Fit and finish

I’m not a planner. Well, I am with projects and I’ll plan writing so that I don’t miss deadlines. Also, when required to, I can outline a story or script. Plus, there have been times when I have had to plan a story just to get it clear in my head or knock it out fast enough for a producer. And I’ve planned hundreds of events, I’m a planner there even if I doubt any of those talks or workshops or sessions has ever stuck very closely to the plan.

But apart from all events and certain stories and every commission and most projects, I’m not a planner.

I prefer to just start writing and see where it takes me. Now, if you do this, if you are stupid enough to do this, you are obligated to know that you’ll be writing rubbish. You have to know that you will – and I have – written a hundred thousand words of which you then throw away ninety thousand.

I think that’s a bargain. You get ten thousand words you’re happy with and all it costs is ninety thousand you’re not. I’ll take those odds and I have, many times.

But I feel as if I’ve talked a lot with you about fairly bleak things lately and I want instead to tell you something about all this that makes me happy. Very happy.

This will take a sec.

Often – maybe always – you’re reaching the end of a script, a story or even an article and you know you need something. I think you know what I mean and I’m certain that I can’t define it any better than this. There is just something more you need. A moment, a character, a thought. Even a plot point. It’s something that, if you get it right, is the final part that turns a piece from a string of words into a story.

And the thing I so adore is that sometimes – just sometimes – you realise you’ve already got it.

Something you wrote earlier in the piece was clearly there solely so that you could call it back, so you could pick it up, so you could build on it, so it could create some kind of harmonic. You didn’t do it deliberately and you haven’t been working to make it fit the end but it’s so right that it is as if you did and you always knew it was the finish.

It’s crucial to me both that it can perfectly do this thing for the end but also that I set it up so thoroughly and completely unconsciously.

As I say, it only happens sometimes but it is inexpressibly wonderful when it does. I feel clever, I feel daft, I feel satisfied.

And the reason I’m telling you now is that I’ve had the biggest, greatest, most unexpected one of these.

I shouldn’t say it, really, since I haven’t yet written the end that so gave me this feeling. But I will. Because I can’t fail to tell you everything and because I have a collection of short stories coming out and I was looking at a tiny moment in one of the tales.

It’s really small. It is completely unimportant and it only keeps its place in the story because it’s what this particular character would say at that particular time.

I’ve easily re-read this part a hundred times during the preparation of the manuscript, quite likely more.

And yet this time when I read it, I knew.

He says this thing because it is also part of another story.

There wasn’t going to be another story, there are already ten in the set and they are long done but now there has to be another one. It is complete, or it will be, and it is of itself, you will not have to have read the first take.

But if you have, I think this incredibly small moment will make the book complete.

You will not be able to guess which story came first and you will not know that I didn’t do it deliberately. Plus I didn’t know this but the book would not have been complete with this tale which I am compelled to write, which demands to be in the collection.

‘Course, it could turn out rubbish and I could end up dropping it from the book.

I don’t plan these things.

Not the most right I’ve ever been

I’ve been in a lot of discussions lately about how we all, but especially writers, talk very loudly about anything you could possibly call a success and stay silent about everything else. It’s not as if everyone else is rooting for you to fail, but it is that the curated good news boast has consequences. There is the ever-present risk of being boring, which is not to be ignored, but also most of us are not succeeding most of the time.

So when you’re exposed to constant hurrahs and your own writing isn’t going anywhere, you get split between pleased for whoever it is and, well, not pleased for yourself. Then five minutes later, the successful person suddenly isn’t successful at the moment and they go through the same range of feelings as you just did.

I know this, I knew this, but I did not appreciate how much it can affect people. I knew how it affected me but we all think something is just us and we don’t appreciate the scale of it. We especially don’t appreciate how amplified all this is on social media, or at least I didn’t.

A conclusion that every one of these recent discussions has come up with is that we should talk about our failures as well as our successes. How we should be more honest.

