Striking a Balance Between Visual and Narrative Scripts

Visual Storytelling

Visual storytelling refers to the images screenwriters use to convey a tone, emotion and style of a film. They show – rather than tell – the reader what’s happening in that scene and describe the character’s actions in such a way we know exactly what’s going through their minds. So, although it’s the cinematographer’s job to visually support an idea in practice, the basis comes from the screenwriters themselves.

Visual moments are the hallmarks of the film industry – they depend on a writer’s ability to write visual moments that are aesthetically appealing. As a scriptwriter, you should define what it is you want the director and actor to express – visually. Give them the general idea and a good director and cinematographer will know how to follow your train of thought, or even better, provide a new direction that feeds off from your original one.

Narrative Writing

Essentially, all screenwriters set the scene (pun intended) in their scripts. The point of any film is to provide a visual medium, and while this sounds like common sense, it’s easy for scriptwriters to muddy the waters between visual and narrative storytelling.

Of course, you’re going to need narrative writing, as this is what you’ll use to create the action, but be aware that an overuse of it can lead to an awkward amount of description. This doesn’t make sense when we think that we can’t see into the character’s head, the way we can in books. And too much description denies the pace of a film, it needs constant action to keep it moving forwards. This means that longer stretches of narrative belong more in the world of literary writing, rather than film.

Take a look at these five rules on how to successfully balance visual and narrative scriptwriting in your script:

Five golden rules to achieve that healthy balance

1.Notice the world around you

The space you use as a writer or the location you’ve imagined for your scene says a lot about the style you’re trying to convey. For example, a desert scene might portray loneliness, or a specific coloured set design might convey a character’s personality. Subconsciously, when we read this in a script or watch it on a screen, we usually understand this, be it on a conscious level or not. It works. That’s why scriptwriters like Wes Anderson or the Cohen brothers are so powerful when conveying tones. They take advantage of specific spaces.

Locations also work to convey polar opposites. Take Toy Story for example, in it we have Andy’s bedroom, the walls are painted in baby blues with clouds stencilled over them. It’s safe and conveys a sense of Andy’s personality. He’s a dreamer. Sid’s bedroom on the other hand, is far more sinister. The lighting is dim and morbid, with angry black posters and a junkyard of broken toys scattered across the floor. It’s violent, scary.

‘Shame’

2. Externalize internal tumult in your characters

Novels – or narrative writing – can take us into the mind of our characters, but the most important thing to remember is that scripts can’t do that. We can’t see into their heads, so scriptwriters need to work to condense thoughts and inner struggles in a few seconds of impactful visuals. This is organic and natural, because of course in real life we don’t go about our day communicating our inner most thoughts to those around us: instead we portray gestures and facial expressions that communicate – accidentally or not– these for us.

Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan’s Shame uses shallow depth of field – the main character looks like he’s ashamed, and the backdrop of buildings and life going on behind him only serves to highlight his tumult.

3. Be visual without a single camera movement.

View the screenwriter as a visual guide, if you will, and a professional one doesn’t necessarily let the director fill in the blanks from nothing because a lack of information was provided. This doesn’t mean, however, that you should put ZOOM or LOW ANGLE into every other scene. This is the director’s job and looks amateurish. Screenwriters provide just the stage directions for other professionals like set designers, directors, actors, dressers…

4. Use visually stimulating vocab and verbs

This is such an effective technique. If you use active, demanding verbs like peer, toss, snorts and so on, this creates an instant visual that people can follow, and says more in just one word than noun+verb+adjective. It also helps to put your characters into motion and have them walk and move as they speak, as this is visually stimulating for the viewer.

‘Her’

5. Be concise but specific in the pictures you paint.

Pinpoint the most important features of a scene in your mind, what sticks out? Is it a club in the corner? The vast stretch of stormy sky? A car in the background? Put these in your writing. Scripts are celebrated for being succinct and to the point, so just choose the most important objects or actions in your scene – you won’t be able to say it all, so the ability to summarise is a must for any scriptwriter.

In one of Her’s scenes, a film by Spike Jonze, the main focus is quite obviously the screen portraying an owl about to attack – it’s set just behind Theodore, and looks as if he’s about to be captured – it’s a wonderful visual moment.

 

So there you have it, five golden rules to achieve a healthy balance of visual and narrative writing. Just remember: proper illustration on the page leads to proper illustration on the screen.

Elena Alston is a script editor and content writer living in London. Recently graduated with an MA in creative writing at Brunel University, she specialises in screenplay editing and fantasy fiction, but also writes horror, sci-fi and satire.

Comedy Do’s and Don’ts

Scriptwriting is a completely different ball game when it comes to comedy, one that is often mistaken as easy, particularly if the gags are simple. But writing funny is different from speaking funny. Just because you’re good at cracking jokes or sprouting wisecrack comments, doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have that same knack when it comes to transferring these onto paper. At least, not without practice.

The comedy genre is one of the hardest to crack, without even taking into account the fact that within the school itself, lie a whole network of subcategories. There’s black comedy, cringe comedy (an example which springs to mind is Borat), situational comedy, mockumentaries, spoofs, rom-coms, sketches… well, you get the point. Listed below, you’ll find a few rules, a list of do’s and don’ts if you will, to consider if you’re focusing your script in one of these areas.

Black Comedy

Defined as a sub-genre of comedy and satire, black comedy gravitates towards the taboo head on, covering subjects that are considered too dark for normal conversation in a fearless, humorous way. Needless to say, it’s not for everyone, as it can often make light of serious topics which, in turn, can be a lightning rod for criticism. Get it right, however, and you’ve got some high-quality entertainment.

Don’t be dark for the sake of it. Don’t try to shock your audience with your edgy appeal just to gauge a reaction. A great storyline is above all, the most important aspect of any script, comedy or not. The comedic appeal or risqué aspects can always be inserted later, but don’t revolve your entire script around dark jokes.

Do collaborate. It takes a long time to get the punchline of any joke right, and it helps to have someone else scratching their head besides you to bounce good ideas off one another. Classic examples of black comedy include the Coen brothers’ Fargo or Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums. Then you’ve got modern versions, like Edgar Wright’s Hotfuzz. Speaking of collaborations, Hotfuzz was a product of combined genius between Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, who wrote the script together.

You can really tell that their combined senses of humour, the insertion of red herrings, the Agatha Christie mystery style and dark comedy really come into full excellence as a result of their collaboration.

Romantic Comedy

One of the most popular comedy genres ever, romantic films focus on the development of a relationship between two main characters in a light and humorous way, with plenty of humorous situations thrown in to disrupt the hero’s ultimate goal of finding love. There are a lot of rules to take into account when writing rom-coms, as these comedies are very structured.

Do your research beforehand. Look at plenty of rom-com aspects like the meet-cute, the embarrassing gesture or other narrative patterns that define the romantic comedy genre, as inserting these naturally will increase the quality of your film.

Do repeat yourself. Comedy elements are usually repeated three times to get the most laughs – it’s the rule of three- You set up an expectation, you reinforce it, then you break it down to get the most out of a punchline.

Don’t lose your audience (execs, producers, agents etc) by taking too long to start incorporating jokes into your script. It generally takes only one page – that’s one minute, folks – of screen time, so by the time they reach the end of the page they need to know whether or not they’re going to turn to page two.

