London Screenwriters' Festival 2014 — things I liked

Shortly after attending the 2013 edition of the London Screenwriters' Festival, I bought my ticket to this year's edition. The months passed, and LondonSWF 2014 came closer…

Just as last year, hundreds of screenwriters crawled around the premises of Regents University. Some as new as I am, some who make a living of selling scripts or working in the industry as director, producer or actor.

In this post you'll find some of my personal take-aways of the festival.

Non-linear story techniques

The first session kicked off with a topic everyone seems to have a love-hate-relationship with: non-linear stories. It can make an average story become intensely interesting but, as Linda Aronson points out during her talk, writing them is misunderstood in many ways.

Today's audience has a very fast uptake of these kinds of movies, so the story can move faster by more, yet shorter, scenes. Linda listed various styles and techniques to write a non-linear story, and briefly explained them.

There were a total of 8 mentions of the movie Pulp Fiction during this talk. Overal, this session was a cornerstone of a nutricious festival's breakfast.

Tandem writing: write for stage and screen

As I've been following acting classes for improvisational theater, it was a natural choice to see what a panel on writing for stage has to say about that. The panel discussed the advantages of writing for stage, and main focus was the easier way to get into "the business" when compared to screenwriting. A small stage production can lead being noted in the film industry as well.

A rewrite for stage of a few scenes from a yet unproduced screenplay, can lead to the same satisfaction as selling it. Once written and produced, a stage production can be picked up by other theater groups, and might generate some extra income.

By using various approaches to fit the story in, a format can strengthen the other: writing for stage and screen in tandem.

Writing visually

Script consultant Ludo Smolski presented various practical tips to write visually. He showed clips from various movies and illustrated them with the pages in the screenplays they were adapted from.

One of them was to write the action lines clearly, by only using the objects available in the story world you try to create. This distinction aligns perfectly with the general advice not to use directorial commands such as "the camera follows" in a script.

To help the audience understand what they see during a scene, the use of a visual methaphor can be of great value. All what is visible can be interpreted as extra layer for the understanding of a character development in a scene.

For example, a revelation about a character makes more impact when the location and various props in the scene have a personal connection with the character. Something of the past, that catalyses that character's response in the scene.

Improvisation in screenplays

The concept of using improvisation in a screenplay is not very common. In general, the script is only ten pages long, full of scene descriptions. The most important part of the descriptions is to have clear ideas about the development during the scene. What needs to happen? What will move the story and characters forward per scene?

During the shoot, actors will work only with that. They make up what is said and done by them during the scene, while the camera is rolling. The only actual rule they follow is the scene description from the script.

In general there is lots of talking, but it will sound very natural and energetic.

Finding your voice

As an American script editor living in Tel Aviv, the war in and around Julie Gray's city ties to every part of her life. The 90 minutes in cinema were the only 90 minutes she could get out of that. During the first of her two talks at the festival, she gave insights in how to get the audience into the story.

A key aspect for this is a world and a character in it, that are not familiar for the viewer. A combination that excites us, and keeps us interested. Transport the viewers to a different place.

There are problems in life and the world, that keep you, the writer, awake at night. What frights you? What makes you angry? What if you make that an underlying theme. What if the main character deals with that problem? Viewers love to see the character deal with it, they want to see people rising above that problem.

As the writer of stories you have the ability to give hope and money, whether literally or figuratively, to the viewer.

Writing & life

I was kinda in the wrong session here, a panel about family while I don't have any children… But one tip I keep in mind is to find your mind sweetspot: when can you write the best during a day?

Writing for a young audience

The topic of this panel, writing specifically for a young audience, was really something I hoped to get a few more things from than I actually did. I didn't know anything about it, and it was a pity that the age group was limited to very young children, mostly eight years or younger.

A good point to keep in mind, was to speak the vocabulairy the kids speak. That would apply for all audiences you specifically target, I assume. As I'm not that old *cough*, it creeps me out hearing odd dialogue by teenagers. It is worth an investment to get more input from them on a dialogue, or even improvise bits on the set.

The attention span of young children is limited. It is best not to transition in time, so one actual minute while viewing would map to a minute in the story world. Repetition of the most important plot points, can help children to understand the story better.

