Recently Scriptadvice.co.uk teamed up with Screenwritinggoldmine.com to run this little beauty of a workshop for writers wanting to tackle the first 10 pages of their television pilots.
It was great; we had Kate Oates Series Producer of Coronation Street and Simon Harper Series Producer Holby City doing a fabulous Q and A with the 12 writers and also Jean Kitson from Kitsonpress Agency who encouraged and adviced writers not yet repped.
Lots of ground covered. We picked 6 writers and their pages from our workshop and then Tony Jordan; Producer and Writer of massess of commercially successful drama out of his company Red Planet Pictures, read them for us and I met up in London at his offices in Soho to discuss the fruits of this labour.
Me and Tony go back a long way. He was one of the best EastEnders writers I had the pleasure of regularly Script Editing and he (although he didn’t do this intentionally) taught me tons about how to handle series narratives, construct commercially engaging, creative story lines and basically pack a drama punch in 25 mins of drama. All done at break neck speed and without the obvious presence of a safety net.
Our conversation soon turned; via the pages we were discussing, to how new writers; those possessing talent but lacking experience – can tell a great story for television.
He applauded our first 10 pages workshop idea. Although naturally, by definition, you can’t assess the whole script this way – what a first 10 pages workshop can do is focus the mind of everyone involved down to the essentials in the story, beginning here.
The emphasis of our workshop and subsequently on the writing of the first 10 pages of the chosen Pilots was all about igniting that Story Engine and getting the story off to a flying start in an easily assimilated, engaging and entertaining a way as possible.
Once returned to Script Advice Towers, I threw all the best nuggets from my conversation with one of the UK’s top television drama producers into my Drama Pot and came up with this list of five essentials.
When you start your next script make sure your first ten pages include all of these elements.
Now go back and rewrite the script you’ve already started, adding anything you’ve missed out here.
THE ESSENTIAL FIVE …….
1/ OPEN WITH A STRONG VISUAL
The story is starting. Set the scene.
Geography; albeit a panoramic landscape or a cosy tete a tete in a suburban sitting room, a graveside, a roof top, or the inside of a rapidly packed suitcase, begins the story for you.
You may need to establish the way a character behaves, or show the essential dynamic between a family. Do this visually. This visual can be a strong natural image, or series of images, or it can be an action packed travelling sequence or we could be following your main character on the job, but in this visual, we need to see the essential elements of what you will be exploring later.
Start the audience wondering what’s going to happen.
Examples of visual starts in scripts, picked as randomly as possible:
Roof tops of a Northern town. We pick up a central character putting the bins out. They look up and we see what they see; their ex wife doing the same; they stare across the cobbles at each other. Coronation Street.
Wind swept moorland and a galloping horse. A man is riding very fast to somewhere but we can be sure it will be where the next bit of the story will start so we are keen for him to get there. Poldark.
A man stands in a desert in his underpants. He is holding a gun. There’s a Winnebego next to him. It looks very hot and he looks very upset. Breaking Bad.
Two elderly people in a cafe. Quintessentially English. Their conversation soon encompasses their respective spouses and off spring. They appear to be strangers at first but we realise they are actually flirting. Last Tango In Halifax.
The back garden of a local house in rural Yorkshire, grumpy Cop realises there’s nothing she can do about the mauled sheep found dying on the nice old lady’s neatly mowed lawn. She accepts a cup of tea and when the lady pops back to her kitchen, she staves the sheep’s head in with a brick. Happy Valley.
A jaded journalist is a reluctant part of a discussion panel for a room full of young journalists and students on the nature of America and it’s place in world politics. He sees his ex in the audience with a prompt card. He decides to tell the truth. The News Room.
2/ CRACK INTO CHARACTER
Every second counts on the screen so translate that directly to the page and make everything in the first ten pages a character does and says actually mean something.
Motivate every word they say from their subtext. You have to know your character really well to be able to do this with conviction.
The subtext of this character and those around them, will push the narrative forward. It is not only what a character says that is important in informing us about them. It is how they say it. So remember the action; ‘see’ how your characters move and interact.
Everything a character does with their body will say something about their character. Having said that, please don’t over state this direction in your script.
For example; having a character snap their pencil in half at the end of a scene whereby their partner admits to having an affair, will visually show the way they hold themselves in, their temper, their desperation. The fact you chose to not have them speak also speaks volumes.
3/ START THE PLOT MOVING
The subtext is deep and solid in all your characters (of course!) so you will no problem moving the plot forward. But it is essential that you keep up the rythmn here. In the first ten pages the plot; or text, motivated by the subtext of your characters must get to a point whereby your audience/reader will want to get to the next 10 minutes (10 pages roughly). So you need to set up the main frame of your story in these pages and also introduce a twist, or an added point of eHappy Writingngagement.
4/ SET UP THE DESIRED GOAL
All your characters want something. Set this up in the first ten pages.
5/ ADD THE OPPOSITION TO THAT GOAL
The truth and therefore the point of dramatic engagement from both your reader and ultimately your audience, will come from the interplay between what your character wants and how you, the writer choses to stop them getting it.
The most important note that I came away with from my meet with Tony was for writers to always write from the truth.
‘If you’ve lived; don’t make stuff up!’ Tony Jordan on writers over 40….
To those of you that are not even rounding the bend of that particular curve, fear not. The message is the same.
Write from your own personal centre of truth.
We all have emotions, conceits, ideas and mantras that we follow in life. Things that matter to us.
A way of seeing. A way of interpreting the world and that is what the drama bods want.
Writers need to tap into that complex, dense, often not very savoury centre of ‘us’ and then the story unfolds in a truthful way, then the real connections can be made between those that create these scenarios for our screens and those that watch them.
It’s an all-round activity; watching drama on the big and small screens. When we engage with a story we are doing so with our logical brains and with our hearts.
We understand something we are being told rationally but we also react most viscerally to how that story make us feel.
We are in the business of bringing that 360 degree experience to the audience. So if you don’t personally feel it. They won’t.
Tap into what you know about your world. Not what you think we want to know.
Need help with your pilot? Get in touch www.scriptadvice.co.uk