‘I’ve never felt truly finished when writing a screenplay, ever – I just run out of time.’
The screenwriter behind the Phoenix Rising Media produced short film Striativus, Chantelle Victoria Dickson, shares her inspirations, her current projects and her top tips for writing a stellar screenplay based on 10 years’ experience writing for the screen.
What first inspired you to get into screenwriting and what has inspired you since to keep going?
It’s actually quite an odd story. Starting from the age of nine, my family sadly lost multiple members very soon after each other, including three of my grandparents. I struggled with the grief and desperately needed an outlet, and that’s when film really became a big part of my life.
I’d always loved watching behind the scenes videos and bloopers so really, screenwriting became an extension of that interest that went far beyond a hobby for me.
The one film that really sticks out to me is The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. Many of CS Lewis’ works are allegorical, and that really resonated with me at the time and inspired my first script.
And what’s inspired me to keep going since? Seeing my characters come to life on film, but also seeing the passion and camaraderie of the film industry applied to my own work. Having people in my life who support me has really helped too!
What was the first screenplay you ever finished and what was it about?
The first screenplay I ever wrote was called Afterlife, and it was my way of expressing that grief.
When I started out – over 10 years ago now – I had no idea how to format or structure a script. I think I actually copied the formatting from a playbook from my drama class!
It was terrible. I roped my best friends at the time into filming scenes; I wanted it to be the first feature film entirely created by people under the age of 16.
It was about a young girl, Tess, who gets called to what was essentially purgatory to stop a war between heaven and hell. It was pretty short, about 37 pages I think. It was incredibly therapeutic and taught me so much about being a storyteller.
Why do you love screenwriting – what makes it different from other forms of writing?
Screenwriting is wildly different to any other form of expressive writing in my opinion. There’s a very fine balance between writing a good screenplay and writing prose, between not giving a character enough personality and becoming too overbearing and decorative. You have to be constantly aware that despite this being your story, the final product is a collaboration between tens, hundreds, potentially thousands of creative people.
What’s captured during production will be an amalgamation of all of their visions, which are then filtered through an actor’s performances, a director’s vision, what the camera captures and, finally, the editor. You have to allow creative space for those people to work their magic without being too vague, and eventually allow for each spectator to interpret your film in their own way.
Lastly, and most importantly – a really excellent screenplay could be filmed on a cheap mobile phone and would still be excellent. A really terrible one could be filmed on a £100k Arri Alexa, and it would still be terrible.
Have you predominantly written screenplays for short films so far and do you ever plan to write a feature length screenplay?
Shorts are my favourites, but I have written series and features too! I’ve got three features on the backburner at the moment, with one completed and just waiting for a last edit. I like using features to tackle bigger issues.
Fight For It deals with homosexuality in the setting of a Catholic school, The Beekeeper explores how a father’s death changes a maternal relationship and Dirty, Pretty Things looks at perceived morality, and how nobody in the world is entirely good or bad.
I love shorts because they feel like dipping your toes into a swimming pool to check the temperature before you dive in. Some of my shorts have evolved into series, some have gone from a simple monologue to a feature. They’re a story you can write in a day and build on.
What are some examples of existing films out there that you would encourage aspiring screenwriters to watch and why? And are there any specific screenwriters working at the moment who inspire you?
Every screenwriter should watch Life is Beautiful. It’s a tragicomedy written, directed by and starring Roberto Benigni and it makes me sob every time. It’s a storytelling technique that’s been around since Ancient Greece, and a great example of how to juxtapose two genres, each strengthening the emotional payoff of the other.
In terms of screenwriters… There are so many talented people out there right now, but I’m always in awe of 80s and 90s writers. I’m a huge fan of Richard Curtis and I loved his newest film, Yesterday – he really modernised his approach. John Hughes and Nora Ephron are idols of mine. Got to put Spielberg in there too, of course!
What were some of the biggest lessons you learnt as a writer from seeing your screenplay transition into film?
