Ask an International Multi-Hyphenate Script Consultant!

Danny Stack

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on writer-director-editor-analyst-contest organizer Danny Stack of Scriptwriting in the UK.

Danny is a screenwriter whose TV writing credits include the revamped Thunderbirds Are Go! and the BBC’s flagship soap EastEnders, amongst others. He also writes and directs, and is currently in post-production on his live-action children’s feature film Who Killed Nelson Nutmeg? Danny has many years experience as a story analyst for a number of film companies, such as Working Title, Pathe Films, Miramax (Harvey Weinstein era) and the UK Film Council, to name but a few. He was development script editor for the British film The Man Inside, and he script edited the Irish-language feature film Kings.

1.What’s the last thing you read/watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?

The Knick by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler. It’s a TV period drama about The Knickerbocker hospital around the turn of the 20th century. The drama is very character-driven but extremely engaging. Steven Soderbergh’s direction is also very distinctive and interesting, adding to the immersive milieu of the show.

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

I was a commissioning assistant in the Channel 4 comedy department. A large part of my job was logging all the spec sitcom scripts. I farmed them out to a handful of readers but started reading and writing my own reports, too, and really enjoyed it. Once I left Channel 4, I approached film companies asking to read scripts for them. I did a few sample reports, and went from there!

3. Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

Learning to recognize good writing should sharpen your existing storytelling instincts. For example, I didn’t know anything about inciting incidents or three-act structure when I was green and keen, but when I read my first screenwriting book, those terms made complete sense to my natural instincts about story in the first place.

4. What are the components of a good script?

An original idea, interesting characters, good dialogue, unpredictable plot, a solid structure, humour.

5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

Long set-ups or unnecessary introductions of characters, or indulging in backstory. Over-written scene description. Plain or over-familiar dialogue. Similarly plain or over-familiar characterization. Female characters being treated or written poorly.

6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Advanced aliens who are unaware of, or can’t comprehend, human emotion. ‘One last job’ crime set-ups. The straight-talking, overweight female friend often seen in comedies.

7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?

These aren’t rules, more things writers should be aware of:

-The first ten pages of your script are vital in making a good impression.

-It’s extremely unlikely you’ll get your first script made.

-Structure is your friend, not something to be railed against.

8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?

I think I’ve only given around half a dozen RECOMMENDS (out of literally thousands of scripts!). One of those RECOMMENDS had this logline:

“An adulterous husband’s life falls apart when his job comes under threat while his wife gets involved with a pyramid money making scheme to alleviate her boredom and frustrations.” This might not sound MUST READ but the writing was sharp, funny and inventive, and deftly managed an ensemble cast. After I recommended it, the exec read it, liked it, invited the writers in, and helped them find an agent.

9. How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?

I actually help organize a screenwriting contest in the UK. It’s called the Red Planet Prize which is a scheme to find new TV writers. It’s about helping and mentoring writers rather than just announcing a winner and then nothing. Plus, it’s free to enter. I’m very proud of setting it all up, and it’s helped kickstart a few careers, most notably with Robert Thorogood and his BBC series Death in Paradise. So yes, screenwriting contests are worth it, but don’t be sucked in by every single one; weigh up the pros and cons (is there a entry fee? Do I get feedback? Is the prize any good? etc.), and roll the dice!

10. How can people get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?

On my website http://dannystack.com/reading

11. Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

I have an annual Pie Night with my friends where we cook 5-6 varieties, and then choose a favourite. Last year’s special was a traditional steak & ale pie, delicious! I’m quite partial to a hearty fish pie, too. And lemon meringue pie for dessert. You’re not going to make me choose one, are you? NO FAIR.

Ask a Prolifically Verbose Script Consultant!

Ms. Hay swears this is what she actually looks like
Ms. Hay swears this is what she looks like

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on Lucy Hay of UK-based Bang 2 Write .

1. What’s the last thing you read/watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?

Cripes, difficult to pick something out, I think the last couple of years have been exceptional … For me, as I’m a movie buff, it’s a tie: I loved RUSH, by Peter Morgan; also SAVING MR BANKS by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith. Both were very different, yet still massively ambitious stories that were visual and yet had loads of heart, too. A lot of the spec scripts I read aren’t BIG enough like that – they confuse potential actual money spend (“how many locations, people, CGI or explosions can I get into this?”) with story ambition, which isn’t the same.

