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Leeds Lit Fest Review: ‘An Introduction to Screenwriting’ Workshop 04/03/20

By Emily Jones

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As a part of the Leeds Lit Fest, I attended ‘An introduction to Screenwriting workshop with Michael Stewart’. As a literature student, screenwriting is an area of interest for me, so it was a great introduction to explore this pathway.

Michael discussed his background and experience in screenwriting and literature, such as writing for the BBC and the soap opera ‘Emmerdale,’ along with his latest novel Ill Will, The Untold Story of Heathcliff. It was clear that he is a successful screenwriter, having opportunities to work with influential figures, like being mentored by the Head of BBC Drama- John York.

He used his wisdom to influence us, starting the workshop with a presentation including quotes for inspiration like, ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on the broken glass’ by Anton Chekov. He started by advising us to “show, don’t tell” when screenwriting, avoiding what he called “static scenes”. Instead we must engage the viewer’s emotions. This led to him emphasising the importance of presenting characters with inner conflict. After all, quoting John York, he said, “Great characters are at war with themselves”. To fuel the tension and engage the viewer, good characters are conflicted with a paradox. Here, he gave the example of Heathcliff and how he presented this conflicted character in his work.

Michael spoke passionately about what makes a good character, questioning what makes us want to keep on watching? Through quoting Robert McKee, “the only way to know characters in depth is the choices they make under pressure”, he expressed what he called the “pressure cooker” that we should put characters under to reveal their layers through their actions. Following this, I found it particularly interesting that he expressed the importance that the structure of screenplay should be character-based. My work is often based on character analysis and therefore I agreed with his view that we play the detective when watching characters develop. It is pivotal that characters have depth. We should not make things too easy for them!

The structure of his workshop kept us engaged. After inspiring us, to get us thinking and developing our own ideas, he asked us to create premises for short screenplays in groups based off his situations. He got our imaginations running wild, with one group suggesting an abduction by aliens! My group developed his example of a girl waiting at a bus stop in the snow in her pyjamas. Our premise was: a young girl leaves her abusive partner on Christmas, there are no buses so she accepts the help of a ‘kind stranger’. She finds that she has not escaped and only she can save herself. Michael gave my group positive feedback and seemed to like our idea, suggesting that it is more powerful not to show the domestic abuse. He encouraged that this would be a great introduction to a screenplay and something that producers at the BBC would like. I loved his enthusiasm and positivity! He recommended ‘The Writers Room’ page on the BBC website as a database of opportunities to the group.

The only drawback of the event was that there was only three of us that were students. More student voices should have been heard! I think that students could have been encouraged to attend if it was in a different location and not at ‘Rothwell Community Hub’. Leeds has many locations where this workshop could have been held, and it was disappointing that it was a twenty-five minute drive away. Nevertheless, his advice and tips were very helpful and a great introduction to what screenwriting offers.