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Thursday, August 30, 2007

Read All About It

So there you have it: two posts, two rowdy comments sections, readers vs. writers, new writers versus working writers. Some interesting stuff, the headline being:

THERE ARE NO RULES.

Except--

Don't be boring.

Oh and-- Believe in yourself.

And pay some attention to formatting.

But make your scene description as interesting as possible - whilst not loading it up with "fillers".

And don't tell your story through dialogue.

Plus develop your voice and what you're trying to say.

And last of all: make sure, if your script is in a bit of a mess, you have raw talent to back it up.

Easyeeeeeeeeee.... ; )

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

What's In A Visual? NCI Pt 2

Well, quite a lively debate kicked off in the comments section of my last article: for those of you who don't read the comments (and you really should, for moments like these if not the general threats, double entendres, paddies and frank admissions by various readers), the mysterious Dublin Dave proposed that all that was needed was engaging the Reader, not adherence to supposed rules like Thou Shalt Not Overuse Staring. He went on to post a link to an interesting example of where he thinks internal thought processes can aid the action, Ron Bass' My Best Friend's Wedding which prompted my grossly unfair prejudice against Julia Roberts (what has she done to me, after all?) and my speculation that perhaps being one of the highest paid screenwriters in the world allows Mr. Ron Bass to get away with such things whilst the rest of us are at the bottom of The Screenwriting Food Chain with those kids on Work Experience reading our stuff. Then the marvellous but likely stalkerish Jon Peacey (what?? ; ) waded into the fray, positing that perhaps economy of words means a writer's voice can be undersold, as well as other stuff including whether it's worth trying to game the market, what we're told at uni about the "rules" and if script tutors are any good and whether Readers "higher up" are more "open" than those right at the start of their career. Think that's all of it. Phew.

People email me all the time and say they're confused about my stance on the "rules". They say I say one moment it's a good idea to adhere to the "rules" and the next, I'm saying break them. The true answer then, once and for all?

Do both. Still confused? Let me explain.

The very fact that I included "" around the word "rules" indicates my *true* feelings on them. Rules or not, if your writing rocks, then who cares what it looks like or evn - shock horror - how exactly it plays out. I got a script through something outside Bang2write so ill-formatted, so wayward structured, so screwed up on character about eighteen months ago that if I had received it when I first started reading, it would have never made it past the ten page test. However, there was *something* about this script. As I carried on reading, despite the shocking format (which still did my head in by the way and made one of the worst and irritating uses of the word BEAT I have ever, ever seen), I actually did get into it. Come the end, I was amazed by the subject and this particular writer's voice - even though it was patently their first script and they had never read so much as a website page about screenwriting their entire life. Despite this however, they were going to go far.

But not now. Now, they were just gonna get rejected.

Why? Well, even as I passed it on for its second read, I had a heavy heart: the likelihood of two Readers understanding a script so badly structured, written and formatting was slim. And guess what? It not only got rejected but said second reader phoned me up and questioned whether I was out of my head for putting it through. Even in the face of my justifications, he thought I had. Lost. My. Mind. And maybe I had: after all, this is a business that demands its material is in some semblance of order; it's not always enough sometimes that a Reader LOVES somebody's voice. Hell, it's difficult enough to get through to the other side development-wise when your script IS well-presented, well-structured and well-characterised - when it's not? Good luck. As I've said before, it's like buying a house to some people: why buy one that's falling down when you can buy one that's structurally sound? There's so much competition out there, those producers etc can literally take their pick - even if their Readers would prefer to go for the hardcore renovation jobs.

But anyway, I'm getting way off topic: what I'm trying to say here is rules are rules and are therefore meant to be broken, but if you're gonna break them, you need to know what they are - or indeed what others' expectations of you might be - else aren't you fumbling in the dark (oo er)? Yeah, yeah shut it Lucy. Whatever, talk to the hand, face- bovvered? Etc etc.

I talked in my last article about those moments where staring can get in the way of "real" actions and though I recognise (and agree with!) DD's very good points that sometimes referencing internal thought processes can add to your narrative, as does sparing use of "stares", I'm still of the steadfast opinion that it's best to err on the side of caution when dealing with characters' thought processes in specs. Readers *can* be so touchy about scripts that use such things that have what they call "no clear image" or what I abbreviate as NCI. Moments in scene description like this:

1. Mary searches for a reason as to why her mother might have gone.
2. Pain explodes between his eyes.
3. Nick wills Aaron to understand.

And my absolute non-favourite:

4. S/he has an idea.

Again, it's not that Readers are thick or don't understand it when you reference stuff like this. "Searches for a reason" SOUNDS like an action after all, so what does it matter? With reference to number 2) When people are in pain, it's obvious - their faces contort, this particular character may even pinch the bridge of his nose and even say something like, "Argh! My head!" Nick's "willing" too can be construed as "obvious" as can "ideas" on the basis of facial expression, context, etc etc. What Readers object to, quite simply, is the fact that these can be re-written as something more apparent or even - shock, horror - cut out altogether. With visuals vs. NCI, it boils down to: do we NEED this information? What does it ADD to the story? After all, couldn't we have something like this instead of the above lines:

- 1. MARY: I can't understand it... Why has she gone?
- 3. NICK: Do you understand what I'm telling you? AARON: Of course I do!
- 4. PERSON: I've had a great idea. Why don't we...

I think some writers are so afraid of their dialogue becoming "on the nose", that they've actually forgotten the audience uses dialogue as an anchor to their understanding of how a scene is playing out. This means, if your script is full of NCI, if it was played out on a screen in front of you, I'd wager there's a good chance you'd get lost as to where the scene is going. Consider a franchise like CSI: in any of them, investigators present evidence to each other that in real life, another investigator would simply say, "Interesting, let's get to work, etc etc" whereas in the programme, because of the high science content, investigators EXPLAIN points to each other constantly which is not really dramatic, but we accept this because we are laypeople and need the CSIs to tell us that epithereals means skin or that mitochondrial DNA present means the two suspects are brothers or whatever it is. We don't really care at the end of the day, we're not scientists, we're wowed, Loreal-style instead: HERE'S THE SCIENCE BIT, BECAUSE WE'RE WORTH IT!

Now, let's not get bogged down in THIS IS RIGHT/WRONG etc, I fully concur with anyone who says a touch of NCI here and there adds to a screenplay - if used sparingly, it can have real impact and leaves behind its nitpicky NCI tag and becomes "lyrical prose" or any other name you want to give it: in other words, moments that can't *strictly* be seen, but perks up your prose and makes you seem like the wo/man writing-wise, rather than a writer making a mistake. When NCI becomes a problem then, it's the same issue as the staring - you're doing it too much. Then of course there are those pedants out there, like me, who hate particular phrases: "S/he has an idea" being one of them. It prompts them to write the one phrase that you never, ever want to have in a script report from an agent or a prodco:

HOW DO WE KNOW THIS?

The problem on this issue lies not so much with your writing, but in how it's going to be interpreted. In my experience, there are three types of Reader when it comes to this issue. With a bit of luck, you might get Reader Number One who doesn't give a damn about non-visual visuals and even better, actually LIKES the referencing of internal thought processes and actively celebrates them. Or, you may get Reader Number 2 who believes that NOTHING must be included that cannot be seen and rejects all scripts with any non-visual scene description out of hand. Or most likely of all (and it's still not a good one), you may get a Reader who recognises the importance of lyrical prose but concludes you've used just way too much by having some on every page. 2 out of 3 Script Readers recommend cutting back on your NCI, my friends.* Why take the risk?

*In my totally non-scientific opinion.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

What's In a Look? NCI Pt 1

Quite a lot.

Especially when your characters "look" at each other all the time in your scene description. Same goes for staring, gazing, glowering, eyeballing, scrutinising or any other synonym for the word "look".

