Judy Meewezen learns the dramatic art of original spin at a scriptwriting masterclass
Julian Friedmann believes that the good old days of British television drama, when innovative films bounced into our homes with the regularity of today's gardening and cooking programmes, are as dead as Monty Python's parrot. "Audiences have fragmented," says Friedmann, who is launching an MA in television script writing at De Montfort University, "but another Golden Age is almost upon us. As a career option, writing for the screen has more prospects than ever before."
Some 30 aspiring scriptwriters, including writers, directors and editors, a stuntman, a poet and a wig-maker, gathered at the London premises of the Screenwriters' Workshop this summer for what Friedmann promised was a weekend of "death by a thousand choices". Friedmann says there are no original ideas in drama, "what matters is the choices you make and the way you tell your story". We were there to learn the art of the original spin.
Just as no one expects a doctor or a lawyer to practise without training, Friedmann believes that craft skills are as essential to screenwriting as originality. Television is a hungry monster, says Friedmann. But for writers and performers, the odds are stacked in favour of the tried and tested. A few years ago 50 or 60 people were empowered to get a drama on to television screens, nowadays the decision is made by five or six. And they do not like to take risks. The production team on a soap makes about one-and-a-half hours' television every week. Writers must be able to collaborate with the team. There is no time for idiosyncrasies, brilliant insights become the dispensable collective property of the story team. Scriptwriters need to merge their voices.
Friedmann says that anyone who seeks the holy grail of writing an individual piece must earn that right, just as a surgeon has to be a houseman before being let loose in theatre. That may not mean writing a soap, but it does mean learning to put the audience first.
"Ask not what your audience can do for you, but what you can do for your audience," Friedmann tells us. He suggests reading the trade press for indications of market trends. What is on the screen today is old hat in development, so think ahead. Once you have decided on your genre (comedy drama, suspense thriller etc), create the story, he says. "Ignore Aristotle and you will almost certainly fail. Go for a good classical structure."
And within the story, find ways of really engaging the audience. "There's no point in asking your audience to watch characters go through powerful emotions," says Friedmann. "You must find ways of making the audience feel them." The next stage is to write a detailed, narrative outline of the drama, demonstrating how you will treat the subject. "If you approach the so-called 'treatment' in the right way, you can almost guarantee a strong structural foundation that will produce emotion in the audience."
Next: how to sell scripts and storylines. If a writer gets an opportunity to pitch an idea to a producer, he or she will usually be granted a few minutes, which must be prepared with precision. "A salesman is trained in what to wear, how to move and read body language, how to control meetings - writers should be no different," says Friedmann. One student, who works part-time in advertising, disagrees. "If I'm selling car tyres or computers, it's an objective situation. Asking someone to criticise my script is like putting my soul up for target practice." "You'll learn," Friedmann answers.
Students are asked to make a sales pitch to Friedmann. He listens, then challenges their selling techniques and ideas. With audience participation, the projects begin to grow wings. The really crucial issue of whether the originators have screenwriting talent is yet to be judged. But the masterclass is a rigorous road test.