Wednesday, June 24, 2015

SUMMER WRITING

It's hot! The sun is out! All your mates are going up the pub, having BBQs, or going down the beach! You want to write, but the call of the summer is too strong.

At the best of times it's hard to motivate yourself to spend a few hours each day sat in a dark room in front of a computer, putting words and punctuation together to form your latest screenwriting masterpiece. You don't need summer getting in the way of your career and equally you don't want to miss out on all that vital vitamin D. So turn this sunny weather to your advantage.

Load up what you're working on onto your laptop, grab your notes, get a nice cold drink with plenty of ice and go and work outside. Don't forget the suncream. Find a nice cool spot in the garden, in the local park or even at a table outside a coffee bar and get ready to write like your life depends on it.

Turn your wi-fi off on your laptop so you can't connect to the internet or email. Even better leave your mobile at home. Give yourself a page/word target for the day. Make sure it's just you and your work. Then get your head down and get on with it.

You'll be surprised at how much you can get done in such a short space of time. Without the internet and your email there to distract you, you should fly through the pages. Then when you hit your daily target you can pack up and bugger off to enjoy the rest of the day.

Don't punish yourself! Don't force yourself to sit in a dark room when you'd rather be outside. Go on, get out there and enjoy the sun while you write... you deserve it after all.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

FORMAT RULES AND WHY YOU CAN BREAK THEM

There are two topics guaranteed to split opinion amongst screenwriters; grammar and formatting.

A few weeks ago I posted a rough version of the first few scenes of my latest spec thriller and found myself surprised at the backlash on Facebook focusing on the above two topics. I've already explained the reasons for publishing an unproofed selection of my first draft on the web and I won't go over those again, but I do want to discuss formatting rules and why you CAN break them if you so wish.

First of all I must point out that to break the rules you first need to know what they are. For those of you who are now thinking what's the point if you're going to break them anyway, you have to understand that to know how and where the rules can be broken you need to have a good understanding of how they work. Only then can you play and mess around with the reader's, or audience's perceptions and expectations. Not knowing the rules will lead to a very messy and incomprehensible screenplay.

I'm not going to go over the rules here, you can get that information more comprehensively elsewhere, but I am going to use examples of produced screenplays from two films, both of which impressed me, to illustrate what I mean; *LOCKE and *PHONE BOOTH.

SHOW; DON'T TELL:

This is a biggy, obviously because film is a visual medium. LOCKE (2013) is a brilliant example of how to break that rule and impressively so. The screenplay is about a construction manager Locke who walks out on his job and his family when the woman he had a brief fling with is about to give birth to their child. The majority of the screenplay is set in his car in real time, as he attempts to deal with the fallout of his decision by car phone, as he travels up the motorway to the hospital to be with the woman as she gives birth.

Obviously, with the main character confined to such a small space it meant the screenplay was always going to have to rely more on the dialogue than the action description, the 'SHOW' coming from the main actor's performance. Knowing this the writer used the action description as a guide for the actor to the main character's thought process. Consequently the screenplay reads more like a novel in places.
3  INT. LAND ROVER/EXT. CITY STREETS 3 
Ivan will now drive through city streets toward the M6 motorway, a couple of miles away. We will not blink as we study him as he drives...

Ivan is now confronting the crisis in his head. On the site he was in a familiar place but now he is on a journey and must necessarily begin to consider the destination and the place he is leaving.

His first decision is to make a phone call on his hands free car phone. This is an important component of the story so we should take some time establishing the mechanism. He has a long list of speed dial numbers, identified by names or locations.

He speed dials a number labelled ‘Bastard’...


IVAN

Hello, can I speak to Gareth? 
However, if this had been a spec screenplay the writer would not have been able to do this. By knowing he would also direct, it allowed the writer to break the 'SHOW;DON'T TELL' rule. The action isn't used to 'SHOW' the reader but instead inform the actor's performance. A reader coming across this in a spec script pile would most likely bin it and chalk the writer up as an amateur.

Only because the writer knew the screenplay formatting rules could he break them to make the film he wanted to. The resulting movie is better for it.

