By: London Vayavong
Screenplay by: John Carney
‘We need to start a band.”
It’s a phrase commonly heard in movies about struggling musicians. It’s also makes up for roughly half Sing Street’s story. If you have heard or seen any of John Carney’s films before then you’re already aware of his style. Two people meet up, discover they both have chemistry, then go on to make wonderful music together.
Sing Street is no different, though the setting and time period of the story is what sets this work apart from the others – and the majority of this can be observed from the first ten pages. Carney does an excellent job of creating a screenplay that provides a straight-forward method of conveying the five major rules.
Put simply, tone is the feeling that the writer wants the audience to feel. Establishing tone is best done through subtle gestures, though it needs to be prevalent enough early on. Whoever is reading the screenplay wants to know what to expect. Laughing, crying, or possibly both are emotions that we need to be prepared for. In Sing Street’s case, John Carney establishes the tone right away.
EXT. SYNGE STREET SCHOOL – DUBLIN CITY – MORNING
Two FIFTEEN year-old BOYS stand outside this rough, inner
city school on a cold, rainy morning. They are CONOR and
DARREN. Conor is a middle class kid with a posh accent.
Darren is a local boy, with a tough Dublin accent.
They are elbowed by passing STUDENTS entering the school
gates. Some of them mince past them, implying that they are
These two are outsiders.
Conor will be handsome when he grows up. While most of the
other boys have standard issue tight haircuts, Conor’s is
long and tousled. He sports two black eyes, making him look
like a panda. Darren has acne, buck teeth, braces and
bifocals. His face is a mess.
They are both looking across the road. We don’t see at what.
This section comes at the very beginning of the screenplay and thus conveys the theme of abuse right off the bat. At the same time, the black-eyed panda remark gives the moment some brevity, suggesting that the tone of the story won’t be an entirely downtrodden affair. The two boys standing next to one another contrast nicely. Their accents are given attention and their dialogue references their differing backgrounds to humorous effect. In other words, it’s clear from the first couple of paragraphs that we’re in for something closer to a dark comedy than a full-on drama.
Introducing the characters:
Establishing your protagonists as early as possible is paramount to a successful screenplay. After all, it’s through their eyes that we experience the story. They become our guides as the plot begins to spool.
Yeah. No luck. He said she has a
boyfriend who’s a drug dealer.
She’s not interested any of the
boys in the school.
Oh yeah? Why’s she standing there
Darren shrugs. Conor takes a breath, sets off, crossing the road.
EXT. SYNGE STREET SCHOOL – MORNING
We track with him over his shoulder, arriving at a 16 year-
old GIRL, who is standing on the stoop of a HOUSE, an unlit
cigarette dangling from her purple lips. Conor stands in
front of her.
She has a great look: lots of black. Good makeup. Back-combed
hair. Early ‘80s teen-chic. She’s ahead of her time, and
anything but ordinary.
Need a light?
No. I’m trying to give up.
Cool. I don’t have any matches
Silence. He doesn’t go away.
Why aren’t you at school?
I don’t go to school.
I’m a model.
Cool. Like, for magazines, and
I’m going to London soon. Just
waiting for my portfolio shots.
There’s no real work for models in
Dublin, you know.
Yeah. I know.
Oh yeah, I meant to ask- do you
want to be in a video? For my band?
You’re in a band?
Yes. And we need a girl for it.
There’s like a story. It’s called a
“Story-Board” video. You could be
the girl. In the story. If you’re
free. Have you been in a video
Is that a problem?
I hope not. I’ll ask the producer.
Who’s the producer?
That kid behind me.
She looks over his shoulder, pulling onto Darren, who waves
When are we shooting? I’m pretty
Saturday after next. I can call you
with the details. If I had your
She puts the cigarette away, taking out her pen. He produces
his journal, handing it to her. She flicks through it, it’s
full of thoughts and drawings.
So if you’re in a band, sing me a
I’m not singing here.
At this point in the screenplay, we’ve already been introduced to the protagonist, Conor and his friend, Darren. The next important figure we meet is Raphina.
The scene begins with Conor standing there in awkward silence before the girl reveals her profession. This scene is the first glimpse at the dynamic between the two. They both show interest in one another even though they are clumsy in how they interact.
On page three, her name is finally revealed and we witness more of her personality along with Conor’s. Their interest in each other deepens as Raphina pushes Conor to sing. After some banter she is able to convinces him to do so on next page. Through their interaction, we get a better sense of who both these people are – from Conor’s conniving innocence to Raphina’s aggressiveness.
Crafting the world of the story:
In order for the audience to follow the plot and the characters then the world needs to be set. Is the story taking place in the real world? Where exactly does it take place? When does it take place? There are various ways to convey the setting from having the characters speak a certain way to emphasizing cultural norms. Carney does something a little interesting in his approach.
