Workshop for screenwriters by Ronnie Mackintosh

Ronnie b&wI got to know Ronnie by chance, using random connections on my twitter account but I am very glad I did. After leaving his job as a police Detective Chief Inspector, Ronnie decided to fulfill his old dream to become a scriptwriter.  Today Ronnie is a well known figure for the Edinburgh film society and festival goers. Here you can read an interview with him by Write Shoot Cut. His works for screen include: Small Gifts, Plagium, Fringe, The Neighbours among others. I hope you will enjoy some first hand advice on developing a script for the short film and scriptwriting craft in general that Ronnie Mackintosh kindly agreed to share with FilmCareer readers.

First approach to the craft or

 What makes a script for the short so powerful

Like any film, a short has to move you in some way; make you laugh, make you sad, make you think, make you question something.  There’s just less time in which to achieve it.  The best shorts are those that stay with you long after the viewing because they’ve had that emotional effect.  I know that sounds obvious, but there are many shorts that I’ve seen that fail this test from the off.  For me, the most important thing is story and within the context of story, it’s all about character and situation.

Digging deeper: what is important to start with

There are no rules and I am not qualified to give advice.  But filmmaking all starts with the script, the blueprint.  And if you’re serious about it, you must begin the writing process with the intention of having those pages translated into moving images on a screen, and to achieve that, you have to do your best to make those pages the best they can be.  In simple terms, you need to attract the interest and attention of someone; a director or producer, who has the ability and the access to resources to make a film.  And the only way you are going to do this is by having that polished and appealing script.

Stepping right back, the very first task is to come up with a story idea (if you can, come up with a few).  It may stem from an interesting article you’ve read, a person you’ve seen, a relative’s tale, a place you visit.  It can come from absolutely anywhere.  This initial idea won’t be perfect, or fully formed, it’s just the seed, but there must be something in it that makes you think it’s worth cultivating and developing because it’s going to take a little time and effort.

If you want to write a short script that will attract attention, that has a chance of being made and ending up on a screen and that you will be pleased with, make sure you approach the task correctly and commit.  A short script doesn’t mean an easy script, nor does it mean that it should be done quickly.  Obviously it takes longer to develop a 110 page feature than it does a 10 page short, but as I’ve said, you must treat those 10 pages, and the story you want them to convey, with respect and make them the best you can, and that takes a bit of time and effort.

Ronnie’s Advice

1. An idea

When I have an idea, I live with it.  It’s constantly on my mind, I scribble down notes, one idea leads to another, then another.  A character begins to take shape, then maybe another.  A new scene will shove an earlier one out of the way.  There are no rules.  At this early stage, I take lots of notes (I usually have a new notebook for each project), most of which I don’t ever look at again, but without them, I wouldn’t have got to the good ones that will, in some way or another, find their way into the script.

 2. First draft

When I have a fairly good idea of what the story is, who it’s about and what the main beats are (especially the ending and the beginning) I then begin to shape the initial ‘dump’ draft.  Again it’s pretty obvious, but the more time I spent developing and thinking through those initial stages, the easier life is when I come to put my fingers on the keyboard and craft the script.  The same thing always happens when I get to this stage; the rough map through the story that I’ve planned will evolve and new elements will make their way in.  These may be minor, but more often than not they’re quite significant.

I work through that first draft and then I leave it, at least for a few days.  I know there’s mistakes in there, some are obvious, other won’t be.  But that first draft will always be much worse than you think, and that’s fine, it’s the way it should be, and that’s why you need to take time away from it.  When you go back with a clearer head, those mistakes will jump out at you.

3. Polishing the script

When I go back to the script, I need to have a hard copy.  I slowly, carefully, go through the script making notes and changes, adding in new ideas, tightening dialogue, taking out anything that’s superfluous.  Then I redraft and leave again.  If you have anyone that you trust to be honest (the honesty bit is really important) and who’s opinion you value, now would be a good time to let them have a copy and get their feedback.  They don’t have to be script savvy readers, some of the best feedback I get is from people with no script experience (other than reading my stuff), but the feedback must be genuine and honest.  Words like, ‘nice’, ‘good’ and ‘lovely’ are of no use.  You need to know what doesn’t work, what took the reader out of the story and made them lift their head from the page?  What didn’t they like and why not?  What did they think was unbelievable?  Get the feedback, don’t take it personally, think about it objectively (and remember, they may be wrong).  Has it made you rethink any elements, maybe it’s given you some new ideas?  One tip to save embarrassment (for both sides) is to make it clear that, initially at least, you’re not looking for any compliments, only constructive points on what doesn’t work, telling them that you know it isn’t yet as good as you’d like it to be.  Now get on with the next draft, using all the feedback you consider to be of value, together with any new thoughts you’ve had yourself.