TOO MUCH DIALOGUE:

As writers we're always warned against using too much dialogue - again, 'SHOW; DON'T TELL'. The PHONE BOOTH (2002) screenplay not only breaks this rule but completely destroys it and becomes a master class of dialogue writing.

PHONE BOOTH is about a slick New York publicist who picks up a ringing receiver in a phone booth is told that if he hangs up, he'll be killed and is forced to participate in the destruction of his life and all that he holds dear, as the hidden marksman stares at him down the sight of his high powered rifle. As with LOCKE the main character's confinement to a small space is key to the story, so how does the writer get around this obvious obstacle and make it more cinematic? The answer is he breaks the 'TOO MUCH DIALOGUE' rule and uses it to convey the main character's predicament, rather than using action description to do so.

What surprised me most about this script is that there is very little action description. It's almost entirely dialogue. Pages and pages of it occasionally broken by a line or two of action. In fact if you added up all the action and scene description I doubt it would total more than five full pages. The scene and action description is sparse and only used when absolutely necessary, flipping the rule on its head and swapping the roles of action description and dialogue.

The screenplay's dialogue is a masterly example (if you know of a better one please let me know) of how words can convey action, emotion and atmosphere. The writer uses every single word of dialogue so carefully and expertly there is little or no need for action description. As a reader you don't need great swathes of action and scene description to describe what's happening and how people react both physically and emotionally to events. By doing this the writer creates an incredible, frenetic pace, under pinning the tension and urgency the publicist experiences trapped in the phone booth by the unknown sniper. The dialogue literally puts the reader in the phone booth with publicist, forces him/her to feel exactly what the character feels. It really is a spell binding screenplay.
 STU 
 They're all lying.  Nobody saw it because it didn't happen. 
 RAMEY 
A man is dead but it didn't happen. 
STU 
Not on account of me!  This is like some bad dream. 
RAMEY 
You're walking through a bad dream and you can't 
wake up.  Do you want to wake up? 
STU 
I'm trying. 
RAMEY 
And in this dream, you killed that man.  He was 
bothering you so you iced him. 
STU 
No. 
RAMEY 
Then who did? 
VOICE 
Don't tell him, Stu.  Or it'll be the last thing he 
ever hears.  His blood will be on your hands.  
STU 
(to Ramey)  
I don't know. 
RAMEY 
But you saw it happen? 
STU 
Yes. 
RAMEY 
You were the closest one to him. You must've seen who did it. 
STU 
No. 
RAMEY 
We're trying to be honest with each other, aren't we?
I particularly love the above scene as you can literally sense the publicist's (Stu) panic as he tries to talk his way out of the murder of a pimp shot by the sniper holding him hostage in the phone booth. The cop (Ramey) believes Stu did it and tries to talk him into surrendering, while the sniper (Voice) puts pressure on Stu and denies him the ability to prove his innocence.

As long as you are familiar with the rules of screenwriting there is no reason why you can't bend or break them to tell your story in a unique way that defies the reader's expectations. Ultimately this will make you stand out and above from all those other writers continually trying to pimp their formulaic screenplays.

Happy writing!

*Excerpts of screenplays used for educational purposes only and copyright remains with the original writer, production company and studio, etc.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

FIRST DRAFT - PART TWO

I learnt a lot by posting the first few scenes of my latest spec last week. Some expected, some unexpected.