Do consider misdirection as a feature in your storyline. Subterfuge and deceit might not get you far in real life, but they’re the backbone of rom coms. Deception, usually caused by the characters themselves, plays a big part in these types of films. The hero usually hides his or her secret from the other main character, either to protect themselves and this leads the climax. In the Silver Linings Playbook, Pat deceives Tiffany into thinking that by the very end, he still wants to get back with his ex-wife, when in reality he’s fallen for her too. Vice versa, she deceives him by forging a letter from his ex-wife.

Sitcoms

Sitcoms, otherwise known as situational comedy, aren’t written as films, but for TV. They are the defining and most enduring forms of entertainment, and now, what with the rise in popularity of Netflix, they’re all the rage with everyone. And also extremely hard to get right, as sitcoms are built on a number of unbreakable rules.

Do be familiar. Familiarity is your friend.  The running gag definitely belongs to the sitcom comedy. Take Barney’s actual job position never being defined in How I met your Mother, or Rachel and Ross’s “we were on a break” gag in Friends, to Leslie Knope’s inexplicable lifelong hatred of libraries in Parks & Recreation, running gags are hilarious ways to make your script stand out.

Don’t think comedy scripts are the same as stand-up comedy. Your script won’t get very far if it’s a long line up of running gags and joke after joke without any plot line. Every successful comedy has at its core a deep and meaningful story, a high concept, one that is interesting and intricately thought out. Take Gavin and Stacey, or Red Dwarf even, they’re both hilarious and the jokes are what seem to make the shows stand out, but really, both the plots are extremely detailed. One is profound and family-focused, the other is a high-concept sci-fi, a unique idea.

Don’t be scared. Writing sitcoms is no time to be shy.  Programmes nowadays are edgy, a lot of risqué topics are covered: narcissism, murder, alcoholism, sex. The 21st century is definitely not a time to hold back.

 

Elena Alston is a script editor and content writer living in London. Recently graduated with an MA in creative writing at Brunel University, she specialises in screenplay editing and fantasy fiction, but also writes horror, sci-fi and satire.

The TV Pilot Starter Pack

Writing a TV pilot is just about one of the most exciting ventures in the writing world, and if it’s comedy well, it just adds six feet more of pure, unadulterated fun to the mix.

But because it’s not all party crackers and knock-knock jokes, and the process itself can be murky terrain, it helps to have a checklist to guide you through the battlefield. If you’re looking to send a spec pilot out for the first time, and the terms tag and premise plot sound like something that belong behind the closed doors of stuffy exec offices, you might want to pay attention. This pilot checklist is for anyone looking to send out a spec pilot for the first time and needs a bit of background to create some… well, perspective.

The Pilot Checklist

Cast of Characters

Any show that’s become successful has done so as a result of three-dimensional, complex characters. If you think about it, every pilot that has gone on to have a successful run of seasons has at its core a cast of characters to pave the way to greatness.

Your pilot needs a goal that’s not just driven forward by the overall world introduction, but also by your character’s overarching goal and episode goals. And to understand these? You need to understand your character.

A character board is a great way to keep track of all this, by scribbling down names, physical descriptions, backgrounds and likes. Create a gigantic pinup extension for your wall that makes people fear for your sanity. This board should include main, recurring and extras – and have your entire cast well thought out before you move onto the next part.

Maybe not something quite a drastic and Carrie Mathison however…
‘Homeland’ – © Showtime

Your characters sell your concept. So whatever premise you’ve set out to explore, your characters need to fit in with your world-building concept.

What makes them unique? What are their quirks? Create a rich backstory and make them as complex and three-dimensional as possible. It always helps to offset certain personalities with polar opposites. If we look at BBC’s Gavin & Stacey, for example, Gavin is kind and romantic, Stacey sweet and naïve. What truly gives the show comedic value, however, is not the protagonists specifically, but Smithy’s and Nessa’s anti-heroic qualities and quirky traits.

The actors will bring your characters to life on screen, but it’s up to you bring them to life on paper. You can’t just create a one-off cast of recurring and secondary characters for your pilot, and then change these in your episode outlines: everything has to match. Producers need to see that you’ve thought about every single character in the show and to do this, you need a long-term game plan before you start writing your pilot. That way your cast introductions can be made accordingly.  It’s all about creating credible characters who clash, opposite personalities.

‘Gavin and Stacey’ © BBC

Character Intros

Character intros in pilots are tricky, volatile things, but they can be done. Channel 4’s Fresh Meat for example, sets up the first five minutes in a way that the characters all meet on-screen for the first time in the most awkwardly memorable way possible. Yet, if you watch closely, everybody’s defining characteristics are peppered throughout the entirety of the pilot, so it’s not overwhelming. If your characters aren’t meeting for the first time onscreen, however, introductions can be trickier, and a more creative approach is required. For example, in CBS’s Two and a Half Men, Alan and Charlie interact with one another in such a way that they describe themselves to each other, though really, they’re transmitting these ideas to the audience. The best thing to do is study characters’ introductions of other shows and you’ll see a formula start to develop, one you can apply to your own pilot.

Structure: the A & B Storyline

The pilot kickstarts a journey you will be taking over an extended period of time, at least for the length of one season, and as such, you’ll need to look at the different types of structure and format that make up a TV sitcom.

First, the pilot will contain a main storyline that stands on its own, while also expertly threading through potential for many more episodes throughout the first season. Every single comedy episode contains the following:

 

  • The teaser: This is an opening joke, a mini act that sets up the episode and relays the problem ahead in a comedic way. In the Gavin & Stacey plot, the couple talk over the phone and the premise of the episode is portrayed in the opening minute: After six months of distance dating, the pair will meet in London for the first time. It works across all pilots. In Friends, Rachel barges into Central Perk- and the friends’ lives – in a wedding dress, and the rest of the episode is focussed on Rachel’s integration into the group and her new independence. This teaser gets the audience hooked before the opening credits.
  • Story A is the main storyline, the principal focus of the episode. In Gavin & Stacey, it’s their meeting, and in Fresh Meat, it’s the gang getting used to living with one another.
  • Story B is the side story, the one that runs in parallel to Story A. It contains the more secondary characters and breaks up the A story with comedic gags. In Gavin & Stacey, it’s Nessa and Smithy’s mutual hate and hook up, and in Fresh Meat, it’s each of the student’s individual hang-ups and fears (take Oregon’s desire to be popular or JP’s loneliness).
  • The tag is the bookend scene, that comes before the final credits and is 1 to 5 minutes long to show the aftermath of another storyline following the episode’s resolution. You see it all the time in comedy shows like Friends, the Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother.

The Bible

The Premise

Every pilot needs a premise. This consists of a log-line and defines your entire series in one or two sentences. It basically summarises the main hypothesis of your series. So before you do anything else, you should try to define your series idea as succinctly and as cohesively as possible. Regardless of its misleading size, log-lines can be the hardest part of your bible treatment.  Think about it. You’ve got three or six lines to provide the setup, your world, setting and of course your overarching style. The best ones are always the simple ones. For example, Gavin & Stacey’s premise is: a boy from Essex and a girl from Wales meet and fall in love – joining two very odd families from very different backgrounds. For Fresh Meat it’s: Six students miss out on student halls and live together in student housing for their first year of university – and hormones cause havoc.

The premise is essentially, the summary of your entire show, compressed into a few sentences. But you also need to take into account a few other details for your premise.

Will your show be multi-cam shot or single-cam shot? The difference is that single-cam shot shows are filmed on different sets much like a film. Examples include Gavin & Stacey, Modern Family and Arrested Development. Multi-cam shows on the other hand, involve those which are filmed in front of a live audience, and as such the dynamics of the comedy and acting are very different. Examples include the Big Bang Theory, Friends and Two and a Half Men.

