London Screenwriters' Festival

Archive for the ‘Debate’ Category

The Guru In The Attic: Memento – A Weak Story, Redeemed By Structure? By Linda Aronson

Posted on: October 25th, 2011 by Lucy V Hay No Comments

Brought to you by Charlotte Bronte and Linda Aronson

Read The Guru In The Attic, Pt 1 HERE.

The story so far…

At Thornfield Hall

In the swamps near Thornfield Hall, Jane Eyre is catatonic with repressed lust for Mr Rochester, who hasn’t noticed because his reality TV show, So You think You can do an Appendectomy, has a chance of finance from a wealthy international organ donor bank that’s hoping for a spin-off called Strictly Come Kidney Harvesting.

Meanwhile, the guru in the attic, non-linear and parallel narrative script expert Bertha Antoinetta Rochester, has been approached by Steroid Productions to write a bio-pic about the Borgias called The Pope with the Dragon Tattoo, to be shot in Far North Queensland starring Hugh Grant as Pope Alexander VI and Vin Diesel as Michelangelo.

Bertha receives a letter.

Dear Guru in the Attic,

I have recently been approached by a group of businessmen who run a dispute resolution company. They want me to write a crime movie. However, while half of the group want me to construct it like Memento the other half have heard that Memento has a weak storyline made interesting only by its structure, so want it linear and say all non-linear is rubbish. What should I do?

Screenwriter (name withheld)

PS. At meetings these men all wear glasses, insist on sitting with their backs to the wall, and last week paid me for a treatment in bank notes stained with red dye. One laughingly said that if I didn’t write the film like Memento, I would get my kneecaps tickled with a persuader. Since I am not ticklish this does not worry me. However, should I register the treatment with the Writers’ Guild?

Dear Screenwriter,

Quite possibly this is not the time to point out that if Memento is indeed a very weak story made brilliant only by its non-linear structure this is a reason for anyone in the film industry to run into the streets weeping with joy, since, if true, it means any old nonsense can be turned into a cult success by its structure.

Personally, I don’t think Memento’s story content is weak, however if it IS weak, isn’t that even more of a triumph for the non-linear rendering?

Non-linearity is definitely a fix for many kinds of problem scripts. Properly done, it’s not only a way to tell stories that arrive in your head obviously needing flashback, or, like The Hours or Amores Perros clearly cannot transmit their message in the standard one-hero linear way. It’s also a miraculous fix for a wide range of top-heavy, predictable or anticlimactic storylines.

However, this does not solve your problems with your producers. I would suggest plastic surgery and an air ticket to South America. By all means register your treatment with the Guild

Kindest regards,


Meanwhile, Hugh Grant, Vin Diesel and the producers of The Millennium Trilogy Project are suing Steroid Productions because none of them has heard of The Pope with the Dragon Tattoo, and in North Queensland, tropical cyclone Brian has washed four crocodiles into the Borgia Palace and the fibreglass replica statute of David was last seen heading out to sea.

Bertha is unfortunately unable to attend the LSF . However, if you’re interested in hearing more about how to construct non-linear scripts (flashbacks, ensemble films, time jumps, structures like ‘Pulp Fiction’ ‘21 Grams’, ‘ Babel’ etc) , Linda Aronson will be talking on the topic in a two hour lecture on 30 October. Visit Linda Aronson’s website HERE.

What Not To Write by Ellin Stein

Posted on: October 19th, 2011 by Lucy V Hay 3 Comments

Between working one-on-one with writers as a script consultant and working in the development departments of off-Hollywood companies like Miramax and Zoetrope, I’ve read quite a few scripts. While their virtues are all different, the same mistakes come up over and over again.

This list will probably be familiar ground to anyone who’s ever taken a screenwriting course and these problems obviously occur most often in scripts by inexperienced writers. But not always – you’d be surprised how often they turn up in scripts submitted by top agents.

