In our latest Writing Insights article, Script Analyst Edward Smith shares his insights on the things you should think about before you start writing. Here’s our checklist before you start putting your ideas down on paper…
Suddenly it hits you – a new idea for a script! There’s nothing more exciting than this moment. Unable to contain yourself, you rush to your computer (or typewriter, if you prefer to do things the old-fashioned way) and start to type –
Wait a minute!
Yes, you heard us – wait. It can be a hard thing to do when all you want to do is sit down and write, but planning things out in advance, and making sure that you’ve got everything you need, can save you a lot of time further down the line. There’s nothing more frustrating than reaching the end and realizing you made a mistake right at the beginning – and it’s going to mess everything up.
So, here’s our checklist for when you’re writing a new script. Get things right before you start writing, and your job will become a whole lot easier…
- Is this concept really as unique as you think it is? Sometimes we’re inspired a bit too much by the stories we love the most. There’s nothing wrong with going with a proven formula, but make sure your work has a unique selling point too.
- Don’t just think about how you’re going to start your script – think about how you’re going to finish it as well! If you don’t know where the story ends, it’s easy to run into trouble by taking a wrong turn in the story before you even realize it. Figure out your destination before you take the first step to make sure you head off in the right direction.
- What’s the theme of your story? We read a lot of scripts that tell a strong story and are underpinned by great ideas, but without a theme they lack purpose. Don’t just thrill us; make us think as well. Give your script focus by giving it a theme!
- Make sure you know your characters. Their actions should dictate where the story goes, rather than the story dictating their actions; it’s frustrating when characters behave unnaturally just to move the plot forward. Head off this problem by building up a detailed knowledge of them before you start.
- Ultimately, the purpose of a screenplay is to be turned into a film – and that means producers need to see it as a sound investment. Take time to think about the commercial potential of your project – the audience who will go to see it and the costs involved in making it. If it doesn’t look like it’ll make a profit, it might be worth making some changes.
Once you’ve thought all this through, it’s time to start writing. But you know what? For the all the careful thought you’ve put in, there’s one other thing you shouldn’t forget…
Let the story take you where it needs to go! You’ll discover new and exciting ideas as you write, and you shouldn’t feel that you can’t explore them just because you’ve already planned everything out.
Be flexible with your writing. Be playful. Experiment.
Now get writing!
Found this useful? For more Writing Insights from WriteMovies, click here to see our full archive of articles!
So, you’re thinking of writing a TV pilot. That’s great news – this is a great time to be writing for TV!
After years of living in film’s shadow, the TV series has stepped up and become a major medium in its own right.
The days are gone when a television series would struggle to tell a big, coherent story from first episode to the last. The subscription model of networks like HBO rewards a viewer’s commitment to a show, and the rise of streaming services such as Netflix has made it easy for audiences to keep track of their favourite shows, never missing an episode – and as a result, television has become the place to tell more complex stories. Instead of cramming dozens of characters and subplots into a 2-hour movie, you can now spread them out over multiple episodes and seasons.
But when it comes to introducing viewers (and before them, readers) to such a complicated story in a pilot episode can be difficult. When you’ve got lots of things going on, it can be easy to lose track of who’s who and what’s going on in each storyline as we rejoin it. So here are our tips for writing a TV pilot to help you on the way:
- Create clear and distinctive personal identities for each of your regular characters. That way, it’s easy to recognize who they are and what they stand for in all situations and how they relate to the other characters around them.
- Not sure how to do this? Try to explain each of your characters in a simple two-word epithet to make sure that they’re strongly defined. If you can’t, their personality and role isn’t clear enough!
- It helps to gel a multi-strange pilot if all the plots, characters, and settings have visible and regularly affirmed connection to each other. This could be a person who all the others meet or see, a place they all share, a motif that keeps coming up in different contexts (e.g. a word like ‘change’).
- Another way to connect everything together is to have a focal event that everyone is directly affected by, or which every subplot is building up to. It’s best if this is something that all the characters are aware is coming up at around the 3/4 point of the episode.