You then need to figure out if your show will be a premise plot or a non-premise plot. Premise plots are those in which the pilot establishes a new circumstance and event, where a main character meets the other for the first time, for example, so we see that it’s the beginning of something. Exactly like Fresh Meat, as before the pilot none of our characters know one another. A non-premise plot is the opposite, it’s like a day in the life of the show, no one is introduced because the characters already know one another. A good example of this is the Simpsons.

The premise breaks down the barriers of your show and reveals to the audience/reader exactly what it is you’re trying to do, with who and why. It’s a summary of everything you know about your show.

Treatment – episode outline

So you’ve written your pilot and it’s ready to be sent out. Congratulations. But… have you written your episode outlines yet? Executives or producers need to see evidence that you’ve thought about the rest of your first season, and not just a one-off, random pilot episode. Breaking down the events of each individual episode with a quick log-line helps people see that there’s enough material to go the distance. It will definitely help the right people invest their time and their money into your show.

In three to six lines you’ll need to provide a summary of approximately 8-12 episodes more. This short statement should include a mention of the principal Story A and Story B as well as the outcome of your episode. You don’t need to write out the script of each episode just yet, but it’s really important to have everything laid out and written down, even if it is just the idea. Producers will want to see the potential of a whole season, so dedicate all your efforts into this. It’s all about seeing your story material on a general basis – a guarantee, if you will, that your series is well thought out, and viable.  I assure you that every series out there at the moment has gone through this process, and you’ll be a better writer for it.

Elena Alston is a script editor and content writer living in London. Recently graduated with an MA in creative writing at Brunel University, she specialises in screenplay editing and fantasy fiction, but also writes horror, sci-fi and satire.

Finding Voice through Words

Voice is an odd concept. It’s elusive, slippery, hard to hold between two firm hands and define. It’s even harder to describe. Yet for scriptwriters, it’s everywhere. It’s tossed about in blog posts, praised (or condemned) in film reviews and loosely referred to in interviews. Voice is clearly a determining factor in every writer’s style, something that can make or break you, but… what is it?

Going back to basics, voice doesn’t refer to our actual spoken voices. It’s more of a metaphor to represent our individual style and tone as a writer. It’s something distinctive that no amount of mimicking or studying can truly replicate. Voice is your own distinctive personality that shows up through your writing – it could be inherent, it’s definitely environmental and purely exclusive. Put it this way, if you gave three writers the same plot device, the same character and antagonist and told them to write out the same idea, three very different stories would still emerge. Be it vocab choice, technical prowess, sentence structure or dialogue, those three voices would differ to the point of opposition.

This is because everyone’s voice is different.  The following are steps to develop your voice.

1. Be Honest and Experiment

Honesty is an important factor. I don’t mean that everything you write should be honest to the point of memoir nonfiction, but you should write from experience. If you tap into your own emotions for fictional situations, your writing will be powerful- it usually is when a writer’s experience filters through, it’s noticeable in the quality. Even if it’s just a sentiment that you empathise with your protagonist because you’ve experienced it, the reader will sense the power behind your words and feel the punch it packs. Your imagination will fill in the rest of the gaps for you.

2. Know Thyself

This goes hand in hand with the whole honesty thing. If you want a distinctive voice, you need to know what you care about. You must take note of how you notice the world, your own perspective, your own beliefs about things you might not even have thought about noticing before. What is your take on religion? Or death? How do you think people experience betrayal? How would you experience betrayal? Thinking about your own reactions to situations that don’t arise in everyday life will help you develop your voice.

Your voice will be most distinctive when you’re writing about something that fires you up. Take Gillian Flynn, for example, writer of Gone Girl and its film adaptation. Her infamous cool girl description, which she admitted to writing as part of an exercise to clear her thoughts, was something that came from within and poured out of her in a moment of deep reflection. She developed her voice by writing what she truly felt, what she knew.

The actual passage goes a little something like this:

Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool  Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding.

Flynn’s voice focusses on the darker aspects of humanity through a very casual, conversational style which is at once readable and thrilling.

3. Be Inspired by writers

It’s okay to mimic your favourite writers’ style because you love their voice. Chances are, you like them so much because you share certain aspects of voice. This is an excellent way to outgrow a certain style and create your own distinctive voice, by moving beyond what you loved about them.

Write out a passage of someone you love, try to understand the dynamics of that sentence. Is it the structure, the length, the vocab choice? All those things? Analyse and maybe write something that is similar in tone and voice. Frank Darabont, for example, loved horror when he was younger – inspired of course, by Stephen King, and this shared passion helped him develop his own voice in drama.

His love of the author’s work was a defining turnstile when it came to voice, as he went on to adapt Stephen King’s short story into the Shawshank Redemption. He even broke the golden rule of show, don’t tell by using Red to narrate. This technique was a driving force of the story, and a real defining mark of Darabont’s writing voice.

RED (V.O.)

               I must admit I didn’t think much of

               Andy first time I laid eyes on him.

               He might’a been important on the

               outside, but in here he was just a

               little turd in prison grays. Looked

               like a stiff breeze could blow him

                over. That was my first impression

               of the man.

                               SKEET

               What say, Red?

 

                               RED

               Little fella on the end. Definitely.

               I stake half a pack. Any takers?

                               SNOOZE

               Rich bet.

 

Darabont’s voice, portrayed through the characters is immensely rich and distinctive– it takes talent to write like this, and a unique voice to portray something so realistically.

4. Voice through Collaboration

Collaborating is not everyone’s cup of tea. Especially if you’re shy or self-conscious about your work. But it is true that collaboration is a fast-track ticket to developing your own voice, in more ways than one. First, you use your real voice to agree, disagree, voice your thoughts so that all in all, you become a more critically aware writer. You end up knowing what you like, what works for you and what doesn’t.

Even if you’re two writers with two very different voices and you end up clashing, the process will still have been positive. At least now you have a more defined awareness of your voice, whereas before you might not have been able to pinpoint it. Besides, if you know your writing partner well, and there is a certain degree of trust between the two of you, then harsh criticism and constructive feedback can be some of the most effective solutions to developing voice.

Wes Anderson, for example, developed his unique voice and style through his collaboration partners. He wrote Bottle Rocket, Rushmore and the Royal Tenenbaums alongside actor Owen Wilson, with whom his decades-spanning friendship produced a great number of projects. After this, Anderson’s voice was further punctuated in Darjeeling Limited, blew fans away with Moonrise Kingdom, both of which he wrote alongside Roman Coppola. His latest and perhaps most popular script, The Grand Budapest Hotel, was written alongside close friend Hugo Guinness, so it’s easy to assume Anderson’s voice is forever flourishing and developing throughout this collaborative process.

 

The nine other guests of the hotel each observed from a respectful distance: a frail student; a fat businessman; a burly hiker with a St. Bernard; a schoolteacher with her hair in a bun; a doctor; a lawyer; an actor; and so on.

AUTHOR (V.O.)

What few guests we were had quickly come to recognize one another by sight as the only living souls residing in the vast establishment — although I do not believe any acquaintance   among our number had proceeded beyond the polite nods we exchanged as we passed in the Palm Court and the Arabian Baths and onboard the Colonnade Funicular. We were a very reserved group, it seemed — and, without exception, solitary.

 

As you can see, Anderson’s voice is delightfully debonair. It’s quirky and idealistic. Classic and polished. Some say his voice speaks five degrees beneath reality, but isn’t that what makes him so appealing?

