Thursday, 12 April 2018

In Defense of Screenwriting Gurus and Guides

Back in 2013, future Arrival and Your Name remake screenwriter Eric Heisserer put out a little ebook called 150 Screenwriting Challenges. It's what it says on the tin: bunch of helpful tips and tricks. Nothing particularly notable or controversial, but what caught my eye was his little introduction:

And just a year before, the man, myth, legend Frank Darabont said this in an interview with

“The whole industry of ‘we can make you a screenwriter.’ I have ambivalent feelings because, ultimately, even though there is some benefit to be gained by those things — I stress the word ‘some’ benefit, minimal benefit — ultimately you know what it all boils down to? You’re sitting at your desk, all by yourself for years, trying to figure out your craft and applying the effort necessary. And that’s what nobody wants to hear. Everybody wants to hear, ‘I can teach you a three-act structure, I can give you a formula, and you’ll be selling screenplays within six months.’ Bullshit.''

I bring all this up, as anyone with a modicum of familiarity with screenwriting discussion in both academia and the internet will know, to discuss one of the old punching bags within the community: the gurus. Snyder, McKee, Field, Hauge, Vogler and pretty much anyone who has written a book or dabbles in screenwriting education. More than once, they're treated like the racist cousin at your sister's wedding: he's there, he exists, but you don't want to be near him, lest you endure 'three act structure', 'Aristotle' and 'climaxes'.

However, for whatever the opinion of this lowly reader and writer is worth, I'd like to throw my hat in the ring. I feel this animosity has been, somewhat, misguided and how that, arguably, is more harmful than any hackneyed formula or beat sheet could ever be. I don't pretend to change minds, just encourage discussion.

To begin, some criticisms I agree with:
  1. There exists a lot of repetition of reference points and topics. Frankly, how many times can you repackage discussion about Casablanca or Poetics or Shakespeare's mastery of character and tension? This I blame more on the advent of online/self-publishing, allowing really anybody, regardless of merit or skill level, to crank out new manuals or republish old tomes filled with the same old, same old, rather than try to find new spins. As a result, many tomes just blend together into a grey mush.
  2. There's quite an imbalance between books for writing films versus television, webseries or shorts. The difference between mediums, as well as these books usually being geared towards American/Hollywood-friendly projects, often does limit their usefulness if you're not writing some snazzy romcom or high-octance explosion fest. 
  3. I am also not fond of books that very heavily taut their 'unique time-saving formula', or supposed power to generate large amounts of money in no time (like 10-30 days): it's cynical, lazy and treats creativity with wanton disrespect to the craft. These kinds of books perpetuate nonsense like 'Stallone wrote Rocky in three days', ignoring how long the film actually took to get made or what was changed during development, production and post.
So, if I think there's some big problems, why am I defending them? First, while the advice is familiar, it's still very valid: like it or not, film does not have the luxuries of a novel. It's a performed and timed medium, so being efficient yet emotionally resonant is vital. Casablanca and its ilk are wonderfully written films that perfectly illustrate how to do this, and in studying them, one can begin to understand how to do so as well. Plus, it can introduce you to works you'd might never have read or watched otherwise.

Next, I believe these books provide a useful frame of reference: too often, new writers get lost in abstracts of what they're trying to achieve, usually linked back to whatever they can remember from English at school. Alone, words like 'theme' or 'character' or 'story' are not actually that helpful in being able to explain what you're trying to do. They're too broad and vague for a medium where everything has to count. Like it or not, beat sheets and dramatic structures give a writer those frames of reference where, when something isn't working, they can look at their script and quickly realize 'oh, I haven't been raising the stakes enough in Act Two, hence why my Act Three climax feels so flaccid' or 'My screenplay is running short because I haven't got subplots for my supporting cast'.

