Writing for Screens Symposium
Academics and industry professionals gathered in Eldon Building for Writing for Screens, a one-day symposium exploring how practices have evolved in media's expanding landscapes, their intersection with practice-based research, and the greater opportunities for writers to present their narratives on screen. Organised by Dr Peter Howell and Jane Steventon, the symposium also focussed on industry partnerships and academic collaborations.
Writing for Screens featured keynotes from film data researcher Stephen Follows and game designer Sam Barlow, with sessions from:
- Dr Eleanor Yule (Liverpool John Moores University)
- Dr Emilio Audissino (University of Southampton)
- Matthew Higgins (lecturer in School of Creative Technologies)
- Sean Hood (School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California)
- Levi Dean (Bangor University)
- Ligiah Villalobos (Cal State LA/University of Southern California)
- Anna Zaluczkowska (Leeds Barnet University)
The symposium ran parallel to the Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries' (CCI) Graduate Show, an annual showcase celebrating the best work from our soon-to-be graduates. You can find out more about the Show by heading over to its website.
Watch the sessions
If you didn't go to the symposium – or want a recap on the papers discussed – you can watch all speakers' presentations on CCI's YouTube channel (keynotes not included).
View selected papers and slide decks
Read the abstracts
Complete symposium paper abstracts
The recent broadcast on Netflix of Black Mirror’s, Bandersnatch (Booker, 2018) confirms an accelerating convergence of media forms within mainstream broadcasting, strongly signalling that storytelling for the screen is evolving towards complex, multi- stranded and non - linear forms of plotting.
With theorists and critics focusing on present and future developments in new forms of storytelling, this paper will, instead, look back to the pioneering work of dramatist and screenwriter Harold Pinter in his attempts to break apart and expose mainstream linear forms of storytelling, pre- empting its explosion in the post digital age.
This study will examine the complex non - linear structure of Pinter’s stage play Betrayal (1978), “a love story told backwards” (Ebert, 1983), and looks at its almost seamless transition to the cinema (1983), and further how the screenplays reverse chronological structure both uses and subverts classic naturalistic forms of plotting.
Often described as one of Pinter’s memory plays, which marked a “new beginning in Pinter’s’ development as a playwright” (Esslin, 1982), Betrayal tells the story of an affair between Emma and her husband’s best friend, Jerry. The play plots the narrative in reverse, opening two years after the affair has ended and closing on the day it begins. Based on Pinter’s own extra marital affair with broadcaster Joan Bakewell, the play is a, “brilliant exposition of loyalty, love and betrayal between people who care for each other” (Bakewell, 2011)
This paper attempts to highlight how Pinter’s ‘reversive’ structuring is a perfect inversion of the classic three act form, created from a unique synthesis of playwrite Eugene Scribes (1791-1861) conventions and mainstream screenwriting tropes learned from Pinter’s parallel career in cinema (Field, 1979). However, unlike Scribe and Field’s forms, it will be argued, Pinters’ ‘reversive’ structuring is “anti-illusive” (Brecht, 1950) seeking to expose artifice within both character and construction rather than to conceal it.
It will conclude that Pinter’s pioneering work within the screenplay form, including his earlier adaptation of John Fowles post - modern classic novel French Lieutenants Woman (1981), pathed the way for screenwriters to experiment with multi- stranded timelines and non-linear structural forms within a mainstream platform.
Dr Eleanor Yule is a writer, director and Senior Lecturer at LJMU. Since her award-winning feature film, Blinded (2004), she has been commissioned to write and direct numerous screenplays including drama documentaries and literary adaptations. She collaborated on a six part series, Palin on Art, with the ex- Python and has recently completed her practice based PhD in screenwriting. Her book publications include, The Glass Half Full – Moving Beyond Scottish Miserablism, (Luath Press, 2014) which looked at the impact of social realism in film and literature within Scottish culture.
