Screenwriter Training

An interesting post the other day at Tim Clague’s gaff on training courses got me thinking.

In any job you get, there’s a training budget.

If we’re professionals, then we should have a training budget too. For things like screenwriting courses, conferences, residential workshops and so on.

(Or, if you swing that way, on script reading services – that’s part of the training budget too. I don’t bother myself, because I think that money spent on script readers by writers is wasted. YMMV.)

So what’s best practice? If we were in charge of a business, we’d pay for our employees to go on training courses – how much would we spend on them?

Well, Tim’s had an ask around, and best practice in the training industry is 2% of income.

So as a screenwriter, you should be spending 2% of your salary on training yourself. That’s £400 a year if you earn 20k. Or £600 if you’re on 30k.

Obviously you could spend more or less, but that’s a good figure to start from.

Now there’s two ways of looking at that. You can either count your salary as what you earn from your writing, or add in what you earn from your day-job (if you’re not supporting yourself from the writing just yet).

I say: do it from the day-job. After all, a decent company is going to be training you for responsibilities yet-to-come, not just helping you to do the things you’re working at now.

So invest in your own future. Figure out what you’re going to spend your training budget on this year.

On-swa! On-swa!

I’ve just finished playing Ico.

It’s a game for the PS2 in which you have to escape from a castle – and take your companion with you. The game is beautifully drawn, and instead of music features a soundtrack of ambient sound: the wash of waves on cliffs, gulls crying on the wing.

The light in the castle is from a bright summer sun, washing out the picture, exposing the crumbling stone and cliffs on which the castle is built. If you’ve got a PS2 I highly recommend you pick a copy up.

But what I actually want to talk about is the storytelling in the game, and how it’s different to that in any other medium, and shows just what you can do with writing in a game.

Of necessity, this post is going to contain spoilers.

A little background: You play Ico, a twelve-year-old boy with horns growing from his head. The superstitious villagers where you grew up believe that your deformity brings bad luck to the village – so they take you to a castle and lock you alive in a coffin to die.

Escaping from the coffin, you find a woman in a cage – Yorda. Glowing luminously, Yorda doesn’t seem quite human.

To complete the game, you must escape the castle, taking Yorda with you. Slightly difficult, as she is not as hardy as you – she can’t jump, or climb chains. Most of the game is involved with trying to clear a route that Yorda can take through the castle.

You investigate areas, climb almost sheer cliffs and towers – it’s not a game for the vertiginous – exploring the castle to find a route for Yorda. To get her to follow, you hold her hand as you lead the way, or call to her in your own language: On-swa! On-swa! for her to come and join you.

She can leap small distances if you call her across – and you catch her arm and draw her to safety.

If you leave her alone for too long, creatures made of black smoke will appear, and drag Yorda into the darkness. If this happens – and you can’t get back to her quickly enough to fight them off – the game is over.

Now to the storytelling.

The first reason why Ico stands out is that this isn’t about you. In most games, you fight and win-or-lose. If your character dies, it’s back to a save point and start again.

In Ico, you lose if you can’t protect Yorda. The game is all about saving her – not about you at all.

As you guide Yorda through the castle, you feel protective of her in a way that you don’t in, say, a first-person shooter. If the Master Chief falls in Halo, it’s just: Oh well, better respawn.

What Ico does is introduce a new dynamic to this – you haven’t just lost your own life, you’ve failed to protect Yorda. She’s helpless without you to guide her, and defend her from the darkness.

The emotional connection you build with Yorda is defined by the gameplay itself in every moment that you play – and is thus more emotionally real to you as a player than Master Chief’s connection with the Arbiter, or Jak’s with Daxter.

This emotional thread runs throughout the game – every action you take is about helping a person other than yourself.

There are two major sequences, both towards the end of the game, which build on the emotional connection built between the two of you over the past dozen or so hours.

It seems that you’ve escaped the castle. The bridge to the mainland has been opened and you cross… But then the bridge starts to break apart again.

And Yorda’s on the wrong side, back at the castle.

And the two sides of the bridge are moving apart.

And before I knew what I was doing I’d turned Ico around and ran back to Yorda, because, dammit, she was my responsibility and I was going to look after her, but the bridge is moving apart and there’s no way to make it across but it’s too late to think and you run and you leap….

