All About Vinay Patel

Vinay Patel is a BAFTA Breakthrough-winning Brit screenwriter and director. I’ve interviewed him several times now, both for his TV breakthrough Murdered by My Father and for my latest writing book, Writing Diverse Characters For Fiction, TV or Film. I always find Vinay’s points about writing and life so illuminating, so I jumped at the chance of talking to him again.

Vinay’s also the screenwriter behind Doctor Who, Demons of The Punjab (series 11). This episode proved massively popular with the Bang2writers, so I thought I would get Vinay back in the hot seat! I love what he has to say here about opportunities, diversity, mental health and redrafting. Enjoy!

1) Pick One Thing And See Where It Takes You

Vinay started out as a corporate filmmaker, but decided he wanted to do an MA. He had lots of skills from that work but felt the pull of lots of different disciplines – editing, directing, writing.

In the end, he decided to pick just the one thing, so he could put all of his efforts on that and see where it took him. He decided to pour everything into challenging himself and learning the craft of writing. Under a decade later, it’s taken him from fringe theatre to Dr Who. Wow!

TOP TIP: Don’t spread yourself too thin, go ‘all in’ on one thing when starting out. MORE: 10 Harsh Truths About Writing You Need to Know 

2) You Have To Back Yourself

Vinay decided he wanted to write a film, but ended up writing a play. It was a big challenge, but after the MA he ended back in a 9-5 job. After a year and a half of applying (!), he managed to get on a theatre attachment scheme with Arts Council backing. That was another great experience writing-wise, but again didn’t lead to anything solid in terms of establishing of his writing career.

Vinay says he realised things weren’t just going to happen for him, he had to literally make it happen himself. He ended up sitting down and figuring out what was the cheapest way of getting something on stage that still represented the best of his writing … Which in his case was a one act, one man play.

TOP TIP: You have to figure out a way of getting to where you want to be, the cheapest way you can.

3) Blag It, If Necessary

In setting it up, Vinay ‘tricked’ a venue into letting him put on his play … Because a certain organisation gave him a referral. In reality, he had no such referral, though that organisation gladly gave it, when they heard he had a venue!

In other words, Vinay blagged both of them and was able to deliver, because he could follow through. After all, when is a lie not a lie? When it’s true!

TOP TIP: Blagging is always a possibility, just make sure you can follow through.

4) Ask For Help

Vinay calls Doctor Who a ‘massive learning curve’. By his own admission, Vinay is fairly new to television and screenwriting generally; he has had to think on his feet and learn on the job. His background in fringe theatre helped but going from such small audiences through to primetime television was an epic leap.

He said Doctor Who showrunner Chris Chibnall was ‘very generous … very open and clear’ about what he expected of his Who writers. He made sure they were in no doubt as to what the process was, whether this was craft-related (beat sheets, outlines and drafts) through to production logistics (such as tone meetings, time to shooting, ADR and so on.

TOP TIP: If you’re in charge, make sure everyone is on the same page.  If you are not, always ask for clarification.

5) Diversity is about due diligence

Vinay’s episode of Doctor Who has the subject of partition in India at the heart of its story. I asked him if he felt his heritage helped him connect with the story ‘more’ than perhaps a white writer could … Could it be that his point of view is more authentic?

For Vinay, the answer is both yes AND no. He said that his heritage definitely helped him appreciate what was missing from the ‘bigger picture’ as he was growing up … People who look like him, especially in period dramas. This in turn obviously helped inform his storytelling in Doctor Who.

But he also said, ‘It would be naïve of me to assume I know what it’s like to be a rural farmer in India in 1947, because I don’t.’

So Vinay also believes anyone can tell ANY story, as long as they do their diligence. The bar may need to be higher for some writers more than others on this basis. For example, if you’re a white writer writing about something that has previously excluded or stereotyped marginalised voices, you need to be even more diligent. But that’s okay, because that is about research and empathy – which makes for great writing!

TOP TIP: Don’t worry about whether you ‘can’ write a story, literally no one is stopping you. Instead focus on doing your due diliegence. Start with Writing Diverse Characters For Fiction, TV Or Film (there’s more points from Vinay in there, too!).

6) Realise Writing Does Not Cause OR Solve Your Problems

Sometimes writers believe creatives ‘have’ to be miserable in order to create. Other times, they may mistakenly believe being successful will eradicate these mental health problems. Neither is the case. The reality is, there are depressed people from all walks of life and writers are no different.

Vinay has been very candid online about his own mental health struggles.  When we chatted, I loved Vinay’s point there is an ‘emotional vulnerability’ to being a writer. A lot is said about needing to grow a ‘thick skin’ on stuff like rejection, but we need a ‘thin skin’ as well … We have to send our brains to dark places to entertain thoughts that are not always good for us. That doesn’t mean writing causes our depression, but it does not help.

Vinay says it was instructive for him to realise that writing can’t exorcise demons; that his struggles would still be there even if he did not write. I could relate to this, because I had to make the same realisation. When I made this connection, I was able to see the ‘tortured artiste’ for what it truly was: a well-worn, incorrect cliché.

TOP TIP: Emotional vulnerability may helps your writing, but it may not help *you*. If you feel bad, listen to yourself and take a step away if necessary.

7) It’s All About What’s At The Heart Of Your Story

As a last question, I asked Vinay for his redrafting tips. He said he has a particular ‘essential idea’ that sparks his story off, informing his writing. An example would be ‘faith in justice’. When redrafting then, he goes back to that essential idea and asks himself, ‘Is this still true? Is this what my story is about?’

If it is, he needs to see how his draft measures up … If it’s not, he needs to find out what his story has changed into! I loved this idea, especially as previously on B2W several novelists shared this tip as being part of their own processes, too.

TOP TIP: Always keep in mind what you feel your story is REALLY about. This will help anchor you in redrafts.

Thanks, Vinay!

BIO: Vinay’s first piece for television, MURDERED BY MY FATHER (“A brave piece of television ★★★★★” – The Telegraph), was released on BBC3 online in March 2016 and was rebroadcast on BBC1 in April. For this work, he was selected as a 2016 BAFTA Breakthrough Brit. MURDERED BY MY FATHER was nominated for three BAFTAs, with Adeel Akhtar winning for Best Actor. Elsewhere, he has contributed to the bestselling collection of essays, THE GOOD IMMIGRANT and is currently working on projects for the BBC, the National Theatre and Paines Plough. Don’t forget you can follow Vinay on Twitter, HERE. Check out his blog HERE.

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The Debate

Every year or so, what I call ‘The Great Screenplay Format Debate’ pops up. Some years it’s just once, others it’s multiple times. It never gets more heated than on Twitter, where produced screenwriters will  insist over and over it’s about ‘great writing’, NOT ‘great format’. Mic drop. Debate over.

So, are these guys right? Of course. B2W also bangs on about this, after all. As far as I’m concerned, the notion of great writing ultimately comes down to just three things (that’s concept, characters and structure, for anyone wondering).

OF COURSE there’s a bunch of other stuff that comes into it (not least visual writing, or the writer’s voice), but in real terms screenplay format is the very bottom of the pile. That’s why this B2W infographic has it at the very bottom of this inverted triangle, below.

