Tag Archives: Screenwriting

Keeping your focus

You need a destination when you’re writing, even if you’re not physically travelling. Whatever it is, book, play, short story or film, if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up in a place you never intended with your protagonist not achieving their goal or overcoming the obstacles you’ve placed in their way.

But that’s not going to happen to you. You’ve planned it all out. You’ve got the chapter breakdown, you’ve written the detailed treatment – nothing can go wrong yet somewhere along the writing road, you lose your way and the ending’s muddled.

Here are three pieces of advice to avoid ending up in a cul-de-sac.

My first writing tutor told me to write down in one sentence what the main character’s aim was and to pin this on the wall in front of my keyboard.

Tony Jordan, gave me the second piece of advice, when I wrote for “Eastenders”. Always know what the end of the scene will be.

And the third piece was from a tutor on a screenwriting course, visualise what will be on the cinema billboard advertising your film. This last one will leave you in no doubt who the most important characters are and breathe colour, atmosphere and life into your story.

Happy writing!

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Filed under Character mapping, Characters, Film writing

Fiction and Fact – Telling the same stories

 

So, do you write fiction or fact?  I started as a short story and article writer but I very soon decided which one I was – a fiction writer at heart.  Just recently  however, I was tempted out of my comfort zone by a series of  courses organised by Nine Lives Media who produced the recent terrific Poundland Wars.  They were funded by Skillset and focused on different areas of factual television from documentaries to format shows.

The excellent Robert Thirkell came to Media City in Salford and spent two days talking us through his career as a documentary film maker.   Even though you know the story you’re watching has been edited, it’s only when you see the process that you begin to realise that storytelling is storytelling, whether it’s fiction or fact.  Both of them have a script because a story has to have structure and a beginning, middle and end and just as with fiction, it helps to know where you want to end up with.  If you don’t know Robert Thirkell, he’s the man behind Jamie Oliver’s School Dinners and a host of other successful shows.

I was the only writer in a room of producers and assistant producers but Robert pointed out that he sees his job as being a writer also, finding the best way to tell his stories.

The same elements that work in fiction also work in factual storytelling.  It’s all back to character, character, character.  Just as you have to spend time working with your characters, finding their fears and how they drive them, how everything they do will be driven by these fears, so producers of factual stories have to find characters who will stand out, who are literally larger than life and who will drive those stories.

As fiction writers, there’s much we can find in these stories, from their structure to their characters, that we can borrow.  The hero will be there and there’ll be an antagonist, someone  or something that’s standing in his way.  The most successful work when the story’s tight and keeps the hero/heroine in almost every scene, for it’s him/her that’s driving everything.   When there are too many stories being interwoven, it’s like too many sub-plots.  You can lose track of what’s going on, unless the theme is strong and keeps them all going in the same direction.

Watching good factual programmes like Jamie Oliver’s School Dinners and Poundland Wars, both UK television shows, and comparing them to fictional feature films, will tell you a great deal about structure and  character.  Good ensemble films will show  how some of these factual films are put together – take a look at “Magnolia”,  (1999) with its use of opening narrative and two parallel stories with interweaving stories.  Check out the storyline and plot on IMDB – a word of warning – sometimes it’s best to read the shortest, most concise version and not become mired in too much character detail.

In her book “Secrets of Screenplay Structure“, Linda J. Cowgill sums up ensemble films and, in my opinion, the elements they have in common with documentaries with multiple story lines and characters:

To create a seamless intertwining of plot lines, a filmmaker needs three things; 

1.    A clear issue or theme for the characters;

2.   A context in which the characters relate;

3.   An event which frames the story.”

In the end it comes down to basic storytelling no matter whether it’s come out of our imagination or true life.

Secrets of Screenplay Structure” Linda J. Cowgill, (1999) ISBN 1-58065-004-X

Conflict” Robert Thirkell,  (2010) ISBN 978 1 408 12909 8  This has a good section on scripts and a breakdown of an episode from “Jamie’s School Dinners.”

Happy writing!

 

 

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Filed under Character mapping, Characters, Documentaries, Feature films, Film writing

Feedback: Give and Take

Feedback is what I dread receiving and dread giving but I keep on asking for it and saying “yes” when someone asks me.

Anyone who doesn’t write won’t understand that gut wrenching, stomach falling, palpitation inducing moment when you realise your next draft isn’t going to be a few tweaks away from winning the Booker Prize or grabbing you an Oscar.  Instead you’ll be back at square one or at least that’s what your self-defense mechanism is telling you – well it would do, that’s its job – to stop you from getting hurt by sitting back down at the computer and starting again and failing again.  Your self-defense mechanism doesn’t want you to get hurt so it tells you success is so far away, you’ll never get there.  Why not give up now?  But who’s in charge here and why did you ask for feedback in the first place?   Hopefully because you wanted to get better at this thing you’re driven to do every day and get withdrawal symptoms when you can’t.   However, in that complicated cocktail of desperation, insecurity and expectation we call our egos, we’ll be satisfied with nothing less than praise and success.

