Beginnings: Hitting The Ground Running

Knowing where to start with the story that you tell is inextricably linked to the ending you are trying to reach.

You don’t need to know all the exact details of the ending, but you need to know where you are heading towards, what kind of ending you are trying to reach – whether tragic, comic, romantic, thrilling, horrifying, bittersweet, ambiguous. Knowing where you are going means you can work out the best, most engaging, most captivating, most meaningful place to start.

Getting the story started means hooking the audience’s attention immediately and hitting the ground running. This doesn’t mean an action sequence – it means starting the story straight away by showing characters in action, and by showing who the characters are by what they do.

Don’t worry about prefacing the story, or trying to ‘set it up’, or introducing the characters artificially – unless a ‘once upon a time’ narration is the kind of device you really want and need to use. Don’t get bogged down in the backstory – in explaining and relating what happened before we started watching. If there’s something important we need to know about the past, bring it into the present-tense action and drama of the story.

Don’t try to do too much. Find a focused way in – you don’t have to introduce every character, every theme, every plot straight away. Bring them in when you really need them to move the story forward, to surprise the audience, to step it up (or down) a gear.

But do something significant in the beginning – or the opening ‘act’ – of your story. Make your characters step outside their comfort zone. Make them want something and pursue it. Set them a problem or dilemma. Make their world different. Give them some kind of call to action – whether it’s to keep a small thing secret or to go out and save humanity.

Most importantly, plan the story before you start writing. Make sure you know what the beginning, middle and end are. Plan what happens in them. Work out what pieces of the jigsaw you need, and the order in which you want the audience to piece them together. But stand back, look at your characters, and ask whether they are driving it all forward – because when plotting seems to be taking over from the characters, then something is usually going wrong.

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Your Ending: Reading Your Conclusion

The problem with many endings is that they are a let-down – unsatisfying, predictable.

What kind of effect are you trying to have on the audience with your ending? Does it follow from where you started and the journey you’ve taken us and the characters on?

Great endings somehow feel inevitable – they are what should follow-on from everything that has gone before. Yet they must also not be predictable – if we can simply see what’s happening and predict how we’re going to get there, then there’s no surprise along the way. So does the ending truly deliver what you set up at the start? But does it also come in a surprising and somehow unpredictable way?

Great endings satisfy the audience – but satisfying them doesn’t mean simply making them happy and being obvious. Satisfaction means following through, it means not having frustratingly open or ambivalent endings, it means not tacking on a car chase or a plot ‘twist’ to make things exciting, it means bringing events and story to a meaningful climax, it means bringing drama characters to a point of understanding and realization about themselves, it means keeping comedy characters somehow trapped by their shortsightedness.

Great endings fit. Bad endings jar. Great endings bring the story to the boil and then deliver. Bad endings go off at tangents or fizzle out or just stop without any real sense of conclusion or satisfaction. Great endings have an impact. Bad endings implode.

Bad endings forget the audience. Great endings respect the audience.

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Scenes: Moving The Story Forward

A scene is the combination of time, place and setting you use to frame and show a significant moment or event in the story.

It is what we need to see in order for the story to move forward. It is a moment of drama or comedy – of action, of import, of change.

Scenes in which things are just explained or related are not scenes – they are exposition, because nothing really happens. In scenes, something significant must happen – however cataclysmic, or however tiny and subtle.

So ask yourself – in what way is the scene moving the story forward? What purpose does it have in the story, and in the drama or comedy? If you can’t answer either question, then does it need to be there?

Scenes show the conflicts and tensions, dilemmas and decisions, actions and reactions, of the characters driving your story. But they aren’t only about what can be shown explicitly. Great script-writing has subtext – things going on, things playing out, silent conversations being had, that exist below the surface and beyond what is being ‘said’.

Ask yourself these questions of every scene you plan to write:

  1. What effect does this scene have on the character within the moment?
  2. What effect does it have on the subsequent events of the story?
  3. What impact does it have on the world of the story?
  4. What else is going on below the surface and beyond the text?