…and you miss…

…and Yorda reaches down and grabs your arm, saving your life in the same way that you’ve saved hers so many times before.

And the experience is visceral.

The second sequence is at the very end of the game. Yorda’s not well – paralysed and trapped – and the monsters are attacking.

Waves of them. More than you can count. And they keep attacking, three or four at a a time, trying to get to Yorda and you’re swinging your sword, destroying them, trying to protect her, but every time you hit one and it dissolves into insubstantial smoke another two take its place.

And all I could think was this: You’re not going to take my friend.

Rogers Moore

John Rogers is a rather fine screenwriter. His works include the vastly under-rated The Core, and a pilot for a Global Frequency TV show (which, sadly, wasn’t picked up).

He also wrote one of the drafts of Catwoman, and was unfortunate enough to have his name on the finished product. But he’s really sorry about that.

Anyhoo, he and Dean Devlin have received a 13-episode order for new series Leverage from TNT.


But the best bit is this: not only is he blogging right now about the nitty-gritty of running a writers room, he’ll also answer questions left in the comments section.

And for another perspective on what goes on in a writers room, check out showrunner Ron Moore’s podcasts for Battlestar Galactica. Not only does he do commentaries on all the episodes, occasionally he’ll take the recorder into the writers room and you can hear the writers break the episode.

I tell you, the Internet is full of goodness.

David Shore

A couple of weeks ago I went to an event at BAFTA hosted by mediaXchange. MediaXchange are a company who try and bring creatives together across the Atlantic – so for example TV execs in the UK might be taken across to LA in order to shadow a showrunner for week.

In this case, though, the event was in London. It was a full day of talks from drama creators and showrunners, in the first part of which they brought David Shore across to talk about House. The cost was £125 for new writers (defined as someone without an agent or a television credit), and well worth the money in my opinion. Go check ’em out.

A few of my scribbled notes follow:

His original problem with the series was simple: Germs don’t have motives. So how do you get dramatic followthrough from that? It took him several months of thinking through a line of attack before writing the pilot, which was written in two weeks.

David’s job as showrunner is to do final rewrites. He runs his writers’ room in a different way to many shows – but at the end of the day, there are as many styles of writers’ room as there are showrunners. David only has about twelve days a year in which the staff are all gathered together to break story, and these are used to break the serial elements of the show.

A writer will come to him with a basic idea, which he’ll give a Yea or Nay to. After that, it goes to a 2 page story outline: What’s the disease, and who is the person. David will give notes on that, along the lines of “Here’s what’s good about it, and here’s what’s not.”

The writer will go ahead and rewrite the two-pager as required.

When it goes to script, the writer will get two or three drafts. The final draft is then done pair-writing in David’s office. This works by having a big computer with two screens. They’ll then go through it line-by-line, with the script on-screen, amending as necessary.

Obviously this doesn’t happen all the time due to production deadlines – but he does it this way so that the writer will learn more about his writing style, which should ease the writing next time. After all, the voice of the show is that of the showrunner.

His job is therefore to bring consistency to the show.

Medically, the production gets advice from a nurse on set, a doctor on the writing staff, and three external doctors who give notes on scripts. “A real doctor wouldn’t say that, they’d say this.” These three are also available to the writers for phone consultations.

David used to set a writing exercise for staffers on a previous series:

  • Choose an issue
  • Write a paragraph about what you believe on the issue
  • Write another paragraph completely disagreeing with you

When reading specs, he prefers to read specs for a show that a writer didn’t work on… that way you know that they wrote it 100% themselves, and it wasn’t rewritten completely by the showrunner before production.

Regarding notes: If someone doesn’t like something, there’s probably a problem. It might not be the problem they’ve identified, and the solution they’re offering may be awful… but it’s likely that there really is a problem somewhere.

Fixing problems identified by notes is good. That means you’ve got one more person going to bat for the episode.

Finally he passed on some advice he’d received years ago: If you want to teach a junior writer a lesson, shoot their first draft.

Clams and Toppers.

If you don’t have Jane Espenson‘s blog on your must-read list, you really ought to.

She writes regularly on the process of creating spec scripts.

Also, about what she had for lunch, but as that’s a story on a par with Tom Baker’s Scarf, we’ll let it slide.

Having started out as a comedy writer, Jane regularly talks about the tricks and pitfalls of the trade. One of the pitfalls is the type of joke known as a clam.