Reading a script is a bit like getting in a car with an unfamiliar driver. If you set off smoothly and the driver seems to know what he or she is doing, you’ll relax and enjoy the ride. But if within five minutes the car stalls out, you’re thrown forward by sudden braking, and the driver swerves to escape a collision, you’re going to stay tense through the whole trip. As a writer, you want to encourage the perception that you are in full control of your medium so the reader assumes you know what you’re doing and stays receptive. I don’t believe in prescriptive formulas for screenwriting, and I hope anyone reading this will remember rules were meant to be broken, but avoiding these common pitfalls will encourage the reader to approach your script in a state of expectation, as opposed to dread.

1) NO LOOKING, NO NODDING, NO ENTERING, NO EXITING. Many writers don’t bother to hone the interstitial business, the paragraphs between dialogue. In fact, every word you write is a chance to show the reader you can create dramatically compelling narrative that pulls us into the story and makes us want to keep reading. Don’t use the business to describe meaningless action like walking or glancing, unless it reveals character or sets up a significant development to come. Nodding does not reveal character – give the character a line so we know why they’re agreeing. Similarly, why tell us someone enters? If they speak in a scene, they’re obviously there. On the other hand, “John enters the room, unaware that his coat is on fire,” will keep us reading.

2) DON’T SOUND LIKE A MEMO. A variation on the above. Make sure your writing in the interstitial paragraphs is involving. So, “as John comes into the living room, everyone else falls silent. He opens the closet door, then steps back in horror – there’s a moldering body inside” is fine. “John enters. He walks over to the closet and opens the door. He notices a body inside” while accurate, will send us to sleep.

3) DON’T BE TOO FLOWERY. At the same time, don’t try to be overly poetic or “literary”, like this line I’ll always remember for the wrong reasons (from a script sent in by a big agency): “the moon chases its orbit across the sky.” You want to set the scene without being overly descriptive but at the same time give us any significant or telling detail. Show your talent for dramatization by describing characters and scenes in pithy, vivid prose.

4) NO TREADING WATER LINES. Like the interstitial paragraphs, dialogue must pull off the trick of sounding naturalistic while in fact being highly crafted. But it’s possible for dialogue to be too naturalistic. You have very little room to tell your story, so every line needs to count. Make sure it needs to be said, and at that particular moment, for a reason. Don’t have characters saying something just to have something to say. It happens all the time in life, but this is art. Not that every bit of dialogue has to be laden with significance, but every line should tell us something about how the character feels, or wants other people to think he feels, or should advance the story. Of course, it’s all right for a character to say things like “really?” or “ummm” if you want to make the point that they’re kind of a boring person without anything interesting to say, or that in these particular circumstances they want to say something innocuous.

5) NO PASSIVE VOICE. Writing 101. “The envelope is torn open” hardly has the dramatic impact of “he rips the envelope open”.

6) BE SPECIFIC. “Maybe some laundry on the floor”, “the action goes something like…”, “they discuss his trip”. You’re the writer, this is a universe you’re creating, so don’t leave it up to other people to fill in the blanks. The first draft will be the only place where what you say goes, so make the most of it

7) BUT NOT TOO SPECIFIC. Don’t direct. Even if you’re planning to direct the script yourself, even if you are a director who’s turned to writing, for purposes of the script you are only the humble writer. This means being very sparing with directions, both for the camera and for action. You make a story cinematic by revealing character through action, not by specifying camera angles or every little detail of what happens in the shot. Tell us what’s essential for moving the story along and leave out the rest. The director, if that ends up not being you, is going to ignore all your brilliant ideas anyway.

8) LET THE ACTORS DO THEIR JOB. By the same token, don’t tell us what the actors’ expressions should be, unless it’s not what we would expect, e.g. “as the coffin is lowered, there’s a faint smile on her face”. Write the scene properly so we know what the characters are feeling and then trust your actors and director.

