The screenplay format – when pointless obsession takes hold

I can’t bear widows. They are the bane of my life. Not the black-clad in-mourning type, but the single-word-on-a-line type. They have the power to ruin an otherwise productive writing session – and induce hours of pointless, seemingly-endless fiddling, taking me from creative eagerness to despair with just one word. One word on a line. On its own. Argh.

Screenplay example
Oh, the horror

I’m not sure if the screenplay format was originally designed to send pedants into a howling rage, but that’s often what happens to me. Time and time again.

Yes, I know it’s insane

For the uninitiated – how I envy you – a widow is a single word on a line at the end of a paragraph. I can’t count the number of times I’ve sat down to write or edit a script, and have found myself sucked into a pointless vortex of trying to get a piece of action all on one line. Once I have widow fever, I can’t rest until I’ve resolved it.

I’m ashamed to admit I’ve even done it with dialogue on occasion. Rather than having a zinging piece of speech in a script, I would often rather it fit neatly in lines with no widows. Ridiculous. Imagine the sparkling lines of All About Eve if I’d got my insanely OCD hands on them when I have widow fever.

A widow in a screenplay
Nightmare.

Yes, I know there are bigger things to worry about

I’ve worked extensively as a journalist and copywriter, so part of my background is in preparing copy for print. That means nice, neat columns in a magazine, or online, without any world overhangs. A widow used to mean a sound beating (or near enough) by an irate editor. Now with screenplays, there is no editor. The irate editor is me. Ruthlessly hunting widows and eliminating them.

Widow in screenplay
ffs.

In my writing workshop group, I find myself judging writers harshly if they have a widow in their script, and for that I can only apologise. I even judge produced scripts on the basis of widows. All of the examples in this post are from garlanded, award-winning scripts. Widows didn’t bother them. No siree.

A perfect paragraph of action in a screenplay.
Ahh, that’s better. Perfect.

As part of my therapy to try and get over this ridiculous obsession, I’ve decided I have to just have to embrace the problem, and run towards widows with open arms. I’m just going to leave a word on a line on its own, and see how long it takes before I
crack.

I’ll just leave that there.
*walks away, whistling, pretending it’s not killing me*

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The terror of the first 10 script pages

I’ve just started rewriting a thriller – and I’m feeling the pressure of the first 10 pages more than ever.

Perhaps it’s because this script is a taut thriller, there is a lot to set up and accomplish in the first pages – while seeming effortless, stunningly original, gripping, dazzling, recherché etc. (which of course it will be).

The thriller genre seems to have spilled over into my editing, making sitting on a swivel chair in front of a computer seem like a white knuckle car chase with Robert McKee and Syd Field in hot pursuit.

In countless blog posts, in just about every screenwriting book – and on every film-making course worth its salt – I’ve had it drummed into me over and over again how key the first 10 pages of a script are.

Those seemingly unicorn-esque 10 pages have to (in no particular order):

  • Be immediately exciting and engaging
  • Introduce the protagonist
  • Introduce the theme of the story
  • Establish the world (and possibly rules of the world)
  • Introduce the central problem the protagonist faces
  • Set up the dramatic premise
  • Not include too much exposition, or obvious exposition
  • Include the inciting incident
  • Hook the reader so they don’t give up on the script, or you, the writer
  • Make the reader desperate to turn to page 11

All of this in 10 pages. Oh, and don’t forget the golden rule that black ink is bad, and white space is good.

And don’t even dare think about spelling and grammatical errors in the first 10 pages – and don’t even think about thinking about committing a formatting transgression.

Do that and you may as well submit 10 pages of drunken ramblings and inappropriate erotic sketches (been there, done that).

So taking all that into account,  there’s not a huge amount of wriggle-room, but lots of room for script-jeopardising japery.

It’s enough to make anyone lie down in a darkened room with a cold flannel over their face.

So why do it?

This isn’t a facetious question (well not completely). After piling the pressure on myself to get those precious pages right over countless hours,  I’ve decided to skip the first 10 pages and turn straight to page 11.

I’ve done a first draft of my scenes, set out the dramatic turns and how the conflict will work and build, and even outlined my transitions – but the pressure of getting those first pages note-perfect right from the start only serves to drag me into an editing quagmire that distracts from getting the overall script right, so I’m going to leave them till the very end.