Dr Emilio Audissino – '2 Broke Girls: Flattening Kat Dennings into Max Black': Screenwriting and Character Complexity in the Sitcom Format
The CBS sit-com 2 Broke Girls – aired for six seasons from 2011 to 2017 – represented a watershed in Kat Dennings’ career. Up to that moment she had been consolidating a resume as ‘indie rising star’ with a gallery of rebellious and emotionally-complex leading characters – for example, Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist (2008) or Daydream Nation (2010) – interspersed with comedic supporting roles in mainstream films – for example, The House Bunny (2008). And when she landed the principal role of Max Black in the CBS show she had two very different films in the pipeline: on the one hand To Write Love on Her Arms (2012), an indie drama about addiction and depression; on the other hand, the supporting comic-relief role in the Marvel kolossal Thor (2011). Dennings brought to 2 Broke Girl this dual screen-persona that she had been honing: talented dramatic actress plus witty comedian. The mix soon proved too complex to handle for a sit-com, particularly for a conservative/traditional one like 2 Broke Girls that neither sought the formal experimentations of Arrested Development nor would manage to give its characters the depth and development arc as The Big Bang Theory has managed to.
Throughout the six seasons, the Max Black character made a journey from complexity to simplicity. In Season One Max is a young woman with a traumatic childhood, working two minimum-wage jobs and still struggling to make the ends meet, hiding her desperation behind a facade of cynicism and sarcasm. In Season Six Max has turned into a hollower stand-up-comedian-like type, a stereotypical street-smart slacker dispensing one-liners about booze, sex, and her own breasts. The writers kept the facade and dropped the inner anguish that was originally hidden behind it. Dennings gradually had to flatten out her original multifaceted persona into a more mono-dimensional type. The paper surveys this transformation process across the show, tracing how this ‘involution’ and ‘flattening’ may have been determined by the constraints of the traditional live-audience multi-camera sit-com format, as well as by some overly-formulaic writing and short-sighted decisions in both the planning of the multi-season development and in the design of the character arc – which might have had some weight in the eventual cancellation of the show.
A film scholar with a film-maker’s background, Emilio Audissino (University of Southampton) holds one PhD in History of Visual and Performing Arts from the University of Pisa, Italy, and one PhD in Film Studies from the University of Southampton, UK. He specialises in Hollywood and Italian cinema, and his interests are film analysis, screenwriting, film style and technique, comedy, horror, and film sound and music. He is the author of the monograph John Williams's Film Music (2014), the first book-length study in English on the composer. His book Film/Music Analysis. A Film Studies Approach (2017) concerns a method to analyse music in films that blends Neoformalism and Gestalt Psychology. His current research focus is comedy and serial writing for TV, with a forthcoming article on the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker TV show Police Squad! An active screenwriter with a TV series under option contract, he blends theory and practice by keeping his film- maker’s and his scholar’s side in constant communication to reciprocal advantage.
A key consideration when telling stories in digital games is interactivity. Creators of story-oriented digital games must balance the various activities that a player may undertake in addition to the interpretation of story. One fundamental activity is the navigation of the environment in order to encounter and experience a ‘told story’ and progress through a game.
This paper follows the completion of a study examining how players of a story-focused digital game engage with story whilst navigating an environment. Participants played the story-oriented game Gone Home (The Fullbright Company, 2013). Set in 1995, Gone Home involves the exploration of the player-character’s abandoned family home, searching through their belongings, reading through diaries, and investigating the environment in order to discover why the home is abandoned.
Participant responses demonstrate that players are systematic and thorough in their examination of their environment. Specifically, players attempt to determine the ‘critical path’ desired by the creators of Gone Home. The ‘critical path’ is the route the designer intends the player to take through a particular game. However, in the context of Gone Home, players attempted to determine and then avoid the critical path in order to discover all possible story information, only continuing when they were certain that a particular area had been appropriately explored. The study also suggests that players typically assess certain environmental factors in their analysis of the critical path, primarily lighting and architectural layout.
