For today's guest blog we're delighted to invite Phil Gladwin, Writer, Editor, Founder of Screenwriting Goldmine Awards
In the last few years we've seen screenwriting contests move ever more mainstream.
There are stacks of them in the USA, and several really notable contests in the UK.
Many more agents, producers and script editors are open to the idea that getting a
result in the bigger contests is a legitimate part of getting the kind of momentum new
Winning a contest is great, but don't get distracted and see it as an end in itself. It's
really only valuable if it helps towards your real goal - getting hired as a screenwriter.
What's more, these contests often charge an entry fee - and that can add up.
So how do you decide how to spend your money?
[I have a vested interest I must declare - in 2012 I founded the Screenwriting
Goldmine Awards, so this article is written from that perspective.]
1. Does the contest have clear industry links?
Look for evidence of interest and support from the industry you want to join, either
directly on the judging panel, or in affiliations to agencies, particular production
companies, or broadcasters.
At the Goldmine we have a taken an independent stance. We have no specific
affiliation, but we do have 35 senior figures from across the British TV industry who
read all the finalist scripts, and who decide the eventual winner.
2. Try to check the background of the readers in the initial stages
Skilled people are not cheap, so some contests will use people with little or no real
professional script-editing experience to do the first pass and read the entries as they
You've taken months, perhaps years to write this script; do you really want it to be
assessed by someone who started in the industry last week?
3. How many entries do they get?
In some of the bigger American contests they get literally thousands of entries, all
competing for a handful of prizes.
Given that you need to win outright, or at least be in the very last short lists a couple
of times, to make an agent or producer pay much attention, you have to do the maths here.
Are you happy with the odds
4. Pick a contest that aligns with your aims
If you really want to write massive crowd-pleasing shows for a mass market, you will
probably not find a terribly receptive ear at the Channel 4 Screenwriting contest.
Similarly, if you want to write a small domestic sit-com for British viewers, the odds
are that won't go down TOO well with Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope contest.
And finally one test that you should run on yourself:
5. Do you LOVE your script?
If you don't think it's practically perfect, however will the rest of the world fall in love
with it? Which translates practically to you not entering a script you see is a good rough
If you know there are problems, but you expect the judges to see past the bits that
don't work until they find the good bits, well, you may have a problem.
The standard is much too high at the top of these competitions. Winning scripts tend
to be technically polished well as full of brilliant ideas.
Apply these tests, and you can be just a little more confident that your entry fee is
being well spent.
The Screenwriting Goldmine Awards run every year. We are currently accepting
scripts until 31st January 2017.
More information at: https://awards.screenwritinggoldmine.com
by Charles Harris
Our polished new draft is almost finished - last time we gave the dialogue a thorough work out.
But we're working in a visual medium.
Your descriptions are even more vital - and yet many screenwriters fall down badly here, writing descriptions that are at best boring and at worst sabotage the whole script.
Visual means visual
Having written the best dialogue you can - now your first task is to try to cut it all out! How much do you really need?
Italian writer-director Lina Wertmuller tries writing a complete draft with no dialogue at all. It may sound drastic, but it's an excellent way to force yourself into visual storytelling.
Once you've done this, you can always replace those lines that you absolutely still have to have. Then it's time to make those descriptions really pull their weight in your script.
The biggest mistake that writers make at this stage is either writing descriptions that are flat, over-technical and fail to bring out the mood in an interesting way.
Or overwriting - as if writing a literary work, such as a novel or short story.
8 steps to creating cinema
This is where you bring out the filmic quality of your story - picture and sound. Your job is to evoke the feeling of watching the finished movie or TV show - with economy and power.
Re-read each scene in turn, seeking out:
1. Dialogue that can be replaced with visuals (or sound)
Can that line of beautiful, witty, moving dialogue be better expressed in a cinematic way?
Often a thought, mood or idea can be more strongly evoked by an action, a look, an off-screen sound effect or some similar piece of cinematic storytelling.
Instead of someone saying how angry they are, for example, we can see them crumple up a letter or hear them hammering a nail into a piece of wood.
2. Descriptions that are in the wrong place
Writers who've read a number of stage plays might be tempted to use the theatrical convention where scenes open with detailed descriptions of the stage layout.