I’m going to be more honest with you. It appears that I can’t quite make it all the way to total, bare honesty, so instead of flat-out admitting I was wrong and that something has failed, I’ve had to first try setting the scene like this. Don’t think of me as a complete failure, think of me as a hero for revealing those failings.

If you would like to stop reading now, I would appreciate it if you took away with you the belief that I am a mensch.

If you’re not coming back and you also promise never to check, you could take away the belief that I am roguishly handsome, too.

My name is William and I haven’t written scripts for thirty minutes every day this year.

That was my big drive for 2019 and it follows last year’s push to read more scripts. Curiously enough, now that script reading vow is over, I’ve accidentally carried that one on and actually have read a script every day anyway. If I do it again today, after we’ve talked here, then my total for the year will be 133 scripts read.

But only 26 days of scriptwriting every day.

I could make excuses and I don’t really see any way either of us can stop me. So there was a kind of holiday day or three, which was complicated. There were some days when I was working to midnight and then up for the next thing at 4am, which was exhausting. And there was a friend dying, which was shit.

Right now I’m five days behind on this vow. There’s a bit of me that thinks I can make up that time in the sense of doing, say, an hour a day for a while. And there’s a bit of me that thinks I can make up that time in the sense of just pretending to you that I’ve done it.

But I think the thing to do here and probably every time either of us fail to do something, is to forget the past, forget thinking about what we haven’t done, and instead go do something now.

I was wrong

Last year, I made a big deal of the fact that I read 640 or so scripts. I generously offered you ten lessons that I’d learned and, while I didn’t say this at the time, it was difficult enough to come up with ten that I figured I had found them all. I had learned all there was to learn.

Give me this: when I’m wrong, I’m thorough about it.

For now that I don’t have this resolution, now that 2018 is over and I am no longer reading a script a day, I’ve relaxed and only read some 41 more of them so far this month. And number 38 went against at least many of my ten lessons.

I won’t tell you what the script was because I want to work on the series some day. But I will tell you this: the reason I read numbers 39, 40 and 41 right after it was because 38 had put me into a foul mood and I wanted to clear my head.

Didn’t work. Let me tell you as an aside, to make up for not naming this script and to hopefully be of some use instead of just grumbling at you, that number 39 was an episode of I’m Alan Partridge (book). Then 40 and 41 were a two-part Star Trek: Deep Space Nine story. (The Search part 1 and part 2.)

All three are good. Still didn’t help. I went to bed annoyed and I’m ratty again today.

Chiefly because this script is for a show I saw early last year and had enjoyed on screen. On the page, it was irritating. I’ve said that actors, directors and producers can make a poor script seem okay but they will never make it great. That was one of my ten lessons and yet now there’s this. Maybe the show made from this script wasn’t exactly fantastic, but it was very, very good.

Good enough that I was excited when a friend sent me the script.

On the page, all I can see is how hard the cast had to work to make this dialogue sound natural. When I remembered how the actors delivered a line, I could see how they got there but otherwise it just wasn’t on the page. Good dialogue doesn’t make sense and isn’t grammatically correct yet there’s a way to write it so that when you read it on the page, you hear how it should be spoken and you believe it. You believe this is what a real person would say.

In this script, there was none of this. Dialogue was just a mash of words that you had to unpick.

All of the ideas that I’d so liked in the finished show are right here in the script yet somehow they’re carelessly half-hidden.

I think this is what has left me in a bad mood. This felt careless. It really isn’t, it really cannot be, yet that’s how it reads. I think what I’m struggling to reach is a thought that this script was written by someone who doesn’t care about scriptwriting. I’m certain they care about television drama and I will always agree with them that a script is just a blueprint for a show.

I’m guessing now, but a typical television series script will only be actually read by perhaps a hundred people. Maybe two hundred at the absolute outside. What’s more, every one of those readers is a professional who has worked on drama before. This script had all the information each one of them needed to do their jobs. And the end result worked very well on screen so the only sane conclusion is that I’m an idiot.