Scenes aren’t just about themselves in isolation. Juxtaposition is crucial. Where it is placed in a sequence of events can define what a scene does and means, and how well it works. So what comes before? What comes after? Do they have a related effect on a sequence of events? If not, do they have an effect on how the audience sees and makes sense of the events?

Different kinds of scenes can come at different points in the story – if all your scenes look and sound and feel and seem similar, then the story will be dull. Each scene needs a specific and unique purpose in the story. Work that out, and you’ll save a lot of wasted time recapping the story and treading water as you go.

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Character Building

Bringing your words to life

Characters are the thing that separate great scripts from only competent scripts – and great writers from only competent writers.

There are a lot of things you can work on to improve and hone your script and your craft – structure, dialogue, formatting, scene writing – but if your characters aren’t engaging enough, then everything will be a struggle, because they must drive everything that happens – whether they are people, aliens, animals or robots.

To write great characters, you need to know what the world looks like from their point of view – to step into their shoes and see from their distinct perspective. What does the world look like when Frank Gallagher or Dot Cotton or Miranda or Sherlock look out at it? What does the world look like when your character looks out at it? If you know this, then you can know how they might instinctively act and react in any given situation. And from this comes authentic drama and comedy.

Great characters are active, not passive. They are always on some kind of journey – physical, emotional, psychological or otherwise – and are always trying to do or get or reach something. What they want may well not be clear, or even remotely what they need. But they should always want and need something. From this comes dilemma and choices. And from this comes drama and comedy.

Great characters are distinct – they are not like anybody else, even if they have characteristics and facets that we see in other characters (and people). What is it that’s distinct about your character? What is it that’s particular about them? What are the things that most define what is unique about them?

Whether they are for drama or comedy, your characters need to be emotionally engaging – we need to want to spend time with them, see what they do next, fear for their safety, laugh at their flaws. We don’t need to like or admire or want to be like them – protagonists that do very bad things can be the most engaging and compelling and enjoyable. But they need to have some kind of emotional life with which we can empathize. They need some kind of vulnerability – a chink in their emotional armor or Achilles heel or blind-spot that makes them universally human.

Character is the beating heart of every great idea, every great story, every great script. Even if you don’t manage to get lots of other things right in your first script, if you have characters we genuinely want to spend time with, then you have something very special indeed.

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In The Middle: Making Sense Of The Muddle

The difficulty with many scripts and stories is the middle – the stretch that connects the beginning with the end.

Philip Larkin once said we like stories because of the muddle in the middle. The middle takes up more story time and space than the beginning and ending combined. And making that muddle work dramatically or comedically takes thought, planning and effort.

Once you’ve worked out where to begin and where you are trying to get to, you have to work out the most appropriately difficult way for your characters to get from one to the other – if it’s an action movie, you expect high-octane action, tension and jeopardy, if it’s a detective story, you expect the twists and turns of piecing together a coherent picture from the clues available, if it’s a love story, you expect a blossoming relationship being beset with obstacles. Your characters need to get lost in this muddle – otherwise, the journey forward will be too easy for them.

However, you the writer can’t get lost. You need to be in control of the muddle. You need to manipulate characters, events, actions and consequences. You need to make seeming incoherence and confusion still travel towards a climax and a conclusion. You need to make things difficult for the characters while keeping up the momentum of the story for the audience. You need to plan the muddle carefully.

Remember to surprise the audience. What do they need to see? What can you leave out? What might make them see the story, characters and events in a new light?

Remember to engage the audience. Are the characters developing and changing interestingly? Or remaining comically trapped in entertaining enough ways?

Don’t let the story flat-line. Remember the troughs and the peaks, the dead ends and the moments of clarity, the domino-effect of actions and consequences. Otherwise the story will sag. And so will your audience.

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Form and Format: Knowing What You Want To Write

Strong scripts know what they are and what they are trying to do.

Weak scripts plough on without really being clear from the start. Great writers master medium and form, and manipulate it; not so great writers ignore it. Form is what kind and shape of story you are telling. Format is where in a specific broadcast or performance schedule it might sit.

