Writer's Room

How to Write Your First Feature

FEATURE: 25 MARCH 2008


how-to-write-your-first-featureHone Kouka, Michael Beron, Schuchi Kothari and Vanessa Alexander

The deadline for the New Zealand Film Commission’s 1st Writers Initiative is fast approaching. The March Writer’s Room offered up some wise counsel for those wishing to pen their first feature script for this annual competition aimed at emerging New Zealand writers.

Budding scribes packed The Classic to hear NZFC Development Executive Hone Kouka and writers Shuchi Kothari and 2005 Initiative participant Michael Beran share their experience and expertise with guest MC Vanessa Alexander.

Grassroots Initiative

The NZFC’s 1st Writer’s Initiative, now in its fifth year, is growing in popularity. A massive 196 entries were received last year and more are expected in 2008. New Zealand comedy horror Black Sheep was a participant in 2004.

Hone read over 96 scripts last year and enjoyed the fresh talent and potential he saw in the entries. All scripts are read blind by an expert panel of writers who then choose up to six finalists.

Vanessa asked the panel why the Initiative is more than just a competition and all agreed that it offers a unique opportunity for writers to receive great advice and constructive criticism by a team of renowned professionals. Michael remembered that, “… it was so nice being in a room with other writers … and getting any kind of feedback is crucial. It’s a really good way to build confidence as a writer because they take your work seriously!”

Finding your Big Idea

Shuchi believed that ideas for stories come to people in very different ways. And once it does, “You have to ask yourself – what do I want to say about this idea? You get that first flurry of excitement, but you have to recognise it as an idea and not a story.”

The panel agreed a new writer should not rush a first script because time is needed to develop a strong idea into a story. However, Hone pointed out that the 1st Writers Initiative can provide a deadline to work towards.

A writer’s ‘big idea’ is then followed by a treatment and a story. Michael said a common mistake among new writers is to come up with the dialogue first. Shuchi agreed that not focusing on structure first invariably causes the draft to sag in the middle and advised developing a strong beginning, middle and end first and before working on dialogue.

Vanessa asked the panel how to test their stories. Shuchi said a writer should be able to describe the story in one sentence but admitted such reduction can be difficult. When starting a script, a writer may not know what that one sentence is but it will come over time. She advised writers not to send scripts off until they “arrive at the central truth” because that is the first thing they will have to defend. “I came from a journalistic background so I had an ear for other people’s disasters,” added Michael.

The Central Truth

Discovering the central truth of a story and developing it into a script can be a difficult process. “It’s a commitment,” Michael said, “riddled with a lot of wrong turns and you have to be in it for the long run.” Shuchi suggested writers watch other films of the same genre as their own script and locate the central truth in them. Hone agreed. “Get your story first, then the deeper meaning further along. It comes to you if you keep that openness.”

The Writing Process

Vanessa asked the panel to explain their techniques for putting a script together. Michael advised writers to “…explore character and story development, even interview your characters.” He added that writing character background stories can be helpful and writers may find a minor character could then become the lead. Hone said it is important to research topics thoroughly.

Shuchi felt a writer should have some familiarity with the generic conventions of their chosen genre. “Keep watching films that are within that genre – even the bad ones! You have an obligation as a writer to put your script into the landscape with other films.” She explained that every writer has a different writing process, saying she still prefers to use scene by scene index cards, a system that may be considered old fashioned today but works for her.

The subject of dialogue was discussed and the panel stressed that new writers should not become too focussed on what the characters are saying. Vanessa recounted how some of her best lines of dialogue were lost in the editing process because, “…the story and theme wasn’t solid.” Hone said so many 1st Initiative entries are ‘dialogue heavy’ and advised writers to, “…test every part of your story against your theme – the dialogue comes last.”

All the panellists agreed that finishing a piece of work is vital. “Write something and finish it,” said Michael. “When you reach the end of your script, that’s when the work really starts – then you can go back and learn from it.” Shuchi agreed. “Every stage of your writing is only one stage of a long journey. You have to be in it for the long haul or writing is not for you.”

Are you ready?

Vanessa encouraged questions from the audience and the panel answered many queries from new writers – “How much experience and training should you have before starting your first script, what are the NZFC panel are looking for, and how do you know when your script is ready to be submitted to the 1st Writer’s Initiative?”

Hone recommended writing a story in fiction form first to gain a better understanding of ideas before writing the script. “Young writers are bursting with ideas. The trick is to pick just one idea and make it work.”

Writers do not have to be formally trained to enter the 1st Writer’s initiative. “Not if the voice is strong and original enough”, Hone explained. “Courses don’t always make great writers – it’s about upskilling yourself.” Experience is not an issue either because the judging panel are not aware of the authors of the scripts. The panel encouraged correct formatting to make the reading process easier and recommended the use of Final Draft, the standard scriptwriting software.

Vanessa doubted the NZFC are looking for a particular style or genre of film in the 1st Writers Initiative scripts. “It’s dangerous to try and guess what they are looking for,” she said. Hone said last year the majority of scripts he read were about self identity. “People write about what they know best, you just have to make that voice distinctive from the rest.”

In conclusion, Hone gave some final tips to potential entrants about knowing when a script is ready for submission. “It depends on the person and where they think they’re at with their script. Put your best foot forward once you’ve talked to a few people, viewed films that are inspiring, have some sort of solidity. Give yourself time before the deadline to work through it. It’s about identifying potential so keep at this thing!”

The deadline for the 2008 1st Writers Initiative is in late June.  For more information visit www.nzfilm.co.nz