However a screenplay must only give what's dramatically relevant at the time.
Don't start a scene with a lengthy description of the location. Set the scene with a single pithy sentence and then move straight into action.
INT. LECTURE THEATRE - DAY
In the vast hall, long lines of chairs wait, empty. MARK checks the time on his watch...
If a prop, such as a lectern, is going to be needed later - then you can safely leave it out until it's needed.
By contrast, novels and short-stories tend to describe scenes in great detail throughout. This too doesn't work for a script.
You may want to describe the bustle of the railway station, with those interesting odd-ball passengers, the ramshackle coffee stall, the sun slanting through the glass roof... But if it's not dramatically relevant you absolutely must cut it out.
Screenwriting is closer to haiku - a single well-chosen detail stands for the whole.
At the same time, you can only describe what could be filmed (or recorded on sound).
So cut out all lines which tell us what someone is thinking, or remembering, unless the audience could reasonably work it out for themselves. Lines such as:
He stares out of the window remembering that this is the view that his ageing aunt would have seen just three days before she was arrested....
Similarly, you can't make editorial comments such as
Politics are a nasty business.
Instead, see if you can find an inventive cinematic way to make it clear what one or more of the characters are thinking. For all his dialogue skills, Aaron Sorkin is also brilliant at finding visual ways of conveying characters' thoughts.
6. The bleeding obvious
Delete anything that would be obvious from the context. If it's raining, you don't need to say that people are sporting coats and umbrellas. If the scene is a courtroom, we can assume there are seats, lawyers, a judge...
For the same reason, you shouldn't ever say that your protagonist is beautiful or fit. When did you ever see a movie where the star actors weren't!
Only include such things if they go against expectation - your hero doesn't have an umbrella in the rain, the hero is a fat slob, etc.
7. Locations that don't deliver
Many writers choose the first locations that come to mind and stick with them. But those first thoughts are rarely very exciting. Look at each setting and ask yourself if it's adding the most it can to your scene.
Does that action have to take place in an office, or living room, or restaurant?
What about somewhere more unusual and evocative? Such as a graveyard, or the avionics bay of a jumbo jet, or in the middle of a martial arts class?
8. Descriptions that don't evoke
Finally none of your descriptions should be flat, dull or cliched. Good screenplays bring a moment to life in a short, freshly-minted phrase.
For the same reason, ditch technical directions such as camera shots. These should be avoided because they break the mood.
Use your originality and your language skills to the full to evoke character, location, atmosphere, action so that we get the feeling - from high tension to romantic bliss.
But keep it brief.
In the next episode...
By now your script should be really tight. Story, structure, characters, scenes, dialogue and descriptions the best you can make them.
There's just one big thing that needs to be done before you get it ready to send out. Indeed, the next draft could turn out to be the most important of all.
And that's the subject for next time.
Charles Harris is an international award-winning writer-director. His book Complete Screenwriting Course reached the Top Two in Amazon's bestseller list for TV scriptwriting and has been in the Top Nine for cinema scriptwriting for many months now.
So far we've planned and drafted a new screenplay, and revised it for structure, character and scenes. Now it's time to turn to the dialogue.
By leaving the dialogue so late, we can be sure that we'll be making the best use of our time. There's no point fiddling with lines in scenes that may get cut out of the final script, or for characters who may disappear.
Dialogue is an important part of your screenplay. Good dialogue will lift a good story and characters onto a wholly new plane.
But good dialogue also comes from character and by now we should have a much clearer idea of what makes our characters tick, and what each scene is about, so dialogue becomes much easier to edit.ajor Dialogue Flaws to Check For
The 8 major dialogue flaws
The best way to warm up for your dialogue edit is to read and listen to the best dialogue that's been written.
There's no substitute for reading great scripts - also read bad scripts so you can recognise the main faults!
Now go through each scene in turn looking above all for the following:
1. Inactive dialogue
Drama is action to overcome an obstacle in order to achieve a goal.
All too often, you'll find that characters speak for no good dramatic purpose. Cut out padding, such as repeated greetings, goodbyes and space-fillers that don't push the story forwards.
Make sure that each line comes out of the character's desire to have an effect, most often on one of the other characters in the scene, in the face of difficulty, often provided by those same characters.
