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Friday, April 30, 2010

Screenplay Format: One Stop Shop

With all these blogs and people talking about it, it's hard to believe format is STILL an issue when it comes to the spec pile. Whilst spec scripts do generally *look* better (gone are the days of spiral bound scripts printed on pink paper, it seems), there are still some really basic mistakes getting through. What's more, *correct* screenplay format is still one of the most frequently asked questions I get via email, Twitter, seminars etc.

Basically, good format is about not getting "busted". Whilst any writer can obviously do what they want, there are obvious and basic things a writer can avoid/cut/change to make sure their script is this best it can be when it gets plucked out of the spec pile. On this basis then, here's a one stop shop for all your format queries:

Script length. What is the "right" length for a script? USUALLY it's approx 90- 120 pages for a movie script and roughly 60 pages for a TV pilot. More details on why and other elements relating to page count here in this post. If you feel your script is TOO SHORT however, check out this post. If your script is for television or you want to write a script with "rapid fire" dialogue, then click here for my thoughts on this regarding script length in these cases.

Title page. This is for your title, your name, your contact details (your agent's if you have one). That's it. Please don't put a picture on the front of your script or use a funky font or ANYTHING ELSE. Just normal is great, ta. DON'T put your name anywhere else on the script, including page 1 and on headers/footers.

Copyright. I don't care if your script is WGA registered or whatever, nor do most readers I've spoken to. Writing it on your script then makes you look paranoid. It's all pointless anyway, since ideas cannot be copyrighted and I've never heard of a credible case of a script being stolen in ALL the years I've been reading. So why bother? Copyright myths exploded.

Font. You need to use the COURIER font, here's what it looks like - whilst there are lots of differing templates/formats for PRODUCED TV shows in particular and there will always be guys like the Coen Bros who use whatever you want, it's advisable to use Standard Spec Script Format to avoid readers and interns chucking your script back in the envelope, unread. Not sure what Standard Spec Script Format looks like? Here's a free download - 1 page Ref Guide (PDF).

Titles & Credits. You don't need to reference credits in a spec script - this is a production decision, not the writer's. This includes television scripts.

Quotations. Sometimes you might want to include a quote at the start of your screenplay. Whilst there are no real "rules" for this, I wrote a short post on this re: placing, check it out here.

Sluglines/Scene Headings. These should read INT/EXT. LOCATION - DAY/NIGHT. There's a little room for variation, especially regarding "time", ie. MOMENTS LATER, SAME TIME, DAWN, DUSK, etc but don't go overboard. Sometimes scripts manage to get away with mad or metaphorical locations, ie. UNDER THE OCEAN, INSIDE KATY'S COLON, INSIDE JIM'S IMAGINATION, INSIDE THE INTERNET, etc but again, be careful of this and use sparingly. For more on sluglines/scene headings, check out this post.

Tense. Loads of writers use the present continuous tense - the "is" + /ing/, ie. Lucy is reading. This is a longer way of expressing something and a helluva lot less "punchy" or "snappy" than the present SIMPLE, which is the /s/ formation - ie. Lucy reads. The perfective aspect ("have/had") and past tenses rarely have a place in the screenplay.

"We see/look/hear/follow..." For the record, I couldn't care less about "we see..." or any of its variations. But a HELLUVA lot of readers do. Worth the risk?

Captions. Captions are under the slugline/scene header and should read

SUPER: [1999/ Last summer / Germany 1941/ whatever]

The "super" is short for "super impose". I have seen CAPTION and TITLE too and I'm never bothered, but *apparently* SUPER is 100% correct, so if you're a perfectionist there you go.

Act Breaks. Recently I've seen a significant increase in spec TV scripts with act breaks referenced (ACT ONE, END OF ACT ONE, etc). You don't *need* to do this in a UK spec script. Just concentrate on telling the story as you would any other script. However, as with anything script-related, there's always another way of looking at these things and here's top TV scribe Stephen Gallagher's take: "In the 90s I worked on a British show made by an independent producer for the BBC, and despite the HBO-style absence of ad breaks he insisted we structure the scripts with crises corresponding to Act Outs. He was right. It raised everyone's game, imposed a pace and a structure (and I imagine made it easier when he came to sell the show to overseas markets)." I know contradictory advice can freak people out (and there's so much relating to scripts!), so if you're scratching your head now and worrying what to do "for the best", think of where your script is going... And whether it's a spec and if it's got a producer attached already. If NOT, perhaps it's best to leave Act Breaks out? But as I always stress to Bang2writers, it's YOUR script!!

Ad Breaks. Bang2writer Lisa Barrass contacted me and said she had feedback from an American screenwriting competition telling her she "should" have included ad breaks in her spec television script; whilst this may be true of our American writer friends, as a UK writer you DON'T need to do this... Why? Because as a spec script, there's no telling who your script *may* end up with - there's every chance you'd be sending to an ad-free corporation like The Beeb, especially the Writersroom or one of Aunty's many initiatives or calls like The Writers' Academy or shadow schemes.

Trial scripts. Lots of writers wonder about the various formats of various shows and worry they won't *know* what to do if they're offered a trial script on a continuing drama or series. My advice: don't worry about it. If you get a trial, the show will generally send you various notes, sometimes the Series Bible and will send you a sample script of an episode which has already aired. Just copy the format of that sample script - if that means including stuff like act breaks and ad breaks and using a font other than Courier, etc? - then DO IT. Simples.

Teasers. I'm seeing more and more spec TV scripts with teasers (that little "bit" before the title sequence). Teasers are quite an American thing - and something lots of TV shows are noted for, so it's not surprising many writers try and mimic this style. And end of the day, why not? It's a spec script, you can do what you like. The two caveats to this I would offer, however: 1) DON'T reference titles after a teaser, there's no point to it story-wise. 2) Make sure your teaser SETS UP what happens in the episode in a very obvious fashion. Most of the teasers I see are really obscure and make the reader guess about what they're for, when in reality I can't think of a single TV show that does this. If you consider the CSI franchise, which is famous for its teasers, the teasers usually happen this way:

1) Shots of the victim - possibly alive first, then definitely dead *in some interesting pose/way*
2) Team arrives - some brief exposition about the cause of death, the neighbour didn't see/hear anything
3) There's *something* about the crime scene that's weird or odd
4) Investigating officer makes some kind of cheesy quip - WHAM, CUE TITLES

HOUSE does something very similar, though usually we see only the patient be *struck down* in some way, cue titles, then the diagnosis team come in with some brief history, etc. Teasers should really be called OPENERS I think: they're there soley to SET UP what comes next in the episode itself, not tease us in a more obscure way as so many writers appear to think.

