In July I attended a week long course in screenwriting at the Marlborough College Summer School. The screenwriting course was led by Harry Oulton, who now works as a children’s novelist but has also worked extensively as a script reader, editor and producer. You can find his website here. He’s a very warm and encouraging man, and the course was really illuminating. What I’m writing here is basically a summary of the notes I took during the course, in case anyone is interested in screenwriting and may find this to be helpful.
Scripts must be written with the visual in mind, but they should also aim to make the audience think. Jaws is a good example – you don’t have to see the shark. The use of sound links to the terrifying moment. “It’s what we don’t see which is truly frightening” – Alfred Hitchcock.
The difference between film and TV scripts
Film: is a form of escapism filled with excitement, change and the potential for travel (bigger budget). It’s more of a fantasy world. There’s the opportunity to go on a journey with the characters and witness their transformation.
TV: Based more in reality, represents hanging out with your mates. There’s less opportunity for character development. TV scripts can fall into the following categories:
Series – These feature the same characters with different stories in each episode. There is no character change, and the episodes can be watched in any order (e.g. Friends).
Serials – These feature the same characters but follow the same story across multiple episodes. Characters can change, but don’t have to. The episodes must be watched in order, and every episode must be watched to gain the full story.
Hybrids – These have longer lasting storylines, e.g. Mad Men. They are serials which need elements of series to be able to be dragged out for longer.
Single drama – films for TV, e.g. Mrs Brown.
If following the 3 Act structure for 120 page script, it breaks down as follows.
Act I – 30 pages – includes the set up, and an inciting incident
Act II – 60 pages – the confrontation, ending the act on the maximum low point
Act III – 30 pages – the resolution, including a big climax
Each page should roughly last one minute of screen time.
This template can be reversed. If the script ends with everyone dying (an unhappy resolution), add a maximum high point instead of a maximum low point at the end of Act II. Build up the happy before ruining everyone’s dreams! The structure should have clear peaks and troughs so the audience experience shifting emotions.
Following a linear timeline can be dull to watch. Voiceovers and flashbacks can be used in film, but aren’t usually used in TV (although doesn’t mean you can’t!).
Every scene should include 3 Acts, and must serve more than one purpose. Each scene at least needs to have a change or reversal. There needs to be a sense of progression – each scene should give movement or shape to the storyline.
You need to be able to justify the use of every word in the script – there should be no padding, and no dialogue that doesn’t serve a purpose. Every location also needs to be justified – locations cost money!
It’s a good idea to watch soaps to understand their use of dialogue and the ways they structure conversations.
Recommended reads: The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. Into the Woods by John Yorke. The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell.
Recommended watch: Rashomon, Boomtown.
Tip: Put your characters in a lift together and make them talk until you know them.
Drama is born out of characters’ condition and characteristics.
You need to give time to explore your characters properly.
Sitcom characters are generally larger than life, so take one aspect of their characterisation and exaggerate it (e.g. Monica’s obsession with cleanliness in Friends).
Characters can be humanised with a ‘will they/won’t they’ love plot.
Will your script pass the Bechdel Test? You’ll need two female characters with speaking parts who can hold a whole scene where they don’t talk about men in their conversation.
Drama is based around a character’s conscious want vs. their subconscious need. Usually what they need isn’t what they want, which creates conflict. The conflict causes the character’s internal stress, whereas reconciling the want/need drives the story forward.
Antagonists must have good motivation for their actions – they can’t just be mad! But antagonists don’t always have to be characters – they are whatever causes the conflict. This could be the situation or the environment your character finds themselves in. The antagonist could be internal – the character is thwarting themselves.
Points to consider when getting to know your characters:
- Married? Single? Would they commit adultery, and if so who with?
- Who is their celebrity crush?
- What is their weakness? Worst habit? Are they too controlling? Do they suffer from hubris?
- Do they daydream? Are they overly nostalgic? Do they live for the moment?
- What sort of animal would they see themselves as? What sort of animal would others see them as?
Recommended watch: Big Night
Listen to what people say, but don’t write the way people really talk – too many hesitations and self-interruptions.
Show, don’t tell. Write as BIG as you possibly can – there should be pictures coming off the page. Keep it visual and use visual sequences, especially in film – don’t just rely on dialogue. Bear in mind that sometimes with dialogue, less is more. Little dialogue can be more effective, especially in film. TV tends to be more dialogue heavy. TV dialogue should be more realistic, whereas film dialogue can be ‘bigger’ – film is more about escapism.
Functions of dialogue:
- Moves the story forward
- Reveals characterisation
- Communicates information
- Creates conflict between characters
- Calls forth emotions
All dialogue must achieve at least one of these functions, but preferably all if possible!
Rules of dialogue:
- Could you achieve the same thing with a picture instead?
- Less is more
- Make the dialogue sound ‘normal’ but with a lot more content
- Drama/dialogue = ‘life with the boring bits taken out.’
- Create characters we want to be with or hear talking
- Use subtext (focus on what the character’s thinking, not what they’re saying)
- Avoid exposition
- Be funny (if appropriate)
Voiceovers – these generally don’t work so well on TV. Don’t use them to say what’s happening on the screen. Use it as a last resort to show what someone’s thinking.
This is what you use to sell your script!
‘My story is a (genre) called (title) about (hero) who wants (goal) despite (obstacle).’
Use antecedents/other examples to give a general idea, e.g. ‘Clueless meets Shakespeare.’ Make sure these are relevant!
End with: ‘Do you have any questions about the film or shall I just send you the script?’
Be efficient, short and sharp – you have a limited window to sell your script so make it effective and to the point!
Things to consider with TV pitches – does this idea have legs? Can it run and run?
‘My story is a (genre) called (title) about (hero) who wants (goal) despite (obstacle). In the first season we cover stories like (examples).’
Those are the basic notes I took from the week long screenwriting class, I don’t know if they’ll be helpful for anyone else and they might not make sense to everyone because of the way my method of note-taking works. I tend to jot down only the things which I think are most important, so there may be a couple of steps missed out along the way which could make this confusing for others to follow. If you’re interested in screenwriting though, I would definitely recommend visiting Harry Oulton’s website and keeping an eye out for any of his future courses.
One thing I would say is that this was very much a theory based course. Harry showed a lot of clips from films and TV to demonstrate the points he was making, but we didn’t really do any actual screenwriting in the class. While this was still useful for me, I know that some people prefer to actually get feedback on what they’re writing in class, in which case his courses may not be the best for you. We wrote very little, just a sample pitch for our individual projects and a short conversation between two characters.
If you don’t understand what any of these notes mean or you’d like a bit more clarification from my rubbish summaries, leave me a comment and I’ll see if I can remember what I meant originally.