I posted the scenes for two reasons...
  1. Let's face it, as writers we never really get to see a proper first (vomit) draft other than our own. Writers are very precious about letting other people seer their work until it has been rewritten a million times and proof read at least once by the grammar Nazis. I thought I'd be different and allow my fellow writers a chance to see how another writer works and what my raw first drafts look like - purely for educational purposes. Some called it brave! Some called it foolish! Some just didn't get it!
  2. Primarily I wanted to see if the scenes worked, if they were enough of a hook for the reader to want to know more.
What I didn't expect to happen...
  1. My spelling errors to be pointed out.
  2. To be pulled up on format.
  3. To be criticised on pace.
  4. For fellow writers to argue with each other over whether these issues should have been pointed out in the first place.
  5. A director to read it and then request to read the rest of the screenplay.
What I did expect to happen...
  1. For people to be drawn into Dexter's story and want to know more.
What I learnt...
  1. As writers it's easy to get hung up on format, pace, spelling and grammar (all of which are important) and forget that we are first and foremost story tellers. If we focus too much on these 'rules' our stories can suffer, their originality diluted or even lost - our work can become formulaic and dull. Be aware of the 'rules' but also be happy to break them if you think your story will benefit.
  2. Everybody has an opinion, most of them different, and these opinions can lead to personal attacks when people think others are attacking their validity.
  3. Some people get very angry if their opinions aren't listened to, are ridiculed or even attacked.
  4. We're writers. We're a community. We should be supportive of each other while being prepared to offer constructive criticism when asked. Under no circumstances should we be attacking each other. We should be united and supportive...always!
  5. Write the story you want to write. You can listen to others' opinions but never forget this is your story and you should never let anyone dictate how you write it... unless they're paying you, or it was their idea in the first place, even then you can negotiate.
  6. Opportunities can come from anywhere, you just need to make them happen.
Overall I'm happy with the results of the blog post and now, because of the mostly positive reaction, I'm thinking of re-posting the same scenes again after each rewrite so my fellow writers can see how the scenes evolve from draft to draft.


Remember - play nice!


Happy writing.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

THE FIRST DRAFT

It's taken nearly a year what with being busy and all, but I'm finally nearing the end of a new spec thriller. So in celebration of the fact I'm going to give you a sneak peak at the first few scenes below. Hope you enjoy them and feedback is always welcome... even the negative.

FADE IN:
EXT. CITY - NIGHT

A myriad of coloured lights twinkle across the bustling metropolis.

Always busy.

Never sleeping.

A tall apartment block that may have once been called luxury, but is now just old, worn and dirty, like its inhabitants.

From a distance we see a WORKMAN, tool box in hand, stride towards the front entrance.

INT. LIFT - NIGHT

DEXTER (40), the workman we saw moments ago, stands expressionless in the far corner of the lift, next to the button panel.

He wears a blue workman’s overall, baseball cap, brown hair underneath, glasses and a tool box.  A screwdriver in his breast pocket.  An ID card hangs from a strap around his neck.

Tinny Muzak plays.

The halogen light exacerbates Dexter’s pasty skin and the dark circles under his eyes.

The lift pings.  The doors open.

Dexter sinks back further into the corner of the lift.

In steps a YUMMY MUMMY, all tattoos and hair extensions.  She gives Dexter a brief cursory glance, before leaning across him to press her desired button.

YUMMY MUMMY
You’re working late.

Dexter doesn’t acknowledge her, drops his head so his cap peak shields his face.

The Yummy Mummy snorts, turns her own head away in annoyance at his rudeness.

Nether Dexter or the Yummy Mummy glance at each other, eyes fixed on the lift wall in silence.  They might as well be ten feet apart, not two.  It’s an awkward few seconds.

The lift pings and the Yummy Mummy exits.  She doesn’t look back.

Dexter urgently presses the fourteen floor button repeatedly, lifts his head again as the doors close.

Finally the lift pings as it arrives at Dexter’s desired floor.

He exits into...

FOURTEENTH FLOOR CORRIDOR

Automatic lights flicker on, some missing, illuminate the pale green walls in a eerie glow.  The colour reflects off Dexter’s skin, makes him look like one of the living dead.

Dexter walks to the far end of the corridor, halts in front of apartment one-four-five.

He knocks with a latex gloved hand.

A long moment...

...then the door opens a crack.

THOMPSON (33) peaks through, flashes a questioning look.  Dexter shows him his ID.

THOMPSON
‘Bout time.

Thompson opens the door wide, leads the way into...

THOMPSON’S APARTMENT, HALLWAY

Dexter closes the door behind him.

THOMPSON
Bloody thing’s been playing up all afternoon.

Dexter pulls the screwdriver from his top pocket to reveal a cleverly disguised syringe...

