The Fiction Reboot: Writing for Stage and Screen

FictionReboot2Welcome back to the Fiction Reboot!

Since the Reboot’s inception in June of 2012, I have endeavored to provide a cross-sectional view of creative writing: what counts? How do we find time? What are tips to writing and publishing? I have featured New York Times bestsellers, brand new authors, ghost-writers, self-publishers, and agents. I have interviewed poets, short story writers and novelists working in many different genres. It has been incredible fun for me—edifying and worthwhile—to collect these views on the writing life.

Nevertheless, something was missing. There is one form of writing that I’ve been asked about by friends and also by students that has yet to be represented here: screenwriting. What is a script? What makes a good story? How do we handle dialogue? Action? Setting? What is the format? Where do you send it? How, in other words, do you break into this genre?

These are all excellent questions. It is tempting to answer them the same way we answer those queries about fiction writing in general—but as someone who has written screenplays (or, rather, who has tried to), I can tell you that it isn’t that simple. Part way through my second scene and already I was elevating my screen-writing colleagues to something near the divine. That isn’t to scare you off if you are considering it, of course, but it is to say that this is a craft. Like all crafts, it must be learned and practiced… and where better to learn than from those already working in the field?

Today’s post—the first, I hope, of many—will ask a panel of three screen writers in different points of their career to share with us the tricks of the trade. They will be answering the following questions:

1. What led you to you to screenwriting? Did you work in other genres first?
2. In what ways does screenwriting differ from other kinds of writing? (re: the questions above—what is a script, what makes a good story, etc.?)
3. What is your current project? Your future plans?
4. What advice would you give to someone “breaking in”?

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Our three participants are Stephen Gallagher, Lisa Holdsworth and Francis Abbey. Thank you for joining us today!

Stephen Gallagher

HeadshotStephen studied drama and English at Hull in the mid-70s. In 1982, he wrote Chimera, his first novel, a string of 90-minute Saturday Night Theatres for Radio 4 and stories for two consecutive TV seasons of Doctor Who. He went freelance in 1980.

Beginning with Valley of Lights, Stephen published a novel a year, saw each of them optioned either for film or TV, and wrote all the screenplays. He was also involved with the setting-up of Chiller, YTV’s highly-rated but short-lived horror anthology series, and Carnival Films’ BUGS, on which he wrote 10 out of 30 shows and was script consultant on series 2 and 3. Later projects included a 90-minute Murder Rooms episode and two feature-length Rosemary and Thyme specials followed by Life Line, a supernatural two-parter for BBC1. In 2008 Stephen was lead writer on Crusoe for NBC and started 2009 with a couple of scripts for the US version of Eleventh Hour, the series he created for ITV in 2006.  His more recent novels include The Painted Bride, The Spirit Box, and The Kingdom of Bones (a really artful work). The Bedlam Detective (a personal favorite for me) was published in 2012. For more, visit Stephen Gallagher’s Website!

Lisa Holdsworth

black and white-2Lisa has been writing professionally since 2001 when she won her first commission devising and writing an episode of the ITV series Fat Friends. She was shortlisted for a Best New Writer BAFTA for the episode. She went on to join the Emmerdale writing team. She spent three years there writing over forty episodes of the soap. During her time there she also wrote Bitter Pill, a Saturday Play for Radio 4.

She left Emmerdale to write for New Tricks and is currently working on her eleventh episode of the BBC1’s top-rated series. She has also written extensively for Waterloo Road. Her episodes included a feature length series opener. She was happy to write on the final series of the BBC’s Robin Hood, including the acclaimed “origins” episode. She is currently working on ITV’s perennial Midsomer Murders (a personal favorite of mine!) as well as several development projects for both the BBC and ITV.