A unique writing voice is something that makes your script stand out – it’s as natural as your own personality, rare as your own individual imprint. Voice takes time and effort to develop, but it’s something (the main thing, really) that your readers, viewers and future fans will learn to recognise. To familiarise themselves with. And to crave.

 

Elena Alston is a script editor and content writer living in London. Recently graduated with an MA in creative writing at Brunel University, she specialises in screenplay editing and fantasy fiction, but also writes horror, sci-fi and satire.

Five Writing Habits to Finish your Screenplay

As the end of December rolls around, most writers vow to write more in the year ahead, even when juggling busy schedules. They’ll work less, go out less and make more time for script-writing. It’s a resolution that’s made in firm belief (and perhaps champagne-induced) it’s unbreakable. But if you’re already feeling stuck, overwhelmed and bogged down with post-Christmas gloom, there’s a way to beat the January blues and keep your New Year’s resolution to boot.

As well all know, writing is a solitary act and unless there’s a specific deadline strapped to the brief, it’s very much a “I’ll get to it when I get to it” scenario. It’s time to readjust that mindset, and there’s no better month than January (grey and cold outside, anyone?) to get to it.  There are a series of writing habits you can incorporate into your weekly schedules, habits that are easily achievable and useful even to those who are juggling full-time jobs and don’t have time to spare.

Call it a wake-up call or a writer’s Godsend, here are several tips and tricks award-winning script-writers recommend:

1. Read a Screenplay a Week

Any writer, be it a novelist, fiction-writer, non-fiction writer, blogger, scriptwriter or even content writer, knows that in order to write you must read. You simply cannot achieve one without doing a lot of the other. You need to read to write. It’s as simple as that. There’s a reason that Scott Myers (writer of Trojan War and Alaska) recommends this on his own blog, Go Into the Story. Reading scripts is useful for all sorts of reasons: you get to see how pacing is timed, how many pages are needed per scene, how dialogue works, how characters unfold, how tension is built through dialogue or action. Format is displayed correctly—and there’s no simpler way to learn format than by seeing it—plus, you’ll really get a feel for your favourite films on paper (well, in this case on PDF). By reading one screenplay a week and critically analysing it for all the above factors, you’ll notice a vast improvement in your own writing. Good writing really does rub off.

You can find a whole bunch of links to scripts here:

https://gointothestory.blcklst.com/script-download-links-9313356d361c

2. Watch a film a week

This doesn’t mean watching a film at home a week. This you should do as much as possible anyway (yes, watching films really IS a justifiable means of research). What I mean by this is actually going to the cinema once a week and watching a film in the same genre you’re writing your script it. It’s an opportunity to put out your antennae to your audience and gauge their reaction to the dialogue, the plotting and the action scenes. Does the audience laugh at all the right beats? Do they yawn through the slower parts? This all helps you understand what it is people respond to in a film and whether or not it’s working for them. After all, films are all about the entertainment, so it’s good practice knowing if your own target audience is entertained or not—what makes them tick.

Then at home carry out an actual analysis of the film you just saw. Better yet, do a scene by scene breakdown and figure out how the script’s structure works. This is sure to shed some light on your own script, and may even give you ideas how to lay out your story according to good story building.

Going to the cinema once a week might not be within your budgetary means, but at least try and catch two films a month—chalk it up to research funds, even if you don’t need a penny to write a script, it does help if you have an assigned budget for research, material, courses and even events. Treat your project as a business, and your business will eventually become lucrative.

3. Write 15 pages of Story Prepping/World-Building a week

One of the most enjoyable processes in screenwriting, world-building is something that should never be left at the wayside.  Try writing fifteen pages of world-building a week. Just pick an afternoon/evening after work on a day during the week and you’ll see it’s easy enough. For better results, choose ONE subject to focus on every week. This could look something like this:

Week 1: Your Protagonist: Motivations, Background, Friends, Family, Physical Appearance.

Week 2: Secondary Characters. Relation to your protagonist. Backgrounds. Roles in script. Physical Appearances.

Week 3: Your Antagonist’s role.

Week 4: Plot A. Your main story line. What happens?

Week 5: Plot B. What else is happening?

Week 6: World Building. Where is your story set? If contemporary or historical setting, what research do you need to carry out for realistic portrayals? If fantasy, what are the rules of your made-up society?

4. Write a Scene a Week

Writing a scene a week is again, perfectly achievable. If you think that one scene roughly amounts to five pages of writing on Celtx, this is about an hour or two of writing, depending on how much research you need to incorporate into the actual writing process. But if you’ve done your world-building homework a day or so before you begin your scene, you can coordinate the themes so that the scene you’re working on will incorporate your world-building research.

John August for example, writer of Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie’s Angels to name a few, aims to write five pages a day and by barricading himself away, can come up with forty decent pages from one session. That’s serious dedication to his art. You can read about his habits here:

https://johnaugust.com/2011/my-daily-writing-routine

5. Home Time is Work Time

Finally, there is no successful journey without some degree of personal sacrifice. In order to achieve the above rules, you’re going to have to set aside a few evenings a week and at least one day out of your weekend, if not both.

But because you love writing, none of this will feel like work and it will be worth it in the end. Steven Pressfield, writer of Above the Law and Separate Lives, writes six days a week and is at his most productive on the weekend. You can read the interview on writing routines here: https://www.writingroutines.com/steven-pressfield/

Careful scheduling is the only way to achieve maximum results. We probably have all fantasized of the bohemian scriptwriter who, after knocking back a few shots of absinthe, sits down and completes an award-winning, revolutionary screenplay in a night. But usually, it’s down to a scriptwriter’s sheer force of will and strict personal culture.

It also helps to turn off the internet and silence your phone whilst you do all this. Living in the age of instant-messaging and online distractions is (unfortunately) not script-writer friendly.

 

While there’s no secret formula of success for screenwriting, there are ways to tighten your schedule and become more productive over time, increasing the odds of finishing a high-quality screenplay and breaking free from your full-time restrictions. As John August himself says, for the most part writing is just a slog, one you’ve got to traipse through on a daily basis. But oh, so worth it in the end.

Plus, look at it this way: if you write five pages of solid screenplay a week (which isn’t that much considering) and a feature is usually 120 pages long, then in approximately five months you’ll have your first draft. That’s the hardest part, the rest is editing.

Elena Alston is a script editor and content writer living in London. Recently graduated with an MA in creative writing at Brunel University, she specialises in screenplay editing and fantasy fiction, but also writes horror, sci-fi and satire.

Dialogue that Sings: What Dialogue does for your Script

Dialogue is one of the elements that showcases a writer’s talent in a matter of minutes, portraying time period, plot, setting and characterisation. It also reveals the subtext and context of your film. Because it’s so difficult to do well, good dialogue demonstrates your unique voice and style in ways that bring your characters alive from the page, and shape an actor’s performance. Good dialogue is that which (perhaps ironically) doesn’t represent real-life conversation because it’s full of buts and ums and repetitiveness. Sometimes we don’t even realise just how much so. Dialogue needs to emulate the sense of what real conversations sound like, but eliminating those fillers we pepper our talk with.

This is because in a script, you’ve only got a few pages to get your character’s point across, so everything the characters say must move plot along as well as being poignant. This is probably why real-life conversation can go on for so long, because none of us have any plot to develop in a page!

