Extract from Bailey’s Writing Tips podcast episode 010 (Oct 2010) – scriptwriting

The tenth episode of my Bailey’s Writing Tips audio podcast was released on 25th October 2010 and the content has never been released other than website links (on my website www.morgenbailey.com) so I hope you find this information useful. In the first nine episodes (see earlier blog posts), I covered ‘show not tell’, the five senses, repetition, points of view, tenses, dialogue, characters, crime, poetry, short stories, novels and writing for children. This episode talked about scriptwriting.

Where novels are a mixture of settings, plot and dialogue, scripts are mainly stage directions and dialogue. Many novels have been made into films, e.g. ‘I Robot’ originally a novel by Isaac Asimov, ‘I am Legend’ (by Richard Matheson), ‘Atonement and ‘Enduring Love’ (both by Ian McEwan), ‘Sleeping with the Enemy’ (Nancy Price), ‘Trainspotting’ (by Irvine Welsh) and of course, ‘Harry Potter’. Few novelists write their own screenplays, and film companies may have a scriptwriter in mind when buying film rights…but if you do write scripts then that could be something to negotiate on when you sell!

So, how do you write good dialogue? Firstly, make it realistic. Listen to people around you; in a queue or in non-fiction television programmes (documentaries, news reports, interviews etc.), although you’ll obviously want to remove the “um”s and “ah”s. Also watch programmes in the genre that you writing for. If you’re struggling with dialogue (which is obviously the major part of script writing) there are many books on the market and I’ll mention some of these in a minute. In any fiction, remember the threads of your story and be consistent – if you mention something, however insignificant, it must remain the same when mentioned again (most readers have good memories!). If anything changes it should be because something has happened to make those changes.

The BBC’s website www.bbc.co.uk/writersroom is a must-visit site for anyone writing, or interested in writing, scripts. It’s packed with tips, example scripts and the BBC welcomes submissions of unsolicited manuscripts. Their TV drama tips page says:

  • It’s important to know your market. Check the schedules and watch as much TV drama as you can – see what genres and formats are on, what’s popular, what works, what doesn’t work, what grips and inspires and entertains you, and what leaves you cold.
  • It’s always worth comparing the originality of your idea with current and previous shows. Try not to replicate something that has already hit the screens, and try to make everything you write unique in some way. But don’t try to simply plug a gap in the market or write something solely because it might appear to be a novel idea – you should always write what you feel passionate about.
  • Always be specific about what kind of drama you are writing, where in the schedule it might fit, and what kind of audience it might reach. Is it a continuing, prime-time soap in thirty-minute episodes? A returning crime series in sixty-minute episodes? A six-part, post-watershed serial? A pre-watershed, sixty-minute single drama? (and the watershed in the UK is 9pm) Remember that writing for established formats isn’t the same thing as writing to a formula – an established format allows for individual expression, but it’s hard to be individual when writing to a perceived formula.
  • The shape and tone of your story will relate in many ways to the format and slot. A ‘Doctors’ episode (currently shown in the UK weekday lunchtimes) tells a self-contained, character-driven guest story while an episode of EastEnders (currently shown in the UK four evenings a week with a Sunday afternoon omnibus) normally interweaves multiple storylines – both are continuing series told in thirty-minute episodes, but they are placed at different times in the schedule, and their tone is likewise different.
  • TV is easy to turn off or turn over, so open your story as dynamically as you can. Try to hook the interest of the audience as soon as possible so that they will want to stay tuned and, if there are more episodes to come, will want to keep tuning in. Ask yourself if there’s a strong enough sense of character, drama, and story to sustain an audience’s engagement.
  • Engaging characters are at the heart of all good drama, no matter how mainstream or unusual your idea may be. Your characters should be believable, even if they are in an incredible situation. We should be able to empathise or engage with the main characters, even if we don’t necessarily like them. It’s hard to care about a character that plays a passive role in their own story, so make your central characters as active as possible – There should be all kinds of conflicts and difficulties for your characters to deal with – scripts are rarely interesting if the writer is too easy on or too nice to the characters.
  • TV is a visual medium. Reveal your characters and their story through the action as well as through the dialogue. Good dialogue should serve the story as much as tell it, so check whether it is awkwardly explanatory.
  • All good drama has a meaningful structure. A common problem is that the structure is too episodic – a conflict is introduced but is then either too quickly resolved or never fully resolved. Another common problem is that the storytelling is too undynamic – in drama things should happen as a consequence of, and not merely after, what has happened before. Another common problem is that of redundant scenes – make sure that every scene moves the story forward.
  • Formatting your script properly helps. It suggests a professional approach to your writing; it is easier to read, assess and ultimately use; and most importantly, it can help you write to a particular format, and to think and write in visual terms. Our Script Archive contains many examples of produced scripts.