I’ve never felt truly finished when writing a screenplay, ever – I just run out of time. Once you’ve handed the script over to the producer, that’s it. It really is like handing your baby over to somebody and trusting them to look after it properly.
I also learned that it can be difficult to be on the set of your own film, particularly when the dialogue doesn’t sound quite the way you expected it to or if somebody wants to drop lines that are really important to you.
Sometimes there’s a complete disconnect when you watch it back, watching the characters that you created speaking lines that you made up in your head – it feels a bit alien and new. There are some great moments of affirmation too though!
Sometimes an actor will ad lib some lines in character, which is exactly what Elliott Crossley and Alex Vlahos did on Striativus, and that interaction comes out so naturally and perfectly; It’s a real affirmation that you’ve written a character that has enough depth to really be known.
The biggest lesson, however, is that it’s incredibly humbling to have people believe in your work and put some much love and effort into making that a reality. The gratitude I feel towards everyone who’s been a part of any project of mine is immense.
What would you say to any aspiring screenwriters who have been too scared to give it a try?
Nobody else has lived their life in exactly the same way as you, so your voice is unique. Let your experiences lead the way. We’ve all got hundreds of really, really bad stories in us, so write them out of your system and get used to the idea of making yourself vulnerable – some of those critiques will be hard to stomach. Most importantly, don’t write for financial gain, or fame, or glory – write because you love it. Grow a thick skin, because you’ll need it!
And what practical tips do you have for them?
Take some time to learn the craft, it’ll make writing so much easier in the future and it doesn’t have to be extensive. Study some basic storytelling theory; Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, Syd Field’s 3 Act Structure, Christopher Booker’s 7 Basic Plots – all great foundations for you to build your story on.
Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat is one of my favourites, and I learned how to format a screenplay with Viki King’s Inner Movie Method. For general production information, The Guerilla Filmmaker’s Handbook is the bible.
Don’t bother investing in expensive screenwriting software unless a studio specifically requests it. Celtx has free and paid plans, and offers almost identical benefits.
The most important tip, however, is to just write. Structure and formatting will become second nature, and that’s when you can really have fun and enjoy writing. Find your passion in everything you write. Take the time to develop real personalities. When you really understand and know your characters – their history, their motivations, their passions – then the story will write itself.
Remember that your secondary characters are just as important as your lead characters – often they’ll be their shoulder to lean on or a push in the right direction, so don’t forget to develop them too.
When you’ve finished a screenplay what happens next – how many rewrites do you usually do, where do you submit it?
I’ll let you in on a secret… my library of incomplete screenplays is twice as big as that of my finished ones. I tend to bash the first draft out very quickly then send to it a few select people for review. Writers are sensitive and in touch with their emotions – that’s why we have this ability – but that doesn’t always bode well with criticism.
One of my biggest supporters and harshest critics is my boyfriend Aston, but he’s great at telling me what’s working well, what isn’t working at all and where the weak spots are without making me want to curl in a ball and cry.
I work quite extensively with Phoenix Rising Media Studio, who’ve developed both Striativus and my short horror, The Marionette. I’m currently working on building a portfolio to approach an agent with, and I’m also producing my own independent audio series with a few familiar voices. That’s really an excuse for me to explore genres and characters and then decide later whether to expand them or not!
What inspired you to write Striativus and how long did the process take you?
Another secret… I wrote Striativus in two hours. I developed it as part of a module on my Digital Film Production and Screenplay Writing course at the University of Chichester with the intention of producing it in the latter part of the year.
I knew we’d be filming a select few so I wanted to write something with very few locations so it would be fairly simple to produce, but highly emotional with a high-impact outcome. I drew inspiration from films like the Breakfast Club and Fight Club to have a group setting after talking to my course tutor, Mike Holley, and Striativus came from there.
Unfortunately the uni version (despite so much dedication and hard work from everybody) had issues due to some artistic differences. I sat on the script for a few years then picked it up again after getting out of a bad relationship. Funnily enough, after that I felt a lot closer to the protagonist Kacey than I had when I was writing it. I shared it with PJ Saysell-Rosales, altered a few lines and the rest is history!