2. Lack of realism
In most genres, dialogue should appear realistic. Of course, in real life speech is rambling, broken up, unclear and generally disorganised. So what we're looking for here is to give a feeling of reality, while also tidying the lines up so that they can work on screen.
Similarly, cut out any lack of clarity. People may not be clear in real life, but they are generally trying to express their meaning as precisely as they can, given their abilities.
4. Attacks of the dots...
In an attempt to look like real dialogue, many beginner writers resort to an attack of the dots... That is to say, each line trails off in a.... People never quite finish their... Every sentence never quite reaches its...
This is a fudge and sucks energy from your screenplay. Eliminate the dots except when absolutely necessary...!
5. No subtext
Good dialogue has hidden meanings. Watch out for on-the-nose lines which wear their meanings on their sleeve and try to reveal those meanings instead through subtext.
In 'Juno', when Juno tells Bleeker she's pregnant, he simply says "I guess so.... What are you going to do?" No long speech could so neatly sum up his inadequacy. What he doesn't say says more than what he does.
And that "you" speaks volumes too. He's passing everything onto her. (Read the whole screenplay here)
See if you can let the audience understand what the characters are thinking through what they don't say as much, if not more, that what they do.
6. Going round in circles
Early drafts often contain lengthy passages while the dialogue tries to find its way. Cut the filler. Dialogue such as:
Let's go out.
I don't know.
I want to go out.
Let me think about it.
It'd be more fun than staying indoors.
Can simply become:
Let's go out.
On a similar theme, look out for what I call "ping-pong." It's tempting to write in alternate lines - character A answering character B who then answers character A. But this becomes rapidly tedious and flat.
Try removing the "ping" (or the "pong"). Have questions remain unanswered. And answers unprompted by a question. You'll be surprised how much your dialogue perks up and gains in liveliness and unpredictability.
Cliched lines really drag down your script. Cliches are imprecise, so they have an effect of blurring the story and sucking interest from your characters.
It's easy to fall into such writing, because the lines seem to work superficially, but try to hunt them down and find fresher and more interesting ways for your characters to speak.
Listen to how people speak in real life. Becoming an adept eavesdropper (and keeping notes where possible) is a vital skill.
8. Functional dullness
Many scripts get written, and even produced, whose dialogue is totally functional but simply dull.
Film and TV should be entertaining. So try to write lines which are aesthetically pleasing.
A nice turn of phrase, an unusual metaphor, a crisp witticism. They all help keep the story moving and add to the fun of reading the script - and watching the movie or programme when it's finally made.
Now you're motoring!
Take your time. By the time you've finished this mini-draft, your screenplay should be really motoring. We have just two mini-drafts to go.
Next time - all the bits that aren't dialogue: the descriptions.
<Previous article Next article>
Charles Harris new book Jaws in Space: Powerful Pitching for Film and TV was published last month by Creative Essentials and is already recommended reading on MA courses. You can buy it on Amazon or order it here and get the e-book version included for free.
Ian Long, who is teaching Euroscript's Neo Noir workshop on December 3, uncovers the deep meaning of investigators - in this and other genres
Agents of Narrative
There’s a good reason why detectives are also known as “private eyes”: above all, they need to see the world clearly - to make sure that the information they collect is valid, to discern its meaning, and to form it into a pattern.
In other words, they need to make stories.
Detective stories are narratives about creating narratives.
It’s one big reason why they’re compelling. We watch, fascinated, as detective-figures question people, make observations, gather data and draw conclusions. Just like writers, they’re in the business of putting together stories that hold water.
But they’re also doing what everyone does, all the time – making sense of the world by arranging scraps of experience into a chain of causes and effects.
The Detective’s Fears
Detectives are haunted by three major fears (as well as the need to survive until the end of the story):
(1) Am I as good at gathering information as I think - or hope?
(2) Is the story I’m putting together a true picture of the world (is the information I’m
gathering turning into knowledge)?
(3) Am I on the right side? Is the person I’m working for ‘good’, and their adversary ‘bad’?
Failed detectives – the 1970s
For a long time, screen detectives' street savvy and basic moral code generally won through.