So, The Official B2W Line on The Great Format Debate is I literally don’t care about screenplay format. Sure, there can be annoying niggly things that interrupt the flow of the read … That’s why I created The B2W Screenplay Format One Stop Shop and its accompanying One Page Reference Guide. But ultimately, my script reading POV comes down to this …

  • If a script’s story and characters are great, I put it through.
  • If a script’s story and characters are NOT great, I don’t. (Yes, even if its formatting looks brilliant! True story).

Boom. That’s it. Debate really is over this time, right??

Oh, Wait!

One reason the debate on formatting gets so heated is because lines get drawn in the sand between produced screenwriters and those writing on spec. This usually gets carved into something resembling the following …

  • PRODUCED WRITERS: Don’t sweat the small stuff like format. Worry instead about stuff like concept, character, structure. This is what ‘it’s about the writing’ means.
  • SPEC WRITERS / NEW WRITERS: That’s fine for you to say, you have already got through the door. There are harsher standards applied to us in launching out the pile.

So, who is right in this debate? NEWSFLASH – both camps are.

The produced writers are totally right when they say writing craft trumps format. Obviously. As a script reader, I have put screenplays through that look or even read like crap … Just as I have rejected screenplays that look fantastic, but the craft is not.

But just as importantly, spec and new writers DO have harsher standards applied to them. On many screenplay coverage reports, new writers’ scripts are literally scored on stuff like screenplay format, or even how the read ‘flows’. This is not applicable to produced writers.

This is why I always think it’s worth ‘reader-proofing’ spec screenplays. I advocate this in the video below, which was filmed at London Screenwriters’ Festival. Obviously format alone will not carry your screenplay, but it may mean you don’t get BUSTED by some over-zealous script reader … Which leads me on to my last point, after the jump.

What No One Is Talking About

So, I’ve outlined the produced ‘screenwriters versus spec writers’ element in this debate. But what if there was a THIRD one, which no one has mentioned thus far? It’s this …

… Work experience kids and new script READERS *are* reading our work.

This is the thing. Script reading is an entry-level job. This means most readers are doing it on the way ‘up’ the ladder and probably under sufferance. Sure, some of them end up loving it, or creating a career out of it like I did with B2W. But for just as many (if not more), it’s something they HAVE to do to get to where they really want to be in the industry.

Even more problematic, these guys probably know NOTHING about concept, character or structure. At best, their foundation is shaky. They may have screenwriting MAs and good for them, but ultimately they are learning on the job here. It was the position I started from, ‘back in the day’, just like everyone else. I’ve noticed similar in the hundreds of script readers I have trained myself, now.

Why is this an issue, in this debate? It’s very simple really. If a new script reader doesn’t know enough about concept, character or structure, then GUESS what element of a screenplay they focus on??

That’s right! FORMAT

Eek. Obviously I tell *B2W’s* new script readers not to focus too much on screenplay format, but I am just one woman. Also, writers LOVE to talk screenplay format since they believe it’s one of the few elements of screenwriting they can get straight answers on. Well, this is not true. Maybe one day this message will spread industry-wide, but I am not going to hold my breath.

So really, it doesn’t matter what anyone, produced or unproduced, says in this debate. The harsh reality of this industry is the very first gatekeepers many of us come up against don’t know what they’re doing. As a result, these script readers are getting hung up on screenplay format, rightly or wrongly.

This is why B2W always says to new writers, ‘Don’t get busted on screenplay format’ and ‘reader-proof your screenplay‘. Not because it is a golden ticket, but because at least it means your script won’t fall at that first hurdle for wholly avoidable, or even plain stupid format ‘reasons’.

Good Luck Out There!

Want MORE Script Reading Secrets?

My annual course with LondonSWF, BREAKING INTO SCRIPT READING is perfect not only for wannabe script readers, but savvy writers who want to know how script readers work. Can you afford to miss out?? Join us on June 23-22nd, 2019 at historic Ealing Studios!

CLICK HERE for full details of the course (or on the pic on the right), including feedback from past delegates. We expect it to sell out again, so act now to avoid disappointment. See you there!!!

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Successful Writers

Want to be successful as a writer? Join the club! ‘Successful writers’ and ‘how to be successful’ are two of the most-Googled phrases leading writers to this blog. First, the bad news: there’s no golden ticket or ‘get rich quick scheme’ in achieving writing success. But now, the good news: there ARE tried-and-tested methods and best practices to achieving your dreams.

B2W always says it’s worth asking those who DO the job you want … So I cracked open my little black book and contacted successful ‘authorpreneur’, Joanna Penn. Joanna is an award-nominated, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of thrillers under ‘J.F.Penn’, she also writes non-fiction for authors. She’s also a podcaster and an award-winning creative entrepreneur. Her site, TheCreativePenn.com has been voted in the Top 101 sites for writers by Writer’s Digest.

What I love about Joanna’s advice here is it’s just as applicable for screenwriters as it is for novelists. I can relate to all her advice … I’ve literally done everything she advocates here for B2W for script reading/editing, but also my career as an author too. We need to realise our writing careers – and our ability to make £££$$$! – is in OUR hands. Let’s go …

 1) We Need To THINK Like Entrepreneurs!

Joanna says writers need to undergo what she calls a ‘mindset shift’. We need to think, ‘What do I want my life to look like?’, both in the short term and the long term.

But it’s not enough to simply wish for stuff to happen, we need to make it happen. This is why we need to also think about we need to do in order to achieve those goals. The only way forwards is to set and manage our goals, evaluating them as and when we need to.

TOP TIP: If you want to be successful, you need to set and evaluate your goals and then think like an entrepreneur. MORE: Top 5 Secrets For Successful Writers

2) We Need To Work Out What We Don’t Know

Learning new things is key to being successful, but it can be difficult to work out what we don’t know. So don’t start there!  Once we have decided what we want to do and set our goals, we need to figure out HOW we do this … Which means we also need to pinpoint what skills and knowledge we are lacking.

From there, we need to figure out how to get this knowledge or skills to make our goals happen … Then undertake it! Joanna calls this ‘upskilling’.

TOP TIP: Start with your goals, then be honest about what you need to make them happen to find gaps in your knowledge and/or skills.

3) We Need Money

Lots of Bang2writers have goals, but not the means to make their ambitions happen. Joanna says a good way of making money while building your writing career is identifying a common problem or need, then offering the means to solving it. She calls this ‘The Service Model’.

Great services to offer include editing, teaching, public speaking, online courses, blogging, social media marketing, consulting. That’s just for starters! If you have a skill or area of expertise, you can monetise it in the digital age. I have done this with B2W, especially my courses like Breaking Into Script Reading.

What’s more, you can also utilise these skills or areas of expertise in other ways. Bartering or doing skills swaps can be valuable ways both parties can benefit. This is why B2W puts such an emphasis on both community and peer review in the Facebook group, too. It can be a powerful way of making contacts and fostering meaningful relationships.

TOP TIP: Offer a service if you need to make money as a creative. You can also benefit from skills swaps. Make sure you still leave time to build your writing portfolio.

4) We Need To Learn The Difference

Joanna says there is a huge difference between, ‘I want to write a novel’ (or screenplay) and ‘I want to make money with books’ (or screenplays!). If you want to concentrate on the latter, then this is the section for you. At the time of writing, Joanna is someone who has published 28 books and made multi-six figures with her creative business last year! She says concentrate on the following two things.

i) Who will buy them?

