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.
By Charles Harris
#5 in the series - Writing your next script - read the first article here
In the previous article of this series on writing and editing your script for cinema or TV, I focused on writing the first draft.
By now, if you've been following the process, you should have a pile of pages with a start and a finish and probably no idea whether they are good or bad. That's fine, the editing will help you find the gold among the clinker - starting with with the first reading.
The naked truth
The first reading is vital. It is the closest you'll ever get to seeing your script fresh - as others see it.
It is also, almost certainly, the most painful. Here is your rough draft, naked and vulnerable, full of faults, ramblings and blind alleys.
However, if you look carefully, here among the ashes of your hopes are a few jewels, perhaps more than you expected. A good line of dialogue. The makings of a strong scene.
Approach it with the right attitude you'll put yourself in a perfect place to embark on draft number two.
Your most important ally is time. Put the script aside for a few weeks or even months, to give yourself distance. Then clear a time when you know you can read straight through, undisturbed.
This first draft reading should be done straight through without interruptions. You want to read it as if you were watching the movie.
Turn off your live Facebook updates, feed the cats, jam a chair under the door handle. Whatever it takes.
If possible read your script in a different medium. If you write on screen, then print it out. Or borrow a friend's laptop. Anything to give yourself a new perspective.
Nothing should delay your reading - not even notes. Keep them very short.
I find it best to read a print-out with a pen or pencil in my hand. Then I can make brief scribbles in the margin as I go.
I've devised a rough code for myself.Ticks and crosses are obvious. A wavy line alongside a scene means it needs firm attention. A horizontal line tends to mean that the scene should have ended there. A variety of circles, ovals, arrows and squares each have their own subtle messages, depending on context.
How you do it depends on you - but the important thing is to scribble fast and keep the reading flowing so you can maintain a sense of the overall flow of the script.
What to watch for?
At this stage, you want to be as open-minded as possible. Don't worry about details of style or even layout. They can be fixed later.
Read first and foremost for the ebb and flow of the story. It won't be anything like right, but you'll catch glimpses of what it can (and perhaps will) become.
Look also at the characters, especially your protagonist. Do we care about her? Does she seem like the kind of person we want to spend ninety or so minutes with? Can you see hints of the kind of fascinating person she might eventually become?
Zero in on the good points that you can build on for the future.
Be brave. In some ways it's harder first reading a first draft than writing it (if quicker). But you only have to do it once. Now you can start to plan how you're going to make it better.
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Charles Harris is an 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.
For an intensive three days on learning the secrets of professional screenwriting, join Charles at our unique ScreenPLAY Summer School - July 15-17
In the first three parts of this series on writing and editing your script for cinema or TV, I focused on your seed image, the premise and the outline treatment. Now it's time to write the first draft.
There are three important skills you need to conquer to be an effective first draft screenwriter.
There's Technique, such as how to structure and how to write dialogue. This is the area covered by most of the books and workshops.
Then there is Strategy. Knowing when and where to use those techniques.
And finally there's your Mental Game. This is where you deal with your demons and get the work done. First draft writing is mostly about the Mental Game.
The problem with most writers when they try to write their first draft is they start inventing rules that don't exist.
There only three rules for writing a first draft of anything. It must:
That's it. If you do those three things, if you've started - continued - finished - then you've successfully written a good first draft.
Note that it doesn't need to be a fixed number of pages. It doesn't need to have three act structure or be laid out correctly or all those things you learn in Technique.
That's what Second drafts are for.
Bad is good
The one thing you must not try to do with a first draft is to try to make it "good". Because you have two different parts to your brain - the creative brain and the critical brain. Both are essential but you simply can't use both at the same time.
If you try to judge your work while you write it, you'll tie yourself in self-conscious knots. This is the best way to get writers' block.
I've written scenes I thought were brilliant at the time and which turned out to be rubbish when I read through the following day. And I've written scenes I was sure were rubbish, and which remained unchanged all the way to the final draft.
So, to write your first draft, just sit down and put some words on the page. Fast. Stephen King says he writes his first drafts "just fast enough that his fears can't catch up with him."
