Saturday, 25 April 2009


I've been meaning to do this for a while. Now that the gig I was supposed to be at tonight has been cancelled, I've started giving it some proper thought. And I'd be grateful for your help.

There are plenty of books out there - not to mention courses - which purport to lead the reader through the ins and outs of screenwriting. I've read quite a few of them. Some have interesting stuff in them, the odd nugget here and there, often surrounded by wads of less than useful information. Some are - to my mind, at least - absolutely bloody useless.

One of the problems is that the expert author feels the need to parade their phenomenal knowledge of the subject at great length. Even on screenwriting courses, I've been shocked at the sense of sinking in a sea of 'How To's and 'What Not to Do's and ever deeper layers of complication.

Screenwriting is hard work, but it should also be fun. There's a lot to learn, yes, but if the balance between creative and prescriptive is all wrong, aren't we in danger of crushing the imaginative spirit and the individual voice of the writer?

I've been mulling over this for a long time, and wondering whether it wouldn't be possible to produce a guide to the art and craft of screenwriting which emphasised creativity, which takes the reader on an enjoyable journey round the pitfalls of scripts, presents practical know-how and makes the whole process reasonably clear.

And there's another dimension. This has something to do with the ways our lives are defined by stories. We're surrounded by them; they tell us what to think, what to believe. We live our lives according to the stories we've been told, and the stories we've told ourselves.

So, theoretically at least, we can devise better stories to tell ourselves (and others), and by doing so we can alter our attitudes to the world around us.

Isn't that what practically every self-help manual and self-improvement course sets out to do? To get you to change your inner story, to tell yourself a different story?

The journey of the script is the writer's journey. The writer undertakes the adventure, and lives through the long dark night of the soul which lies at the heart of the story. The writer returns with the secret of the script, the experience of the story, and, like the hero, acquires a new understanding.

I'm thinking that the time has come for me to start putting together some worksheets, along the lines of a step-by-step process, which look at the journey of the script from start to finish. I'd like to keep it as simple, as straightforward, and as stimulating as possible. I'd like to present it as a month-long plan.

The result, if it comes out all right, will be available as a PDF document.

I could do with any input you have to offer, though.

What are the areas of screenwriting, or the issues involved, which interest or concern or confuse you the most?

What could my guide do differently that would really help?

What would you most like to know by the end of it?

And would you be interested in seeing these worksheets as they come rolling off the press?

Let me know what you think.

Monday, 20 April 2009


I'll let you in on a little secret. Sometimes, a part of me rebels against my own strictures.

It's a kind of teenage rebellion. Screenwriting, I tell myself, is a creative art. How can there be rules? How can I stipulate that this, that or the other must happen? Surely there are exceptions! Surely, a gifted writer can break all the rules and fashion an absolutely brilliant screenplay! Not all screenplays have to look the same.

And then I read yet another screenplay in which a basic 'rule' has been overlooked. And I realise that, these so-called 'rules' actually do mean something.

Let's take the antagonist, for example. Other names include Villain, Rival, Enemy, Nemesis, Shadow, Bad Guy ... but ultimately, they're all the same. The hero of a script tends to be the protagonist ('First Contestant' or 'First Actor' in the original Greek meaning of the word), and whoever he or she is up against is the antagonist.

It's rather surprising to find that, in script after script, it's hard to pin down an actual bad guy.

I reckon that would-be screenwriters often have a great idea. They then imagine themselves as the lead characters in the story and start spinning a yarn around that lead character - and a few other characters for ballast - making their way through that great idea.

But they haven't thought it through. They're creating a kind of daydream on paper. They've imagined themselves into the role of the lead actor of hero in the story, but they've forgotten to provide that hero with a shadow, a nemesis, a rival.

I don't think that this is a peculiarly British thing. But it does betray a lack of planning and preparation. No bad guy equals no drama. The essence of drama is ... no, not conflict ... it's struggle (or, rather, it's what happens to a character as they engage in that struggle). It is possible for the hero to struggle entirely against non-human factors, or against something within themselves, but a story tends to come alive when the struggle is personified. The hero wants something, they have the gall to go ahead and try to achieve it, but there's someone who's determined to beat them, to oppose them, to steal their triumph or to finish them off.

Now, I've given this post the title 'Common Errors', of which there are plenty. You come across them all the time: scenes which wander randomly from one precise location to another without a scene break; a lack of thought given to structure (script structure or story structure); a tendency to rely on dialogue to do all the work; too many characters who aren't introduced properly, so that the reader can't really tell who's who ...

But one of the most frequent errors I come across is the lack of a clear antagonist.

Now, as my last posting mentioned, there can be a great deal of fluidity about the four principal characters (HERO, VILLAIN, SIDEKICK and LOVE INTEREST). Any of these can turn out to be the antagonist (yes, even the hero can be revealed as the bad guy). Some great stories play games with our expectations in this respect.

Hitchcock's 'Psycho', for example. It's some way into the film before we discover that the bad guy isn't the man at the start with the stetson and the money, or the cop with the mirror sunglasses, but that nice young man at the motel.