In the case of non-fiction, make sure your books are USEFUL. Even a niche book, like ones about writing, needs to have some kind of purpose or learning objective. (Consider the ‘solving problems’ idea Joanna talked about in the last section). Branding is a great idea. Joanna said that Creative Essentials, who publish my writing books, do a particularly good job of this. Joanna’s own non-fiction books for authors are great at this too, check them out HERE.

It’s the same with fiction. Joanna’s ten book ARKANE thriller series does everything she just described above … But instead of being USEFUL, they are ENTERTAINING. Again, learn the difference. Spec screenplays need to be entertaining too … Producers and filmmakers want to tell GREAT STORIES, whether genre or drama.

 ii) Write books and scripts people actually WANT!

There are a lot of writers out there writing books and scripts destined to go nowhere! Just because you like the sound of a story, doesn’t mean anyone else will. That’s the bad news.

But the good news is, Joanna has some great recommendations on tools to check whether people could actually want your book. Check out the auto-population tool on the Amazon site itself, plus KDP Rocket and K-Lytics. All of these will let you know whether people are searching for books *like* yours! If they are, then you know people want it. There are similar tools available for screenplays too. Sites like IMDBPro and ScreenDaily will tell you about scripts producers and filmmakers are buying and/or making.

TOP TIP: If you want to make money writing, remember your target audience, plus use the tools available.

5) We Need To Investigate New Models

Joanna also talked about keeping our fingers on the changing marketplace. In 2019, she believes paid advertising is a MUST for those selling books online. She recommended both Amazon advertising (for books only) and Facebook advertising (for books, webinars, courses, etc). If this means doing a course on how to do this properly, so be it (as in section 2 in this list!).

Joanna is also a big fan of Patreon. Creatives can get direct income from their patrons via this platform. Joanna supports her excellent Creative Penn podcast on Patreon and says there is a strong emotional link for her, providing content her patrons want, direct to them. You can see her page at www.Patreon.com/thecreativepenn. Perhaps it might give you some ideas for how your existing fans can support your creative work.

TOP TIP:  Realise the marketplace changes, so make sure you stay up-to-date!

6) We Need To Market Properly

You don’t have to go far on social media to find creatives marketing their wares BADLY. What’s more, Joanna makes the great point that social media hasn’t always been here … There’s a strong chance the platforms many creatives take for granted may fall out of favour and DISAPPEAR. (Who remembers MySpace or BeBo??).

Joanna says the best kind of marketing is what she calls ‘attraction marketing’. The idea is, you give stuff away for free which in ATTRACTS potential customers. This blog article is an example of attraction marketing – it is giving you, the reader, useful information about how to make money as a creative.

But attraction marketing doesn’t have to *just* be useful. It could be inspiring, funny, or something else. Sometimes it can be a combination of all these things. Bang2writers have called my free ebook, How Not To Write Female Characters, all of these things!

TOP TIP: Give stuff away for free, to attract your ideal readers and customers. MORE: The Truth About Success: 30 Top Creatives Who Broke In Late 

Don’t Forget

You can find Joanna’s free Author Blueprint ebook and mini-course at www.TheCreativePenn.com/blueprint and if you have any questions, ask her on Twitter @thecreativepenn.

Good Luck! 

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All About Archetypes

The difference between archetypes and stereotypes is subtle, but crucial. Archetypes are frequently mistaken for stereotypes and vice versa … Not just by writers, but audiences and critics too.

This is never more obvious than with comedy. This genre sometimes DOES use stereotype for comedic effect, in shows like The Simpsons. Homer is ‘The American Dream gone wrong’. He is a cliché of white, middle-class male entitlement. It doesn’t matter how he screws up, he will fall on his feet (usually because someone else will clear up his mess).  It is the point of his character and why we love him.

So stereotypes are simplifications, not the whole story. Sometimes this is useful or even desirable, as outlined above. Other times, this simplification creates a short-cut to a character that is dated, boring or even offensive.

In comparison, archetypes are a ‘typical example of a person or thing’. This means they are the foundations of a character, not the character itself. They are PROTOTYPES, not the finished article.

Put simply, archetypes are a starting point for characters. You may start with archetypes like hero or villain, but HOW you write them will differentiate them. For more on archetypes, CLICK HERE.

Character Bios in Friends

It always makes me laugh when I hear writers posit the writing on Friends is ‘crap’ or even ‘bland’. It was – and remains – a beloved show for a very good reason. The hard fact for writers to swallow is, the writing on Friends MAKES characterisation look easy.

Every member of the cast of characters on Friends makes use of archetypes.  As you may recall from my previous post on the Friends pilot episode, the original character bios look like the below. What’s surprising to most people is how ‘dead-on’ the character bios are … and how they remained so, throughout the ten series and the decade the show was on the air.

With these in mind then, I am going to reverse engineer each character down to her or his principal archetypes. Let’s go!

The Women

1) Rachel: The Creator

It’s no accident Rachel works in fashion. Creators are inspired and artistic, with vision and imagination. She had only one thing she was good at – shopping! – and yet made a whole career out of it. She walked away from her old life; she had nothing when we met her … But by the time the show ends, she has a whole new life.

2) Monica: The Ruler

Monica HAS to be in charge … It is not just a state of mind, it is her identity. Small or large, she has to have a say in it. This is all based on neuroses … She was the overlooked child at home; at school, she was the ‘fat friend’. So now she revels in her status as ‘the hostess’, or Ruler. Everyone has to revolve around her and she will do ANYTHING to ensure this is the case (mostly baking and food-related).

3) Phoebe: The Outlaw

Phoebe might be considered the original Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but the reality is she is far more than this. She has a stupendously dark back story, but far from a tragic figure, she is presented as a warrior. The little things that bother Monica and Rachel just don’t connect with her. She knows real life can go south at any moment, so instead does what SHE wants. She is not bound by societal norms and values.

The Men

4) Ross: The (Wannabe) Hero

Ross is the star of his own mind-movie. He might be clever and accomplished, but holy crap does he know it! His self-importance and arrogance know no bounds. He was his parents’ little prince, so now he thinks he is a hero. This means he now thinks everyone should do what HE wants. He also thinks he knows everything … which he does NOT. When life fails to go his way then, he never reacts well.

5) Chandler: The Sage

Chandler is outspoken and clever with it. Crucially though, being accomplished does not matter to him (at least until he finds his dream job). He speaks the truth constantly, nearly always to his own detriment … And often everyone else’s too. If he just let go of his neuroses – like Monica – he would be happier.

6) Joey: The Magician

Joey does what Joey wants, but in a crucially different way to Phoebe. He is a positive thinker like her though, nearly always able to see the bright side. He might be slow on the up-take, but once he gets there he will stay by your side. Unfortunately it takes ages for him to even notice, let alone get there (wherever that is!).

