MEDIA AGENT’S ADVICE FOR ASPIRING SCREENWRITERS
How to be special?
Let’s be honest; nobody wants to watch something that isn’t special. Even when you’re watching your guilty pleasures, there’s something special about it, right? And we’re taught that those special, interesting, even non-definable shows are reserved for the people who did their time on the soaps and the conventional crime dramas, or the really really extra special people like Michaela Coel and Laurie Nunn who can just ‘jump out of obscurity’ into some of the most celebrated shows of recent years. Many people believe that their way into the industry is just to be, well, not very special, until they’re allowed to be special because they’ve written enough, or they’re serious enough, or they know enough.
And then a lot of people face this frustrating wall when they’ve done all their work and feel as though they understand what the forms are and can really write a good plot or structure or set of characters, and they’re stuck at this hurdle where nobody’s paying real attention. And you might think “well my script is better than this one and that’s been broadcast” or “my idea is better than his idea, why has he got an agent and not me?” and that is a really annoying and horrible place to be. So my aim is to talk about how you can change your stance on your own work, and, as long as you’ve got the other basics like story crafting and formatting down, it will transform you. Trust me, I’ve seen it happen.
Now, before I make grand statements that suggest that everyone should just jump into introspective work and never get broadcast credits until their show gets picked up by Netflix and they win 750 Emmys, I do strongly believe that you should do your homework and write on a small scale, so you can get to know the industry and the way you work within it, hone your craft, and make connections. In fact, I don’t take on clients who haven’t done that already! So when I give my advice I want you to take it to everything you write, whether it’s a commission or a tiny fringe play or your passion project (which, by the way, nobody should stop you from writing even if the idea of it being produced is a mile away!).
But before we jump into that, let’s talk about why I have all of these lofty opinions in the first place.
I started out in the industry proper when I was 16, working in a casting office in central London during school holidays, mostly doing scanning and calling agents, but on the odd occasion reading in for auditions, which included screaming while men tried to pretend-sedate me, and leading an imaginary alien rebellion. All fun, light stuff — and I’ll stress, safe and professional too. At school, I wrote plays under a series of increasingly unsubtle pseudonyms and put them on in tiny performances for a couple of people at a time. I was sure I’d be a writer-director, until I realised I was a disastrous director, focused on writing, and forwent any form of revision for my exams to write a play for the Edinburgh Fringe with my bags packed for a Screenwriting degree at Tisch in NYC. But then I got a job in a writers’ room and ran sideways into my ~career~ with bright eyes and a bushy tail. After that, I took a few jobs in talent management, documentary development, and production because I needed money and I had the experience, and then landed at Blake Friedmann as an assistant in the media department.
You should do your homework and write on a small scale, so you can get to know the industry and the way you work within it
In my head, I was a writer, and that was what I intended to do, but about a month after I started, I read the most fantastic, funny, special script I had ever seen, and it was then that I knew what my calling was. My family had always joked that I could be a critic because every time we sat down to watch a film or a series, I’d wait for the credits to roll and give extensive notes on the storytelling and script. So then, just weeks into ‘this is a great job to prepare me for becoming a writer’, I was an agent. And, reader, I can’t stress this enough, I LOVE IT. It sounds odd to call this job a calling, but ask any agent and they’ll tell you that they can’t imagine it any other way. There’s this assumption that agents are just slimy, dispassionate people who think selling a few people into some jobs is a fun and easy cash-grab, but I’ve never met an agent who thinks that way. We script-edit, we workshop new ideas, we enthuse, we nurture talent, we make sure they make the right decisions for them. We’re like a professional version of that friend who helps you get with your crush. Since starting as an agent, I’ve started building a brilliant, special, beautiful list full of wonderful writers who I might just die for, and I am still building, so you can head over to my page on the Blake Friedmann website to see what I look for and more about me!
So, basically, what I’m saying is, I’ve been around a bit, I’ve seen a slice of what’s up, and I do, at least in this sense, know what I’m talking about.
Let’s take a detour into the idea of being special, which I’ll argue is in reframing the idea of writing from what we know. Remember, we’re not talking about throwing the baby out with the bathwater here. We’re talking about loosening up rigid ideas of what ‘works’ and what groundwork you ‘need’ to do to allow new and exciting things to grow.
Writing what you know almost always starts with writing about yourself. THE GOLDBERGS is an excellent example of that (and a great show). Adam F Goldberg knows the 80s, he knows his family, he knows himself. Boom. Writing what you know. The next evolution is writing about yourself in a fictionalised form. Putting a character who is like you (or has a worldview like yours) in the centre of a story. It’s a pretty appealing idea. The easiest part is, if you’re ever stuck, you just think ‘what would I do?’ and then you’re off again. Writers at this point do one of two things. They either stay there and write lovely characters who are like them or very similar to them (or the kind of person they wish they were), maybe with a little twist like a different passion or talent. Or they pour themselves into huge amounts of research and character building to give themselves a new ‘personality’ to write from that they know inside out. Both great options. Both make writing easier.
But what if you want to write about something you don’t know? What if the world you’ve built doesn’t allow you to originate someone you can relate to, or you can’t envision yourself in? In the case of something like 1750s England or some far-off planet, that’s pretty easy. If the historical background and world-building is there, you can pretty much do one of the above options. But what if you can’t get real insight into the lived experience of marginalised groups or cultures outside of your own? Hate to break it to you, neither of the above will work.
This is not to say that white writers aren’t allowed to write Black characters. Not to say that straight writers aren’t allowed to write queer characters. But you can’t involve yourself in those different worlds and experiences enough to create three-dimensional and engaging stories without a tangible knowledge of what different experiences are like. The answer? There are lots. Starting with talking to people of different backgrounds. Enriching your experiences. Teaming up with writers from different backgrounds. Getting people from the backgrounds you’re writing about to read your work (sidebar: please pay your script readers!).