You may indeed write rubbish - but that's OK. Nobody else need ever see it. If you try to make the draft "good" it will die on the page. Only if you give yourself permission to write badly will you discover a magic you can never find any other way. Of course you won't know it at the time.
Trust your mental game
You have to trust it's there - and you'll find it next time - when you start to edit. That's when you start to take the mess you've created and make it work. And that's for the future.
Next: How to read a draft
Scenes are the powerhouse of a screenplay - but too often they fail to grip their audience.
This is due to a fundamental mistake that many writers make without realising.
Conflict or dilemma?
Everyone knows that a good scene needs external conflict - what most writers don't realise is that the external conflict is only half the story.
At the heart of every good scene is a dilemma.
A dilemma is essentially a situation in which your protagonist must make a choice between two equally bad alternatives. Without it your external conflict will remain superficial and uninvolving.
Say, for example, your heroine is afraid of heights. She must save a child from falling to its death but can only do it by crawling onto a high ledge.
Her inner dilemma draws us in. Either she stays safe, but loses the child, or she takes a risk and faces her worst fear.
We want her to make the right decision - but at the same time we're afraid for her.
Once she has made her choice, she is then plunged back into external conflict - lets say the ledge is slippery, the child difficult to grasp - which takes us to the next step in the story... and a new dilemma.
This cycle of conflict and dilemma is by no means confined to high-tension action scenes, it comes into all kinds of scenes and genres.
Take a recent episode of the legal drama series The Good Wife. Alicia Florrick's fledgling law firm has no money to pay for an assistant and so she's been relying increasingly on her teenage daughter, Grace.
Grace willingly takes on a fight with their landlords but that leads to a dilemma when Alicia realises that her daughter is spending too much time on the company and sacrificing her own life.
Alicia is faced with two bad options: jeopardise the firm or jeopardise her daughter's future.
But she can't avoid the issue. She must make a decision and she must make it now. The choice she makes leads to her a fresh conflict - she has to confront Grace. Which in turn leads to a new dilemma. And so the cycle of dilemma and conflict continues...
Your own scripts
If written with energy and truth, alternating dilemma and conflict will always grip us.
Now look at your own scripts. Whether planning, writing or editing, where could you bring out the dilemmas more clearly - or create them if they don't yet exist?
Can you see how you could use the cycle of conflict/dilemma/conflict to strengthen your scenes?
Was this tip useful?
You can spend a day learning more scene-writing skills and turbo-boosting your scene-writing confidence at my workshop Creating Great Scenes in London on Saturday May 21st.
When changing tastes and technical advances raise the bar on extreme imagery, what does this mean for narrative?
Article by Ian Long
Have you noticed cinema’s recent tendency to keep viewers locked onto extreme events for long periods of time?
An incident that might once have functioned as a momentary shock is opened up, delved into, and transformed into what I’ve dubbed an “immersive catastrophe” - an event that plays out on a high note of terror, strangeness or personal threat for an extended duration, typically focusing on the experience of a single person.
It’s interesting to speculate on the possibilities that this tendency opens up for narrative, and also what’s happening on an emotional level.
Here's an example of an immersive catastrophe from the beginning of Hereafter (Clint Eastwood, 2008):
A couple awakes in a hotel room overlooking a tropical beach where people swim and frolic.
The woman leaves the hotel and browses some stalls in a crowded street, smiling and chatting with a young girl as she buys a bracelet.
Meanwhile the woman's partner stands on his balcony, watching in disbelief as the sea draws away from the beach, then rushes back in the form of a huge tidal wave.
The wave smashes into the coast, uprooting trees and crushing buildings, and surges down the shopping street towards the woman.
Holding the girl's hand, she tries to outpace the water; but it overwhelms them.
They’re borne along by a fast-flowing river full of cars, trees, and other debris. The woman loses hold of the girl.
She’s rushed through the space beneath a wooden awning where electrical wires are shorting.
A vendor’s stall is hurled on top of her and pulls her to the bottom, but she fights free.
She’s slammed into a tree which has fallen into the road; grabs it; a man is poised to pull her to safety, then a car door hits her head and knocks her under the surface.
