Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Stop Start

By and large, people take exception to being told what they can or cannot do when it comes to their own scripts. They mistrust the advice of the so-called gurus and bristle at the thought of a screenplay being guided by conventional techniques or academic terminology. Fair enough; perfectly understandable. People want to stick to their own sense of style and instincts. Great, bring it on, show us what you got. And so the spec pile grows. (un)Surprisingly, similar techniques and story elements emerge, which brings the reader to the conclusion that aspiring writers are failing to impress because of an over-reliance on cliché or unimaginative storytelling.

When a reader picks up a script, he is already starving for something original and interesting to happen in the story. Something, anything, that will tell him he’s in safe hands; that this story is going to be good, and he can sit back and enjoy the ride. This does not necessarily mean that scripts have to start with a bang, or a fast-paced sequence. If a script adopts a slow-burn approach, then it’s the writer’s responsibility to draw the reader into the world, and make him absorbed with the discerning tone, pace and drama.

Inevitably, a lot of stories share a lot of similarities with their style and approach, especially at the beginning of a script. Here’s a round up of the most common story elements that appear in the spec pile (a version first seen here, and about 'the first ten pages', here).


First, a word about format. Would you believe that people are still falling at this most basic hurdle? I’m not a “Format Nazi”: if a script isn’t in the right format but is telling a good story, I’m happy. But. If a script has a dodgy format (odd font, strange alignment, even varying font colour sometimes), it becomes easier to ‘pass’ because it’s not quite up to professional scratch. Screenplay software can be pricey, but fear not, you can get it for free on the ‘net. Microsoft has a basic template, and Celtx is free screenwriting software which I’ve heard good things about. But really, there should be no excuse anymore for poor formatting.

Getting Out of Bed/Starting Their Day
A lot of scripts open with the protagonist getting out of bed and going about his daily routine. Okay, we get it. This is his normal routine before the story’s going to kick in and really upset his life. But it’s quite a dull, boring and unimaginative way to start the story. Surely there’s got to be a more interesting and original approach?

A Funeral
There's nothing like the uniting emotion of grief for characters to get together and kickstart a story, right? Not really. Or someone returning home for a relative’s funeral, and facing up to their past/misplaced relationships etc. Snooze.

Inheriting Something From a Will
This often comes after the opening funeral sequence but sometimes it occurs right at the beginning. A popular choice is for the protagonist to inherit something he doesn’t want from a relative he never knew he had, and spend the rest of the story facing up to both.

Arriving At An Airport
A quick glance at the lead character in the plane, touchdown, baggage claim, and then usually proceeds to a funeral or a will reading.

Scripts in the spec pile love this one. There is absolutely nothing wrong with voice-over in TV or film. It’s an enjoyable and useful technique, when it’s done right. When it’s done wrong, it’s painful and unimpressive. Voice-over like: “That’s me, Peter, and next to me is my best friend John. We’ve been mates forever”. Ideally, the voice-over should juxtapose or neatly support what’s going on, not be a easy reference for poor exposition.

Flashback Narrative
Another fave of the spec pile. Like voice-over, flashbacks can be incredibly useful and entertaining. It’s all to do with a writer’s specific grasp of craft and technique, and to heighten the drama and interest of the narrative. Flashbacks arriving at the very beginning of a script is a tough trick to pull off. It’s likely that not enough interest or attachment has been made to the character or premise, and so the flashback can feel indulgent and unnecessary. It usually represents what the writer is interested in or wants to get across, rather than what the reader is hoping for or expecting to see.

Voice-Over Flashback Narrative
“I bet you’re wondering how I ended up in this position. Well, it wasn’t always like this…” and cue into a flashback narrative. I think “The Woman In Red” with Gene Wilder (in 1984) did this kind of thing, and it was funny, but if voice-over and flashbacks weren’t tough enough to do by themselves, together they’re especially tricky and demanding. And when badly used, which is more often the case, it can feel like lazy and convenient storytelling.

Dream Sequence
They’re a bit like flashbacks in that they’re trying to establish some sort of intrigue or exposition but as an opener, it doesn’t do much to arouse appropriate interest, especially when the character screams himself awake, and then goes about his normal routine (or attends a funeral/reading of a will/begins a voice-over, flashback etc).

