Workshopping: Scripts

Fourth in a series about writing workshops.  The first article was about general workshop guidelines, the second about short fiction, and the third about poetry.  The fifth will focus on workshopping and editing long fiction.

Scripts, including stage plays and screenplays, are quite a different genre to work on in a workshop, particularly if it is a general workshop without a specific genre.  (I imagine if you signed up for a scriptwriting workshop, you would know how to critique it and you probably wouldn’t be reading this right now.)

Scripts – particularly screenplays, which this article will focus on – are primarily about dialogue, while poetry rarely has dialogue and fiction has less of it.  Let’s talk about what you want to bring to a workshop in terms of scripts as well as what you should be looking at once you have the manuscript in your hands.

Part 1: What to Bring (and How to Bring It)

Before you bring a script into a general writing workshop, you should probably have a few key points downpat.

First, make sure you know exactly what you’re trying to get across.  This can be a bit difficult for beginners – in fact, in the first script I wrote, what I wanted was nothing like what actually appeared in the script.  This is important, especially if you want to get good, strong criticism, because you can ask for extremely specific criticism.

You should also make sure the characters have distinct mannerisms, including “catchphrases” or some such.  Everyone can associate some specific quotes with characters: “The name is Bond, James Bond,” or “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” or “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.”  Strong lines like these – though only one is a catchphrase – is the basis of a script.  Keep your dialogue focused.

As an added bonus, format the script correctly so the readers have it in proper format, the way a director or actor would read it.  It’s very straightforward and simple to do if you write the script in a scriptwriting program, such as Final Draft or the free program Celtx.  Personally, I use Celtx, which is the best option for students or newcomers.  Programs like Celtx also offer a variety of formats, including screenplays and stage plays.

Part 2: How to Read It and How to Critique It

When you critique a script in a workshop, there are a few things to keep in mind in order to make your criticism as constructive as possible.

First, check if the plot is clear and say something if it isn’t.  If the writer brings in a partial script, this isn’t as important, but if he or she has brought in a one-act or short film, the plot must be exceedingly clear.  If you don’t understand who the main character is, suggest a way to explain a bit of backstory or characterize the lead a little better.  If you’re not sure why the couple is at a dance in one scene and on a lunar base in the year 2074 in the next, ask questions about how they got there and suggest a better or smoother transition.

Next, examine the dialogue and make sure you can tell each character apart by his or her speech, unless the writer intended them to be indistinguishable.  Characters should have different inflections – Northerners don’t tend to say “y’all,” for example, and poor peasants probably won’t call young ladies “fair maid.”  Each character should speak realistically for the person he or she is, and it should make sense in the script.

One other thing you should probably thing about, though it is purely subjective, is whether or not the script is interesting.  Would you see this play?  Would you watch this film?  If the writer is seriously pursuing the sale of this script, or the sale of any piece, it is important for him or her to understand if and why viewers would be interested.

Conclusion

As usual, when workshopping a script, it’s important to keep the entire thing in perspective.  Maybe this part that you don’t understand in Scene 5 makes sense when it all goes together.

It’s also important to remain civil and upbeat.  While it’s more than okay to criticize, it’s not okay to put the writer under attack.  If you feel like you cannot remain civil in a workshop, please either remove yourself for that piece or simply say a few words, like “I’m not sure what I think right now,” and ask to be passed over.

Remember: if you feel uncomfortable during a critique, let the workshop leader know so he or she can help you.  Don’t be scared to do it: that’s what the workshop leader is there for.

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Writing Scripts: The “Three Act” Formula

Author’s Note: This is not an actual professional formula.  It’s a theory created by someone who has studied literature and writes scripts for the stage and screen for enjoyment.  If you also enjoy writing scripts, this may help you as well.

Over the past year, I’ve developed a sense of myself as a fiction writer through the classes I’ve taken.  One way I’ve developed is as a writer of dialogue – and, in particular, as a writer of scripts.  I started off writing one-act plays and films, but eventually became interested in the concept of miniseries after watching SyFy’s Alice.

As part of this, I worked on a short miniseries last year for my school’s student broadcasting group, and I’ll be working on a sequel (of sorts) for the rest of the summer.  I’ve also started working on three other scripts, what would be considered “feature film” length for films and full-length for plays.

One thing I’ve been able to keep in mind is something I learned during my time taking a fiction-writing course.  My professor gave us a basic formula for a three-act play – but it works just as well for a feature film or for a three-episode miniseries.

For this article, I’ll be using the show West Bancroft Side Story for examples.  If you don’t want spoilers, watch each episode before you read the section.

Act One: The Set-Up

As seen in Episode One.

The first act of a three-part script is always the set-up for the problem.  Here, you want to introduce the most important characters as well as their main problem.

In WBSS, the problem is made very clear: there are two rival groups, and the couple in the story is made up of one from each.  The ending of the episode also makes it very clear what problem comes next: the young woman (Sonia) will have to deal with her upset brother while the young man (Joey) will have to deal with the consequences of what he’s done.

The script also introduces all of the characters as well as the important places in the story.  All of these things are important for the first act and should at least be mentioned there.

Act Two: The Problem

As seen in Episode Two.

The second act of a three-part script is most often the showcase of the problem itself as well as an escalation of events to a climax.  In the second act, you want to clarify why the problem is such a big problem – or, if it’s already abundantly clear, make it bigger.

In Episode 2 of WBSS, the problem of rivalry between the two groups is shown as an escalation of arguments that lead up to violence.

The climax scene often marks the end of the second act, which – according to a few friends of mine who study theater – is usually about twice as long as the first act.  If you are writing a miniseries, though, it should simply be more fast-paced than the first episode.

Act Three: All Hell Breaks Loose

As seen in Episode Three.

The third and final act of a three-part script takes place after the climax and, if you’re using a witch’s-hat diagram, represents the downward slope.  Here, you must as a writer deal with the events of acts one and two and find a suitable conclusion.

Episode 3 of WBSS does this by dealing with the first major act of serious violence in the show, which is the climax of Episode 2.  At the beginning of the episode, all hell DOES break loose: the protagonist Joey deals with the violence against his best friend by retaliating violently, then regrets his actions afterward.

The final act should be about the same size as the second act or longer, depending on how your characters deal with the events of the climax.  If you’re writing a miniseries, the action should be the same pace or faster than that of the second episode.

Remember: during this act, you must wrap everything up and find a suitable conclusion, which means different things for different scripts.

Final Advice

In conclusion, I have a little bit of advice for those working on a miniseries that WILL BE filmed, since this is what I have most experience with.

  • Work with the director.  This is important – if you’re writing scenes that can’t happen, you’re going to have a lot of problems.  The director will also be able to give you feedback on character development, plot development, and more.
  • Take your time and don’t rush.  You definitely don’t want to write your miniseries the same way I did: in under three months while working on a senior thesis.  I think that says enough right there.  While I’m very proud of the show and those who participated, I know that as a writer I could have done better with more time and less stress.
  • Try to be involved with the casting process, if not the overall process.  I’m credited as the director of WBSS, and I couldn’t have enjoyed it more.  I got to meet every single person involved with the show, and I was on the casting board.  One of the main characters was almost cast differently, but I knew the moment he walked in that I wanted him to play the character he played.  In the end, his character was one of the viewers’ favorites.  Stay involved.  You won’t regret it.

Hopefully, some of these tips will be helpful to you.  If you’ve written something that’s been filmed and is now online, post the link below – we’d love to check it out.