But this changed with the revival of Noir in the 1970s. Detectives were now dangerously fallible: films like NIGHT MOVES, CHINATOWN and THE LONG GOODBYE showed them blundering around blindly, misreading clues, manipulated by forces they barely comprehend.
And the conclusions they did draw were often wrong, allowing monsters like Noah Cross (in Chinatown) to win.
Why did this happen?
In the 1970s, America was reeling from a series of psychic shocks. The Vietnam War made it question its moral foundations; Watergate raised doubts about the morals of its leaders; the Kennedy assassinations suggested that dark conspiracies were guiding events.
So Neo Noir adds a fourth fear to the Detective's list:
(4) Is it even possible to have a true picture of the world?
Let's look at a couple of films that play with these ideas.
The Wicker Man
THE WICKER MAN is seen as a Horror film, but its 'detective' protagonist and plot gives it a Noir spin. And its devastating ending shows how badly Sergeant Howie has failed to understand events: most importantly, to grasp the identity of the 'victim' in the story.
Maybe it’s an example of Neo Noir Folk Horror?
Detectives also fail shockingly in David Fincher’s SE7EN (1995), another Neo Noir/Horror hybrid. The narrative carefully builds Morgan Freeman’s Detective William Somerset as a picture of trustworthy competence.
So the finale - when he's a passive, bewildered spectator to John Doe’s twisted victory, in which he manipulates the investigators into carrying out his mad plan - is doubly disturbing.
Neo Noir/Dark Thriller is the perfect genre to probe notions of truth, and to explore the dark and divided side of human nature.
And what is the status of information-gathering in a post-truth, post-expert world?
The workshop will take you through many more ideas from the genre, and exercises will help you put together your own Neo Noir narrative.
Click here for more details, and to book.
Flick through your TV channels on any given day and it’s highly likely you’ll stumble upon an episode of Dad’s Army, Only Fools and Horses or Porridge – or sometimes all three of them, back to back. Timeless sitcoms like these have such clearly defined characters, clever plots and familiar settings that they seem to appeal to all generations, and will probably go on doing so forever.
But is there anything of the same quality being written today? Is there any show that will resonate quite as far into the future – and earn as many royalties for its creators in their dotage?!
I‘ve been prompted to ponder these questions following the sad death last month of the great Jimmy Perry, who created and wrote Dad’s Army, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum and Hi-de-Hi along with his writing partner/producer David Croft. I was honoured to be invited to be a judge at the 1996 British Comedy Awards alongside not just the charming Jimmy but also the fabulously talented John Sullivan (Citizen Smith, Only Fools and Horses). As a relative rookie at the time, writing comedy drama for the German market, it was quite a daunting and surreal experience.
These guys were comedy giants but, as I was to discover, they were also ordinary human beings, not unlike me! I took the opportunity to pick their brains about writing and get to know them a bit better as actual people. They were both an absolute inspiration. Without a doubt this was the best unpaid job I’ve ever had.
Sadly both Jimmy and John are no longer with us, but their legacies live on. When I look at the current crop of “sitcoms” on TV I am not sure there’s anything that quite falls into the same category as their classic shows. Viewing patterns have changed so much. Who can remember the last time they sat down with three generations of their family to watch anything other than Strictly or Bake Off?
This means there’s a big sitcom-shaped gap in the market - and if you’re an aspiring comedy writer who’d like to relax in retirement as the royalties flood in, you could potentially fill it. My advice would be to take every opportunity you can to learn from the greats: where do they get their ideas from; what makes an idea work; how do they go about their writing process; how have they sold their projects? Talking to ordinary people who also happen to be highly successful comedy writers can inform and inspire a whole career. Trust me, I’m a writer.
Anji Loman Field (www.anjilomanfield.com) is co-hosting an event on 16th November:
MEET AWARD-WINNING COMEDY WRITING DUO MARKS & GRAN
Inspirational comedy writing partners Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran (Birds of a Feather, The New Statesman, Goodnight Sweetheart) share the secrets of their success with Nicola Quilter.
After a Q&A session, we will be running an optional Speed Dating For Co-Writers session. Meet other like-minded writers, test your compatibility with a range of potential writing partners, all of whom are potentially looking to collaborate.