Heartbeats are heard as she floats unconscious, gazing unseeingly as debris floats above her. The bracelet falls from her fingers. Her face fills the screen, then a close-up of her left eye.
Cut to black. The heartbeats stop.
Hereafter uses CGI, brilliantly in this case, to model the destructive power of water in an enclosed setting and to put us into the experience of someone who is caught up in it. The pace of events is shockingly fast, and we feel how it is to be in the power of something much stronger than ourselves.
Who Uses The Immersive Catastrophe?
Filmmakers from Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood to Gaspar Noé and Lars Von Trier have embraced it.
In fact, the narratives of Noé’s films Enter the Void and Irréversible each constitute one long immersive catastrophe.
The shower scene in Psycho is a precursor, but in its strong form the immersive catastrophe is something relatively new, enabled by the willingness of audiences (and censors) to accept ever more extreme imagery, and the technical ability to render such scenes with great realism.
Does it represent film's acknowledgment of a new audience raised on ever-more-realistic first-person computer games - and the growing talk of a convincing virtual reality experience via systems like Oculus? Quite possibly.
It’s probably also related to film’s need to differentiate itself from TV, and to give cinema audiences unforgettable, inimitable experiences.
We can now be subjected at length to events that would once merely have been glimpsed or hinted at, or would have proved impossible to put on the screen realistically.
But what does the immersive catastrophe do?
1) It lets us share a character’s shock at the abrupt onset of a frightening event.
2) It obliges us to inhabit their experience, rather than simply watching it, as the event plays out. We tend to remain inside a character’s experience, on a very visceral level.
3) It gives us very strong visual and emotional content, and a turnover of heightened images and sensations, often of an extreme or taboo nature.
4) These incidents may occur so rapidly that they’re hard to process; or they may show us a single thing happening in great, slowed-down detail.
4) Typically, it exceeds our expectations. And this happens, even in a negative way, there can be an exhilarating element to the experience. The sheer momentum of Hereafter’s opening scene has elements of the carnival ride, for instance.
5) It glues us to the screen, grabbing our attention and heightening our responses to the larger narrative as it unfolds.
6) It burns itself onto our memory. If we’ve had a peak experience, good or bad, we’ll remember the film in which it occurred.
7) It throws everything around it into sharp relief. What is the meaning of a world that can contain this event? How does the rest of the story measure up to it?
What Form Do They Take?
The nature of a “shock moment” changes, taking on new meanings, when it doesn’t stop but carries on … and on … and on.
Through its brutality and sheer duration, for instance, the rape scene in Irréversible becomes a personal and emotional catastrophe not just for Alex, the woman who has been assaulted, but also for the audience.
Its impact just wouldn't be the same if it had been shorter.
By being forced to experience the event in real time, we too feel trapped, overwhelmed, subject to a malign will that can't be reasoned with. Our nerves are stretched to breaking point. Irréversible also demonstrates that immersive catastrophes needn’t always play out on a large scale, with the aid of special effects.
As with Hereafter, a “grammar” has to be found to structure the mini-narrative of the immersive catastrophe. When a single event is stretched out, it inevitably becomes a series of smaller events - bound together by the unities of time and action.
Positioning in the Narrative
The immersive catastrophe also takes on very different meanings depending on its position in the narrative.
Catastrophic events usually spell endings. The play Journey’s End by R. C. Sherriff ends with the cataclysmic death of all the characters we’ve seen, bringing home the fragility – close to meaninglessness - of individual histories in war.
However, an extreme, “everything is over” scene at the beginning of a film can mark its seriousness of intent. If stories dealing with war and other kinds of inhumanity are going to be truthful to their subject, shouldn’t they be brutally honest from the outset?
An “ending event” in the middle of a film (Psycho, Irréversible) inevitably serves as a fulcrum for the narrative, a “game-changer” which throws the audience and may even alter their sense of the genre of the story they’re watching.
Many would argue that terrors evoked in viewer’s minds are still more powerful than anything we actually see, no matter how catastrophic – but filmmakers now have the licence to explore a different, more bruising and arduous kind of fear, and they need to think about how it works.