Francis Abbey

francisa2_6658Francis Abbey earned degrees in Criminology and Spanish at the University of Maryland and completed graduate studies in film and television at the Savannah College of Art and Design. During his time in Savannah, Abbey focused on writing and directing, completing several short scripts, teleplays, and feature length screenplays, including Truth or Consequences, which was a Project Greenlight quarter-finalist. In 2006, his original script, Pennsyltucky, placed fourth out of 2,000 entries in the Slamdance Screenplay Competition. As an actor, Abbey has been in a number of films and has lent his voice to narrations and commercial voice-overs. Some of Abbey’s notable roles include G. Stimpson Erdogan in the webseries Buddy Jackson, Guillermo in the independent actioner Bordertown, and Blake in the award-winning independent drama Conquering the Rose.

Abbey wrote, directed, and produced his first feature film, Boxing Day, in 2008. Made for just $2,000 and shot largely over two weekends, Boxing Day has gone on to play at multiple film festivals, earn enthusiastic reviews, and win several awards. Abbey completed a second feature, 6 Nonsmokers, in 2010. His fantasy webseries, The Broken Continent, is now available at getbroken.tv.

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Interview Roundtable:
1. What led you to you to screenwriting? Did you work in other genres first?

Stephen: Before I wrote screenplays I wrote novels and before attempting either, I wrote radio plays. Writing for radio was like a foundation course for all drama. You learned to define a story through structured situations and the interaction of characters, and you could be ambitious at very little cost. Then writing novels taught me to handle story in depth and volume. Screenwriting involves having all that and then stripping it out to bare essentials.

Lisa: I’ve always written stories from being a small child. I was also a terrible liar which I am now claiming was just a ‘creative fictional outlet’. I was also obsessed with television from a very early age and was desperate to be part of it. So, although my early efforts were short stories, I was writing scripts pretty early on. I did my degree in Film Studies and that pretty much sealed my fate. Although, my early efforts were one-off screenplays, I now love the potential longevity of TV characters. Pretty much everything I generate now is for TV.

Francis: I was rather late to the writing game. I had a very active imagination growing up, but save for a few school writing assignments, I never made any great effort to put anything on paper. My parents were not huge consumers of movies or TV, so much of my film viewing started relatively late also. And it would be years before I even knew what a screenplay was.

When I was a senior in highschool, I flamed out rather spectacularly in an architectural drawing class and was in something of a vocational crisis. At the same time, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez were rising to prominence and were becoming rock stars of the indpendent film world. I read Rodriguez’ Rebel without a Crew as a college freshman, which detailed the making of his $7,000 debut film El Mariachi. The entire process, from the idea, to the writing, to the production appealed to me. It convinced me beyond a doubt that I wanted to become a writer-director. It was a great revelation for me, because I had always had a desire to tell stories, but didn’t yet know the medium in which to do it. Nearly twenty years later, I haven’t looked back.

 2. In what ways does screenwriting differ from other kinds of writing? (re: the questions above—what is a script, what makes a good story, etc.?)

Stephen: Many people think that screenwriting is all about dialogue. But it’s not about telling a story through conversations. It’s about creating a series of events for people to witness. In a 100-page screenplay you need to have a hundred things happen in a logical order, and 90% of the craft of screenwriting is the conception and structuring of that order. No waste, no digression, and a satisfying shape.

Dialogue’s the lifelike skin you put on your creation. In the early days of sound cinema you’d often see separate credits for screenplay and dialogue writers. Hitchcock used to talk about adding the dialogue when a screenplay had been completed.

Lisa: Not an easy question as there are now many screens to write for. However, generally speaking, I think the true skill of the screenwriter is knowing when to stop writing. Less really is more. So whilst a novelist can indulge in long flights of fancy and inner monologues that pretty much deadens a story on screen. Also, screenwriting is ultimately much more about collaboration. As much as it pains me to admit it; the director and actors often make as a big a contribution to the finished product as the writer. Still, it all starts with a blank page and furrowed brow in a cold office whilst the actors are still in bed.