Advice given on www.bbc.co.uk/writersroom/insight/first_ten_pages.shtml says:

  • There can be many reasons why unsolicited scripts do not make it past the 10-page sift stage to a full read. We take every script on its own merits as a calling card of a writer’s talent and potential. In the end, getting through the sift means doing all the important things well enough to make the script stand out.
  • Be passionate about the story you are telling. Write about something that keeps you up at night and gets under your skin, that you feel compelled to write. Don’t try to second guess what you think readers want. If we can see your burning desire to tell a story, then it is more likely we will want to engage with it.
  • Hook a reader’s attention from the outset. You need to compel the reader to read on just as a piece of drama needs to compel an audience to keep watching. TV and radio in particular are easy to turn off or turn over. So give us every reason to keep reading. Make sure you know what story you are telling – and make sure your script tells that story.
  • Get your story going as soon as you can. Don’t preface your story with setting up the world and introducing your characters first. Show your characters in action. Hit the ground running. Don’t describe who they are, what they think, how they feel – show it in what they do. Try not to submerge your script in exposition and overwritten action/directions. Show don’t tell. As Anton Chekov said “Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
  • Your characters need to be strong, vivid and compelling. We need to want to spend time with them on their journey through your story. We need to care about them, engage with them and connect with them – particularly on an emotional level. We don’t have to like them. But we do need to want to see what happens to them. So give them a journey. Give them a goal. Put obstacles in their way. Give them dilemmas to face and decisions to make. Make them an individual. Tell the story from their point of view. Make them drive the story forward from the very beginning rather than simply react to events around them.
  • Engage us on an emotional level. Scripts that are predominantly cerebral and intellectual can leave a reader and an audience cold. Make the story matter on a human level. Make your script about the characters from the outset rather than about an idea or concept. It’s the characters that we engage with – and it’s the characters that will make a story stand or fall.
  • Engage with your medium. Make sure you are using the right medium, genre, and format to tell your story. Be clear about the kind of story you are telling and how it will work for the medium. Try to explore, challenge, and play with the medium if you can. Be bold and intelligent. But most important of all, be clear.
  • Surprise us with your characters, stories and ideas. Cliché and predictability won’t get the reader past page 10. The joy of great new stories is in offering a fresh take, a unique perspective and an original touch. So make yours fresh, unique and original.
  • Structure is key. Make sure you are starting your story in the right place. If you’re not happy with your beginning try losing the first section and see how that works…ask yourself “where does the action really start?” (and that applies to any story). Make sure that your story feels like it is going somewhere and that there is a story imperative to keep us reading. Make sure each sequence, story beat, scene and moment has a dynamic place in the story. Set the pace, tone and energy from the start.
  • Be coherent. Know your world and story and give us a focused way into it at the beginning. Don’t try to do too much – don’t be distracted by ideas, dialogue, scenes and characters that aren’t integral.
  • Beware of obvious exposition. “As you know, Jean, since our mother died almost three months ago, things have gone from bad to worse. We may have to sell the farm.” Real people don’t tell each other things they know. Neither should your characters. Use dialogue to express your characters not explain the story.
  • Format your script correctly. Take the time to read produced scripts and understand how and why they work as they do. If you are writing a screenplay, make sure you tell your story visually; if you are writing a radio drama, make sure you tell your story using sound and acoustic. And make sure you say what you mean and mean what you say. We don’t know what the writer intends unless the script shows us. Don’t tell us things – backstory, opinions, feelings, thoughts, subtexts – that an actor can’t show in a performance.

Their ScriptSmart page (www.bbc.co.uk/writersroom/scriptsmart/index.shtml) has a variety of script templates or take a look at their completed scripts which are listed under the headings of TV drama, TV comedy, Radio drama, Radio comedy, Films and Children’s drama.

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