Grammar & spelling. Good grammar and spelling is a must. If you know your grammar and spelling is poor, you have to sort it out. BBC Skillswise is a good start, especially for the error I see most, which is the misused apostrophe. Here is a BRILLIANT site listing various issues, then testing you on them by Bristol University, well worth a bookmark. If you cannot get to grips with good grammar and spelling, PAY A PROOFREADER. It's money well spent.

Scene numbers. Scene numbers are for SHOOTING SCRIPTS. End of. Some university/writing courses etc ask for scene numbers when discussing work for ease of reference; I've had some Bang2writers include them on purpose for this reason when I'M talking to them about their scripts and that's cool. But DO remember to get rid of them when you send your spec out to agents or prodcos.

Use of CAPITALS.There is no need to capitalise SOUNDS. Yes, you will see scripts online with sounds capitalised, but those are invariably shooting scripts. If your script is a spec, the only time you capitalise anything is a character's name the first time we meet them (and not throughout the spec either, another common mistake I see). Never, ever capitalise random objects -- the most frequent I see is DOORBELL. Animals like CATS and DOGS only need introducing as a character if they're going to play a significant part in the story, ie. the DOG bites the MAN which leads him to the hospital where he meets the sexy NURSE.

Use of bold/italics. Bold is annoying, that's just the way of it. I read a script full of it recently and it did my head in - you don't want the reader thinking negatively of your script for something daft like this, do you? So avoid at all costs, I'd say. I actually use italics from time to time in my own scripts and used infrequently, I think it can work - especially for characters' unspoken reactions, ie:

Sally looks at the bomb. Oh shit.

As with anything though, don't go overboard as again, guess what - it gets annoying.

Underlines (including scene headers/sluglines). Yes, sometimes software comes with this programmed in. So unprogramme it! Don't take it is red that this is the "norm", because it isn't.

Camera Angles. I cannot believe scribes are still writing camera angles - the biggest issue has to be ANGLE ON which I see over and over again. What the hell does that *really* mean, anyway? And how does it *add* to the story? Answer: it doesn't, not really. Just get rid!!! ESTABLISHING is for shooting scripts, not a spec script btw. There are exceptions, natch: POV can add to a story really well, but only if used sparingly. Beware of "hidden" camera angles too - ie. "OFF Katherine", "CLOSE ON the whiskey bottle" or "PUSH INTO William's burning gaze".

CONT'D or CONTINUED. We know the scene continues over the page, there's about 60 more pages yet. Do you need this? I say it takes up space.

Parentheticals. After a short absence, parentheticals seem to be creeping back into spec screenplays - especially features. My recommendation: don't, with the notable exception of (sarcastic) or any other time a line is otherwise AMBIGUOUS in the story. Otherwise, they feel really obvious, are quite distracting and actually take up a fair bit of space; plus I'm told actors are TAUGHT to ignore them anyway! Top 5 Reasons Parentheticals Are Useless.

Colours. Several scripts have come through Bang2write recently using various colour fonts (especially blue) to signify things like flashbacks and other non-linear time thread devices. My advice: don't. Not only does it look a bit amateur, if you don't feel confident the writing ITSELF can convey the changes in time, why should the reader?

Phone calls. Lots of writers have asked me on Twitter in particular about phone calls recently. The two main issues: 1) "How do I format a one-sided telephone conversation?" and 2) "How long should a telephone conversation be in a script?" As for 1) Just write it as you would normally, but try and make sure the dialogue doesn't go on for a gigantic block; breaking it up with small actions can help, ie:
JOHN picks up the telephone.

Hello... Oh, hi! Yes, no problem - what's the address?

He waves, exaggerated at FIONA: she stares at him dopy - what?? He mimes "pen"!

Let me... Just. Get. A. Pen...

Fiona runs about like a headless chicken - presents him with an eyeliner. Groans, writes with it anyway.

Uh-huh... Yeah. Thanks. Appreciated.

John puts the phone down.

They want us in at two to discuss our "options".

Fiona shrieks with joy.
As for 2) the answer is always - AS SHORT AS POSSIBLE. In the specs I see, writers often use telephone conversations as a crutch for exposition and it's always really obvious; sometimes phone conversations will crop up every time a writer wants to fill the audience in on something (some scripts have 5, 6, 7 or even 8 instances!). Other times phone conversations will go on for pages and pages and pages and just be really boring. [As always, there's no reason why long phone conversations CAN'T work, but they need to have *something good* going for them - here I'm reminded of Pulp Fiction between Travolta and Eric Roth, ending with "Are you calling me from a CELL PHONE?? CRANK CALL! CRANK CALL!" - else they can be a bust].

Flashback/Flashforward/Other. I see flashback in the slugline and above the slugline all the time and both seem fine to me, but you DO need to tell us when we're changing time frame. The same goes for stuff like DREAM SEQUENCE - other words can substituted too: I've seen stuff like, JOHN'S IMAGINATION, SPACE, LIMBO, INSIDE SARAH'S BODY, THE INTERNET, ON THE COMPUTER SCREEN, THROUGH THE DOG'S EYES, etc. Why not? I think the easiest way to do anyof these is:


****insert scene here****

Intercut. Lots of people have been asking me the "right" way to format INTERCUT. In short, there doesn't seem to be a "right" way, I've seen it all kinds of ways. I think the easiest is simply:
PC Kelly's gaze settles on a watch, on the victim's dressing table.


That same watch, this time on the wrist of DCI Morton.


PC Kelly picks the watch up without gloves, slips it in his pocket without the rest of the team noticing.
Intercut can also used be in two-way, different location phone calls; in which case, probably best to put INTERCUT above the slugline (aka scene header) - but again, don't forget to tell us when it ends.Good examples of flashback and intercut.