9) NO KEEP OUT NOTICES. There’s no need to put copyright notices, “Registered with WGA”, “an original screenplay”, etc. on your cover page. It goes without saying you’ve taken all the necessary precautions, and to stress the fact evokes a high school notebook with “Private property! Do not open!” on it. You want to give the impression you have no need for such warnings because if anyone were to be so stupid as to try to rip you off, your lawyer, manager, and agent would be on them like a ton of bricks. In any case, your problem is far more likely to be getting potential financiers to read through your script to the end rather than their being so enamored of it they want to rip it off.

10) TYOPS. No one’s going to pass on a totally brilliant script because of a few spelling mistakes or grammatical errors, but they don’t help matters. For one thing, typos create an impression of carelessness, and if you can’t be bothered to care passionately about every word in your script, why should anyone else? Secondly, grammatical errors or poor usage (unless intentional in the dialogue) suggest you are not really in command of your craft. As noted above, you don’t have to be a great literary stylist, but if you don’t seem to know when sentences just don’t sound right, the reader will lose confidence in you (I know Quentin Tarantino is dyslexic and the original script for Reservoir Dogs was far from a model of spelling and grammatical correctness and was written on the back of a cocktail napkin or something, but I’ll bet Lawrence Bender cleaned it up before it went out. It’s also true that many producers, in the tradition of Sam Goldwyn, wouldn’t know incorrect usage if it fell on them, but development staffs tend to attract English majors, who care about these things).

Also, while imperfect punctuation is hardly going to undermine your credibility, not putting question marks at the end of questions in the dialogue or putting question marks where they don’t belong suggests you’re not really hearing how the dialogue will sound when it’s spoken as opposed to written. Similarly, the grammar police will not be monitoring your comma use but how you use commas indicates you’re hearing (or not) how a line will be phrased and you’re aware that actors need to breathe now and then. Finally, lots of exclamation points do not add dramatic excitement.

The problems I’ve mentioned are all very easy to avoid and it doesn’t require an enormous amount of talent to do so. Unfortunately, getting them right is no substitute for the ability to bring a story to life. The perceptive reader will have noticed I’ve avoided dealing with the big issues, like creating believable, involving characters who get up off the page and walk around, or tight, fast-moving structures. Those things are hard to get right. It’s more like the difference between showing up for a job interview in a torn T-shirt and dirty jeans or looking sharp. It doesn’t really affect how qualified you are, but it never hurts to make a good first impression.


Find Ellin on Twitter here and via her website and blog, here.

Comedy: It’s All In The Delivery… Of Everything!!

Posted on: February 27th, 2011 by Lucy V Hay 2 Comments

Jim Carrey as Fletcher in LIAR LIAR

When asked to do development notes on a comedy script (feature, sitcom or TV pilot), one of the things Bang2writers inevitably want me to comment on is this question: “Is the dialogue funny?” Most are surprised then when I answer, “Is it important at this stage?”

Now of course the **obvious** answer is “Duh, it’s a comedy, OF COURSE it’s important!” But let’s look at the evidence:

Show It, Don’t Tell It. Every writer knows scriptwriting is not JUST about dialogue… Except, it seems, when they’re writing COMEDY. I’ve lost count of the number of comedy scripts I’ve read  - both specs and commissioned, especially features – that seem to rely wholly on dialogue for laughs, so we end up with very little physical comedy at all. This seems a wasted opportunity, since even the most cerebral of comedy also demands a small level of physical interraction or visual gags/back up in the very least, else the comedy feels “one-sided”.

Comedy relies on structure. The best comedy is almost “inevitable” in its approach: we’re led TO the punchline or comedic moment in the pay off. In order to do this then the best we can, we need a proper SET UP. Yet writers are so frequently hung up on *how funny* the dialogue is, they forget about set up and pay off, the very basics. If we then add structure *as a whole* – The Three Acts in features, the story of the week vs the serial element in TV pilots or the A & B Strands of Sitcom (returning to the status quo per episode) – then the problem with structure at grass roots in comedy is exacerbated. This then means a huge proportion of comedy scripts are doing the rounds which are essentially *just* a string of gags, rather than a holistic story; some even lack an identity altogether, leading script readers to write “what *is* this?” in coverage, in terms of where it “fits”. Sounds strange, but then knowing your audience and what they expect in terms of conventions is very much part of comedy (as it is all genre). So isn’t it better to work on the STORY and how it WORKS OUT before you work on the “funny dialogue”? (more…)

Bring It On: Making LSWF A Success

Posted on: October 10th, 2010 by Lucy V Hay 9 Comments

Because it's not ALL about you...