All Of Them

Being a comedy, obviously all of them need to perform the Jester archetype as well.  Much of the comedy comes from not only their unreasonable behaviour, but their rigid worldviews. After all …

  • If Rachel wasn’t so high on herself, she wouldn’t miss so much. Rachel has lead a life of privilege, which means she doesn’t always see what is right front of her face. Sometimes literally, such as the time she accuses her would-be Boss of trying to kiss her. (In reality, he was pointing to ink on her lip). She will also do pretty much anything to save face … Which in turn leads her into bigger problems.
  • Monica, minus her neuroses, would enjoy better relationships with other people. Whether it is her friends, boyfriends or co-workers, Monica is in a constant battle to be liked. This also crosses over with her need to be ‘the best’. If she forgot about all this, she would be easier to be around and a better friend.
  • Phoebe is so fiercely independent, she forgets other people care about her. Phoebe has always had to fend for herself, which means she can be an outlier in the group. She is almost a lone wolf to a fault! Also, if the group is in conflict, she will always defect to the winning side.
  • If Ross actually thought about the impact of his behaviour and opinion on others, he would literally have a better life. He wouldn’t have got divorced so many times. Plus he would have been with Rachel throughout all the series. He would be closer to his son, Carol and Susan. In addition, he wouldn’t have lost his job at the museum. He wouldn’t have alienated Joey and Chandler when he moved in with them. And so the list goes on.
  • Chandler has so many hang-ups, it’s no surprise he is a mess. He worries so much about his flaws and insecurities, he draws attention to them constantly. It’s no wonder people can see them, then! But this creates a vicious circle … Which in turn makes him both endearing AND annoying at the same time. Like Ross, he is thinking mostly of himself.
  • Joey is like the antithesis of both the other guys … he literally doesn’t care! But this ends up meaning he ends up with the same problem. He would have a better life if he thought less about himself and more about others.

But of course … If the characters DID reject these things above there would be no comedy! This is why Friends’ characterisation is so good … It makes use of the archetypes available exceptionally well and builds on top of them effectively. As the headline says, it makes it look easy.

The Group And Secondary Characters

With the exception of cliffhangers, a lot of Friends was filmed in front of a live studio audience. This meant they frequently had guest stars as secondary characters who were popular at that time (and who still are, in some cases). Often these appearances are marked with the appreciative cat-calls and ‘wooooooohs!’ of said audience.

Sometimes, these guests would appear for just one episode. An obvious example of this would be the ER-Friends ‘crossover’ starring George Clooney and Noah Wylie. Though it was not quite the same, both actors reprised their roles as doctors *like* the ones they played back then in ER.

The purpose was to present Clooney and Wylie as potential love interest archetypes. This might be an obvious choice, but in a series about friends looking for new relationships, it is authentic. Other times, an uber-famous star would appear in a secondary role, often to create a love interest for one of the group. Richard, played by Tom Selleck, was Monica’s on-off boyfriend for nine episodes, for example.

Other times, these secondary characters played stars created a problem for one of the group … A kind of ‘antagonist of the week’. Will Colbett, played by Brad Pitt, appears in Thanksgiving Episode ‘The One With The Rumour’. (In this episode, it is revealed he hates Rachel and has since high school).

Sometimes said stars are BOTH love interest and antagonist archetypes, such as ‘The One With The Jam’. In this episode, David Arquette stalks Phoebe’s twin Ursula and ends up going out with Phoebe.

Who Is The ‘Real’ Main Character in Friends?

By the way … As an ensemble, Friends is fairly unusual in that there is not a clear (aka ‘obvious’) lead character. This makes sense, because the show is principally about the friendship group as a whole. It is called Friends, after all!

There were obvious elements that ‘stick out’ more – Ross and Rachel’s ‘will they, won’t they?’ relationship comes top. Another would be Chandler and Monica’s relationship. This means Phoebe and then Joey come somewhat ‘lower’ down the pecking order. We can get all this instinctively though, rather than sitting down and counting individual scenes.

That said, being the internet, obviously someone sat down and worked out who the ‘real’ lead is! The answer? Surprisingly, it’s Ross … IF we count individual screen-time appearances. If we count mentions by other characters, it’s Rachel. You’re welcome!

More on Friends 

Whether you love or loathe the show, there’s plenty to learn here … Friends lasted ten series and a whopping 236 episodes. Read my previous case study on Friends’ pilot episode, HERE. Enjoy!

Want MORE Script Reading Secrets?

My annual course with LondonSWF, BREAKING INTO SCRIPT READING is perfect not only for wannabe script readers, but savvy writers who want to know how script readers work. Can you afford to miss out?? Join us on June 23-22nd, 2019 at historic Ealing Studios!

CLICK HERE for full details of the course (or on the pic on the right), including feedback from past delegates. We expect it to sell out again, so act now to avoid disappointment. See you there!!!

For B2W offers and free stuff first, join my EMAIL LIST

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Break Story – A Definition

I love the term ‘break story’ to describe the process of testing a new idea. (It’s borrowed from the building world, where you ‘break ground’ to lay the foundations of a building). Though I learned this in the screenwriting world, I discovered it works with all ideas. Now it does not matter if I am writing a script, novel or short story … I always break story.

Whilst every writer has their own individual process, most do it to check the story ‘stands up’ at concept level … Such as:

… And so on. Sometimes you may hear industry people saying a story ‘has legs’, too. Whatever you want to call it though, basically writers are road-testing their concepts.

The B2W Model To Break Story

Back in the day, I trained as a journalist. I soon found I preferred fiction to fact, but one thing that stuck in my mind were the ‘5 Ws’ … WHO – WHAT – WHERE – WHEN – WHY. As I started working as a script editor, I discovered very early their application to story works really well. Here you go:

What I love about The 5 Ws is they are …

… Short, so provide a useful framework. This keeps us focused, without going off at mad tangents.

… Obvious, so HOW they can be applied is intuitive. We can adapt to the story we want to tell easily.

… Clear, so if we CAN’T answer one of the questions, we know there is a gap somewhere in our thinking.

Why All Writers SHOULD Break Story

As far as B2W is concerned, ALL writers should break story first. Yes, this means professional to seasoned writers, right down to those wet-behind-the-ears newbies. Why?

i) Professional writers have limited time

If you break story, your drafts are MUCH easier to write and don’t take as much time. FACT. Plus in the industry, pro writers will be asked all sorts of questions about their material at meetings and pitches. Most of these questions will cover or cross-over with the WHO-WHAT-WHERE- WHEN-WHY? questions posed by the B2w Model above. For example, a lot of producers and publishers – especially in the UK – are obsessed with finding  writers with ‘something to say’. This is adequately covered by ‘Why this story?’. So by breaking story, the pro writer not only has an answer ready, s/he LOOKS like a professional too. In an industry where first impressions count, this can be priceless.

ii) It makes seasoned writers level up  

Seasoned writers are those who have been writing some time, but are yet to make a sale. The best thing that can do is learn how to break story because it gives them the laser focus they need to proceed to the next level. Honest guv! I have seen it happen again and again.

iii) Newbie writers can get tied up in knots easily

I get it. Some new writers need to SPLURGE a draft and then carve a story out of the mess they land on the page. But it literally takes three times as long, plus it’s not a luxury anyone will be afforded in the actual industry. It can also be hugely dispiriting for a new writer to try and untie all those story knots … I have seen many simply give up on whole drafts that COULD have worked, had they just done the foundation work of breaking story FIRST. (I have even seen more than a few  give up writing altogether, convinced it was not for them. Eeek!!).

Concluding

It is in every writer’s interest to break story. Doing so accelerates the writing process and avoids what I call ‘The Story Swamp’, which is soooooooo hard to get out of! Breaking story also helps us get to grips with the craft and depends our knowledge. Plus it also ensures we look like what we know what we’re doing in pitches and meetings. What’s not to like? Get going! Good luck!

