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Panel thoughts on story and form

Watch Michael Lengfield, Molly Naylor, Tom Benn and Christabelle Dilks discuss cinematic story and form.
[Michael] What is it thats going make you, Tom Benn, invest in a story? What about - what is it in this story that’s going to say “Okay, I can do this”, or maybe it’s, what is that going to be the deal breaker - if it doesn’t have this quality, I’m not going to invest in it. [Tom] I think it needs to contain some kind of truth, by truth, I just mean it doesn’t need to have anything lofty or profound. It doesn’t need to have any kind of an axe to grind, any pretensions, but need something that can recognise but it doesn’t need to be a comforting or reassuring truth.
It can be an ugly thing but as long as I recognise that it speaks to me on that level then I’m convinced by that world, irrespective of genre, style, tone. That’s what I need and in any cinematic narrative. [Michael] Okay, so truthful progression, a truthful character, a truthful world. Okay all right. Molly - do you have anything to add to that? [Molly] I always want to write about things that I care deeply about, so I’m always looking to ask and potentially, answer those big questions - the questions that make us think about what it is to be human. And so I’m, sort of, I guess I’m coming at it from a thematic perspective.
I mean theme and character, so I’ll probably have a character that engages me but often the way I’ll come to that character is thinking about a subject or a theme that I really want to talk about; that I think deserves a place on the big screen, that I think people want or should be thinking about or talking about. [Michael] I don’t know but I get scared of big themes. Personally, I always look for the specific. [Christabelle] Really, for me, it’s probably always going to be about a big character’s journey, so you need to have protagonist that wants something deeply and that desire drives the action of the film.
The story comes about when those people, like your protagonist, does things in pursuit of their goal and they come up against obstacles. [Michael] Right, right, that’s the Mamet quote that I love: he says, stories happen because somebody wants something and they have trouble getting it. That reduces it down to a single line but but really most stories do begin with that very basic point.
When you come up with the dramatic situation there any number of approaches you could take to deliver a whole story out of that but you want to find the one that has the character that’s most important to you, that develops themes that are most important to you, and that gives the story the best shape for a plot, I think. And you put all those together and then you have the makings of a film. And the other important, I think, the other important issue with this is where you start this story, especially if you’re working with real events. It’s where you come into this.
So what we want to be thinking about now is some of the things that go in - some of the tools that we use to create our work. It’s a dramatic form. It’s a visual form, film-making is taught or constructed in the cut. We write in fragments and multi-tracks. We can use sound, vision, music, dialogue, all these things. And we’re going to ask, you know, the four of us are going to comment on this and say what’s most important to us when we’re writing - how do we approach this? [Molly] Well, I try and remember that - not not to fall in love with my own dialogues.
I think when I first started writing, that’s what excited me about writing a script. It’s like I’m looking at the characters and looking at what they’re saying but
over time I’ve started to embrace, well it’s essential to embrace: the other elements. So now, every time I construct a scene, I’m thinking about those different - the multi tracks and thinking about what I can use. So I’m thinking about how can I use sound at this moment? Is there a moment where I can convey the emotion or the thing I’m trying to say with an action, with a sound - all the different options available to me because if I’m just trying - doing it with dialogue and exposition then there’s no point in me writing screenplays. Yeah, yeah. [Michael] You betray your roots in that theatre, I think.
I think Molly and I tend to think about the visuals last, I think. We think about what the people are doing and the relationships and the drama and finally arrive at the visuals at the end. I don’t know … [Tom] With me, it tends to be the dialogue.
I have to hear what the character’s talking about, figure out what they want, and then it’s sort of a process of distillation - it’s paring everything back until it has some kind of dramatic function and that can just be the dialogue and it can also be the scene directions and just making sure everything serves a purpose, not too cleanly, not too explicitly but isn’t there just as a reminder to me, isn’t there as something that can be actually physically played by an actor, can be interpreted. You know, it’s not a novel, you know there’s no interiority here. Everything needs to be conveyed and actualised through dramatic action. It’s making sure that that works on the page. It works like that.
[Michael] That’s fascinating to me, I can’t write dialogue until I know what they’re doing, so the fact that you hear what they’re doing and then figure out what they want. [Tom] It’s always that way, for me. [Michael] Yeah that’s really interesting. [Christabelle] And I think that once I’ve got my story straight and I’ve written my step outline and I kind of know what needs to happen in each scene I’m really thinking about how to use the visual tools to place the audience in a position where they’re going to have the biggest and strongest emotional experience of that character’s journey through the film.
So it might well be that, even though I know in these days we don’t write “wide shot - canyon” or “big close up on her eyes” in a way you can suggest that actually when you write your very pithy stage directions. [Molly] Yeah. You have to have to be guiding the director and the other creative team because this is a blueprint isn’t it? it’s not … [Christabelle] What am I looking at - what am I hearing in this scene? Absolutely. [Tom] Lingering on only what’s important - if it’s not … why is it there?
[Christabelle] But I think telling the story in the cut is actually quite a fine art because I think we, when we first write we write these quite lengthy scenes probably which have a lot of stuff going on in them, and we probably know that the dramatic beat happens somewhere in there, and actually if you just honed it down to that and left the audience - if you asked a question and left that answer suspended you’d probably have a much more interesting cinematic experience. That you don’t have to do it all in the scene. You can leave those gaps which make the audience work and that’s a much more exciting way to …
[Michael] I often wished I could really think in terms, you know, I was so skilled that I could just think in terms of writing only that. How much faster would it be if I could only go in and write those two lines and then get out. [Christabelle] It’s important though, to think isn’t it? Because every every minute of screen time is going to cost a lot of money. If you can plan it better then it won’t end up on the cutting-room floor. [Michael] Plus it’s a lot of time to write. You write a whole dramatic situation and then hone it down to that but I think we’ve got an idea of that.
Each of us is going to approach it a little bit differently but there are many ways to to utilise these tools. So let’s let’s cut this one for now. Okay.

Our four educators share what they’re looking for in a cinematic story. They share their experiences about writing for a cinematic form and soon discover that not everyone approaches their work in the same way.

Once you’ve watched the video it’s over to you: what do you look for in a story? Do you particularly agree or disagree with any of our educators? Do you have any tips you can share about writing for a cinematic form? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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An Introduction to Screenwriting

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