THOMPSON (CONT’D)
Fucking freezing in here.

...and stabs Thompson in the neck, depresses the button.

Thompson half turns, surprised.  He tries to grab the now empty syringe but his legs give way.

He’s unconscious before he hits the floor.

THOMPSON’S APARTMENT, BATHROOM - MOMENTS LATER

Dexter enters, deposits his tool box on the floor, opens it, takes out two empty bottles of pills and one partially filled.

He lines them up on the lip of the bath, knocks the third one over, spills its contents.

THOMPSON’S APARTMENT, HALLWAY - MOMENTS LATER

Dexter slips his hands under Thompson’s arms, hoists him upwards, with great effort hefts him onto his shoulders in a fireman’s lift, and carries him carefully towards the bathroom.

THOMPSON’S APARTMENT, BATHROOM - MOMENTS LATER

Dexter settles the unconscious Thompson in the bath.

Dexter reaches into his tool box, extracts a bottle of Jim Beam and a funnel, presses Thompson’s fingers to the top and the body of the bottle, and to all the pill bottles.

Dexter opens and discards the Jim Beam bottle top on the bathroom floor.  He opens Thompson’s mouth, uses the funnel to pour the whiskey and a few of the scattered pills down his throat.

Still unconscious Thompson gags, vomits a little back up.

Dexter places the bottle back into Thompson’s hand and steps back to admire his work.
Satisfied, the funnel goes back in the tool box, the lid closed.

Dexter’s legs suddenly go weak, he doubles up, clutches his side in pain, drops to his knees.

Dexter struggles to catch his breath, waits for the pain to subside.

Finally he stands.

He exits on wobbly legs, holds onto the door frame for support.

Happy writing.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL SCREENPLAY COMPETITION - FINAL DEADLINE

Good Morning writers, yes I do know this is the second blog post this week (you lucky lot). Last night I received an email from the Austin Film Festival asking if I would let my blog followers know their Screenplay Competition final deadline is fast approaching. So yeah (cough) their deadline is fast approaching... enter now while you can, and yes you can enter online. Details below!

Austin Film Festival Screenplay & Teleplay Competition 
Final Deadline: May 20 
All submissions must be received or postmarked by 11:59PM PST on Wednesday, May 20
AFF’s Screenplay & Teleplay Competition is one of the most respected writing contests in the country with a rich history of championing and supporting writers.  For the first time ever, AFF will provide Reader Comments to ALL entrants in the Screenplay & Teleplay Competition for FREE!  In addition, all entrants receive registration discounts, with even bigger discounts when you place in the competition. Unlike other screenplay competitions, your experience with AFF doesn’t end after making the first cut. Second Rounders (the esteemed top 10-12% in each category), Semifinalists, and Finalists attend special panels, programmed specifically for them and not open to regular badge holders.  This year, AFF has an exciting line-up of sponsored award judges including AMC for the One-Hour Pilot category, the Writer’s Guild of America East who will provide three established WGAE screenwriters to judge the Final Round of the Drama category, Enderby Entertainment who will be looking for scripts with an original concept and distinctive voice that can be produced under $5 million, and Frank Darabont’s Darkwoods Productions who will be reviewing this year’s top Sci-Fi scripts.  May 20 is the Late (and Final) Deadline for screenplay submissions so enter yours before it really is too late!

Now accepting short and digital series scripts!
www.austinfilmfestival.com

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

JUGGLING

Do you work on one project at a time, or several?

I've been asked this question a lot over the last few years and the answer has changed a little in recent months. I think it's important to keep the ball rolling with regards to your career but I also think it's important to focus on a single project when you need to.

Most of the time I have several projects on the go at once, all at different stages so I'm not trying to write four first draft screenplays at the same time. Currently I'm finishing the first draft of a spec feature thriller ELEVEN, developing two outlines - one for a comedy horror feature I BELIEVE IN MONSTERS and the other for a TV mini series THE DEAD LIST - fleshing out characters for another feature thriller THE CHAIR, developing one page pitches for episodes of a proposed TV crime drama, polishing one page pitches of my own TV drama ideas, as well as constantly keeping in touch with my many friends and colleagues in the industry.