Montage. Please stop using montages *just* to pass time, it's boring. Please ensure they have a dramatic FUNCTION to push the story forward and DON'T use them more than about twice in a feature MAX (once in 60 pages or less I'd say). Also, stop calling them SERIES OF SHOTS or I'll kill you all! Kthxbye. How to lay out a montage.

Voiceover. I love a good voiceover - but only if it reveals character and/or pushes the story forward. 9/10 voiceovers in the spec pile are purely there to tell us stuff the writer couldn't figure out visually. Don't give yourself away!!!

*BY THE WAY*Check out this Free E-book (PDF) which includes articles on Intercut, Montage and Voiceover as well as other screenwriting devices.

Leading dialogue. There's always too much dialogue in any spec -- so ensure you "rein it in" wherever possible and keep your scenes SHORT. If you have three or more pages of people talking, there's a good chance you can cut great swathes of it: just the way it is. Think about your scene focus: what does this scene ADD to character/story? What do I need from it?

Reported character. Another dialogue issue in TV and film: if characters are talking about people we've ALREADY SEEN doing *whatever*, cut it. If characters talk about people in general and what they're ABOUT to do, cut it. If people talk about characters in great detail about stuff they've done BEFORE THE STORY STARTS, cut it. (The one exception here is obviously sitcom, which can thrive on reported character).


Overwriting. Most writers write incredibly dense scene description, sometimes mistakenly believing they have to put every detail to "paint a picture", when less really is more. William C Martell has the best article around, "16 Steps" for getting the most out of your scene description, yet still being ECONOMICAL with words. Read it here.

Other times, the writer will believe they are using a certain amount of symbolism in order to evoke a "feeling", when a single sentence that cuts to the chase will be more effective in grabbing a reader's attention. Script Consultant Julie Gray makes an excellent point about what she calls "crafty and skillful" writing over on Danny Stack's blog, here (some good format tips in general too!).

So, what are you waiting for?? Clean up those scripts!

Monday, April 26, 2010

How To Be A Great Script Reader, 24/04/10

So, *that* course I've been banging on about, How To Be A Great Script Reader, was held this weekend just past. Chris Jones was hosting it at Ealing Studios and I had a small but perfectly formed group.

This was a course not for wannabe professional script readers, but WRITERS wanting an insight into how readers may view their work, so they might be able to recognise problem issues in theirs and their peers work BEFORE submission. We looked at the more cliched and problematic areas of the spec pile that crop up again and again, as well as what a writer's "voice" means, what makes a great character and how screen agencies work; we also covered peer review and how to avoid conflict. In the afternoon session we put our new insights to the test by looking at each others' one page pitch docs and just the FIRST page of our screenplays - and why so many first pages just don't pass muster, never mind the first ten pages!

And I had a great time: the day just FLEW by. The participants made some great contributions and were really switched on, it was a pleasure to work with them.

But don't just take MY word for it -- check out photos from the day, Chris' account and participants' feedback here.

N.B. Interested in a future course? Details on the right hand side bar of this blog, under "TRAINING FROM BANG2WRITE".

Friday, April 23, 2010

Go on go on go on go on go on go on go on...

In case you've been hiding under a rock: I'M DOING A CLASS AT EALING STUDIOS TOMORROW. 10 - 5. It'll be hosted by Chris Jones of Living Spirit

We'll be looking at feedback - how it affects us as writers, how we can sort the wheat from the chaff, how to deal with rejection, why a writer's voice is important, plus much more... INCLUDING A LOOK AT YOUR COMPETITION IN THE SPEC PILE.

The ash cloud has meant a couple of cancellations... If you're in London, why not sign up?


BREAKING NEWS --- if you sign up today, Chris will give you a free DVD of his fab, mega award winning short GONE FISHING. Can't grumble, can you?? Sign up now.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The London Book Fair, Monday Apr 19th - Notes

I attended the London Book Fair this Monday just past... Here's what I learned in three seminars there. Enjoy!
Assess Your Manuscript - Rebecca Swift, The Literary Consultancy

Several Bang2writers have used this service for their own novels and spoken highly of it, so I was keen to hear what Rebecca had to say. I was a little disappointed to hear what I felt was essentially a extended sales pitch for the full half hour: I'd have liked to hear about Rebecca's own experiences with the slush pile and HOW she might assess a person's manuscript (as the title of the seminar seems to suggest to me) as well. Here's what she had to say:

- Of 100 people writing novels, 99 won't get published. Publishers are fighting for space on book displays. It's not automatic that agents will sell to a publisher; sometimes they bypass the traditional side and go for e-books (via the likes of Google and Amazon).

- Writers are often writing in isolation and NEED feedback, it makes a work better... but only if it's honest. As with all serious crafts, the writer needs to know what is working and what is not.

- The Literary Consultancy reports will look at the creative side AND the market side - whether your book will "sell".

- Online mentoring is available.

- There are bursaries available for those writers on low incomes.

- The Literary Consultancy can help a writer decide if self publishing is a viable option - and steer the writer away from those less honest self publishing houses.

- Remember: markets are READERS.

- QUESTION: Does The Literary Consultancy accept works for translation? ANSWER: Can assess for translation, yes.

- QUESTION: What if my agent isn't able to sell my book and is only looking to the big guns, without looking at smaller publishers too? ANSWER: Change agents. (If only it were that easy).

- QUESTION: When is the right time to get feedback? ANSWER: When you feel you can't go any further.

- QUESTION: Does The Literary Consultancy read screenplays? ANSWER: Yes.

Insight Into The Business of Making Films

Matthew Baker, The Recorded Picture Company; Andrea Calderwood, Slate Films; Chair: Quentin Falk

Falk first asks: "What is the state of the business?"

Consensus - rotten!! All media suffering. Surplus of films, not enough distribution... But hasn't that always been the case in the UK? Buyers want confidence NOT JUST FROM THE SCRIPT - a key decision is who is attached, such as actors and directors (as I mention in this post, here). It's a lot tougher than it used to be: where once it was possible to get a sizeable chunk of your finance from ONE place, it's not possible any more. Producers have to get the money to make films from many different sources, or else your film won't get made.

Next Falk asks Andrea, "As an indie, is it tougher?"

Andrea used to work as an executive for BBC Scotland and at Pathe. She confirms it is MUCH tougher as an indie; she says she used to make 25 HOURS a year, she makes much less now.

