Inspiring Enquiring Minds Ray Grewal reflects on our screenwriting masterclass

Reporting back from our Introduction to Screenwriting workshop

On 13 April, our BFI NETWORK team welcomed a group of emerging writers to Leeds Playhouse for a day dedicated to unpacking the essential elements of storytelling in cinema, discussing the knack of delivering narrative in short form work and learning about the dos and don'ts of dialogue. On hand to provide advice, share insights and set the small challenge of writing a short film on the spot were our masterclass leaders: script consultant Ray Grewal and writer and director Paris Zarcilla.

In the guest essay below, Ray reflects on his approach to the workshop, the responses of our participants and how to learn the things you already know about storytelling. You can find out more about our emerging writers by taking a look at the Introduction to Screenwriting participants list.

Running a Writing Workshop

I have a theory: if you want to be a writer, you already know what makes a good story. To test this theory, in any workshop I run I give the participants an exercise: turn to the person next to you and tell them about your favourite film, TV show, play or book. When telling other people about the stories we love, as a reflex we start with the person we empathise most with, who is usually the main character. We explain what it is they’re trying to do and what is stopping them and we say what happens in the end.

And that is a story: an interesting character who faces an intriguing dilemma that has a satisfactory conclusion.

A disconnect occurs when you ask novice writers to do the same with their own writing. It’s not because they don’t know what a good story is - they’ve watched enough films, plays, television and read enough books to know what works and what doesn’t. It’s just that most people let stories wash over them, and once the story is told they have a sense that it worked – because they were engaged – or that it didn’t, because they zoned out. But why that happens can be hard to articulate.

So, the purpose of a screenwriting workshop isn’t to teach people something they don’t know; it’s to give people the tools to articulate what they’ve known all along (which, for you educationalists, is the constructivist approach to teaching and learning).

Running the Introduction to Screenwriting masterclass at the Leeds Playhouse, I began by defining what a story is, moved on to structure, looked at plot driven stories and character driven ones - and those stories that are a bit of both, and stories that are neither. I highlighted the importance of genre, how best to use dialogue and, probably the most important point, that no story is an original thing. Then I pushed the discussion further, to explore how the way we talk about storytelling is culturally specific and that how we tell stories here is not necessarily how they tell stories in China or India. Then we looked at the fundamental flaw of all narrative theory: that from Aristotle to John Yorke, it has largely been defined by men who might have thought they were uncovering some universal truth but what they were really doing was excluding half the population of the world.

A good story might be a simple thing, but a good discussion about storytelling isn’t.

Throughout I asked questions: if you’ve seen Black Panther, what it is that T’Challa "wants" and what is it that he "needs"? Do you remember how Harry Potter is introduced at the beginning of his story; do you know what Forrest Gump’s motivation is? I don’t expect perfect answers to these questions; what I’m doing is giving the writers the kinds of questions they should be asking themselves whenever they watch a film.

And then we looked at short films and how the rules are essentially the same: you still need an interesting character who faces an intriguing dilemma that has a satisfactory conclusion. And the great thing about short films is that you can watch them from beginning to end and then discuss them. Probably the highlight of the masterclass was being able to sit with Paris Zarcilla and talk about the making of his BIFA nominated short, Pommel. Generous with his time and open about the process of writing and shooting his compelling film, Paris highlighted the most important aspect of storytelling: that it is a very personal thing and that no one writer creates in the same way as another. Paris explained how he wrote a draft of the script and then shared it with a friend who “ripped it apart," how he changed the perspective from the younger brother, who is essentially passive, to the older brother, who is actually trying to achieve something, and how he used the biblical story of Cain and Abel as a narrative template. I first saw Pommel as a rough cut and was blown away because the two young brothers at the centre of the story never actually speak to each other. All of their emotions and conflicts are expressed through actions, gestures and looks – they are expressed cinematically. In our discussion Paris explained how he doesn’t like to write dialogue and that’s why the brothers never speak - a classic case of making a virtue of necessity. Then we opened up the floor to incisive questions from the writers attending the workshop.

As a facilitator, you can be as enthusiastic as you like about your subject but if the participants in the workshop aren’t actively engaged then it becomes a struggle. The writers at the Playhouse threw themselves into the experience. They discussed their favourite stories passionately and then told me about them; they answered my questions and gave me food for thought; and when I stopped a short film and asked them what happens next, they gave me a plethora of options. The workshop culminated in an exercise in which they had to organise themselves into small groups and come up with the story to a short film. As I went around the room at the end, they told me tales of adventure and tragedy, of loss and hope, of strangers coming together, of friends pushed apart.

They told me stories.

Words by Ray Grewal.

Got a story to tell? Our BFI NETWORK team can support emerging filmmakers in the North of England with early feature development and short film funding.