Determining the critical path is discussed by players anecdotally, often with the intention to avoid this path in favour of fully exploring an area before continuing for potential reward (Pereira, 2015). However, empirical evidence and academic discussion of player literacy with regard to critical paths, and their desire to temporarily avoid them, is lacking; particularly in the context of story-focused digital games. Consequently, such discussion has potential benefits for designers and writers of story-focused digital games. Various considerations and examples from other digital games are discussed in the paper in the context of how methods of environmental navigation may impact intended story experience.
- Pereira, C. (2015). How to Play Like a Game Designer: Level Design. GameSkinny.
- The Fullbright Company, M. C. (2013). Gone Home. Portland, OR and Hazlet, NJ: The Fullbright Company and Majesco Entertainment.
Matthew Higgins is a computer games lecturer, PhD student, and member of the Advanced Games Research Group at the University of Portsmouth. Matthew’s practice-based research focuses on utilising a cognitive psychological understanding of story interpretation to inform methods for the design of story-focused digital games, which in turn inform the development of novel story-focused digital games such as the upcoming White Lake.
The foundations of screenwriting have traditionally been structural. Movies are not only divided into three acts, but also into eight sequences, each punctuated by turning points, culminations, revelations, recognitions and reversals. By manipulating plot points, skillful writers create dramatic tension and provoke audiences to anticipate what will happen next - hoping for one outcome, fearing another, and gasping in delight at the twist they didn’t see coming.
However, in the 21st Century, these foundations have shifted. Structure unravels when active viewers follow multiple characters down branching storylines unfolding across separate mediums - all without clear beginning, middle, or end. Therefore, as film becomes more enmeshed in episodic TV, gaming, interactivity and transmedia, tightly controlled plotting becomes less eﬀective as a fundamental tool for maintaining audience engagement.
For ten years, I’ve taught screenwriting at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, and for two decades I have written big-budget movies, episodic television, and new media in Hollywood. Rapid technological innovation forces me to continually adapt, reevaluate, and change my approaches to both theory and practice. Luckily, I also follow trends in contemporary philosophy, ones that currently influence architecture, literature, and gaming, and could help reorient the practice of 21st century screenwriting.
Mark Fisher in The Weird and The Eerie, Graham Harman in Object Oriented Ontology, and Timothy Morton in Realist Magic, all treat the human subject as just another “object” among multitudes of non-human objects. For these thinkers, every object has its own (to us deeply weird) perspective. In movie terms, their theoretical stance suggests that every character is a hero, every viewer is a storyteller, and every object is, weirdly, a character.
My paper, Object Oriented Screenwriting, proposes an expanded definition of “character” and “character-driven screenplay,” one that covers all major “story-objects”, including supporting characters, significant props, and physical environments. In this new orientation, screenwriters allow traditional plots to emerge from the fundamental wants and needs of these deeply imagined characters, including the wants and needs of the viewers themselves. I will provide illustrative examples of “story-objects” in recent movies, but most importantly, I will share practical approaches for getting these characters down on the page, in a way that creates potential tension and engagement and allows familiar structures to emerge.
Sean Hood is an American screenwriter best known for horror (Halloween: Resurrection) and big-budget action/fantasy (Conan the Barbarian). At USC’S School of Cinematic Arts, he teaches graduate level courses, including Advanced Motion Picture Script Analysis, Creating the Short Film, and Writing the Feature Script.
Hood graduated from Brown University, with a double major in pure mathematics and studio art. He then spent several years working in Hollywood as a set dresser, prop assistant, and art director working with filmmakers as diverse as James Cameron, David Fincher and David Lynch.
He continued his studies at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, graduating in 1998 with a Master of Fine Arts. His student short film, The Shy and the Naked, won a grant from the Sloan Foundation for the positive portrayal of science. His short, Melancholy Baby, won the LA Short Filmmaking Grant, presented at the Directors Guild of America.
After finishing film school, Paramount purchased Sean’s first major spec in 2000. This led to a multi-picture deal with Dimension Films, in which he did rewrites on horror and sci-fi franchises. Along with penning scripts for more recent action movies like Rambo: Last Blood, he has written for television, including Showtime’s Masters of Horror and MTV’s The Dorm. While screenwriting, Hood also wrote articles, including a series for Moviemaker Magazine about the future of storytelling.
