Inkspill Writing Retreat: Writing Doctor Who

Previously… last weekend I contributed to the Inkspill online writing retreat run by poet Nina Lewis. All this week I’m running the sessions I wrote for them. Here’s today’s.

Writing Doctor Who

Do be careful what you wish for: it can be bloody hard work. I write Doctor Who radio dramas for Big Finish and you can’t just swan in and cook this stuff up. Doctor Who has to be inside you: I don’t believe you can write for a show or a book range or a magazine if you don’t already read it and love it. Plus, the producers at Big Finish do know and love Doctor Who, you have to step up to their level in the quality of your writing and it’s not easy.

Still, I hope that I will continue to write them forever. That is partly because I was a Doctor Who fan growing up – and it never leaves you, especially not when the TV show is back and is capable of such great drama – but also because it is radio drama and also because it stretches me tremendously.

Whatever type of writing you do, have a think about radio drama. I don’t mean that you should definitely take it up, I’ve got enough competition without you coming along and blowing me out of the water, but think about the form. I love radio drama because I feel it’s very intimate and personal, plus it is life-support dependent upon dialogue.

I am a dialogue man. I’ve a friend who insists dialogue is the nice tasty little extra that you add at the end of a story and I’m surprised we’re still friends. If I don’t believe what your characters are saying, I don’t believe them and I don’t care about them. Let them be exterminated, so what?

Radio focuses you on dialogue like nothing else. It’s exciting creating an entire new world, both metaphorically in your writing and pretty literally in that this is Doctor Who and you’re making up a planet. But you have to convey that it’s, I don’t know, a desert planet with oases of Apple Stores and a great big, green, smelly monster. You could have the Doctor step out of the TARDIS and say “Oh, it’s Theta Beta Five, the famous desert planet – oh, no! A Smellosaurus! Quick, let’s buy an iPad”.

But nobody would be listening any more.

I’ve tried recently to explain why I love scriptwriting above all things and at first I thought it came down to this. You have to conjure characters, a story, a world and all the drama using only what people say. (Plus a few sound effects. Do listen to a Big Finish Doctor Who some time: the sound design is simply a marvel.)

But actually, I’ve come to realise that it’s much harder than that. And much more satisfying.

You can’t say it’s a desert planet. You can’t have villains saying what their dastardly plan is.

Russell T Davies, who with Julie Gardner brought Doctor Who back to TV in 2005, wrote once about a huge problem he had when moving on from writing soaps to writing drama. I’m paraphrasing but broadly what he said was: “In soaps, everybody says what they mean. In drama, they don’t even know what they mean.”

That’s a Damascus-level thought for me. I love and adore scriptwriting not because you’re telling stories using only what people say, you’re telling them only using what people do not.

Try it. Write me a scene with two characters and only dialogue, no settings, no description. One character wants something from the other – and for some reason, that you have to think of – he or she cannot tell that other person.


See William Gallagher’s scribbles – books, Doctor Who radio dramas and the rest – on Amazon.

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