Bad writing habits

Apart from my typing, with I swear is very good, a thing I like about my writing is something I also dislike – but I doubt I’ll ever stop.

Here it is. In the script I’m writing at the moment, I have a tiny moment when a drunk woman by Birmingham’s Broad Street nightclubs walks through our hero like he’s a glass door. It’s pretty good, I think: late night outside busy clubs so lots of dark and light plus she’s very drunk so you accept she doesn’t see him and you get that she doesn’t care.

This is my character’s most vulnerable point in the story so the symbolism of him finding himself accidentally in a ferociously busy place where he’s invisible and unwanted is, I believe, nicely striking.

Only, the drunk woman bothered me.

She does exactly what I need but the moment I say that to you, I realise she was a device rather than a character. Ultimately everyone in a script is a construct but you want them all to have life.

So actually I suddenly feel a tiny better about what I did. No, I like what I did, I just feel better that it’s something I keep doing.

Let me explain slightly quicker.

There’s a scene shortly afterwards where we’re back in Broad Street but it’s early the next morning. I think – no, I know – I am channelling the final scene in Before Sunrise where the film touches on locations we’ve seen, just now empty and in daylight instead dark and alive with that film’s Celine and Jesse.

Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan’s script for that scene says:

“…a series of shots of many of the locations CELINE and JESSE inhabited the night before. In the early-morning light those places are now somehow different. Even though there is little human presence at this time of the morning, the transformation has begun.”

In my case, my guy Richard has come under even more pressure overnight but it’s familiar pressure, it’s the kind of problem that he’s good at, so in an odd way he begins to climb back up.

New day, new world, I’m not saying this is the most original part of my script. I need it, I want it, I’ve made it this way but the uncontrollable itch is in this scene:


Establishing. The outside of the Really Cheap B&B. Hagley Road. Broad Street’s cheap hotel. Jury’s Inn. The same DRUNK WOMAN asleep inside a curry house, face against the window.

That’s it. She’s back. Doesn’t do anything, doesn’t appear again and even in this moment Richard doesn’t notice her – but isn’t that right? Doesn’t that feel right to you?

I like the mirroring. I especially like that I got it organically, that I didn’t think What Will Mirror Last Night’s Scene.

I also just find it really, truly satisfying when moments connect together. When things aren’t just a good idea thrown in but they become part of the weave.

The trouble is that I cannot stop doing this. If something happens in a script of mine or if you meet a character, it is almost totally rock-solid certain that you’re going to see them again or it’s going to have an impact again.

I was asked about my bad writing habits the other day and this is one. I can definitely see that it’s because I also produce things: I want to make maximum use of every character, every extra, every location. And I do see that this is also actually quite limited of me.

But the satisfaction when this particular script knew I needed something and tapped me on the shoulder to remind me that I had this drunk character I could come back to, that is and was gold.

Setting things right

Listen, I don’t know where I’m going with this but I want to noodle about something you. It does slightly concern a TV show that remains a favourite of mine despite tailing off. It also concerns a film that will always be a favourite, no tailing off possible.


So, here’s the thing. In the very closing moments of the film Before Sunrise, we get a series of daytime shots of various locations around Vienna. They’re the same ones that we have just spent the film seeing but during most of the film we saw them at night and always, always with Celine and Jesse in them.

Usually talking.

It’s a quiet yet startling ending that I think speaks to how much we create within spaces: the locations are the same but without the characters they are different. Because they’re now in daytime it’s like the lights being switched on, the reality of the stage revealed. It’s reminded me of parties where really no matter what you do setting one up, success or failure is really down to who comes and what they’re like when they do. The party is an excuse for people, locations are a canvas for characters.

I think about this more than honestly seems feasible but I was minded of it particularly this week by the last episode of Community. It’s been a weak season and I don’t know if it is the last-ever episode but it probably is and there was something of that Before Sunrise feel to it.

Specifically the episode did show us some of the regular sets now empty of people and it had that same canvassy feel for me.

It seemed to be saying both that we’re done here – and look at what we did.

Six years ago this was a study room in a library and these were the characters we didn’t yet know. Now the same room is the site of epic paintball battles, the table is a replacement replica because they destroyed the first one with an axe. It’s like those stories are still in the room, even though really they’re still in our heads if we’ve seen them. I want to think that you sense them whether you know the show or not.

I’ve often thought of it the other way around, of looking ahead to what potential a set has.

I love that television series have specific recurring sets for basically economic reasons yet they become dramatic ones. It’s cheaper to film on the same set each week and even if you have the budget to be on location all the time, you need somewhere indoors to shoot when the weather is bad. But you also get what used to be called the familiar locale, a place for viewers to want to go to. These days it’s called the show’s precinct, presumably after all the cop shows that were set in actual precincts, but the principle of it being somewhere familiar persists.

The famous example is in Star Trek where in theory we all aspired to be on the Enterprise. Certainly the Coronation Street tours exist on the fact that people want to visit Weatherfield. When I first heard of the Harry Potter studio tours I couldn’t get it: it’s just a set, why do you want to visit a set?

But then I was thrilled being shown around the sets of new Crossroads Hotel back when I got to write for that series. I liked seeing the replica TARDIS sets in the Doctor Who Experience.

Place matters. I think it matters most in television.

Films can go anywhere and despite all the sequels we get now, it’s still generally following recurring characters more than recurring locations. Radio can go anywhere though Ambridge feels real to listeners now. Theatre will often establish a specific place but it doesn’t feel like something we return to, it’s a frame for this specific play this specific evening.

In television I think places become characters. The Enterprise was often called that by the writers. I just rewatched Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and while it’s irritatingly flawed, one thing that is exceptional is the massive set. It’s a completely constructed theatre studio that creates a complete world yet allows for every possible combination of big and intimate scenes, large groups and pairs of people. Also huge movement: the set constrained characters and it let them loose too.

The set has the last word in Studio 60 too. The final shot is of someone switching off a lone lightbulb. It’s never been there before, it exists only to be switched off, it is visual reference to the end of a play, it is in all ways contrived. But it works: I forget the character problems, the creepy romance, the unfunny comedy sketches and instead I’m left wishing we could stay in that set, in that world for longer.

Dammit. The hardest thing in drama is creating a character. Then you have to create another one for them to talk with. Now we have to create somewhere for them to go too?