Thursday, 26 March 2009


Okay, so a script needs a good set-up if it's going to stand any chance of becoming a script (see previous post).

But how do you know if you've got a good set-up?

Well, you need three things:

1) A character
2) A desire, objective or goal
3) An obstacle

When I'm leading screenwriting workshops, I'll often break the ice with a couple of games. The first requires everyone to write down, pretty quickly, five simple sentences starting with the words 'What if'. This usually provokes the 'right-brain' to throw up some story ideas. (When I'm in psycho-analytical mode, I also think of this exercise as 'Hopes and Fears', because the 'What ifs' really do offer an insight into the minds of the participants.)

The next game is a bit like the old game of 'Consequences'.

Start the page with the words: 'The story is about'.

Then invent a character. Five words are usually enough to get the idea across.

Then write 'who wants'.

Then think of a goal, a dream or an objective. Again, five words will usually do the trick.

Then write 'but'.

Now you need an obstacle, or several obstacles. No word limit, this time. What sort of thing can prevent somebody from achieving their goal?

Finally, write 'stands in the way'.

So, when you've finished, you should have a sentence which reads:

'The story is about a CHARACTER who wants SOMETHING but SOMETHING OR OTHER stands in the way.'

When there's a group of people, playing this game like 'Consequences', so that each new element is supplied by somebody who doesn't know what was written previously, usually generates some bizarre stories - so you end up with things like:

'The story is about a tall, dark, introspective librarian who wants to combat global warming but self-esteem issues and a giant six-foot rabbit stand in the way.'

The game is just a bit of fun, but the outcome is invariably a set-up. The three vital ingredients are there: there's a CHARACTER, an OBJECTIVE and one or more OBSTACLES.

Rule of thumb: the grander the OBJECTIVE and, even more so, the bigger the OBSTACLES, the better the problem.

This problem is what your protagonist (or 'hero') will spend much of the script trying to solve. The story revolves around the character's struggle to overcome or outmanoeuvre the OBSTACLES in order to achieve the OBJECTIVE.

In the first quarter or so of the script (Act One), the CHARACTER, the OBJECTIVE and the OBSTACLE/S will be clearly established.

In the middle half of the script (Act Two), the CHARACTER will pursue the OBJECTIVE in the face of OBSTACLES.

In the final quarter or so of the script (Act Three), we will discover whether or not the CHARACTER finally deals with the OBSTACLES to achieve the OBJECTIVE.

So - for your set-up, ask yourself:

1) have I got an interesting CHARACTER?
2) does that character have a good, positive OBJECTIVE * ?
3) are there sufficiently daunting OBSTACLES in the way?

(* The OBJECTIVE should always be a positive. Don't come up with something like a character who doesn't want to do his homework - give them something they actively want to do instead. And don't make it a random objective based entirely on luck, like winning the lottery. We want to see the protagonist being pro-active, so whatever the objective is, it should be something that the character can achieve if they really put their mind to it, and not just something that might happen if they cross their fingers.)

If in doubt, write down - without thinking about it too hard - some 'What ifs'. Then look at those what ifs and imagine a character in that situation.

Let's say that you wrote down: 'What if we ran out of water?'

You might then think of someone - a twelve-year old boy, for example - who wants to find a source of clean water.

What's the worst problem he could face? Is he a wheelchair user? Are brigands roaming the land, claiming all the water for themselves? Does he have a rival who will betray him at the first opportunity?

Whatever ideas you might have for scripts, this should always be your starting-point. Do you have a strong main CHARACTER? Does the character have a clear OBJECTIVE? And are there definite OBSTACLES to be overcome?

If you have all three, then you've got your set-up.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009


In a sweltering hell-hole the only work to be found is with an American oil company - and they're not hiring. But then, an opportunity arises. A fire at an inland oil rig demands action. Four men are selected to drive two truckloads of nitro-glycerine along treacherous mountain tracks, deep into the jungle. If they survive, they'll make enough money to be able to get out of the place ...

Henri-Georges Clouzot's 'Le Salaire de la Peur' (1953) is pretty well pure cinema. Once the characters and the situation have been set up, and those two huge trucks are rolling into the mountains with their explosive payloads, the suspense becomes intolerable. It's tough, it's brutal ... and it's great.

Four desperate men are hired to drive two truckloads of nitro-glycerine deep into the jungle to put out a fire at an oil rig. Will any of them make it?


What makes it work is something very simple. The set-up is established, and then we're off, into the world of adventure, that dangerous road crammed with obstacles and difficulties. Characters are tested to their limits.

I'm not going to tell you how it ends. But if you get a chance, watch it.

