06 May, 2008


In the aftermath of the Red Planet Prize I said I'd like to see a competition where people had to write a specific half hour and send in that whole half-hour rather than just the first ten pages. The readers still have the option of reading only the first ten pages.

Now the BBC writersroom has done just that with their Sharps competition.

The Red Planet Prize Project was really a How to Avoid Complete Rejection at the BBC writersroom Project. Embarrassingly, I put people off doing anything different to typical TV contemporary drama and the winner was a non-typical historical biography. Perhaps the RPP can be for our write-whatever-we-want-passion-spec.

Why I suggested this competition format was that it creates a level playing field and leaves us with no excuses. Our original writers voice can still be heard loud and clear and it echoes the real world experience. Almost all produced film and television starts with an idea by a producer or network. If we want a career, we have to get used to writing what other people want us to write and making it our own. Toby Whithouse's Being Human is uniquely his but according to this interview by Jase the setting was the producer's idea and it was a collaboration.

The other thing I think is important is the limited time scale. I've heard of people who started writing their Sharps script the day it was announced and also people who are adapting old projects which may be completely unsuitable. If we're serious about writing we should be able to write something new in the next month, it's only half an hour. (Please don't remind me of this should I fail to make the deadline. I might swear at you.)

You can still go through my RPP Project to try and find the useful stuff (good luck with that!) but I'll put it in a nutshell:

The BBC writersroom are going to get loads of scripts and they reckon they can shortlist to the top twenty in a week. They read the first ten pages but in reality you can usually tell much earlier than that if a script is worth reading or not. We need to capture their attention from the start and hold it for 30 pages. It's tough but it's doable if we have the right approach and attitude.

I reckon there is one way to avoid that early cull and that's in the pre-writing stage.

  1. Thinking about the best idea and mulling it over for a while
  2. Thinking about the best characters to use for that idea and ensuring they are psychologically true
  3. Thinking about the story and structure

That way your idea and story are more likely to be unique and interesting. Also consider my two mantras:

  • Simple story and complex characters not complex story and simple characters
  • Character driven plots not plot driven characters

I know many people don't believe me but writing a really complicated twisty plot in a half an hour story isn't impressive, it's tedious as it leaves no room for character development and story.
The dialogue stage is the easiest to do but the least important. With all competitions I'm relying on people who rush to write dialogue and then send it off without re-writing. If you pre-write and re-write then you're automatically in the top 10%.

I'm not saying good dialogue isn't important but it comes from good characters and a good story.

I'm going to quote Jase again:

"the hard part is the discipline to sit down and write ourselves a portfolio of brilliant, shiny scripts. Any talk of how it's "who you know, not what you know", in my view, is just an excuse for not having reached the right level of excellence, discipline and/or attitude."

According to agents, we need half hour, hour and two hour spec scripts. We can use this competition as an opportunity to begin building or re-building our portfolio. (And then do an hour for the Red Planet Prize?) Even if we don't win, we'll still have a useful script that can be re-written and improved.

There's now two real routes to a TV drama writing career. There used to be only the Doctors/Holby one, effectively, but writer-friendly writer-producers like Red Planet, Monastic and Tightrope are now a serious alternative with a possibility of writing for their series as well as selling an original series.

But it all starts with that portfolio.

One thing which may catch people out is the format. They say the scripts should be no longer than 35 pages but that can only be achieved using the screenplay format. If you use TV production formatting it will be twice as long. They prefer the screenplay format because it saves paper and with the page a minute average it's easier to work out. Although we also have to bear in mind that a half-hour script should be around 7,000 words. If it's less than 6,500 it's too short.

What was good about the RPP was the mutual reads we gave each other. If you're not a member of a writers group or can't afford readers fees then network with each other and arrange a swap of a whole draft or just the first ten pages. Of course it works best when you think the draft is perfect and not when you've spotted the problems yourself but are just hoping no-one else will be able to.

Good luck!


Sharps FAQ


Oli said...

Good stuff, but surely every script should be a "write-whatever-we-want-passion-spec"? I'm not saying go wildly off the beaten track of what the producer has pitched you (though arguably Being Human did just that...) but if you don't write it in a way you care about, it's going to end up as flat and dull as, well, most TV drama. I'm sure you didn't mean 'write without passion', but some people could interpret it that way.

Also, does anyone else find TV format absolutely hateful to look at? Gah! If ever I'm obliged to use it, I shall use screenplay format until the very last minute, then change it over. Oh yes, I'm a rebel.

Robin Kelly said...

I was just thinking about whether I should amend what I wrote, spookily enough, because of we need to be passionate about everything we write.

While most TV drama probably is dull and flat there are the writers who manage to take those same storylines and characters and genre restrictions and make it compelling. One episode of a soap being much better than the previous one isn't a co-incidence.

If we've got a script that's like a really good stand alone continuing drama episode in our portfolio then it's not going to require much effort to imagine us writing for their continuing drama. An action sci-fi or historical biography would require more effort.

But I think it's also important to write that action sci-fi or historical biog or anyhing that is written just for ourselves that doesn't second-guess the market or what producers may want but is what we would like to see on screen in an ideal world and is written for the sheer fun of it. It might not ever get made but it can also still get us work.

I think our portfolio should also be about showing our flexibility - that we can write more than one genre and more than one script.

Oli said...

Amen. You can't write well without passion, and if you're (the royal 'you', btw) passionate about contemporary drama, that's what you've got the best chance of writing well.

Also absolutely agree on the need for a wide portfolio, which is something of a weakness in my genre heavy portfolio. Hopefully the sitcom will go some way to balancing that out, but I'll need to add a contemporary drama at some point too; as soon as I can find something I'm passionate about ;)

Dan said...

Oli, I hear ya. I'm a bit of a format-freak. I just like scripts to look like *scripts*. The inhouse format for UK shows (especially sitcoms - ugh) is awful to look at.

I just couldn't write to that format. It would screw with my mind in Final Draft. I'm sure a lot of people use good ol' film-script format for whatever genre/media... and have people reformat it once it's been passed on.

Or are there fans of BBC sitcom format out there?

Lucy said...

Hi Dan, you should definitely write your half hour as you would a film script IMHO. ALL specs should be uniform I reckon - courier 12 pt, standard film format - to guard against those Format Nazis out there. And they are out there...