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A few weeks ago, I attended the London Screenwriter's Festival which was a cornucopia of fascinating information and networking packed into a couple of intense days.
Authors can learn a lot from screenwriters, especially in an age where there's some amazing television. After getting rid of the physical TV six years ago, we've been downloading and devouring shows like House of Cards, Game of Thrones and True Detective, and I am always a sucker for action movies!
Let's face it – more people watch TV and films than read books.
More people devour stories through the visual medium.
So I decided to go and find out a little more about possibly adapting my own books into screenplays, and what the screenwriting world was about. As usual, I am not content to sit back and wait! Here are some of my notes from the days I attended.
“Storytellers need to be passionate, creative people and rise above the resigned and cynical world we live in.”
Chris Jones opened the festival with a rousing speech to get out there and create the stories that ignite passion within you. He talked about how others may think we're crazy and tell us to get a real job, but at events like this, we are amongst peers. We know each other.
Choose the people you spend time with wisely and they will buoy you up in this creative career.
I feel this a lot in the author community, and avoid any toxic situations/ forums/ people as much as possible. Life is short – it's important to make good choices about who we spend it with.
Screenwriter and novelist Lynda La Plante gave a great talk about her journey. She's a fantastic example of an author-entrepreneur, moving from acting into writing and then into running her own company in order to have more creative control over her work.
She talked about ‘going back to Source,' when researching her work, not in a metaphysical sense, but actually visiting criminals, prisons, police stations and morgues to learn the reality from the people who live it.
“The roots of a good story are in reality.” Lynda La Plante
She suggested always including comedic elements in dark books to break the tension, and that the gore level of the current crime scene will swing back soon as it has gone too far and people are more interested in the hunt than the violence.
William Nicholson, screenwriter for Shadowlands, Mandela and Gladiator, as well as many more screenplays and also novels, talked about his journey in one fantastic session. He talked, as did others, about the disappointment of the screenplays that get sold but never made. Many of the speakers commented on how some of their best work would never see the light of day as it wouldn't get made but the rights had been sold.
The focus of the session was on heightening emotion, the heart of all great drama. William writes by choosing the emotion he wants the audience to feel, connecting to that within himself and then structuring around that.
“Screenwriters don't write lines. They write stories.” William Nicholson
He also mentioned that researching too much was a bad thing, as we're not writing reality, we're writing stories that communicate values.
William mentioned that he only started screenwriting after several very serious novels, and his writing loosened up when he stopped taking himself and his writing so seriously.
[This advice is something I have also learned from Dean Wesley Smith in his brilliant Productivity workshop.]
William suggested choosing something that other people care about as a theme, and not focusing on yourself as the writer. You're not as interesting as a resonant theme or topic.
There was also a great session with Joel Schumacher where the film of The Lost Boys was played on the big screen, and he talked about the various shots as the film progressed. We were also able to download the script and read along.
That process was a real revelation to me, and it was fascinating to hear from the Director himself how the story was structured to appeal to the audience. He said, “we had no idea it would be this big,” and Nicholson said the same of Gladiator.
It seems to be a theme, you just don't know when things will blow up, so just keep creating the stories you love.
“Dialogue is not real conversation. It's the illusion of conversation.” Claudia Myers
In one session on dialogue, Claudia Myers went through the four key elements. It must:
- Advance the plot
- Reveal character
- Give exposition
- Set the tone
One of the reasons I wanted to attend the festival was to focus on dialogue as it is something that novelists need to work on constantly. The first solution to revealing character is always action/ behavior, but then it's dialogue. Not speaking is sometimes just as powerful as speaking.
Good dialogue should also work sub-textually – people often don't say what they really think. There are forces that make us say things we don't mean, and we need to communicate that through sub-text. A good example of this comes from the pitching sessions. When an agent says “I'll get back to you,” without providing their contact details, it's likely that they actually mean, “No thanks, it's not for me.”
“Write a bad scene and then fix it.” Claudia Myers
Pilar Allesandra did a session on the craft, and used some great examples from scripts to demonstrate how important word choice is for genre. She also suggested picking a small ‘tell' that reveals what a character is really thinking i.e. subtext.
For example, two people bump into each other, one says “I'm sorry,” but rolls their eyes. You show their annoyance through the physical response, that's the subtext to the dialogue.
She also had a tip for revealing character without constraining the casting options. Compare the two:
- Vanessa, a beguiling vamp
- Vanessa (25) tall, blonde, wearing a cocktail dress
The first option describes the character but leaves the casting open to actresses of all kinds.
“Eventually the book becomes this forgotten thing – a sacred text that nobody looks at any more.” Ted Tally
There was a revealing session by Ted Tally, who won an Oscar for the adaptation of ‘The Silence of the Lambs.'
He talked about choosing books to adapt, how he reads a lot and is always hoping to discover something unusual, but usually gets pitched and sent things from agents. He wants to find compelling characters more than anything else, since plot and dialogue can be fixed, but the character is critical from the start.
He'll read a book several times and work on a treatment, and then a first draft. Subsequent drafts are done from the treatment, rather than the book.
Most execs and people involved in the film won't have read the book, which is why so many films get further and further from the original text. They just don't know the material and don't necessarily want to. The original author and the screenwriter are not usually around on set – although they are in some cases, and Ted was for Silence of the Lambs, as was Thomas Harris, the author.
The adaptation is the screenwriter's take on the book, their enhancement of the original work.
It's not just the book turned into the movie.
The choices that the screenwriter makes can change the film into something different. For example, the choice of Clarice as the main focal character meant a lot of the book's other POV characters were minimized, changing the depth of their characters in the movie. The adaptation screenwriter slashes the book apart and their freedom is that first draft, when they re-imagine. [That part does actually sound pretty fun to me, as I love editing!]
Very occasionally, there is a brilliant book that doesn't need much work in adaptation. Ted said of All the Pretty Horses, “it didn't need a screenwriter, it just needed a typist.”
As an author, I felt a real respect for the screenwriters who adapt novels, and I'd be keen to work with someone to adapt my books, as I have done with translators and audiobook narrators.
Collaboration is a powerful way to move a story onwards.
Once again, the writers talked about their disappointment. Ted Tally said “some of the best scripts I've ever written haven't been produced and maybe never will be.” That melancholic statement seemed to be part of the general acceptance of a screenwriter's lot, and the aspiring screenwriters suggested this was just part of the journey. You work hard until the magical moment of seeing your name on the credits of a TV show or film. That's what you're working for, along with the pleasure of writing and the paychecks that (occasionally) come.
My personal conclusions
It was great to attend the event because it solidified a few things for me:
- I love the control of being indie and I love the speed of getting my creative work into the world. I love reaching readers with my stories and being paid 90 days later for that work. I don't want to wait years for someone to pick my book (or my script) and I don't want to give up creative control and be ignored once the work is accepted. So basically, I don't want to write a screenplay and I won't be adapting my books into scripts myself. [At least right now! Never say never!]
- I would LOVE to have my books (properties) optioned for film/ TV and I would be a gem of an author to work with when it comes to adaptation (honest!) I'm enjoying the collaborative process of translation and I think adaptation would be similar. It's respecting someone else's creativity and their interpretation of your work.
I had some great aha moments over the weekend and it helped me to formulate my own strategy for the film/TV market. I highly recommend the festival if you're at all interested in screenwriting, or even if you want to learn some tips from another type of writer. You can find more here: London Screen Writers Festival.