Friday, January 07, 2011

Red Planet Rundown 2010

* These views do not represent those of Tony Jordan (the guv), Red Planet, Kudos or anybody else involved with the Red Planet Prize. They are mine, all mine, I tell you. *

The first round of the RPP is the most daunting and exciting. With over 1,500 entries, there's a lot to get through, and there is a fear of missing something special as you begin to read through the pile. Plus, Kudos are now involved, so you've got a couple more high-powered execs to report to, so the scripts you put through better be good. That's the daunting bit. The excitement comes when you start reading, and you get into the groove of assessing the scripts. You can check out the rundowns of previous years here and here.

So, what does a good first ten pages of a script actually look and feel like? What makes a reader say 'yes, I would like to read the full script' but will quickly 'pass' on another? Well, the maddening answer is that there is no set look or feel to a script's opening ten pages. Quite often, it will come down to the reader's subjective take on the premise and characters, and how they've attached themselves to the early set-up. Some subconscious questions run through the reader's mind as the pages are consumed. Is it intriguing? Is it funny? Is it exciting? Is the dialogue good? Are the characters interesting? Is the idea original? An answer of 'yes' to one or more will usually mean that the script gets through to the next round (sometimes not, as a tight shortlist is eventually formed).

While there is no easy formula for a surefire way to begin a story, stronger scripts do seem to have certain elements and qualities that set them apart from the rest. They invariably do or have the following:

- establish a clear and inviting hook. This is not necessarily an opening action sequence. It could be the way the lead character has been introduced or how the concept has been set-up or maybe it has some great dialogue exchanges; anything that keeps things clear and inviting, and makes you want to know more.

- have an effective writing style. Simple, direct and visual. Overwritten chunks of unnecessary or dull detail are always a big offender. Stronger scripts have a good compliment between action, description and dialogue, making everything pertinent to the story and what you're seeing on the screen (rather than what you're reading on the page).

- establish a good pace. This invariably comes from a clear and inviting hook, and an effective writing style. More often than not, scripts are a chore to read. Good scripts just flow, and quickly become an effortless read. This is a skill that is difficult to teach or learn. A writer's personal style and their particular grasp of visual grammar (not to mention their keen sense of story) will usually determine whether a story flows or not. In general, less is more, i.e. the fewer words used to describe the action and description, the more visual and pacier the script will be.

These are general observations, not rules to live by. As ever, the quality of entries was quite high, so the usual tough choices had to be made on some good writing. Sometimes it's easy to identify a decent script within the first ten pages (sometimes within the first two!). Sometimes you know that the story needs a bit more time to breathe to be fully sure if it's a yay or nay. Sometimes you want to take a chance on a gut reaction or a raw piece of writing. Sometimes you're just bored even though the writing seems to have all the right smarts. It can be very personal and subjective.

Perhaps a more important question to ask is not what makes a good first ten pages, but what makes a good full script? In some regards, a script's opening is the easiest part of a story. What's really difficult is maintaining the interest and entertainment value right to the end. Some first ten pages that made it through to the second round made for a disappointing full read. Others didn't match the early promise or initial expectations. The ones that made the final shortlist (and the eventual winner) had a good pace and structure, interesting and distinctive characters, and/or an original premise or a twist on something familiar. More importantly, they all had original voice. In the winning script, there was one scene in particular that when I read it, I thought: 'brilliant, NEVER seen that before, completely unexpected and original and yet still fully believable for the characters and within the context of the story'. No surprise it came out on top. Well done Simon Glass!

Very much looking forward to the workshops, which should be happening soon, and of course the competition will run again this year, so that's something else to look forward to. It's free, it's brill. It's maintained with genuine passion and a lot of hard work. I am extremely proud of my involvement with the scheme and what it's achieved so far. Long may it continue. Also, this is my 600th post. I need a lie down. Actually, after the proper bout of manflu I've had since the New Year, I think I may need to. I'm going back to bed...


About the Red Planet Prize:

We launched the RPP in 2007 to offer new writers a chance of an amazing prize and mentoring support. I had the idea for the competition, took it to Tony Jordan, who then made it happen. The first couple of years went very well with the winners getting an agent, £5k cash and commissioned work from the guv. More than that, the healthy list of runners-up were encouraged and mentored, with Tony's door left wide open for further contact. As a result, one of the runners-up from the first year, Robert Thorogood, has been commissioned by the BBC and Red Planet to develop a new drama series which is now very close to production. Huzzah!

In 2009, the competition didn't run (a temporary time-out) but this year it came back bigger and stronger with the support of Kudos Film & TV, one of the UK's leading production companies. Again, the brief was simple: send in the first ten pages of an original hour-long script. If we liked it, we'd ask to see the full script. If we liked that, we'd compile a shortlist and choose a winner.

Winner List

2007/08: Joanna Leigh with 'Sam J'
2008/09: Mark Wilkinson with 'The Ropes'
2010/11: Simon Glass with 'In The Flesh'


sam morrison said...

congrats on post 600 Danny. I only managed about 350 on my Everton blog before giving up. In the end I realised I was never going to get scriptwriting work that way...

Liz Holliday said...

Thanks for the insights, Danny. Quick question: did all of you read all of the second round scripts before you decided on the shortlist? Thanks!

Danny Stack said...

We divided up the 2nd round reading, then got a shortlist down from that.