You can almost think of 'Le Salaire de la Peur' as two films. There's the first section, when we meet the characters who are stuck in a dreadful village in the middle of nowhere. Then there's the second section, when the 'lucky' few have a chance to earn their way out by undertaking a kind of suicide mission. The first part is the set-up. The second part is what we pay to see - it's the fun stuff.

I'm forever reading scripts in which the fun stuff never comes. We seem to be wading through set-up constantly. More information, more ideas, more background - but never a movie.

With scripts like that, the writer is behaving just a like a hero in a story, but a hero who never commits to the adventure. The consequence is a script which never really gets out of Act One.

Act One is often a chore (the opening part of 'Le Salaire de la Peur' is rather slow), but it's necessary to set up the characters and the circumstances of the story. Act Two is the story. Act Two is where the writer (and the viewer) has fun. Act Three just rounds everything off.

If you don't organise a good enough set-up for yourself, you won't have a story.

And when you've got a good set-up, you have to discipline yourself. Set up the story and then GET ON WITH THE STORY. In other words, organise your set-up and then ENJOY YOURSELF.

Spend a certain amount of time establishing your characters and then SEND THEM OUT THERE WITH THE NITRO-GLYCERINE. And, what's more, MAKE IT AS HARD AS POSSIBLE FOR THEM TO SUCCEED.

And then you've got a story.

I've been thinking of this since my last post. One comment (thanks, Chelle) suggested that script development really is an issue. So I'm going to post a few blogs which examine the process of development. This post can be thought of as a preface, or an introduction to the 'Development' posts.

Before you even start working on a script, ask yourself: 'Have I got a good, strong set-up?'

'Have I got good, strong characters and an interesting problem?'

'Have I got a story?'

And let's be clear - the story is what happens after the set-up. In 'Le Salaire de la Peur', the story is four men, two trucks, a huge amount of nitro-glycerine and a dreadful journey along appalling roads. That's the story. Everything else is just setting up the story (Act One) or resolving the story (Act Three).

So - before you start, you need to know that you've got a great situation which you can really have fun with, torturing and testing your characters for up to an hour of screen time.

Next time, we'll look at how you create a good set-up. But for now, always bear this in mind -

A lot of scripts fail because the story isn't there, and because there isn't a story, the writer spends the whole time trying to set one up. Which would be like 'Le Salaire de la Peur' never leaving the village, never setting out in those beat-up trucks, never facing the thrills of the mountain road.

If you haven't got a good set-up, you haven't got a story and you haven't got a script.

Here endeth the lesson.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009


I'm back!!

Have you missed me?

Anyway, now that I am back I'm going to canvas some opinions. Here's the thing. One of the agencies for which I occasionally work has raised the issue of some more workshops.

Now, I've been thinking about this one for some time. I've done umpteen zillion 'Introduction to Screenwriting' workshops, taster sessions, courses, blah blah blah.

But I've always worried that those who come on such courses then get kinda dumped. Where do they go from there? They've done their introduction, and then they're cut loose and left alone, without visible means of support.

So I started thinking about follow-up workshops or courses.

And I came up with two ideas. Let me run them by you, and then, if you'd be so find, I'd appreciate any thoughts and feedback ...

One which I've long wanted to focus on is format.


The dreaded format.

A lot of people (students especially) seem to feel that screenwriting format isn't a problem, these days, because there's SOFTWARE that can do it all for you.

Ha! Couldn't be more wrong. Relying on screenwriting software is a BIG mistake.

Format is the essence of screenwriting. That's because the format requires you to think in a certain way. And if you can't do that, no amount of clever software is going to format your scripts properly. But if you can train yourself to THINK in screenplay format, then you can write a screenplay (without needing the software at all).

So that's one option. A Screenplay Format workshop (don't think that it's just about the layout on the page - script format is more a way of life).

And then, there's development.

There's a process that screenwriters usually go through (especially if they're working for television). It's a case of building your story up in several stages. The idea is that, by the time you come to write 'FADE IN:' at the top of your first page, you've already plotted your script.

Now, I'm a great believer in not over-plotting your script. Some development processes go too far. For example, in television, you're sometimes required to do a 'step-by-step', or 'scene-by-scene', treatment for your script.

That might work for some. But I find it intolerable. Why?

It's unnecessarily hard work, and it takes all the fun out of writing the script.

So a development process which organises the script for you, sorting out certain story and structure problems before they arise, but leaves you free to enjoy the actually scripting process - that might be worth exploring, don't you think?

Those, then, are the options:

1) FORMATTING (how to 'think' in scripts)
2) DEVELOPMENT (how to plan your scripts most effectively)

Your thoughts, please, ladies and gents.

Which one do you think would be most useful to you?