Sources of finance are mentioned. Internet/download returns nothing to the film industry. Baker asserts, "We all believe in a digitial future - but no one knows how to monetise it effectively yet". Traditional ways of distribution are going, new avenues are opening up, like iTunes. The internet is much more democratic - Falk: "Could the internet do for film what it did for the music industry?" BOTH: "Yes".

Falk: "Is promotion/marketing decided by the distributor?"

Verdict: most of the time, but not always. Distributors will often have the most sway over release dates, but the maker will usually have *some* say.

Apparently, it often costs more to RELEASE a film than MAKE IT -- usually 2.8% more than the budget... Baker makes the point that if we look at something like Avatar, this then means it had to make a whopping £600m to make a profit!!!

Andrea confirms this: involved in The Last King of Scotland, it made six times its budget -- yet is still not in profit!!

Question from audience member: "Are there certain genres "easier" to sell?"

Both confirmed everyone has "rules" on what NOT to do... which they then go and break. But generally speaking:

Drama is universally reviled at the moment. Quentin Falk: "Drama is a dirty word!"

No political thrillers or stuff set in the past!

Thrillers and comedy ALWAYS good.

Falk: "Is there a dearth of good material?"

Answer -- absolutely. Baker: "The really great scripts and books are not on the market for long." Andrea: "The good books are nearly always optioned for film rights long before they are published."

BUT: if your idea is REALLY good, they will take it. Andrea posits it's easier to get a meeting in LA than London -- LA too afraid to miss the really good ideas.

Finally, a last question from an audience member: "Is social media changing the business model?"

Verdict: it makes crowd sourcing a LOT easier and more of a reality. Andrea still like to have content, then look for the money, the more "traditional" way. Baker said there was no "secret" but that "Twitter is changing the game". People still need content, Producers still need talent. Social media makes it easier to find talent AND money.

360 Degree Marketing

Julian Friedmann, Blake Friedmann & Kate Adamson, marketing guru

Julian and Kate rather bravely took on this seminar with no prep after the people meant to take it, Open Road Media, were prevented by the ash cloud.

- THE STATS: 760,000 books self published in the USA last year. Increasing number of e-books in both territories. SO MANY BOOKS -- what's the point???

- Readers want to be connected across ALL screens -- 360 degree marketing. ANSWER: make sure people KNOW YOUR BOOK IS THERE. Bring people to you, make them insterested in WHO you are, WHAT you're doing.

- Make a tiny brand - YOU. The consumer navigates by brand. The advent of social networking has CHANGED EVERYTHING -- particularly Facebook and Twitter. Use a Viral process to get YOU and YOUR WORK out there -- but most importantly, DO IT WELL. Too many blogs, tweets, facebook fan pages out there that are RUBBISH. Too many writers have primitive knowledge of how Twitter, blogs, facebook etc works -- and how it can work FOR THEM.

- You can reach people you would never have reached before. You need a proper strategy, don't rely on luck.

- Dominance of print decreasing: the physical book is changing, even chain bookstores are in trouble. E-reader screens like Kindle/Sony on the rise. Mobile content - the *forgotten* screen: can you access it? Content needs to change ACROSS screens. Would you want to read a 190,000 word novel on your iPhone?? No way. We need to adapt.

- Never give content away... Because that is what you think your work is WORTH. Instead, what about: the first 30 pages of your e-book free instead? Or what about sponsorship?

- Here I ask: "What about content on blogs? That's free." Both Julian and Kate says blogs aren't content in the traditional sense - used properly, they are a form of advertising. blogs are about opinions... if readers like what you have to SAY, they're more likely to buy what you have for SALE.

- Crowd sourcing: Julian says this is most likely to be "issue led" (ie. people want to support the message, such as the anti-bullying film Julian is exec producing, INNOCENT?, at the moment) or "cult led" (people want a part in something that will be the "talk" of a niche group). I personally would add the idea of "give and take" crowd sourcing too -- ie. people gave me money for SLASH because they liked my blog and/or wanted the PDF I gave in return... Danny Stack did similar with his own film, ORIGIN.

- Twitter is again mentioned. Consensus: if you don't use Twitter to promote yourself properly, you will be left behind.

- To finish: Julian says -- "You need a virtual personality." Kate chimes in: "Yes, it's called a brand!!!"
A VERY interesting day... Thanks to all the speakers for your time.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Guest Post: "Up Close" workshops by Helen Bang

Bang2writer and aptly-named Helen Bang has kindly provided us with the insights she learnt at a workshop this weekend just gone. Enjoy!
Up Close was a day of free workshops organised by the Playwrights’ Studio Scotland held at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow. I attended the workshops on radio drama, further skills for playwrights and demystifying television.

The radio workshop was led by BBC radio producers David Ian Neville. He began by outlining the stations which broadcast radio drama (Radio 3, 4, Radio 7 and Radio Scotland, and asked how many people in the audience listened to radio drama (several brave souls admitted that they didn’t, most claimed that they did).

David related, how waiting to collect his kids from the cinema recently, he noticed for the first time how energised the audience emerging from the multiplex screens were, and used this to ask what drama was for and why people watched and listened to it. To be entertained, informed, engaged and experience new things were some of the answers offered.

He said that the main radio audience is for The Archers. Other outlets are the 15 minute episodes on Woman’s Hour, the afternoon play, the Saturday play and the Sunday adapted classic novel.

David explained that, especially in radio drama, the writer has only a couple of minutes (sometimes less) to engage the audience. He demonstrated this by playing the opening of Broken English by Frank Deasy, a play based on a true story about a family of Kurds held in detention for a year before being deported. In the first minute a voice-over from a young girl said that her father had always talked of taking them to Scotland. The action then moved to a chaotic (ie ordinary) family breakfast scene which was interrupted by the police bursting in and arresting everyone. Despite this dramatic opening several participants in the workshop said that they would not continue listening, citing inauthenticity (the police didn’t sound like police or Scottish – in fact I think this scene was supposed to be in South East England – the family was later moved to Scotland) and the level of noise being too distracting (family breakfasts usually are pretty bedlam-like, in my experience but it was interesting that this could put off some listeners).