If you want to avoid the mistake I made the first time I asked for feedback, don’t tell that person the story of your script.   It’s what I did when I asked my husband to read my first screenplay.   I steeled myself for what I knew would be fair, accurate, analytical criticism  and received a puzzled response.  “Are you sure you’ve given me the right script? ”   He was looking for everything the natural storyteller in me thought was on the page,  but wasn’t there at all.  When you read your own work, you ‘re seeing the characters as you created them moving in that fabulous world that exists somewhere in your head.    Don’t tell anyone your story if you want feed back from them.  Their job is to tell you what they’ve read, which is how you’re going to work out how to make your script better.   If they don’t understand anything, they should be asking you questions.    It may well be the brilliant sub plot that’s overshadowing the main plot  or that subtle reference to a key part of the story that’s so subtle, no-one notices it.

It helps if the unfortunate friend, colleague or acquaintance you’ve picked on, has some knowledge of the accepted structure and format of the genre you’ve given them.  It’s vital that they should ask questions like “Whose story is it?”; “Who’s the intended audience?” or even if it’s a film script, “What size budget did you have in mind?” ; because if they can’t or don’t, then the feedback they’re giving you is unlikely to be helpful.  And if you don’t know the answers, then you’ve learnt something very useful straight away.

Even if you pay for your feedback, buyer beware,  check out the C.V.s of the professionals giving it and try to find someone who has experience of the genre in which you’re writing.    It’s not unknown for professional script readers to give contradictory advice but if more than one person is telling you that something isn’t working, you should be looking at it with an objective eye.  However,  if there’s one lone voice criticising something that your gut feeling tells you is right, go with your gut.  You haven’t the experience to do anything else at that moment and it was your gut that likely gave you the inspiration in the first place.

People will tell you that the first draft is always “s**t” – which isn’t exactly fair and does nothing for the self-esteem of the writer or any artist for that matter.    Remember you’re the person who started with the blank page; the one who burnt the midnight oil;  who ran into imaginary brick walls and had eureka moments in unlikely places like the supermarket queue and then lost your flash of inspiration scrawled on the back of the weekly shopping list in a windy car park.   You’ve sacrificed a great deal to come this far so read the feedback, decide what you believe and start the next draft.   And forget the Booker and the Oscar – they’re just prizes that people receive.  Far more valuable is the one within your own gift – to produce the best writing you can.

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Filed under Constructive Criticism, Film writing, Rewriting, Writing and rejection

A picture’s worth a million words

Back from an energy sapping but riveting four days at London Screenwriters’ Festival, I settled down to the working week and the chores and joys of clearing the inbox. The beautiful short film, Moments, directed by Chris Cronin and produced by Andrew Oldbury and Phil Meacham with Mike Clarke as Executive Producer was definitely one of the joys and a brilliant reminder of why I began screenwriting in the first place – the power of pictures alone to tell a story.

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In Director Chris Cronin’s own words, Moments is “a love letter to all those Disney classics that used dance to express powerful emotions that simply couldn’t be described by words alone.” From the moment the first dancer flies across the screen, you’re swept up in that perpetually sunlit, magical world where all Disney stories live. Love is not only all around us but makes us want to leap and dance just like Cronin’s leading man, hapless Joel, played by an engaging Simon Hardwick, who keeps missing out on love and even unwittingly sabotaging the feel good factor for everyone else.

It’s skilfully paced and plotted, with charming, funny scenes and there’s the feel of a potential feature film here. There’s comedy and pathos and Simon Hardwick hits just the right note in his search for love and Madeleine, the girl he keeps missing while Lauren Harvey plays Madeleine with a humour and gentleness that complements Simon Hardwick’s mixture of wistfulness and gung ho enthusiasm.

“Moments” is currently screening at film festivals around the world, but do look out for it in the future once it’s released for public viewing. It’s most recently won Runner-up in the short film category at Screen Stockport Short Film and Television Festival, UK.

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“Moments” was shot over three days with cast and crew drawn from all over Britain and shows what fantastic talent we’ve got in the UK.

And one last word, before I get back to my inbox – this is a writer’s blog after all, so I can’t finish without mentioning – Chris Cronin for story and Joanne Gardner and Tina A. Wake for screenplay.

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Filed under Characters, Dance, Film writing, Short films