Last night, I watched Ken Loach's 'The Wind That Shakes the Barley'. The antagonist, to begin with, is the British government, in the form of the notorious Black and Tans, or certain English landowners in Ireland, and only gradually does the hero's friend emerge as the antagonist.

So it's not necessary to establish your typical bad guy right from the outset. But your story does need one.

The more daunting the opposition, the greater the danger you're hero will find themselves in, and the greater the struggle they face. Which makes for a good story.

Hence the need to prepare, as you develop your project, rather than dreaming up an idea and launching yourself straight into the script. Because some things simply cannot be overlooked. And one of those things is the antagonist.

Some stories try to get by without the hero really wanting something. By and large, this doesn't work.

And some stories try to tell themselves without the hero facing any real opposition.

Where's the drama in that?

Thursday, 16 April 2009


Okey-dokey ... so, your premise is being honed, refined and polished. You've got your basic set-up, you're paying attention to the genre and you've given some thought to the most appropriate format for the piece.

You might even have a title (but don't get too attached to it just yet).

The development of your project now takes place along parallel lines.

On the one hand, you'd be well advised to build your basic premise up in stages, aiming first for a half-page synopsis, then maybe a synopsis of a page or two, maybe making it to a five or six page outline after a little while.

This is how a great deal of script development is carried out in television. It's a simple Cartesian process, starting with the most basic 'synopsis' - the premise - and progressing to ever more detailed outlines.

('Synopsis' and 'outline' can mean the same thing; I tend to call the earlier stages synopses, and the more detailed story work outlines - the synopsis summarises the story, the outline goes into more plot detail.)

We'll worry about treatments separately. They are a blessing and a curse, and will need to be looked at shortly.

For now, though, what do you need to be thinking about as you build up your story from the premise, through a synopsis or two, to an outline?

Let's start with your characters. You've already established who your main character is - the protagonist who wants something but will have to overcome obstacles to achieve or acquire it.

What about the other principal characters?

Have you begun to establish a clear antagonist? A villain, rival, nemesis or shadow?

Has your hero got a side-kick, a friend, ally or partner?

Is there a love interest anywhere in sight?

Not all stories need all four characters (HERO, SHADOW, SIDE-KICK and LOVE INTEREST). What is more, a character can quite easily shift from one role to another. A side-kick can turn into a love interest, or even into a rival or shadow. A love interest can become an enemy.

Giving some thought to these central characters at this stage is helpful. Too often, scripts have quite strong central characters, partly because the writer identifies with the hero, but the satellite characters are two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs who exist only to advance the plot or do what the hero requires them to do.

Urgh! Avoid that at all costs. The simplest way to do so is to remember a fundamental fact:


Every character in a script, if they are going to feel at all real, must have his or her own agenda. Just like the hero, they want something, and something stands in their way.

So - while you're gradually building your story up from premise through synopsis to outline, do a little work on the side with your characters.

You don't need to fill out a whole questionnaire about each character, but you should know what each character wants and what's preventing them from getting it.

This is essential for plotting your detailed storyline. It's also fundamental to the drama of your script. If everything's too easy for your hero (because that's the only character you care about), then there's likely to be too little drama. The struggle's not there.

But if every major character is acting as if they were the hero in their own story, wanting things, struggling to achieve them, facing obstacles, making decisions and taking action, then you'll get conflict of interest, stronger characters and a better plot.

And never forget that character is revealed through action. Character is what character does. So make sure that your characters are able and willing to do things. They're not pliant or dormant. They're not just there to do a bit of talking. They're real people, with needs, desires, fears and foibles. And they DO things.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009


Many thanks to those who sent in their story premises after my last posting. Premises are great - such a simple task (maximum three sentences), and yet such a universe of possibilities! I do believe it's well worth taking the time and trouble to hone your premise until it really works: it says what you mean it to say, and you can hold it in your head like a mantra, ready to pitch it at a split second's notice.

But now that you've been mulling over your story premise for a little while, honing and refining it, it's time to step back a little ways and look at the idea from some new angles.

There are two things which need considering. The first is - what's the genre? The second - what's the format?

Genre first. It's a bit of a dirty word, genre, but it's more important than it looks. It might be worth checking back through the postings on this site to find the one about genre.

Take a good look at your premise and ask yourself, 'What kind of story is this going to be?' Is it a comedy? Fine - so you're sure that this is going to be funny, right?

If it's a character-based story (otherwise known as 'drama'), do you have sufficiently strong and interesting characters, and is the situation going to push them far enough? If it's a horror, is it going to be horrifying enough? A thriller? Better make sure that there are going to be some thrills, and that the premise feels like a good pitch for a thriller.

It is possible (and rather contemporary) to throw several genres together, but all in all it's best to choose your genre and then stick to it. And then immerse yourself in that genre - read books and scripts and watch movies from that genre. Soak up the implicit rules of that particular genre. And make sure that you're staying true to the rules of that genre from now on.