Only, this is writing. By a writer. You may well not like what I write but it isn’t casually thrown off, it isn’t careless. I’ll never know if I’m any good but I do know that there is a certain standard that I can’t slip below. If I write crap, it isn’t the writing that’s so bad, it isn’t the technique or the skill or the care.

I think the conclusion you’re helping me reach is that the writer of this script is not a good writer – and yet he does make a good television drama.

I didn’t think that was possible. I’ve said it isn’t possible. And even now, right this moment, right here talking to you, I still believe that it isn’t conceivably possible. But seemingly it is.

I don’t especially mind being wrong. What I mind is that I’d say this script was bad and yet the show was good.

This kept me awake.

Thanks for being my therapist today, I owe you. Now, I’m off to read another script and to write one too.

Script pages

My 10 lessons from reading 620 scripts

Late in December 2017 I read a piece by Lorenzo Colonna on Hayley McKenzie’s Script Angel site that suggested reading one script a day. And I thought yep, good idea. I would read a script every day for a year. Now it’s 28 December 2018 and when you and are done today, I’m going to go read my 621st.

I am surprised that it turned out to be so many but I was more surprised by how many people have asked why I was doing it. Just to keep this surprise line going a little further, I obviously wasn’t even mildly startled that I learned some things from these scripts. But I was and am shocked at how they changed through the year. Or rather, how I did.

I kept a list so that I didn’t repeat any – and with the idea that a growing list would keep me at it. And now I can look at any entry and tell you where I was, what I was doing or going through, and how I felt. Plus I can tell you about almost any script: there are a couple where I nearly did read them again because I’d forgotten about ’em.

Sometimes, I’ll fully admit, they were a chore. They were a job to be done in the last moments of the day. Other times they were a joy and the first thing I did before breakfast. You could’ve guessed at that, especially as I went so far over the one-per-day idea. What I didn’t guess is that sometimes they were an escape. Occasionally, on some supremely bad days, they were even a refuge.

And then there would be times, so many times, when I’d read something that was extraordinary and I’d know that I will never write that well.

Doesn’t mean I’m not going to try.

While I do that, while I crack knuckles, let me please tell you the ten things I believe I learned from reading these scripts.

10. It’s got to be there on the page
I’ve seen actors lift a piece, most especially including one of my two staged shorts this year, but there’s a limit. Very talented actors and directors can make a poor script seem okay, but it will never be good on its feet if it isn’t at all on the page.

9. Just because it’s on the page, it might not make it to screen
Conversely, I have seen the opposite happen. I’m sorry, I can’t remember which one it was now, but I read a sitcom script that I really enjoyed and then watched the aired episode. Jokes that had worked on the page simply didn’t on screen. Characters I liked as I read, I then didn’t as I watched, And somehow it all felt amateur.

I couldn’t leave you hanging. I’ve just searched. It was a US comedy called Happy Endings. I must be in the minority because it ran for a couple of seasons.

Still, I’m minded of Coupling. Once for BBC News Online I watched the pilot of the US remake of that show and then immediately watched the pilot of the original. There was some joke in the UK version that made me laugh aloud and was in the US one, in exactly the same point in the episode, and I hadn’t even realised it was a joke at all.

8. When writing and production work, there’s nothing like it
All this reading and I know even more so than I did before that cast and direction is crucial. Dammit.

There’s a scene in a Homicide: Life on the Street script that is so bare bones, so on-the-nose with people saying what they mean, that at least part of it could’ve been in a soap. Yet there on the page, you got why soap isn’t drama. This wasn’t simplistic or simplified, it was raw. You felt for these characters.

And then I watched the episode and felt it even deeper. No theatrics, no special effects, just pain transmitted into us from a superbly real character played perfectly.