What, you’ll have to sing in front
of thousands of people. I’m just
Sing anything off the radio.
He reluctantly sings a hesitant but tuneful few lines from a
popular song. She smiles. She writes down her number on the
cover. He smiles, turning back. Score.
INT. SYNGE STREET SCHOOL – MORNING
We track back with him across the street as he approaches
Darren, who can’t believe what he’s seen.
We need to form a band…
Freeze Frame. A loud, energetic punk song crashes in on the
SONG and titles run over:
TITLE SEQUENCE – MONTAGE
A montage of news stories, rock videos, magazine covers,
headlines. It’s the early eighties, and it’s Ireland. Midway
through the worst recession since the 1950s.
TITLE SEQUENCE – MONTAGE
Across the Irish sea, in London, news reports see Thatcher
waving to the crowds. City boys talk into early mobile
telephones, getting into sports cars. Armani suits, and gold
TITLE SEQUENCE – MONTAGE
But back in Ireland: bombs in the North, petrol queues in the
South. Deserted building sites, bricked-up buildings. More
black and white, than London’s Technicolor.
INT. CONOR’S KITCHEN – DAY
We start to PULL OUT from an old TV set. The 9 o’clock news
is on. The volume turned down low.
In this section of the screenplay there is an explosion of well-disguised exposition that fills us in on some important background details. For example, this isn’t just a story set within Dublin. The period setting and pop culture aesthetic are equally vital to the story’s world. By showing various television clips and images from the earliest mobile phones to Margaret Thatcher, we’re thrust into a more specific idea of the world that the story is taking place.
Themes are developed throughout a screenplay. The thematic framework of a story represents the summation of everything the writer wants to say. Not every theme is clear from a story’s outset – nor should it be. At the same time, it’s important to know what you want to say with your story. Once you do, you can start to lay a trail of breadcrumbs that will eventually result in a catharsis by story’s end.
In Sing Street, the theme of “Person vs. Society” plays a central role in Conor’s story. Carney wastes no time in establishing this, either. The first ten pages make it perfectly clear that Conor’s greatest obstacles are his surroundings.
At weekends and stuff. Right?
Absolutely. So where are you going?
Conor doesn’t respond.
His friends exchange looks after they see he’s not joking.
What?? It can’t be that bad?
One of them mock-hugs him.
Seriously bro, it’s been nice
His friends laugh. We hold on Conor, the gravity of his
situation sinking in.
INT. JESUIT SCHOOL OFFICE – MOMENTS LATER
Conor is sitting in a cosy, large office. Across from him,
his history teacher, and headmaster, FATHER WAITS (late 50s).
Fr. Waits smokes a pipe, sitting on the edge of his desk. He
is prematurely grey, and has a warm, understanding
His SECRETARY, a heavy woman in her fifties, sits
in an anteroom, typing, off.
We’ll be sorry to be losing you.
Synge Street was a fine school in
its day. It has a poor reputation
now, but I’m sure that’s
exaggerated. The Christian Brothers
can be a little tough to my mind,
but they get the work done.
No more rugby. No cricket practice.
Debating. School plays??
They’ll have their own
extracurricular activities I
Yeah, like flick knife practice.
And corporal punishment.
I’m sure that’s not true.
I’ve heard it is. I can’t do
corporal punishment. I’m light-
Father Waits laughs. Though Conor is wise-cracking, he’s
clearly genuinely nervous. Father Waits gets up, putting a
hand on Conor’s shoulder and walking him to the door.
You’ll be fine, Conor. Trust me.
You know what’s gotten us to where
we are today, us humans? One
They pause at the open door.
He winks, shaking Conor’s hand. Conor shuffles off down the
Father Waits looks over to his secretary who has been
listening. He makes a doubtful expression. She nods in
INT. CHURCH – DAY
A church on a school campus. 30 choir boys are at choir
practice on the alter. They are dressed in their own cloths.
There is no congregation. It’s Saturday rehersal. They sing
We slowly ZOOM in to Conor, who is standing on the edges of
the back row. He sings, but is lost in thought.
A TEACHER is conducting them.
EXT. SYNGE STREET SCHOOL – EVENING
Conor walks past Synge Street School that evening. The gates
are open. The deserted school looms grey and forboding in the
dusk sky. He pushes the gate open and enters, looking around.
Litter rolls like tumbleweed across the pot-holed yard.
Stripped-down bicycle frames remain locked to the outdoor
bike shed. Old windows rattle in the wind.
We need to skip ahead to the end in order get a scene that truly conveys the theme. In this part of the screenplay, we are in a flashback foretelling the events that lead up to the beginning the story. Conor has been told that he will be going to another much more harsh school.