Until I starting script reading on a regular basis, I had no idea how much my characters "looked" at each other and how much of a problem this *can* become for the Reader. Now let me get this straight: "looking" is not a problem per se - until you do it all the time. It's easy to fall into this trap. You want some actions, you want to render stuff as image, right? Looking is an action, nice one. Stick that in.

DON'T! If your characters do very little but look at stuff and/or each other, then frankly, it becomes a dull read. If a character is not what they say, but what they do, then an action is not a look but a real movement. What do you move when you look at someone or something? Your eyes. Hmmmm. Suddenly I'm thinking not only that's pretty dull, but also problematic: a look after all is always open to interpretation; one man's rage is another's cool indifference, one woman's sorrow is another's resentment. Just HOW are we supposed to see this? If you can only read it actually on the page, does this not then mean you have committed the cardinal sin of sharing information with the Reader that is inaccessible to an audience? Go straight to jail & do not collect two hundred pounds, naughty screenwriter.

Of course "looks" can add to your writing. There are those "Oh Shit!" moments when characters' eyes meet when something bad happens or they are visited with a moment of insight; used in the right context, this can work well. Equally, characters in love can stare at each other and get away with it because people in love DO actually stare at each other like sick puppies (also go straight to jail, boo). Just use this type of thing sparingly, so as to not affect their impact.

No, what I am referring to is what will be known forever as The Wimbledon School of Staring on this blog, when characters look at each other so much in the course of your scene description that it becomes a mad mess of looks, going back and forth like a tennis match with turgid action and highly directorial prose to boot. Something like this, in fact:

Jenny stares at her hands, won't look at John.

JOHN: Look at me.

Jenny still won't look up. John glowers at her, his face red with anger.

JOHN: Look at me!

It's not that a Reader *doesn't* know what's going on here. John is peeved with Jenny, Jenny is ashamed, blah blah blah. Okay, fine. But the Reader will want a more entertaining read and you could give it to them, firing on both cyclinders, blast off baby. There's some serious conflict going on here, yet the writer in question (okay, me) is relying on staring or not staring (how DO you show a character NOT doing something??) to get their point across when they could use anything they want. In your spec, it's absolutely limitless. What if John was peeved with Jenny and he was the type of man prone to violent outbursts? What if Jenny was prone to violent outbursts? What if Jenny is struggling to hold in tears or John is less outraged than desperately hurt that his wife could have done this to him?? Looks alone can't achieve that sense of drama. They can add to a scene (sparingly!) sure, but using looks alone is dangerous in my view, it bores the Reader. They'll be reading a squillion other specs that rely on the same device, how is yours going to stand out?

Maybe something like this:

Jenny loiters in the doorway, hangs her head like a guilty schoolgirl. John pours a glass of scotch, picks it up with shaking hands.

JOHN: Look at me.

Jenny blots her hands on her dress. John's cool demeanour slips, his face contorts with rage - he throws the glass at Jenny, it shatters against the wall, inches from her.

JOHN: Look at me!

Not the perfect scene, but that's okay 'cos it's just an example I came up with whilst writing this. But by forcing myself NOT to use words like "look", "regard", "stare" etc, I've injected more visuals into this scene. I've had to dig deeper and find props like the scotch glass that truly convey (by throwing and breaking it) how mad John is at Jenny, instead of the vague "look of rage" he had before. I always think that a good gauge is: if it's harder to write, then it *must* be better.

Part 2: When is a visual not a visual?

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Song Meme

I haven't seen a meme doing the rounds for a while, so I thought I'd have a go at making one up.

When I hear music I like I always imagine what kind of scene in a film it could go in, so that's going to be the focus of this meme: you have to imagine you're in a particular kind of movie as outlined below and what your soundtrack will be.

The deal is, you have to come up with five types of film (or use these ones below if you can't think of any) and tag five other other people. Here's mine:

1.If I was in an 80s Brat Pack Movie: Pour Some Sugar On Me by Def Leopard (I'd be a stripper, obviously)

2.If I was in a Vampire/Werewolf/Supernatural Movie: 46 & 2 by Tool

3.If I was in a Period Drama: Likufanele by Zero 7

4.If I was in a Detective Movie: Eraser by Nine Inch Nails

5.If I was in a Hip Hop Urban Movie: The Way I Are by Timbaland

So I tag:

Lianne

David Bishop


Dominic

Scott The Reader

Good Dog


Non-bloggers or peeps feeling left out, leave yours in the comments section! Now I'm off to unpack yet more boxes...

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Action Scripts Wanted

Well, I'm still trying to make sense of this mess and wondering where the hell ALL my clean washing could have gone (I think the husband is guilty of just shoving it back in the laundry basket again... Trouble is, where is the laundry basket???). But anyway, I know some of you out there can be described as "high octane" so figure you might be interested in the opportunity below that landed in my inbox this morning. Enjoy.
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

From Jeff Gund at Info List:

ACTION SCREENPLAYS WANTED

---------------
Richard Brandes Films Inc. (male action)
---------------

We are looking for high octane male oriented action stories in the vein of Die Hard, 16 Blocks, Walking Tall, Billy Jack, The Marine, etc. Stories with strong, no nonsense, silent but deadly type male hero lead(s) who have to over come insurmountable odds and battle tough, ruthless bad guy(s).

Budget will not exceed 20 million. WG and non-WG are welcome.

Please do not submit unless your script exactly matches these criteria.

Credits for our company include: 'Penny Dreadful,' 'Out for Blood,' 'Watchtower,' Teacher's Pet and more.

TO SUBMIT:
1. Please go to www.InkTippro.com/leads
2. Enter your email address (you will be signing up for InkTip's newsletter - FREE!)
3. Copy/Paste this code: 992d59sxcn
4. You will be submitting a logline and synopsis only, and you will be contacted to submit the full script only if there is interest from the production company.

IMPORTANT: Please ONLY submit your work if it fits what the lead is looking for EXACTLY.

If you aren't sure if your submission fits, please ask InkTip first. Please mention you heard about this from Jeff Gund at INFOLIST.com, and please email any questions to: jerrol@inktip.com

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Please Leave A Message And I'll Get Right Back To You

Many thanks to the peeps that emailed to wish me a happy birthday yesterday... 28. Yuk. I was supposed to be a squillionaire by now and have my own TV series like Lynda La Plante. But let's brush over that bit and concentrate on the good bits - successful reading business, kids, husband, yeah that works for me. But I better be a squillionaire by next year else I'll have to release said husband and kids back into the wild since they're obviously the ones distracting me from greatness.

Right, I'm off to sunny Bournemouth tomorrow... FOREVER! That's right, the evil moving saga is now officially over (bar the actual moving of course) and we are out of the depths of Devon and into...The depths of Dorset. I wonder if the sheep speak a different language over there?? : P

Anyway, just 'cos I'll be preoccupied for the next few days doesn't mean you lot can't have your usual ruckus, so based on previous inflammatory posts here are some debates for you to fight it out over until my return. You may answer as many of these as you like and please do cause a scene. I thank you.

1. What constitutes a spoiler?

2. Which genre is the best?

3. If a scene is "essential" to the plot, why can't it be removed? What is special about it? (no old adages like "it pushes the story forward" on its own please - let's delve into specifics). Is there any such thing as an essential scene in a) an actual movie (can it always be re-edited?) b) a spec (can it always be "reimagined")?

4. What makes a great title?

5. What is constitutes great structure - ie. how do we avoid those "saggy" bits? What about those alternatives to The Three Acts? Is good structure a question of preference or experience? etc, etc.

Come on then, if you think you're hard enough that is... ; )

Friday, August 17, 2007

Character Sacrifice

WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS!!! Mentioned - Aliens, Severance, Night People, Dog Soldiers, Devil's Advocate, CSI:NY, Eastenders and Spooks.

"Greater love hath no man than this,: that a man lay down his life for his friends." (John, 15:13)

David Bishop makes a good point this morning about Dr. Who and two characters that sacrifice themselves to fight a big scary monster while their friends get away. Unfortunately, those two characters don't do it at the same time, but separately, one after the other, so ultimately the viewer is left bored at the repetition.

