If the jeopardy is unclear, there’s no reason to care about the character

Dramatic Encounters Academy


Taking Black Writers Seriously

This programme of is about helping writers and development personnel understand how to make the most of their creative and analytical talents and become successful screenwriters and development personnelLet me say at the outset that the most important word to me in the sentence above is ‘understand’.  

However, this programme will not only be about the craftsmanship of screenwriting but the creativity of it, too, because without ‘creativity’ the writers will find themselves frustrating their story editors and producers and such frustration will eventually lead to them dumping them from the project – even though they may have taken the original idea to them and may have written one, two or even three drafts before being dumped  – because they are working in a business that is demanding and cut-throat.  So, if the writers can’t solve the story problems in their projects to their satisfaction, they’ll have to give them to somebody who can or abandon the project entirely. 

Creativity – the pursuit of ‘freshness’, ‘originality’

So, what does ‘creativity’ mean? When producers use this term, we generally mean, “Is it fresh, is it original, is it different, is it unique?” We say this even before agreeing to read a script or treatment.  We do this to save our valuable time. Think of conversations you may already have had with commissioning editors or producers about your film or series idea. If it wasn’t new, you were probably told ‘I’ve heard it before’. So, the challenge to you is to rise above stock scenes or plots because, as another saying goes, ‘familiarity breeds contempt’. Even though such creativity is difficult to achieve you must always seek it. The chances of finding something fresh are stronger if you’re able to invent far more events and scenes than you can possibly use in the script, but they must always be true to the characters and world of your story. What do I mean? Well, the reality is that scripts are not written but re-written.

But the real point is that the boy and girl meeting scene, for example, can be achieved in a far more creative way than by setting the meeting in a bar. That is not creative. It’s typical, it’s boring. It will not build confidence in you as a storyteller.

The more that your own work frustrates you, the more likely it’ll be that you will be working to the standards that the industry is looking for. If you yourself believe that if the idea’s not fresh – that it’s a cliché, a stereotype – the more likely you will search for another way. 

The great British theatre director Peter Brook coined the phrase, ‘new truths are found when stereotypes are broken’. New truths are what you should be seeking to uncover so please question your use of stereotypes.  Look at this as an example….

A young black man with untidy dreadlocks is running down a hilly street towards a busy main road in a middle-class suburb.  He’s running so fast that he knocks people over if they get in his way. Behind him a policeman is running, too. The bystanders look horrified as they pass and someone shouts, “Stop him, quick!” Further up the hill a thirty-something white woman stands screaming as other people try and comfort her.

I suspect that most of you think that this young man is a criminal trying to get away. He fits the type, doesn’t he? Young and black, has untidy dreadlocks, is in an urban, middle-class setting and is running desperately…  And with a policeman running a little distance behind him it really does look as if he’s trying to get away from the law, having done something to the distressed white woman who is screaming further up the hill and being comforted by bystanders. 

In many stories it could be necessary to use this stereotype of the young black man because it serves as a short cut in non-black cultures to communicate this idea to the audience. Especially when you want to be descriptive  (i.e. state the way things are). But when you want to be prescriptive  (i.e. suggest the way things could be) or when you want to take the audience on a journey of the imagination, this is not the cultural shorthand you’d want to reinforce. So, you may start off with the stereotype but then you need to make the audience think again. Here’s the rest of the sequence.

Further down the hill a small child is rattling towards the main road in a runaway pushchair.  The policeman flags and collapses.  The young black man is tired, too, but he’s desperate. The busy traffic is now very close. He puts on a spurt and gains on the pushchair.  He manages to grab a handle of the pushchair just before it reaches the main road. Holding it tight he throws himself to the ground. The pushchair clatters on top of him, the child falls safely into his arms.  A passing truck blasts its horn as it crunches the pushchair under its huge wheels. The watching crowd, of course, applauds……..

So, with this scenario we break the stereotype. The young black man is presented as brave and heroic (what I call dominant impressions) and the audience knows straightaway that this story is not going to treat black people in a stereotypical way. They will be open, instead, to a journey of discovery.

This is what you need to take your audiences on an open-minded journey. You need to make them curious to want to know more. This is what we will seek to help you understand as you create stories and screenplays for films and series.

Alby James

24 February 2022