather than rely on dialogue to tell the reader the plot, the writers demand that readers participate by translating their text into sound and picture. Consequently, readers have to construct the “screen” in their head and then decode it as the movie unfolds. This ups the readers’ emotional and psychological engagement, even if it’s subconscious, or maybe because it’s subconscious.

Let’s take a look at a concrete example. Here’s how Quentin Tarantino uses editing as a storytelling device in Pulp Fiction. The excerpt occurs midway in the script.

Cinematic Example: Editing - Pacing and Expanding Time

In the drug overdose scene, midpoint in the movie, Vincent (John Travolta) attempts to revive Mia (Uma Thurman) by stabbing Mia’s heart with a hypodermic needle filled with adrenalin. The scripted scene fills us with tension. We hold our breath hoping that Mia is going to make it.

The reason “we hold our breath” is because the script is written “already edited.” In this case it is edited to “milk the scene” and thereby pump up suspense.

So how does Tarantino do this?

Tarantino does this through overlapping action. He includes cuts to the needle, the red dot, and the faces of characters. These cuts lengthen the time needed for the real-time-event of the stabbing to occur. Although Vincent counts out three seconds on the dialogue track, it takes ¾ of a page for the moment to take place or 45 seconds of screen time. That means that we are holding our breath 15 times longer than Vincent’s three-second countdown suggests.

Through purposeful use of editing, the writer is guiding the reader’s emotional experience, and delivering a scene that can be imagined as a movie.

Writing in Shots

Tarantino accomplishes this by writing in shots. He doesn’t write in descriptive paragraphs like novelists. Each of his sentences implies a specific camera angle. “Implies” is the operative word here. Camera angles and lenses are not called out, but understood from his description.

The script’s pacing mimics what we will later see on screen. Paragraphing and sentence length suggest how long a shot will play on the screen. For example, a single one-sentence paragraph implies one shot. The implication is that it should play out longer on screen than would say, multiple shots implied in a four-line paragraph. The white space buys the single shot time. Adding an editorial aside like “Mia is fading fast. Nothing can save her now” is like saying “hold on the shot”. It again gains the shot more screen time.

Let’s take a look at how this is done in the actual script. This excerpt is taken from mid-scene.

The top line is from Tarantino’s script, where no camera information is given.
The parentheticals in the line below are my interpretation of the shot that is implied.

Excerpt from Pulp Fiction

Vincent lifts the needle up above his head in a stabbing motion. He looks down on Mia.

Mia is fading fast. Soon nothing will help her.

Vincent’s eyes narrow, ready to do this.

Count to three.

Lance on his knees right beside Vincent, does not know what to expect.



RED DOT on Mia’s body.

Needle poised ready to strike.


Jody’s face is alive in anticipation.

NEEDLE in the air, poised like a rattler ready to strike.


The needle leaves the frame, THRUSTING down hard.

Vincent brings the needle down hard, STABBING Mia in the chest.

Mia’s head is JOLTED from the impact.

The syringe plunger is pushed down, PUMPING the adrenalin out through the needle.

Mia’s eyes POP WIDE OPEN and lets out a HELLISH cry of the banshee.
She BOLTS UP in a sitting position, needle stuck in her chest---SCREAMING


In this brief page, Tarantino has implied 15 camera angles. Despite his use of camera, the reader isn’t taken out of the read because the script never calls out specific camera positions or angles.

Had Tarantino described the camera angles with 15 descriptors like CLOSE-UP ON MIA’S EYES, it would have been an unbearable read.

Tarantino was able to slow down real time by cutting away to objects and multiple reaction shots of the characters. He used editing and the inherent elasticity of the medium to help dramatize a pivotal moment and up the suspense.

Pacing was further aided by how Tarantino suggested shot length through paragraphing.

Directing the Director

Many new writers steer away from this kind of writing because they believe only writer-directors are allowed to do this. Somewhere they have read that screenwriters should not direct-the-director. They interpret this to mean that screenwriters should focus on scene description and dialogue exclusively.

The best way to dismantle this myth is to compare the screenplays of successful screenwriters with those of writer-directors. Take a look at Melissa Mathison’s ET and look at her use of camera angles and sound effects. Study the scripts of Robert Towne, Shane Black, or Larry Karaszewski & Scott Alexander.

What you will find is both sets of writers are well-practiced in writing cinematically. Both use the full complement of visual and aural messaging. They do so without calling attention to the technique. While they write cinematically they do so purposefully. They don’t throw in a 360 degree camera move just to have one, or describe everyone’s clothing and hair color, unless it’s important. Everything depends on the needs of the scene.

Writing cinematically is not the same as Directing-the-Director. Directing-the-director is when you write: “JOE’S POV WINDOW– LOW ANGLE,” instead of “Joe looks up at the window.” They mean the same thing. The first unnecessarily draws attention to camera information taking us completely out of the story. The second method implies it’s a POV shot and a low-angle, but it does not distract us with technical jargon.

Similarly if a tracking shot is essential to a scene it’s better to say “Joe jogs alongside Susan” rather than “TRACKING SHOT – JOE AND SUSAN JOGGING which is considered directing-the-director.

The Good Read

Writing cinematically requires understanding the language of film, knowing how to use it creatively and how to translate it into script form.

Editing is just one of the many film techniques. Lighting, sound effects, camera angles, camera position, transitions, space, framing and so on are other tools available to the writer.

Studio readers don’t want to read a novel that’s been poured into Final Draft. They expect to read a script that they can envision as movie.

Exploiting the tools of cinematic storytelling can’t turn a bad story into a great script, but it can help translate a good story into a cinematic screenplay. Worth a shot."