David then asked us to list six personal characteristics – three private and three to be made public. We also had to write a first name on one piece of paper, and a surname on another. These were then jumbled up and redistributed so that one person would call out a first name, another a surname, a third a characteristic and so on. It was not clear exactly how this related to radio drama particularly, but it was useful to be reminded how decisions about characteristics could influence the drama. David said drama was revealing things about people, putting them into situations and seeing what happened. He also reminded us that radio takes place inside the listener’s head and could be very intimate.

He played another extract from a play called Best Friends which opens with a woman receiving a tearful phone call from a friend who has been arrested for the murder of someone called Emily. The friend says “that’s absurd, that’s obscene.” Many participants said they’d turn off, again saying that they didn’t believe it was authentic. I was more interested in the fact that she seemed shocked her friend had been arrested, but not surprised that Emily was dead, making me wonder if it was one of those cases where there’s been a death but a family member isn’t arrested for some time – in which case I might respond as the character did. I don’t know the play, but again it was interesting how quickly a listener can decide ‘this isn’t for me’.

David took some questions at the end. Between one and six characters seems to work for radio. More is problematic. The length of radio pieces is entirely dependent on the slots available – 45 minutes for the afternoon and an hour for Saturday plays.
The "Further Skills For Playwrights" workshop was run by Chris Dolan who has written for theatre, television, and radio as well as novels, short stories and documentaries. He recommended David Mamet’s book “A Whore’s Profession” for a stimulating view of writing.

He began by posting a situation – a woman in a hotel lobby. Each participant then had to add one line of action to the story. It was a sort of Consequences string, sometimes the story was a thriller, then a comedy, then suddenly a horror, then surreal, then a thriller again. Too many cooks spoil the broth did come to mind though. Too many minds are not necessarily creative, IMHO.

Partly it was to illustrate that writer can write anything and it comes down to choices. What genre are you in?

The next exercise was to ask two participants to be living statues in response to instructions from the audience like “put your left foot forward, put your right hand on your head, etc.” We then asked the two ‘statues’ to face each other and had to come up with a scenario. Deliberately discounted were too easy get-outs such as “they’re children in a playground or contemporary dancers”, writers should make their characters’ situations as difficult as possible. We came up with a female captain finds a male stowaway in her cabin on a cruise ship.

Chris then asked people to read out a short scene from a play and asked us what we thought of it. It turned out to be the scene in Fatal Attraction where Glenn Close turns up at Michael Douglas’ house pretending to be a pregnant woman looking to rent a flat. What on the page seemed a not very dramatic scene turned out to be very dramatic when shown on screen, but I’m not sure that it was subtext in the way I usually think of it. (I’ve never seen the film, it was one that you felt you’d seen having read the hype and I resented the description that “Glenn Close plays the AIDS virus".)

Chris talked about how characters should be allowed to tell their own story and said that novelist Ian Rankin claimed that he never knew who had done it when he started writing his Rebus novels. (I’m not sure how well this would work in dramatic writing when structure is apparently everything!)
The "Demystifying Television" session was a panel of the following: Amy Roberts, a script editor on River City, Waterloo Road and involved with the BBC Writers Room; Stuart Hepburn who is a former actor and now a writer who teaches at the University of the West of Scotland. Television work includes Taggart, Rebus and River City, Chris Dolan (see earlier), Vivien Adam, a writer on River City and Family Affairs, Anne Marie Di Mambro, writer on Casualty, East Enders and River City who also teaches at Caledonian University.

They talked about how storylining is very much to do with the industrial process of producing returning drama. It has to do with which actors are available and when as well as the arcs which are determined for the whole series as decisions always have to be made in advance.

In the UK it is producer, rather than writer, led. There aren’t showrunners as in the US model. (NB Stuart recommended a recent article on by Dominic Minghella dealing with this subject).

The participants related some of their happy and not-so-happy experiences working in television. This showed how it has to be treated as a job and how writers have to be able to fit their work to the requirements of the show as well as the obvious need to meet deadlines etc. Highlights included Anne Marie’s disappointment when an actress was miscast in her monologue and Stuart’s nightmare on the Black and Blue Rebus episode where it was decided at the last minute that a violent opening scene was too close to the watershed and had to be omitted (I’d just read the novel when I saw it and did think it was odd!)

As far as writing time goes, usually a writer has a fortnight to produce a step by step scene outline and then three weeks until the first draft. After that the deadlines get shorter.

Asked for advice to new writers, suggestions included writing a play, getting a group of actors together to stage it and inviting producers to see it. Also, not asking your auntie to comment on your script, but getting feedback from other writers, but also not to listen to too much advice from other people and trusting your own work. Not sending in the first thing you’ve written, but having a number of scripts to show producers was another suggestion. Also Jemma Rodgers, the new head of Comedy at BBC Scotland, is looking for new Scottish comedy.

It was generally agreed that it’s a tougher market to break into at present than it was in the past when producers seemed to have more freedom to experiment with new work – Dramaorama, a show of short dramas for children, was cited as an example. It now seems virtually impossible for new writers to get their own work produced. The only way in seems to be writing for established series. In fact, of the winning entries in the BBC Scotland Writes drama competition it seems none of the scripts are being developed further but that some writers are now being considered for River City.

The whole day was very well organised at a very pleasant venue. It was more about the experience of being a writer rather than how to write, and I was expecting more of an emphasis on how to get a play staged, but it was a chance to network and hear different views on drama.
Thanks Helen! Remember, if you go to a seminar or course or have something to say about scriptwriting, filmmaking or anything else, please get in touch!

ALSO BY HELEN ON THIS BLOG: Helen's notes on The Story Engine conference last year (three posts, scroll down)

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A Look In The Spec Pile # 2: Premise

NO SPOILERS Lots of writers worry about the premise of their spec feature or TV Pilot -- unnecessarily, in my view. After all, the odds are against anyone making it, so if you have the same idea as a production company or some *big* writer, you still have a sample; your position hasn't changed in real terms. Other writers worry their premises in other ways - the most common query I get is: "But does it actually work... Is the idea TOO MAD?"

First off, a lot of specs in the pile are MAD -- but this is usually to do with plotting and crazy structure, than the actual idea behind it. I can count the number of specs I've read where the premise is STARK STARING BONKERS on one hand. To be honest, I don't recall reading any particularly crazy ones for at least a year! Instead I'm generally treated to the *same old stories* told in the *same old way* - of which we be talking at my class next saturday, "How To Be A Great Script Reader" (there's a place or two left if you want one! Hurry!).