Creating Fear in Films workshop - April 16
We'll be looking further into these and many other ideas, and the deep psychology of fear in all kinds of cinema, in our workshop in Central London on April 16.
Places are very limited, so book now to avoid disappointment!
You can find out more here.
Co-Chairman and Co-Founder of Working Title Films, Tim Bevan has made more successful movies than any other producer in British cinema, and created what is effectively Britain's only major studio. Charles Harris interviewed him for Euroscript at the BFI.
Article and Illustrations by Ian Long
“Be bold,” says Tim Bevan, smiling at the throng of attentive faces in a jam-packed BFI Blue Room. “You have to have a ‘take.’ It’s better to fail triumphantly than be boring. I don’t want to see bland movies.”
This was the final takeaway from a conversation during which they’d arrived as regularly as sushi in a well-run Japanese restaurant. It’s easy to see how Tim has enthused so many of our leading directors, writers, actors and financiers with his projects for more than thirty years.
Cutting a seemingly languid figure in shades of grey and chocolate-brown desert boots, he nevertheless has the ability to cram volumes into his engaging flood of information – and to make it all interesting. The Blue Room was rapt.
To kick off proceedings Charles offered a brief question about the early days of Working Title and Tim was away, giving us a whistle-stop tour of its beginnings as a music video company, the (not always successful) decision to get established film directors involved in the making of pop videos, and then the big step into feature production.
“Channel Four went round all the theatres in Britain, getting the resident playwrights to write something,” he said. And from this process emerged Hanif Kureishi’s story of middle-class suburban Asian life, homosexuality, and the automated washing of clothes – “a world we knew nothing about.” My Beautiful Laundrette was a big success, and over the next few years the company made a string of well-received features.
All seemed set fair. However, there was a big ‘but’ coming with respect to the early days of Working Title.
The Development Process
“We weren’t spending enough time on scripts,” Tim admitted. “To be in this business properly you need to develop scripts, work on them for a length of time. But you also have to be able to get to the end of the process and say, ‘it’s not good enough to make.’ Even after £800,000-worth of development. Better an £800,000 hit than an £8,000,000 hit. Quality control starts at the beginning and goes all the way through – that’s something we learned from Stephen Frears.”
Ah yes, Frears – the multifaceted maverick who directed Laundrette, and the quintessential writer’s director: a man who prizes screenwriters’ contributions so highly that he actively wants them on set, providing tweaks and rewrites, rather than hoping they just go away once they’ve delivered their final draft. Perhaps it was indeed Frears’ influence that led Working Title to place writing at the very centre of its endeavours, and to put so much energy into the development process.
But where do the stories come from?
Tim said Working Title tends to source its stories from three main areas:
The Story Process
If an interesting project arrives with no writer attached, a list of possible screenwriters will be drawn up – “new, mediocre and high-end” - the idea will be circulated to them, and when the right person shows interest, they’ll be asked to prepare a short (two-page) document outlining their ideas for the shape of the story: the overall feel, and how the acts will divide.
Meetings will then be held to get a strong sense of the story’s genre and hooks, perhaps ‘carding’ it on a wall with colour coding for different kinds of scenes (action, romance, etc). After this, the first draft is expected to nail down the main journey or arc; the subsequent development process will mainly be concerned with “making the story come alive.”
Increasingly, Working Title is making use of writers’ rooms to brainstorm story ideas for their films – just like American TV series. “The dividing lines between the various writing disciplines are getting more and more blurred,” Tim said, admitting that if he could change one thing about the way he operated in the past, he'd use TV as a platform for getting films made. Writers’ rooms are also useful for getting “new blood” into the company – something which is evidently important to Tim, as he used the phrase more than once.
Interestingly, he feels that British theatre is currently more vibrant than either film or TV; producers routinely visit fringe and other productions in search of talent. He also thinks that a new British comedy genre could be on the verge of arriving, which will eclipse the present vogue for gross-out humour.