It's also important to state that many of the big names have never, ever, said their model is the only way to write a film: even McKee, contrary to his iconic and shouty portrayal in Adaptation, never says you can't write any other way, or use flashbacks or voice over or any other talking points. Re-read the intro to Story, Save The Cat, or any other of the big books: these guys never said theirs was the only way. Like any teacher, they're just showing you their way, and letting you decide if it's right for you or not. If one model doesn't work, try someone elses.

So, if I don't think gurus are the problem, then what is it that I feel people like Darabont and Heisserer are talking about? (DISCLAIMER: I do not claim these are the actual thoughts of Darabont or Heisserer. This is merely speculation for the sake of discussion)

Simple: I think the frustration stems from personal insecurity and the dark side of 'new writers'.

Writers, like all artists, want to feel special. They want to be seen as masters of their craft, doing something few can do, and do as well as they can, at that. The idea that what they value and have striven hard to learn and master, can be so easily mass produced and replicated would likely be a bitter pill to swallow. How could anyone take my story, my blood, sweat and tears, and then mimic it with some stupid metaphor about a feline. Sounds degrading, no?

The other point refers to a problem of expectation and conduct: sadly, anyone who's been involved in either the industry or just the online community is all too aware of the arrogance and entitlement that come with newbies. The enthusiasm can be wonderful, but screenwriting comes with dizzying highs and crushing lows, and attracts individuals not always the most suited to the arts: People who are only interested in moneymaking, or worse, people with baggage. These are individuals who look for validation and approval from movies and series. If the likes of STC can make it seem so easy, then why not use film as basically 'revenge' on those who thought you were worthless? They work their dead-end jobs while you're ruling Hollywood.

This toxic combination of unrealistic expectation and lack of discipline leads to the stereotype of the frustrated writer, who is difficult, mouths off anyone in the business, and keeps hawking the same script for years, rewriting to the point of oblivion. Why would you want people like this in the industry, clogging up space and distracting producers and execs from your work? So, who do you blame for this behaviour? The easy answer is Snyder and his ilk for 'lowering the bar' with mass-produced literature, rather than on individual writers for being incompetent and selfish.

If for nothing else, I hope this piece will remind new writers that you need to find your own path, and don't be ashamed to use what you have to to get better. Darabont and Heisserer have their methods, you need to find yours. This isn't about fun and games, dark nights of the soul, three acts or twenty two steps: this about your finding your voice and not being too cocksure for your own good.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

New Short film - Wrapped Up (01/04/18)

So, last week, a rough cut of the dark comedy I wrote, Wrapped Up, had its first screening at the VUE Westfield. It was part of a big MA Grad showcase from MetFilm, where students from all the courses showed off their final projects (this included directors, producers and editors).

Basic gist of the short: a young woman accidentally kills her boyfriend, who was trying to put the moves on her brother. Unfortunately, this happened on the day that their old man was coming to pick them up for a party, so... WHOOPS! What will they do now?

This one has an interesting development history: originally, me and Andy were going to do a vigilante-revenge thriller, ala Punisher, about a medical student whose brother is molested by a student union rep. Taking cues from vigilante movies of the 80s like Death Wish and the likes of Frank Miller, we worked on a dark yet also slightly comic script. However, tutor and peer feedback found the piece lacking in substance, and Andy decided to change it up and lean into the comedy. Instead, it was required into a substantially less violent piece, with only one location (the girl's flat) and about four-five cast members.

The screening went down quite well. Bettter than I expected, actually: partially because of the usual nerves that comes with showing someone your work. However, I also admit that me and Andy didn't not have our odds tiffs and arguments over the script. It happens in any type of collaboration: artists feel strongly about their material, and don't always agree. However, I fully hand it to him: he brought it home and everyone in the theatre was laughing. (Also, there is no version available for public viewing. Sorry.)

So, what next? Andy intends to go back and finish the cut. After that, film festivals. Hopefully, I should have news of where and when in the future, so stay tuned.