Writing a TV pilot can be tough – you need a full season to tell a complex story, but you’ve also got to introduce that complex story in less than an hour in the first episode! But keep these tips in mind, and you should soon be heading in the right direction.
And if you want more inspiration, take a look at Ian Kennedy’s series of articles on GAME OF THRONES, for his thoughts on how the show juggles a huge cast of characters and locations with only very limited screen time each!
Feature films tend to get most of the glory among filmmakers, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore short film as a medium! In a new series of Insights articles, Ian Kennedy looks at the benefits of writing in this format. Here, we take a look at how to structure a short film.
In the first article in this series, we looked at why you would want to write a short film – but once you’ve decided to do so, what’s the next stage? There are a lot of advantages to making a short, but how are you supposed to fit a story into such a short number of pages? Well, before you start coming up with ideas, you might actually want to think about how to structure a short film first…
Two vs Three-Act Structure
When writing a feature film, a classic three-act structure is usually the way to go. It basically looks like this:
- Act 1 – Setup. Here you introduce your characters and world, and get the story rolling.
- Act 2 – Conflict. This is where most of the story happens, and where things stand in the way of the protagonist getting what they want.
- Act 3 – Resolution. The characters must overcome the final hurdle, defeat their enemies, and win the day… or lose it.
So for example, in Star Wars, Act 1 sees Luke Skywalker on his home planet of Tatooine, Act 2 has him trying to rescue Princess Leia from the Death Star, and in Act 3 he must defeat the Empire once and for all.
When writing a short film, it’s still a good idea to aim for this structure – but there’s also another alternative. For short films, you can also use a structure that only has two acts – a structure that doesn’t work for a longer film at all! A story with a two-act structure is quite simple, since it has the same basic structure as a joke:
- Act 1 – Setup…
- Act 2 – Punchline!
In a two-act structure, you basically cut out the middle. You make a promise to the audience in the first act, and then fulfil that promise in the second – this has the advantage of asking them to connect the dots between the two themselves, which makes them involved and ultimately rewards them for being invested.
But whichever structure you use, the real key to writing a successful short is to trust your audience that you don’t have to explain everything to them. Use our unconscious knowledge and expectations to shortcut as much exposition and world-class building as possible.
So in conclusion, when making a short film, you need to match your concept to the structure. You don’t have to use three acts in short format because there’s another option; if your concept is something simple that functions like a joke, with a setup and a punchline, then two acts will also work. And above all, let the audience fill in the bits of the story there’s not enough time for, so that you can keep your short screenplay… well, short!
Take a look at our other Writing Insights articles here for great hints and tips on crafting your scripts!
In Part One of our exclusive article in conversation with Steven Knight, the writer-director spoke about how he began his career and about the rise of TV drama. Now, in Part Two, we find out about some of his influences and future plans…
Steven explained that PEAKY BLINDERS is based on stories of his parents and uncles, many of which he heard while around his blacksmith father while he was young. Once the BBC took an interest, things moved quickly. With series 1 complete, Steven was looking at potentially making 4 or 5 series of PEAKY BLINDERS.
PEAKY BLINDERS uses some CGI, but mostly uses derelict locations that aren’t about to be knocked down (one key location is the street where Ringo Starr was born!). There was resistance to setting PEAKY BLINDERS in Birmingham (UK) because of the unglamorous accent, but Knight insisted on retaining that authenticity – he believed that we should be telling our own stories of places like Birmingham.
The basic premise of LOCKE (starring Tom Hardy) was a journey from Birmingham to London, where someone starts out with everything and ends up with nothing – exploring how that could happen. If the cost is low enough, you can get creative freedom to run a project your way. LOCKE knocked CAPTAIN AMERICA off number 1 in terms of revenue per screen! It was on vastly less screens of course, but that was still very promising. Knight was determined that the character in that film should be the most ordinary person possible.
He explained that you have to write a three page outline for studios, however unlikely the script was to end up that way. Knight prefers not knowing where a story is gonna go. He writes, then goes back to the start every day and works through from there.