But what is wrong with with a MAD premise? If you can be flamboyant, yet pull it off with GOOD plotting, a mad premise in your spec could open doors for you -- because mad premises get REMEMBERED. After all, what about these...


A young ad exec can't come up with a slogan for a spot cream and develops a stress-related boil on his shoulder that starts talking to him. Brought to us by the writer/director of WITHNAIL AND I and starring Richard E. Grant and his trademark manic stare, I couldn't help but remember it -- I don't think I've even watched it in the last ten years.


Again about advertising, a bitter exec (played by Dudley Moore) this time reaches breaking time and starts telling THE WHOLE TRUTH AND NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH in his ad campaigns, ending up in a mental institution. There, he discovers his true "self" and real happiness with Daryl Hannah who was *always* the love interest in kooky movies like this back then.


Proof mad premises don't have to be all about comedy... But seriously, WTF is Lost Highway about? I couldn't tell you: when Bill Pullman turns in Balthazar Getty I was completely *lost* but up until that point I had been riveted, especially when the bloke at the party hands him the phone and tells Bill to "call me", even though he's standing right in front of him.


Some writers make a CAREER out of mad premises, like Charlie Kaufmann. Looking at three of his best-known: Being John Malkovich takes a REAL actor and makes an Alice-In-Wonderland style door in his mind. Kaufmann writes himself, a REAL book and an UNREAL brother into Adaptation. And just when you think you have a handle on him, Kaufmann changes the goalposts AGAIN, for Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind sees the unlikely (yet fantastic) combination of Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet interpreting a multi-faceted, non-linear narrative about what it is *to love*.

Of course, the problem with MAD PREMISES, even with good plotting, is how they're received: some readers or producers may LOVE your work and just as many may HATE it. But I'd venture it's FAR better to have readers hate your work for "being too weird" than for them to read it, smile and say, "ah that was nice" and then promptly forget all about you, the writer. After all, we write specs principally NOT to sell, but to sell OURSELVES and our ability.

What other mad premises have you seen, that you think ultimately work or not? Over to you...
If you want more of an insight to the spec pile, don't forget -- Ealing Studios, April 24th, 10 - 5. Be there!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Three Things: Scheme & Competitions

A few opportunities for you to consider. Have a good weekend!

Hot on the heels of the Northern Voices scheme, The BBC Writersroom and South West Screen have launched South West Voices. They're looking for new voices and new ideas for television from writers based in the South West of England; twenty writers will be picked for a workshop in May, followed by a lucky 8 who will develop their ideas for potential commission. To enter, you need to complete an online application form and send your email receipt with your sample script and a one page pitch for a returning drama series or drama (either stand-alone or serial).

I think this is an amazing opportunity and know the Northern Voices Participants have got LOADS from the scheme - so you can bet I was hot-footing it down the PO yesterday! But hurry -- DEADLINE IS APRIL 21ST (next weds!!). All the details here.

Raoul from Circalit has been in touch, wanting to let Bang2writers know about the new monthly screenwriting contest there -- here are all the details:

"BBC and Hollywood Producer Julie Richardson to Judge Monthly Screenwriting Competition on Circalit.

Screenwriters across the globe are posting their scripts up at Circalit where BBC and Hollywood producers are now reviewing winning scripts with a view to production. The competition takes place monthly and is divided into television scripts, feature length screenplays and shorts. The winning scripts are decided every month by public vote and are then sent to BBC and Hollywood producers to be reviewed and potentially produced. The BBC will be reviewing the winning television script each month, whilst Julie Richardson, managing member of Imaginarium Entertainment Group and best known as the producer of box office hit “Collateral” will be reviewing the winning short (any screenplay under 60 pages). Meanwhile, feature length screenplays are being judged by Hollywood scriptwriter, Tom Lazarus, and Europe’s premier script development organisation, The Script Factory, in partnership with Twentieth Century Fox, Columbia and a host of other major production studios."

Sounds impressive!

Finally, ScriptSavvy have also been in contact to let Bang2writers know about their array of services and monthly contest.

April Contest now open for entries!

We now offer over $1500 in cash and prizes EVERY month!

WINNER receives:
-$700 CASH.
-a FREE listing on InkTip and additional InkTip prizes.
-Prizes from SellaScript including Total Script Express e-query to over 3000 industry professionals.
-A free gift from our store.
-Script Savvy's recommendation to our producer sponsors.

-$100 cash.
-a FREE eblast from ScriptDelivery to over 3000 industry professionals.
-8-month access to ScriptDelivery's Contact Database.
-A free gift from our store.
-Script Savvy's recommendation to our producer sponsors.

- 10% discount at ScriptDelivery.
- 10% discount at SellaScript.

Feedback or Full Analysis available. Complete details here.
Thanks everyone!

DON'T FORGET: this recent post has a number of short story writing competitions too.

As always, if you go in for any/all of these, let me know how you get on!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Guest Post: Towns Movie, Iain Cash

As regular readers of this blog know, Bang2write is well up for DIY Filmmaking, so when long term Bang2writer Peter Spencer and colleague Iain Cash told me about their no-budget film Towns, I wanted to hear all about it! Iain has very kindly agreed to fill us in... Enjoy!---------------------------
" "Towns" came about because I want to make a film called "The Last British Execution" which is an idea I had a long time a go and my colleague, Peter Spencer took all my sick ideas and put them into a fantastic dark comedy script. However to make this film would require money and a budget and not too many producers/funding bodies want to give funding to an unproven film director. So I decided that as a freelance camera man and part time actor, I had all the equipment and contacts to make a no/low budget film to prove that I can do a feature film.

I looked back through my scripts that I had written over the years and found many un-made short films as well as ones I had filmed, and several of them went together quite nicely. I started to work on the idea: all the characters of the film are in one particular town and the camera would fly through this town, showing a few minutes of each character and what they were getting up to. But the more I wrote the more the characters grew so in the end, I decided to stick to three story lines around 6 main characters.

The opening to film is based on a short I made back in 2004 called "The Jumper". "The Jumper" is a black comedy about a woman that is going to jump from a building to end her life, and while she is on the roof she meets Brian, an uncaring man who is only there to get his readings for the weather (watch it here). I thought The Jumper was a great starting point and used it as the start for "Towns".

