Writer James Phelan sets out his top tips for those new to screenwriting.
1 – FINISH YOUR SCRIPT
Sounds obvious but until you do, it’s all theory and hot air. Chances are when you pitch or visualise the project you envisage a couple of scenes or sequences that really rock. And those are the ones you talk about. And that’s only natural. There’s a reason that no one ever hushes an entire room at a pitching event or in a bar at a film festival and starts with ‘I have a couple of really terrible scenes that are rife with clumsy exposition, trite dialogue and really contrived beats.’
Be proud of your great scenes but even if they do turn out great, those won’t be the scenes that need work. It’ll be every other connective or establishing scene into which you need to layer or bury exposition and characterisation while simultaneously infusing the entire thing with entertainment value. Until the script exists, our illusions and dreams inspire us and protect us. Finishing a script is reality setting in. And usually it ain’t just setting in, it’s moving in.
And in terms of finishing, I’m referring exclusively to actual screenplays. The industry may be obsessed with treatments and short docs but that doesn’t mean writers should be. You may write the best treatments in the world but until you write the screenplay, it’s all just a promise to be awesome. Being awesome in script form is way more important. And impressive.
2 – NOW THAT YOU’VE FINISHED START AGAIN.
Nope. Not on a different project. The same one. Sure – get away from it for a while. Put it in a desk for a few weeks but unless you’re insanely talented or insanely lucky, you’re going to need to wrestle your script into its optimum shape.
Novice writers simply start to polish, tighten, augment and edit the first draft and assume that’s a second draft. It’s not. Re-drafts often need to be radical. All the prep documents aren’t the only place where fundamental questions should be asked about a project. Now that the skeleton of the story has been fleshed out, what are we looking at? Frankenstein or Einstein?
If the actuality isn’t lining up with the intention, then here come those fundamental questions again. Have we followed the right character? Have we started the story in the right place? How much do we need to shed or add to get the best out of this?
Some writers seek comfort in hitting a page count. However, just because you have 110 pages doesn’t mean you have a viable script. You just filled 110 pages. You have to police yourself on whether you’re padding out your story. It doesn’t mean the story is a dead loss. There are shorter forms for every kind of story. And any time spent writing is never wasted time. It is a process of discovery though.
3 – HAVE MORE THAN ONE PROJECT ON THE GO
Having a range of projects is crucial. Having writing samples that span many genres is better again. Generating your own back catalogue is easier said than done but if you’re a writer – you should be interested in exploring and developing your own range and ability.
Some aspiring beginners seem to adopt a stance of ‘I’ll write when someone pays me to’. Which, while honourable in it’s own way, seems a little daft to me. Yes, it’s great to draw a wage from writing but if you have no credits, how can you prove to someone else that you can write if you haven’t proved it to yourself. In a business where years and decades fly by, your principled stand-off with an oblivious industry may ultimately become life-long.
Write firstly for your own enjoyment and education. You can always monetise a project later. A couple of projects I’ve written were kick-started into paid development because convincing and viable scripts already existed.
4 – DON’T BE A SNOB
We all want to make movies. Let’s take that as a given. But in a small country with limited opportunities to get paid to write, cast your net wide and keep your options open.
I presume that no film purists starting their careers within this country can afford to be snooty anymore about tainting themselves with TV work if offered. You’d be nuts to ignore this outlet where you may be better paid and you will actually reach an audience. Bar our biggest films, the audience for some of our domestic film releases are pitiful. If you want to get your work out there, no one still does it better than TV.
Similarly, radio drama is undergoing a bit of a BAI-backed boom in this country. It’s a highly inventive, accessible and relatively inexpensive way of telling stories. While theatre retains a real allure for writers who get to maintain authorship throughout in a manner that no other form can match.
5 – MAKE SOMETHING
Again while I advocate building a back catalogue, there’s little point going to all that effort of generating all that material unless, once in a while, one of the damned things gets made. It’s bizarrely easy to forget.
As writers, we can retreat into our caves and start churning stuff out but when you become capable of constructing actual physical forts with printed scripts, it might be time to make one.
If you don’t want to be a director – that’s fine. Plenty of others do. Just throw a rock. Test your ideas and scripts by filtering them through someone else’s vision. No one’s work gets to screen unfettered. Start getting familiar with the heart-breaking compromises. Learn how to protect what’s important and integral. Learn how to lose some battles. Learn which hill you want to die on. Hang on tightly. Let go lightly. Someone said that in a movie once.
James Phelan is an IFTA and Zebbie nominated scriptwriter whose first TV series, Rásaí na Gaillimhe/Galway Races, remains TG4’s most viewed drama. As well as a sequel season of that hit show, James has written several short films produced under Filmbase, Galway Film Centre and Irish Film Board schemes.
His current projects include the four-part drama series Cheaters, in advanced development with Blinder Films and RTE, as well as scripting duties on upcoming international animation shows Oddbods and Cuby Zoo.
His next project into production is Wrecking the Rising for TG4 and Tile Films. The historical mini-series is currently shooting and is an imaginative alternate take on the events of 1916 as three modern-day re-enactors and self-proclaimed Rising experts time travel by accident to Easter week and alter history at every turn. Soon they are battling for not only their own futures but the entire country’s future too. The show’s title in Irish is Éirí Amach Amú.
Peter Coonan, Owen McDonnell & Seán T. Ó Meallaigh at the GPO in Wrecking the Rising