Knight has accidentally become the poster-boy for Birmingham’s drives to move to the next level in its drive to become a major player in global culture. He intends to build a major sound stage in Birmingham as London’s major studios are fully booked, with a ‘halo effect’ of businesses based around it, and from this to also create a scene where live theatre can lead to movies being made.
Ian Kennedy’s conversation with Steven Knight turned out lots of interesting information about the inner working of the industry. If you haven’t read it yet, why not take a look at Part One by clicking here?
Our Ian Kennedy was lucky enough to share a table for an evening with Steven Knight, the writer of SERENITY, PEAKY BLINDERS, TABOO, DIRTY PRETTY THINGS, LOCKE, and much more…
Steven Knight says that we’re entering a golden age of TV and film. He explained that the US system is great for writers – it’s unionized and you can make a proper living just from writing. He actually felt that there seems to be a good mystery to you if you DON’T live in LA, as long as you’re prepared to fly out every 6 weeks and do late-night conference calls.
But he explained that the Hollywood system is slow! It takes many years of gestation most of the time. If you persuade a star to be in your project, the studios know they’ll make back a certain many million dollars from it – his film HUMMINGBIRD (with Jason Statham) was in profit before it even got to the cinema. He felt that distributors often underestimate their audience and focus on young males.
Screens are better nowadays so TV drama has risen a lot. Actors like TV and it’s a writer’s medium – writers have control there, unlike other formats. Too many people are involved in making films, telling you something’s not good enough in order to justify their presence and pay. But getting actors to commit beyond series 1 of your TV series is hard because they may get film offers.
Show runners write episode 1 in the US and their team of writers – who’ve developed it with them – do other episodes. Writers rise up through the ranks in the US. British TV writing is more eccentric and individualistic – the US system is more corporate. Theatre writers are good for TV due to their ability with dialogue and are often overlooked.
Steven Knight explained that he had begun his career in the UK by writing plenty for radio, and for comedians including particularly Jasper Carrott, and writing 31 episodes of Carrott’s sitcom with Robert Powell, THE DETECTIVES. Steven was one of the 3 founders of WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE. He also wrote novels for Penguin, and presented DIRTY PRETTY THINGS to the BBC which led to that commission.
Then came AMAZING GRACE, for the 200th anniversary of the end of the slave trade, and EASTERN PROMISES which led from DIRTY PRETTY THINGS. The award nominations that came as a result of these put him into the US system, which he found to be great for writers. He got to direct HUMMINGBIRD which he had also written, and after that wanted to get total control of a project – and he feels that LOCKE vindicated him becoming a director.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our conversation with Steven Knight, in which he discusses the influences behind PEAKY BLINDERS, his writing process, and his plans for the future…
How to give Producers, Executives and Publishers what they say they want
If you haven’t already, check out Part One here!
In the first part of this article, Ian Kennedy wrote about how stories always show us an important aspect of life. Finding your voice as a writer involves recognizing the aspect you’re exploring and expressing it through the choices you make in your story…
This is a key tool in focusing your script – to ensure that everything that’s in it shows clear choices by the writer which each reveal different, important and often subtle features of that aspect of life which they’ve decided to explore. What choices you make, and how you present them (i.e. your style, another little-understood word that is often used by producers, execs and publishers), gives your writing its voice.
Here are some examples, they’re all just my own interpretations and summations of the stories mentioned but you’ll get the idea:
- “It’s about how life can be brutal and cruel.” This leads us to: “GAME OF THRONES explores a vivid fantasy world that is brutal and cruel, but where you can thrive if you’re tough enough, whether you’re a man or a woman.”
- “It’s about how life can be threatened by chaos and injustice.” This leads us to: “BATMAN battles a world where criminals and injustice threaten to turn our civilization to chaos.”
- “It’s about how life can be determined by what’s in your heart.” This leads us to: “STAR WARS is about how even the biggest cosmic battles come down to the goodness or darkness in people’s hearts.”