Now if I actually worked on all of those projects every day I would make very little progress on each one. Lately I have found that to be the case as I've flitting from one project to another almost on a hourly basis. Focus was needed. With that in mind today I'll mostly be concentrating on the outline for I BELIEVE IN MONSTERS so that my co-writer and I can begin the first draft of the script as soon as possible. I'm also aware I haven't written a pilot TV episode for quite a while and I'm aiming to focus on one once the Monsters outline out of the way.

To do this I intend to allocate three quarters of my day to focusing on Monsters and the other quarter on a couple of other projects, making as much progress as I can on all three. When one project becomes more urgent than the others I'll adjust my main focus to it, even if that means putting all other projects on hold so I can focus on just the one project. This is especially important when a commission comes in.

Basically what I'm trying to say is don't give yourself too much to do otherwise you'll stretch yourself too thinly, you'll lose focus on projects and they'll suffer because of it. They'll be weak, diluted and lacking the finer details that make great projects stand out. It's always difficult to flit from one idea to the next, spending such a short amount of time on each one. It's far better to pick two or three and focus on them for a few days, then focus on another two or three for the following few days. That way you'll make serious progress on all your projects without their intensity suffering as a result.

For those of you thinking the amount of work above is far too much, think again. It's no good spending six months on one project only for it to go nowhere. All professional writers juggle several projects at any one time. If you want to get ahead in the writing business then you have to be continually coming up with new ideas.

Happy writing.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

THE BLACK LIST

Have you tried hosting your screenplay on the THE BLACK LIST yet? Well if you haven't done so you really should... and here's why.

It's a fantastic chance to get your screenplay in front of US based producers. So who actually reads the screenplays hosted on this site, I hear you cry? The list ranges from major Hollywood executives to small independent producers, over a thousand film industry professionals. 

Do they actually read British screenplays and contact the writers, I hear you also ask? Yes they do. I've had first hand experience of this and know it to be true. That's why I think it's a great opportunity for British writers and one not to be missed.

How does it work? Once uploaded your screenplay is read by a professional reader and 'if' recommended it is passed on to film industry professionals who have signed up to The Black List. So it's worth remembering it's advisable to only upload screenplays you are completely happy and confident with. If your screenplay isn't ready then you shouldn't upload it.

Does it cost the earth? Yes it does cost to host your screenplay, but what's that little amount compared to what you might get for selling your work? I feel it's certainly worth the outlay. There are also the submission call opportunities and the educational resources the website offers to consider. And all for a few quid every month. It is really a no brainer as far as I'm concerned.

Still not convinced? Here's what The Black List have to say in their own words. 

ABOUT THE BLACK LIST
The Black List is where filmmakers find great material to make films and great material finds filmmakers to make them.
It began as a survey. In 2005, Franklin Leonard surveyed almost 100 film industry development executives about their favorite scripts from that year that had not been made as feature films. That first list - many of which have been made since - can be viewed here. Since then the voter pool has grown to about 500 film executives, 60% of whom typically respond.
Over 225 Black List screenplays have been made as feature films. Those films have earned over $19BN in worldwide box office, have been nominated for 171 Academy Awards, and have won 35, including Best Pictures SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, THE KING'S SPEECH, and ARGO, and seven of the last twelve screenwriting Oscars. A complete list of Black List films is here.
In September 2012, we launched a membership site for industry professionals that functions as a real time Black List and screenplay recommendation engine. You can learn more here and sign up for membership here.
In October 2012, we extended our mission further by allowing screenwriters from the world to, for a small fee, upload their scripts to our database, have them evaluated by professional script readers, and subject to that evaluation and our recommendation algorithm, sent to our - at present - over 1000 film industry professionals. You can begin the process of being discovered here.
In November 2013, we began accepting original episodic material, providing access for aspiring television and webseries writers around the world.
The Black List is also home to Scott Myers' blog Go Into The Story, the official Black List screenwriting blog.
2013 Black List Annual Report
Why not give it a go and see how you get on.

Happy writing.