Thursday, 18 December 2008


I want to talk about genre.

I never used to want to talk about genre. In fact, genre seemed to be a subject well worth steering clear of. Especially after I spent a whole afternoon in a tutorial discussing the finer points of genre. 'Never again,' I thought.

But now I'm going to talk about genre, and for a very good reason.

A lot of writers seek to eschew the very concept of genre. They see it as unnecesarily restrictive, like they're being made to compartmentalise their work. 'My writing can't be pigeon-holed like that,' they seem to say, 'I'm a free spirit.'

Sorry, that won't wash.

Say you decided to watch a film. What kind of film do you fancy? Hmmnnn ... how about a romantic-comedy?

So you watch it. And it's not very romantic. And there's not much comedy in it.

How do you feel? Like you've been had? Do you feel cheated, let down, even maybe a little angry?

Maybe you went for a horror. Which wasn't very horrifying. Or a thriller, which was noticably short of thrills. Or a drama, which had very little drama in it.

See what I mean? Writers who insist that they don't adhere to genre are everso likely to upset their readers.

Genre is about rules. We come to every genre with a set of expectations. If you refuse to fulfil those expectations, you might well alienate your audience.

Sure, you can mingle genres. 'Shaun of the Dead' made a very good job of mixing horror and romantic comedy (or rather, 'slacker' comedy with romantic overtones) - but that was because it was horrific and funny.

Terrible things happen when a writer sets out without a clear notion of the genre he or she is writing in.

Or if they try to pick 'n' mix genres and end up making a mess.

Don't try and run away from genre. Don't pretend you're above it all.

Genre matters. It's important.

There aren't many (and you're highly unlikely to invent any new ones).

But if you're writing drama - make it dramatic.

If you're writing romance - make it romantic.

If you're writing comedy - make it funny.

If you're writing horror - make it horrific (NB: horror must have a supernatural component; believe it or not, 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' is not a horror - it's a thriller.)

If you're writing a war movie - what do you need?

Figure out what genre you're going for and stick with it. USE the rules of the genre to make your script really shine. Look at your particular favourites in that genre. How do they work?

Don't try to buck the trend. Genre is not an enemy. It's there to help you and it's there to help the reader or viewer.

Genre is your friend.

Monday, 15 December 2008


I've discovered a dangerous new drug. It's called Authonomy ( It's for books, not screenplays, but I uploaded part of my historical book about 'King' Arthur onto the site last week and since then I've been hooked.

If you want to read a helluva lot of free fiction, go there. It's also a great learning experience.

One thread on the forum touched on the issue of how many stories there are in the world. A contributor announced that there were seven (perhaps he'd read Christopher Booker's 'The Seven Basic Plots').

At different times, I've been told that there are eight stories. Or ten.

But, actually, I think there's just one.

That's right: one story, told over and over again, all over the world.

Basically, it's about a character who undergoes a challenge.

The character wants something. Something stands in the way. There's a struggle. The main character has to develop in order to overcome the obstacles. That's the story.

A more elaborate version of this was published many years ago by Joseph Campbell. His 'Hero With a Thousand Faces' boiled down hundreds of world myths to find the essential core, the regular pattern.

If Campbell's book seems a bit high-flown and esoteric, Christopher Vogler created a more user-friendly version of the theory, especially for the screen industry: it's 'The Writer's Journey'.

The thing about this story is that it's universal. It's the same pattern, in essence, as the journey undertaken by the initiate or the neurotic. In order to grow, to become more solid in ourselves, or to pass from one phase in life to the next, we have to undertake a journey - literal or otherwise.

We have to suffer, one way or another. It might be as a candidate for Special Forces, it might be as teenager on the brink of adulthood, it might be love's pangs and heartache.

We have to go down into the depths. We have to confront our demons. We have to keep going.

Dr Carl Jung once said of one of his patients: 'Thank God he made up his mind to become neurotic!'

In screenwriting terms, that can be read as: 'Thank God he made up his mind to accept the Call and embark on the adventure!'

All the other stories that writers and commentators try to make you believe in, in reality, merely variations on a theme.

That theme being, character wants/needs something (although they may not, at the beginning, know that they want this) and has to suffer in order to achieve or acquire it.

That's the story. There is only one.

Everything else is how you tell it.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008


There were no camcorders when I was a kid. Those of us who were odd enough to want to make our own movies had to use something called Super 8.

Super 8 had the advantage of being film - a lovelier medium than video. It came in cartridges lasting 3 minutes and a few seconds, which meant you were careful about how much footage you shot. And it was silent.

There were systems which could sync sound with the picture, but they were expensive, and getting a decent edit was a nightmare.

So I learnt to make silent films.