Want MORE Script Reading Secrets?

My annual course with LondonSWF, BREAKING INTO SCRIPT READING is perfect not only for wannabe script readers, but savvy writers who want to know how script readers work. Can you afford to miss out?? Join us on June 23-22nd, 2019 at historic Ealing Studios!

CLICK HERE for full details of the course (or on the pic on the right), including feedback from past delegates. We expect it to sell out again, so act now to avoid disappointment. See you there!!!

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All About Writing Scenes

In my new book, The Craft of Scene Writing: Beat by Beat to a Better Script, I complement the overwhelming amount of material on story and structure for screenwriters by focusing on craft. In fact, avoid these common 5 Scene Mistakes and improve your script today!

1) Scenes That Ignore The Story’s Concept

A scene that doesn’t link its surprise to the concept is a non-sequitur. It’s generic. Avoid scenes that could work in other films. Dance with the one that brought you: your concept. Stay true to it and reap many rewards. The main conceit of your concept by alone almost guarantees idiosyncrasy.

For instance, in Her, Theodore gets dumped by Samantha, an operating system, because she is in love with 641 other people. And how many films other than Memento can have a character in the middle of a chase scene forget if he is chasing or being chased? MORE: 5 Concept Mistakes Writers Make 

2) Scenes That Are Too Vague

Writing my book, I discovered a way to use my favourite word twice in the same sentence:

Specificity breeds specificity.

Being specific helps you in many ways. Here’s one … When your characters are calling each other on their, ah, crap, if they are on-point and specific, they help the audience to understand them.

In Philadelphia Story thenDexter says of Tracy: ‘She’s a girl who’s generous to a fault . . . But not of other people’s faults.’

Vincent sums up Jerome in Gattaca with, ‘He is burdened with perfection’.  He calls Irene, ‘The Queen of Can’t.’ (In Gattaca, the pithy summations also touch on theme).

3) Action Scenes With Only Action

Don’t get me wrong. Spectacle is fun. But don’t settle for just that. Here are some ideas on what else you can throw into the mix.

Cleverly draw from the environment. Think of the home field advantage for the kids in Jurassic Park in the kitchen against the velociraptors. Another of my favorite action scenes is from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, when Legolas singlehandedly kills an Oliphaunt. Notice how the main conceit is to use the physical details of the environment.

In Casino Royale’s opening, James Bond chases Mollaka, who is played by a practitioner of parkour, or ‘free running’. This is a discipline that specialises in gracefully circumventing physical obstacles. Mollaka deftly dodges obstacles that Bond, sometimes literally, crashes right through. The contrast reveals the nature of his character, which M clarifies when she refers to him as a ‘blunt instrument.’

Sometimes, you might even be able to fit in some theme. In the murder scene in the kitchen of Torn Curtain, the way Hitchcock makes it so difficult for them to kill the Nazi. This suggests killing isn’t as easy as it (usually) looks.

What else can you sneak into your action scenes? MORE: 3 Important Tips About Theme And Story

4) Scenes That Don’t Have Enough Set Up

A scene dances back and forth between expectation and surprise. Think of a surprise as a frustrated expectation. It gains its unity and inevitability by its relationship to a very specific set up. A big push toward the opposite of the surprise, the expectation, accentuates and, in some way, creates the power of your reversal.

In a recent class, everyone seemed to remember the inciting incident (pages 13 and 14) from The Hangover. The crew wakes up from the previous night’s party and their suite is a chaotic wreck. They have to piece together the previous evening so they can find their missing friend.

Maybe my students were hungover … they couldn’t seem to remember the obvious (in retrospect) line that perfectly sets up this twist. We went searching for the long lost line.

The essence of the moment and the surprise in The Hangover is ‘forgetting.’ I asked the students, what do you do at fun parties? They quickly got to ‘make a toast.’ So, what sort of things do you say at toasts that are the opposite of forgetting? One or two blurted out: ‘To a night we’ll always remember.’ A quick rewrite created the actual line in the movie out of thin air: ‘To a night we’ll never forget!’

Right before a climactic twist, shift toward expectation — as far away as you can get from the surprise. This sudden contrast sets up the power of a scene’s climax.

5) Scenes With Not Enough Importance

‘Importance’ is a specific term borrowed from the language of actors that represents a resonant connection to the character. You need to make sure to align external situations and events with the character’s inner life.

In My Best Friend’s Wedding, Julia Roberts’s character Julianne sets up a metaphor. She puts herself as Jell-O and Cameron Diaz’s character Kimmy as crème brûlée.

When Kimmy claims, ‘I can be Jell-O,’ it feels like life or death. It means, ‘I will fight, I will do anything, even change myself and my nature to get the love of the man I love.’ Julianne snaps back, ‘Crème brûlée can never be Jell-O!’ with an equal amount of importance. Desperation and competitiveness drive these over the top yet psychologically-grounded reactions.

In a scene (pages 20-21) from The Departed, a real estate agent shows Colin (Matt Damon) an apartment. In less than a page this agent questions Colin’s entire sense of self … His profession, his net worth, his self-worth, his power as a man, and his sexual identity.

Challenge yourself to find importance where you least expect it. MORE: Are You Making Any Of These Killer Errors In Your Screenplay’s Scenes?

One Last Thing

Incorporate the above principles into your writing, and you can make good scenes great … and great scenes better. If you want 300+ pages of more ideas on how to improve your writing today, check out my book The Craft of Scene Writing.

BIO: Jim Mercurio is a writer, author, screenwriter, and filmmaker. His book The Craft of Scene Writing is the first-ever screenwriting book that focuses solely on scenes. He has directed or produced five feature films and has helped countless writers as a teacher, story analyst, and script doctor. He directed more than 40 DVDs on screenwriting, including his own 6-disc set, Complete Screenwriting. One of the country’s top story consultants, Jim works with Oscar-nominated and A-List writers as well as beginners. Check out his next webinar, Writing In Your Personal Voice.

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All About Acts

People have been writing about story structure since the days of Aristotle’s tragedies. Though some of us resist structure in life, for writing screenplays it really serves an important purpose. More often than not, The Three Acts is the one most screenwriters choose to employ in creating the roadmap of their narrative so the reader doesn’t get lost. How does it work and what do these three acts need? Let’s start putting the pieces of the puzzle together.

All About Act 1

SHORT VERSION: This sets up the story and hits the who, what, where, why and when’s of the narrative.

  • An attention-grabbing opening! It doesn’t matter what genre the script is; we want to be engaged right away. Give us action, emotion or drama and do it off the bat so we want to keep reading.
  • Introductions are probably the most important things to make clear in this act. WHO are your main characters, WHAT are they doing and what do they do for a living? WHERE are they? WHY is there a story being written about them and WHEN does this story take place? The first act establishes the ORDINARY WORLD of the characters so when things get shook up, we can refer to their past. Give us their details and develop the characters enough so we know them and are in for their journey.
  • INCITING INCIDENTS are the shake up referred to above. They come about halfway through this act and hint at what the main conflict or action is going to be for our trusty or un-trusty protagonist. In Star Wars the inciting incident is when Luke Skywalker finds his family has been killed and seeks out Obi Wan Kenobi so he can become a Jedi.