DATE: Weds 16 November
TIME: 6.30-8.30pm (followed by Euroscript Christmas Drinks and Launch of the Euroscript screenwriting Competition 2017)
VENUE: THE DRIVER, 2-4 Wharfdale Road, London N1 9RY
PRICE: £10 to cover room hire and a FREE DRINK (book here)
Ian Long was Euroscript’s representative at Riga International Film Festival in late October
Euroscript was delighted to be part of the Riga International Film Festival and European Script Meeting.
It was a great opportunity to meet European writers, share ideas and pass on useful thoughts; and if that wasn't enough, much of the time was spent in and around the rococo beauty of the Splendid Palace Cinema - possibly the oldest purpose-built picture house still operating in Europe.
European Script Meeting
The Script Meeting’s remit is very generous. It’s simply a place where screenwriters, producers, directors and studio representatives can bring their projects, talk about ideas, and begin collaborations on stories in a relaxed atmosphere, with no strings attached.
As we joined a select group of script consultants to meet the writers, we were keen to see what we’d learn of current narrative trends and opinions. After all, the delegates were from all over Europe: Croatia, Macedonia, Georgia, Hungary, Germany, Lithuania and the Czech Republic, as well as from Latvia itself.
The projects’ subject-matter was encouragingly wide: a drama about the impact of hip hop culture on Lithuania; contemporary comedy merging with commedia del arte in an Italian palazzo; a story which investigates the dream-world of coma and finds a universe of meaning within it...
The writers were friendly and engaged; many deep discussions took place, and new exciting connections were made. So far, so fascinating. But what would happen on the Sunday, when we were scheduled to take our place in the spotlight, presenting our own writing workshop?
Mixing Genres, ‘Heightened’ Genres, and Speculative Fiction
Genres are mutating and blending as never before, and it’s notable that many of the European films that make international waves are in heightened or fantasy-inflected genres – such as LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (Tomas Alfredson, Sweden, 2008), TROLLHUNTER (André Øvredal, Norway, 2010) and UNDER THE SKIN (Jonathan Glazer, UK, 2014).
With these things in mind, Euroscript took the floor on Sunday morning in a semicircular auditorium beneath the Splendid Palace to present a four-hour workshop. Having somehow resisted the , we were in a position to outline the ways in which genres can mix and how Science (or, better, Speculative) Fiction can creatively address themes which some may associate only with Social Drama.
Some reactions to the talk revealed that even some talented and sophisticated screenwriters from certain cinema cultures are missing out on the potential of ‘genre’ writing to put ideas onscreen in vivid and cinematic ways.
We reminded the audience that significant filmmakers like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Stanley Kubrick, Andrzej Żuławski, Jean Luc Godard have made important contributions to the Science Fiction genre – and that films like SOLARIS and STALKER are outstanding genre works as well as intellectual and cinematic landmarks. So the answer to the title question is - yes, Tarkovsky definitely did do Science Fiction!
In the afternoon, screenwriter and script doctor Jimmy Karlsson gave a valuable workshop reminding us of the screenwriting ‘basics’ – something which is always welcome to the most experienced writers and script consultants.
All in all, the weekend was a great opportunity to meet new friends and colleagues and to compare film cultures and approaches. And along the way, we got the chance to explore a fascinating city and sample the warm hospitality of the Latvian script contingent, led by Amanda Boka and her team.
You can find more about Euroscript's consultancy services here... and more about Ian Long's genre workshops here.
The Riga International Film Festival website can be found here, and more details about the European Script Meeting here. You can also follow them on Facebook.
As I said in previous articles, I suggest approaching a second draft screenplay as a number of mini-drafts, each focusing on a different aspect.
After revising structure and character, we're now ready to turn to the individual scenes. The advantage of this approach is that you don't have to worry about details when you're still working on the larger picture.
It would be pointless, for example, to spend time polishing a scene that may disappear if you later changed the overall structure or revised a key character.
The Scene Draft
For this draft, you work through the script scene by scene, starting with the first.
Read each through a number of times. Look for where the scene works best and where it falters. Is it too long - or too short? Does it work dramatically or is it flat?
Good scenes are the powerhouse of your script - but poor scenes will suck out the energy!
Watch out especially for scenes that are "setting things up". These are very off-putting, both to a reader and to the ultimate audience.