You may find that your premise doesn't point to the sort of genre you have in mind (one writer I remember once tried to pitch a 'comedy' which, as a key plot point, involved a rape; she insisted that it would be a 'funny' rape, whatever that might be; part of the problem was that she wanted to write a comedy, and was trying to force the wrong story into that genre, so make sure that your story suits the genre you've decided on - if it doesn't, change one or the other, the story or the genre).

Next, format. How do you see your story developing - into a full feature-length screenplay? Into a TV mini-series, a single-strand TV drama, a sit-com, a short film, maybe even a short story or a novel ... Again, as with the story's genre, never try to force your story into the wrong pigeon-hole. You might have a great pitch for a short film, but that may not make it suitable for development as a theatrical feature.

Look long and hard at your story, and let your story tell you what if has to be - a full-length romantic comedy for cinematic release or a horror short lasting no longer than ten minutes; a three-part melodrama for television or an airport novel.

Don't try to force your story into the wrong format or genre.

And don't try to push a 'theme' or 'message'. In television drama, a lot of writers like to preface their premises or synopses with some pithy sort of rhetorical question. Actually, there only ever seems to be the one question, which goes something like: 'How far would you go to protect someone you love?' To which the only sensible answer is 'Inverness' or 'Addis Ababa'. Not only is a pert moral question like 'How far would you go to protect yadda yadda' unlikely to be answered in any depth during an episode of 'The Bill', but who's to say that your script will actually pose that question?

Did Shakespeare start work on 'Hamlet' by scribbling down the question: 'Is it right to want to kill your step-father?'

Probably not. Ignore questions about theme or message - they're an absolute waste of time and they lead to shallow thinking. It's up to a person reading your script, or watching the end result, to decide on what the 'theme' or 'message' of the story might be - it's certainly not your problem.

Trust your story to tell itself without imposing themes or messages on it, and let your story decide what genre it belongs to, and what format it's best suited to. There are times when you are the master of your material, and others when the material has to speak for itself. This is one of the latter occasions. Let the story choose its proper format and genre, or be prepared to alter the story if you have to fit a certain genre or format.

Don't try forcing a square peg into a round hole.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009


So now we know what a set-up involves - a character, a desire and an obstacle or two.

The chances are that, once you've got your set-up, you'll be imagining all sorts of exciting things which can happen in your script. Which is terrific - you need all that excitement and creative energy - but keep all those ideas to one side for now.

Don't get distracted by your bright ideas. The process of screenwriting is one of expansion and contraction - some of the time, you'll need to be expansive in your thinking, open and receptive to ideas; but some of the time, you'll need to focus, to be clear and precise, and not let all those ideas get in the way.

Now is a time to focus. You've got your basic idea (set-up) and it's worth converting that into a short and pithy statement, something a little like a brief blurb on the back of a book.

The aim is to summarise your great idea, so that it can be easily and readily conveyed to a reader or listener. Also, the summary (or 'premise') will be something that you can memorise and hold onto when the going gets rough. One of the toughest things a screenwriter has to do is to remember at all times what you set out to do in the first place. Creating a succinct and enticing premise will be one way of remembering what got you going - what your original idea actually was.

An alternative name for a premise is the 'pitch'. They both serve the same purpose - to convey your idea in a concise and engaging way.

A successful premise or pitch will give the reader or listener a good sense of what your story might be, where it might go, and whether they want to know more. So it's a sales pitch, basically. You're selling your idea: your character (or characters), your situation, your set-up.

Three simple sentences should be your absolute maximum. Arguably, two simple sentences are better. Two or three sentences should suffice to express your idea. If you can't get your idea across in three simple sentences - max - then you need a new idea.

(This isn't quite 'high concept', that ghastly creation of the 1980s which gave us such awful pitches as 'Nurses in wet T-shirts', 'Whoopi Goldberg plays a nun' or 'Tom Cruise in a jet fighter'. When executives get lazy, and creatives pander to their laziness, you end up with dross like that. But no executive is so lazy that they can't get through a pitch expressed in two simple sentences. Writers can learn to organise their thoughts, and to express their idea succinctly, without stooping to the brainlessness of the 'high concept'.)

Now, there is a kind of workshop situation which can be extremely useful when you're working on your premise. A group of writers hear or read your premise, take it in, and then comment on it. Does it work? Does it leave them confused? Does it leave them wanting more? Does it actually say what you think it says?

Most importantly, how might it be improved?

This is really the start of your development process, and it's worth getting your premise to the point where it really does its job - it gets peoples' interest, it establishes the basics of the story, and it suggests a darn good script in the offing.

So - if anyone has a premise they want comments on, I would suggest that they leave it as a comment on this post, or email it to me, and we'll invite feedback. The feedback has to be constructive, of course. But as the best way to polish up your premise is to find out how other people receive it, what they make of it, and whether they think it's working or not, I think we should use this site for comments and feedback on premises.

There's your challenge. Express your script idea in two or three fairly straightforward sentences. Post it as a comment (or email it to me) and we'll 'workshop' it.

How neatly can you summarise your idea?

And can you avoid the dreaded dot-dot-dots ... ?

Over to you.