When you’re writing the first draft of your script, don’t worry too much about getting it perfect, just get it down on top of a solid plot line and seamless characterisation. As long as you’re on a roll, that initial splurge is all about laying down the foundations of your story. Good dialogue itself is all in the rewrite. During the editing process, you won’t be so concerned with plotting, and you’ll have the time and the creativity to ‘listen’ to your characters and imagine how each of them talk, adding poignancy and quirks you might not have considered the first time around.

Characterisation

The things people say in real life reveal their traits, personality, education, and their background. In a way, the same goes for the characters in your script. Dialogue has to sound completely natural to your main character; there is no way out of this. We need to hear/see that the characters’ voices are different from one another, because in real life, nobody uses the exact same expressions, or displays the same kind of wit, sense of humour, accent or any other traits that are undeniably personal.

Powerful dialogue can show your character’s very personality through their words. This is why so many screenwriting moguls recommend you know your characters (and at the very least your protagonist) inside out. That you become them if necessary, if only to imagine exactly how they sound. There’s no use portraying your protagonist as a criminal drug lord from the Bronx, if he is then going to speak like a British politician (obvious, perhaps, but you get the point).

There are accents to be considered, slang words, expressions, what’s taboo in your character’s culture, what’s not, how their background shapes the way they speak, their speech patterns, tone, sentence structure, dialect, things they leave unsaid, and so on.

Casablanca is a good example. This is how Rick’s character is portrayed through dialogue.

Major Strasser

We have a complete dossier on you.
Richard Blaine, American, age 37. Cannot
Return to his country. Reason a little
Vague. We also know what you did in Paris, Mr.
Blaine, and also why you left Paris. Don’t
Worry, we are not going to broadcast it.

Rick
(reading dossier)

Are my eyes really brown?

Straight away we can see he’s a bit sarcastic and unruffled in the face of potential threat, and mostly through another character’s speech, which is genius, as we’re also handed his background, intriguing and mysterious, in a matter of seconds.

Plot Development

A good script is all about balance. A good balance of exposition, dialogue and scene changes. It’s about variety, but not so much that you get confused, and believable, poignant dialogue, but not so realistic it gets strung along for hours. No dialogue should go over the five-minute mark in one same scene without some exposition to break it up. The audience is expected to get bored if the development stays in one scene for too long. Your characters must tell the audience what is going on (in a very subtle way)

Nine times out of ten you won’t need these long explanations clogging up your script; the audience will understand it if it’s been put into the narrative, or a brief hint is always better than over-selling a character’s point. This is one of the biggest issues new writers learn to overcome: exposition and on the nose dialogue that explains all the plot points and essential developments when it is unnecessary, not to mention it hinges on the show-don’t-tell techniques so many new writers end up boycotting.

Dialogue can move your plot along by exposing backstory and plot (via flashbacks for example) and by building tension through climactic scenes (dialogue in action—does your character keep their cool in the face of danger, or do they squeal like a stuck pig?). Dialogue creates action by revealing a character’s decision, or portraying a relationship and/or connection between characters. This often helps the plot move forwards by creating and building tension towards the final plot resolution. A great example of this is in the film A Few Good Men by Aaron Sorkin, when tension is built between characters Jessup and Kaffee in the final court scene, in which Kaffee desperately tries to extract the information from Jessup that would end the case. Jessup’s outburst effectively heightens the tension and moves the plot forward by revealing the truth.

JESSEP
You want answers?

KAFFEE
I think I’m entitled to them.

JESSEP
You want answers?!

KAFFEE
I want the truth.

JESSEP
You can’t handle the truth!

And nobody moves.

JESSEP
(continuing)
Son, we live in a world that has
walls. And those walls have to be
guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna
do it? You? You, Lt. Weinberg? I
have a greater responsibility than
you can possibly fathom. You weep
for Santiago and you curse the
marines. You have that luxury. You
have the luxury of not knowing what
I know: That Santiago’s death, while
tragic, probably saved lives. And my
existence, while grotesque and
incomprehensible to you, saves lives.
(beat)
You don’t want the truth. Because
deep down, in places you don’t talk
about at parties, you want me on
that wall. You need me there.
(boasting)
We use words like honor, code,
loyalty… we use these words as the
backbone to a life spent defending
something. You use ’em as a punchline.
(beat)
I have neither the time nor the
inclination to explain myself to a
man who rises and sleeps under the
blanket of the very freedom I provide,
then questions the manner in which I
provide it. I’d prefer you just said
thank you and went on your way.
Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a
weapon and stand a post. Either way,
I don’t give a damn what you think
you’re entitled to.

KAFFEE
(quietly)
Did you order the code red?

JESSEP
(beat)
I did the job you sent me to do.

KAFFEE
Did you order the code red?

JESSEP
(shouting)
You’re goddamn right I did!

Silence. From everyone. RANDOLPH, ROSS, the M.P.’s, they’re
all frozen. JO and SAM are likewise. JESSEP seems strangely,
quietly relieved. KAFFEE simply takes control of the room
now.

Exposition/Narrative Balance

There are ways of integrating exposition into effective dialogue by mixing both narrative and exposition together. You can always have your characters talking about a specific issue whilst they’re doing something active, or have your main character as oblivious as the audience, so that the character finds out alongside the viewer, and things are explained to them, or exposed to them.

Bad expository dialogue is that in which the character is telling the character something he or she already knows for the benefit of the audience. It breaks the fourth wall in an unintentional and clunky way, breaking up the realism of the story. The rule of thumb to avoid this, is to ask yourself, does this make sense realistically? For example, picture a scene between two characters in a room together.

Ethan
I can’t believe you’re doing this.
Caroline
Doing what?
Ethan
You know what! Divorcing me, a forty-five-year-old neurosurgeon who works long hours and doesn’t take the weekends off to help you bring up our four-year old son, Mattie!

As you can see in this (false) example, the exposition is off the roof. It’s terrible. There are far better ways to seamlessly integrate all this information through dialogue and the description. In pilots, this is done a lot, but in a way that is not so on-your-nose storytelling. See the conversation between Joey and Ross on Friends, in the pilot:

Ross
Really, everyone.
I hope she’ll be very happy.
Monica
No you don’t.
Ross
No I don’t, to hell with her, she left me!
Joey
And you never knew she was a lesbian?
Ross
No! Okay? Why does everyone keep fixating on that? She didn’t know, how should I know?

 

This is a good example of integrating exposition into dialogue. Joey asking something that has probably already been explained to him before doesn’t make a whole lot of sense realistically, but the script still gets away with it because sometimes the audience do need plot points spelled out for them. You can still twist it in a way that is subtle (and you must).

Elena Alston is a script editor and content writer living in London. Recently graduated with an MA in creative writing at Brunel University, she specialises in screenplay editing and fantasy fiction, but also writes horror, sci-fi and satire.

Understanding Antagonists, Beyond the Archetypes

A good villain is one who stands in the way of the hero’s goal, but an exceptional antagonist is someone who can exploit the protagonist’s greatest weakness. Although an antagonist is meant to serve the purpose of the protagonist’s journey, forever throwing a wrench into your protagonist’s honourable objectives, this doesn’t mean you should just create a one-sided pawn with a limited character profile to serve his/her purpose. You need to breathe life into the antagonist’s character, making him as realistic and as three-dimensional as your protagonists. Evil for the sake of evil has been overplayed and overdone in films, so complexity is key in the creation of a chilling villain.

If done right, an antagonist’s reasons for doing what he’s doing (usually in direct conflict with the protagonist) can be one of the most emotionally compelling parts of a story. We don’t have to like what they’re doing, but we do have to understand their motives, on an empathetic level at least.