Do give it a read. Homicide: Life on the Street: Every Mother’s Son. Teleplay by Eugene Lee, story by Tom Fontana & James Yoshimura. It was directed by Ken Fink and while that description I just gave you could apply to many characters in the episode, I’m thinking of the character Mary Nawls, played by Gay Thomas Wilson.

7. The first ten pages rule is bollocks
Some writers bleat on about how unfair it is that certain studios or production companies only read the first ten pages of your script. I’ve always known this is a fallacy: the argument is that the script gets really good after page 49. But if you are genuinely capable of making a script good after 50 pages but you can’t see it’s crap up to then, you’re not genuinely capable of writing.

Without exception, without one single exception, I have known from the opening page, the opening lines, whether a script was going to be good or not.

Now, that doesn’t mean I’ll like it, that I’ll enjoy it, but it means I know it works and is well done.

There is also the fact for the most part I chose the scripts I was going to read so you’d imagine I’d like them. It’s not as if I were picking at random or accepting anything sent to me. But then scripts were sent to me: during 2018 I was a judge on three separate awards panels and they were all about writing. I think maybe sixty of the scripts I read were nominees and I didn’t know anything about them in advance.

Didn’t make a difference. There were scripts I liked a lot but which abruptly shot themselves in the foot by the ending. There were others I slogged through because it was my job. But in each case, I knew whether there was going to be anything to like or admire or enjoy in each script and I knew right away.

6. Nobody gives a damn about writers and nor should they
Scripts about writers are death. If your lead character is struggling with writers’ block, well, boo fucking hoo.

5. Don’t be a smartarse
Alan Plater once told me that my stage directions made him laugh aloud – but that I should get that strength into dialogue instead. Then, when I did, he called it a great leap forward for writerkind. I did re-read one of my earliest scripts and it was dreadful for a thousand reasons, but one of them was that my stage directions were smartarse.

Again, I can’t remember which scripts I read this year that were like that and this time I won’t search because it feels cruel. But there was one that particularly sticks out. A location was described as being “the kind of house I’ll live in if this goes to four seasons”.

It was just a gag and it did the job of conveying the richness of the location but it jarred. Made me feel that the writer was more interested in the business than in the story.

4. You can lose anything, you can remove anything
I have always known this: the pilot to the sitcom Cheers is an extraordinary piece of work. I’ve seen it many times over the years but hadn’t read the script until now. I’d seen it so often that I would’ve been able to tell you in detail why it’s so good and I know I could even have quoted one of the jokes.

So it was somewhat surprising to find that the script has an extra character in it. When you’ve read the script and all her scenes, then you can actually see her in the finished episode. But every scene she was featured in and every line she said or was said to her is gone.

I’m sorry for the actor but it was the right choice. I’m sure it was only done because the episode was running long but it works better without her.


3. Script books are dead and possibly should be
I have a couple of hundred books with scripts and screenplays in but I stopped buying them years ago. In this 2018 reading, I did raid very many of those books and there are scripts that I would never have been able to get otherwise. But the internet has killed off the script book and that’s a good thing.


Scripts in books are always reformatted to get as much text on the page as possible and while format shouldn’t matter, it does. When you’re reading a script in the layout it was written, you get the pace right in your head.

Also, published scripts are almost always cleaned up. Mistakes are removed and often scenes cut from the final show are cut from the script too. Getting to read the script as it was when it was handed to the actors is infinitely better and we can thank the internet for that.

For television scripts, I recommend Lee Thomson’s TV Writing site, which is my favourite, plus The Script Savant and Script Slug

For films there’s Simply Scripts.

Otherwise for radio and theatre you’re stuck with searching for individual titles. Actually, for theatre I would and did still go to books.

2. Save us from transcripts
On the other hand, you won’t believe how vehemently I despise something else the internet has done. It has given a platform for people who slavishly copy down every word of a broadcast show or film. They then post these online and some of these bastards claim that their transcript is the script.

Forget seeing the writing as handed to the actors, these transcripts are literally every word uttered on screen – and nothing else. Not even who said it. Certainly not where they were. These transcripts are an unreadable mess and I would burn them.