Looking ahead, Tim cautioned that due to the ubiquity of digitalisation, “the old model won’t exist in ten years.” He went on to speak about the competition posed to films by flat-screen TVs in homes, and the availability of high quality, low cost stories on streaming services like Netflix. All this means that companies like Working Title must become ever more stringent about quality control.
“We have to be so much stricter now,” Tim said. Certain story elements are de rigeur: “As a writer, you need an amazing hook. And there has to be a ‘movie-star’ part.” Tim advised writers to "be hard on their own material," offering the example of Joel and Ethan Coen as film-makers who are so disciplined in their writing, storyboarding and shooting that they rarely need to cut anything.
He also spoke approvingly of a director he’s currently working with who, even while outlining a nascent story, is already thinking about ‘trailer moments’; bits of action that will sell the finished film in cinemas.
Tim Bevan is clearly passionate about films and stories – he stressed that he’s always been driven by getting good work made, rather than obsessing about ‘The Deal’ - but it was sometimes hard to square his dictum to “be bold” with the ever tighter demands that he sees commercial considerations making on material. No doubt this contradiction is something that he is struggling with, along with everyone else creatively involved with film.
However, the good news about the new digital world in which we’re now immersed is its insatiable need for content. And, as Tim put it, “the new model will play far more than ever before to the individual.”
One Last Tip - The Cutting-Room
Reminding us of the wisdom that films are made not once but numerous times, at the stages of conception, writing, shooting and, finally, editing, Tim advised writers to get deeply acquainted with the last process on the list.
“One of the critical things for a writer to do is to get into the cutting-room,” he said, explaining that it’s through witnessing the editor's craft, standing at her elbow, that the “power of the image” is revealed – and we see how whole scenes can be discarded in favour of a single glance or gesture.
Tim told us that Richard Curtis is one writer who haunts the cutting–rooms of the films he works on. And it doesn’t seem to have done his career any harm.
How to plan and write your next script - 3
by Charles Harris
In the first two parts of this series on writing and editing your script for cinema or TV, I focused on the seed image that starts it all, and the premise or pitch that provides the dramatic fuel (re-read them here). Now we move to writing the treatment (aka synopsis or outline).
1. Writing a treatment is by far the best way to plan out your script in advance
It’s true that some writers dive in and fly by the seat of their pants, but they are rare and almost always writing novels. A screenplay is much tighter and will run away from you if you don't plan. I have only written one successful screenplay without a treatment to start (and even then I spent time sorting out my ideas while I tried and failed to!)
2. Writing a treatment is invaluable for rewriting
Once the first draft is done, you need to stand back and get perspective. Otherwise you get lost in the mess. I find that the best way by far is to go back and rewrite the treatment based on what I have now learned.
3. Writing a treatment is essential for selling
More and more producers and agents insist on seeing a treatment before they’ll consider reading your script. It doesn't matter how brilliant your writing is - if the treatment doesn't fly, the script will never even get read.
However, the good news is that you don’t need to write three kinds of treatment. The effort entailed in ensuring your writing is clearly understood by others will make it all the better for planning and editing too.
Starting the treatment
If you followed the last article and worked up a strong log line then you have a solid basis to build on for the treatment. You know your genre, the protagonist and his or her main story goal.
Treatments can be of any length - from half a page to 30 pages or more - though most range from two pages. (the length you need for the Euroscript Screenwriting Competition) to five.
I find it best to start with a very short version, maybe less than a page - to help me focus.
I follow with a deliberately overlong version - to allow the writing to expand. I then cut that version short again. Alternating lengths allows me to get the best of both worlds - brevity and flow.
Write in the third person, present tense (like the script). Focus on the most important beats of the story - and as with the pitch: be ruthless. But at the same time, keep the style flowing. Allow it to reflect the genre - light-hearted for comedy, dark for horror, etc.
Don’t forget character. A good treatment is just as much about character as plot. I find it useful to alternate sentences between character journey and outer story. This draws the reader in and also avoids the dreaded “and then… and then… and then…”
Your aim is to make the treatment fit the proportions of the planned script - in other words the first quarter of the treatment should equal the first quarter of the script, and so on. This is a tough one - most of the treatments I see spend far too long on the opening, feeling that they have to explain everything. You don’t. It’s not about how much you can squeeze in, but how much you can get away with leaving out!