Satire

The target of satire will always be a hypocrit, especially if they do not know they are a hypocrit. During this panel on satire the audience actually had to alter a news headline, and come up with a satire version of it. "When people say the most ridiculous things, you gotta get to use it," as one of the panellists put it.

A small trick to add that bit of satire to a story, is to alert the way someone pronounces an important word in the story. In general it is better to find the joke, and work from there to craft the smallest possible joke.

How our worst writing can be our best work

Writers have got it good, as we are making shit up for money. Again a session from Julie Gray, and she reminded everyone to not actually write shit, but to improve a story even if we think it is shit. And an altered punchline of her talk, just to fit my blog: as you are reading this blogpost, someone is writing on a script!

Writers have got it good, as we are making shit up for money.

To get a scene right, it has to move the story forward, and it has to improve the character in some way. If you get stuck on a scene, at least write down what has to be moved or improved, and stick it in a placeholder for that scene. Sometimes when you leave this for a while, it is easier to get back to.

There is a small template to fill in for every scene: the status is normal, when X happens, then Y interferes, until Z restores peace, but has improved a character and moved the story forward.

The scene headers are actually a Haiku about the location and time a scene occurs. Practising writing Haiku, while just for fun, might improve on the scene headers.

Clarice during her meet with Hannibal Lecter

Screening of 'The Silence of the Lambs' with live commentary by Ted Tally

The screenwriter of 'The Silence of the Lambs', Ted Tally, did a live commentary during a screening of the 1991 movie. The movie won five Oscars, including one for his adapted screenplay.

One of the notable aspects of the movie was its implicit use of violence when an explicit version would not be needed. But when any explicit violence needed to be shown, it was as raw and ugly as it can be. Nothing more and nothing less.

The cast and crew were very respective of the script. Only some minor changes were made, but in consultation with Ted.

Clarice's character had the most interesting journey in the complex book, so we see and feel the story through her in the movie. In the editing some parts were left out, but in the end having to confuse the audience for three minutes is much better than boring them for three seconds.

Having to confuse the audience for three minutes is much better than boring them for three seconds.

According to Ted, rules may only be broken for the character. So achieving tension by dialogue, instead of cheaper action or scares, was very unconventional, even nowadays. Clarice was forced to be on her own, and in the end a flashback to the lambs scene was not needed. Her telling that story was the combination of a good script and an actress who nailed it.

The screening was one of the greatest moments during the festival, it certainly changed the way I will watch the movie later in my life :)

Originality

Throw a 'what if' at everything, even the most dull moments in life. What if your desk is a time machine, and you discover it by accident? A notable example is Notting Hill, "what if I came to a party with Madonna?"

Screening of 'Finding Nemo' with live commentary by David Reynolds

David Reynolds got a lot of energy from the casted voice actors, a few of which had kids. The last thing Nemo said to his father was "I hate you.". It called for a rite of passage for Nemo, he had to actually get out of the fish tank, and before being able to do so he needed to befriend the other fish in the tank.

Dealing with a writer's block

The last session of the festival I attended was a helpful and practical presentation by Pilar Alessandra to get un-stuck when words won't get onto paper (or the computer screen).

If a scene is stuck, there is need for more external or internal complications. An external complication might be an sudden event or someone trying to get attention, as long as it has to be dealt with right now. If what is happening at that moment is so difficult to overcome in that scene, more interesting action and dialogue will get on paper.

When you write certain characters, try give them a personality. What do they like for breakfast? What is their ideal car? What do they do over the weekend?

A really nice point Pilar made, is to write a logline for the characters, such as the buddies, family and of course: the antagonist. What if the movie was all about one of them, and what troubles do they need to overcome?

It might also be the case the script is a bit dull. A scene might be improved by changing the setting, characters or dialogue. A standard interrogation scene might change if it takes place in a garage, or if the officer is in love with the one he interrogates. Maybe the officer has a cold, or doesn't speak the language of the other person.

Fading out…

LondonSWF 2014 was a blast. Meeting people from last year again, as well as getting to know more writers. I've got various pages full of notes, this lengthy blogpost is the result of only a part of them.

And next year, I really want to deliver a good pitch at the Pitchfest :)

Thanks Bernard Nijenhuis, Sander Elias and Moon Tummers for proofreading this blogpost.

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