This man's death death starts a chain of events: a woman feels guilty for the death of her husband and wants to end it all, but can't so she hires a hitman to do it for her; we meet a couple who want a home but can't afford one and hatch on to idea that if someone is murdered in a house, the price of that house would plummet; we also meet a dodgy nightclub owner who wants to earn more money and starts up his own protection racket.

So using my own equipment and actors that I had been in plays with over the years, and finding willing locations we started to make our no-budget feature. It has been a good ride and have had a lot of fun, but it has been difficult also: organising times when we can get into places, asking DIY stores if we can film in their shops where we are buying tools to get rid of a body (that wasn’t easy) and generally trying to get away with as much as we can. I knew before we were filming that I was onto something good because people where so keen and my colleague Peter Spencer had just done a quick polish on the script; people where raving about the humour in the film.

So I'd say that we are 95% of the way through filming now, with just 3 or 4 days left to shoot. Already I have made a quick teaser trailer which is getting a real positive response and the website is getting quite active now. I just hope things stay this way when the film is done and its trying to find its audience!" - Iain Cash.
I'm sure it will, Iain! Take a look at the teaser trailer here.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Final Hundred Metres

There are many reasons writers don't get ahead.

Sometimes it's because their script or story is duff in some way (story clarity, character and/or structure are the favourites); other times it's because they can't actually write. Sometimes writers just can't seem to catch a break (even when they deserve one); other writers refuse to network or do it badly and miss the boat. At the other final end of the scale, it's even more simple: said writer is an arsehole and no one wants to work with him/her.

That list seems pretty all-encompassing, right? As long as you try and avoid the above as best you can, you'll be FINE... Yeah?


... Because writers can be their OWN WORST ENEMIES. Forget script readers: even the most demanding of notes we give you are akin to your Mum nagging you to leave the loo seat down -- and would it kill you to open the damn curtains!!!

Too many writers don't get ahead because they default, just before the finish line. Perhaps it's a lack of self esteem, some kind of attachment disorder or perhaps they really are blind to the fact they are SO CLOSE TO THE END? Whatever the case, the fact these writers don't go that final hundred metres means they end up ultimately sending out SUB PAR WORK. In a nutshell: their scripts are not the best they can possibly be. And we *all* know what that means: a return envelope. A "thanks but no thanks" email. A list of competition names with their own omitted.

We hear a lot about the writers who hate getting any kind of notes, but not enough about the writers who love notes so much, they become some kind of frenzied rewrite junkie. So focused are they on what they call the "bigger picture" -- usually structure and character -- that when a reader recommends looking at pace and dialogue in order to POLISH the draft, they stare at you, slack-jawed as if you are an escaped loon. Instead, when they get notes that don't say stuff like "go back to page one", "revisit Act 1 again" or "remould the characterisation", they are COMPLETELY FOXED. Instead they might insist they CAN'T possibly be near: producers and agents have read this script, they didn't like it! This means we HAVE to change a large amount of the script to even be VAGUELY with a chance of getting noticed! (I've heard it all now).

Yet whoever said polishing a draft was easy? If it was, everyone would do it -- and yet so few writers actually understand what it means or WHEN to do it - and even when they're advised to do it, they'll reject it!

However, when you've read plenty of scripts, you'll see there are two elements that are synonymous with draft polishing: dialogue and pace.

As I've said before, dialogue is the least of a script's problems, so it frequently pops up "last minute". There's always too much dialogue in spec scripts anyway, so a writer can often find they can lose between five and ten pages in readying a script for market. What's more, a writer needs all of his/her dialogue to not only be *good*, but clever; a little subtext never goes awry. There are other dialogue problems and tricks a writer can identify and master too -- if you don't know what they are, then your script isn't ready for market. Go and find out now.

As for pace, this is harder to pin down -- but a lot depends on the genre. Even high octane action/adventures have lulls before the storm. Of course, this is what readers like me are for: I never just say, "polish your draft" in notes, that would be ridiculous. I put the script right under the microscope - and say what I think needs polishing and why, with suggestions the writer might want/need to consider. It's really important to remember pace is not just about being FAST: good pace takes in peaks and troughs and makes the story even better. But scenes - in any genre - can ALWAYS be faster. If you work on that basis, you really can't go far wrong.

It's not enough for your story to *just* MAKE SENSE -- it's definitely an achievement, but it's not really that unusual. What's more, we know readers are looking for any reason not to engage -- if you think about it, what you rather do: read a script or finish early and go for a pint? But it's as if those rewrite junkies cannot compute with these more specific notes that could help them do this. Instead, they can't "let go" of their beloved "bigger picture". They really would rather go back to page one than consider their stories are fine, they just need to "punch up" and "polish" their draft and make it SHINE. This of course is madness, as they'll willingly rewind their progress BACKWARDS and then send out a draft that could be hit or miss (and is most likely a "miss").

The last hundred metres in writing your draft is making sure you can communicate your story, to the reader, in a fast-paced and polished way. So... what's your script like? Have YOU gone the final hundred metres?
MORE: If you want to know more about the spec pile, how screen agencies work, what a writer's "voice" is and how reading scripts can make you a BETTER WRITER, then come to my course at Ealing Studios on April 24th, 2010. Just a few places left!

Friday, April 09, 2010

The Feedback Exchange -- for script leads?

The Feedback Exchange is really gathering momentum and it's great to see so many names on there. I'm not aware of any people who've *met* virtually and exchanged feedback yet because of it - so if you have, DO let me know! I want to know the successes AND the horror stories. If you want to join The Feedback Exchange, leave your details here.

Secondly, it's come to my attention not one but TWO directors/filmmakers have approached writers listed on The Feedback Exchange. This was unanticipated, but very welcome - so if you're a filmmaker, please do use the list to find writers you feel may suit your project. The one thing I will ask is PLEASE don't simply harvest all the email addresses and spam the whole list - please read through the writers' details and specifically target them. Thanks!

