Little Writing Distractions

I really enjoy having short writing challenges to turn to when I need a break from a longer piece. Last month I spent a few mornings working on this haiku for the Scotsman Hogmanay Poetry Competition:

Wings brushing wire mesh,
sharp beaks spray seed, pockmark snow
Birdsong in winter

I loved playing around with the words, exploring different sounds and rhythms. I think experimenting with different writing structures every now and again can give you the bit of creative energy you might be missing if you’ve spent a long time working with only one form.

Recently I’ve come across two mini writing challenges I thought I would share with you, in case you also like the occasional distraction. The first is A River of Stones, which I read about on Rachel Fenton’s blog. The idea is to write a “small stone” every day in January, which means taking a moment to observe something in precise detail and capturing what you see in words. The observations that Rachel has made in her stones are beautiful.

The second challenge is Next Best Page, a competition which aims to produce an innovative piece of theatre by uniting 52 different writers in the creation of one script. Every Monday a new page is added and you have until the following Saturday to write and submit the next page. The project will run throughout 2011 and resulting play will be staged in 2012. Page 8 was added today so check it out and see if you’d like to continue the story with your own page 9.

How do you like to take a break from your main writing projects? Are there any mini writing challenges you would like to recommend?


Theme and Throughlines in Screenwriting

Many thanks to Stuart Innes for this very entertaining and informative guest post.

‘Theme’ is a tricky beast.  It’s the sturdy packhorse that guides us – the writer – away from the sleepy hamlet of our opening chapters, through the thick forest of dead trees, to the shiny citadel of our cathartic finale.  Where we probably go and kill an evil wizard or something.

But writing stories takes time.  And if you’re not in control of your theme, you’ll get tired and bored, and all those little side paths full of exotic-looking flowers will start looking like an interesting place to take a wee wander.  And before you know it, you and your theme are frolicking in the foliage, while your audience twiddles its thumbs, wondering when the heck you’re going to get back that whole evil wizard thing.

So yeah, a strong, solid theme/horse.  How do you get one?  Recently I attended a meeting of the Edinburgh Screenwriters Group, where guest speaker Hyan Thiboutot – a very intelligent man (possibly a wizard) with 17-years of experience writing and script doctoring for North American studios – had some thoughts on the subject.

Hyan’s first advice is to identify your story’s theme.  Some folk will tell you just to start writing and let the theme find you, but Hyan disagrees.  The sooner you nail your theme, the quicker you can get down to writing the bits that are important.

Okay, you’ve got your theme.  Hooray!  Now go out and find some variations on it.  And then, make sure that each of your characters inhabits one of those variations.

To illustrate this, Hyan used the Frank Darabont movie, The Shawshank Redemption.  The theme of Shawshank is “Institutionalisation”, and so each character in the story represents an aspect of it.  Like this:

  • Warden Norton (Head of Prison): Embodiment of the institution.
  • Captain Hadley (Head Guard): The Warden’s apprentice; his likely successor.
  • Bogs (Creepy Guy): Oppressed by those above him, an oppressor of those below.
  • Brooks (Old Guy): Institutionalised.  Can’t hack life outside of prison.
  • Red (Morgan Freeman): Borderline.  On the verge of being institutionalised.
  • Andy (Tim Robbins): Refuses to be institutionalised.

Note how the protagonist and main antagonist are at opposite ends of the scale, so as to create maximum amount of conflict.  Pretty cool, huh?

Some films are content to have just one theme – an outer conflict if you will.  That’s fine, but if you’re writing something that requires a lot of depth, you can go and add a second theme – an inner conflict.  In Shawshank, it’s “Hope”, and it goes like this:

  • Warden Norton (Head of Prison): Manipulates people’s hopes, crushes them.
  • Captain Hadley (Head Guard): The Warden’s apprentice; his likely successor.
  • Bogs (Creepy Guy): No hope for himself, and destroys hope in others.
  • Brooks (Old Guy):  No hope.  Suicidal.
  • Red (Morgan Freeman): Borderline.  Not sure he can believe in hope.
  • Andy (Tim Robbins): Embodiment of hope.

So, Shawshank’s outer conflict vs. inner conflict is “Institutionalisation vs. Hope”, and because those themes are rooted in every character, the story never loses sight of what it’s about.