Whether it's scary monsters, a terrorist attack or a teen's rebellion, another character's sacrifice - literal or metaphorical - can be the pinnacle of good characterisation and add to your script. If you invest in a character, to see them sacrifice themselves, in full or in part, can be truly devastating. Hands up who remembers Danny in SPOOKS sacrifice himself for Fiona when they are held at gunpoint? Fantastic. Not so fantastic: Danny in the CSI:NY finale distracting BOTH those terrorists (couldn't one have gone after him??) whilst his friend nicked that acid-stuff to throw in one of the terrorists' faces later. A little bit comic book, in my view. They had a perfect opportunity there to have a character sacrifice himself for his friends; I suppose contracts got in the way (in that no one had had theirs terminated), but I must admit that I thought Danny Messer in CSI had had it and was going to be killed. And that does add to a finale's impact.

I suppose, in essence, we are voyeurs when it comes to characterisation: we like to see another's suffering, so when they die, it is some kind of carthartic release, especially if it is a suicide. In a film in particular, if you follow this character - usually the protagonist and usually within the thriller and horror genres - we have been privy to their logic throughout, so when they do kill themselves, it makes sense. If you consider a film like DEVIL'S ADVOCATE, Kevin vanquishes the beast througho this method, which becomes ironic. (Not to so ironic that Kevin finds himself alive again of course, since if Lucifer could control events so easily then why didn't he from the start, instead of trying to bring Kevin onside?? But hey ho).

Sacrificing themselves so another might be saved then is usually the job of a secondary character, for that person who is saved is nearly always the protagonist. There can be a number of reasons why a secondary character might sacrifice themselves for the protagonist and/or their mission: the most usual I find however is redemption: in ALIENS Gorman has to redeem himself for his cowardly behaviour at the nest for example, just as the Boss Richard does in SEVERANCE when he steps on the landmine. Another reason can be gungo ho stupidity: both Spoon in DOG SOLDIERS and Vasquez in ALIENS find themselves in the front line by getting carried away, leading to their otherwise uneccessary deaths. I'm always reminded here of Plato's assertion that courageous men "know what to be afraid of", else you're just a t***. Or words to that effect, anyway.

But of course sacrifice does not cover only literal death as I've outlined; sometimes character sacrifice can be all the more devastating because it is more subtle and metaphorical. Dramas on TV and Film can do this especially well, draw you in to a character, make you root for them, only to see them have their wishes unfulfilled as they give themselves for someone else: NIGHT PEOPLE is a good example here with the rent boy and the footie boots, letting himself fall by the wayside so another boy might not end up like him. Soap operas too can touch on it from time to time: in Eastenders, Kat Slater slept with Andy so Alfie might not be hurt, diminishing herself to the status of a whore - a label she had battled her whole life since her uncle's abuse of her as a child - only for Alfie to then blame her for trying to save him.

Sacrifice can only impact on a viewer if you've really built up character; give your characters a particular function in your narrative - it will give it more logic. But also think about what brought them to this place in your film, why we're watching them NOW in their "life" (as opposed to last week, a decade in the future or two years ago) and then you will have access to their motivations. If you know a character's motivation in the story, you then will know why they might sacrifice themselves for it.

Any fave character sacrifices, then? Over to you...

Thursday, August 16, 2007

More Contests

I think contests are great... Not because you've got a great chance of winning when so many people enter them (but there is that chance! Someone has to, after all), but because it motivates scribes to finish their work and gives them a deadline. Deadlines are really important to motivation I think: gives you a goal. So, since I'm busy-busy (moving to Bournemouth on Monday - argh!!!), here's another few for you. Let me know if you enter them and what you think!
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The Pacific Northwest Screenwriters Contest 2007 sponsored by 928 Talent Management is now taking entries.

1st Place Winners in the 5 categories will receive: 1 Year of Full Representation, Final Draft Software, and the Writers Award.

Deadline for entries is 9/15/07. All entries received after that date, must have a postmark no later than that date.

*All entries must be WGA Registered or Copyrighted
*Entries must be the original work of the author/s
*All Film/TV Movie Scripts must be over 75 pages

Categories:
Drama Feature
Comedy Feature
Sci-fi - Action Feature
Thriller-Horror-Mystery-Suspense
TV Movie – Mini Series

Fees for entering:
1 Category Fee $20.00 (entering your script in 1 category)
2 Category Fee $25.00 (entering your script in 2 categories, no project can be entered in more than 2)

The panel of 10 judges includes:

Daniel Yost, Screenwriter, DRUGSTORE COWBOY
Billy Cougar, Director of Development Here Networks
JR O'Neil, CEO 928 Talent Management
Grammnet Productions

For complete contest details and entry, click here.
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The Writers Place (TWP) screenplay competition, for the May – October 2007 contest period, is in full swing. Submit you best full-length and/or teleplay/short script. Submit hard copy scripts via snail mail or use our electronic submission system – easy, quick and no postage.

Full-length submission fee: $55 for single script. Multiple submissions are $85 (two script limit).

Teleplay/Short submission fee: $35 for single script. Multiple submissions are $60 (two script limit).

See TWP contest page, here.
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Announcing the first annual GOTHAM SCREEN screenplay competition...

CALL FOR ENTRIES

Set up by a group of Gotham based producers and productions companies, the newest addition to the international screenplay contest circuit is specifically targeted at up and coming writers who don't have agency or management representation yet but would otherwise have the talent and craft to make it in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

DEADLINES

August 31st, 2007 – early submissions deadline

September 15th, 2007 – regular submissions deadline

ELIGIBILITY

US and international residents may apply, must be 18 years old or over.

Screenplays may have been previously optioned, or may have won other contests.

Screenplays may not have been produced and must be written in English.

CONTEST JURY

The contest will be judged by a panel of producers and industry professionals.

Winning screenplays will be notified by mid-November.

AWARDS PRIZES

Gotham Screen offers no cash prizes or awards. There are plenty of other contests offering this, but participation in the GOTHAM SCREEN contest is not about winning a prize or getting a certificate. It’s all about giving your screenplay a decent chance to be made into a real project. Winning entries in the GOTHAM SCREEN contest will be made available to participating producers and production companies, who are actively looking for new writers and screenplays to develop and produce.

HOW TO ENTER

Follow this link to enter directly.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Kidz

Aaah, children. You never know when they're going to embarrass you, like the time my son sang Prince's "Sexy MF" to the whole of Monkeyworld in Dorset or another when he sang Nelly's "Hot in Herre" to a Somerfield supermarket queue. He asked for gin once when my then-landlord came to inspect the state of my flat and is prone, even now, to mooning his grandparents, aunts and passing traffic whenever he gets the chance. Which is frequently. Best of all, he looks exactly like me, just a boy version, so I can't even pretend he's not with me even in the presence of strangers. I might as well wear a sign around my neck that proclaims: "THE REPROBATE KID IS MY SON."

He's a good boy really, just a little saucepot. I don't know where he gets it from (ahem). My mother laughs and says it's payback time. She recites all the times I embarrassed HER whilst out on shopping trips or days out, the most usual being the time I tried to swallow a pickled beetroot whole in Pizza Hut and choking on it: my father whacked me on the back and said beetroot flew across the room and landed in somebody's drink. Niiiiice.

But anyway, my point is, "they" say write from life. WTF??? Anyone with kids knows that no media kid is the same as a real life kid. Media Kids are quiet and sit in the background and draw, especially on soap operas. Sorry - my mistake; sometimes they cry a bit. What a hard life! Media Kids don't pick their scabs or enact Jackie Chan movies at four in the morning; they don't shove peas so far up their noses they have to go to Casualty, they don't set fire to the guinea pig hutch and they certainly don't shove fish paste sandwiches in-between the sofa cushions to avoid eating them. I just pulled those examples out of the air by the way. Really.