All About Act 2

THE SHORT VERSION: Action, Action, we want Action … This act is where Movie Trailers are born!

  • This act is about taking on the conflict raised by the inciting incident. This is the meat of the narrative where the writer gets to throw everything they can at their protagonist. Confrontation, movement, and character and narrative development should constantly be in the mix, in this, the longest act of the script.
  • Subplots happen here. This is a good place to bring in a subplot as well so we’re not completely focused on the main characters all the time.
  • The ever important midpoint comes – you guessed it – about halfway through the script. Here, the tone shifts, either improving life or making things worse. Sometimes, it’s a big event such as when the T-Rex attacks in Jurassic Park. Mind, if your script doesn’t have a T-Rex it’s OK. Just make sure there is a big shift in the story’s tone, which makes the characters have to literally or figuratively run for their lives into the resolution.

All About Act 3

THE SHORT VERSION: The Big Reveal!

  • The final, and shortest act. This is where the tension ramps up and the protagonist overcomes odds to a happy or tragic conclusion.
  • This act in inexorably tied to Act One! If things aren’t working in this act it’s because they weren’t built up enough in the beginning of the script. Good script notes will point out what is missing so there is a feeling of closure and all the arcs initiated are ended.
  • All is lost? About halfway through this act (give or take) is the LOW POINT of the script. This is where the mentor figure or romantic partner dies or goes away and the goal the writer set out for the protagonist seems to be impossible to achieve! Remember when Obi Wan Kenobi died in Star Wars, Episode Four? That’s a big low point for the story and for Luke’s development. The rest of the act after this point is where the protagonist gets back on his proverbial horse or dies trying.

By The Way …

One more note about three act structure for good measure. No, not all scripts have to have three acts! Some have four and some really follow little structure, which can work if you can write like Quentin Tarantino or David Lynch.

However, more often than not, the three acts are there for a reason. Feel free to allow the action, drama and emotion to spill all over the place no matter what the genre … But if you follow the basics of these three acts your script will read smoothly, hit the rhythmic story beats and likely be more appealing to those all-important execs!

Happy Writing!

BIO: Jenny Frankfurt is a former literary manager and the founder of The Finish Line Script Competition where we offer 6+ pages of story notes so you can rewrite and resubmit new drafts (as many as you like) for NO EXTRA COST. We help writers follow a studio or network development process to get your script in the best shape possible — and that includes nailing that structure! Check us out at www.finishlinescriptcomp.com.

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Lack of Structure

NEWSFLASH: lack of structure kills your characterisation. The reason for this is simple.  At fundamental level, audiences don’t watch movies or TV or read books just ‘about characters’. Instead …

We watch movies and TV or read novels about characters who DO SOMETHING for some reason

Character behaviour must inform the plot and vice versa. They are inextricably linked. Story is the sum of ALL its parts – character and structure. One cannot be more important than the other.

We all know the writing adage ‘characters are what they do’.  As consumers of storytelling, we want to invest in characters’ journeys. Those journeys may be transformative for the characters, or they may not. But at base level, if characters do not do anything, they become dull. Even a passive protagonist must be enabled to make some sort of decision by the end of the story (usually by another character’s actions!).

Writers must not concentrate ‘too much’ on characters. Yet this is precisely what they do, as standard. They underestimate the importance of plotting. This means they end up writing their stories into a corner (at best) and have a lack of story in their scripts or novels (at worst). There is JUST NOT ENOUGH there by way of character behaviour.

But what can we do about this? More, next.

Draw The Story

I get it. It’s hard to get a grip on the intangible. That’s why I am a big fan of ‘drawing the story’ and why I love visual representations of structure. If you’ve ever had notes from me or been on one of my courses, you will know the B2W model looked something like this …

I like to break down story as a ‘problem’ that needs to be solved by the protagonist. I find this approach centres me and my writers … There is a PURPOSE to both the plot and characterisation and reminds us the two are linked. When we lose sight of this, issues with our storytelling can occur.

It also helps us pinpoint where that ‘lack of story’ is most likely to happen. Over the years, I’ve noted about 80% of writers have problems with Act 2, for instance. This makes sense, because writers often concentrate most on stuff like Set Up and Pay Off. What’s BETWEEN that beginning and ending may get forgotten, or glossed over, even when outlining.

In the past year I have been mentoring more Bang2writers than ever before on various initiatives, schemes and courses. This has lead me to revise and add to my original B2W model. The new version below is based on their feedback on what they need to get a handle on the ‘lack of story’ problem.

New B2W Model

As before, the Bang2writers’ work that helped inform this new pictogram was not just spec screenplays, but novels too. The idea is only that structure and plotting means ‘beginning – middle – end’ (and not necessarily in that order). At base level, it also follows the same notion of ‘protagonist has problem’ as well.

You will notice a number of changes however, not least fact the story is ‘slanted upwards’ now. This is to reflect the idea of escalation or forwards momentum in the story. The protagonist’s actions are matched by the antagonist’s, to give us a sense of the character behaviour I mentioned earlier.

I like to call the beginning or Set Up ‘The Kick Off’. It reminds us we need to hit the ground running, even if we do use slow burn techniques. The Showdown may be literal too, or it may not … But it still needs to be the the PINNACLE of your story.

Dramatic Context is what takes us from Set Up to Pay Off … In other words from where a character starts, to where they end. As I have written before, in Horror and Thriller the Dramatic context takes our protagonist ‘flight to fight’ for example.

B2W Model With Added Tips

Remember, structure is NOT a formula, it is a framework. You can literally do whatever you like with the below! But don’t hope for the best, or pretend that structure and plot does not matter. Instead …

  • Download the structural worksheet below.
  • Plot your protagonist’s journey and how the antagonist gets in his/her way in the current draft.
  • IDENTIFY where there is that ‘lack of story’.
  • Think about the ACTIONS (behaviour) your characters can do to fill the void(s).
  • Think about how your story ESCALATES.

If you truly want your great characters to resonate, we need to be able to invest in their journeys. Don’t forget to download your new, FREE B2W structural worksheet. Enjoy!

Get Your Free Resource Now

Download Your Free B2W Structural Worksheet by clicking on the icon below.

You can also download this worksheet from The B2W Resources Page. Good luck with your projects!

Want MORE Script Reading Secrets?

My annual course with LondonSWF, BREAKING INTO SCRIPT READING is perfect not only for wannabe script readers, but savvy writers who want to know how script readers work. Can you afford to miss out?? Join us on June 23-22nd, 2019 at historic Ealing Studios!

CLICK HERE for full details of the course (or on the pic on the right), including feedback from past delegates. We expect it to sell out again, so act now to avoid disappointment. See you there!!!

For B2W offers and free stuff first, join my EMAIL LIST

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Wanted: Diverse Characters

Diverse Characters were in demand in my latest experts panel … Producers, Agents, Publishers, Script Editors and Script readers all said they wanted more of them in the year to come. This is no real surprise, since ‘more diverse characters’ has been on the the industry’s wish list for a good while now.

I am pleased to say most Bang2writers have picked up the mantle on diverse characters. Whilst there is a contingent of writers who believe diverse characters are a ‘fad’, they are mostly confined to ranting on Facebook. In the past two years in particular, I am seeing more and more diverse characters … Not only in produced content, but filtering through the spec pile. Yay!

