Friday, 31 May 2013

Losing the plot

Synopses are a pain in the arse. No-one likes writing them and I definitely don’t like reading them.

Well, no, actually that's not entirely true - I just don't like reading bad synopses. 

A good synopsis is a rare pleasure, like a Cadbury's Creme Egg in November, but a badly written synopsis makes me turn cold at the prospect of reading a further 90 plus pages of script by the same author. 

Never forget that first impressions are lasting; how many times have you been told the importance of a good covering letter when applying for a job? Your synopsis is the first sample of your writing that the reader will get - so the same definitely applies. Your synopsis should be dynamic, it should be exciting and if you don't enjoy reading it, why would I?

Another common problem of synopsis writing is that people get bogged down trying to express the overall mood of the piece or providing in-depth character breakdowns without ever really offering much in terms of plot.

Writing a good synopsis is about knowing your story, so it's not surprising that the things you should be communicating in this crucial introduction to your script aren't a million miles away from Kate Leys' storytelling tips which I wrote about last week.

Essentially your synopsis should tell the reader four things... hopefully in this order:

1) Who's your main character when we meet them?

2) What's the conflict/motivation that sparks the main character into 'action'?

3) What do they do (ie what 'action' do they take) to sort it out?

4) What’s the resolution and how has the main character changed from who they were when we first met them?

That's really it.

And the quicker you can get this across, the happier your script reader will be.

But what if you can’t answer these questions in your synopsis? What if it’s not absolutely clear to you who your character is and what troubles they’re facing?

Then it’s time to go back to the drawing/writing board.

Below, I’ve used the example of Rain Man to show how clearly these four questions can be answered to create a clear and well structured synopsis:

1) Charlie Babbit is an egotistical, ruthless, young professional.

2) When Charlie’s estranged father dies, he discovers that he has received a very small amount of the will. The rest, he is informed, has gone to his older brother, Raymond who is severely Autistic and who Charlie had no idea existed.

3) Charlie decides to take Raymond out of his care facility, as they travel across the country to meet with attorneys, in an effort to begin a custody battle which he hopes will end in out of court settlement granting him half the Babbit estate and returning Raymond back home.

4) After spending countless days with his brother on the road, Charlie begins to bond with Raymond and realises that he genuinely wants to care for his brother and no longer cares about his inheritance. Raymond eventually returns to his home at the institute and Charlie promises to visit him in two weeks. Charlie is no longer the selfish, money-obsessed character we first met as he has nothing to gain financially from this promise - a relationship with his long-lost brother is enough.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

The First Isn't Finished

I've run out of fingers, toes and other bodily extremities trying to count the amount of times I get an email asking for me to read a script which is still being written.

I'll never understand why some writers do this. As a writer myself, it makes me nervous to think that someone would send out their work as soon as the word 'FIN' leaves their fingertips. 

There are a couple of famous sayings that often get circulated in reference to this very point - they recommend throwing your first draft either in a drawer or the dustbin (depending on how ruthless/cynical/sadistic the advice-giver is). And as much as it pains me to regurgitate these well-worn words of writing wisdom, I'm inclined to agree. 

It took me a while to take this advice on board; I felt like maybe I was the exception to the rule, maybe my first draft is the equivalent of other people's fiftieth. Maybe I was an idiot. 

So don't send your first draft, don't even send your second. Send the final draft. The one that you're really happy with - in a month's time, in two years' time, in ten years' time. 

That's the script I want to read.

Friday, 24 May 2013

The Art of Storytelling

Last week I attended Art Wednesday’s Nice to Meet You event, where amongst Game of Thrones' cast members and aspiring creatives, Kate Leys (legendary script editor and general story-maker-better-er) gave an extremely insightful talk on ‘The Art of Storytelling’.

Her advice was simple and spot on. Just the tonic for anyone stuck with their script.

Her main points were thus:

  • The basis of all narrative is that a stranger comes to town - whether it’s a shark (Jaws), a tsunami (The Impossible) or a wealthy businessman (Pretty Woman) - to disrupt the status quo.

  • If you want to work out what your film is all about, start with the sentence:

This is a story about...

  • You should be able to answer the following questions about your character:

1) Who are they?
2) What do they want?
3) How are they going to get it?

And the secret fourth question:

4) What do they really need?

  • Remember that a ‘writer’s voice’ is all about finding truth, in character, situation or human emotion. If writers aren’t true to this - if they’re faking or trying to second guess what people want from the story - the audience will know.

And there you have it. Just a couple of embarrassingly rudimentary ways to make sure your script has all the right ingredients to keep the audience on your side.   

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Greetings from the Dark Side

Working as a script reader sometimes feels like being a deserter, a traitor or the unwilling executioner standing reluctantly beside the guillotine. Most of us are scriptwriters ourselves and know all too well how each rejection can cut you down to size... like a blade would... from a guillotine.

It’s no fun receiving a rejection, but you might be surprised to discover that it’s no fun writing them either. 

If there’s one thing I can assure you is that all script readers want to find something good in that gigantic, towering never-ending (I really should get back to it in a minute) pile of scripts. Don’t be deceived into thinking that just because we’re writers ourselves we delight in belittling and hindering the chances of others.

But at the same time, it’s really frustrating when writers don’t do everything in their ability to make it as easy as possible for the reader when submitting their script. Again remember, we’re usually writers too -- So by design, that means we’re irritable, emotional and lazy... No? Just me? Alright then...

It may sound stupid and entirely obvious but doing something as simple as sending your script as a PDF can put your script reader in a good mood. Converting your script to PDF takes a matter of moments and on a practical level makes life a whole lot easier for the reader; I rarely print off scripts and will often read them on a tablet instead. Most companies will stipulate that you attach PDFs and if you ignore this, don't expect a reply any time soon. Not taking the time to read and follow submission guidelines is another cardinal sin, punishable by death... with a blade... from a guillotine.

And quite rightly too. It's a well-known fact that every time you attach a script in DOC format and without following submission guidelines, a script-reader dies.

You might think that’s a good thing. I might be inclined to agree with you. But in all seriousness, we’re not as mean as you might think - we want to give people a chance, so just make sure you’re doing everything you can to give yourself that too.