Wow!  Now how do we actually write this thing?  Hyan says that, on average, a 90-minute film will have about a dozen ‘throughlines’… but it varies wildly (Batman Begins has 25 of them!!).  A ‘throughline’ is screenwriter speak for a plot thread, and it traditionally comes in five parts (or ‘beats’):

  1. Introduction of Character
  2. Conflict arises
  3. Conflict gets worse
  4. Conflict comes to a head
  5. Character exits

The Andy/Bogs conflict is a throughline, but so too is the sub-plot of Red’s parole.  You don’t have to involve the protagonist in every throughline.

Most throughlines are dealt with in the mid-section of the story.  While your Opening sets the scene, and the End narrows the focus to one or two central conflicts (the biggest ones), the mid-section is where you can set the other, lesser variations into conflict with one another.

There are a few different ways you can handle this:

  • Broad: Jump from throughline to throughline, until they all converge on a single point that wraps them all up.
  • Sequential: Deal with each throughline one by one, start to finish, start to finish.
  • Multi: Each throughline is completely independent; different stories that never converge (think Paul Haggis’ “Crash” – separate stories on a single theme).
  • Mix: Some throughlines are dealt with in their entirety, others advanced in jumps.

Whew!  It’s a lot to take in, but it’s fascinating stuff, and makes me want to make sure I’m well prepared before I saddle up for my next piece of writing.



[For more information on the monthly meetings of the Edinburgh or Glasgow Screenwriters Groups, check out Scottish Screenwriters]

What Makes a Good Short Film?

Here are the notes I made at the most recent Edinburgh Screenwriters meeting where Nigel R. Smith talked about what makes a good short film:

  • Length: Optimum length ten minutes. This is enough to tell a good story and hold the audience’s attention. It also fits in neatly with film festival time slots.
  • Theme: Theme is crucial. Something that you are concerned about. Something that everyone can relate to. If you look at short films that win prizes, themes involving wars and kids are popular. People like films that feature children in peril!
  • Characters: Very strong central character with a very clear central goal. A clear nemesis. Only use a few characters because there is very little time to get to know them.
  • Location: As with characters, little time for audience to familiarise themselves with locations so only use a few, unless the character is going on a physical journey e.g. a road trip. Try to use a very specific, unusual location unfamiliar to most audiences. An unusual story world can make something ordinary appear extraordinary.
  • Setting: Present day. Historical / futuristic settings are expensive and a lot of work to create.
  • Structure: Standard linear narrative, 3- act structure. Have a strong beginning, get into story and character quickly. Set up active questions so that the audience wants to know what happens in the next scene i.e. dramatically withhold information. Twist in the tale endings are perfect for the short film.
  • Dialogue: Type of dialogue must be appropriate to the film. Naturalistic (this is a dialogue form, it does not mean talking naturally). Make everything that is said count. Don’t over explain things in the dialogue. The audience likes a bit of room to figure out for themselves what is going on.

Nigel  R. Smith runs screenwriting courses at Screen Academy Scotland and has written a short film distribtion guide, You’ve Got It Made, which is available to download at the Scottish Screen website.

Scotland Writes and BBC Television Drama

Last night I went to an Edinburgh Screenwriters meeting where the guest speaker was George Aza-Selinger, a  TV drama script editor at the BBC. He talked to us about Scotland Writes and about submitting material to the BBC.

The first point of contact for new writers is the BBC Writersroom. They will read the first ten pages of all scripts submitted to them. If you are submitting a script via a production company or an agent it can go through BBC e-commissioning.

There are two common mistakes that people make when sending scripts to the Writersroom: failure to get into the drama right from page 1 and sending a script that is not suitable for the BBC channels.

George Aza-Selinger says, “You really need to hook the audience from the top and then keep hooking them throughout.” If you don’t have your viewers gripped right from the beginning they will turn off the TV or change the channel.

He gave us a brief summary of the TV drama slots available across the four BBC channels. You can read about the requirements of each slot here. George Aza-Selinger told us that BBC3 “is really interesting, seen as a clean slate and being concentrated on at BBC Scotland” which made me think that it might be good to bear the drama content of BBC3 in mind when writing my script for Scotland Writes. He did warn us, however, “don’t write too self-consciously for the slots. Let the story tell itself. Think about the characters.” After you have got the story and characters down you can think about which slot your script is most suited for and do the rewriting with that in mind.

