In many films and dramas, the lead character wants to change things, to remake the world according to his way of seeing things. In other films the hero doesn’t want to change the world; he merely wants to stop the other person doing so. Who is the true conservative? Whose side is the audience on?”

Taking Black Writers Seriously

The process for writers

The storyteller needs a premise question for his/her creativity as much as he/she needs the controlling idea to control the choices he/she makes in the story. This implies that all well-written stories consist of two stories – the “objective story” and “subjective story.”  The “objective story” is the backdrop against which the hero’s story (the “subjective story”) takes place. 

A “story” that engages us is created at the point in a character’s life when he/she is forced to confront and solve his/her inner conflict (the “subjective story”) in order to resolve the outer conflict (the “objective story” or external goal). This, then, ties the inner conflict to the outer conflict and creates a dilemma for the central character and, thus, a Dramatic Question that the audience desires to see resolved.

Why do you need an inner conflict? To show character growth!  Character study dramas are extremely popular with audiences, especially those budgeted in the low and medium budget range. Audiences want to see people wrestle with real moral, ethical or emotional problems.

This means that the outer conflict or objective story is different depending on the nature of your lead character and each character will have a different crisis point or internal conflict to another’s and this, then, will affect how the character deals with the obstacles he or she faces.

A logline is what puts these elements together for a producer to get an idea of the story you want to tell and how appealing it may be. The following example is a here for you as a guide.

A brilliant scientist, who has refused all pressures to allow his talent to be used to create a new biological weapon of mass destruction, is manoeuvred into a position in which he has no choice when his son is kidnapped and put in danger of a slow death from a lethal exposure to radiation. His wife demands that now he must give in or his life will not be worth living without either of them. Can he save his son and stay true to his principles?

Stage One

This concept development lab has been designed to find emerging Black screenwriters with interesting ideas and to determine whether the ideas stand up to scrutiny and the individuals themselves are ready to take on the collaborative process of professional feedback that helps to fashion ideas into marketable projects as feature films or series drama for national and, potentially, international audiences. Stage 1 of the process is about the company considering the ideas proposed, which writers are asked to submit in the form of up to three loglines for their ideas plus a brief biography. Writers of novels, short stories and memoirs are asked to submit a biography, the name of the book and a brief synopsis of it and whether they themselves wish to be taken on to do the adaptation.  

We want writers to be bold in what they submit for consideration. Ideas can range from high school or community musicals, to action adventures, to romcoms, to stories about people of faith in an impossible situation, to stories that explore the challenges of an artistic life, to biopics of Black heroes, to stories about life on the street of a reprobate or a group of outsiders, to intimate love stories about star-crossed lovers, to stories that seek to go beyond genres and just tell intimate dramas about lost individuals or those fearing the end of their ambitions. There are many great examples that represent the diversity of storytelling in novels by Black people and in the range of work by filmmaker champions like Spike Lee, Raoul Peck, Ava du Vernay, Kasi Lemmons and Abderrahmane Sissako. They may be stories about village life – whether calm or disruptive – or stories about madness, real or imagined, or stories that give us representations of the different kinds of home-life we live or imaginative reflections on the future we might live, or mystery thrillers about secrets and lives or scandals that exist in our families, or little people’s battles with the system that bring back memories of films like A Face in Crowd or Meet John Doe that lift our hearts, or about the variety of relationships we have with white people from many different countries. Life is full of variety and we want to put that variety on screen.  

Writers also need to think hard about whether their stories are limited to documenting what they know or hear about rather than using this knowledge or information to find a way to tell stories about, for example, human endeavour or the lack of power that will captivate viewers’ attention and make them feel differently about themselves and these situations.

Ideas submitted that are of interest to the company will lead to a request for a discussion with the writers of these proposals to learn more about them and how they see them developing. This discussion will determine who is selected for the concept development lab.

In each round of the lab, up to 10 of these writers will be invited to enter this 3-day lab which is conducted via Zoom to explore their projects further with a small development team from Dramatic Encounters. Writers are asked to submit their proposals via the designated online Dropbox by the deadline for submission and will receive acknowledgements of their receipt.

Stage Two

The concept development lab is designed to help the company determine the level of understanding the writers have of the roles that theme, character design, plot choices and genres affect the way their stories may unfold and determine which direction they definitely wish them to go and how flexible they are for some modifications.