Then I’ll make them perfect. You’ll see. And then I’ll worry about the other 80 pages. Again. And again. And again…

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Helen Duncan – the greatest true story never brought to screen?

How many writers can be working on the same story at the same time? About 7,643 it turns out.

Imagine a story that brings together World War II, the supernatural, suspected fifth-columnists, Ian Fleming, Winston Churchill and a government cover-up. It sounds like a genre-mashing fantasy thought up after a dream and hastily scribbled on a pad – only to be deciphered and rejected in the cold light of the morning (as so many of bedside scribblings will testify…).

But it’s a true story – and possibly the most gripping, intriguing one I’ve come across. I won’t regale you with all the amazing ins-and-outs of Helen’s story – and the huge injustice of what happened to this innocent Scottish woman – you can read about her story here, here and here. And in lots of other places as well.

Helen’s story popped into my mind again this week, and caused me to dig out a spec script I wrote (my first) where I adapted the story, obviously without knowing anything of copyright, story rights etc. Instead of bothering with any possible legal issues, I lustily took to typing – pouring out my enthusiasm for the story into a weighty 130-page screenplay.

For reasons I can’t now remember, I ridiculously decided that there wasn’t enough intrigue in Helen’s story, so further mashed it up with another WWII story I was obsessed with at the time – that of the supposed great Gardnerian witchcraft attempt to repel Hitler’s Nazi army from Britain. Anyway, that was a story mash too far, and my poor first script collapsed under the weight of its (by now) 873,587 themes and fell heavily into a drawer to be forgotten.

A ship
If you’re a Helen-o-phile, you’ll know exactly what this is.

But I wasn’t able to completely forget about Helen’s story, so I took to tinkering with it again a year or so later – and by this time, I realised I might have to look into the rights to Helen’s story. I got in touch with her descendants and guardians of her story, and was surprised to learn that Helen’s story has passed through the hands of several writers and producers in recent years – including (apparently) one S. Spielberg. But still Helen’s story hasn’t made it to the big or small screen, other than in documentary form.

Since that time, I’ve come across – or heard about – three other writers who have adapted Helen’s story into screenplays for film or TV, but I still haven’t heard of anything approaching production anytime soon.

My time with Helen’s story is done – amazing though the story is. Perhaps I need to now set up a support group for all of the other writers who’ve become as obsessed with Helen as me. Are you one? Please get in touch, and bring ectoplasm.

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Widows: can Steve McQueen transfer one of the UK’s best-ever crime dramas successfully to film?

I can’t help myself. I’ve started watching it again.

I’m currently on my twenty-somethingth viewing of Lynda La Plante’s Widows – a six-part TV drama I’ve been obsessed with for as long as I can remember. I’m so familiar with it, I now have to ration myself so I don’t spoil it – although I can’t imagine familiarity ever breeding content with this series. I love pretty much everything about it.

The biggest strength of the drama is an incredibly clever, original conceit: The widows of a gang of suddenly-deceased career criminals decide to do their husbands’ planned ‘last job’ themselves. Of course, it doesn’t go to plan.

‘Suppose they were to carry out the robbery themselves?’

The characters are combative and antagonistic – forced together by a shared goal to become incredibly rich overnight, using a plan devised by their dead husbands. As the end goal comes in sight, the relationships fracture even further, and there is constant danger from without and within.

In a nutshell, it does exactly what a good drama should: It keeps you watching, on the edge of your seat, never knowing what is going to happen next. There is no padding, no flagging, and everything feels completely plausible in the world of the story.

It’s a sign of the series’ enduring quality that I still remain tense and caught up in the drama of the final episode, even though I’ve seen it play out countless times.

I was very surprised when news broke that Steve McQueen is to direct a film version. To my mind, much of the appeal of the series will be lost in trying to squeeze it into a two-hour film.

More recent news that Gone Girl’s Gillian Flynn will co-write the screenplay with McQueen makes more sense – but the fact that McQueen’s film will ‘diverge dramatically’ from the original and be set in modern-day U.S. makes me question it further.

It’s going to be very hard to match the (IMHO) peerless original. Cue the haunting violin music…

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