You don’t say

I think you know this. I think I knew it, too. But it’s only when I was asked that I vocalised it and really realised how much I mean it: scripts are stories told using only what your characters do not say.

Do not say.

What I was actually asked was “Why do you write?” and this came up because novelist Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn invited me to write a guest post on this subject on her blog. You can read the whole answer here – and I loved being asked, you must see the great set of writers she got to contribute – but the short version is that I haven’t a clue. Never one to shirk, I wrote her twelve drafts of that post and each one got more honest about my cluelessness and therefore also got shorter. She wasn’t expecting a short blog post. She’s read us here, she knows how we go on. So I confessed at the top and then reached deep inside to find some padding. I feel there’s a joke to be had there about my girth but I can’t think of it and you’re far too nice to try.

The thing with reaching deeper in order to pad further, though, is that often you get to something important. And that’s what happened to me with this point: I think I found why I like scripts so much. And that’s what I want to tell you.

I’ve always been a dialogue man: maybe it’s my radio background, maybe it’s just that dialogue has been a thing with all my favourite writers from Alan Plater to Aaron Sorkin and even some who don’t begin with A. I want to say Jane Austen, despite the A, but I think it’s her descriptions that kill me.

Anyway. BBC Ceefax helped too: I learnt to convey a news story in a space so short and constrained that twitter seems easy. It’s the same with characters speaking to each other: lines can be loaded, saturated with plot and emotion and other detail but they have to be natural and they have to be quite short.

I think I’ve mentioned a Russell T Davies line to you before but I’m going to do it again. Or I would if I could find the exact quote. Davies is best known now for Doctor Who and was best known just before it for Queer as Folk. But he started on children’s TV and went through soaps before going on to one-hour dramas. And at some point he said that last move was very hard until he realised something. I’m paraphrasing but what he said roughly was that in soaps, every character says exactly what they’re thinking and in drama, they don’t even know what they’re thinking.

This fits me perfectly as I’ve no idea either.

But I also think that when you have two characters who aren’t telling each other what they think and aren’t even sure what they think, it’s a very potent, pregnant moment. It doesn’t sound like either of them are very relaxed. And whatever is going on, you know it’s important to them. Their inability to talk is infinitely more dramatic than a soap slanging match.

You just have to conjure the characters who are at this point, you just have to conjure the situation that matters to them so much, and then you just have to convey it all to us without them actually saying any of it.

Writing is hard and writing is the best job in the world because you put down all these words and the real writing is in what you don’t say.

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