How I Won the 2016 NYC Midnight Screenwriter’s Challenge
Paul Searles is a composer and sound designer from Singapore who just won the 2016 NYC Midnight Screenwriter’s Challenge. Here he talks about how the STC! Beat Sheet saved him on a tight deadline.
A few months back on a visit to my mum’s in Australia, the NYC Midnight Screenwriting Challenge popped up on my feed. I decided that it would be a fun holiday project. Inspired by Aussie shiraz and my awesome ma, I snuck through the first heat with a spy story. A few weeks later, I won the second with 8 pages of horror .
In the final we had to write 5 pages in 24 hours. Genre and keywords were randomly assigned and emailed to us when the clock started. I felt somewhat cheekily out of my depth.
In much the same way as my music career began back in high school, I started screenwriting years ago to impress a girl. Although I didn’t have much success on the girl front, studying stories turned out to be a great way to improve my film scoring and it soon became my favourite hobby.
The coolest book I came across in those early days was Save the Cat! Not only was it immediately fun and inspiring, it was practical and satisfying. I’d just finished 10 years in the music industry under major labels and I had let go of a big chunk of my waffly ego. Blake wrote common sense; I felt connected.
I’ve always been the world’s worst procrastinator and I’ve learnt to love deadlines. The Midnight Screenwriting Challenge was a tight one. I knew that if I wanted to make fast decisions that I could shape quickly, I would have to use the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet.
For this competition I used a very simple version of the BS which I made a long time ago. I see from visiting this website that I have some catching up to do, but my simplified sheet worked well for these short scripts.
Perhaps you’d like to read my final entry before I talk about how I wrote it. It’s called “The Dancer”, it’s only 5 pages. Here’s the logline…
As a precocious orphan girl in a besieged city tries to hide her secret from an oppressive regime, an unexpected hero enters her life.
The weekend of the final was also the weekend of my 10 year old daughter’s dance competition. She was disappointed that I was going to miss it but I promised her that whatever keywords they gave me, I’d try to include a young girl and a dancer. Excellent, 50% procrastination shaved off right there.
I booked a quiet little hotel room near the Arab quarter. I had 24 hrs, noon til noon Singapore time. I needed 24 hours of food and inspiration and it’s certainly a colourful area. I made sure the hotel had a printer. I booked it before I knew what the competition’s prompts would be, but in the back of my mind I’d already decided to write something about the problems in the Middle East.
My assignment arrived, on the dot:
Character A homeschooled child
Subject A hidden door
As with anything I create, first of all I let my right brain off the hook. I start with a list of the absurd and the obvious. I use a big roll of paper from Ikea and the most colourful markers I can find. I make a mess of bubbles, lists, sketches, loads of arrows, trying to make shapes with the data. I think graphically, a hangover from my architecture studies. I try to avoid linear structures. I rip out the bits I like and paste them, kill the cliches, search hard for the perfect opposites, wherever my pen leads me. I’d love to share a picture of this but the first things that pop in my mind aren’t often very flattering! It’s dangerous for me to think too much about what I’m doing in this early stage, I just attack and react and constantly fend off doubts and preconceptions. Occasionally I’ll fill my tank with a bit of Google.
I’ve created thousands of pieces of music over the years yet it still feels somewhat more elusive than screenwriting. It’s about trying find a voice for things that can’t be explained in words. After years of creating all kinds of stuff, I like to think that I’ve developed a musical style which works across most media. In screenwriting, the beat sheet becomes my score.
After a few hours, I had my theme: “Whatever happens, just keep dancing!” Perhaps I was dancing a little with the marker pens, for my daughter. It felt tidy.
Pleased with myself, I lay down to begin my first round of procrastination. I saw dust dancing in the bedside light and right there was the kernel of a nice Opening Image.
Next was some research on the “secret door” prompt. With 39 other people in my heat writing with the same cues, I knew I really had to flip it. It also had to link nicely with the “homeschooled” character. Eventually I decided the girl would school herself in the remains of a home. I imagined a cross section of her room with a diagonal of collapsed floor as a device which separates the A and B story on my beat sheet, connected by something like a wardrobe. Perhaps that sounds too architectural, and perhaps too concrete for this early stage but it felt good.
My flow of thinking needs to stay musical, especially in these early stages. I have to be really careful to avoid broken strings and stage fright. I push myself into a rhythm and soon with a bit of luck, things start to groove. Unfortunately the spell was broken when I started to research current political precedents for my yet unknown hero’s situation.
I knew I had to go there but I was dragged down by the reality of the images. A few times I decided to abort, my “Dark Night of the Soul.” All the time I kept telling myself that I wanted to make something really beautiful. I cheered myself up with some old 30s and 40s dancing on Youtube, and the whole thing started to take shape again. When I thought I had enough fodder, I hit the streets of the Arab quarter in the wee hours looking for more. Gradually I descended from the clouds over some dangerous looking late-night fried food. Beat sheet on greasy table, I began to take stock of where I was at.
From now on I lived on my beat sheet. I had a bunch printed out and I just attacked them. I love the nuts and bolts as much as the clouds and rainbows. The beat sheet is a nice bridge between the two.
As the structure began to take shape, I tried to avoid specific scenes and situations as long as possible. I slowly added primal colours, textures, and sounds, broad brushstrokes. These helped me balance my story; they kept things instinctual.
A 5-page script is very different from a feature of course, but it still has to hit the spots. I stretched the “Fun and Games” because despite the dark topic I still wanted people to feel happy after reading it. “Theme Stated” could have been a bit more literal, written on the VHS cover, but it seemed to work as is. Debates are covered in just a few words, but they’re there and they’re important. I was constantly tempted off course but with only a few hours to go I needed to put my trust in the BS.
I’m sorry that I can’t go into much more detail about how I used the BS, to be honest it’s all a bit of a blur. There are so many people on this site who could explain it much better than me anyway. I just wanted to show you how it became the backbone of my story right from those most important first stages.
I still haven’t let my daughter read the script, I think it might make her sad. It was a very emotional night for me, a huge release. I hope I can get this film made and draw a little more emotional attention to what’s going on, right now, in this unfortunate part of the world.