While the Writersroom is a great starting point for new writers, George Aza-Selinger pointed out that “it is really difficult to get your own original drama on BBC.” He suggested increasing your chances by writing for long-running drama series such as Doctors or River City first, or writing for radio. “There’s a lot more opportunity to come in at grassroots level in radio.” If writing for radio appeals, check out this excellent post from Michelle Lipton on the Radio 4 Commissioning Process.

Although the Scotland Writes initiative is funded by the BBC Writersroom, the guidelines for sending scripts into the Scotland Writes competition are more specific than the Writersroom guidelines. The writer must have been born or be living in Scotland. The script must be a 60 minute pilot episode for a series or serial and must reflect contemporary Scotland. George Aza-Selinger strongly advised basing the script in Scotland rather than having a Scottish character in another country. The Scotland Writes judges will be looking for “authenticity of voice.” They don’t want scripts where “the writer is trying too hard or the characters aren’t quite right or it is too much like something else on TV.” We were told not to worry about budget when writing our scripts. “If the script is strong enough it might be possible to raise the money for it. Or you could go back to the characters and find a way to rewrite keeping the good bits and losing the expense.”

To enter the Scotland Writes competition you need to send your pilot script and two page summary of the series, along with your application form, to the BBC by 2nd November 2009 .

Scotland Writes

I moved back to Scotland in January after 3-and-a-bit years abroad. I never intended to stay here, I was just stopping by en route to London. Then I became aware of all the great opportunities for writers in Scotland and have been absolutely blown away. There was Screen Lab in February, Radio Lab is coming up, there is the Dundee Literary Festival this month and the Edinburgh Book Festival in August, both offering workshops for writers.  It’s just far too exciting here for me to be able to leave now.

The most recent event to come to my attention is the launch of Scotland Writes on Thursday 25th June in Edinburgh. It is a FREE event (but you have to book a place) giving screenwriters based in Scotland the opportunity to take part in a question and answer session with Kate Rowland, Creative Director of New Writing at the BBC, and to be inspired by a panel of film and television industry professionals.

If you are in or around Edinburgh next Thursday, it might be worth looking into. I’ve booked my place, so if you can’t make it, you can read my notes here afterwards.

On Writing: Television – Stephen Greenhorn

I’ve been to so many writing workshops lately that I have become an expert at listening and taking notes at the same time. The only problem is that sometimes I end up scribbling on my leg.

The most recent workshop I attended was On Writing: Television with Stephen Greenhorn at the Traverse Theatre. Stephen has an impressive list of television writing credits: Dr Who, Glasgow Kiss and The Bill to name just a few, and he developed River City. He also has a broad range of experience writing for theatre and this is what gave his workshop a different spin from other screenwriting courses I have taken. His talk was largely focused on comparing and contrasting the two different scriptwriting processes. Here are my notes, straight from my thigh to your computer screen:

When writing for theatre you usually come up with your own ideas but in television very often a producer will approach you with an idea which you then have to develop and make your own. In the course of researching this idea Stephen advises that you “pocket” any material you don’t use because it may come in handy again for a future project.

It is very common in television to write for a character you didn’t create and skill is needed to get the personality and dialogue right. Stephen suggests reading scripts from previous episodes to get a feel for those characters and to refer to the show’s bible for facts and figures.

When writing for television the producer will want to see a treatment before going to script. This is not usually the case when writing for theatre, however, Stephen recommends writing treatments even when they are not required because then you have a document to work from and can check that the story works.

Theatre writing is often thematic rather than story based. In television there is a big focus on story and Stephen thinks this is the reason that some theatre writers can’t switch to writing for television.

In television the pace has to be  much faster because if the audience lose interest they will wander off to make a cup of tea. In a theatre, where the audience have paid for their tickets, they are more likely to stick with the show.

Length has to be much more precise when writing for television than for theatre because you will be writing for a time slot. Furthermore, the content and tone of your script has to be suitable for the audience at that time slot. Stephen points out that the difference in tone between a 7pm and 9pm drama is quite big. You also have to consider the politics of the channel you are writing for.

In theatre you write in a genre if it fits your thematic concerns. In television you pick genre first. You need to watch tons of genre TV to be able to write a script in that genre.

A play is usually a one off and ends on a resolution. The tendency now with television is to end on a hook to leave open the possibility of further series. In Stephen’s opinion the hook at the end of the final episode should not be so big that it eclipses any sense of resolution.