How important is dialogue to a screenplay?
Each genre has different requirements so it really is dependent on the story’s needs. I worked on Alex Vlahos’ short Here We Are last year, with a beautiful script by George Webster and amazing performances from Emma McDonald and Ferdinand Kingsley that was completely devoid of dialogue, but still incredibly emotional.
I’m working purely with audio at the moment, so there are some action notes in there for the voice artists but very little description otherwise. The one thing I will say to any aspiring writers is to make sure that you’re not too descriptive with your actions unless it’s a really important moment – give your actors some free reign.
Dominant impressions are one of the most important things to learn to do right, as this is the primary description of your character. Otherwise, do what feels right!
Historically filmmaking has been a male dominated industry. What advantages do you think you have being a female screenwriter and does this influence your work in any way?
You’re absolutely right, historically the scales have been very much tipped in that direction but I do believe that the film industry has begun to get closer towards equality in the last decade or so.
I haven’t found that my progress has been impeded by my sex so far but of course, it’s all down to individual perception. I’ve been fortunate and worked with a lot of brilliant, open-minded people.
I did have one bad experience when I was younger though, working with an older writer. He approached me to update a screenplay he wrote in the 80s and initially I was really excited – the project had a seven figure budget! Unfortunately, we had a fundamental difference in opinion as to what constituted a consensual sex scene in the film, so I left the project.
Sometimes I do wonder if my career would be much different had I stayed, but I’m glad I stuck to my morals on that one.
You’ve just got through to the second stage of a screenwriting competition. Can you tell us more about what you wrote for it?
Yes, I’m actually getting my brief for the second heat of the NYC Midnight Screenplay Challenge in a few hours!
For the first heat I had eight days to write 12 pages, and now I have three days to write eight pages so it’s certainly lived up to its name as a challenge. I was experiencing some pretty dire writer’s block and was in a bit of a slump when I applied and to be honest, I was ready to give up on screenwriting. Two or three hours before the application deadline, my boyfriend Aston convinced me to sign up.
This is my first screenwriting challenge – the first one that actually gives me a brief, a page count and a deadline to work to. It was exactly what I needed to climb out of that slump! My brief was to write a comedy, featuring an acrobat and an exit interview. My version of comedy is dad jokes and cheese puns, so I felt way out of my depth.
I started writing a mockumentary style comedy about this lovely character called Debbie who, inspired by her love of Hugh Jackman and The Greatest Showman, retires from her job as a lawyer to start her own circus. The story didn’t really click until two days before the deadline though, when I realised that something was missing and added in her husband, Kenneth.
They’re wonderfully mundane and sweet and their chemistry allowed me to explore the humour much more. I went from hating it to loving it in the space of a day, and it’s become one of my favourite shorts. It’s reignited my love of writing and raised my self-esteem for sure!
If you could go back in time and give advice to your younger self on writing would you? And what would you say?
You’re putting your heart and soul on a pedestal and asking people to look, but not touch, so get used to feeling vulnerable and embrace that. Your writing is an expression of who you are. It’s what you love, and sometimes you’ll lose sight of that.
Not everything you do has to be profitable, not everything will be perfect. You’re allowed to make mistakes, just make sure you learn from them. Believe in yourself and keep writing, it’s cheaper than therapy!
Chantelle is 24 and lives in Worthing in West Sussex. She holds a BA Hons in Digital Film Production and Screenwriting from the University of Chichester.
Her screenplays include Striativus, The Marionette, Fight For It, Mutiny, Dirty Pretty Things, and Siren, among many unfinished others. Striativus and Marionette are in development and The Greatest Show-woman, a mockumentary, was accepted for the NYC Midnight screenwriting challenge.
To find out more visit chantellevictoriadickson.co.uk or follow her on Twitter: @ChanWritesFilms.
Striativus is currently in post production.