Lilirose's vocabulary is coming along a treat though: her brother is really taking his time to ensure she has all the words she needs in time for starting nursery next month. Like stinky, poo and bitch. Great.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Ten Page Test, Part 2

So I told you that stating your intent was probably the most important part of The Ten Page Test: if a Reader doesn't know where you're going with your story by page ten, then chances are they won't read on. Why? Well - would you? Think about it: you have a veritable stack on your desk, plenty more where that came from and chances are you'll have plenty to take home with you too. What's a decent "cut off" point, a place where you can say, "If I don't know by now what this story is going, chances are I never will"? Page ten, that's where. So Beware.

And that's what this biz is all about: chance. I've watched brilliant scripts blown out the water by overworked Readers, Execs and agents, just as I've seen piles of trash get their writers meetings with super deluxe media bigwigs and commissions on stuff I would pull my own teeth out to get on to. I've heard of writers get optioned, only to be chucked off their own script in a hostile takeover and the rewriter take the piece in a completely different direction; I've counselled rewriters who've been given the worst script in the world and told to make it good. In one week or else. In the words of those great 80s philosophers Tears for Fears, it's a Mad World.

So if all this is going on, how important your script looks is pretty trifling.

Isn't it?

No way. How your script looks in terms of format is important. You're a spec writer, you have to line up round the block with everybody else. There's nowt special about you; you're one of many. Same goes for me and anyone else who's offering up speculative work: Bang2write has some professional clients with acres of TV work and occasionally they will find themselves at the back of the queue. This is because all that's actually special is what you can offer that agent, prodco, contest. And that is not limited to story alone.

There will be people who tell you that format doesn't matter. Those are the people who want to eliminate further competition. As long as there are writers out there who overuse adverbs, NCI, break the four line rule and smudge black all over the page, there will be some scripts out there that look pristine and wonderful in comparison - no matter how shit their actual story is.

And guess what? Those pristine scripts will go to the top of the pile, every time. Why? They don't take as long to read, for starters, so don't give The Reader a headache. If that script has good format, then that script's story - as crap as it might be - will be clearer, without a load of junk to distract the reader from it. It may sound surprising, but the longer your slugline, the more extraneous info you have in your scene description, the more words you use, the less coherent your script (and thus your story) becomes. The more stuff you shove in, the less interesting it becomes, since how is your Reader supposed to know which actions are important and which are throwaway? This will be why Readers "miss" some things. Less is more, as the old cliche goes.

There are kids on work experience out there reading our work. I know, 'cos back in the mists of time, I was one of them. And I was harsh. At twenty, you're barely out your teens; that judgmental quality follows you right out and up until you're about twenty two or so and start to calm down, some even later. I learned the hard way; a very famous playwright came crying into the office one day and I was made to apologise for my coverage. I hadn't said anything particularly hurtful, but I had been careless in my dismissal. It was then that I appreciated this was actually people's dreams I was dealing with and it's this notion that I try to build into the ethos behind Bang2write now. And it all worked out in the end; I even send the playwright in question a christmas card - and I get one back.

Sometimes, in-house policy is just as harsh. I recall at one place being asked to stack scripts in the "in" tray by thumbing through them first and making a judgement on the basis of "much black" there was. How arbitrary. Another agent wanted only to see scripts from people who had "bothered to do actual scriptwriting courses" so I had to look at CVs first. A producer I read for wanted all scripts with grammar or spelling mistakes in the first three pages eliminated from the pile.

So, when sending your work out, you can't do much about certain whims of producers and agents; if you haven't taken a scriptwriting course for example, there's not a lot you can do. However, on all of the others you can take positive action. You can reduce black on the page. You can use visuals, instead of referencing characters' thoughts. You can run a full spelling and grammar check.

Of course story should be the only thing that matters, but as long as there are a deluge of other writers out there, you have to compete. Even a small literary agent can expect in the region of thirty scripts to turn up a week, yet the likehood of taking on more than 5 new clients in a year is slim. This means your ten pages not only have to be tight in terms of intent, they've got to shiny and sparkly when it comes to format and description. Readers ARE looking for good format and sometimes, they don't even care what your name is and/or how experienced you are. I freaked out about two years ago when a very well-known writer sent me his script. I wrote back and explained that I was sure I couldn't tell him anything he didn't already know; he told me not to be so daft and sent me the script anyway - he wanted to know why his script kept bouncing back from a particular prodco when he had had a previously good relationship with them. It turned out his script was written in Arial - as he had always done for 25 years - but that was the only thing "wrong" with it, it was a great script. Anyway, a little digging later and I discovered said prodco had a new Reader, straight out of uni, who was bouncing back all scripts unread that had "format issues", including those written in Arial.

This is an extreme case of course, but put yourself in the Reader's place: you've got two scripts. One is full of typos, format errors and black is all over the page -but the story is intriguing, though you know it's going to take up to 2 hours to read it. The other is clean, pristine, with an average premise that you've read before, but you know you can read it in under an hour. Which one would you choose? Perhaps this is why average movies make it through to development? It's a hard assertion to make, but being a fan of The Chaos Theory, from small decisions (Reader: I'm knackered, want to go home!) big acorns grow (yet another slasher pic, GROAN!).

So: is it worth the risk of ignoring format when your ten pages could be judged harshly in such a competitive environment? What is the alternative - plugging away until your story is seen for what it is, brilliant? What if that never happens? Personally, I think it's a better idea to not get busted when it comes to format; either that or kill all other writers in order to get a better chance. But I just don't have enough time...

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Ten Page Test, Part 1

The BBC Writers' Room does it. Red Planet will be doing it. The Film Council do it with initiatives like 25WOL. All the literary agents I have read for do it, so do some indie prodcos and screen agencies.

What am I talking about? What I call The Ten Page Test: the presentation of ten short pages so intriguing, so well formatted, so full of sparkling dialogue that a Reader will forego the chance of another cinnamon swirl and read your script in full. Hooking a Reader, making them actively WANT to go beyond page 10 of your screenplay is difficult. We've all heard the horror stories: Readers aren't paid enough, are overworked, are looking for reasons to stick your script back in the "out" tray.

All of that is true. However, what you often don't hear about is the Reader's aching desire to find a story or screenplay that interests them, that keeps them turning the page, wondering what happens next. Nine times out of ten, Readers don't get those scripts. Ninety per cent of the time at prodcos, agents, writing initiatives and screen agencies, they're clocking mistake after mistake, distracted from the story and the characters you've spent hundreds of hours constructing. So when they find a script that hooks them from page one, that draws them into the world of the story - well, it's actually exciting. That Reader will devour your script in one sitting, maybe even champion it to their boss. They won't always be listened to of course, but somewhere, at some point, your script will have touched someone, if only a lowly Reader on work experience.

So getting read in full is hard work; this is because writers grossly underestimate the importance of those first ten pages. A script's starting point - start late and finish early, anyone? - is often in the wrong place; protagonists are not introduced properly, their needs, the arena, motivations and genre may all be unclear or muddled by page ten.

Needless to say, all of the above is bad news. Yet script after script will turn up at places and a Reader will be no closer to knowing what a story is or who it is about by page ten. Sometimes, screenplays will take the entirety of Act One before it reveals this vital information - anything up to thirty pages. Whilst it's never wise to assert that anything definitely happens in this scriptwriting lark, it's unlikely that scripts that take so long to reveal information of this kind will get read in full.

You've heard the phrase, "hit the ground running"? In my experience, those scripts that are read in full are those that do this. We join an obvious protagonist, with an obvious journey, from page one. That protagonist's motivations and backstory is hinted at from the start (no expositional dialogue please: "I need to change my life because of the death of my wife..." Yuk!) and his or her need to gain something - and indeed whom the antagonist is and why they are standing in the protagonist's way - needs to be introduced. All within ten pages: therein lies the challenge.

