Sunday, 26 April 2009

MA Screenwriting: Unit 4

Meanwhile, back in the Deep South...

Round about the time we were doing our observational research, we also had to crack on with one of the more academic units - 'Writing the Professional Script Report'.

We were given one of the previous year's feature-length MA scripts for the unit, which came in two parts.

Part one was a script reader's report: a 500-word synopsis of the script and a 500-word overview of its strengths and weaknesses, including a recommendation for further development or not.

I think a few people found the synopsis difficult, or at least a chore, but my editorial background meant I was used to getting to the heart of material and summing up complex stuff in simple terms.

Writing a synopsis (of either your own or another writer's work) can be valuable in identifying whether the central idea and dramatic spine of the story are strong enough to support the script. The ability to write a punchy and engaging synopsis also comes in handy for marketing your work.

The ability to read scripts critically is one of the most useful tools a screenwriter can have. In fact, I find it much easier to 'get under the bonnet' of a film from its script than from the finished work. By developing a critical approach and vocabulary you can focus sharply on what works and what doesn't work (and why).

The major aspects we were asked to look at were structure, arena, character, conflict, relationships, dialogue and emotional response. This last one is the most important - and can easily be overlooked while trying to get the cogs of your plot working together; while other more technical aspects can be tweaked, the script will fall flat on its face if it doesn't engage and move the audience.

Part two was a more complete 1,500-word set of script editor's notes on the same script. While the script report was purely descriptive, these notes are designed to guide the writer (and producer) through possible improvements for the next draft of the script.

While the reader's report can be more blunt in its assessment, as it's more likely to be for the consumption of a producer or agent, the script editor's notes need to strike a more delicate balance, finding ways of improving the script while respecting the writer's sensibilities.

The format that was suggested for us was a general preamble - with some diplomatic praise for what works well in the script - followed by bullet-pointed suggestions for concrete changes, with close reference to the text. Most points will fit under one of the following headings:
  • characterisation and relationships
  • arena and visual description
  • structure and pace
  • dialogue
  • story and theme
  • execution
I think the script we worked on is in development somewhere, so I won't post my reports. And I've lost the resource list, although I don't think it was very substantial. However, for all you'll ever need to know about script reading etc, take a plunge into the bubbling think-tanks of Danny Stack, Lucy Vee and Scott the Reader.

(Click here for previous MA posts.)

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