One thing. I did come across the reverse. I found a script to an episode of UFO and the site hosting it called that a transcript. What they meant was that they had a paper copy of the original script and had typed it up. That was fine. Although, wow, UFO’s pilot episode is of its time. Roaringly sexist, 1970s to its hilt, you can’t believe adults said some of these words.

This might help: if you’re searching for a script online, make sure you specify PDF in your search. I don’t know why, but transcribers don’t appear to have grasped PDF yet so the odds are that any result you get back is a true script.

And the last, perhaps most important thing I learned from reading hundreds of scripts:

1. It’s a damn sight easier to read a script than to write one.
This year I’ve read 620 and written only three. Well, there’s a fourth that I’ve written but it turned out half the length it needs to be. And I’m writing another one now but it won’t be ready for the end of the year. I would like to point out that two of the three I wrote have been staged. And the third got me some promising conversations with TV companies.

I would like to now say that I’ll write a script per day in 2019 but I have this feeling that might not work out. There were already days in 2018 that were so tight for time that I read ten-minute Danger Mouse scripts just to keep the tally going. (They’re very good, though.)

I would also like to say for sure whether I’m going to carry on reading a script a day. It has become a habit but it is also a lot of work. And I did notice that my other reading fell off a cliff. Maybe I should read a novel a day. What do you think?

Sex session plan

Last Monday night as the Bad Sex Award winner was being announced, I was running the last of six fortnightly writing groups. The group is coming back next year for another run but without me: they’ve got novelist Helen Cross instead. Now, immediately I’m thinking that I envy them and also that I need to leave the group at a good point, ready for her to do whatever it is she will do with them.

Instead, we talked and wrote about sex. This had been suggested weeks before and initially I’d not been interested.

Yet by the end of the run, I did realise both that there is something interesting here and also that if we examined it in just the right way, writing about sex could get this particular group to address something I had already thought their writing needed.

For sex writing is never about sex. It’s always about the characters. But then that’s the case with absolutely everything and sex is no different.

Except that sex is a way to maybe the fastest way to dive very deeply into a character. We always say our characters have to want something and they do so because otherwise they’d just sit at home and there’d be no story. Not everybody wants sex, but for those who do, when they do, it is more than a little interest, it is a driving compulsion that the characters probably don’t even understand.

Compulsion is fantastic because it can be desperate. And desperate characters don’t have time or energy to hide.

We all hide. We hide all the time. You are not the same person when you’re with a partner at home and then when you’re with your family. Or at work. Or in the pub, at a conference, in a club. We hide so much and we fit in so many places that it’s hard for us to know who we really are. So equally, it’s hard for us to know our characters and who they really can be.

Put them in a situation where they may have sex and you see everything stripped away, not just their clothes. Put them in a situation where they are having sex and you reveal their base nature: whether they’re dominant or submissive, whether they’re combative or – I can’t think of the word. Collegiate? Whether they work with their sex partners or whether they’re all for themselves.

And then lastly, put them in a situation where they have had sex and you can have a quiet aftermath that is as explosive with regret as the scene was with flesh. That compulsive drive for sex is incredibly powerful and incredibly motivating but once you’ve had it, it’s completely gone and you are left wondering what the hell all that was about.

That’s when sanity and calmness can return. Which means that’s when regret starts. And regret is a wonderful thing in drama.

Whether I’m writing prose fiction or scripts, I think of it as drama. But this is one case where the differences between those two types of writing are acute.

I offer that sex in prose fiction can be, should be, must be powerful. A friend sent me a manuscript of a novel of hers and she was a little embarrassed because it was a fantasy action tale with sex in it. I told her that the story was a rousing adventure –– and an arousing one, too.

Words have a power to arouse and excite and challenge. Whereas I offer that sex in films and on TV does not. It doesn’t matter what the story is, when a character is naked, you are thrown out of the story thinking how the actor looks. Whether he or she has a flat stomach or if there’s been some CGI and a stunt person involved.