But we’re not out of the woods yet. Where there are changing minds, there are inevitable mistakes. But that’s okay … Fromn mistakes, we learn! Here’s the Top 5 mistakes writers make with diverse characters …

1) Kick-Ass Hotties

Let me say first I have zero problem with the so-called ‘Kick-ass Hottie’ trope. This can be a fun character, plus many of my favourite movies have featured her. What’s more there have indeed been some great Kick-ass hotties who are also BRILLIANT characters. The issue is only that she turns up TOO MUCH … Not only in produced and published content.

Too often, female leads are in their teens to late twenties (occasionally their thirties and beyond). They’re also usually white, heterosexual, able-bodied and kick-ass. In other words, they’re just like their male counterparts, especially in the action genre. Time for a change!

HOW TO TWIST IT: What if she wasn’t white, heterosexual, able-bodied and/or kick-ass? Just a few small changes on this tried-and-tested trope could mean all the difference. MORE: How NOT To Write Female Characters

2) ‘Sad Trans’

In the past few years, many writers have become fascinated by transgender people. Unfortunately, those same writers seem to have become fixated on the notion that a character is automatically in emotional crisis by virtue of being trans.

Now, it’s definitely true that drama is conflict (and that drama = STRUGGLE). That said, writers are viewing the notion of being transgender as being *the problem*, usually because it is outside the scope of their personal experience. The reality is, it’s society that is more THE PROBLEM. We need only take a look at the transphobic British Press and the accusations trans people have to deal with daily to get a hint of what they go through.

The sad irony to all this is, transitioning is often a source of immense joy and self-acceptance for trans people. Finally, they get to be their authentic selves! How wonderful. So why not look at that instead.

HOW TO TWIST IT: What obstacles might a transgender person may have to face from OTHER people, instead of themselves? What if their story wasn’t a transition tale? Also, whilst we have seen quite a lot of stories about trans women now, what about trans men? What about non binary people?

3) Wise Gay Best Friends

We are at a stage in society now when most writers appear to recognise there is a difference between gender identity and sexuality. However, there are ‘classic’ character tropes that writers keep writing and just won’t go away, especially in certain genres … And none are more obvious than the Wise Gay Best Friend, AKA ‘the magical queer’.

Secondary characters help or hinder the main characters. Again, there have been some great, nuanced characters of this ilk: George in My Best Friend’s Wedding  immediately springs to mind … But so does the outrageous Tommy in Friends With Benefits (which intriguingly, assigns a mentor function to ALL the secondary characters. This neatly sidesteps the notion it’s ONLY Tommy who knows where it’s at).

This character usually performs some kind of mentor function in the romantic comedy. I’m not sure why being gay would make a character automatically wise. But writers are obsessed with this notion and it’s time to bring something new to this character.

HOW TO TWIST IT: What if your ‘Gay Best Friend’ was not wise, but a hindrance *for some reason*? Or what if s/he was wise in some OTHER way – ie. not about love or relationships? What if s/he was not in a Rom Com or comedy, but another genre, like Horror (only they don’t die!!!)? Better still, what if your gay character was the protagonist, instead of the secondary? What if their sexuality was not the driving force for the story, too? (For once!).

4) Stereotypical BAME Characters

Whether you are a person of colour or not, most writers can recognise the ridiculous assumption that black characters are ‘either’ gang members or police captains in stories. They also realise that Muslim characters are not all jihadists, or that East Asian characters are all ninjas. It’s boring, it’s lazy, it’s racist. Simple as.

But of course it’s possible to write stories with the above … They just can’t be steroetypes! They need to be nuanced and to feel 100% authentic, such as …

  • Captain Holt in Brooklyn 99 is a black, gay police officer in charge of his first precinct of officers. . He is no stereotype … Because he defies stereotype on every single level of his characterisation, rejecting all the ‘usual’ tropes audiences have come to expect.
  • In the novel The Silence Between Breaths by Cath Staincliffe, she wrote about an attack on a train that was similar to London 7/7. Whilst a young jihadist committed the atrocity, she did not present him as ‘evil’ like the tabloids. Staincliffe not only humanised him, but his family too and what happened to them afterwards. She also presented a young Asian hero who tried to stop him and saved many lives. What’s more, she contrasted the jihadist with a white man whose inherent racism and xenophobia essentially helped facilitate the attack.
  • In Pacific Rim, female lead Mako Mori has essential fighting skills – she needs them, she is in the military! But we see her fight with a staff in just one scene. Like Captain Holt, she defies the ‘usual’ stereotypes: she is neither submissive, nor sexualised.

HOW TO TWIST IT: Consider the issues characters *like* yours too often run into … Then do the exact opposite. Yes, it’s a lot of work in terms in research. But it’s the only way forwards. Start with my book on Diverse Characters, I’ve done a lot of it for you! There’s also tips on how to do your own research >> Writing Diverse Characters For Fiction, TV Or Film.

5) Missing Characters

Where are all the disabled characters (who aren’t evil or suicidal)? What about the BAME characters in historical dramas (because they were here!). How about the MALE ‘unreliable narrators’ (because 9/10 they’re female!)? Where are all the FEMALE ‘everywomen’ (because usually it’s ‘everyman)? And all  the men who need rescuing (because they do, from time to time … And for good reasons, like natural disasters – The Day After Tomorrow did this and that was back in 2004)!

The above is just for starters. There’s loads more. So where are they all? Well, hopefully in your screenplay or novel!

HOW TO TWIST IT: Research your genre, tone, or ‘type’ of story thoroughly. Watch and read everything. Consider the types of character that NORMALLY appear. Is there room for a diverse character? Why/why not? If there is, what type?

Good Luck!

Don’t Forget To Grab Your Free Book!

Grab your free book on how NOT to write female characters … CLICK HERE or on the pic. I’ve rounded up all the ‘classic’ mistakes writers make with female characters, plus what to do instead. Enjoy!

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The Comedy Awards

Earlier this week the best movie, TV and radio writers came together for The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Awards 2019. You don’t often see writers at televised awards ceremonies. We’re an unloved category on most glitzy nights. Our natural inclination to introversion and perceived lack of dress sense define us as bad telly.

The awards aren’t televised but they do attract some of the biggest names in the business, while reminding producers, agents and commissioners how great stories and the people who tell them remain at the heart of our creative industries.

There are now three categories for best comedy. Who won? Who almost won? And what clues do these awards offer to new writers hoping to make 2019 the year of writing comedy? Let’s see …

1) Script Is (Almost) Everything

For the second year running, Sarah Kendall and her one-woman storytelling series Australian Trilogy won the award for best radio show. I was one of the judges when she won in 2018. She was the clear winner then and that was also the case this year at the awards. (That’s an astonishing achievement for a category that has in recent years rewarded some of our greatest comedy writers and performers including John Finnemore, Susan Calman, Marcus Brigstocke and Mark Steel).

Sarah’s stories are intensely personal, plus  she is the only performer in the show. As writers you may think there’s not a lot you can learn from her awards win. But I can’t recommend these stories highly enough. Listen closely! They are not just funny and moving, they’re beautifully constructed. Everything you need to know about how to write funny, gripping stories for an audience to laugh at can be heard.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Comedy can get you so far – even the funniest scripts need to make your audience desperate to find out what’s going to happen next.

