Red Planet Prize: Set Up Vs Story

The deadline for the next Red Planet Prize is Friday 22nd January 2016. The Prize is one of the best TV writing opportunities out there, and it’s free to enter. Here’s the 3rd of my top 5 tips for submitting the first ten pages of your script to the competition (the 1st tip, ‘Core Concept’, is here, the 2nd tip, ‘The Opening Scenes’, is here).

3. Set Up Vs Story

There’s nothing wrong with set up, as long as it’s dramatic or interesting in some way. That’s when set up becomes story, or a vital part of the plot. Indiana Jones trying to steal the idol in the boobytrapped mine is all set up but it becomes a vital part of the plot as it establishes the tone of adventure, and what type of character Indiana Jones is like.

Toby Whithouse’s BBC thriller, The Game, has a great set up (you can read it here). It launches us (the reader/audience) directly into the story and a vital part of the plot. It uses short visual description. Intriguing action, interesting setting. Easy to read on. Toby Whithouse blogs creating and writing The Game here.

Compare The Game with the first episode of Ashes To Ashes (the sequel to Life On Mars). Notice the tone, the pace, the cheeky way it dismisses Sam Tyler’s trademark voiceover from Life On Mars. And it immediately gets DI Drake on the scene. Set up as story. You can read the script here.

Now, check out episode one of From Darkness, another recent BBC thriller. You can read it here. The opening page has some disconcerting overuse of ‘we see’ and ‘we hear’, and the scene description is  thickly grouped together; not an approach to recommend when submitting your script in the spec pile. Regardless of that, the script still launches us straight into story rather than laborious set up, so even with the overuse of ‘we see’ ‘we hear’, the reader could still be drawn in to the action that’s unfolding (another reader could have made their mind up already that ‘this is poor’!).

The worst beginnings to scripts tend to start with a tame set up or familiar scenarios or, worse of all, dull introduction to characters. Dreams, a nightmare, people waking up from said nightmare; people waking up (in bed usually) from an alarm or a phone call; a domestic scene with the family, all rushing to start their day; characters on their way to work, and so on. This is set up as set up, and doesn’t help the reader appreciate the tone or the story on offer, giving them an easy option to ‘pass’ when the script eventually reaches the ten page mark.

Prologues, flashbacks, flashforwards, voiceover, dreams, intercutting plot strands/characters, breaking the fourth wall, and so on, are all acceptable and useful craft to help get a script started, but don’t fall back on familiarity or cliché. Always think of originality or subverting basic expectations; that’s a quick win to get a reader quickly engaged in your story.

If you have a deliberate slow pace to the start to your story, that doesn’t mean you can afford to be indulgent or boring. Something in the scenes, or in the scene description at the very least, should engage the reader in terms of the tone of the story, or pique their interest to continue. This refers more to the writer’s original voice, which is next on the top 5 list, coming in the New Year. Until then, have a great Christmas. See you in 2016!

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