I abhor anything that takes me out of a story so I have no interest in sex in TV or films. But I can have in prose fiction because there the words are digging in deeper. They are revealing characters to me. Through what connects with me, those words are also revealing myself to me. And they can be revealing the author too.

You don’t have to have sex in any story, but if you do, make it matter. Above all else, this is the one type of scene where you’ve got to have more going on than just the physical activity. If you haven’t, then it could be the strongest language you know but it won’t matter.

The group and I discussed lots of this and then I set them a task. Of course it was to write a sex scene but we conjured up a setting and I set them some rules. It had to be consensual sex, it had to be between a couple and they had to write it in the first person. Pick one character and write it from their perspective.

I don’t usually get so specific and prescriptive and I also don’t usually belabour this stuff with you.

The reason I want to tell you that detail is the same reason I wanted them to do it. After the group had written all of this and we’d talked about how we found the job, we did the next part. Yes. You’ve got it: write the same story again but from the other person’s point of view.

This exercise can actually work for anything in any story. If you’re stuck with a story, if you’re finding a character isn’t working, reverse it all and tell the tale from that other character’s point of view.

I’m not saying you’ll keep that version. I am saying that exploring the other character makes that character better – even if you then throw that other version away.

Since I seem to be lecturing you now instead of our usual nattering, let’s have another writing rule. See what you think of this.

I suggest that it’s probably best to write sex in the first person. A narrator is too easy an option for any story anyway, but here their detachment keeps us out of the tale. A narrator can say you touch me on my arm and I appear to like it. But only I can say that one touch stops me better than a blow. Only I can say that a single touch of your hand has me struggle to breathe.

Next, sex scenes make you think about the audience. If your reader is going to be a prurient teenager then throw in knob jokes and be done with it. If the reader is someone who actually does have some extreme sex life, you have to be accurate about it or they’ll stop reading. And if someone is uncomfortable with sex in reality, you can help them and you can play with them in fiction.

We always resist making our readers uncomfortable and it’s partly politeness, it’s partly because we don’t want to be uncomfortable ourselves.

Let it go. Be uncomfortable, be uneasy. If it doesn’t work out, throw it away. But write sex in order to explore how you write characters and how deeply you can go into yourself.

Writing is not like anything else. The more you go inside yourself, the more your writing will connect with other people.

Now, I’m supposed to be planning a writing workshop for children. Stop that. You’re being wicked.

All artifice just script away

Last week I was asked why I read other people’s scripts. For one brief, rather happy moment I thought the fella might be asking because I am such a fantastic writer that I have no need of learning from other people.

No, he said, I mean why read the scripts when you can just see the bloody film?

He had a point. Crushingly cruel as he was.

I do know many writers who will avoid the actual script if the film or the programme or the show has been made. The script is, as I completely understand, the detailed blueprint. It’s not the final show any more than a house is the sum of its elevation drawings or isometric projections.

And I’ve just now finished being one of the many judges on the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain’s radio awards. I can’t tell you which entries were my favourites and apparently I can’t even know myself which one has actually won. But I can tell you that some of us simply read all the scripts while others listened to all of the finished shows instead.

I can make you a strong argument for both. If you needed this for some test, I could stock you up with reasons to read the script and reasons not to.

You can imagine all of them except, I find myself hoping, one that matters rather a lot.

It’s quicker to read the script.

There. I’ve said it. I can read an hour-long script in about twenty minutes. A full-length feature film, say 120 pages, is maybe fifty minutes reading time at most.

I do read quickly but I never speed-read and I don’t skip anything, it’s just that I’m fast and scripts have very few words on the page anyway.

There is also this. I know in the first few seconds on page one whether I’m going to think it’s a good script. Recently I read a set where it took a page to get going and if we were in production I’d just kill those pages. But even then, they didn’t get going good enough: my first reaction was maybe harsh but definitely fair.