I think it was Blake Snyder who coined the phrase "stating your intent" with regards to making it obvious to the Reader where your story is going and I'm sure he'll be pleased to know that this appears to have been embraced wholeheartedly by many places that practice The Ten Page Test. I must confess I've only read part of his book "Save The Cat" since I have a concentration problem beyond screenplays (reading of an evening suddenly seems something of a Busman's Holiday nowadays), but as I understand it, Blake says you need to have shown, absolutely, what a story is (ie. genre, arena), who it's about (protagonist and antagonist intros) and why it's a story (why are we watching this, NOW? What is important about it, what message is behind it?) by p 10.

I couldn't agree more. When people send their screenplays for me to read through Bang2write (as opposed to those that come from "beyond" - oo er), I often find myself asking them the following questions:

a) Who is the protagonist? Why is this their story? What is important about NOW - why is this playing out at this time and not say, last week, two years ago, ten years in the future in this character's life?
b) Who is the antagonist, why do they want to stop the protagonist in their mission/journey/etc?
c) What is the function of the peripheral and secondary characters?
d) What is the "seed" of this story - not the plot, you remember - but if story is the pip in the middle of an apple, what is at its core?

Often those Bang2writers will know immediately who the protagonist and antagonist are, yet not know why I can't see it. This often lies in the execution of how they have introduced the characters. Introduction of characters often goes through "fashions" I find; there don't seem to be many features around that don't start with a protagonist, from the very first shot, anymore for example. In the good ol' days there was some leeway on this; the first human we see on board The Nostromo for example is not Ripley when those cryo-capsules go up, but Kane. Nowadays though (let's call it the last decade), I'm struggling to think of a film that does not start with its protagonist. Miles in SIDEWAYS awakes, hungover. Riddick in that space capsule, with that eerie voiceover "All but your animal side...No wonder I'm still awake" in PITCH BLACK. Bruce Willis, shot on his bathroom floor in SIXTH SENSE. We start with them, ergo we go on the journey with them... A simple device, yet very effective and one writers could do well to copy when presented with The Ten Page Test and stating their intent.

Unless of course you need a prologue. Sometimes we hook an audience via presenting a scene that seems or is out of sync, like in SEVERANCE with the escort girls in the hole or ARLINGTON ROAD with the child who's blasted his thumb off. Sometimes you need a backstory, presenting some vital info that viewers will need later (though often this is disputable), as in THE CAVE. Other times you want to introduce the world of your story before you introduce a protagonist whose job it is to then turn that world upside down - like Will Smith's character in MEN IN BLACK, who is introduced substantially after Tommy Lee Jones'.

However, prologues can be dangerous in specs, especially those latter two. Whilst "out of sync" prologues can be intriguing on their own merits (as long as they're not too lengthy), exposition (as in CAVE) tacked on to the front of your script can seem clumsy within the isolation of the first ten pages. Equally, the reason for introducing a protagonist late may not be apparent from ten pages alone and a particularly harsh or overworked Reader may imagine you've made a classic newbie mistake, as opposed to constructed it that way on purpose. In other words, when it comes to prologues and stating your intent, it's wise to tread carefully.

The two things Bang2writers often don't know though are c) and d) and this can significantly affect how well you might state your intent in those all-important first ten pages. Dealing first with character, every character in a screenplay needs a function; even peripheral characters must have a reason to be there, else they must be cut. Some writers like to write crowd scenes and/or have peripheral characters say random things to add to arena. Whilst this may prove what a skilful observer of people you are, it often does little to push your story forward. When it comes to peripheral characters, I always ask myself in my own specs - what does this peripheral character GIVE to my main characters? Peripherals are not "real", they are cardboard cut-outs. They need no backstory, no real motivation of their own - they are servants, in effect, there to serve your story. If you consider LIAR LIAR for example when Fletcher goes to retrieve his car from the impound lot, the guy who brings it out to him has scratched it, but he says the scratch was always there. Fletcher is outraged, calls him a liar, ironic when he was the biggest liar of them all. That peripheral character then is there only to serve the point up to us, on a plate, that Fletcher is now beginning to realise his past behaviour was repugnant.

Secondary characters are somewhat different; they can't be cardboard cut-outs, used only to present various story and plot points to us. They need to be well-rounded, but again need to support those two main characters in their contrasted missions - even if crucially, they don't realise that is what they are doing. Secondary characters need a soupcon of backstory (but not too much and certainly not the same amount as your protagonist or antagonist; the latter has less than the former, too) but also need a particular function, often dependant on genre. Human beings like to "pigeon hole": if we can see who the Love Interest, Comic Relief, Weakest Link etc is, very obviously, then all the better. If you can then put interesting slants or mix up those "standard" secondary character role functions, then you are the wo/man. Man. The key though is not in introducing TOO MANY peripherals in the first ten pages or if you do, make it obvious these guys are throwaways. Similarly, don't fall into the trap of having too many secondary characters (between five and seven is optimum)and certainly don't introduce them too late in an attempt to not clutter up the narrative. If you can't introduce all your characters from the start, ask yourself why. There's a good chance it's because you don't need most of them.

Finally then, if you don't know what is at the heart of your screenplay, you simply can't state your intent by page ten effectively. If you don't know what this story is about, how can any Reader, unconnected to your material? No one is saying you must wrap up your story by page 10; far from it. That would be deathly dull and the next eighty pages would fall flat on its arse. Rather, keep us guessing whilst still making it obvious what is going on: yes, it's as hard as it sounds. But consider all your favourite films: where are we, ten minutes in? Crashed on a hostile planet perhaps? Or perhaps the protagonist has gone away for a holiday, started searching for their adoptive parents, been reunited with their brother, had their family kidnapped? Then we know it can only get worse or more difficult... But how will it get worse or more difficult?

Give The Reader a concrete look at your world, your characters, your story, the seed behind it and only then you can state your intent effectively. Without the intent, without giving the Reader little lanterns like that along the way, that's how they get lost. Not because they can't read or are thick, but because sometimes the vision in your head doesn't make it on to the page. However, if a Reader can get to page ten of your script and say, "This is a horror story about a band of crash survivors who are faced with something even worse than nearly getting smashed to smithereens" or something similar - before even reading the rest of your script - then you know you're on the right track.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

I Love Spam

Just received this:

A rabbit carcass in its stiffened fur.
Gray the cloud-like oaks
Between the high and the low, in this night.
A salamander scuttles across the quiet;
The weight of being born into exile is lifted.
XVI. Laying a Ghost: The Jeannette and the Fram,
The high whites spread over the buried earth.
Cascading snowflakes settle in the pines,
(The face of a Quos' ego),
Now that you notice it — have just moved past
Whiteness, those pediments that rise
Astonished that you have returned to go:
Yes. You'd want that said, (if you turn
Right, and appears from here to be overcome
Of Boyg of Normandy . . .)
Swaying in unison beneath the snow,
Lucky the bell — still full and deep of throat,
Partly stone, partly the absence of stone,
In a single floral stroke.

Mind boggles. Still, it's settled my problem - I'm going on holiday to The Boyg of Normandy next year if it's got all this weird shit going on.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Anacondas

I go through phases where I become really interested in random stuff and since watching a documentary a few months' back about Jesus Rivera's work with anacondas, I can't get enough of these snakes. They are so interesting! There was some amazing footage of this big mama snake (called Marion, no less) scoffing itself stupid on some kind of big water vole - and just like in cartoons, you can actually see the shape of the animal sticking out of its body! So cool, gross, scary and amazing, all at once.

As screenwriters then, it's cool to get outside your "normal" zone and research random stuff. Of course, I've already been pipped to the post on a creature feature about anacondas, but that's not what I mean; the more stuff you know and read about, surely the less chance you will run out of ideas? It's like exercise for your brain. Read about random stuff, formulate ideas in your subconscious ready, kind of like the coffee pot left on for later. Though hopefully your idea won't stew and taste bad.