So the first question to ask is: what IS your story? Where and how do you see it finding its most engaging expression? Is it an idea that would work best on radio (through the medium of sound), or film (through the big visual silver screen), or television (through the smaller screen that sits in our homes), or online (through the computers and devices that are in our homes and that we carry around with us)? How do you want an audience to experience and connect with your story? Are the idea and story you have right for the medium you have chosen?

Once you have clarified where you think it will best live, you need to consider the specific format. Is it a complete single drama told from beginning to end? If so, does it fit an established format such as the 45 minute Afternoon Drama on Radio 4? TV singles are usually 60-90 minutes. Feature films are usually between 80-120 minutes.

Or is it a finite serial drama, told over a number of episodes that conclude in the final episode? If so, how many episodes do you think you need? How many weeks will an audience stick with it? 3? 4? 6? Or is it the kind of TV serial which is stripped across every night in a single week? TV serial dramas are usually told in hour-long episodes.

Or if it’s a series, is it a drama or comedy show you see returning in annual seasons, such as Doctor Who, Downton Abbey, Shameless, Miranda, The IT Crowd? Drama series are usually in 60 minute episodes, whereas comedy series are usually in 30 minute episodes, with seasons lasting anything from the usual 6-8 episodes, right up to 20 plus episodes.

It isn’t usually a good idea to create your own continuing series – or ‘soap’ – in your spec script. Soaps require a huge array of characters, families, relationships, settings and precincts. If you want to write for soaps, what you need is an original script which shows how well you can write – but one that isn’t itself a soap, or an episode from an existing soap.

The other thing to remember about form, is that all scripts are blueprints rather than a piece of ‘literature’. They are written to be made – the first stage in a process of production. The more your scripts looks like something coherently formed and formatted, the more impressive and effective it will be. But it’s also potentially just the beginning of something bigger – so don’t be too precious about the words on the page.

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Developing Your Idea: What Is The Story?

All ideas are only as good as the characters that drive them, and all good ideas need to be dramatic.

Drama literally means ‘action’ – to act. What is the central dramatic action in your idea?

What is the story? Do you have a compelling enough journey for the character and audience to go on? If it’s a series or serial, do you have enough story to keep it going over a number of episodes or weeks?

Creating a coherent world is crucial. What are the rules of your story universe? What do and don’t we need to know and see? Less is often more – the writer needs to know all the rules and background – but the audience only needs enough to stay hooked without being confused.

You can read a couple of great examples of this in the scripts for the first episodes of The Fades and Life on Mars.

What kind of story is it? Are you using a recognizable genre, such as thriller or romantic comedy? If you are inspired or influenced by an archetypal story of old, what is it that’s different about your idea? You need to bring a fresh perspective to familiar tales, worlds, subjects and genres.

What the experience feels like for the audience is also crucial. What is the tone and feel of the story? Are they consistent and coherent? There’s nothing more frustrating than a slasher movie that suddenly turns into a romcom (or vice versa). But then sometimes clashing genres can work if they’re handled intelligently.

And the emotional response you are trying to aim for is just as important. What physical reaction are you looking for? Something so poignant it makes the audience cry? So funny it make their sides hurt from laughing too much? So terrifying it makes the hairs on the nape of their neck stand on end? So thrilling their hearts are in their mouths and they’re on the edge of their seat?

You need to know why writing this idea now is important. Is it something that keeps you up at night and has really got under your skin? What’s it about? What’s the theme – what are you trying to explore, what are you hoping to communicate?

Don’t write anything you don’t care about just to be ‘expedient’ – because it will only ever be competent at best. Is it an idea that will strike a real chord with an audience? Who do you think will want to see it? If you have a burning desire to write, then it’s more likely to grab our attention.

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The Dialogue: Behind The Words

Dialogue is not just about what characters say – it’s about what they express by what they say.

Dramatic and comic dialogue is not conversation – it is there for a reason, it is honed and shaped and, from the writer’s point of view, purposeful.

But dialogue is not logical – characters, like people, do not necessarily or naturally express themselves in perfectly coherent grammar. Unless, of course, that happens to be something very specific to their personality – so not just the words they say, but who they are.