4. Ship it out there

You may want to leave it again and rewrite one or two times more.  But you have to stop at some point, because you could go on rewriting forever.  Let’s say you have a pretty polished script.  You’ve spent so much time on it (you’ll actually be a bit sick of it now) and you want to get it out there.  What do you do?  Obviously if you’ve friends or colleagues who make shorts, they can be a point of call.  Otherwise, there are websites where you can pitch it or respond to people who are looking for shorts.  On the Shooting People independent filmmakers site  you can do both.  SP costs about £30 a year but it’s great value and I’ve met some excellent collaborators over the years through it.  Mandy is free to join and often puts out specific script requests as does the International Screenwriters Association, which is also free.

Once you’re at that stage, get it out to as many people and places as you can and, importantly, get on with the next one.

Structure, Structure, Structure

I concentrate more on features now, although I still write shorts.  In both, structure is very important, but I try not to get bogged down with the theories, such as Truby’s 22 steps, Gulino’s Sequence Approach and McKee and Fields many pronouncements.  I’m not saying they are wrong in any way, on the contrary, I think they all have something to offer, but they can create confusion and mild despondency in new writers.  I have all the books, I read them regularly, but I treat them as reference manuals that can give guidance as opposed to absolute blueprints and guidelines that must be followed.  I can’t remember who it was but an old screenwriter once described a feature screenplay as consisting of a story in which six or seven major events happen, each of which escalates and must be held together (by story).  A bit simplistic, but I think it’s pretty accurate.

The structural rules are far more important for feature scripts; you’re building a bigger piece that must hold firmly together, and while shorts must also be structurally sound, there’s much less material to worry about.

When I am at the stage of committing to the first ‘dump’ draft of a short script, I need to know who it’s about, what it’s about, what the protagonist wants, what/who is causing/will cause him difficulties, how and where will I begin the story and how will it end.  And all of these factors are subject to change in the writing process.

When you’re at the stage where you’re happy for other people to read and feedback, you should then get a sense of those sections that work.  And although you must be very careful, trust your own feeling as well.  If a scene or a piece of dialogue continues to have an emotional response with yourself, you’re most likely heading in the right direction.

Some Technical Advice + Resources

For good (and obvious reasons) screenwriting is very format dependent, but I’ve seen people get bogged down by the form and I think, if used to early, it can block the most elementary thing; the creation of a story.  A script should be laid out professionally with tight, crisp action lines, sparkling dialogue etc, but if there’s no story at its core, it’s useless.  Of course you’ll need formatting software, either something that’s free, like CeltX, or the more commonly and professionally prominent Final Draft or Movie Magic.  But to create the initial story idea, you need your imagination, some paper and a pen.

If you’re not familiar with short films, you need to watch them.  It’s easy and it’s free.  There are lots of sites out there, but one that’s definitely worth a look is the BBC Film Network.  Watch them with a critical eye and an open mind.   You’ll like some, you’ll hate others (regardless of the awards they may have won).  Think about why you like the ones you do.  Similarly, read lots of scripts.  Drew’s Scriptorama is a good site although there’s not many shorts.  A great site which has begun to put up produced short screenplays is Write Shoot Cut which is run by a filmmaking friend of mine, Neil Rolland.

To finish off, I recon the main tips for new short script writers are pretty straightforward and would include:

  • write, a lot;
  • learn to love the rewrite;
  • expect and welcome constructive criticism;
  • watch short films;
  • don’t put your stuff out too soon (be patient and polish);
  • read scripts;
  • and again, write, a lot.

I continue to add to my small library and read everything I can on the craft, and to stay motivated I watch and listen to successful screenwriters talking about how they go about their business on sites like bafta.org and the various downloadable podcasts on iTunes, including The Dialogue series.

 

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About zinasemenova

Russian filmmaker and blogger at filmcareer.wordpress.com

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