Monday, 19 March 2018

'This'll Be The One' or Why Writing Just One Screenplay Is Disastrous

It's a nice thought: that one magical, transcendant screenplay that'll catapult you to the top of Hollywood. A literary work to rival Kane or Butch Cassidy, and place you in the venerated pantheon of Goldman and Towne. A masterwork of drama or comedy that you worked on, nay, slaved over for years and years, perfecting every last detail. Truly, you are the cinematic Messiah...

And you know what? It's complete, utter and total bull.

No one who actually has anything resembling a career has just one good script, or worse, WAITS until they sold that one script to write more. It's like if a baker only makes more cakes after just baking one, or a dentist who only does cavities and nothing else. I, for one, am always frustrated when I see well meaning folk pop up on forums and Facebook writing groups with a script that they say they've spent 'years' on. An A for effort, yeah, but it's also obvious they haven't written anything else in that time. They put all their eggs in one basket.

Being able to generate multiple ideas and then write as many scripts (film, TV, radio, stage, short, webseries) as possible is vital to making it. Each one presents a new challenge for you to grow and improve as a storyteller. Your characters have more dimension, your structure gets tighter, your pacing faster, your dialogue sharper. It's slow, but worth the slog if you really want this bad enough. As Frank Darabont said, ''Everything is self-applied effort in life. You don't get anything easily.''

Alright then, so what can you do?
  • Write down everything. No seriously, this is not some throwaway guff from 'professionals': it's true. On paper, your phone, in a Word document, on a napkin, just write down any idea you have. Doesn't have to be deep or detailed or eve immediately obvious: something as random as ''zombie ducks invade Cardiff'' might have something in it. Always have a little ideas folder or cache handy: it may save you in a moment of the dreaded 'block'.
  • Do one pagers: again, don't worry about perfection. Just write a rough outline in three-four paragraphs, detailing the very broadest strokes of what you'd like to do with the idea. Additionally, do the logline: that super condensed, to the point version of your story can be super helpful in finding the heart of the piece.
  • Exercises: a lot of screenwriting books and websites have these - very quick, usually 5-10 minute challenges you can do to help you come up with something (also good for block-busting). Could be building a character in layers, could be a brainstorm or mind map, maybe even just write a random scene with two characters. Anything can lead to something.
  • Read non-film stuff: A trip to the library or, if you're just feeling mega-lazy, Wikipedia, can yield all sorts of possible inspiration. News, politics, history, art, science, all can plant a seed of something in your mind. Who knows, you might find great drama within the confines of American corn production.
No matter what plan you pick, just follow it through and pump out as many different projects as you can. Start something new every time you finish a draft or two of a project. With a rota, you could have few as say, four, and as many as ten or eleven new scripts/treatments by the end of a year. If you really consider yourself a storyteller, you should be turning out many different tales as often as you can.

Writing is hard. Very hard. No formula or beatsheet will change that, and if you really love it,  you'll push yourself. Getting your first script finished is a wonderful feeling. Knowing people like it: even better. However, staying married to past glories is dangerous: say your script does the round at contests and companies, and no one goes for it. What now? If you just hawk the same thing year after year, you'll look like a one-trick pony who never had anything interesting or unique to say.

I speak from cold, hard experience. Look for yourself:

You know why else this is handy? If you get a pitch meeting, you may well be in a scenario where they like your writing, but the script's just not right for them at that moment (I have). They'll ask, what else?

See how helpful this backup can be? But if you're still not convinced, listen to working screenwriter Mark Sanderson and his experiences.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Pudsey, Paul Rose and Writing A Dud (A Great Piece on Failure)

So, to help break up the recent run of beefy articles on dos and do-not dos, figured I'd signal boost one of my all time favourite musings on screenwriting: childrens TV and games journalism veteran Paul Rose, on the experience of the writing the critically reviled X-Factor tie-in, Pudsey The Dog: The Movie.

Posts like this help illuminate the flip side to screenwriting, when you write a POS. It's a sad reality of the business and something you have to willing to face if you're serious about. Rose isn't excessively bitter or childish about the whole business: he accepts it and discusses it with maturity and even a little humour.