Great characters have an identifiable voice – they have tone, inflection, their own grammar, their own tics and tropes and ways of expressing themselves. Their voice needs to be individuated – to be particular to them.

Strong character voices are authentic. They express themselves, they aren’t mouthpieces for anything else (or the writer) – unless of course being a mouthpiece for something else is an intrinsic part of their character and the story… So beware of characters suddenly making speeches or grand statements that don’t ring true.

If your character has an accent or uses dialect/slang, then write it in – but be sparing and be specific. When we first see them, indicate their accent – but don’t exhaustively write in a kind of phonetic version of it all the way through, because it can be impossible to read. Slip in specific words and terms only that dialect would use.

The biggest problem with most dialogue is being ‘on the nose’ and being expositional. If the only reason for dialogue being there is to relate information to the audience, then think again. Find dramatic ways of making information significant in the moment and in the story. If you want the audience to realize a secret about a character, make the revelation of it difficult, with real consequences in the story.

Dialogue isn’t just about the words on the page – it’s about the things that are not said. The space between the words. The silences that speak volumes. The subtext of what’s going on below and behind the words.

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Screenplay Tips

Most Important: Make sure that your script is copyrighted through the Library of Congress.

You Can’t Copyright Titles: This is the same for books, novels, plays and movies. Trade Marks are different but costly to acquire. There is a non-government system which uses a MPAA title registration that is specific and protects the theatrical industry.

The Drill: You already know this drill if you have sent your book manuscript to traditional publishers.

Script Format: It is important to use screenplay software (Script Studio) or carefully format your manuscript using “Word” since Hollywood has strict rules for formatting.

Script Studio Link:

Article on how to format a screenplay using “word”:

Page Size: For those of us who write books in a 6×9 format, this will be a strange. Must be U.S. Letter because Hollywood does not do metric. Paper needs to be plain white 20 lbs stock (with no watermarks).

Font: Needs to be 12 Point.  Courier or Courier Old are good font choices.

Word Count: Your final draft should ideally be 18,000 – 22,000 words. The lower end of the scale for comedies and the upper for dramas or action.

Lines Per Page: 52 – 56 (including blank lines).  Do not exceed 56 lines per page!

Margins: Left side of your script-1 1/2″ margin, right side should have 1/2″ to 1″ of margin, top and bottom margins- 1″.

Headings: 1 1/2″ from the left side of the page.

Dialogue: 2 1/2″ from the left margin.

Character Names: 3.7″ from the left margin.

Terms: V.O. – Voice Over, O.S. – Off Screen,  P.O.V. – Point Of View, Insert or Cutaway,  Superimpose,  Inter-cut, Montage, Series Of Shots, and Reference To.

Camera Clues: Zoom, Tilt, Pan, Dolly In/Out, Angle On, Boom Up/Down.

Three Hole Punch: Your script needs to have 3 holes on the left-hand side.

1.1/4 Solid Brass Brads (not plated): Ideally you should fasten the top and bottom hole and leave the middle one black. You can’t skimp on this as it is a Hollywood standard. Put your screenplay together with solid brass brads. Here is a link to solid brass brads on Amazon that are affordable:

Edit: Your work must be perfect, no grammatical or spelling errors. Consider a professional editor. Don’t waste your time or anyone’s time, if you are not serious about your work.

Read: Ask your friends and family to read your script in one sitting. By one sitting we mean less than 2 hours. Get their feedback, as it is valuable.

One Line (Log Line): Just like writing a tag line for your book, it is important to write the most captivating one-line description. Your success or failure might just hinge on this line. This is your pitch to the executive that picks up your screenplay to read from a stack a mile high on their desk.

Your Pitch Line: It is your job to describe your screenplay in a short pitch line or two. You can reference summaries to a modern film or TV show (must be something they can relate to). Have someone review it and tell you if it reminds them of a favorite movie, TV show or even character.

Synopsis: This will be longer (one page is best, no more than two). Only you can write a synopsis that will grab the executive’s attention. If you sell them on your synopsis, they will ask for your whole script. When they ask, you better be ready to roll.