The following are the most common types of antagonists in film, and though we’ve categorized them into a list, be warned that these are still just a blueprint, and it’s up to you to develop them further to make them really stand out.

The Villain

Villains are all your human antagonists, the ones who go out of their way trying to foil your character’s plans, and if you’ve written a three-dimensional antagonist, it will be because their own plans are also crucial to the plot. In other words, they’re not corrupting the protagonist just for the sake of it (Unless that’s your intention, of course).

Within this department there are a whole lot of different types of villains.

Anti-Villain

First, you’ve got the anti-villain, where antagonists have some redeeming or likeable qualities, even if their actions are questionable or criminal. Vincent and Jules from Pulp Fiction fall into this category, or Magneto from X-Men.

Authority Figure

After this you’ve got the Authority Figure who the characters ridicule or spend the majority of their time trying to avoid, like Richard Vernon in the Breakfast Club, or Miss Trunchbull from Matilda. These characters are often persistent to a fault, and are portrayed as stereotypes representing the law.

The Bully

Bullies are usually portrayed in a pretty straightforward manner, in direct contrast to the heroic/good nature of the protagonist, but often bullies are the way they are due to the way they’re treated, and often instigate some feelings of empathy in the audience. These include Johnny Lawrence from Karate Kid, or Fletcher from Whiplash.

The Corrupted

These used to be authority figures who turned to the dark side, often betraying their comrades in the process, be it for power, money, glory or revenge. Notable examples include Colin Sullivan from the Departed, or Steve Frazelli in the Italian Job. After this you’ve got the deranged villain, like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, or Annie Wilkes in Misery. The Mastermind is usually a genius antagonist who devises an intricate plan, complex and diabolical, to achieve what he wants. A good example of this is Goldfinger from James Bond.

Not all villains, of course, are people. Some of the best films have villains that are so intriguing because of exactly that. They’re not human.

Mother Nature

Films that feature mother nature as their villains are pretty terrifying, because beating the odds of destruction at her hands is pretty difficult. Not only is she unbeatable, but who can stop a twister, or a hurricane or a tsunami (or an iceberg)? You can run, but you can’t hide. Tsunamis, hurricanes, storms, viruses, these usually feature in disaster flicks, and the best your protagonist can hope to do in the face of such villains, is wait it out. Some examples include The Perfect Storm, the Day after Tomorrow, or the Impossible.

The Beast/Creature

This one pretty much speaks for itself, but imagine any film that revolves around the fear of a beast that is out to eat them. They might stumble upon it in unknown territory, like the Amazon or out to sea, or it might be a mixture of beast meets human civilization. Such examples in film include the shark from Jaws, the rabid dog from Cujo, and of course the deadly serpents from Snakes on a Plane.

The Supernatural/Monster

These include antagonists who aren’t humane, or perhaps even redeemable because of their very nature. These are the villains from nightmares and horror tales bent on death or blood, and include vampires, werewolves, evil wizards, angry spirits, ghosts, warlocks, trolls, and basically any other species that wants to kill you–usually in creative and imaginative ways. Antagonists like these that spring to mind include the demon in Paranormal Activity, Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th, the Poltergeist, or Count Dracula from Dracula.

Of course, what makes these characters all the more interesting is the fact that they’re not completely consumed by their evil objectives, nor are they blind to their own faults. After all, it’s not Dracula’s fault he needs blood to survive, nor was Jason Voorhees at fault for the way he was raised. What they can change, however, are their murderous tendencies. But that’s what makes an antagonist so complicated. Perhaps they can’t, or won’t. Perhaps that’s all they know.

The Extraterrestrial

There’s nothing like the unknown to put the fear of God into you. And what is more unknown than aliens? Often, the aliens featured in films are the antagonists, because their main intention is world domination, or abductions where the victim will be subjected to weird and painful experiments, at the cost of his life. They’re portrayed as evil, because they are unknown and so foreign to everything humanity knows.

Brilliant examples of aliens as antagonists invading Earth include: The Fourth Kind or War of the Worlds, in which their intentions are always malignant. Other times, aliens are antagonists because humans have invaded their territory, such as Alien or Pitch Black.

The Machine

Best represented in the Sci-fi genre, machine villains are so terrifying because they’re the most ruthless of antagonists. They literally express no emotions, and feel no empathy, because it’s not been built into them. It’s not their fault, per say, but they follow what they’re programmed to do, regardless of anything else. They’re the most obedient of soldiers ever made.

They have no concept of fear, or pain, and so they never stop. There’s not much room for complexity, unless you create a wonderful being like Sonny in I, Robot, capable of feeling human emotions, or David from Artificial Intelligence, the first robot boy programmed to love. But remember these are protagonists, so they’re meant to have a redeeming feature. But you could create a truly memorable antagonist by giving your machine the same sort of redeemable qualities.

Examples of ruthless machines include Ultron from Avengers, or Roy Batty from Blade Runner, and of course, the Terminator.

 

So there you have it, the most popular–and standout–types of villains and archetypes within the field of antagonism.

The secret to these characters (or at least most of them) is that they’re not lacklustre or cliched, they’re not predictable, they won’t roll over to make way for your protagonist without a fight (and that fight’s got to make your protagonist sweat), they’re equal to your protagonist in terms of intelligence, wit, strength–sometimes they’re even more powerful and clever, or they’re the ones that raise the stakes.

The reason behind their desire to cast down your protagonist has to be credible. No matter the type of villain you choose for your script, the key thing to remember is that they’re flawed, wonderfully wicked, and complex characters.

If you’ve already created a character profile for your protagonist, the best thing to do is now write one for your antagonist and place them side by side so you can see what links them, and what divides them.

Elena Alston is a script editor and content writer living in London. Recently graduated with an MA in creative writing at Brunel University, she specialises in screenplay editing and fantasy fiction, but also writes horror, sci-fi and satire.

The Four Act Structure in Film and TV

The Problem with the Three-Act Structure

Writing a script is a bit like a helter-skelter ride. All bumps and twists and no end to the dizziness.

Probably the most problematic part of any script is its structure, and more specifically, the three-act structure. Here we’ve got the second act, the murky midpoint where the writer’s expected to jam everything important–your conflict, climax and resolution–between page 30 and page 90. You can see the problem.

Act one is managed into a relatively easy 30 pages, ditto the third act. It’s the second act that can get tedious. If you’ve written a script using the third-act structure before, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Structure is heavy. You need those healthy intermissions every thirty pages.

Kristin Thompson, author of Storytelling in the New Hollywood, found severe flaws within the three-act structure definition, claiming that the three-act structure has a negative effect on films, as it’s more based on page numbers than dramatic logic.

This is what she says about the four-act structure: “A great many of these films — indeed, I would contend, the bulk of them — break perspicuously into four large-scale parts, with major turning points usually providing the transitions.”

What she believes is that the third act structure fails to explain how the bulk of Hollywood’s films are put together. Instead the four-act structure helps put everything into perspective.  She breaks it down into the setup, the complicating action, the development, and the climax.

The second act therefore, is divided into manageable, bite-sized portions, that can help you, as a writer, get through this murky wasteland.

The Benefits

There are major benefits to writing according to the four-act structure.  Number one, you get to really focus your second act on what’s important: the hero-flaw confrontation. This means your protagonist confronts his or her major flaw, which will then allow him or her to face their antagonist (and this flaw) in the third act. This gives room to make the final flaw or failure to overcome all that more powerful in the later act, because we’ve focused on the protagonist’s inner struggles beforehand. Using the three-act structure, you might have skimmed over this detail because you were too busy confronting the second half of act two, which, let’s face it, when squished together, is thoroughly confusing.