Chase Sequence
Quite possibly a dream. In crime thrillers, it can be the murder that the story and investigation is based on, and that sometimes works as a neat prologue. However, a chase sequence right at the beginning can feel rather plain - someone’s getting chased, big deal. A writer needs to more original and interesting about the chase, or the way it’s described, if it’s going to properly engage a reader’s interest.

Multiple Character Introduction
Sometimes, six or more characters will appear in one scene or sequence. They’ll all get namechecked and have dialogue but the reader will easily get lost as to who’s who and what’s going on. The characters may well become more defined as the story progresses but at the beginning, it should be clear and inviting as to who people are and what their role might be. Give a little bit of juice or drama so that the reader can make the right connections without having to flick back pages or re-check who said what.

Bad Language
Common vernacular is riddled with bad language, and not even the most liberal sprinkling of foul words is going to offend a reader. But it may put them off the credibility and authenticity of your characters. Let’s take a domestic drama, and the opening scene is Mum and Dad at the kitchen table. All of a sudden, they’re calling each other ‘c u next Tuesdays’ over the corn flakes. This can feel unsuitable and disconcerting, whereas a gangster using such terms would be expected. It’s all about context. On Radio 4 recently, Stephen Fry was asked to define the word “countryside” to which he replied: “The murder of Piers Morgan”.


You could argue that a lot of professional scripts and produced work use a lot of these techniques. It’s true, you seem them all the time, and indeed, a few of the second round shortlist for Red Planet had some of these very same elements. But they probably used them with an added bit of style, humour or originality. In the spec pile, a lot of scripts are doing exactly the same thing as you, so it’s always good to be different. A reader wants something more; a bit of spark and ingenuity to help ease them into the style and flow of the story that’s ahead. So, go on. Think outside the box. Shake it up a little. Have fun. Don’t be boring.


Jon Peacey said...

Very interesting stuff: now I'm mentally ticking off all those that I use/ have used/ may habitually use again! Eep!

On the other hand:
"Stephen Fry was asked to define the word “countryside” to which he replied: “The murder of Piers Morgan”."
Priceless. Has brightened the day up no end!

Lucy said...

It's funny actually Danny, 'cos of script of mine you know very well came back to me only the other day with this feedback:

"You have voiceover and flashback in the first instance. With you being a reader yourself, frankly I would have thought better of you."


Oh how I laughed.

Anonymous said...

Committed none of the deadly sins above, and still didn't get through? The moral of that story: There are no hard and fast rules. At the end of the day, it all comes down to a plethora of factors impossible to fathom, and a waste of time to try. Just write on!

potdoll said...

Oh dear. I've just started outlining a project which starts with someone's day. Will be ditching that first paragraph now!

Cheers Danny

Anonymous said...

Guilty on two charges, m'lud.

And I would like two further misdemeanours to be taken into consideration.


Anonymous said...

Okay - so first we have to get over the sad fact that our baby didn't make it through. Then we're told we mustn't think we're shit - and now we're told "don't be boring".....






Anonymous said...

It's the 'Don't do this, or this or this' that's making me feel, jeez, might as well pack it in now.

This was a numbers game and taste also comes into it. Sometimes, especially on series/multi episodic ideas, the first few pages may simply not do the writer justice. I'm bumping into walls with the contradictions I'm reading as to what to do and what not to do.

I was hoping that what would come out of this competition would be a sign of hope. That maybe there'd be more of a pat on the back for so many writers having given it a try. That the guys would see that, even if formatting and stuff is a bit awry, that there are many new voices out there who should be nurtured and kept in contact with - even if they didn't make it through this time.

It's tough to have the motivation to work on your own. It's tough to keep going with new ideas, tough to keep honing what you have, tough keeping abreast with what's in/out/shake it all about. But anyone downhearted by not getting through shouldn't be beating themselves up or being beaten up. Everyone who sat down and entered should be congratulated. Well done! Keep writing, keep practising, keep looking for your voice.

Now can we have a list of some of the wonderful things that came out of the competition?

Danny Stack said...

Sorry you feel that way, anon. I don't know what to say to you that hasn't already been said, either by the RP announcements or the blog itself.