And unlike the pitch, you must include the ending. This is an unbreakable rule. No matter how much of a surprise twist you've got, you have to tell us. Without the ending, we can’t appreciate the point of the story. Or be sure you know how to end it yourself.
Start now. Focus clearly on your story, the unfolding of key events, the development of the inner journey and how it all comes together at the end. Create treatments of different lengths - you’ll need them later. And make your writing sizzle.
Next: Writing the first draft
If you liked this article, Charles Harris runs Exciting Treatments for Euroscript - a one-day workshop on writing treatments for cinema and TV in February and November. He'll take you through basic and advanced techniques for writing the strongest treatments and series proposals - including language skills that you need and which aren't taught in normal screenwriting classes.
This is always a popular class and gets rapidly booked up. Check here for the next available date and to see if there are still places available.
By KT Parker
Are you undecided about entering Euroscript’s Screenwriting Competition?
Don’t overthink it. Just do it.
To my mind it is one of the best British screenwriting competitions, and unique in that it focuses on treatments. True, you must submit ten pages of a script – but not necessarily the script of the story you tell in your treatment. The focus of this competition is very much on story, and on you as a storyteller.
Here’s why I recommend you enter this competition.
1. Test the viability of a story idea
Factoring in several re-writes, a feature film script is going to take at least 6 months of your life to get right – usually much longer. If you’re going to invest all that time, you want to be sure you have a strong premise and enough story to underpin a viable, compelling script.
I use this competition to road test ideas. I have entered it four times, and placed twice. “Dowl’s Mill” came third in 2013 and “A Face To Paint” came second in 2015. Both of the scripts that grew out of those top-three treatments then went on to win awards.
The other two treatments that didn’t place still need re-thinking to turn them into stories that work as feature films. Fortunately, because of N°2 below, I’ve got an ace up my sleeve that will help me to re-shape and improve them…
2. Receive valuable feedback
Writing is about communicating to an audience, but when we are creating our stories, we are sometimes so immersed in them that we are blinded by their minutiae. It’s the proverbial “can’t see the woods for the trees” syndrome. Getting feedback gives us a sense of how well we are doing in conveying our intentions.
The beauty of the Euroscript Screenwriting competition is that every entry receives a structured, bullet-point feedback report. This includes an estimation of the budget (high, medium, low); a brief synopsis of the story; a list of positive points; suggestions for improvement and general advice for the writer.
I’ve found the synopsis very useful, as it helps me to verify that the reader understood the story as I thought I’d written it. Also, the reader’s synopsis often contains a turn of phrase that helps me improve my logline or one-page synopsis.
Outlining the positive points of the treatment is helpful because it tells a writer what doesn’t need changing - what to hold on to and build on. The suggested changes can be taken at face value, or, as happened with one of my stories, can prompt a re-think to help come up with an alternative that is even better.
Ultimately, it is your story and so it is up to you to learn to filter out any notes that will harm rather than enhance it. That said, given the high professional standard of Euroscript’s notes, you will probably want to take each and every one on board.
3. Exposure to film executives
It is notoriously difficult to break into screenwriting. You not only compete with established writers, but also with the tens of thousands of wannabes who take to their computers each year. Winning a major screenwriting competition is one of the best ways to get noticed. It's a validation: this person can write!
Euroscript list the twelve finalists of their competition on their blog and then announce the winners live at a “meet the producers” event held at the BFI in London. Here’s the thing: if you place in the competition you stand out amongst all the other writers clamouring for the producers’ attention on the night.
Robyn Slovo (producer of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”, “Two Faces Of January” and Thomas Alfredson’s new film “The Snowman”) gave me a recommendation of a producer to send my script to, while Judith King, Head of Development at Red Planet Pictures, requested to read my script as a sample. An extraordinary result for an unrepped writer like myself!
This year, it could be your turn. So what are you waiting for? The competition is open for entries until March 31st.
