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?

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.

Star Julianna Margolies holding a script for The Good Wife

Since records began

I’m running a workshop for children at the Bournville BookFest tomorrow and it will be my 510th public speaking gig since records began in late 2012.

I think a lot about that phrase, “since records began”. Usually it’s used to describe something incredibly serious like climate change or utterly trivial like, er, how Mars Bars have been shrinking since records began.

Was there one day when everybody thought we should be making records? Or did they start with the big stuff and add in the trivial to seem busy and keep their jobs?

I’d say that my 510 is pretty trivial, if not to me, except I can beat it with something else I appear to be counting which even I find daft. I’ve read thousands of scripts since records began but late last year I read a blog on Script Angel that recommended reading one a day. And I was persuaded.

Like most new year’s resolutions, though, I did fall off the wagon. Just not in the usual direction. If I’d stuck to reading one script per day then right now I should be on my 75th.

After we’ve spoken today, I’m going to get a mug of tea and read my 203rd.

I would like to share with you some lessons I’ve learned from 509 performances (remember, tomorrow’s is the 510th) and 202 scripts (remember, today’s is the 203rd).

But the only thing pressing on my mind is this small piece of advice. If you start watching a drama series on Netflix, finish it.

I got deeply into The Good Wife on Netflix about two years ago but for some reason stopped. Something came up. Work. I went away. I don’t know. But for some reason I didn’t rush back to the next episode and now I’m a little unclear how far through I got. I’m pretty sure I had this break in the show’s second season but it might be the third.

Either way, in my 202 scripts so far this year, 7 of them were from this show. To be specific, I’ve read the first 7 episodes of the series and each one has been superb. I’ll carry on reading – the entire first season’s scripts are online – but I really wanted to watch the filmed and broadcast version of one of them.

And I can’t.

Netflix UK has taken the whole show off.

We live in a time when we have myriad choices of dramas to watch and it feels like everything that has ever existed is available on demand or even just on a whim, but it isn’t. And you know that Netflix’s decision is to do with rights, is to do with their license to broadcast it, but nobody outside those deals can predict what will be added and when it will be taken away.

At least, nobody’s figured out how to predict it. Since records began, anyway.

Ditchwater dull

I don’t know what I want to say. If you don’t mind, I’d like to noodle around a couple of points that have become a thing this week. There’s a connection, I don’t know what it is.

Yesterday I was in a Performing Arts school talking about journalism and at one point we got into a discussion about the dull things journalists have to do. A teacher made the suggestion that the amount of reading you have to do is, well, not dull, but a chore.

I worked it out in front of them: I probably read a couple of hundred headlines a day, maybe a hundred starts or standfirsts to the ones that intrigue me, then maybe just sixty full articles. But I couldn’t tell you which of that is for work and which is for pleasure as they overlap: these are topics I work in but they’re topics I’m interested in.

Then one 11-year-old said that it was the amount of writing. I’ve only this moment, typing that to you, realised that the first dull suggestion was reading and the second one was writing. I suspect I may have found what my point is: these people I spoke to don’t want to be journalists.

Only, there’s one more thing knocking around my head. As well as me, there were two BBC television news people talking to these kids. I’d say I’ve rarely felt so outclassed but actually there are times when I’m that outclassed daily. Really, though, these two had presence and you were just immediately drawn to them.

One told me about having worked in schools and universities plus then seeing how those pupils and students behave when they get jobs in television. She said that it was common to find them refusing to fetch props, get coffees or even to shadow someone doing the job they apparently want so much.

Maybe this really is my point: they don’t want to be what they think they want to be.

Few if any of the 120 or so pupils I saw yesterday will ever choose to become writers. That they’ve seen something about it all and can make that choice knowing gigantically more than I did when I was their age, that’s fantastic. That the school does many of these days giving their pupils access to all manner of careers is perfect. I wish I’d gone to this school or that my school had been anything like it.

But of those people in any school, any education establishment, who want to become writers and journalists, I am suspecting now that many of them actually want to be what they think the job is.

The television newcomers want to direct Panorama in their first week, that kind of thing. Some or maybe many would-be journalists and writers want to be journalists and writers who don’t write or read.

This could all be obvious, you’re nodding at me now, and I think I’m being slow. But these thoughts about yesterday are clicking together with one I’ve seen before. When I meet a new writer and they say something about wanting to be the next JK Rowling with all her millions, I know they never will be. I haven’t even seen a word of their writing and I know they haven’t got it. They don’t get what she did. What she does.

If someone wants to write because they’ll enjoy being a published writer, they won’t make it. I feel I’ve lurched off into some kind of patronising diatribe now and I’m pretty sure that’s not what I was trying to figure out with you here.

You have to see the necessity and the pleasure of the dull things. Maybe that’s it. Yet I’m so deep into this and I so love what I do that I am struggling to name a dull bit.

Well, the fact that I’m full of cold again and must now go deal with spreadsheets, that’s getting there.

Writing to ourselves

This is a tough one because I can’t quite form the thought that’s bubbling but I want to try. It’s clearly about the little local difficulty this week, that tiny of thing of Trump getting elected. And it’s also definitely about the disconnection between most things I read beforehand and what a majority of the US public must’ve read.

But other things keep popping in. Like the photo of a spray-painted sign that went went around social media this week. It’s so peculiarly spaced that you have to think for a moment but what it’s trying to say is “Make America White Again”. Forget that it’s an inexpressibly painful statement and instead if you see the photo, look at the symbol between the words.