A clam is a joke so old that everyone knows it. Some common examples:

“Did I just say that out loud?”
“That went well, I thought.”
“I don’t mean to be impolite, but…”

Funny-once, as Mike the sentient computer might put it.

How do you defeat a clam? With a twist. Move it along and freshen it up.

So here’s Penny Arcade’s take on one of the all-time favourites. Pretty funny, n’est?

But then, the next strip is what’s known as a topper – a gag which builds on top of the first one.

The great thing about toppers is that all the setup has been done already, to get the laugh for the first joke, so they’re effectively a free laugh.

Avoid clams. Embrace toppers.

The Table Read

It’s a really simple concept, and you’d think it would be more widely done.

You’ve written your spec. It’s as good as you can make it. You’ve been through a dozen drafts, stripped back the action paragraphs and deflowered the prose. The characters have objectives that they’re working towards, and problems that they need to overcome. Things get worse before they get better.

You’ve sent it out to your trusted readers and rewritten again based on the notes that they sent.


And finally, finally, you’re ready to start the cold-calling to see who wants it.

Not so fast, buddy.

There’s one more thing to ensure your script is in tip-top condition before you send it out.

The Table Read.

What it is

The final test of whether or not your script works is going to be hearing it read aloud.

Before production, they’ll have a table read just like this to find out what’s right and what still needs fixing.

Why not have one yourself and fix it before then? That way the agents, actors, and directors you send it to will think that you’re so good you got it right the first time. They need never know the truth.

How it works

It’s quite simple really. You get some actors round and they read the script. You take notes and make it better.

It’s only one more draft. The last push…

You will need:

– Some actors
– A place to read
– Copies of your script
– Pen and paper


If you’re in LA, you know actors already. Take a look around your apartment block until you find one.

You’ll also need to produce a character list, together with (roughly) the number of lines each character has. This’ll help you to allocate the strongest actors to the main characters. Screenwriting software will do this for you automatically; otherwise get out a pen and paper.

Unemployed actors are happy to read for you. It keeps them in practice. And every actor is unemployed for a large part of their career.

If you buy them a crate of beer to share and some food to eat after the reading’s finished, they’re even happier. A big communal bowl of pasta and pesto with some garlic bread will work fine.

Trained actors are ideal, but really don’t stress too much about it, or casting. All you actually need is people to read the dialogue aloud.

If you really honestly can’t find any actors, use your friends. Acting ability is just a bonus.

A place to read

You’ll need a space big enough for you and the actors. A garden, or a village hall, or a rehearsal room, or a garage, or your own front room. Enough chairs for everyone to sit down on and a table to sit at would be a bonus.

It can be helpful to have an audience who aren’t performing. If you can fit ’em in, great. If not, don’t stress about it.


Email a copy of your script to all the actors a few days in advance, so they can read it beforehand. If you let them know what part they’re playing, they’ll even have a chance to do some character work.

Nevertheless, some people won’t have received it, will forget to print a copy, or just won’t have read it. Have plenty of spare scripts photocopied that you can give to them on the day.

Pen and Paper

You’ll be needing this to take notes.

How it all works

Get everyone to arrive about half an hour before you want to start. This’ll give people a chance to settle down and say hello to each other.

Start by assigning parts to actors, if you haven’t already. You’ll probably need to double some roles – try to avoid having an actor playing two characters in the same scene. While funny, it’s not as helpful as it could be.

Don’t forget that you’ll need someone to read the stage directions. While you might think that people will be able to read along and follow their scripts, it never works out that way.

As the reading progresses, you’ll be able to see where the actors stumble over words, and in which speech you’ve accidentally placed a filthy double entendre. If you’re lucky, you might get laughs or gasps in the right places.

Take notes as you go.

When it’s done, have a quick comfort break. Tea and/or beer can be brought out for actors and audience (if any) at this point, cos the hard part’s over.

You’ve still got one more job to do though – going round the table and asking for notes. And writing them down.

This is where you find out if the characters’ motivations are clear. If the plot was gripping and understandable. And if the audience actually liked it.

As ever, just say “Thanks for that” and move on when you’re taking the note. This is not the place to explain or defend your work.

And when everyone’s had their say, serve up some food for everyone and pour a drink for yourself.

Job done.