If you find a Setting-Up scene - and you'll doubtless find many - ask yourself if you can give it a dramatic point. Can you bring out some element of conflict or put at least obstacles in the protagonist's way?
Can you build the emotion - whether comedy, tragedy or thriller? If not, then you'll probably need to axe the scene entirely and leave the information till later - or cut it out entirely.
Writers often become over-anxious about telling the audience things.
Questions are more important than answers. Build up questions in the viewers' minds and they will be drawn into the story - and want to find out what happens next.
Short and sweet
Most early draft scenes will need to to be shortened, often dramatically. A good movie scene is usually short and contains a single dramatic beat - that is to say: one dramatic change.
For example, at the start of the scene, the heroine may be desperately trying to find a lost key, by the end she's succeeded or failed. There may be a few major scenes that contain more beats, but keep them to a minimum.
TV scenes may contain more than one beat, as there is generally less money for sets and locations, but even so the beats will be limited. Otherwise your script risks turning into a stage play.
Be ruthless. Find the heart of the scene and get to it quickly, cutting out any preamble. The best scenes dive straight to the heat of the action. And end rapidly - so eradicate any winding down. All those "hellos" and "goodbyes" should go into the trash bin.
You'll be surprised how much tighter and more energised your script becomes.
Who's in charge?
Now, decide who the protagonist of the scene is. It's usually the protagonist of the story as a whole, but not always.
Make sure that she pushes the scene forwards, taking action to overcome obstacles.
This may mean giving her a goal in the scene (which will normally involve planting this in a previous scene). Or it could mean adding new obstacles. Or ensuring that she takes action and doesn't leave it to someone else.
Variety is the spice of life
Next look at variety and pacing. Ideally each scene should be different from the scenes before and after - either faster or slower or funnier or more tense, etc.
As with characters, in the last article, look to see if you have two or more scenes performing the same function. You'll often find that you've written a number of quite different scenes that essentially do the same thing.
Three scenes which show the protagonist saving a dog, defending a work colleague and giving money to a Big Issue saleswoman may all be there to show his positive side. Decide which is the most interesting and delete the rest.
And just as some characters work better when combined into one, the same can apply to half-decent scenes. Often, one really strong scene can emerge from elements from a number of scenes that weren't working on their own.
Many layers make scenes work
Once a scene has been trimmed down and possibly combined with others, look finally at layering in some more elements to make it even better.
Good scenes are generally multi-layered. While pushing the story forwards, they surreptitiously slip in other material that can, for example, set up future issues, deepen character or enrich the theme.
Early in the film Nightcrawler, petty thief Lou comes across a burning car on a freeway. Cops are trying to pull the driver out. As Lou watches, intrigued, a TV news crew arrives to film the incident and he asks a few questions.
It's a simple scene, but does everything we've seen above. It starts the moment he pulls his car over and gets out. Immediately we are plunged into the action of the attempted rescue.
He wants to know how the TV crew work but the script provides obstacles, making the cameramen preoccupied and brusque in their answers. It is faster paced than the scene before and after.
And despite the simplicity of the action, it provides many deeper layers - developing Lou's character, setting up the idea of filming death and injury for TV, his future competitors and the mechanisms and the ethics involved. (You can read the screenplay here - the freeway scene starts on page 4).
Whereas I suggested writing the first draft quickly, jumping over any gaps, this fourth mini-draft should be painstaking and focused, ensuring that each scene is structured in the best possible way.
Once you've done that for every scene in the script, you can move on to the dialogue and description, which we'll be dealing with in mini-drafts five and six...
<Previous article Next article>
Charles Harris new book Jaws in Space: Powerful Pitching for Film and TV was published last month by Creative Essentials and is already recommended reading on MA courses. You can buy it here and get the e-book version included for free.
by Ian Long
David Robert Mitchell's 2014 film "It Follows" appealed to an audience well beyond 'genre' fans (see the endless blog posts and Youtube clips interpreting the story as evidence).
But why did this particular film raise so much interest? And what can writers working in Horror (and other genres) learn from it?
The story centres on a young woman (Jay) and her group of friends, who are menaced by a relentless, murderous, shape-shifting threat.
In terms of genre, then, it's essentially a "Teen Slasher" film.