The concept development lab for Writers occurs on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in scheduled first week and the first draft of the 2-page outline is due for submission by Wednesday of the following week. Decisions on who is selected to progress to the Showcase story development lab will be communicated by the Friday of the second week. Up to 6 of candidates will proceed to the showcase.

Day 1 of the 3-day concept development lab

With a 10 ‘clock start, the whole group gathers together for the morning session on Zoom in which each writer is invited to tell us what they want their stories to be. They then hear from the others in the group on what interested them most and the questions that were prompted by what they heard. They may also hear comparisons of similar stories that the others recall from books, films or series in which similar characters and dilemmas were central. They may also offer what they think should be borne in mind because of mistakes they think these other stories made. This feedback becomes a conversation between the writer and the others in the group and it is likely that some common views will emerge. Writers will wish to continue some of these conversations but in this session each writer is limited to 15 minutes because it is about creating a trigger for seeing other options for these stories and for developing a sense of community among the group as this will benefit the development process overall.

After lunch, the writers, still in a group, gather to hear the professional feedback from the development execs. Here the execs share their own impressions of the stories, letting them know what they particularly liked and their views on what options are open to them. They are also likely to make comparisons with books, films or series that they know have tackled similar themes and dilemmas and how these worked and what they think may make these new interpretations fresh for a contemporary audience worldwide. This is also a Q&A process that others are able to participate in, too, but again, this dialogue is limited to 15 minutes per writer so that all writers in the group may receive their feedback by the end of the day. Homework this evening is for the writers to consider all that they have heard and to come prepared for discussions on what they are most drawn to and would like to focus on in further discussion with the development execs the on day 2.

Each session on Zoom will be recorded and made available to them each evening to look back on to make it easier to consider the views expressed and how to respond to them.

Day 2 of the 3-day concept development lab

The second day of the lab begins earlier at 9 o’clock with a 1-hour all-group session for an hour to have a general discussion about the feelings everyone has about the previous day and what they feel now about the challenges ahead. The trainee editors will also be introduced and have a chance to speak and share their views on the projects.

Most of the rest of the day is devoted to either the writers having one-to-one 30-minute sessions with each of the four development execs or for the writers who are not called for one of these sessions to team up in pairs or small groups or writers and trainee editors to discuss their projects. Alternatively, writers may use this free time for private study in preparation for the next session with one of the development execs. It is normal for ideas to have changed significantly following the earlier feedback. The execs will be prepared for this and will have their own views on the strengths and weaknesses of each project and what they would like them to become so this will be an opportunity for the writers to hear this and decide later if they wish to pursue any of the options available to them.

In the last half hour of the day, the writers, development execs and trainee editors will gather together again so that the writers may share any views and concerns they may have and receive answers. It’s very likely they will have been given encouragement to pursue different options by the development execs but it’s important for them to learn that this is normal and that some ideas are not necessarily a right or wrong but the preferences of the person giving them. They have to learn how to filter these, remembering what it is they really want to say and why and what is suitable for the market they wish to enter. They will be advised on the preference of the company and why but that this lab is not about only meeting the tastes and interests of those in Dramatic Encounters; other options may well be preferred by other companies and commissioning editors so they should maintain their intention if that is what they want. The important factor, then, is knowing to whom you most want your project to appeal. In this session, the writers will also be given guidance on how to prepare their verbal pitch for tomorrow’s session. Homework this evening, then, is to prepare this verbal pitch.

Day 3 of the 3-day concept development lab

Starting at 10 o’clock, this day is devoted to pitches from each writer, followed by discussion on each one during half-hour sessions.

For the last hour, Alby will deliver a seminar on writing a professional 2-page outline for their projects which will need to be emailed to the company by mid-day Tuesday, which is 5 days later. As these outlines will now make clear what the writers’ aspirations for their projects are, the company will be able to determine which writers are sufficiently ready for further development conversations. The company will select the projects and writers that will proceed to the showcase and these candidates will receive one-to-one support to develop a story outline (treatment) for the feature film candidates or a series bible for the series projects. They will also be given further advice to strengthen their 2-page outlines and will be assisted in developing a verbal pitch to deliver during the showcase. They will realise how helpful all of this is at the showcase when they will have been asked some difficult questions by members of the pitch panel.

Those who are not offered a place in the showcase will be given a chance to reapply next year. They will also be given notes to help them develop their ideas with more knowledge and understanding and advised about courses they may apply to attend to improve their knowledge and experience of working with others in the development process and improve their chances of entering the industry with a project in future.