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10 Superb Writing Reminders From Sally Wainwright

About Sally Wainwright

So, the long-awaited third series of Happy Valley by Sally Wainwright on BBC1/iPlayer concluded last night. Wow!

I thought it would be a great idea to check out what Sally has to say about writing … and I found some GOLD for you Bangers!

But first up, all about Sally Wainwright! She is an English television writer, producer, and director from Yorkshire. Starting out first as a playwright, she also worked on the classic serial radio drama The Archers. She created her first original drama series At Home With The Braithwaites, which ran 2000-2003.

Other TV series Sally Wainwright is known for include Scott & Bailey (2011-2016), Last Tango In Halifax (2012-2020) and Gentleman Jack (2019). Wainwright also won the Royal Television Writer of the Year Award for the 2009 mini-series Unforgiven. This was recently remade as movie The Unforgivable (2021), starring Sandra Bullock.

So here’s what Sally Wainwright has to say … Enjoy!

1) Sally On Writing Women

‘I do find women more interesting, they’re more heroic. Things don’t come as easily to them or they’re questioned more, doubted more. They have to put themselves out there more.’

I really relate to what Wainwright has to say here. Women frequently have to be warriors and face down not only self-doubt, but a society that says they’re ‘lesser than’. Just as Phoebe Waller-Bridge says, heroism and being a warrior are NOT just for male characters.

2) Women Reject Old Narratives Associated With Us

‘There has been this slavish adaptation of things like Jane Austen, which I just find irrelevant. They seem to be obsessed with: ‘Can you find a man? Are you pretty enough to find a rich man?’ As if that’s all women care about. It leaves me cold.’

I love Wainwright’s word choice here, ‘irrelevant’. There’s obviously nothing wrong with being a wife or mother … I am one myself! However, women are DONE being defined by this and female characters should be no different.

3) Writing Is About Entertainment, First 

‘My job is to entertain people. I don’t write to be clever.’

I love this, because Sally Wainwright frequently writes about ISSUES … yet this quote proves writers don’t need to get on their soapboxes to do this. A novel, movie or TV series should always be about entertainment first.

Once something has entertainment value, we can put any messages or points we want to make via stealth. As Lost’s Javier Grillo-Marxuach told B2W, genre in particular can be a great vehicle for important issues.

4) Real Life Can Be Great Material For Your Writing

‘I spent my time on my own, writing. I got a lot of my sense of drama and a lot of material from my family during my teenage years.’

Sometimes writers tell me they have ‘boring’ lives, so worry this will impact on their writing. Yet ALL of us have something uniqueour own lived experiences!!!  Literally no one has gone through life looking out of OUR eyes. Tap into that.

5) Good Storytelling Is Not About Goodies Vs. Baddies

‘Catherine is ostensibly this good woman, but actually she’s not. She’s done some terrible things, she has a bad attitude and she’s often really difficult. If you get simple goodies and baddies, that’s children’s television.’

There’s no doubting the truth here: Catherine is a pretty terrible human being in many ways. She’s demanding, brittle, superior, petty and flips on a sixpence. She’s also been a bad parent – not only to Ryan, but Daniel as well.

Yet that is not the only side to Catherine. She is a fantastic police officer who always puts people first. She is independent and  fiercely loyal to her friends. She’s also protective of the vulnerable and will always do the right thing (even when she doesn’t want to). She’s also brokenhearted, suffering from intrusive thoughts and significant mental health issues.

Female antiheroes are everywhere on television right now and it’s in no small part down to work like Wainwright’s. She has spent over two decades writing complex female characters like Catherine Cawood in Happy Valley.

6) Your Writer’s Voice Is So Important 

‘The way I write just has such a northern sensibility. It’s a slightly dry delivery of humour; you don’t have to be laughing your head off to deliver funny lines.’

Sally Wainwright leaned into her ‘northernness’ in her writing, making it part of her writer’s voice. And why not?? As someone who has Northern family members, I can see the truth of her words here. Yorkshire people are frequently characterised as ‘no nonsense’ but also ‘droll’.

Can you lean into your own heritage (for want of a better word) and make it part of YOUR writer’s voice? I bet you can.

7)  Writers Need To Commit To Narrative Logic

‘Really, all I’m ever thinking is: ‘Will people stay with this, line by line?’’

Audiences need to suspend their disbelief when watching or reading something … which means writers need to commit to what I call ‘narrative logic’. In other words, have we established and adhered to the RULES of what we have created, for …

  • i) this character?
  • ii) this storyworld?

When we don’t do this, that’s when plot holes are created.

8) Female Writers Need To Prove Themselves

‘I experienced the difference between how men and women are perceived. Men are trusted more, it’s just assumed they’ll be good at something. Whereas women have to prove they’re going to be good at it.’

This echoes Sally’s first point in the real world, plus Emilia di Girolamo confirms it’s still tough to get greenlit as a woman.

It’s tough not to get depressed or angry about this, but it is a sad reality. This is why it’s SO important to keep in mind the next two reminders.

9) You Have To Be Your Own Biggest Fan 

I’ve never been shy about my writing. I’d been shy about so many aspects of my life, but weirdly, putting my scripts out there was never one of them.’

Lots of writers tell me they fear the submissions process. It’s not difficult to see why: rejection is really tough. Similarly, many writers worry about bad reviews for unpublished novels or spec screenplays that have not even been produced yet!

This is why we need to work on our resilience as writers. People WILL tell us our work sucks — that’s just a sad fact. Even writers with as much success and critical acclaim as Sally Wainwright have their haters (justified or not).

This is why we need to hone our craft AND be our own biggest fan as it will help us shrug when someone insists we are ‘bad writers’. It will help us realise that person doesn’t like our work … and that is okay. MORE: Top 10 Tips To Unleash Your Talent As A Writer

10) You Need To Own Your Talent

‘What? I’m not going to pretend I’m not good.’

I love this, because Sally Wainwright knows and owns her talent. This is a radical act in a society that DEMANDS modesty from women as standard. Go Sally!

Which reminder from Sally Wainwright is YOUR favourite? Share in the comments!

Breaking Into Script Reading

B2W’s course with LondonSWF, BREAKING INTO SCRIPT READING is BACK. It’s on Zoom again, so accessible from anywhere in the world.

But the workshop is not just for wannabe script readers … It’s also perfect for writers who want a ‘behind the scenes’ look at how their writing is judged on the page.

So if you want to ‘reader proof’ your screenplay, you’re welcome to join us too. Don’t forget you get video replay for one year.

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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1 thought on “10 Superb Writing Reminders From Sally Wainwright”

  1. Love this. The Happy Valleys series was brilliant and the characters were very ‘real’. We all know someone like sister Clare, who genuinely has a good heart and thinks by being kind she can solve the world’s problems, but more often than not finds herself let down because of this ‘weakness’. No one was wholly bad or wholly good and even Tommy Royce could be forgiven in some weird way because of his upbringing and the way he ‘perceived’ the world. He might have been warped, depraved and delusion – as Catherine said, ‘A psychopath’ – but he remained faithful to his own ‘truth’. Catherine was the same. It made for a gripping final heart-to-heart conversation between them.

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