In these films, groups of young people are menaced by monsters, dying one by one in horrific circumstances. Characterisation is fairly thin, and the first to go is often a sexually active girl (the films tend to conform to a specific moral code).
Let's look at what opened this film up to a wider audience.
What does this tell us about It Follows?
It's useful to think of films in terms of style and tone as well as genre, and these elements suggest that, as well as Horror, It Follows is an Arthouse film.
And maybe we're more ready to accept 'fantasy' storylines when they're presented in these terms?
Let The Right One In - a precursor
It Follows took its cue from Swedish arthouse vampire film Let The Right One In, acknowledging the debt by staging its climax in a swimming-pool, like the earlier film.
In both cases, the filmmakers took a long, hard look at their genre and asked which elements need to remain, and which have become stale conventions which should be ditched.
All filmmakers need to do something similar.
Conclusion - the Joys of Arthouse
Arthouse is cheap, intelligent, critically attractive, and can punch far above its weight in terms of international acclaim.
It actively embraces 'foreign' (non-English language) films, opening the door to recent Arthouse Horrors like A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, Troll Hunter, Let The Right One In, etc.
Giving your story an Arthouse twist should make you think through its ingredients in a very rigorous way.
SPOILER ALERT: and, despite having early sex scene, Jay isn't singled out for narrative punishment - she's still alive at the end of the film.
LEARN MORE ABOUT REFRESHING YOUR HORROR WRITING AT MY WORKSHOP - LONDON, OCTOBER 29
Click here to read about it.
By Charles Harris
So far, we've developed an idea as far as first draft and in the last article we began to revise it - looking at structure. Now is the time to go back and look more thoroughly at character.
The character redraft is a crucial one. Of course, you've been learning about your characters all along - finding out what makes them interesting, credible and engaging.
However, in the first draft it was important to let the imagination flow, without too much constraint. As a result, there will be areas that now need to be strengthened and straightened out.
The character edit
Start with your protagonist.
Read through the script focusing only on her.
At this point in the process, she will almost certainly be too passive, reacting to events rather than pushing the story forwards herself. So the most urgent task will be to ensure she's as active as possible.
If someone opens a door for her, make her open the door herself. Or, at least, insist that it's opened. If someone discovers a crucial clue, see if she can't discover it instead.
This is her story. She must drive it forwards.
Dealing with her flaws
Next, is she growing and learning? Focus on her flaws and ensure that she grapples with them. Unless your story is a noir, a satire or an adventure story, the power of your script will depend on her personal character growth, scene by scene.
Of course, this shouldn't be linear: we all have set backs from time to time. And it shouldn't be clichéd. Whatever the genre, you want your characters to be original and full of surprise.
Complex and contradictory
The third step is to look at how rounded her character can be. When first sketching out the story, your protagonist will probably be fairly simply developed. Perhaps a little two-dimensional. Now is the time to add some more complexity.
In addition to her flaws, she should have strengths. Otherwise, why should we care about her? What is she good at? What positive traits could she show?
Then there's the way she likes to present herself to the world. Her fears are also important. What is she most afraid of in life? And her darker side: what less admirable things would she be capable of doing, if pushed to the limit?
Good characters have a range of traits, some of them contradictory. This adds to the credibility of the story, and also gives her the capacity to surprise us and keep us watching.
Using subplots to develop character
Some of her traits won't necessarily be visible when she's engaged in the main story, but may only come out when confronted by different characters, perhaps in subplots.
A detective, for example, may not be able to show her more human side at work, but only when trying to help her small son cope with moving to a new school.
The other roles
Once I've thoroughly revised the protagonist, I do the same with all the other characters in the story, large and small.
Antagonists are particularly crucial - and easily ruined by making them too flat and predictable. Antagonists must have their own strengths and contradictions - such as intelligence, sense of humour, human feelings, etc.
Indeed the strongest antagonists (such as Hannibal Lecter or Norman Bates) may be highly personable and engaging in their own right.
Cutting and combining
Review the entire story from the point of view of each character in turn, even the smallest, to give myself a chance to bring each to life.
In the process, you'll probably find some characters are not needed - perhaps two characters are effectively duplicating each other. Others may disappear too early or arrive too late.
Sometimes two half-achieved characters can be usefully combined into one, which is always interesting as the new character will have a greater complexity than the original two.