So the fab Neal Romanek has asked this question via Twitter:

“It’s OUR fest – what do WE do to make The London Screenwriters’ Festival the biggest success possible?”

I think this is a great question. Too often writers go to an event thinking it’s all about them *personally* – I’ve been guilty of it, myself. However thinking of others as well is just as profitable to the individual too, if not more so.

But how, you ask? Here you go: (more…)

First Impressions Count

Posted on: September 13th, 2010 by Lucy V Hay No Comments

My husband (whom I affectionately call Mr C on my Twitter stream) grew up in the back of beyond on a farm and as a teenager spent most of his time feeding animals, baling hay or blowing stuff up with illicit chemicals pinched from his Dad’s shed. As a result, Mr C was the poster boy for the phrase, “dragged through a hedge backwards”.

Fast forward ten years and Mr C, fresh out of university and a degree where he spent 99% of his time on his own at Porlock Bay’s gravel barrier measuring seawater levels (yes, seawater levels) and you can safely say he looked more than a little mad. He had long curly hair that would make that bloke out of The Darkness jealous; plus he dressed only in black and was so pale and thin you’d definitely think he was a vampire… (more…)

Remakes – Reboots – Retold?

Posted on: September 5th, 2010 by Lucy V Hay 1 Comment

You don’t have to go far on the ol’ interweb to find screenwriters complaining about remakes or reboots of “classic” films: I’ve even written about it myself on my own blog, “A Franchise Too Far”. However, whilst it’s never desirable to have *too many* remakes or reboots on the go (variety is the spice of life – and fiction! But how many is *too many*?), I thought I’d put a few of the tried-and-tested arguments against remakes/reboots under the microscope, offering a counter view for each…

Remakes and reboots are just a cash cow. (more…)

London Screenwriters’ Festival Guest Blog: Tomorrow, Next Year, In Another Life

Posted on: August 12th, 2010 by Lucy V Hay No Comments

by The Kid In The Front Row

time slips awayYou’ve woken up. You’re breathing. Your arms are working. This is the day you’re starting your screenplay.

But wait; you’ve got to go into the office for that big meeting and you have to look after your cousin’s kids later. Okay, tomorrow you are starting your screenplay.


Being Heard in the Great Debates: Social Media Strategies for Engaging in the Big Stories

Posted on: July 31st, 2010 by Lucy V Hay No Comments

UK Film CouncilOne of the things that is fantastic about the web is its pure and simple speed.  No sooner had we all taken in the shock announcement of the abolition of the UK Film Council than people were Twittering, blogging and updating their Facebook status all at once.

The web – particularly screenwriting and filmmaking websites – was ablaze this week with torrents of tirades against the closure, or against the UKFC itself.

How, then, do you get your voice heard amid all this noise and bluster? (more…)

Talent, Learning and Craft

Posted on: July 24th, 2010 by Lucy V Hay 1 Comment

BBCLast night, the BBC’s Front Row programme on Radio 4 broadcast a 30-minute special on creative writing courses.

Featuring authors, screenwriters, lecturers and gurus from all sides of the writing spectrum, it’s a fascinating insight into the divided opinions on whether or not you can “learn” to write.

We can all do with developing our practice – learning new tips and tricks for creating the most powerful stories, the most vivid characters and the most “real” dialogue – but does a writer need an innate talent to be able to write at all? Or it is honestly possible to learn everything you need to know to become a successful writer from courses alone? (more…)