2) Intentional Inclusion WORKS

The other nominations in this category were Deadlines by Jessica Hynes, and Ability by Lee Ridley and Katherine Jakeways. Lee is better known as ‘Lost Voice Guy’, the comedian with cerebral palsy who won Britain’s Got Talent.

You may notice that of the four writers nominated here, three are women and one is a male writer with disability. For many years, beginning with Jane Berthoud’s tenure as Head of Comedy around ten years ago, BBC Radio have been working hard to bring alternative voices to the station. This short list is a strong riposte to anyone who complains at the idea of positive discrimination towards unrepresented women and minorities. The judges chose these as the best three comedy shows for the awards on quality of script alone.

We still have a long way to go. BAME writers and working-class voices remain under-represented. but with a cross-party committee at Westminster looking into “how to break the class ceiling” that’s where the political energy is about to focus.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Commissioners are looking for untold stories. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from … Your best stories come from that part of the world that’s uniquely yours.

3) Don’t Hang Around – Do It Yourself

The winning entry for online comedy was the simple and effective Where Are You From? by Hannah George and Tasha Dhanraj, and the other nominees were Spokke, written and performed by Tim Grewcock and Sean Lothian, and Three Cool Days, from Arnab Chanda and Chris Hayward.

These are all short, snappy, easily accessible online videos that you should watch. Apart from being funny, they tell you what’s happening away from the incredibly shrinking universe of TV and radio commissions. They all articulate the story of comedy creators looking beyond the traditional ways of making a career in the profession and doing it for themselves.

KEY TAKEAWAY: There’s never been a better time to bring your own writing to the airwaves or the screen.

 4) Don’t Write An Audience Sitcom …

In a tight contest in the TV section Mackenzie Crook’s Detectorists beat the strong contenders Lisa McGee’s Derry Girls and Inside Number 9 by Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton.

That short list offers a pretty good range of the kind of comedy we’re seeing commissioned across the main TV channels – Crook’s warm and gentle narrative character comedy, McGee’s hilarious coming-of-age sitcom set against the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and another series of darkly original one-off tales from the League of Gentlemen alumni.

As ever in recent years, sadly there’s not an audience sitcom in sight, although Upstart Crow was a strong contender.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Look at what’s being made. Don’t copy it, but get a sense of what is making commissioners excited. BUT…

5) … Write An Audience Sitcom!

That doesn’t mean you should give up entirely on writing an audience show. All the commissioning editors say they’re still looking for them, and pressed on this at last year’s BBC Writersroom Conference, they said that wasn’t just a platitude. Honest, they really mean it.

The trouble is, audience sitcom is expensive to make, and criticism from journalism and social media is harsher than for any other form of TV. You need a thick skin and, if you’re a successful comedy performer, you can live without the hassle. On the other hand, commissioners don’t tend to get sent that many audience scripts, so even if yours isn’t selected the odds are not stacked quite so heavily against it. Spoiler Alert – it won’t get selected, but it could get you involved in working on other people’s shows.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Sure, look at what’s being made. But also study the odds. A big funny audience show script will make your submission stand out.

6) Ignore Bloody Performers

i) First the bad news

Apologies, no way round it, there’s lots of it. Look at that list of names nominated for comedy awards, 14 in all and I’m sorry to point out that 13 of them are writer-performers. In fact a better description of most of them is performer-writer, which makes it all the more galling when you consider these awards are primarily for writers.

Ever since The Young Ones exploded onto our TV screens in 1982, the writer-performer has become the default first call for producers and commissioners, who spend far more time nowadays going to gigs than reading scripts. Yes, it’s annoying that for decades we were happy to celebrate the genius of Galton & Simpson, Carla Lane, John Sullivan, Eddie Braben, David Renwick, Clement & Le Frenais and Croft & Perry on the strength of their writing alone. But now you’re going to have to do more than create your perfect sitcom and send it off to a couple of producers in the hope of instant success.

ii) But now the good news

The good news is that the do-it-yourself alternative, which was always a high-risk, high-cost way of producing something that looked like an inferior version of the real thing, is now a viable option. And thanks to the Writers’ Guild online award you can raise your profile quite quickly.

You can write your own podcasts, online sitcoms or single sketches, and get them made. You will need to get out and meet people – being a writer, that could be the hardest part – but there is an army out there of performers, camera crew, editors and marketing gurus who need you. There are millions of them, but there are only a few really good writers. Your script still needs to be brilliant of course.

KEY TAKEAWAY: The internet is awash with well-made, well-performed, poorly written comedy. You can be the difference.

Finally …

 7) Don’t Be Afraid Of Drama

Finally, let’s look at that monstrous hybrid that commissioners and producers say they’re looking for: the great comedy-drama. Almost every session at that Writersroom conference talked about the search for this as their brave new quest. Writers, understandably, were keen to understand what was meant by the phrase. Commissioners, also understandably, were keen not to pin down narrow definitions. Honestly it’s an easier question to ask, “what kind of Brexit do you want?”

i) It’s not dramedy or comedy-drama, but ‘drama WITH comedy’

It’s hard enough to get comedy right, making an audience laugh and cry at the same time is an even harder skill, and when it works it makes your show soar. Frasier, Friends, The Simpsons, that great trio of American sitcoms from the 90s, didn’t just add drama to the comedy, it was built into those shows’ DNA. Who can forget the powerful pilot episode Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire?, which re-imagined the classic Christmas movie It’s A Wonderful Life.

Again this news is not a source of immediate comfort to comedy writers. No, not comedy-drama. The winning shows are ‘drama WITH comedy’.  That matters, because they were all made by drama departments. Drama is more glamorous, it has bigger stars and bigger budgets. And critics are always far more excited by dramas that manage to be funny than comedy that also tells a story.

ii) Know your genre – and where your favourites started

What’s especially relevant for comedy writers is that the winning writers in the drama section – Phoebe Waller-Bridge for Best Long Form Drama with Killing Eve; Russell T Daviesfor A Very British Scandal (Short Form); plus Jonathan Harvey for his work on Coronation Street (Long Running) – have all spent many hours at the comedy coal-face.

You probably know that Waller-Bridge enjoyed great accolades for Fleabag on BBC3 already. You may be less aware of the comedy backgrounds of Harvey … He wrote the hugely successful sitcom Gimme Gimme Gimme. Also Davies, best known for Doctor Who and Queer As Folk, began his career writing comedy scripts for Childrens’ TV.

iii) Think NARRATIVE

The solution I think is to take the comedy commissioners at their word. We need to find ways of incorporating stronger narratives into our comedy shows … We also need to explore in greater detail what else we need to do to grab their attention! So throughout this year, I’ll be blogging about ways to make your comedy more dramatic and your drama funnier. This will be useful to anyone planning to enter the BBC Writersroom comedy submission period.

KEY TAKEAWAY: If you can write jokes, great. Now it’s time to learn how to tell stories. 

BIO: Dave Cohen has been writing and performing comedy for 35 years. His credits include Not Going Out, Have I Got News For You, Spitting Image and My Family. He writes most of the songs for Horrible Histories, including for the movie which is out this summer. His book The Complete Comedy Writer is out now. He’s also running classes in March about creating sitcom and comedy drama, and bringing out the best of both. Details HERE.

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