Of course, subsidiary and bit-part characters won't have the same range as the main characters, but they too need freshness, contradictions and the truth that comes from observation of real life.
Once you've completed this third (Character) draft, which is in reality many little mini-drafts, you're ready for the next stage - to tighten and speed up the narrative flow - scene by scene.
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Charles Harris new book Jaws in Space: Powerful Pitching for Film and TV was published last month by Creative Essentials and is already recommended reading on MA courses. You can buy it here and get the e-book version included for free.
By Charles Harris
The latest instalment of How to write your next script - click here for article 1 - The Seed Image
In the last article of this series you finally read your first draft, with all the roller-coaster feelings that a first reading brings.
It's now time to begin the second draft. If you've seen a lot that needs doing, this may seem daunting - the trick is to approach it step by step.
Step by step
Over many years of editing first drafts, I've learned not to try get it all right in one go.
The only way that works for me is to take each element turn by turn.
By focusing on just one element on each pass, you take an enormous amount of pressure off. So for the first edit, we focus solely on the structure.
It doesn't matter, at this stage, how good or bad the dialogue is, whether the characters are consistent or the descriptions cinematic. That's all for future drafts.
In short, what I call (to the outside world) a "second draft" will probably be made up of six or seven mini-drafts.
For the first of these, I simply concern myself with whether the story is being told in the right order, at the right pace.
It's far too unwieldy to do all this to the whole dialogue script, so my second draft is usually a short synopsis. It might be a short as one page or as long as five, but it shows me how the structure of a new draft might look in simple terms.
The structure redraft
Now, there's a lot of hot air created about structure, especially three act structure. I'm not going to get into that, except to say that the big mistake is to think there is one "right" structure for every story. The job of the second draft is to find organically what structure your story needs, not to impose one.
In some cases, the right structure might indeed be three acts. Or it might be two acts (Full Metal Jacket), seven acts (Se7en), twelve episodes (Goodfellas), multistranded (Crash), flashback (Sunset Boulevard, The Usual Suspects, Pulp Fiction), circular (Tree of Life) or just about any permutation you can think of.
However, whatever your story, certain structural needs will almost always be there.
So now ask yourself the following questions:
1. Does the story get going from the beginning?
I guarantee that there will be numerous scenes at the start which are there to "set up" things that are coming later. The trouble is, an audience pays to watch a whole movie or TV drama - not just the bit that follows 45 minutes of "setting up".
Set up scenes are boring. You have two choices. Ditch them now or ditch them later. (Guess which I recommend).
Don't worry for the moment how the audience is going to know all that crucial stuff you want to tell them.
Your aim is to get a story going from the very first half page.
2. Do the key moments happen when they should?
No matter what your "act" structure, by page 10, the audience should begin to have an inkling of what the central issue is going to be. If not, they are going to get very twitchy.
By page 30, the protagonist must have faced disaster and made a crucial decision that will lead to the rest of the plot. It can happen earlier, but any later and you'll have problems keeping your viewers watching.
Around 20-30 pages from the end, we should have realised where the final resolution is going to take place and be on the edge of our seat waiting for it to happen.
You can break those rules, but even the greatest writers rarely do. And when they do, they make sure they know why and how to get away with it.
3. If not, should I be cutting more scenes?
Every first draft I ever see has far too much at the start and far too little at the end. (Including my own). The story starts around page 45. The big decision lurks on page 90. The final climax is squeezed onto the last five pages.
It's time to get ruthless. If not, the people you try to sell your script to will be ruthless instead... Put those key moments where they are supposed to be. Cut the setting up scenes you were leaving till later.
Now, with the space you've created, you can push your protagonist further than she thought she could ever go.
Plan it out
Now work your new structure into a brief outline to see if it works. Adjust as necessary.
You've done your second draft. Easy, wasn't it. As long as you have a ruthless determination and very sharp pair of scissors!
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Charles Harris is an experienced award-winning writer-director for cinema and TV. His first professional script was optioned to be developed by major agents CAA in Hollywood and he has since worked with top names in the industry from James Stewart to Alexei Sayle.
His books Complete Screenwriting Course and Jaws in Space: Powerful Pitching for Film & TV are recommended reading on MA courses.
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