After a while, the limitations of my home movie set-up became apparent. The original 'Star Wars' might have been made on a shoestring, but George Lucas wasn't obliged to cast his Mum as Princess Leia and to pay for it all out of the money he got for Christmas. So I drifted away from Super 8, but its legacy remained with me.

For most of my teens, I was hopeless with dialogue. I hadn't been learning to listen.

But I had been learning to SEE.

The screen is primarily a visual medium. There was even a theory, when sound was first married to the moving image, that this was a Bad Thing. It stopped cinema being a Universal Language. Sound detracted from the magic of the image.

Now, I don't think that's necessarily true. Great dialogue - a great soundtrack in general - can make a movie. But still, we go to SEE a film. We WATCH a movie. It is a story told with pictures.

A lot of writers, when they start writing for the screen, assume that it's all about dialogue. It isn't. In fact, I'm constantly trying to persuade my students that dialogue is the least effective weapon in the screenwriter's armoury.

Inherently, I think a lot of writers know this. Many scripts start with an excitingly visual opening sequence. But then the writer relaxes, and as the script continues the dialogue runs out of control. Page after page goes by, in which characters talk at one another incessantly.

A page of properly formatted script should equal roughly one minute of screen time. A page of dialogue, then, even if it is formatted properly, is a minute of talking. That's a whole minute of somebody's life, and you want them to spend that minute listening to the random thoughts of your characters, or hearing one of them explaining the plot to another.

Now, there's a handy rule in screenwriting. It's called GILGOE.

That's 'Get In Late, Get Out Early'. GILGOE.

Start your scene at the latest possible moment and then end it as soon as you can.

Ask yourself, 'What is the function of the dialogue in this scene?' If its only function is to pass the time of day, GET RID OF IT.

Really good dialogue bears little or no similarity to the way people actually talk. Most human beings are incapable of expressing the simplest of concepts without warbling endlessly. But, as Hitchcock observed, film is life with the dull bits cut out.

It's our job to zone in on the crucial moment. Unless you're writing for a soap - in which case, banality is the remit and the talking-to-action ratio is entirely out of kilter - it's your duty to shut your characters up. Let them burble away to their heart's content if you must, but then go back and cut out the yakking.

Clint Eastwood might not be the best actor in the world, but he understands the screen. When he was cast as the Man With No Name, he did something truly remarkable - indeed, earth-shattering - for an actor. He cut at least half of his lines.

He knew that the less a character talks, the more we might listen.

Be like Clint. Cut out at least half of your dialogue.

Then go back and cut some more.

And keep cutting, until all that remains is absolutely necessary.

Talking is for radio. On the screen, it's what we see that matters.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008


After watching one of my things on telly, I turned to a friend and said, 'Well, what did you think?'

'You could tell you wrote it,' he said.

'What do you mean?'

'Well, it had your fingerprints all over it,' he replied.

I was intrigued. I tended to assume that the production process would remove all fingerprints from the script. So I pressed him for an example.

What kind of fingerprints did I leave? How could he tell that it was a script that I, as opposed to anyone else, had written?

'All your character have memories,' he said.

Was that all?

It got me thinking. My friend was a fairly sedentary creature. He knew what a television set looked like - he spent enough time in front of them. So, presumably, he was familiar with TV drama ... familiar enough to spot an anomaly, something that one particular writer might do that others might not.

And no one, at the time, was probably more familiar with my work than he was.

So - one of the things that made my writing individual, apparently, was that my characters tended to have memories.

I'm always fascinated by the little things we do that we're not necessarily conscious of doing. Not least of all because I suspect that 'art' is something that is only partially under conscious control. Writers, like poker players, have tics or 'tells'.

But memories? Don't all characters have memories? Surely they do.

Well, no, apparently not. Otherwise my friend wouldn't have pointed out that my characters tend to have memories.

How weird. I mean, if you think about it, memories are what we are. As individuals, we are the sum of our memories.

But, seemingly, the world of drama is filled with characters who don't have memories (or, at least, are unlikely ever to refer to them). Which must mean that they enter, all nice and clean, without pasts or backgrounds, and then they do their thing, and then they disappear once more into the ether. They are transient. They have no real existence.

To be honest, I never thought about my characters having memories (that is, I never did those naff character questionaires and noted down such quirks as 'This character's worst memory is ...') Their memories must have sprung spontaneously to the surface, sparked by something they had seen or heard, something that had happened in the plot.

It's just a thought, but do your characters have memories?

Maybe they should. Because memories make us human.

Monday, 8 December 2008


I've a confession to make. No one ever taught me how to be a screenwriter. I taught myself.

