Script development

Published at TwelvePoint.com on 6 March 2009

There seems to be some controversy as to whether script development is a good or a bad thing. I have heard people say it is a waste of time and others say it saves money. In an industry without absolutes or certainties and with so much at risk, there’s only one thing about script development that is undeniable: it needs to be done by people who know what they’re talking about.

The first piece of advice that course tutor Kate Leys gave us at the beginning of the Script Development Workshop 101 at the Script Factory was that when working with a developer, it is crucial to know that person’s background. Kate does know what she is talking about. She has been head of development at various companies (Film 4 amongst them), teaching development and screenwriting (National Film School, Royal Holloway) and has worked as a script developer on films such as The Full Monty, East is East and Four Weddings and a Funeral. She is currently involved on a number of projects with established professionals such as writer-director Noel Clarke and comedian Jimmy Carr.

I wanted to do this workshop because I thought it might be an area to explore professionally as I acquired more knowledge and experience in the industry. I also thought that by learning how to develop a script I was not writing, I would gain new insights on how to be a better writer.

There were fewer writers than I had expected amongst the participants. Most of them were directors, producers and/or development executives, some of whom had recently moved to this position, some were still training and some were already established. This was indicative of the progressive change Kate says has been happening over the past ten (more particularly, five) years.

The demand for professional script development is slowly rising, the reason being Britain’s position as number three in the world film industry (behind the US and Japan), making 15% of the world’s films. ‘There’s no room for amateurs in this industry,’ she warned. However, development remains seriously undervalued. Kate suggested that whilst in the US the expression ‘development hell’ means that a script is not going to be developed, in the UK it means the opposite.

As development is beginning to be better established as part of the filmmaking process, we learned that bad development can be really damaging. What does it take to be a good developer then? Experience is at the top of the list but since this cannot be taught, the workshop covered the rest: what is development, what is a story (the classic narrative structure), which are the development documents, how to manage the relationship with the writer, how to manage a development meeting and networking.

Divided into two days, the course had a practical side where we had to analyse scripts and produce notes on them for use in a role-playing meeting where we were either the writer or the developer. It was incredibly hard to point out why the story wasn’t working in a positive, constructive way. In my case, being in the role of the developer was especially difficult since the writer was absolutely convinced that her story was perfect! Tough. Then it was my turn to be the writer and I could not see anything good about the story. Tougher. This hands-on experience gave us some idea of how complex the issues involved are.

What is script development about?

It is about helping the writer achieve the best possible script, to maximise its potential. Everything in development relates to that ‘big picture’, from the story analysis to managing a meeting. Kate stressed how difficult it is because it’s a collaborative process involving many people (whose opinions you seek, whose approval you need), it takes a great deal of time (two to five years), and it has to deal with many uncertainties, people’s expectations, control issues, insecurities and fears. Furthermore, development is a non-linear process in that it doesn’t follow a progressive pattern, which means that draft 2 can actually be better than draft 4.

Is this story working?

Kate reminded us that there is no one correct way of writing a screenplay or a fixed formula for storytelling. She believes scriptwriting is the hardest of all types of writing: ‘It’s like spinning ten plates at the same time. The script is not meant to be read, it is meant to be transported into a different medium.’

Bearing in mind how hard it is to write a script, we tend to expect a classic narrative structure: instinctively we expect stories to have a beginning/middle/end, a consistent reality, causality, conflict and a protagonist. However, even if a child can recognise if a story is or is not working, not everybody can explain why, write a good one or develop it.

So, how does a developer identify why a story is not working? There are technical tools to assist a script developer produce a quality analysis of a script. The first thing a developer needs to know is what the story is about and who is it about. What is on paper may actually be quite different from what is inside the writer’s head, his or her original intention.

Kate suggested some questions to be asked when analysing a script: Whose story is it? What does the protagonist want? What does the protagonist need? Those questions will lead to the core of the story (the theme) and, if you can’t answer them, there is a problem.

It is crucial to be able to identify the theme (also called the controlling idea, big idea or premise) since everything else in the script – every scene, action and line of dialogue – hs to relate to it. A theme is not always obvious; it can be buried quite deep in good stories and requires thorough investigation. Kate’s advice to pin down the ‘essence’ of the story is to analyse the structure and keep focusing down, discard everything that doesn’t belong to the main story until you grasp it.

However, script problems are not confined to the theme; they may take all shapes and forms. Development documents help examine the script as a whole but focus on specific areas. They are tools that allow for a better understanding of what is really going on in the story and will enable a technical analysis of the script, which will help produce useful, constructive notes.

Development documents

Kate suggested that after reading the script for the first time, your thoughts should be written down using simple, action-led phrases. This will help you understand what you are or are not deriving from the material in your hands. It will provide a sense of the story and will help you organise the ideas in a more structured way.

A basic document may contain a synopsis, a list of key characters and the Act structure. It is important to write a synopsis because it summarises the crucial parts of the story and it shows the writer that you understand the story correctly. Kate advises developers to write a synopsis from memory, as soon as they finish reading the script, to prevent the temptation to ‘fill the gaps’ in the story.