His current projects include Mer, a horror movie about lascivious, man-eating mermaids, written for producer J. Todd Harris and director Mary Lambert (Pet Cemetery); Grim Reaper, a horror-superhero story in which a newly hired Grim Reaper hunts ghouls, “making sure the dead stay dead”; and Freakangels, an animated series for crunchyroll.com based on the graphic novel by Warren Ellis.
Sean lives in Los Angeles with his wife Micki Stern, of Micki Stern Music Services, and his actor-daughter Sophie Hood, who will attend Wesleyan University in the fall.
- Find out more about Sean’s filmography on The Internet Movie Database
- Read Sean’s popular screenwriting blog Genre Hacks
The unparalleled success of The Sopranos (1999-2007) has led to a myriad of anti-heroes colonizing our television screens for nearly two decades. Authors from a diverse range of academic fields have unveiled sound theories on how such morally comprised characters continue to achieve audience engagement. Most notably, Margrethe Bruun Vaage, in her book, The Antihero in American Television (2015), extrapolated the field of moral psychology to the analysis of contemporary television anti-heroes, revealing telling conclusions on how audience engagement continues to be formed.
However, the aforementioned body of work has yet to include a deep pool of analysis on the television anti-heroine. Subsequently, an informational abyss exists with how screenwriters should approach the writing of a television anti-heroine, who elicits audience engagement. In turn, textual analysis was conducted on the television anti-heroine, against the backdrop of moral psychology, in order to generate a creative paradigm. The creative paradigm acted as a creative guidepost for the teleplay Angela that follows Angela Sparks, whom after being released from prison descends back into the world of Crime, ultimately becoming a major kingpin.
During the writing of Angela, it was serendipitously revealed to the researcher that, whilst the creative paradigm was pivotal in performing audience engagement, a crucial element was missing. This key element was the writer’s voice, as Angela Sparks exposed the researcher’s own psychological scars of violence and neglect. Though, as this burst into the screenwriter’s consciousness, the theme of the narrative soon became transparent, which was key in the teleplay achieving originality. Therefore, this paper specifically explores how the screenwriter can inject their own voice to achieve originality, whilst forming audience engagement for the television anti- heroine.
Vaage, M. (2015) The Antihero in American Television. New York: Routledge.
Levi’s professional practice as a screenwriter began in 2013 after completing a Master’s in Scriptwriting at Bournemouth University. For his project, Levi wrote a political boxing drama film called Worthless that was a finalist in the Scriptapalooza Scriptwriting Competition.
The competition provided him with a yearlong screenwriting agent and subsequently his screenplay, Rock, Paper, Scissors, was directed by Philippe Rousselot, who won an Oscar for Best Cinematography for A River Runs Through It (1992).
Levi is currently in the fourth year of a practice-led PhD in the field of Screenwriting Studies at Bangor University.
Ligiah Villalobos – Lessons from an adaptation of a screenplay into a novel, and turning that novel back into a screenplay
After many years as a feature film and television writer, I went back to school to get my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing to attempt something new and something that would challenge me in a different way; writing a novel fit the bill.
The story I wanted to develop was not a new idea, but rather an old screenplay that was not working well in that format. The screenplay was titled “Four Seasons” and is loosely inspired by a comedic event that led up to me losing my virginity. Yes, the way I lost my virginity was funny. Unfortunately, I am not a comedy writer. The majority of the work I have done has been dramatic, so at some point in the process, I went back to my comfort zone and turned what was supposed to be a rom-com into a love story.
Frustrated, but not willing to give up…yet. I started to think about how the story might be turned into a novel, giving me the freedom to explore the characters and their arcs more deeply, and allowing the comedy to come from character and situations rather than just punchlines.
The goal – if I succeed with the manuscript – was to turn it back into a screenplay, rework the story areas I had figured out in prose, and incorporate them into a rewrite of the screenplay.
The process was exactly what I thought it would be: extremely challenging but also liberating. And funnily enough, I found my comedic voice along the way.