Francis: If you were to compare novel writing (or narrative prose writing in general) to painting on a canvas, screenwriting would be painting on the head of a pin. Novel writing is open, with vast possibilities. Screenwriting has a very clear set of limitations. Novels can go into the minds of their characters and delve into their thoughts and feelings. Screenplays must describe visuals and actions that convey characters’ thoughts and feelings through performance. Novels can spend thousands of pages telling a story. Screenplays should tell a story that should only last about two hours, maybe three if it’s phenomenally good.

Screenwriting has much more in common with playwriting, as the two share many aspects including performance and time constraints. Playwriting is more dialogue driven and has an irremovable element of artifice. Screenwriting features a balance of dialogue and description, and generally strives for a certain sense of reality. However, to paraphrase a better known playwright, “The play’s the thing.” Plays are less remembered for who performed and directed them than for who wrote them. The opposite is true of movies.

There is an inevitable fact that a screenplay is in no small way an instruction manual. A screenplay, while requiring artistry and craft, is not a finished work. It is a blueprint for a much larger, collaborative, artistic endeavor, peppered with technical jargon. But at its core is a story. When great films are remembered, they are remembered for their stories and their characters. So while the screenwriter may not receive as much glory as the novelist or the playwright, the screenwriter’s storytelling can be just as memorable.

 3. What is your current project? Your future plans?

Stephen: I’m working on two projects for other people and developing one of my own. The two projects are both big-budget international miniseries, one based on a novel and the other on true events. The other’s a TV pilot that I’m hoping to have finished in time for the LA pitching season later this year. I’m not really looking much beyond that.

Lisa: After working on other peoples’ shows and playing with their ‘dolls’, I’m trying to get some dolls of my own. I’m developing various shows with various producers at various channels. The ultimate aim being to have as much creative control over a series as the powers that be will allow. I work across a couple of TV genres but I think I’m identifying where my strengths lie whilst still trying to stretch myself.

Francis: I am currently working on a fantasy webseries entitled The Broken Continent (getbroken.tv). It’s my first foray into the genre. A long-time fan, I had a prevailing notion that sword and sorcery tales must involve mythical beasts and other elements that would be too costly for an independent production. Watching HBO’s Game of Thrones, and subsequently reading George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, showed me how a character driven story with political intrigue could be told in a fantasy setting. In addition to writing the pilot episodes, I also directed and co-produced. With the production of direct-to-web content growing, my producing partners and I hope to find backers to finance future episodes. We also plan to flesh out the world of Elyrion in other formats such as audio drama and narrative prose. I look forward to continuing work on The Broken Continent as world building is tremendously fun. It’s a chance to really let the imagination go into overdrive.

Additionally, I have two feature ideas that I’m currently developing. One is a passion project for me, as a Filipino-American, that centers around Filipino mythology. The other is a character piece about a severely disabled man who makes a miraculous recovery after an experimental treatment and must learn how to function as a normal adult.

 4. What advice would you give to someone “breaking in”?

Stephen: Shoot something and then edit it. Seriously. I learned more about writing for the screen from editing film than in any other way. It doesn’t have to be anything you can show. You’ll probably be learning more if it’s overreachingly bad rather than just OK – a drawback to the convenience of Handicams and editing packages is that it’s possible to get an acceptable result by letting the technology do most of the work, and that’s not the point. You wouldn’t try to design a car without ever getting behind the wheel. So shoot some action and find out what happens when you put it together. You’ll have a different mindset the next time you sit down to write, I can guarantee it.

Lisa: Don’t just talk about writing, actually do some.

Francis: There are mountains of good advice from writers far more successful and experienced than myself. But I can offer advice as someone who has been involved in multiple facets of movie making. I would suggest that every aspiring writer go out and make a movie. Experience what it is to be a producer, director, and especially an editor. You don’t have to spend a lot of money (technology has made it more affordable than ever), or even make a full length feature. Just get the words from the page to the screen. Nothing will teach you more quickly what is necessary and unnecessary in a script. There are many aspiring novelists masquerading as aspiring screenwriters, wasting beautiful prose in descriptions that will never be seen. A screenplay is the first step in a long process, and the best writers embrace it.

Thank you, Stephen, Lisa, and Francis, for joining us!

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