But, some good things: motivation (people getting excited, and rewriting their work, or starting new scripts, thus self-imposing a deadline), opportunity (a free contest, nothing to lose, everything to gain, a genuine search for new writing talent), talent (despite obvious frustrations from those who didn't get through, a lot of good writers are out there).

These competitions, and schemes like them, are outlets and opportunities; not the only way to get ahead.

I use this note to myself: "hard work, good writing, get better, keep at it". I also believe we have to take responsibility for our work. Not rely on other people's approval. To be professional and practical. To believe in what we have to say, regardles of someone else's opinion.

Writing, and getting a career going, is extremely difficult, but no-one's asked us to be writers. We chose that path; we only have ourselves to blame. The system may have its flaws but we constantly need to raise our game to ensure that we stand out from the crowd. Get on with it.

Jon Peacey said...

From the previous post, not only: "On average, the entries displayed a solid sense of style, presentation and format."

But also: "A large proportion of the 2000 + entries were of an impressive standard which made it difficult to whittle it down into a viable shortlist"

And even: "Just because a script was rejected doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad script, or that the writer can’t write, or that the story doesn’t have merit. We had to take a hard line on what got through; much tougher, I suspect, than most competitions."

That doesn't sound like too big a kick in the chops... even sounds quite complimentary and heartening.

Jon Peacey said...

...was using typical British understatement which I've just remembered never come across well in print (unless you're posting as Hugh Grant- who'd always make it look right)...

Re-read the last line more effusively as:
"That doesn't sound like a kick in the teeth... it sounds very complimentary and most heartening."

Apologies for the understatement! ;-)

Anonymous said...

I have a taken a new tack to rejection. I used to rage about the injustice of it all. I've sort of embraced it now.

I love writing, and rejection is someone who writing sees a lot of, so, in order to keep my relationship with writing alive, I'm now pals with rejection.

I'd rather success became my best buddy, but he/she seems to spend a lot of time with winners, and I know some of them, but not the whole crew. Anyway they keep changing.

I'm much better acquainted with shortlisted, better luck next time, and failure. Failure is not that much craic and I keep trying to ditch him, but I can't get rid of him.

I still hope that one day success, writing and I will be very good friends indeed.

Until that time, I hang around with hope, luck and inspiration...and read Danny's blog as often as possible, because he seems to know everyone, especially advice.

Advice is very helpful, because he helps even when we don't appreciate it. We might never say thanks but he sticks around pointing us in the right direction. So thanks Advice, you really do make it easier to write, it's very good for all of us that you and Danny are great mates.

AnneOfCleves said...

Thank you Danny -

Luckily, I rewrote a script which started off at a funeral. It was hard to do since I'd fallen in love with the image - a dark day, the sound of rain on umbrellas, a girl with red hair, blue coat stands out among the mourners. But I did wonder - why start at a funeral? There was a better way to get the girl to the orphanage - and she could still wear the beautiful blue coat.
Now, I can move on to rethinking the orphanage part...

What is your opinion on explosions?

Piers said...

Explosions are always good, in my humble opinion.

Anonymous said...

"Sorry you feel that way, anon. I don't know what to say to you that hasn't already been said, either by the RP announcements or the blog itself." Am I missing something? There hasn't been a new RP announcment posted on its website since the 7th.

Anonymous said...

Oh I sound like a miserable sod. Didn't mean to. I've just read so many conflicting opinions lately that I've had to just put my head down and get on with things and when I read the blog today I thought, 'another list of wrongs - but where are the rights?' Whose opinion counts? Who decides? (well, obviously yours in this instance). There are plenty of exceptions to the rule which do work.

I'm not disheartened at all. In fact this competition, over and above any this year, has shown that there are people who care about new writers and are willing to go out there looking for the talent and put their money where their mouths are. It's also forced me back into writing after a long hibernation and I'm enjoying it much more this time round - because of the support which is emerging. I guess I have read too many blogs with people feeling they'd somehow failed in not getting through when they in fact have done what others just manage to talk about. I felt commendations were in order. Maybe a combination of the good and the not so good would have been more encouraging? Some of us are still learning to walk whilst some are already up and running. I hope there is room for a bit of raw somewhere amongst the numbers, leaving room for post-mentoring honing.