ABOUT KT Parker
KT Parker is a writer and producer, trained through Euroscript’s Summer School (2012) and various ad hoc weekend Euroscript courses, the “Storytelling for the Screen” programme at the Screen Arts Institute (2013), attending London Screenwriters’ Festival every year since 2012 and participating in the BFI/Creative Skillset Talent Campus (2015, run by London Screenwriters’ Festival).
She is currently producing her one-act play, “The Chamber Of Beheaded Queens”, which has been selected for Liverpool’s Page To Stage Festival (4th-16th April 2016). Her screenplay, “A Face To Paint”, won the period/historical feature film script category of Final Draft’s Big Break screenwriting competition in December 2015 and she is now crowdfunding her way to L.A. to attend the awards ceremony at Paramount Studios on February 11th. You can check out her campaign here:
You can also connect with KT Parker on social media here:
Twitter: https://twitter.com/lunaperla and https://twitter.com/BeheadedQueens
Every successful screenwriter I know is brilliant at pitching. The ability to pitch well accelerates every aspect of your career in cinema or TV - from coming up with new ideas to developing them, and of course selling them.
Last time, we started by looking at your seed image. If you missed the article, read it here). This time, we’re getting stuck into the pitch or log line.
Why have a pitch at the start?
A good log line is essentially a one or two sentence pitch which has something magical that makes your listener’s eyes light up - this is the spark. Nowadays I never start writing a script unless I have a log line with that spark - after all the first person I have to sell the idea to is myself.
As I write, and then as I edit, the pitch helps keep the script focused. And at the end, the pitch is central to selling it to producers.
What’s your pitch?
There’s a certain magic you need in creating a good idea that you can’t force into existence. But you can create the right conditions for finding it. And you can do that right now.
You don’t have to be clever, you have to be imaginative, disciplined and committed to not accepting second-best. And you need three ingredients to make the pitch work:
1. What’s your genre?
Ingredient one is the genre - in other words, what kind of story is this going to be? Will it make people laugh, or cry, or scream in horror? Or what? Genre is first and foremost about the emotion you want to create in the viewer.
The seed image probably gave you a hint of that emotion. Now is the time to dig deeper into your imagination. Imagine the audience watching your work on screen. What do they feel?
2. Who does what?
Ingredient two in a good pitch is the Outer Story. Who is your protagonist and what does he or she want? Focus on the big decision that underpins the whole story.
In Hamlet it’s the decision to avenge his father’s murder. In Joy it’s the decision to invent a self-wringing mop.
It’s an “outer” story because we have to film it - in other words it’s not just inside their head.
3. What’s their flaw?
By contrast, ingredient three is the Inner Story. What is the inner flaw that’s stopping the protagonist from progressing? On its own, the outer story is rather thin and mechanical. This inner struggle gives it depth.
Hamlet has to conquer his fear of taking action (he fails to do this in time, which gives us a tragic ending).
Joy has to learn to stand up for herself. If, she does that she’ll earn her happy ending. In some stories, you find a mix, part growth, part failure, giving a bittersweet end.
Put it together
To create your pitch, put them together: GENRE plus OUTER STORY plus FLAW.
Hamlet is a revenge tragedy about a young prince who must avenge his father’s murder but must confront his own fears before he can confront the murderer.
Joy is a comedy-drama about an insecure but ambitious young woman who sets out to invent the world’s first self-wringing mop and must learn to stand up for herself if she’s to succeed
Where’s the rest?
Where’s the rest of the play? The brilliant writing? The subtle interrogation of philosophy? The other characters? The subplots?
They don’t belong here.
Don’t confuse the log line with the script. The job of the pitch is simply to excite - to excite you enough to write the screenplay and then to excite producers enough to read it!
That simple sentence can take hard work to write. You need to focus hard on the absolute essentials, and cut away everything else - your 90+ page idea boiled down into a single line.
But if you get it right, it will form the foundation of everything you do next - whether that’s writing the outline, editing a draft - or indeed selling it.
Next: Writing the treatment.
THE ONLY PLACE TO TALK ABOUT THE CRAFT OF SCRIPTWRITING.