Another moment that subtly foreshadows Conor’s struggle is the singing scene, which hearkens back to the idea of music signaling important moments in his life. Through moments like this, we begin to get a handle on what will eventually become a recurring motif: Conor uses music as an outlet for perseverance.
Setting up the dramatic situation:
A major goal within the first 10 pages is to introduce some kind of dramatic situation. A macro, story-defining obstacle that the characters will need to confront and possibly overcome before the screenplay’s end. In Sing Street, we are presented the dramatic situation through a family gathering.
INT. CONOR’S KITCHEN (CONTINUOUS) – DAY
We find ourselves in a large kitchen. High ceilings and
rattling sash windows, in what 100 years ago was a fine
Georgian home. Now, things are a little faded. The room is
cold and unwelcoming. Very little on the shelves. A family on
Sitting around the kitchen table are: Conor (no black eyes
yet), and his parents, PENNY and ROBERT, both in their mid
forties. They’ve just finished a meal of Spag Boll. Though
it’s more Spag than Boll. Penny fills up her glass of cheap
supermarket wine. Robert picks his teeth with a toothpick.
He is drinking a whiskey and smoking. Penny checks her watch.
They are sitting in silence, as if waiting for something to
happen. Conor is wearing a woolly hat, and his coat, indoors.
ONE MONTH EARLIER
INT. CONOR’S KITCHEN (CONTINUOUS) – DAY
Finally, the sound of someone racing down the stairs from
above. The door opens and BRENDAN, (20), tumbles into the
room carrying an ash tray, glass of wine, tobacco pouch,
rolling papers and matches. He sits down at the vacant seat,
beside his brother. Brendan has long hair, and a moustache.
This meeting has been called to
order. Pray proceed.
He lights a cigarette.
Okay, so we wanted to talk about
What? Go ahead.
(to his brother)
This is going to be heavy.
Well, as you might have noticed-
your mother and I are really
struggling at the moment, like the
rest of the country. I haven’t had
a single commission this year. Your
mother is on a three day week. It
doesn’t look like it’s going to get
He knocks back his drink. The kids wait for what’s coming
So we’ve had a look through the
accounts, and we see quite a
significant saving if we were to
alter the education situation.
What “education situation”?
He means your school. They’re
taking you out of school.
We’re not taking you out of school.
We’re transferring you from one
school to another.
We have to make some cuts to the
budget. I’d suggest taking your
brother out of college, but he’s
already dropped out of his own
(raising a glass)
Thank you Dad.
Cuts? I’m already wearing three
jumpers, indoors. And a hat. I read
by candlelight! And it’s the 1980s.
I’m like Tiny Tim up there!
Don’t act so entitled. I grew up in
a council house with five brothers.
Really? Tell us about that dad. For
the first time ever.
A school that’s close by. So
there’s no transport costs. You can
cycle in. And you can get lunch
back here. There’s two savings
already! It’s a non-fee paying
Those Jesuits are far too soft on
The Jesuits have a long history of
So do the Christian Brothers.
Who are the Christian Brothers?
The Christian Brothers, Conor, are
a order of the Catholic Church,
appointed in the education,
formation, and beating of their
Oh be quiet Brendan! Six years at
the hands of the Jesuits yourself,
and look at what they did for you!
Well they didn’t beat me.
Brendan! Cut that out. Synge Street
is a perfectly reputable school.
You’ll settle in in no time.
You can’t just change in the middle
of the year. Just when I’m making
friends and settling in. This could
scar me. Long-term!
Just deal with this, Conor. You
know what the Christian Brother’s
motto is? “Viriliter Age”. That
means “Act Manly”.
This meeting is over.
While it takes three pages to establish the dramatic situation, every moment is integral. On page five, we see that the family is close to poverty because their home is on the verge of disrepair. The father calls a meeting early on to discuss their financial woes, explaining why Conor has to transfer schools.
There is a build up, which further exasperates the tension until the news is presented and an argument erupts. The argument furthers Conor’s plight because while he is stating the obvious problems, his father and brother are countering with even worse issues. The interaction provides expository dialogue and humorous brevity to help us truly understand the circumstances that Conor will soon face.
John Carney’s Sing Street is a touching coming of age romance story that combined elements of comedy, drama, and music. Its message is simple, but powerful: that music can empower others to persevere against any kind of obstacle. More than this, it conveys music’s ability to bring people together, even in the midst of a difficult situation. Through the five major rules, Carney is able to hit the ground running, resulting in a compact, efficient screenplay, that resonates on multiple levels.
London Vayavong is a journalist, film critic, content editor, and blogger. His reporting and criticism focuses on entertainment and pop culture. He also works on fiction projects like novels, short stories, and screenplays. He currently writes full time for “geek” oriented entertainment site oneofus.net and he maintains a blog called the Narrative Examiner.