So, what are you waiting for? Not one, but two potential benefits: join The Feedback Exchange.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Writing Opportunities

In case you hadn't noticed it's the School Easter holidays for us family-types, so I thought it might be nice to take the children out from the cupboard under the stairs and take them somewhere... Poor mites have been in there so long they're in danger of turning into those creatures from The Descent. Oh, that reminds me:

The Campaign For Real Fear

Has mainstream horror lost its way? The marvellous Maura McHugh, aka Splinister on Twitter thinks so - and she's looking for new, scary voices and 500 word stories on the theme of REAL FEAR. If you think you can shock this self-confessed horror nut's socks off, ENTER NOW. Deadline April 16th. HURRY.

Oklahoma Film Festival

Whilst we're on the subject of horror, the Oklahoma Film Festival wrote to me today to let us all know they're inviting screenplay and film submissions - also trailers and graphic novels! Definitely worth a look if you're into the genre. Final deadline - July 3rd, 2010.

The Bridport Prize

Short story, poetry and flash fiction competition. I entered this competition lots of times as a new writer and always found working to its deadline invaluable, even though I didn't win - which is why I think contests are great for focusing. Zoe Heller and Michael Laskey judging this year. Final deadline: 30th June, 2010.

A Very Comprehensive List of Short Story Competitions

I should say I just stumbled across this tonight, so no idea if the comps on here are your thing, but defo worth a look - all sorts of different contests: some with fees, some free; some with feedback, some not - lots offer a small cash prize and/or publication in magazines/online. Definitely worth a look and maybe saving to your favourites.


Do you know about East of the Web? This is a great website for short stories - I discovered it in my early days of becoming a teacher and used it frequently in the classroom, but it's great for writers too. The site has gone strength to strength - it now includes games and interactive material, plus it's possible now to read stories via your iPhone or iPod Touch. What's more, you can submit stories for publication. Check it out!

Thursday, April 01, 2010

A Look In The Spec Pile: God Exists... In Movies?

NO SPOILERSI'm always surprised by the number of scripts involving God and the Devil (or other deities, concepts or allusions relating to religion) which fall on my desk. Not because they're written at all, far from it: religious texts are rich with stories and God or Jesus (and/or their equivalents) are arguably the *first* protagonists written down, so it stands to reason they would inspire others. What surprises me instead is how many are written self-professed ardent NON-BELIEVERS (some going so far as to describe themselves as atheists). Hell, I've even written one myself.

Predictably, many of these spec scripts are cynical about religion: God is painted as vengeful, even a bully and many of the protagonists will be faced with trials akin to Job's, only without his unrelenting faith. Jesus features infrequently in the spec pile, but when he does he's invariably a hippy with flowers in his hair and not afraid of doing drugs or casual sex, lecturing others to do the same in order to be "free" and/or "happy". Other scripts have nightmarescape arenas, where prostitutes and children disappear or are murdered with abandon and the police are impotent. More often than not, the trial the protagonist must go through at the behest of God or the Devil will take place in a sinkhole estate. All in all, most of them fall squarely in what I call the life is shit category when it comes to drama.

To me, the problem then with painting such dark pictures about the state of religion is clear: the story itself lacks emotional resonance and point to the journey. If we Set Up with religion as something that is only dark, disturbing and *wrong*, where can the story go? In short, scribes sometimes forget the STORY and instead want to get on their soapbox. This can't work - and not because readers are offended, but because they can't ENGAGE; the story has been pushed aside in favour of the message...There is no balance.

Another reason specs that paint religion in such a dark way don't tend to do well or get made is because there are SO MANY in the UK spec pile that do this. Conversely, even an evil reader like me would like, just occasionally, to read a premise that involves religion and something that isn't HELLFIRE AND BRIMSTONE. Variety is the spice of life, no?

So I thought I would take a look a few recent movies I've liked that have involved religion. Don't worry: there are no spoilers.


Gabriel Byrne played a priest AND the Devil in 1999 (he was alongside Arnie in the crappy End of Days too), but it was here in Stigmata he shone, largely thanks to a performance by Patricia Arquette, the kind of which I had never seen before or since from her. The movie has a dark, nightmarish arena, but unlike its counterparts i the spec pile, it is mankind, not God, who is to blame. In fact, throughout the film the decisions of men - largely The Church - are under the microscope, not God's actions (or inaction). It's a fantastic study of human culpability and taking responsibility for the Sins of Our Fathers - and involves a great female role as the lead. If you haven't seen the film, you really should. What's more, on the DVD special edition it has an alternate ending that really IS worth watching, a whole new interpretation.



Bruce Almighty reunited Carrey with the team that brought us Liar, Liar and the Ace Venturea: Pet Detectives. Whilst it is nowhere near as good for cheap laughs as its predeccessors, it still has a certain appeal, even for non-believers. This is a world in which the existence of God is NOT questioned - he's Morgan Freeman: and if it wasn't him, it would have been Laurence Fishburne or Kris Kristofferson, YOU KNOW IT MAKES SENSE. It's got some truth to it - wouldn't you "right a few wrongs in your own life" if YOU were endowed with the powers of God?? - and plenty of farce and ridiculous schenanigans (Carrey's trademark) and of course, it's 100% preachy: funnily enough, not because it's about GOD but because all Carrey's comedies are - Liar, Liar anyone? "I LOVE MY SON!" Really. Cheese all the way and completely unapologetic for it... OH and by the way, the character of Grace (Jennifer Aniston) is another strong female role! Who'd have thunk it. Needless to say, I don't think I have ever seen anything remotely like it in the spec pile!

I do da cha cha like a cissy girl - *that* Jim Carrey/Steve Carell scene


Unquestionably my favourite of the three: a horror/COURTROOM DRAMA - it must have been a nightmare to pitch, though the fact it was a "true story" probably helped it along. There are strong roles for all concerned here: having caught it buried in the schedules one night on Film 4, I was absolutely engrossed by it. What's amazing about this story is its neutrality: having posed the question of whether Emily Rose is POSSESSED or HORRIBLY MENTALLY ILL, the film comes down on NEITHER side - they literally have their cake and eat it - and crucially, it works. I was totally in awe. Again, another good one to put on your LoveFilm/Netflix queue if you haven't seen it yet.

If you want to have a much more detailed look inside the spec pile and what kinds of stories can be found there, why not come to my London class on April 24th, 2010? Currently there is a £20 discount, but tickets are selling fast. All the details and booking here - HURRY.