Now You Can Write Your Query Letter: This will be short and to the point. You can use you one liner and your pitch line. This is your introduction. Warning: do not send your resume or even your synopsis unless they ask for it. You have it ready to go along with your script, so you are prepared.

Professional Query Letter: I will give you an example in a later post. You can always contact me to write one for you (if I have read your book and/or script).

When the Agent, Manager or Executive asks for your synopsis and or whole script, act quickly so they stay engaged. Follow their instructions to the letter and never send anything that they don’t request.

Your professionalism will give you an edge over a lot of your competition.

Breathe: All this takes time: Give them roughly 8 – 12 weeks to respond before you second out a second letter or email (depending on how they accept queries). Never call unless you already have a working relationship with them. A query is not a working relationship. Remember, these are professional people with a lot on their plates.

Thick skin my friend: You will need thick skin as rejection letters will arrive. You can write back and ask for feedback, but expect their assistant to respond. Be willing to rewrite before sending your script to another source. If you are so lucky they will offer to read a rewrite and ask you to contact them when the script is rewritten.

Not Your First Choice: When all else fails you can take your screenplay and publish it as a book on Amazon in hopes that someone will buy it and use it. I suggest that you ask the purchaser to contact you before putting the script to use, so you can help them set the stage.

Keep in mind that Hollywood is a universe unto itself.

We wish you the very best of luck. Please feel free to reach out to us.

Cold Coffee Press:

Copyright Date September 18, 2017

Rewriting: Editing Yourself

So you’ve developed your idea, worked out what kind of story and experience it is, created characters, structured the story, brought it to scenic life, and voiced the characters. You have a draft and it feels like an achievement.

And it is exactly that. But this is also the dangerous moment – where you must slam on the brakes, step back from something you have inevitably got too close to, and be deliberately hard on yourself.

No script falls perfectly finished onto the page after an intensive bout of extreme creativity. Screenwriting is rewriting – whether it’s on the page or in your head, over days, weeks, months or years. To write and rewrite, you need to give your story time and space.

Print your script out, put it in an envelope, put it in a drawer or on a shelf, and force yourself to leave it alone for at least a couple of weeks, if not longer. You need to be able to come back to it fresh, make a deliberate attempt to reserve your subjectivity, and take as objective a look at it as you possibly can. This is not easy. But you have to do it.

Do two things when you do reopen that envelope. First, reserve a quiet undisturbed space and read it through at pace, without stopping to take copious notes. Read it like someone else might read it, in one go. Ask yourself honestly what you think, does it work, what and where are the problems, is it clear, does it say what you wanted it to say, is it clearly the thing you set out to write (and if not, does that matter?) Then, put it away again for at least another day, before you sit down and start digging down into making notes on scenes and lines on the page.

Is there someone you can trust to give you honest, intelligent, useful feedback? If so, use them. Read it out loud – make the characters talk (even if you sound like you are going mad from the other side of the door…

When you do start using the big red editing pen (and red is a good color for this job), you have to stop yourself from being precious about your words. Scripts aren’t novels, or short stories, or poetry, or rhetoric. If you are extremely lucky, they are tools in a production process that can involve numerous other people who will all bring something to the task of bringing to life the words you have written down. If you like something you’ve written, or think it’s really good, but can see it doesn’t really need to be there, then cut it out, save it, bank it – but don’t just leave it in.

Don’t presume that what you have written is genius. It might be. But great writers tend to presume the worst so that they can make it even better. Not so great writers can tend to presume what they’ve written is brilliant and resist any attempt to develop it. You should always be trying to make it better.

Is it finished? How finished does it need to be? No script is finished until it’s made – and great stories can go on to have further lives in other mediums. Your script just needs to be ready to be read. Ready to speak your voice, set out your stall, show what you can do. If you’re lucky enough to have someone pay you to rewrite it for them, then you can rethink what finished really means.

Just make sure that you give your script the time and space it needs – and you need – to get it as right as you can. No-one in the industry wants to see first drafts from writers who haven’t made up their minds about what they’re doing, they want to see the best, most developed script you think you can write. And they want to see what’s different and unique about what you can do.

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