Monday, 12 February 2018

'You want to be a Screenwriter, but you've got NO time?' Here's What To Do

I consider myself fortunate to be in a position, given my living circumstances, to be able to devote myself fully towards film and television as a career, not just the screenwriting pipe dream. I knew I wanted this career for years, and took the steps towards it. Wasn't always easy, but I believe very strongly in this.

Others, however, don't get the itch like that: some may get the 'writing bug' later in life, some when they're knee-deep in another career. Some even get it when they're tangled up in others commitments, like caring for the sick or elderly, or raising children. You just don't have the luxury of time to devote to pricey courses or really beefy screenwriting tomes and workshops that are often the first go-tos of many wannabes. You can't get away to network at festivals and fancy screenings, or live near major productions hubs.

What are you to do? How can you get rolling, get better at writing and still live your regular life? Is there any help? Is there anything cheap or even free?

Well, I have a few pointers.
  • Via BBC Writersroom and FutureLearn, the University fo East Anglia offers a free, online (so no travel expenses, debts or schedule changes needed) screenwriting course. This offers you a starting point if you're entirely green or haven't written in forever.
  • Books to read? Again, bearing in mind time and budget, there are two instant recommends: first, Save The Cat! The Last Book On Screenwriting You'll Ever Need by Blake Snyder. Disney scribe Snyder famously created a durable 'beat sheet' to help one structure and plot out a movie that would be A) commercial and B) keep the interest of cynical readers and jaded audiences. It's an easy, concise and often amusing read that offers help on other elements too, such as pitching, loglines, outlines and even networking (though don't worry about that right now). Second, and one tailor-made for you-of-so-so-little-free-time, is The Coffee Break Screenwriter by Pilar Alessandra. Part manual, part writing course, veteran consultant Alessandra teaches how you can build a screenplay in ten minutes exercises. That's right: just ten quick and easy minutes. Can fit that in between school runs and Nana's medication, right?
  • On the note of books, another good investment will be either Your Screenplay Sucks: 100 Ways to Make It Great by William M. Akers or How Not To Write A Screenplay: 101 Common Mistakes by Denny Martin Flinn. These are masterclasses in rookie blunders that can destroy your chances of a career. It's really not funny how a few typos or characters with rhyming names have ended many dreams. Don't let 'teh' screw you over.
  • Of course, you have to read real scripts to know good from crap. Good news is they're free, plentiful and downloadable. Here's where:
  • How about advice and tutorials? Bang2Write, run by veteran consultant Lucy V. Hay, is your one-stop shop. It's filled with great articles and lists on just about every facet of screenwriting you could want to know, told in Hay's humourous and snappy style.
  • Got a Facebook account? The site has tons of filmmaking groups, filled with a never-ending supply of fellow writers who are happy to help, talk and even read your stuff (if you ask nicely and properly pitch it). It's really as easy as typing in film or screenwriter and BOOM: off you go. Added bonus: a way to network without leaving the house.
And well, hope those help. At this point, don't worry too much about the wider market or machinery of film & TV: get comfortable writing and developing a proper work ethic. Give yourself the space and time to write material, make mistakes and learn from said mistakes. Your first draft will suck: all first drafts do. Rewriting is the only way to make it better.

Even with these shortcuts, screenwriting is the long game. Patience is a must, and frankly, if you can devote a small chunk of time out of your schedule to it, then you may have what it takes to eventually make it. All the books and classes won't make a difference if you don't have the willpower to do it.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Screenwriting Advice for BA Students... From a Masters Grad (Part Six: Why it's okay to fail)

And now, in the homestretch, let me put on the brakes and give you some sage words. Words that I've come to appreciate after my experiences, and words which I didn't fully get until I lived them:

Making mistakes is not the problem: NOT learning from them is.

You're a new screenwriter, still finding your voice and what genres you are genuinely the best at. You'll make mistakes, no matter what you do. You'll write flaccid dialogue or wonky structure or poor characters. You'll make something too big for your level, both in industry terms and your own writing experience, and you'll make something too small, that has no appeal or story engine.