That process is the subject of my submission.
Ligiah Villalobos is a writer, producer, consultant, educator and lecturer. She’s best known for the independent feature film Under the Same Moon (La Misma Luna), which she wrote and executive-produced. The film was released by Fox Searchlight and The Weinstein Company in 2008 after it was acquired at the Sundance Film Festival, where it became the highest sale for a Spanish-language film in the history of Sundance. Made for under $2M, the film earned over $23M worldwide.
More recently, Ligiah was a Cultural Consultant on the Academy Award winning Pixar movie, COCO, which has become the highest-grossing movie of all time in Mexico (and highest-grossing Pixar movie in China). She’s also the recipient of the Humanitas Prize for writing the Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, Firelight, produced by Alicia Keys and Mary Martin, which aired on ABC in 2013.
Ligiah has developed projects for multiple studios and networks in the United States, including ABC, NBC, ABC/Family (now Freeform), F/X, Showtime, BET, HBO, and STARZ.
She co-wrote the 2016 Lifetime TV Movie, The Real MVP, based on the life of Kevin Durant’s mother, produced by Queen Latifah and Shelby Stone. She was also the head writer for three seasons on Nick Jr.’s hit children’s show Go, Diego! Go!
In addition to COCO, Ligiah has consulted on the Disney movie Planes and the TV series Reed Between the Lines for BET and Nina’s World for SPROUT.
Before becoming an independent writer and producer, she was a studio executive at The Walt Disney Company, where she oversaw television production in Latin America for five years, launching eight number-one children shows in seven countries and then overseeing the Writing Fellowship Program and the Directors Training Program for the Studio. She then worked as a Current Programming Executive at The WB, where she oversaw six prime time shows, including the four highest rated shows on the network.
Ligiah is currently developing an animated series for the Disney Channel titled Adelita y Señorita and for Sesame Street Workshop titled The Lucha Libre League. She recently wrote on the Netflix animated series Super Monsters and StarBeam. She’s also the co-writer and associate producer on the animated feature film Koati, currently in production.
As well as teaching at multiple universities, including USC, UCLA, Cal State LA, and Colorado College, Ligiah lectures and has done writing workshops around the world, for the Sundance Film Institute, Film Independent, Taipei’s Film Commission, San Miguel de Allende’s Writers Conference, and NALIP. She’s been a contributor to The Huffington Post, The Black List Blog and Americana magazine. She’s on the Board of the Writers Guild Foundation and the Immigrant Defenders Law Center. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University.
This presentation looks at how new media forms are adapting to the demands of audiences who are willing, and in some cases expecting, to contribute meaningfully to the narratives created. Much has been promised in terms of audience participation, interactivity and engagement but to date the work produced has been heavily authored and has offered limited opportunity for, or the illusion of, audience participation (Rose 2011; Jensen 1999; Manovich 2001; Ryan 2001).
Kathryn Millard (2014) suggests that:
studios increasingly purchase not scripts, but intellectual property in the form of television series, comics, books, games, blogs, graphic novels and toys…. In this environment, a single high profile author is seen as a guarantee of quality…
This paper will look at methods that can be used to foster participative storytelling. In particular, this paper will look at new forms of writing that are prototype-based and utilise process theatre (O’Neill 1995) and gamification techniques (Alderman 2017) to show how these can be used to build and populate new fictional worlds. Using examples of my own work such as Red Branch Heroes and the Secret Story Network that have been undertaken in the UK, I will show that interactive practices require collaborative approaches to writing not only with other artists, formats and storytellers but directly with audiences. This paper will look at how these techniques can be used to offer audiences a more interactive or collaborative writing experience that offers audiences real agency.
Anna Zaluczkowska is a senior lecturer and Head of Screenwriting at the Northern Film School at Leeds Beckett University, and an award-winning filmmaker and writer. Her works have been screened at film festivals, on television, in museums and at live events. Her current interests centre on writing for transmedia and multi-platform production. As well as making transmedia productions, Anna has been studying the practices and processes of large and small transmedia companies and the effects these have on their storytelling practices.