This month I’ve been attending the fantastic London Screenwriters’ Festival 2021. I’ve learnt so many helpful tips and here are some of the highlights.
Tip 1: Don’t worry too much about breaking the rules
A common theme across the festival was that a story’s potential can only be developed by getting it down on the page. Focus on the limitless opportunities a story represents without feeling too restricted by the ‘rules’ of screenwriting. Screenplay style and format has been in a constant state of evolution since cinema began and nothing is set in stone.
‘Blow their mind in the first paragraph!’ PEN DENSHAM
Write a story that will be a page-turner for the script reader. Don’t give them time to predict what’s going to happen. Write the first draft, celebrate your achievement, critique it, then edit it down to make it a tighter read.
Scott Myers explained how to turn the following three rules on their head:
i) You can’t use ‘we see.’
This rule came about when film directors gained more control and no longer required directions in the script. However, screenplays should be an enjoyable read! You can still provide a vivid description of what’s in the scene.
ii) Action paragraphs cannot be longer than three lines.
Keeping things to a minimum makes a script easier to read so it’s right to make paragraphs short. But instead of using one three-line paragraph to set the whole scene, try writing a short paragraph for each camera shot.
iii) You cannot include ‘unfilmables.’
According to this rule, you should only write what the viewer can see or hear (action, location and dialogue). However, conveying personality or a character’s state of mind in a scene description can make it more entertaining for the script reader. So go for it!
Tip 2: Build a network
Befriend everyone. Learn who the script buyer is. People in the story department at agencies and film studios know what scripts are popular. Cinematographers know everyone, as do the personal assistants, who are also the gatekeepers! Reach out and talk to them in an honest way. And don’t just talk about your script – that’s what everyone else will be doing!
Gary Goldstein, writer of Pretty Woman, advised that social media is a useful networking tool but should be used with intentionality. Commenting on posts (rather than just liking them) is a good way to stand out, but don’t follow this up by sliding into their DMs. Be brave – go old school. Pick up the phone or send them a letter!
Identify trusted readers closer to home. It can be awkward asking friends to review your first draft and they may not give real criticism to avoid hurting your feelings. But it’s good to have a select few people who you know are able to critique your work honestly as an initial sounding board.
Ask your friends to act out your script! Hearing your words spoken aloud can really help to tweak your screenplay. Get the drinks in and enjoy yourselves!
‘Don’t hide yourself as an artist… Take pride in your value and learn how to articulate it.’ GARY GOLDSTEIN
Tip 3: Demonstrate pride in your gifts and passion in your project
Writing success often comes down to the writer, not just the writing. The script and the writer are a package deal! Remember who you are – how extraordinary, unique and special. Invest that in your stories and carry it through your day.
Imposter syndrome can be a challenge for unpublished writers or those who have yet to have a script produced. Be kind to yourself! Block out negative thoughts and don’t allow doubt to creep in.
Have a clear understanding of your ambitions and enthusiasm for the subject. Identify where it might sit. The ability to speak about your screenplay is a key skill and can be quite intimidating. It’s far easier for writers to describe a project on the page but learn to demonstrate your passion verbally.
‘Remove ‘fledgling writer’ from your mind. Call yourself a goddamn writer and do it!’ PEN DENSHAM
Tip 4: Build chemistry slowly
In her talk on using romance to deepen the drama, Jenna Moreci advised that the couple should be ‘equal but different.’ Don’t make them too similar. They should have equal strengths and desirable traits. It must be clear why they would like each other. This also works for building platonic friendships between characters to create a close, believable connection. Make them vulnerable with each other early on, revealing something that could get them hurt but without judgment by the other character. And remember – there’s nothing sexier than when someone wants you back! It’s not romantic for a hero to persist and persist until their love interest eventually relents. Make your viewers swoon rather than feel uncomfortable.
Tip 5: Specificity is everything! You cannot write generally
Be culturally specific and write with humanity to create a universal message. If you write about a particular place in the world well, you’re writing about everywhere. Viewers at the cinema or watching TV across the globe should be able to feel the story. Dialogue should be authentic. Know how your characters speak! Hear them in your head. Your characters are living beings!
Willy Russell, writer of Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine, emphasized that he wrote Educating Rita to entertain EVERYONE – not just the educated Franks in the audience. This is not anti-intellectual but is driven by a desire to be inclusive. The audience pays to watch your film so ‘wrap big theatrical arms around them and bring them willingly on a journey with you!’
‘Vernacular and idiom should be relished for its own innate poetry.’ WILLY RUSSELL
The overriding message of the festival is that times are changing in the film industry. The pandemic has accelerated the move towards streaming, and this strange new landscape presents opportunities and challenges. Screenplays don’t have to imitate existing trends in either content or approach. The white, straight man is predominantly presented in films as being the everyman but it’s time for unrepresented voices to break through.
Fun fact: Over 50% of Hollywood screenwriters in the first two decades of the twentieth century were women. There is power in being represented on screen.
We don’t have to ‘break in’ to the industry. We can become the industry.’ CLIVE FRAYNE