And you know what? It's okay.

No really, not setting you up: it's alright to make mistakes and write crap. It's not the end of the world if your first or second script suck the big one and make no sense: you're still learning. Getting to the end of a draft is a victory: do you know how many people can't even make it to page 30? Being able to do a complete rewrite is another victory: how many people stupidly think their first draft is perfect?

However, these small victories will mean nothing if you can't exercise, arguably, the most important tool in your writing arsenal: critical thinking. Learn and understand why something isn't working, and then develop ways to fix it. How can you make this line of bad dialogue sing? How can you make this boring character interesting? How can you make this moment of tension even bigger? Trial and error, that's how. It's slow, it's tedious, but worth every second.

You know that else? Projects can collapse on you: talent will back out, money gets lost or overspent, scripts will not work out etc.. Just this past year, I had a fantasy feature and a sci-fi short die on me. Last year, staffing on two webseries. You take it in, have a deep breath and, if you really want this career, soldier on. Again, learn from it.

You know the one mistake that is genuinely inexcusable? Being an arrogant tit.

I've remarked on it before, but I'll say it once more for those suffering from selective reading (a common malady on the internet): 
If you're a pain, no one will work with you.

You're a no-name at the bottom of the heap, untested and unproven: you DON'T get to act all big and tough, telling people more experienced than you that they're wrong. If you can't be bothered to write a decent logline, or a comprehensible synopsis, or even just being able to state what your project's about, why oh why, do you think ANYONE will treat you with respect?

In what fairytale la-la-land do you think you can get thousands, nay, millions, of pounds/dollars invested in you with poorly spelled, generic, bland and whiney proposals and scripts? Really, I'd love to know: it'd make my life a whole lot easier.

Just look at this joker from a Facebook screenwriting group (he's asking for an actor, but I've seen countless wannabe writers do the same thing). When I tried to point out that his presentation was uninformative and unprofessional, look what he wrote in response (top comment):

I am sick and tired of seeing lazy pitches like this on FB, as well as forums like reddit, Stage32 and Amazon Studios. I am fed up with this missplaced sense of entitlement and bad attitude towards your peers. If you think, even for one second, that the industry owes YOU something, you're out of your mind. If you think you can just waltz onto a forum or Facebook group and DEMAND things, like exec emails or producers' cash, you're also nuts. And if, and this is arguably the worst yet, get snippy and defensive when people try to HELP you, then please, do society a favour and check yourself in.

Harsh? Yes, but necessary: it's such a basic mistake that, by avoiding, you already put yourself light years ahead of the competition, just like with basic proof reading and saying 'thank you'. Everything about being a screenwriter is in the details. Take it from Joe Carnahan:

And with that, we've arrived at the end of our strange little journey. I really hope you found this series of use and will, at least, be spared a few headaches. Like I said before, I can't give you miracle cures or cheats: I can only tell you what I've learnt and am still learning. I'm still a student of the medium, and I'm well aware that there will be ups and downs along the way. There will be producers I don't impress, or scripts I can't finish, or series I can't get involved with, but you know what? I'll still keep going, because I know I've got the tenacity and hunger to want it that bad, and to work that hard.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Screenwriting Advice for BA Students... From a Masters Grad (Part Five: Actual Writing Work and Agents)

And now, we finally talk about being paid to write scripts. Yes, a series all about screenwriting, and it's just now that we finally talk about actually making any sort of living at it.

Ah well, save the best for next-to-last, right?

As mentioned at the beginning, you don't need an agent to walk up to a producer or development person and pitch your idea. Procedure is much the same as the work experience discussion last time: find the relevant email, compose a short pitch and logline, and then send it off. Agents really exist to help with contracts, payment and get you past the 'unsolicited' material bit, but they do not get you work. You do. You still have to network and talk to people and pitch and all the rest of it. That will never change.

