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5 Q&A’s with Ashley Sanders, 24-Hour Screenwriting Challenge winner

Ashley Sanders is an Australian screenwriter. After working as a paramedic for almost 10 years, Ashley felt it was the right time to start writing. He wrote his first feature screenplay, Bones of Ribbon, which covers some strong systemic issues prevalent in society. Bones of Ribbon has already earned him multiple awards, including Best Feature Screenplay and Best First Time Screenwriter at FilmCon.

The same month, Ashley also participated in FilmCon's 24hr Screenwriting Challenge. The rules were simple: 24 hours, up to 5 pages, theme: You never know when your time is up; protagonist: a 30-year-old man; supporting character: the man's father. In less than 24 hours, Ashley wrote "Together We Fall", a short drama about a paramedic who is in a hurry to save a man's life - his own father.

We invited Ashley to join us for an interview. Here's his story.

1. Ashley, congratulations on winning 24-Hour Screenwriting Challenge at FilmCon Awards. We enjoyed reading “Together We Fall"! In less than 24 hours, you wrote a dramatic story about a complicated father-son relationship. Let's talk about how you started out. Tell us about your background, what sparked your interest in screenwriting?

Firstly, thank you!

My background is in pre-hospital care, working as a paramedic for almost ten years. Throughout this time, along with world travel, I’ve come up with ideas for stories, books, films, and have written for various modalities. Growing up I read a lot of books and wrote a fan-fiction novel for my favourite Australian author - John Marsden. In my late teens and twenties I acted in a few film projects, partially scripted but mostly ad-libbed, once I understood the concept and character. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole process and have since been wanting to pursue filmmaking further. I’ve also written several short stories for my personal blog, Orphic Flux.

Fast forward to writing screenplays - whenever I watch films or shows, my mind wanders to the writing process, where I think the story will go, and how I would’ve written it. I’ve tried my hand at writing many over the years, for my own personal development. I recently decided to write a feature screenplay, Bones of Ribbon, which covers some strong systemic issues prevalent in society. The awards and attention it has received (at time of writing) is immensely motivating to continue pursuing a career in screenwriting and filmmaking.

2. Your winning entry, “Together We Fall”, tells the story of Eddie, a 30-year-old paramedic, who is in a hurry to save a man's life - his own father Geoffrey, who is ready to jump off a lighthouse. How did you come up with the idea, and what do you think about happy endings in movies?

Being a paramedic for many years, I have a wealth of dramatic stories I can draw inspiration from. I would never use real names or cases without permission, however I can use these emotionally-charged memories to build the tension and conflict needed for a captivating story. To come up with the idea for “Together We Fall”, I imagined myself attending my own father in a life-threatening situation, and was able to let the story unfold from there.

As for happy endings in movies, I don’t mind them when I’m in need of catharsis. It is subjective though, and should be relevant to the context of the story. With “Together We Fall”, I wanted the ending to evoke emotions, while also being slightly ambiguous and open to interpretation for the reader.

3. Tell us about your writing process. How do you approach a new story? What kind of stories attract you?

I generally begin with a concept and then create ideas for the protagonist and main supporting characters. From there I’ll write notes regarding character traits and arcs, conflicts and resolutions, and the overarching message I want the story to portray. Much of this may change as the story develops so I’ll jump straight in, trying to grab the interest of readers as soon as possible. For example, in “Together We Fall”, the screenplay begins in the ambulance, racing to an emergency.

Once I’ve begun writing, the story tends to shape itself, and I get lost in a world my mind creates. I’ll visualise every scene, dialogue, action, and create believable stories and characters to portray my concept. That said, some stories require research, or contain a lot of characters to keep track of, so I adjust my process accordingly.

I try to be impartial with almost any story, as long as it has an interesting concept and hooks me to the point I’m up all night reading or watching. For writing, dramatic stories flow most easily for me.

4. What are some of the challenges in writing a short screenplay in 24 hours? Tell us about your experience with writing "Together We Fall”.

Writing “Together We Fall” was a fun experience, and a great opportunity to test myself. I thoroughly enjoyed the process, but found it quite challenging having only 5 pages to fit an entire story! I was so immersed in the story, I hit the end of page 6 without resolving the major conflict. I stopped, took a step back, and looked at what conflicts could and needed to be resolved quickly. With the time-critical nature of these situations, and the emotional bias of attending family members, it was initially difficult to resolve. In order to remove the bias, I had to shift myself out of my paramedic and into my storyteller mindset.

I then worked on the vital action and dialogue, revealing subplots, which supported the overall main plot. The challenge was to get it back to five pages without compromising the story. I ended up cutting several lines of unnecessary dialogue, and an entire scene with the bystanders and protagonist, Eddie. Despite liking the scene, it didn’t hurt the story, and actually made it better. It was excellent concision practice.

5. In your opinion, what are the ingredients for creating a good screenplay? Do you have any tips for other first-time screenwriters?

Ingredients for creating a good screenplay:

* Strong, unique concepts and stories.

* Credible and interesting protagonist/s and antagonist/s.

* Quirky, one-of-a-kind supporting characters.

* Challenging character flaws and conflicts.

* Subplots to support the main theme.

* Dedication to your own writing process.Using the correct format.

Step one:

Throw this into a slow-cooker (or blender) with some captivating dialogue and action, and have your characters overcome flaws and conflicts, multiple times if your story requires.

Step two:

The old adage - “show, don’t tell” is important in all aspects of screenwriting. Show your characters achieving or failing at reaching their goals.

Step three:

Build tension, release, and repeat. Have your characters face challenges in relevant, emotive ways.

Step four:

Edit. Read it again. Edit. Cut. Read it out loud. Edit. Cut some more. Edit.

Despite being daunting, don’t be afraid of this process - cutting scenes or even a single line of dialogue can often improve a screenplay. Seek help if needed, as chopping up a script can get messy for a writer.

Final step:

Be over the moon with your screenplay. Pat yourself on the back for such an enormous and incredible achievement! You should be proud.

Vital extras:

* Quality writing skills are important, so write as much as you can, whenever you can, to sharpen your skillset.

* If you get stuck, keep writing and come back to the point of frustration later. Or take a break, stretch, play with your pets, eat some chocolate, but don’t give up - you’ll get there!

* Seek advice and feedback on your screenplay. I’ve found submitting to contests/festivals quite rewarding in this area, and great for my development.

* Finally, if you have a story you’re bursting to share, but find the process overwhelming and time-consuming, start with one line. Then another. Set aside smaller chunks of time for writing to make it seem less overwhelming. You’ll reap the rewards in no time, and your story will have a chance to be shared with the world!

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