Even if you’re writing the most conventional structure you can find, write from those building blocks.
Attending classes. Reading books. Doing your research on what the people you’re writing about might reasonably experience, how things might affect different people emotionally and how reactions might manifest themselves. Although those experiences aren’t in any way monolithic, tangible knowledge of different worldviews is paramount for a writer to have an ability to write beyond what they know. And more importantly, sympathy, acceptance, understanding of different worldviews is key. A writer who isn’t tolerant can be spotted a mile off.
So, that’s one way of writing from what you know. And armed with all those skills that I mentioned above about widening your worldview, scope, and references, let’s consider another. Let’s talk about what is special about your experience.
Nobody in the world has had the same experience of the world as you. They might have grown up in a different place. They might have had a different family structure. They might have a different culture. They might have faced different challenges. Even your identical twin will have a different experience to you. Here’s an exercise: write down some of your key experiences, and your perspective on them. The good, the bad, the ugly. Stick them on your wall. Come back to them every few days. Cross out the ones you think someone else could reasonably have had. Circle the ones you think nobody else could have had. Keep writing more as they come along. Think about the wrong turns you’ve made. The things you got excited about that nobody else would have. The unique relationships you’ve been a part of. The stories you tell your friends. The stories you would only tell your therapist. Every time you find one that you think is totally unique to you, give yourself a gold star and keep them in your mind.
That stuff. That unique stuff. That special, personal stuff. That is what separates you from every other writer on the map. If you think “hey, that experience is so special and integral to me”, that experience is going to be gold dust to inform your work. Maybe it’s about a conversation you had. Or a family member you treasure dearly. Or a trauma. Or even a moment that you lay back and looked at the ceiling and just saw something in the world that you didn’t see before. Maybe that experience made you feel different, like you were in a bubble, or your vision distorted, or you forgot about all the things around you, just for a moment. Think about that experience not as the things that happened but the connective tissue within it — the relationship, the space, the perspective, the feeling, what was different about it.
Don’t forget who you are, and what you have to offer.
Maybe for example, you comforted a friend and they sat by you and wiped their tears on your shoulder, and it felt like everything was going to be better again. Remember what happened, how it happened, think about why they made that decision, how long you’d known them, how you felt about them, how you reacted, how the light felt in the room. All of that emotion in one unique moment. Hang on to it.
This, reader, is a very hard thing to do. It might very well wreck you. It’s a truly vulnerable exercise that will make you scared to show your work to anyone ever again. You must, but only because your work will be leaps and bounds better now.
Now, you’ve got an idea of something special that is totally yours. It’s not a character like you. It’s not a world like the one you live in. It’s an emotional, visceral, distillation of yourself. Collect as many as you can. There might only be a couple, or there might be loads. They might be really similar or really different. Whatever they are, hold on to them tightly, and don’t you dare let go.
From here, try to construct a scene. Something to keep in a drawer. Unnamed characters with no descriptions. Just take the feeling and put it into words. Let those ideas sit with you. Take any pitches or ideas from the past, see how those little parts of you might inform them. There’s no hard and fast rule there. But every time you’re lost, remember where you’re writing from. Remember what’s special about you. Use any moments that you felt out of touch with reality, any words that stick with you, inject them into your work. Commit to them. Try to find a way to bring them back throughout your story. Keep grounding your work, no matter if it’s set in your life or in some totally different space altogether, in those experiences. You don’t have to wait for your chance to do this, either. Take these notes out every time you write, no matter what it’s for. This is an exercise that you should make an integral part of your writing. Otherwise, why hire you? Lots of people can write great dialogue, or think up great characters, or invent a fun sci-fi concept. What can you do? Be you. Understand what is unique about you. And people will (I promise) respond to that, as long as everything else is in place.
When I look at my inbox, and the projects offered to me for representation, the first thing I look for is special. This is not a genre thing, or even a style thing. As much as any agent, I look for people who can write brilliant conventional ideas (like crime dramas and soaps) as well as people who write brilliant fantasy and high concept. For me, I am most drawn to writers who come from underrepresented backgrounds who have something to say about the way they see the world. I think that this notion of writing from your experiences in a more fundamental, emotional way can come easier to people from marginalised backgrounds, because they’re more used to taking their experiences and transposing them into mainstream media, which is primarily white-straight-cis-male. There is also the luxury (it’s not a luxury) of having a pre-existing and usually problematic narrative language that has been associated with their background or experience, which can be turned on its head.
When I find writers who I love and can write with this understanding of themselves, I get so excited. When I talk about my clients casually, I always find myself saying “they’re just so special”. That’s what you want to inspire in an agent, producer, actor, viewer. That’s what’s going to make them remember you. That’s what makes shows like SEX EDUCATION and I MAY DESTROY YOU (and all the other brilliant shows out there) great. You might or might not notice it, but that work is soaked in the essential experience of the person who created it.
So, readers, writers, fellow industry members, try to remember this. Where is the special. Where is the special in you? Where is the thing that makes your work unwriteable by anyone else? What are you connecting to in what you’re reading? Even if you’re writing the most conventional structure you can find, write from those building blocks. Take it to the soaps. Take it to the sketch shows. Take it to the meetings. Don’t forget who you are, and what you have to offer. You don’t have to write in a linear format, or a strict genre, or hit the hero’s journey in the order you’re told to. Write from the heart. You can write from yourself even when you’re writing stories totally different to your own. Seek help when you need to learn about other experiences. Most importantly, give yourself the recognition. Give yourself the chance to be special. And good luck.