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

I went to university to study screenwriting and to pass the course we had to do a six-week placement in the media industry somewhere. I was a young single mum of 21 with no childcare and no money, so going up to London and coach-surfing was out of the question. So I wrote to every production company and every literary agent whose address I could find, asking them if I could read their scripts for them. I ended up mailing – not emailing – 79 letters. I got about 14 replies, most of them saying “thanks but no thanks”. A couple of them invited me in for a chat, including Working Title, which gave me a tour of their offices, which was nice; also an animation studio gave me some toys for my son. The last however, a literary agent, called me in, opened the door to the back room and said: “Knock yourself out, take home as many as you like!” The room was packed with screenplays. Actually full to the brim. So that’s where it started for me!

3. Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

Sure you can learn it, but SHOULD you? Recognizing good writing requires an open mind, but also recognizing where your limitations are. End of the day, you can be objective as you can, but there’s certain stuff you’re never going to “get”. You need to be able to recognize this in yourself and that is a talent, I think; as is the ability to give constructive criticism to a writer. But you can hone this and get better at it. When I started, I made a renowned playwright cry with my feedback, I was that harsh. But that taught me the lesson as a young person I wasn’t *just* looking at a work in isolation on the page, I was also handling people’s dreams. So if you can’t handle either of those two things with care, then stay away from script reading and working with writers else you’re only going to end up buried under somebody’s patio!

4. What are the components of a good script?

A great concept. If you haven’t got that, you got NUTHIN’.

5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

Structure and character. Structure because it’s lumpy – especially sagging middles – or there’s non-linearity splurged all over the place. Sometimes all of these things, lucky me! And as for characters … It’s the tragic backstory that does my swede in at the moment. Every single character’s got dead wives and dead kids and dead friends and dead dogs and flashbacks of accidents and anything else you care to mention, especially in genre stuff. LE YAWN.

6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I don’t like the word “trope” – most of the time people seem to use it on the internet to mean, “something I don’t like”, rather than its actual definition, “a recurrent theme or motif”, which is actually more neutral. Writers can actually NEED tropes as a kind of shorthand; bring something entirely new to the table every single time and you could end up creating a new meaning altogether that derails the story. It’s a difficult balancing act. So there are no specific things I say NEVER do (unless it’s horrible and offensive); instead, think of the things we see often and subvert our expectations of them. Left of the middle is ALWAYS better than something completely out of left field.

7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?

  1. Concept is king (or queen!)
  2. Don’t be boring
  3. There are no rules.

8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?

It would have to be the new film I associate produced which is coming out in 2015 – I got involved BECAUSE I loved it. ASSASSIN is about a professional contract killer who compromises himself when he realizes that his latest victim is the estranged father of the girl he has fallen in love with. Now, I first read that script back in 2007 when it was called UNTITLED HITMAN THRILLER. Like most readers, I obviously read a lot of spec scripts involving hitmen, but it was immediately apparent to me this one was different than the rest. For one thing, it’s got some GREAT roles for named talent and sure enough, we were able to secure our beloved “King of Indies” Danny Dyer and Gary and Ross Kemp, back together on screen for the first time in over twenty years since THE KRAYS! Very exciting. Plus it has a great story, that reminds me of DRIVE (2011) and other such moody, violent and dark tales. I can’t wait for everybody to see it.

9. How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?

Definitely worth it. The good ones can act as a microcosm of the industry, making good writing rise to the top and offer very real opportunities to the winners and those that place highly. What’s more, for those writers with day jobs, they can offer deadlines and opportunities they may not have been able to seek otherwise, plus competitions with specific briefs and targeted voices can help showcase marginalised screenwriters, especially women and people of colour, but also different age groups/people living in places that aren’t in L.A. and so on. What’s not to like? Of course, there are also those competitions and so on that take the Mick, so it’s buyer beware. But I think this is the case with everything, not only in screenwriting. New writers are not children that need to be cosseted; they’re grown men and women who can make their own choices. All this said, screenwriting contests are not 100% necessary to making a career – I’ve never won a contest in my life!

10. How can people get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?

I get everywhere, like germs! Type “Bang2write” into Google and you’ll find me – my website, plus pretty much any social media platform you care to mention. People can find free writing resources and downloads at my site too, or ask me writing questions – you don’t have to use the B2W Script Reading Service to ask. I’m always happy to help. Here you go: www.bang2write.com/resources

11. Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

Pecan pie is my favourite, but it’s hard to get a decent slice in the UK, or at least where I live; all the supermarket versions are rubbish. There’s only one place that does a good homemade one and I stake it out most weekends, ‘cuz my husband loves it too (though I would totes eat the last slice if it was between me and him, sorry that’s just the way it goes). I can however be distracted by a decent mince pie, especially hot, with clotted cream. And actually, treacle tart too. Or lemon meringue pie. Or apple pie. Or cheesecake. In fact, just give me all the pies, in the entire world … No one gets hurt that way.