And hey girls - how was Johnny Messner for you last night on 5 US's showing of Anacondas: Hunt for the Blood Orchid? Bad, bad film but he kept me watching...

LINKS

This guy knows everything there is to know about anacondas.

When anacondas attack - video.

Read interesting stuff about Anacondas here, here and here.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Gospel According to The Reader

We are gathered here today to bathe in the light of The Revelation of script readers' terms and what they really mean. We The Readers are but seraphim in the heavenly production process and no one really listens to us anyway, but we *may* permit you through the Pearly Gates of options and deals or leave you outside to be devoured by the ravages of Time and perhaps Satan, who will let his evil hounds pick over your skeletal remains. Praise be to the Lords of Screenwriting (Lawrence Kasdan, Bill Martell, Danny Stack and all you other unsung Gods and Goddesses!):

SHOW IT, DON'T TELL IT: You've used 5 pages of dialogue with characters seated in one room? Characters chatting about "stuff" does not reveal character or push the story forward, it just makes a Reader want to strike you down with a bolt of lightning, or at least singe your butt with it. Ditto that for long speeches or hysterical and/or supposedly evil admissions of guilt: "I'm about to kill you now because..." ARGH. We don't live in Scooby Doo Land people, honest.

REVEAL CHARACTER: Saying what a character is wearing does not reveal character, it just does the costume peeps' job for them. Same for mentioning every single item in a room. Do you need all of it? Screenwriting is a series of judicious choices, "summing up" the sense of a room, place or person is always wiser than telling us every last detail. If nothing else, it means less work for YOU, the writer. This could mean another latte, walk in the park or roll in the hay for you Mortals instead of slaving over the PC. Think about it.

PUSH THE STORY FORWARD: What's the focus of every scene? You don't know what this particular scene's is? How does it fit in with your character's journey? You don't know? Then it's not pushing the story forward Scribo brothers and sisters. Lead us not into temptation of writing scenes with no focus, aaaaahhhhh... wait! I haven't finished!

EXTRANEOUS INFORMATION ACCESSIBLE ONLY TO THE READER: Are you using visuals, or writing a novel? The latter can only be appreciated by a Reader, not an audience. Similarly, if a character does NOT do something (like the scene description fave of "ignoring someone"!), how are we supposed to see this in terms of visuals? Let us all worship The ArchBishop of Red Pen.

DIRECTING FROM THE PAGE: Oh Brother, why are you telling us how this character speaks without it referring directly to the plot? Oh Sister, does it matter how the character stands, what she does with her hands, or how she smokes her cigarette? Join us in The Cult of Scene Description of Vagueness and Ambiguity, where you suggest stuff in the hope that directors and actors may grab your material and think it's their idea instead. Hallelujah.

OVERUSE OF PARENTHETICALS: So...what is this parenthetical for? Oh, right, how the actor says the line? Right, right. SEE ABOVE and then report to Purgatory. Paretheticals are ONLY for the most ambiguous of lines and/or to signify an accent or a different language. Never for (laughs), (sneers) etc, or actions like (checks his watch). NEVER! Thunderbolts and lightning, very very frightening...

NO CLEAR IMAGE (NCI): Remember: what you see is what you get, so if someone is "unconvinced", "madly in love", "undeterred", "nonchalant", "sceptical" and/or "resentful", then HOW DO WE KNOW THIS? Every Screenwriting Mortal must render actions as images, for again, in this script malarkey what you see is what you get. How about: "John raises a sceptical, unconvinced, nonchalant etc eyebrow"? But please don't raise too many eyebrows, fold too many arms, stir too many coffees, do too many high-fives or shake too many heads, that doesn't do it for us Readers either and we will still send your script to Hades (otherwise known as the "Out" tray).

IMPLIED NARRATOR: The Reader is the all-seeing eye and resents being reminded THIS IS A MOVIE, so any mentions of "We see/hear/follow/etc" is to be avoided in case of hysterical tantrums and loss of faith. The same goes for references to cameras and multiple shots. You want to ascend, right??

AVOID THE PRESENT CONTINUOUS: We're getting tense people, really tense... Why write "is" and "ing" when you can write less words in the present simple?? It's all about economy of words after all - plus we Readers need to get our seraphim wings refeathered at the end of the week, c'mon. And thou shalt never mix tenses (especially the past simple and present continuous) or die trying under the hooves of The Horsemen of The Writing Apocalypse (and it's coming baby!).

THOU SHALT KILL THE ADVERB: Whilst the "ly" word is very handy in normal life and I daresay for novel writing, shopping lists and other forms of creative writing, it is the enemy of The Mortal Screenwriter. Smite it down where you see it, only then may you triumph over its powerful brand of evil.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Archived!

Bang2write is going to be part of The British Library!

Yes, you read that right. Despite the insults, threats, vulgarity, swearing, double entendres, slightly arthouse moments and general sauciness on this blog (which I supect is the reason I was removed from The BBC Writers' Room Blogroll? Hmmmmm? Censored!!!), apparently Write Here, Write Now has been designated a "key site" and will soon be archived in its modern blogs collection for internet research on scriptwriting. It's not there yet, they're moving to a "more performant crawler" (that makes me think of a centipede in running shoes and shorts for some reason) but it soon will be, my little pretties. Check out the collection as it's updated here.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Beware of The Title

There's been a lot of chit-chat about titles on this blog recently, particularly about duplicate titles with regards to the BSSC and whether people's scripts are the same ones listed on those that made it through the first round; Oli too mentioned a script called WHALE FARTS had made it through the Quarter Finals of Scriptapolooza and I entreated bloggers and writers not to call their scripts TEENAGE KICKS 'cos I must get three or four a year.

So well done to Anya who spotted that the BSSC does in fact have some duplicate titles: there are apparently two called CRISPS and even weirder, two called SIX BULLETS (what happens for TWO writers to choose the number six there? What are the odds?). There are also two called THE VISIT. If you have nothing better to do today, let's see if we can find anymore (who said this blog wasn't educational, hey?).

Anyway, Anya asks if there are any titles, besides TEENAGE KICKS that crop up again and again. The answer: oh yes. It would seem people underestimate the power of the title: when we talk about "Beating the Reader", it's a question of psychology. You want them to pick up your script from that very first page and WANT to read it. A title that's been used before, for me anyway, is kinda deflating.

A good title *can* be your key to getting read in full. I recall working with one lass who would attack her massive pile by dividing those scripts with dull titles to those scripts with interesting ones. Really. When faced with a pile of scripts that come in at the same time for a course or initiative (so have the same deadline), I always choose the script with the most interesting title first: if I'm "fresher" (in that it's my first read), does this mean that script with the best title gets preferential treatment? I'd like to think no, but at the end of the day - who knows?

And every Reader remembers the good ones or the ones which seem alluring, full of intrigue. I always remember the titles that seem interesting, even if I don't recall the writers' names or even what the plot is about. If a title is good, interesting or weird, then it will get remembered; the number of times someone has said to me at seminars, book fairs etc, "I wrote a script called ____" and I immediately say, "I know that one! I read it through..." Uncountable.

One or two words is great; names - not so great I think, though if you get it right, plus your protagonist is amazing, then this can be fabulous. The simpler the better, but if you're going for a fancy title, make it as fancy as possible. Who doesn't remember THINGS TO DO IN DENVER WHEN YOU'RE DEAD, even if you haven't actually watched it? Or, TO WONG FOO, THANKS FOR EVERYTHING - JULIE NEWMAR?

The biggest turn-offs? Song titles. I am SO BORED of song titles. And the titles of books (when it's NOT an adaptation, I should add). Yargh. I always think, this is YOUR script, a new thing, YOUR story, why saddle it with someone else's words and the inevitable assumptions that will go with it? The one exception to this is the notion of irony. Using a song title as a little aside or joke in this manner will raise a smile with me, yet often there is no real discernible connection between why the song title has been used and the script. I suspect it's because it "sounds cool" or because the writer got the idea for the script whilst listening to the song... And it's since undergone so many drafts that it no longer bears any connection.