One interesting thing about reading other people’s scripts is that you come back to your own with a different perspective. Hopefully a better perspective but unquestionably different.

The trick is to read the ones by the fantastic writers.

Some 529 Not Out

Look at me there: I could not, just could not write a title that begins with a number. I had to contort that word ‘Some’ into it and I think that changes the meaning. If I were sure what it changed the meaning to, I might worry but if you don’t mind, I’d like to put all of this behind us and discuss 529 other topics.

As I write to you, it’s half midnight on Thursday 25 October 2018 and it’s not as if I’ve finished work, it’s more that I have to stop. I’m running a day-long workshop tomorrow for actors, musicians and journalists, and I’d like to be a teeny bit further along with the planning. Each time I do one of these, I rewrite the whole thing just to really get it all into my head and to freshen it up.

Tonight I want to add in a photo but considering the mistakes I’ve been making for the last hour, I’d probably end up photographing my thumb.

So the sensible thing is to stop, get some sleep and pick it up in the morning. There’s time, it’s sensible and practical.

Only, there’s also that 539 business.


I decided to read a script a day for 2018 and it’s fair to say that I’ve failed because so far I’ve read 539.

I haven’t read one tonight. Er, Thursday, I haven’t read one. I have a pain in my side from writing at this table for the last five hours, there is a bed calling to me from less than a metre away – this isn’t the most luxurious of hotels – and, oh, stop looking at me like that.

Okay, fine. Okay. I’ll read number 540. Because of that face of yours.

I’ve no idea what it will be as I’ve exhausted the short Danger Mouse ones.

But I do know this. I am writing a lot better this year. And there may have been some truly dreadful scripts. Yet I’ve been engrossed and exhilarated and sometimes upset to the point of tears too. And just occasionally, I’ve been a bit proud.

Such as now. I’ve read 530. I picked a short film script of my own because it was here and because I couldn’t remember anything about it. Also, it was short and you were looking a bit mad at me.

It’s not great. But the idea is and the script feels alive. I finished it wondering who I could pitch it to.

So on the one hand I do credit reading a lot of scripts but I also blame you for being so disciplined with my time. Can I go to sleep now?

Sidekick phenomena

I’ve been working with two writers recently and something came up with both of them. One has a character in her script who was meant to be a small part but is steadily becoming more important with each draft. And the other has just swapped two characters around in her novel.

They’re both right, I think they’ve found what their pieces needed, but I’m so interested in how changing a role can be liberating.

I like to imagine that all characters are created equal: that, sure, we’re only seeing someone when they’re delivering a parcel but actually they have a whole life too.

But they aren’t.

This is too crude a sketch of what’s happened but the novelist, for instance, is finding that she can do more with a character now that he’s not the romantic lead. She can do more with him and it’s like he can do more too: he’s got licence to be more lively, to actually be more interesting.

And equally, the other character is now more constrained.

It was ever thus. I think stories are more nuanced now, I think drama is richer, but the lead carries responsibilities because he or she is carrying the whole story.

Previously leading characters, the heroes of pieces, had to be stand-up heroes with square jaws – whether they were men or women – and to always do the right thing. No question, this is where the notion that actors prefer playing the baddie comes from because who wouldn’t?

We don’t need pure heroism any more and we don’t need perfect heroes.

But still, when the story is about you, then you are the story and like it or not, there’s going to be a beginning, a middle and an end. Whatever you do is ultimately driving the story forward and that’s why we still have this constraint on the major characters.

The minor ones can go cause havoc if they like, they ultimately don’t influence the story very much.

They can have fun, the writer can have fun, the audience or readers can have all this too, so everybody wins and it costs us nothing.

Except there are people who don’t see this difference. Audiences often don’t and I see no reason they should: I see much more reason that they should be enjoying the tale instead of analysing the character structure.

So when the audience talks a lot about how brilliant a certain side character is and how they deserve their own show, I just think the current show did a good job.

