Sunday, November 7, 2010

Screenwriting: It’s The Idea That Counts

You often hear it said that screenwriting is 98% craft and 2% talent, but after the recent London Screenwriters’ Festival, I wonder if ideas aren’t more important?

If I took one thing away from the recent London Screenwriters’ Festival, it’s confirmation of my conviction that the most important thing about a screenplay is the idea at its core. Whether you’re talking about writing for TV, short films, features, writing for games, it makes no difference; what separates a generic script from an enthralling one, is the quality of the central idea.

Non-linear Screenwriting
One of my absolute favourite speakers at the festival, was Linda Aronson. She presented her brand new book, The 21st Century Screenplay, which is a paradigm-busting collection of practical guidelines for writing screenplays that don’t follow the conventional three-act model (in which a single protagonist learns some moral lesson by encountering a serious of increasingly challenging obstacles). This is the one-size-fits all, monomyth model which is held up by Hollywood (and now elsewhere too) as the only valid screen story form, despite the success of many movies which don’t adhere to it. Aronson’s basic premise is this: There are many ways to structure a screenplay, and you have to find the form that best expresses the idea you want to write about.

Pitching your Material
Another great aspect of the Festival, was the opportunity to pitch material. Besides the formal “speed pitching” sessions, Raindance organized one of its famous public Live!Ammunition! pitching events, plus there was ample opportunity during informal networking sessions to pitch material to other delegates too. It’s one of the unfortunate essentials of screenwriting, that you have to be able to pitch your stories to complete strangers, in order to convince them to read your script and help you get the film made. Imagine a painter having to describe a painting in order to get someone to come and look at it… But here too: it doesn’t matter how intricate your plot is, how much action, violence, sex, or whatever it contains, it’s the basic idea on which the screenplay is based, that ultimately hooks the potential reader.

Writing Samples
For screenwriters who haven’t had any of their material produced yet, every spec script is a potential calling card. A writing sample for potential collaborators or commissioners. In this respect, it was interesting to hear various TV and film industry professionals at the festival reiterate, that what they’re looking for is an original voice. People like Ollie Madden, VP of Warner Brothers UK, Noelle Morris Head of Development at Kudos, and several other speakers, all emphasized that a calling-card spec script which demonstrates that a new writer has interesting ideas and an original voice, is much more informative to them than, say, a spec episode of an existing TV series.

Write What You’re Good at Writing
Literary agent Julian Friedmann, said something that stuck with me too: Write what you write best, rather than what you like watching most. Because these two things are often confused. It may sound trivial, but it comes down to the same notion: You may love watching action thrillers, but perhaps what you’re best at writing are period dramas, or stage plays or poems. Again, it’s important to make this distinction, because the difference between generic writing and great writing, is finding the right form in which to express the idea you want to write about.

Jumping Through Hoops
Another inspiring figure at the Festival, was Tim Clague, whose entire way of approaching filmmaking and writing is refreshingly independent and unconventional. He thinks it’s a mistake to see yourself as someone trying to “break in.” For example, making a short film as a calling card, in order to get your foot in the door and maybe, just perhaps, inshallah, finding approval in the eyes of a producer who might then be gracious enough to throw you a bone in the shape of a commission… This is what Tim calls jumping through hoops, and it’s not his way of doing things. He writes, produces and distributes his own work, using digital technology to keep costs low. But then again, without any ideas worth pursuing, no amount of independent spirit is going to result in a film anyone else would want to see, right?

A Universal Theory of Screenwriting. Not.
Film is a relatively new medium (just compare it to poetry, painting, theatre, etc.), and it’s evolving all the time. The only thing about it that remains constant, is that it’s made by human beings for human beings. Apart from that, storytelling techniques come and go, as do technologies and cinematic conventions. There’s always some form or technique that is held up as contemporary, which previously seemed unthinkable and tomorrow will feel stale and derivative. It’s easy to become fixated on ephemeral forms and structures, while forgetting that at the heart of a great film is an enduring, engaging idea. It’s also very difficult, but perhaps essential, to maintain enough distance from prevailing “business models” in order to remain focused on what you want to write about, rather than trying to second-guess the industry’s current preferences.

Ironically, though, it’s always rule-breaking, innovative voices with great ideas, that the lumbering media industry craves most.