- “It’s about how life can be trapped in eternal childhood for some people.” This leads us to STEPBROTHERS, and other comedies.
- “It’s about how having the biggest brain doesn’t always make life easier.” THE BIG BANG THEORY.
- “It’s about how some people have special abilities or powers and have to decide how to use them right.” – Any superhero story. (Technically, Batman doesn’t have any superpowers, but hey, he’s rich and runs a huge tech-innovation company, so that’s the next best thing.)
For me, it’s both the choice of the aspect of life they want to explore, and the way that they then go on to explore it, which gives the writer their “voice”. Make a conscious choice about the aspect of life you want to explore, the many forms it takes and how you can dramatize those in a way that feels convincing (within the internal logic of your story world – even if that’s a silly or surreal one like MONTY PYTHON), and show how that aspect of life creates dilemmas and issues with important repercussions for your characters and their story world, which you can resolve in a way that shows your conclusions about these questions, and give us an answer we can go away with. As McKee explains, it could be a “This means that this”, a “This means that this, but also means this”, etc.
So for choosing your ending, this comes down to the ‘moral of the story’: your ending should reflect the message and new understanding you want us to take away from the story about life, particularly about ‘life in a world like the one we see in this story’. A message like, “in a world like this, hope always triumphs” or “in a world like this, hope is an illusion”. And you should focus your story on exploring all the features of the aspect of life you’re exploring, and bring us to a conclusion that’s both dramatically, emotionally, and intellectually satisfying conclusion which gives an answer to the big questions you’ve asked.
I believe that all great writing teaches us something about the world, that we didn’t already know or hadn’t understood in this way before. That’s why we want to live out alternative lives through characters and worlds that – if we’re honest – we’d run a mile away from ever having to live as. From their struggles and dilemmas, we take back lessons that enrich and inform our lives, for the better. Even grim stories, enrich our understanding of life for the better, and help resolve us not to let our world turn out that way.
In all of this, the writer’s voice is revealed, and proves itself to be unique. So. Focus your writing on what I’ve explained here, and as you’re applying it to every passage of your work, ask yourself whether your telling of this is fully convincing. Because that’s then the main obstacle to getting greenlit, once you’ve found your voice and proven yourself as a writer.
Develop your voice as a writer with even more in-depth advice from an industry expert: check out our Elite Mentoring and script development services!
How to give Producers, Executives and Publishers what they say they want
When they’re answering questions about what they’re looking for in a script or book, you’ll often hear producers, execs and publishers claiming that the vital quality they look for in writing is the unique voice of the writer. I’ve heard this one a lot, and even when asked what they mean, they’ve rarely given any kind of definition to help writers go away with confidence of what they need to do.
But I read hundreds of scripts a year, watch plenty of productions in lots of genres, and help other writers improve their work every day. So here, I think, is a useful definition of where a writer’s voice comes from in their writing, and how they can “own it” and come across as unique and commissionable.
Firstly, it’s vital to recognize that all stories show us an aspect of life – hopefully an important or stimulating/entertaining one. (Why does nature reward us with laughter for recognizing things that are counterintuitive, ie funny? Because it’s stimulating and therefore expands our understanding of the world – which better equips us to survive and thrive in it. Comedy is not frivolous, it’s vital.)
So, recognizing the aspect of life you’re exploring in your story, can be expressed in one simple sentence:
“It’s about how life can be (funny/perverse/brutal/arbitrary/beautiful/whatever!)”
You should be able to pick a word or phrase to finish that sentence, which encapsulates the theme, tone and underlying logic of what kinds of thing happen in your story and why they happen. This is a key tool in focusing your script – to ensure that everything that’s in it shows clear choices by the writer which each reveal different, important and often subtle features of that aspect of life which they’ve decided to explore.
What choices you make, and how you present them (i.e. your style, another little-understood word that is often used by producers, execs and publishers), gives your writing its voice.
Stay tuned for the second part of this article, in which Ian goes into ever greater depth about a writer’s voice, the moral of a story, and how to write a great ending…