So, in response to Anya, who asked my "top 5" most-repeated script titles (minus TK), here you go... I've looked through all my records, starting in 2001 for these; some of them have come through lit agents, some through writing initiatives and indie prodcos, some through Bang2write, some through ALL FOUR. Enjoy!

5. Happy New Year. I actually really do get most of these in January, though I only got one this year. Last year, I got four. Examples I've got of genres with this title include, "rites of passage"-style dramas, thrillers and action-adventures and once, a time travel.
4. Daddy Dearest. It seems more people have troubles with their father than their mother, though from time to time it'll say "Mummy Dearest" instead. Usually dramas, though once a comedy.
3. In The Name Of The Father. What's weird about this one is often it has no religious connection, so why is part of The Lord's Prayer the title? Often foxes me. Usually thrillers though once, a horror.
2. Happy Birthday/Many Happy Returns. Nearly always comedies and nearly always centering around a birthday, though twice - not! Which was strange.
1. In The Name of Love. U2 anyone? I was actually suprised to see this one clocks in more than Teenage Kicks each year, so perhaps missing out the word "Pride" makes a difference. This one has no particular fave genre it seems; looking at my desktop I see all sorts, from Rom Com to period drama to kitchen sink drama to thriller, which is why it may have slipped under my radar. But now I'm aware of it, PLEASE STOP! Though I must admit to writing a script of this title back in the mists of time. It was a short and someone was in love, but that's all I recall. Probably just as well!

Spot any of your titles there?

Saturday, August 04, 2007

The Author Is Dead (Or Why You Should Show Your Script To As Many People As Possible)

I got my Bluecat feedback yesterday; since not one of the three scripts I submitted even made it within sniffing distance of the top ten per cent, I expected it to be lukewarm at best. I was pretty surprised then to discover that not only did all three lots of feedback offer up some interesting points in its "What Needs Work" sections, all three attracted praise. Which was nice. This is what I like about Bluecat: you don't end up feeling like a loser, even if you lose. In this game of constant rejection, that's something definitely not to be underrated!

I entered an old draft of ECLIPSE (I've since rewritten it at least three times), so never expected that one to get anywhere, yet of course that one was clearly the Reader(s?) favourite. Not really suprising when I think of it; it's classic big-budget fare with explosions, gore and big monsters: I was more surprised to see that HUSBAND AND FATHER, my super-low-budget, very British drama came in a very definite second place of these three. The Reader in question appeared to like its theme, but more the simple story behind it - a complete contrast to ECLIPSE and also, my expectations.

Then there was THY WILL BE DONE. This is definitely my most controversial script: I've had such radically disaparate readings of it, it's unreal. You may recall this is the script that made the Quarter Finals of The American Zoetrope Screenwriting Contest this year, yet failed to make any dent at any other contest - ever. In addition, one Reader called it "utterly incomprehensible", while another called it "horribly predictable". Most interesting of all, there seems to be a cultural difference to its appreciation too; British people seem to really get into it - The BBC Writers' Room had this to say about it, whilst BBC Wales picked it up for consideration last year (though eventually passed, much wailing and gnashing of teeth by me!). In contrast then, an American producer told me I should "For love of God, go back to page one" and another told me I had coherency issues with general storytelling. I've sent this script to probably hundreds of people - yet that divide is quite astonishing.

And it continues. Here is what the Bluecat Reader said - bear in mind that this is in the WHAT THEY LIKE about the script section:

Your story has a lot of symbolism and thematic elements. You have a strong overarching theme involving gains and losses in life combined with doing God's will and the consequences for ignoring it. There is also reference to many different aspects of Christian tradition, like Ruth, and the story of Isaac. You create a depressing bleak landscape filled with people devoid of a conscience where kids
and prostitutes go missing without notice. The hero, Keen, kills himself because he refuses to accept the rules being forced upon him. This coincides with his earlier refusal at the diner to become more religious per the request of Jones.


What I find really interesting is whilst this Reader is clearly the "type" of person I'm targetting with a script like this - hence their reading of the symbolic stuff and the Biblical allusions - crucially, those last two sentences about Keen are what I, as the author of this script, would deem "incorrect". This is not what I intended at all in the story, not even a little bit.

Yet is it "incorrect"? This is the interesting part. I could of course tell you the ending and what I intended - but does that mean you would see it my way? Maybe... As long as you don't read the script. Perhaps, if you were to pick up the script and I have already told you what its ending symbolises, you would then see it - but wouldn't I have put that notion for your "understanding", there? And what use is that, at the end of the day? I could also say "Well, others have got it" - but don't I actually mean, "Got it... the way I intended it"?

So the Bluecat Reader got that idea from the script, even if I think I didn't put it there. And s/he justifies it well: by referencing the earlier scene and making the link with the greasy spoon scene, I can see clearly why they might think it.

And this is what makes feedback interesting.

The French Philosopher Roland Barthes exponed the idea that "The Author Is Dead": in other words, you can write something fictional, yet it's what the people who read/watch/etc get from it that's important. So, if you write a horror, yet everyone on the planet who reads it thinks it's a comedy, then it's a bloody comedy mate. The Author is dead. What you intend and what comes out of a communication like a script and its subsequent success depends wholly on that bigger "half" - and that's not you, the writer. In essence, how people see your work is what defines your work.

Of course, the problem with this theory is it suggests the author does not really know exactly what they're doing (and don't we all beg to differ on that?!); it also leaves out room for the fact that no one in the world sees the world the same way - ergo there will always be multiple interpretations of your work, some complete opposites, like I have with THY.

But that's ok. That's for another time. What I think is useful about Barthes and his notion that The Author Is Dead, is it totally boots out Writer's Ego. When I talk about Writer's Ego, I mean something like this reply to the Bluecat Reader
had I viewed their comment outside of Barthes' notion:

WTF? Keen doesn't kill himself because of his refusal to accept the goddamn rules! That's not even VAGUELY close! You clearly don't get it at all... Were you asleep when you read this script? Eh? EH?

As you can see, totally ridiculous. No use to anyone. As a script reader, one of my absolute pet hates is writers emailing me and telling me I "don't get" their script, as outlined in the satirical Dear Writer post on this blog. People who employ script readers to read their work - whether privately like Bang2write or by sending to a contest, prodco or initiative - must expect that Reader is going to have an opinion of their work, else what is the point of sending it. In addition then, those writers (including me), must expect those readers' opinions to reflect their own worldview - and this worldview may well alter how your story may be viewed.

Yet instead of deeming it an "incorrect" view and junking your coverage if it doesn't turn out how you expected, what if you grouped all these differing views together? What if you looked at the success of your script, based on the views of multiple people, in multiple places, of multiple colours, creed, male and female? What would you get? A mess of opinions, or some important insights into your writing, style and voice?

It could go either way, of course. When I first started collecting opinions on THY, I thought I had written the best script in the world. No one wanted to make it, there were lots of "budget issues" it seemed, but as a writing sample it seemed to impress people and got me meetings. Cool! I was onto something, yeah! Then I listed it on Ink Tip. Its logline and synopsis got loads of hits from American prodcos in particular and the first month, I got loads of requests for scripts. I must have emailed 10 in the first few days alone. I was convinced - this is the one! I'm gonna get an option...

...Then the first lot of feedback rolled in. "Weird, with no substance". I was shocked, then put it to the back of my mind. This guy just didn't like it or understand it, fine. Then another came in: "Intriguing subject matter... Too weird." Okay, at least it had substance then, but there's that word again. Weird. And another: "Bit too out-there for us, good luck placing it elsewhere." Out-there? A synonym for WEIRD! ARGH! This went on for the whole six months THY was listed on Ink Tip. Got lots of hits, but for the most part, response was negative. This was apparently a script that made little sense and we could not have any empathy with a hero as twisted as Keen since he was so amoral. A couple even questioned my ability. Bugger.