 

1. Set up

The set up (page 1-30) establishes the initial set up, introducing our character, their flaw, the antagonist and paves the way for the life-changing circumstances (the inciting incident) at the end of it. Much like the three act structure, the four act structure starts off pretty much the same in terms of initial action sequence, making use of the Typical Day in the Life of the character. This follows the daily routine of the main character, right up until the inciting incident disrupts life as they know it.

2. Complicating Action

The second act (30-60) then has to deal with the second set up, the life-changing scenario, the hero reacting to the inciting incident and seeking out the way in which they will eventually overcome this flaw of theirs (having already been established in the first act), the hero-flaw confrontation. Act two covers overcoming the problem presented by the inciting incident and this act will then end on imminent doom, as the character fails to overcome the antagonist/source of evil, ending on a cliff-hanger, with the major crisis revealed.

The Midpoint

One of the interesting components of Thompson’s four act structure is that she found there was a midpoint in films where act two and act three meet that often manifests itself in a particular scene. She argues that these sequences have a major turn where less effective films tend to sag, and this turning point effectively breaks Syd Field’s long-winded act two into two separate portions. This major turn (near the halfway point) takes the story into a new direction, a shift, and is based on the protagonist’s goal.

What does this mean? Basically, the character’s goal might be achieved and replaced with another, or the protagonist realises he/she needs a change of tactics to reach said goal and puts them into motion, introducing a whole new scenario.

This scene is not only the turning point of the story but where the goal of the protagonist or theme is articulated–here the scene portrays the film’s overall theme, or purpose, which can often go against the protagonist’s actual goal later on. The midpoint’s goal reflects the final act’s moral lesson. A character’s goal of revenge for example, might be thwarted by this same character’s realisation that something else much more important is at stake. But the point is, the midpoint needs to happen so that the audience can understand the character’s goal, it’s a breather, a pause where this is somehow outlined.

3. Development

The third act (60-90) will then see your protagonist fully accepting the flaw and working to overcome it alongside the allies. The development stage portray the obstacles and delays used as tools to further your character, action, plot, etc.

They have to accept the fact that their plan was shot to pieces, but there must be a new approach they then put it into action. Your hero will be ready to face the upcoming battle. This leads up to the climactic event at the end where your character will (or won’t) defeat their antagonist, but now your character has gone through a fully developed life-changing character arc; they are not the same person they were at the beginning of the script, having accepted their flaw and are ready to face the battle. But all hope is lost, or is it?

4. Climax

The fourth act (90-120) will then of course, cover the final battle, see your hero face the antagonist, and witness their victory or loss. Act four mostly covers the resolution and the final scene, so that your story can wrap up any loose ends, ending on a high note.

To put into visual terms, Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky is a very good example of a successful four-act structure. The first act introduces us to Rocky and his self-doubts, and the inciting incident, how Rocky has the chance to compete in the heavyweight championship. The second is Rocky reacting to the inciting incident. He’s training but he’s weighed down by his self-doubt, his major “antagonist”. In the third act, Rocky comes to accept his flaw and works hard against it, so that finally in the fourth act, he’s ready to overcome it and battles, literally, in the ring for victory.

The middle section of a script is a bit like a wasteland, and if you just try writing your script according to the four-act structure, you might find it a lot easier to navigate through the swampy, boggy bits. Also, in the middle you’ll be able to pause and concentrate on the heart of your story, focusing on what your story is about, your main theme. Using the four-act structure doesn’t mean adding any extra acts, you’d simply be splitting the second act down the middle, dividing it into two thirty-page chunks.

TV

In TV series, scripts depend on the four-act structure. Pick any and you’ll see this division is mostly noticeable thanks to the way the programme is separated by the advertisements, or commercial breaks. With hour-long episodes, there’s an ad every 15 minutes or so, breaking the episode into four perfectly even-timed chunks. You’ll be doing the same thing with your script. Buffy, Lost, House of Cards, they all run according to the four-act structure, so even if it’s just for peace of mind, to give you that little extra push as a writer, it’s well worth considering.

Elena Alston is a script editor and content writer living in London. Recently graduated with an MA in creative writing at Brunel University, she specialises in screenplay editing and fantasy fiction, but also writes horror, sci-fi and satire.

Scriptwriting Collaborations: A Look at Partnerships

You might not have considered taking part in a collaboration. As writers, we’re very individual people, going at it as lone wolves, isolating ourselves between four walls to write and plot and scheme and essentially, go mad. But what happens when we actively share the madness with another writer? Below you’ll find out the main benefits of doing so.

Many writers who have stayed together, have become successful together. It’s all about finding the process that works for both of you.

Divide up your writing tasks

Writing together lightens up loads in every sense. You can each write to your strengths. Each writer can focus on their fortes, rather than agonizing over their downfalls. At the beginning of a collaboration, if you each outline your strengths and weaknesses (Who’s better at character-building? Or Script format?), then you can each perfect your craft, and learn from the other in your weakness. It’s a win-win situation. If you do this well, you’ll also be waving goodbye to any writer’s block, as you won’t be stuck in a rut with your biggest weaknesses–you’ll have someone there, battling them alongside you.

You build up a tolerance to feedback and (constructive) criticism

This is VERY important in the film industry. If you’re a person who’s hyper sensitive about tweaking so much as a sentence in your script, this won’t last for long with a writing partner. If uncomfortable at first, you’ll build a hardened shell to your partner’s suggestions and won’t hesitate in changing major plot points at least five times a day. Your script won’t suffer for it (quite the contrary in fact) and you’ll both find that honesty will lead to stronger scripts. You forget about your ego, and focus on the good of your story and the well-being of your writing partner.

This being said, you probably will occasionally argue with one another–especially when it comes to cutting favorite bits or beloved characters. This is totally normal however, as disagreement is a vital and integral part of the screenwriting process. But, argue your case nicely and then move on.

Adding hype and excitement

Once you both break the ice, you’ll inevitably end up having a whole lot of fun. What with jokes, writing prompts and endless title brainstorming, writing will become such a social act it won’t even feel like work anymore.

Writing is a lonely exercise

You’ll have your own creativity support group to go to. There’s nothing worse than feeling lonely and misunderstood about your writing, not understanding why it’s not going anywhere. But with a writing partner who essentially wants the same outcome as you do, there’s no one better to understand you. Having someone in the same situation as you takes the terror right out of your job (in this case script) prospects.

Dual Brainstorming is more effective

Someone else’s enthusiasm is contagious, not only will it lead to better brainstorming sessions, but you’ll find yourself so wrapped up in the world you’ve created with your partner, that the rest of the real one may even cease to exist–the ideal state when you are creating. Writing with someone else is essentially the WD40 to rusty brain gears.

The Writer’s Workout is better designed for Two

Creating a long-term plan in which you write for a period of time every day is far more easily accomplished when you have established appointments with a partner you don’t want to cancel. Plus, as lone writers, we generally carry out quality control every time we finish a segment of a script, or maybe even at the end of the first draft, inevitably stretching out the time it takes to improve it. When writing as two, the quality control is ever-present and ever-functional. It happens naturally as we go along, listening to the other person’s ideas. This makes way for changing things on the spot, and so by the time you get to the draft-stage, you’ve got yourself a far more solid script.