It’s when commissioners think it too that I’m more concerned. My go-to example for this will probably always be Ballykissangel. It was a hugely successful BBC drama with probably dozen lovable characters but really just two central ones. Who then left.

The show ended when they left, except it didn’t. I don’t remember how much longer it went on afterwards but really it was over because these other characters couldn’t carry it. They weren’t leads, they were sidekicks and it showed.

Minor characters are minor characters, they will never be major ones and I am a writing god for deigning to explain this to you when naturally you’d never have thought it without me.

Except I can see you there, thinking about characters like Frasier Crane, Lou Grant and Sergeant Lewis.

These three were supporting characters of various importance in their original shows – Cheers, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Inspector Morse – who went on to have their own gigantically successful series.

Only, I offer that they didn’t.

I suggest that what really happened is that the character name went on to a new show and that’s pretty much all.

For the Frasier who headlined 11 seasons of his own sitcom is not the same Frasier who propped up the bar at Cheers. Sergeant Lewis is a new and richer character in his own show, even if I still can’t remember the character’s first name and I even met the actor once.

It’s not that these characters were so good as minor ones that they deserved their own shows. It is definitely the case that they were popular enough that studios knew people who at least give them a chance.

What’s really the case is that the writers conned us brilliantly. They managed the change, they managed substituting a leading character for a minor one and we bought it.

I think the actors were key: I don’t understand acting but I see that it takes certain talent and skills to shoulder a whole show instead of solely being the comic turn every other week.

I’ve always thought that this was a kind of applied writing, that the writers knew they needed to make minor characters into major ones and so set about doing it. But talking with these two writers this week, I think there’s also an element of characters moving where they want to. I mean the characters want to move, not that the writer necessarily plans it.

I also like to think that the writer is in control but there are times when it feels like we’re just scribbling down what our characters tell us.

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:

EXT. BIRMINGHAM – MORNING

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.

The Silence of Silents

Previously on Self Distract… I’m a writer and I talk too much but still I wanted to persuade you that shutting up is a good thing. I believe you looked at me like that. But what was on my mind was how effective silence is in drama and Heide Goody pointed out that there were these entire wordless feature films that I’d forgotten.

She mentioned Buster Keaton and his silent movies are amazing.

Yet even as I was nodding in agreement and even as I was thinking she’s dead right and I should’ve thought of the silents before, I was also thinking about this.

There are silent films that didn’t need to be silent.

I mean movies and TV that deliberately chose to be silent for effect rather than because they simply didn’t have microphones.

I’m trying to remember the name of a television drama, some kind of military thing, where it went silent for one episode for no reason. Well, no drama reason. No story reason. I imagine it was several years into the run and the production team were bored.

Instead of characters speaking to one another, you had them pointing and gesturing like they were in a clothes catalogue. In every other episode the characters were played at least as if they intended to look believable but here they were amdram and if any had a moustache, you expected toiling.

Was it called Commando? Something like that. I can’t find it and I’m not one hundred percent unhappy about that.

Whereas I have found and will watch again one episode of The Prisoner.

It’s perhaps my favourite episode, Many Happy Returns by Anthony Skene, and for all sorts of reasons but one is that nobody speaks for about the first 20 minutes – and it is superb.

The silence is so well done that you don’t realise it’s silent. It’s so much a part of the story – Number 6 (Patrick McGoohan) wakes up to find the Village is deserted – that it’s natural. He doesn’t speak because there’s nobody to speak to.

That’s so obvious that you don’t think about it at all, you don’t think about how unusual this is for television drama. And then when you do hear speech it is a huge jolt.

That’s using silence for drama.

Do you know, I just looked up who wrote it and found that the script has been published. What’s more, I’ve got the book it’s published in. Right, that’s going to be my 421st script read of the year.

That book is The Prisoner: The Original Scripts – Volume 1 and Many Happy Returns is on Blu ray shiny disc.