Compare this with just one of my British responses:

This is a complex and involving thriller, skilfully written. I particularly appreciated the morality to the story and the well-observed arena.


Rather than be confused or try to change what I was intending and tie myself up in knots though, I knew what I had to do. This was a script that had gone through multiple drafts; rewrites were not the answer. The answer was:

Show it to more people.

Because the author is dead, because people will always see your work via THEIR worldview, you can begin to see patterns emerge if you show it to enough. It's this that can prevent you from going back to the drawing board on a perfectly good script. There are some markets that are not meant for some stories and some companies and even individuals who will never respond to a particular story, even if it's told well. And there will be cultural differences that mean some stories don't make it across the pond or back here. Sometimes it's because the story seems irrelevant because a certain event happened here and not there; other times it because, though the English Speaking world is drawn together by - you guessed it - our Mother Tongue, this does not mean we live similar lives. Australia, UK, Canada, US and English-speaking colonies everywhere do not see the world in the same way, we don't even live similar lives for the most part. An Australian relative of mine doesn't measure journeys by miles for instance; that would depress her, since she lives about a zillion miles from anywhere, she's in such a remote place. She measures journeys by hours: she thinks nothing of driving three hours to go out to dinner for a treat. Three hours to me not only would take me to The Midlands, it seems like a long time. Such little differences, yet so big a chasm.

So: this is why some Readers will not "get" your script and newsflash - they never will, even if you tell them. A story should stand on its own merits. However, don't disregard or dismiss all that "incorrect" feedback you get... It might actually tell you something, after all.

LINKS

More On Roland Barthes, French Critic

Barthes and Structuralism

The Death of The Author As An Instance of Theory by John Lye

Hypertext: Dealing with Constructive Criticism

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Contest Mania

First off, massive congrats to bloggers Elinor, Lara, Jason and ME for getting through the first round of the BSSC!!! I read so many BSSC entries on PO3's and through Bang2write I'm sure more I know have got through, but the website don't publish authors' names and I can't remember all of them, so if I read your short check here to see if your entry has made it and let me know - I'll add you to the list! In fact, if you read this and you've made it, let me know anyway. Wooo-hooo! EDIT: Since writing this post, I have discovered not only did Mr. Pillock get into the semi-finals of Bluecat and PAGE, he won the pitching contest at Stellar Network last night! Congrats!

FURTHER EDIT: Bang2write clients Andrew and Shell have also made it, as have the Scribosphere's very own Lianne and Blogful Martin with TWO ENTRIES. Nice one!

Since we're in the contest mood then, if you have a feature script ready to go - enter the AAA Screenplay Competition... But make sure you do it by midnight tonight! Run by Creative Screenwriting, this contest promises to get winning scripts into the hands of an impressive array of American Prodcos, Managers and Agents. Click here to submit.

Also, if you have a horror script gathering dust on your desktop, you should know thatThe Screamfest Horror Film Festival & Screenplay Competition is accepting entries for features, shorts, and screenplays (deadline August 15th)!

It takes place October 12th – 21st at the prestigious Grauman's Mann Chinese 6 at Hollywood and Highland in the heart of Hollywood and the winning screenplay receives $1,000 cash and Movie Magic software.

Even better, if you mention INFOLIST.com on your application, and take $10 OFF the Application Fee through August 15th! This will make your feature script competition entry fee $50 (normally $60)

TO SUBMIT:
Download the Application form here.
Be sure to write INFOLIST.com in the "Referred By" field to get your discount!

SEND COMPLETED FORMS AND ENTRIES TO:
Screamfest Horror Film Festival
8840 Wilshire Blvd.
Beverly Hills, CA 90211
Website

or email screamfestla@aol.com

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Don't Waste My Mutha*$%*^* Time!

Love that line. Al Pacino in HEAT. I forget the mechanics of the scene exactly - I think he was questioning-stroke-threatening an informant - but that's what good movie moments are made of in my book: you may not remember the whys, you remember the how. And Al Pacino was so manically exhuberant here, repeating the line just enough without becoming irritating, that it stuck in my head and undoubtedly countless other viewers'.

We all want these moments in our screenplays - those lines and moments people repeat to each other, out of context. It's those little bits of movie magic that brighten up people's days: we all do it. We get bad mobile reception where we live and even worse internet; I've been unable to connect to broadband at all for some godforsaken reason and every now and again the mobile signal and dial-up connection will spontaneously die, right at the same time. My husband's response, every single time? "Skynet is becoming self-aware!" From time to time at home I'll ring the landline from my mobile from another room; my husband will pick it up and I'll say, "Mr. Hammond? The phones are working." It's okay; I know. Sad. but you do it too, I know you do you little fibbers.

I'm still working on the magic ingredients of producing one-liners that people will remember, but I can tell you how to not bore a Script Reader. Us Readers all have problems, man. We've got psychological problems brought on by absentee protagonists appearing and disappearing in the narrative or those characters where the action is all in their head. We've got sexual problems brought on by all the bad love scenes and physiological problems from being hunched over a desk all day. Hell some of us even have beards (Danny I'm looking at you).

So, in short then - we're all weirdos with ADHD and a twisted attitude. There ARE things that suck out the pace from your screenplay - if you recall, I gave you a list yesterday. Here's what to do about it if any of the following pop up in your script:

- Over-reliance on phone calls/triviliaties. Cut them all out. The Americans have one school of thought re: using phone calls in specs and that's DON'T! The Brits don't seem to be so hardcore on this issue and as a Reader, phone calls don't particularly bother me...But they have to figure in the plot for a specific reason. If you have characters phoning each other all the time, ask yourself: why can't they MEET? Much more interesting. As for trivilaities, have you ever noticed how few people say "Hello" or "Goodbye" in movie-land? It takes up space, baby. Cut cut cut it all!

- Static scenes Keep your characters on the move, but more importantly don't have scenes go on for pages and pages. I read a good guide once that recommended one page for "ordinary" scenes and up to three for "extraordinary" scenes (I can't remember where though). I think this is good to aim for, certainly stops the Reader from drowning in a sea of Exposition. It also makes the writer "focus" - what do they need to get across and how many pages do they need to do it? What is the most dramatic way?

- The Disappearing Protagonist and Character Role Functions. Two words: don't and do. DON'T have your protag appear and disappear, DO make your secondary characters' role functions obvious. With the protag, starting with him/her is best: establish from the very first page who this is about and keep with them. You don't have to have them in every single scene (though this can help if you're having "focus" issues) but I have a rule - never stay away from the protag for more than 2 pages: this seems to work. Regarding the secondary characters and what they're doing in your script, make 'em justify their place - think before you start or when you're redrafting what they actually ADD to the narrative: is s/he comic relief? The weakest link? Best friend? Lover? If you can't figure out what their function is, they need to go. KILL!

- Flashbacks without a discernible pattern to them. Writers attempting a non-linear narrative sometimes don't realise there needs to be a pattern to flashbacks - they need to tell a separate story, in effect, else they just become a mad soup of images for the Reader. If you consider THE BOURNE SUPREMACY, he kept seeing that hotel bedroom door and flashes of faces and the gun... As he pieced it together, we saw more and more, until we remember, with Jason Bourne, what exactly happened there. In other words, the writer built it up and up, took us on a journey into the past, if you like. This is really hard to do. However, if you do attempt it, you have to re-structure your structure: in other words, look at how the action is running forwards, in order to make sense of what is going to go on in the narrative backwards. Did I tell you this is hard?

- Long, "Wonder Years"-style Voice-overs. Just one point here: please don't.

- Characters thinking about things. Ditto above.

- Peripheral characters popping up, then never being seen again. And again.

- Too much black on the page - especially extraneous info. Amen.

So, any thoughts? I'm particularly interested in what some of my colleague Twisted Readers think... Go!