Assiduous followers of this blog will have noted that I started by learning to copy the screenplay format from a sample page in the writer's directory. To be honest, I found the screenplay layout fascinating - it was so unlike anything I'd come across before. Over the years I learnt not to be experimental with the layout, not to customise it, but just to let it do its work. The screenplay is the format, the format is the screenplay.

There were no How To books that I knew of, and no courses to go on - if there had been, I'm not sure I'd have enrolled on one anyway. I just practised writing scripts in the proper format and, one day, I became a professional.

It was five years or more into my career, by which time I'd already won a Writers' Guild Award for my work on a 'Best Original Drama Series', that I decided to find out how I did what I was, apparently, already capable of doing.

I bought dozens of books on screenwriting, which had magically appeared in recent years, and set myself the task of learning how to do it better. I was already an experienced professional, but there's always room for improvement.

I guess I was lucky, in that I could weigh up everything I read against my own professional experience. If a writer was talking nonsense, I could tell. If a book had something useful to say, I'd be able to spot it.

I'd say about 95 per cent of what I read was absolutely useless. No, it's worse than that. 95 per cent of what is taught in books and courses on screenwriting is actively damaging.

These people are making money by trying to teach a chrysalis how to turn into a butterfly. You must do this, you must not to that ... It's a wonder that any newcomer survives this process, because the art of screenwriting is largely intuitive. It's like being taught how to tell a joke.

You may have noticed that I had a go at Robert McKee in a recent posting. He's made a fortune, and a name for himself, out of telling people how to write for the screen.

A few years ago, I taught a short screenwriting course. At the end of it, one of the students emailed me, thanking me for making the process seem so clear. He'd read dozens of books, all of which merely mystified the process for him. 'Ever heard of Robert McKee?' he wrote, by way of illustration.

Some time later, I was staying with a film actor friend of mine whose girlfriend worked for the BBC. She had been called in to attend a weekend seminar led by the Great McKee. She was rapidly losing the will to live.

What a bastard! I mean, seriously - he gets PAID to make the magic of screenwriting a bewildering and painful subject.

It was, sadly, typical of the BBC to fall for his snake oil. For a while (although I believe they've abandoned this) the BBC even ran its own 'Writers' Academy', in which poor lambs were instructed in BBC scriptwriting technique. In reality, I suspect that they were browbeaten into churning out the kind of meaningless drivel that the BBC prefers these days to meaningful drama.

All of which makes me wonder - why is there now an industry devoted to teaching people how to write screenplays?

Get this: the cinema had been around for a hundred years before this self-help Teach Yourself Screenwriting industry appeared.

Now, I'm all for democracy and meritocracy, and I really enjoy helping would-be screenwriters to grasp the intricacies of the craft.

But I fear that so many of these books and courses don't really help. They either stuff your head with useless nonsense, making the task of screenwriting infinitely more difficult than it needs to be - that, or they encourage a kind of machine-like approach to the script.

And I daresay I've been guilty of that myself, every now and then.

So, are they helping, all these books, courses, seminars and festivals?

The short answer is: no. Scripts aren't getting any better. In some areas, they're getting worse.

The greatest screenwriters in history - people like Ben Hecht, Robert Towne, William Goldman - did not have tutors. They didn't learn their craft from books. Maybe, if they had, they'd have been as confused as anybody trying to become a screenwriter these days, and their scripts would have been as torturous and uninspired as so many now are.

If you can master the format, you can write a screenplay. We've all seen movies, we all watch TV. So we know what works and what doesn't.

Learn the format, and then write. And write. And write.

And bin all those books. And throw darts at a picture of Robert McKee.

Just do it.

Saturday, 6 December 2008


I have to say this.

I watched 'Mastermind' last night (yes, good old middle-class TV). One of the contestants - the winner, in fact - was answering questions on W.C. Fields.

It turned out that this guy had had his own minor brush with Hollywood. Once upon a time, he had been brought in to improve the dialogue for a film.

This wasn't just any old movie. This was a schlock exploitation movie, one of those with a title like 'Lesbian Bikers Meet the Cannibal Zombies from Mars'. Something like that.

As if that wasn't promising enough, it was revealed that our guy got kicked off the movie for trying to make one of the zombies a 'forlorn vegetarian'.

Sir - I salute you. Not only do you know quite a lot about W.C. Fields but you managed to have a whole screenwriting career in miniature.

You were brought in to help polish up a turd, which is what screenwriters spend much of their lives doing.

You were sacked because you brought to this eminently trashy production some genuine wit and originality.

Like all good screenwriters, you rose and fell according to the whims of some idiot calling himself a producer.

And you managed to do it in about five minutes flat.

Must be some sort of record.

Friday, 5 December 2008


At last! As promised - FORMAT! The downfall of many a budding screenwriter.