Tom said...

As depressed as I am by being able to cross of most of those in the same script - to the point where I'm seriously considering scrapping the whole thing - I'm encouraged by the fact that I am not the only one.

I guess the way forward is to push on with the story as is then review to see if those elements can be excised or replaced. Or simply retold.

The predominant thought I'm having, however, is 'arsebiscuits'.

Anonymous said...

Arsebiscuits. Now I'm gonna nick that one!

Tom Nash said...

I recently had a request from an agent who was very impressed with my first script (Cruelly rejected by you good folks at Red Planet, still I've made a vow to make the shortlist next year) for a second script. Lo, it would seem I sent her a script riddled with these cliches. That slow dread started to creep up from my feet and I am now looking forward to the inevitable rejection letter/e-mail. I think it's impossible to avoid a lot of these cliches, hopefully I've transcended the mundanity of them through good dialogue (Let me fool myself). Great and good shows use these devices. 'Californication' opened with the nun giving head sequence and 'The Sopranos' had very innovative dream sequences. I don't think you should be disheartened Anonymous. Cliches can be flipped, subverted and turned inside out. It's just finding a way of doing it that's tough.

jo said...

I had a script back from the editor the other day - and it was six pages of comment and suggestion (fine by me - it was my first). However by the time I got to page 5 I was ready and willing to slit my wrists, slowly and painfully.
Then the last two paragraphs were 'The writer clearly has talent' etc etc and 'this is a script which is financially viable and marketable'.
Note to editors - please if you do have something positive to say, say it at the beginning!
I nearly didn't get that far!

Kimberley said...

Hmm... these are really helpful. Great post. Thank you!

What I'm wondering now is... well, what's the best way TO start a script then? Haha.

I'm working on a short right now, which I'd like to send to the writer's room and have been having quite a time trying to figure out the best way to start it that sets the mood, and draws in the reader and is true to the whole story. I had this kind of past sequence, a few images/sounds and a voice over leading into the opening... is that kind of thing tied in with the dream or flashback sequence or is that something different?

Lucy said...

Hi Kimberley and Jo, if Danny doesn't mind me hijacking his blog to answer your Qs, here's my take on them as a reader myself.

Jo - I don't know if your editor was a private guy/gal or not but how peeps lay out stuff can sometimes depend on the context. For example, for my private clients I always have a section I call "first thoughts" where I say what I like about a script and/or thought worked. However, when I read for something like Scottish Screen where I have to adhere to a given template, I might be told actually to leave it to the end.

Kimberley - it sounds as if you're going for a prologue with your "past sequence"... These can be great but like all stuff prone to pitfalls all their own. Personally I would worry less about devices and more about story - whilst it's certainly true there are reader prejudices against certain devices (I have some myself), like Danny says being boring is the worst - as long as you make sense and have flair then you're in with a good chance of getting a full read... But of course nothing is for certain! : )

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this interesting read, I really enjoyed it! I´ll restrain myself from sending ANYTHING in now or in the future. I often feel like my written pages contain nothing but multiple characters griefing at dream sequence funerals that are explained by voice-overs.

Mystery Man said...

Great post, Danny. I couldn't agree more, particularly your comments on format. Thanks for that.

The Format Nazi
(aka "MM")

Wendy Ragiste said...

Ah, the joys of cliche!

Anonymous said...

I’m not a “Format Nazi”: if a script isn’t in the right format but is telling a good story, I’m happy. But. If a script has a dodgy format (odd font, strange alignment, even varying font colour sometimes)

Danny, re. the above, could you comment on what an odd font and strange alignment are ? Is there a standard font & size that should be adhered to ? Would using Times new Roman size 14 result in my plums being immediately slammed in a door? Thanks in advance - Phil

Danny Stack said...

Times New Roman size 14 would be odd. Even if you're telling a good story, bad format can be too disconcerting, so you're making the reader work harder to like your script.

Strange alignment occurs when the dialogue is placed at the same margin as the description, or vice-versa, or everything is centred, that kind of thing. The standard font & size is Courier pt12.