A few days ago, Rachael Prior, head of development at Big Talk Productions, went on a Twitter ‘rant’ about what makes a script – and as a result the writer – stand out. Reprinted in its entirety by permission.
As ever, there is a degree of subjectivity here. Personal taste plays a factor, but on the whole, good writing is undeniable.
You’ll have heard a lot abt ensuring the first 10 pgs of your script are strong enough to guarantee your reader continuing beyond that point
I cannot stress enough how important this is.
A good first 10 pages of any script should be working as hard as it can to originate, charm and enthrall in whatever genre it sits in.
The best way to do this (imo) is with killer character work.
If you can surprise, unseat or make your reader sit forward with your location and situation, all the better…
But many scripts require a more conventional start. If that’s the case? Character, character, character.
I can’t tell you how to write great characters, but I can tell you that the more individual their behaviour is…
…the more specific the way express themselves, the more compelling they are to your reader.
If your dialogue could be readily interchangeable with other characters in your script, you have work to do.
Chances are you are channelling movie speak, or trying to emulate. Stop.
Good character work comes from being utterly open, honest & free. If you are coy abt what you put on the pge, ur characters won’t fascinate.
You also need to listen. A fuck of a lot. In particular to people outside of your friendship and family circle. Tune in to different rhythms
One of your duties as a writer is to get down truth. Human truth.
This is often ugly, contradictory, obfuscated, naïve, selfish, perverted, joyful, heartbreaking.
To get this down, you have to get over your internal filters. At least when you are starting out. Filtering comes from rewriting.
When I can feel this in character work and dialogue, no matter how raw and undisciplined, I consider a writer to have potential.
When I feel this done with craft and elegance, I know I’m in the hands of a great writer.
How this presents itself in different writers is forever fascinating to me. At risk of embarrassing them, let me talk about 3 diff writers..
Chosen with deliberate bias so as not to offend the unchosen.
I have worked with @Finkowska and @TheTessMorris on several projects, and I I have read pretty much every script @BrianDuffield has written.
All very different scribes, all with a unique way of pulling a reader in.
Toby writes mainly drama. Pretty dark stuff on the whole, but he is preoccupied & fascinated by the human condition & this drips off the pg.
From his characters, to his dialogue to his prose and his visual landscape.
You know when you are reading a script by Toby. He has voice. It’s unmistakable. This is what u r striving for. Voice. Distinct, compelling.
He’s also clever as fuck, incredibly well read, and has a million literary references at his fingertips.
Tess writes predominantly in comedy. Her style is completely diff to Toby’s, but guess what? She’s also fascinated by the human condition.
She chooses to explore this via comedy.
I’ve not read a script yet from her where I haven’t been grinning like an idiot by pg 2 & wanting to hang out w/her & her chars & be BFFs.
Tess writes in the oldest of genres with the most contemporary of voices.
She does this by again, being painfully honest on the page, but also by being incredibly knowledgeable about popular culture…
…and being a committed student of her craft. It’s paid off. She is unique among her peers in the UK.
Brian is the master of the opening 10 pages. In fact, he should teach a class on it or at the very least, do a tweet series. I’m serious.
Brian writes across many genres, but always with a particular kind of fucked up twist.
He’s developed a unique voice & has talked abt how this matured to @gointothestory so you should def try and track that interview down.
Brian writes with an immediacy and turn of phrase that is completely unique to him. I mean, he’s really quite bonkers, but…
He understands and loves movies, and he knows how put his own stamp on whatever he’s building. He’s a very groovy writer.
I met all of these writers when they were unproduced. Toby was working as a reader, Tess was about to give it all up…
…Brian had JUST quit his day job.
Rather than you love movies and thought it might be cool to write one. I’d like to write one. I know it’s harder than that.
How do you know if you’ve got it? How do you know if you have a voice people are going to want to listen to?
Here’s honesty, & sorry if it makes me unpopular. I think I can often tell if a writer has potential even from the way they choose to tweet.
…how they craft a sentence, which words they choose.
Another account on here (and I’m sorry I can’t remember who because I ought to credit them) gave a useful litmus test a while ago.
Take a look at a tweet from a celebrity or writer you particularly admire. If they tweet something amusing and you decide to tweet back…
…your own bon mots, go take a look at all the other replies.
Have you tweeted something that stood out, or have you tweeted a variation on 90% of their mentions?
You want to be in the 10%. And not because you have just said something idiotic or ridiculous.
But I believe it’s the part of the craft that is most easily taught and worked on.
The other stuff is, to a greater or lesser extent, down to your natural talent.
So I’ll move on to talk a little bit more now abt how you can improve on your craft, which is something none of us should stop striving for.
I don’t mean the lovely scenes you depict, I mean as an actual moving, breathing graph.
If it’s not working, I can just feel it. I want to be pulled in a particular direction, but you’re taking me somewhere else…
The rhythm is wrong, the timing is off, you attending to the wrong part of the story. I’m not getting pleasure from it.
U need to develop this instinct for urself, but it’s HARD. Being ur own ed is difficult, so building a pod of trusted, expert readers is key
Expert readers aren’t around every corner, so if you can’t get that, get honest readers.
Or, you know, relegated to beers, snacks and moaning duties only.
Be very ruthless with your prose and your chitty chat. In real life, we are incredibly economic with our use of language.
We are leave huge gaps that our listeners easily fill in.
In film writing, this is essential. It will take your dialogue & prose from boring & arduous to biting and compelling. Probably. Hopefully.
Know the story you are telling. Don’t get diverted. Don’t fall in love with anything. No, particularly that bit. Your favourite bit.
That’s the bit that’s fucking your entire 2nd act.
Chances are you’re writing just became 30% more immersive.
Do not labour your point. Remember you are writing in a visual medium.
Remember we told entire stories without words on a big screen and this is how our industry was born.
Truth from on high, people! So many things in this rant I resonate with: Character. Voice. Humanity. Study. Character. Listen. Language. Words. Character. Read. Economy. Visual. Character. Character. Character.
Thanks, Rachael, for this your advice.
If you are on Twitter, follow @ORachaelO.