Yin and Yang: Two Imaginations are better than one

As lone writers, we are often blind to the gaps in our story, to the gaping holes in our logic until it’s too late. With another writer looking over your shoulder however, you’re more likely to catch any uneven stuff before you send it off into the ether.

Here are a few scriptwriting partners who have all taken collaborations to a whole new level:

Coen Brothers for No Country for Old Men, Raising Arizona, Fargo. Apparently their screenwriting process works like this: One will write an initial scene, pass it to the other where he will then continuously try to outdo the first in any way he can:  plot, characters, building tension. This helps push them to break boundaries and create better scripts.

Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman. Annie Hall, Manhattan. Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman would outline the script idea together, the finer points of each scene, and then Woody would go away and write the draft. And then it would be a back-and-forth scenario of tweaking and polishing and walking around New York City discussing it.

Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright. Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead. First of all they created “Flip drafts” for their screenplays before they even started writing the script. These were story-board type breakdowns of each scene, including major characters, camera shots and key events. This helped them have a clearer idea of where to begin in their script.

The Duffer Brothers perfected their Stranger Things scripts, by first imitating their 80s idols like John Carpenter as well as M. Night Shyamalan. By combining other people’s elements, tone and styles, they developed their own unique voice which unequivocally shines by itself.

Finding the “write” partner

First and foremost, most script collaborations are between people who know each other fairly well. From best buddies to spouses to siblings, there are a whole lot of writing partners you might not have considered. If you don’t have anyone who moves around your social circles who writes, then you most definitely need to change that.

Sign up to a screenwriting class, attend a meet-up, (at the very least) join a Facebook Group with screenwriters. Advertise your need for a collaborating partner and don’t be afraid to tell people you want to write together. Chances are they’re just too shy to suggest it.  Challenge yourself! It might just be the best thing you can do. You won’t know until you try it.

 

Elena Alston is a script editor and content writer living in London. Recently graduated with an MA in creative writing at Brunel University, she specialises in screenplay editing and fantasy fiction, but also writes horror, sci-fi and satire.

The Elevator Pitch, Loglines & Taglines

What is an Elevator Pitch?

An elevator pitch is your script’s concept, boiled down to a bite-sized portion of words. Also known as loglines, they’re a bit like short sales pitches; they’re a two or three sentence long summary of your script’s plot–and they’ll dress to impress.

What does this mean? It means you’ve got to sell your script in an innovative and appealing way–be it for your intended audience, your agent, a producer, an actor… In the film business, a day won’t go by in which you won’t need to be pitching to someone about something related to your script, so it’s always good to have your elevator pitch handy. It’s got to be something that catches their attention, gets them thinking, and most importantly, gets them begging to know more.

Elevator pitches are called that because it should take you no longer than the time it takes for an elevator to reach whatever floor your ‘pitchee’ is going to (supposedly). The term came from the Hollywood myth that script writers used to catch execs and producers in their building elevators on purpose to pitch their scripts, and not only did the phrase stick–but you won’t get far in the world of scriptwriting without hearing this jargon being casually thrown about.

The good thing about an elevator pitch–painful as it is for a socially awkward scriptwriter to voice–is that it can help you shape the success of your script. If you manage to generate some interest over your pitch, you know you’re on the right track (or at the very least you’ve got a way with words, always a useful trait for a screenwriter). If however, you’re rejected flat on your face, then at least you can go home, cry a little, then start over. Cut scenes. Shape new ones. Polish old ones. Kill your darlings–there’s a reason that’s a time-old piece of advice. And then you can try again. And again and again until your script is ready, and you’ve a new, improved pitch to try out on someone else. Pitching scripts is like testing the waters, and the more people you meet and talk to, the more your networking circle grows.

Loglines

They’re practically the same as elevator pitches, but they won’t be written by the scriptwriter (at least not usually). They’re extremely difficult to write, and highly underrated. To create a logline, you’ve got to compress 120 pages of script into two sentences and each word has to equal its weight in gold: Loglines have got to summarise, intrigue and sell themselves.

These are the short blurbs you’ll see as film synopses in cinemas and TV guides, in Netflix descriptions and on the back of DVD covers. Loglines will give very specific information about the film without being too explicit–but divulging enough so that your audience knows what the basic plot will be about. We didn’t all go to watch Stephen King’s IT thinking it would be about happy clowns, we knew he’d be a sewer-lurking weirdo.

As a scriptwriter, you can follow a logline’s guidelines to form the staple of your elevator pitch. Loglines are usually made up of the following:

  1. Your main character.
  2. The obstacle standing in the way of their goal (antagonist).
  3. A twist that makes your story unique.

If you hadn’t tried it already, coming up with a 90 second elevator pitch is tricky enough even when you know your story inside out. So the first thing to do in order to get your pitch tight and concise, is to layout the building blocks of your plot, and then play around with the wording. Write a simple summary of your script first, even if it’s bland and boring. Then start playing with the words to make it sound a little more exotic.

Let’s take a look at a few examples of successful loglines.

Titanic: A young man and woman from different social classes fall in love aboard an ill-fated voyage at sea.

Pulp Fiction: The lives of two mob hit men, a boxer, a gangster’s wife, and a pair of diner bandits intertwine in four tales of violence and redemption.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Blacksmith Will Turner teams up with eccentric pirate “Captain” Jack Sparrow to save his love, the governor’s daughter, from Jack’s former pirate allies, who are now undead.

Liar, Liar: A fast-track lawyer can’t lie for 24 hours due to his son’s birthday wish after disappointing his son for the last time.

Groundhog Day: A weatherman finds himself inexplicably living the same day over and over again.

Chicken Run: A dashing rooster and the hen he loves lead a daring escape from a poultry farm in 1950s England.

Note that it doesn’t have to be super wordy, in fact it’s better if it’s not; be clear and concise, and remember to portray the main setup and conflict.

Taglines

Taglines are short (sometimes only two or three words long) phrases used to reveal the film’s nature from an advertising perspective, expressing the film’s theme by using humour, irony, double entendres and wordplay. They create buzz and sum up the tone or premise of a film. A tagline sets up a strategic and effective direction for a film and is meant to be catchy. Sometimes taglines show a film’s twist in just a few words and are an important part of the film’s marketing in the way that they’re the “face” of a film.

Let’s take a look at a few:

Chicken Run: “Escape or die frying.”

Pulp Fiction: “You won’t know that facts until you’ve seen the fiction.”

The Addams Family: “Weird is relative.”

Liar Liar: “Trust me.”

Pirates of the Caribbean: “Prepare to be blown out of the water.”

I am Legend: “The Last man on Earth is not alone.”

 So what have we learnt?

Elevator Pitches describe your script and are used as a selling tool to engage the (financial) interest of an executive or a producer or for casting. Loglines are marketing tools devised to sell the film to an audience, and taglines are small hooks placed on film posters and film descriptions to appeal to the individual, often in the form of a word play or witticism.

As hard as it is to write an elevator pitch, it’s important that your script matches your pitch. So if you have changed your elevator pitch a lot, and digressed from your actual script story to make it sound more interesting, you might just want to reconsider tweaking your script. Writing elevator pitches is an important writing exercise for anybody, as it helps single out blatant problems in your script you hadn’t noticed before. So no matter what, it’s all good practice!

 

Elena Alston is a script editor and content writer living in London. Recently graduated with an MA in creative writing at Brunel University, she specialises in screenplay editing and fantasy fiction, but also writes horror, sci-fi and satire.