A list of key characters (who they are, what they want, what they need) is helpful to identify the protagonist, how the other characters relate to him or her, and how they all relate to the theme.

Identifying the Act structure, or intentional/unintentional lack of it, helps establish if the way it is organised is consistent with the purpose of the script.

These are the basic fundamental tools in any script analysis and Kate went on to show us other useful ones to help find problems that might not be easily identifiable. For instance, an ‘action/reaction’ document, which is a plan of the story through the character’s actions that can reveal if their actions are consistent with the theme or a synopsis of the theme and ideas and how they are expressed visually.

One document that I found particularly useful was the scene breakdown, which gives a kind of chart of the script. It is a simple table with the scene number, page, location, characters and action, which shows if the pacing of the story is right (for instance, if the scenes are too long or too short), if the central character is present enough, if there’s an appropriate balance of locations (whether the characters stay too long in one place) and if the actions in each scene are relevant.

 

Managing the relationship with the writer

Documents are useful but the key role of a developer is not to solve the problem of the script (which is tempting if you are also a writer); it is rather to help writers find out what they can do themselves to deliver their intended story, allowing them to see where the problems are so that they can find the solutions. As a writer, it was great to hear Kate say that ‘the best possible story is the one the writer really wants to write’.

This also means that an honest and trustworthy relationship between writer and developer has to be established. Documents will provide consistent technical information to be discussed but it is equally important to be able to listen to the writer, for instance, on where the main idea comes from, what the motivation/inspiration was that led him or her to write it.

Asking open questions and not assuming things will achieve better results than instructing writers on what to do. Kate says: ‘Prescription closes doors; questions open them.’ Suggestions, therefore, have better results if presented as questions. (Why did you do this rather than that?) Asking intelligent, informed questions will help the writer have more clarity about what is really happening in the story and so have better ideas on how to improve it.

Kate pointed out that writers have a very low level of control once the script, or the idea for a script, is sold or begins to be developed. She stressed that insecurity and fear will naturally play a part in this collaborative process. There is a great deal of psychology involved. ‘Gloomy writers need reassurance; over-confident ones need even more.’ In dealing with writers, developers need to be objective and capable of generating discussions that will enable the writers to make the important connections by themselves.

The required skills for the script developer

A good script developer, therefore, has to be a good team player, organised, analytical, a good listener, diplomatic when talking to people, able to maintain confidence, flexible, and be able to trust his or her instincts. Hard, but possible.

Most of all, a developer has to be, in principle, an optimist: terrible scripts can be improved. It is crucial to keep the ego out of the way – there will be enough egos to interfere. Kate insisted: ‘Always keep the big picture in mind. This whole process is not about you being clever; it is about helping the writer achieve the script’s best potential.’

Prioritising what is going to be covered in a meeting is also very helpful. Establish a time-limit for the meeting at the beginning (Kate’s advice is two hours) and focus on the priorities. Don’t forget to treat phone calls, even email discussions, as meetings.

Development meetings

Kate’s advice is also good for development meetings that include producers, directors, executive producers and perhaps other people. In such meetings the level of insecurity, and fear and control issues will be extended to the maximum.

In Kate’s words, the film industry is ‘a nebulous industry that is indeterminate, unquantifiable, underfinanced and unpredictable’. When highly-specialised people gather to collaborate under such pressure there is a propensity to become loud – at times even nasty – and a development meeting can become a ‘confusing experience’. Again, remembering that you are all there to work on the script and keeping focused on the ‘big picture’ will help put things back into perspective. Nothing else should matter. From her vast experience, Kate warns us that it is still enormously difficult.

Establishing procedures helps, Kate says, and they are quite simple: be as prepared as possible, have quality notes to deliver, do your homework (know who the meeting participants are, what they have done, what they like), agree priorities and time-limits, agree what is going to be discussed at the next meeting and, most of all, trust your instincts.

Networking

‘This is the industry with the highest number of w*****s,’ Kate says, humorously. When it comes to managing relationships and networking, this is an excellent reminder. Kate says people who have nothing to do with you (not necessarily w*****s ) may have a destructive impact on your confidence. Her advice is to seek out people whom you really like and trust. In this industry we don’t have much to hang on to, and self-confidence is one of our most valuable, but also most vulnerable, assets. ‘Trust yourself, your instincts, your experience, your knowledge, your technical skills,’ she advises. ‘You have nothing else. Dubious people will make you doubt yourself.’

It seems logical that the way to shrink budgets is to produce better scripts. After looking at how a script can effectively achieve its best potential during a development process, I think I’ll leave this difficult task for more experienced people and concentrate on being a writer. However, as a writer I certainly learned a great deal about how to improve a script.

One Response to Script development

  1. Sally Shaw says:

    So pleased I found this article. As a writer, I found it fantastically informative and helpful – so many nuggets of wisdom and advice. Thanks for sharing.

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