I love it. Screenplay format is great. It's what turns a screenplay into poetry (yes, really). Crack the format, and you're a screenwriter. Learn how to master the format and your scripts will be crisp, clean and tight.

And you know what - it's bloody easy. Nothing to it.

Actually, I'm misleading you a bit, here. It is easy, but only when you figure out that it's not really about how the words are arranged on the page. It's about how the thoughts are arranged in your head.

Screenplay format is a way of thinking.

When I started out, there weren't any books about screenwriting (or if there were, nobody told me where to find them). No: the massive global industry of self-help screenwriting tutelage exploded in the 90s - strangely, at about the same time that executives started distancing themselves from writers and became REMOTE and UNREACHABLE.

So how did I get to learn format? Well, there was a book called The Writers and Artists Yearbook (all good retailers), and back then it had a page - ONE page - of standard screenplay format for you to copy.

That's how I started learning format. You can bin all those books that tell you how to do it because they'll just mess with your head. Most books on screenwriting make the whole process far too complicated. And Robert McKee is a charlatan. He knows nothing.

(There - I've said it; tee-hee-hee).

Format is about three things. Because the script contains three kinds of information.

1): The Scene Heading (where we are, what time of day)
2): Action/Scene description (what's happening - what we see)
3): Dialogue (what is said)

That's all. Nothing else. Don't worry about all those 'CONTINUED:' or 'CONT'D:' or 'CUT TO:'s because they're irrelevant. Just remember to use Courier New 12-point, black ink, white paper (A4) and to write on just one side of the page.

Oh, and if you submit a handwritten screenplay you will be taken out and shot by the Writers Guild, and rightly so.

So - three different kinds of information. And, to make things nice and clear, each one is laid out in a slightly different way.

1) SCENE HEADING. Always in capitals. Don't bother numbering your scenes - somebody else can do that.

Generally, a scene heading will start with INT or EXT, then a dash or full-stop, then a quick name for the LOCATION (which will be the same every time you return to that same place), then another dash, then some idea of the lighting conditions (DAY or NIGHT).

That's the scene heading:


Couldn't be simpler.

Now double space.

2) Action / Scene Description. This stuff is not in capitals and should be written in short, single-spaced paragraphs, preferably of no more than four lines each.

It should be justified to the left-hand margin. Do not justify to the right (that's sound political sense as well).

Please do describe what we are seeing. So many writers introduce a CHARACTER (capital letters) without telling us anything about them. Please think about your poor reader and throw 'em a bone, yeah? They need to visualise what you're writing about.

All action should be written in.

Double-space between paragraphs of action or scene description.

In fact, rule of thumb: every time you switch from one kind of information (say, action) to another (say, dialogue), double-space.

Scripts like it when you double-space. It gives them room to breathe and makes the page look nice and uncluttered.

So, you've written a paragraph or two of action. Then you

Double-space ...

3) Dialogue. Boy, does this cause problems.

The name of the person who is speaking is written in CAPITALS roughly in the centre of the page. Do not 'centre', though - use the tab key. The same number of tabs each time (I find, on my Word default setting, five tabs does fine).


If you need to explain how the CHARACTER is saying something (parenthesis), put it in brackets on the line below the CHARACTER's name. Better still, don't. Actors think they know how to speak lines and don't like being told what to do - not by a writer, at any rate (secretly, actors hate writers, because we're clever and, generally speaking, they're not).

If you must use (parentheses) then use to them indicate the CHARACTER's emotional state. Don't put actions in here - they count as action.


Dialogue is single-spaced, written normally (lower and upper case type as appropriate - you know all this) and occupies a column in the centre of the page.

Do not 'centre'. Use the tabs. Five tabs for the CHARACTER name. Four for (parenthesis), which you don't really need. Three for the dialogue.

Keep it neat and for God's sake don't let it sprawl right across the page. Nothing looks less professional than dialogue that doesn't know it's place. Down the centre of the page, please, in a nice, neat column.

Double-space between snatches of dialogue. Double-space between dialogue and action.

If you wish, you can write FADE IN: at the top of your script (left margin, then double-space). But it's not obligatory.

Don't write TITLES in your script.

And that's about it.

It's so simple, and yet so often it goes wrong. Writers try to cheat. They put too many words on the page (fatal mistake). They forget to change scene when a CHARACTER goes from one space to another. Their dialogue wanders all over the page. Everything's too cramped and messy.

If your format is chaotic, then your thoughts are too. Which means you haven't got a screenplay - you've got a mess.

Training yourself to write good, clean, clear format will teach you how to write a screenplay.

It's all about WHERE WE ARE, What we see, and WHO says what.

Keep it to that, keep the three things separate, make your page look nice and neat, and you can't go wrong.

(COMING SOON: Rocket Science - a piece of piss.)