Also, note what I said above: I said pitch your idea, not guarantee a read or development or actually getting made. The reality of the industry is most of your money, and by proxy, most of your career, will come from development, rather than actual production and release. Indeed, that show or film you want to make will more likely serve as a calling card to work on a similar project that the company or producer is making: your period drama pilot may open the door to work on a series like Versailles or Gunpowder, or a crime spec onto Midsommer Murders or Father Brown.

But before any of that, having some independently produced material can also be handy: It shows you write well enough to have people want to make it, as well as have initiative. Sometimes, it can even serve as a demo of a bigger project (think Whiplash), or be a way to build your own brand with some other successes. So, what can you do?
  • Short films: Classic staple. Doubt I need to say much on them. If you didn't make many connections at uni, don't worry: Facebook has tons of filmmaking groups, filled with a never-ending supply of producers and directors looking for short scripts. It's as easy as typing in film or screenwriter and BOOM: a goldmine.
  • Webseries: Good if you have an eye for TV and want to show you can write a returnable/long running project. Plus, if you have a pilot idea, this can also act as a road test. Facebook and Screenwriting Staffing also put these gigs up in droves.
  • Plays: Loads of small theatres and festivals offer opportunities and competitions for material, some even doing full plays. Agents and other talent scouts attend, so it's a good way to get spotted and network. BBC Writersroom and London Playwrights' Blog are great sources for who has an open slot.
  • Radio and podcasts: The audience is smaller than film or TV, but the advantadge: lower costs, allowing more risks to be taken. Yes, you can just pitch straight to a producer on radio, and maybe get your work on BBC Radio 4, without any sort of 'unsolicited' hullabaloo. Welcome to Nightvale and Homecoming, meanwhile, are proof of how much narrative podcasts have become a force of their own, and not something to overlook.
  • Screenwriting contests and competitions: You pay a fee, and your film or TV script will be entered into a competition, with the prizes running from big fat cheques, to meetings with producers and agents. Even just placing highly can be a useful sales hook. Just like everything thus far, however, Be A Discerning Shopper: Check the prizes, credentials of the judges, fee prices, how long they've been running and if they've had any major success stories. did a great piece on the best ones.
  • In addition, writing news scripts, adverts and other types of commercial, short-form content (known as copywriters) are also a common way to earn your keep as a new writer.
One I did not mention was Amazon Studios: you might've heard the Big A has a system of reading unsolicited scripts. A couple of years ago, I would have said give them a go, but nothing from their unsolicited slate has been greenlit in forever, since they started working with represented writers. The only thing of worth, the forum, has since been shut so, really, there's no point going there.

Now, let's say you do make it: you get a read, they like it and then the follow-up meeting goes well (once again, civility with just a touch of energy and healthy, non-creepy mania, is king). Sometimes, you may get your work greenlit, and suddenly, your movie or pilot is being made. In which case, congratulations! You've now got that rags to riches story that every student screenwriter dreams of.

However, moreso in TV than film, this will likely not be the case and, instead, the company will pay you some money for development, and then offer you a job on something they're working on (a commission) that is similar to what you pitched them. This can be rewrites on a film (an assignment) or work as a staff writer on a TV series. Rule here is don't be a snob: any paid work is good work, even if the premise doesn't seem like the most groundbreaking or original thing ever. You may laugh, but soaps, daytime television and kids TV are all the classic stomping grounds of new writers, so keep a good watch on them.

The mantra goes that it takes 'ten years' to make it in the business, and sadly, that's often not far from the truth (it's the one I'm living with right now). However, this does not mean 'ten years' till you get paid, or meet people, or get meetings or even get an agent: it just means you get into a good position to really advance your career, with some decent credits under your belt.

So, I've talked reading material, job prospects, networking and your first gigs. What else is there I could cover? How about some home truths, including one which is almost never addressed, but can make all the difference.

Join me for the sixth and final part when I talk about getting it wrong, and why that's not the end.