Here’s someone doing the America-for-Americans crap but he – it’ll be a he – uses a German Nazi Swastika symbol. That symbol had a life long before the Nazi Party but that’s over, that’s gone, that’s erased: this logo is forever Nazi and German. If the painter knows this, he’s just broken his own ambition of building a wall between the US and ‘foreigners’. If he doesn’t know, then he’s even more ignorant than you already think.

Yet here’s an ignorant prick turning to writing. Writing matters. It reaches people: even his hateful message got widely circulated and I’m part of that. We couldn’t be more different, this man and I, yet he wrote something and I’ve passed it on to you.

Usually, though, it is true that we write and read within our own walled gardens. This has been an issue with the rise of Facebook and Twitter where if you don’t agree with someone, you can just remove them from your social media life. It’s definitely a big issue now as the result of the election was a surprise to pretty much all of the media writers. No question, they believed they were right and no question, each article condemning Trump backed up their view.

Only, I don’t think the walled garden idea is entirely fair. At least part of the problem with media coverage of the election is that people lied to them. People knew that it was bad to say they supported Trump, so they didn’t say it. The more they didn’t say it, the more the accepted view was that you couldn’t support this man so the more they didn’t admit it.

Obviously they knew they were lying, obviously they chose to lie, and it follows that they did so because saying they backed this foul man was socially unacceptable. It isn’t any more. He won. So the haters feel they’ve won too. Even if we didn’t have the evidence from Brexit here and even if we weren’t already seeing it in the States, you could predict that hate crimes would rise, that the darkest sides of people would come out into the light. Because they think they can do it, because they know it is socially acceptable to enough people, because their President is truly theirs.

That makes me shake. That’s a walled garden where the people in it have just discovered each other and are crowing about it.

It’s horrible but it’s not new. Even though Facebook and Twitter have exacerbated the walled garden idea, we have always had this exact same thing. Think back to when newspapers mattered: you didn’t see very many dinner dates between a reader of The Sun and one of The Guardian.

Go back even further, no, further than that, keep going, still more, nearly there, here you are. Pre-industrialised society. Whatever were the generally accepted norms in your village could be very different to what was thought right in the next. Back then the barrier was a physical problem of separation, now it’s more human response.

And I’m afraid it is human. We are born into one tribe and even if we leave, we seek out others. Writing has enabled us to leave sooner and spread further, yet we still and always will gather in similar groups. Aaron Sorkin once had a character say that if you’re dumb, surround yourself with clever people and that if you’re clever, surround yourself with clever people who disagree with you. We won’t.

I don’t write to you because I consciously think you’re in my tribe, I write to you because I like you. My Facebook friends are people I like, or people I’ve worked with, or people I’m pretty sure I know even if I can’t quite place them at the moment. Amongst them, there’s been a lot of talk about blocking and unfriending people who are pro-Trump. It is tempting but I’ve resisted because I do want some gristle, I do want to learn and grow and persuade and be persuaded.

But I accept that in the main, I am in a walled garden and I am writing in one. I also accept that this is bad and that we should do what we can to break those walls down.

Only, there is a part of me that thinks this isn’t the problem. If Trump and Clinton supporters are in walled gardens, if Brexit’s Leave and Remain sides are in walled gardens, we probably can’t change that.

What we need to do is make our walled garden bigger than their walled garden. And we’ll do it with writing. You and I.

Reading and writing

I can remember my sister trying to teach me to read. I can see her, I can see the room, I can feel my anxiousness to get away, I can hear my mom saying okay, well, maybe that’s enough for today. I was slow to start and while I’m fuzzy now on the details of how it went at school, I know I was in a remedial reading class for a least a while. I know that because I can equally clearly see the room and the teacher.

Again, I’m shaky on details but I think it was that several of us who were below average reading ability were regularly taken off out of classes and into some other room to read. I’m sure of it, actually, because the thing I can see, the moment I can completely visualise is when the teacher thought I was pretending to read.

Whatever it was, however it happened, there was just one moment when suddenly I could read very well. I’m not certain I even realised it: I picture her asking me to read something aloud and instead of struggling as I presumably did up to then, I read it flawlessly. I read that flawlessly, I read the next piece she shoved under my nose and the next. I read and read and never went back to that remedial class again.

I don’t often tell people that but chiefly because I don’t often remember it. Reading is just part of everything I do, it’s part of everything I am. Only, I wanted to tell you this today because something happened this week. It’s something that I am having difficulty processing, I am struggling to get it into my skull. But then equally, I can’t seem to get it out of my head either.

I’m a best-selling author.

Seriously.

You’ve got to let me qualify that, you’ve got to let me try to whittle it down a bit. I’m a best-selling author of a non-fiction book, actually solely an ebook, and I’m a best-selling author only in its very, very specific niche. I’ll tell you: the book is called <a href=”http://amzn.to/1OdOCJx”>MacNN Pointers: Get More from Your Apple Software</a> and I co-wrote it with Charles Martin. We are best-selling authors of this collection of tutorials on how to use the software that comes with your iPhone, iPad, Mac and so on. We co-wrote it, I edited it and the book was proposed by Mike Wuerthele. He’s managing editor of MacNN.com, Chas is editor.

Within a few hours, certainly no more than a day of it being available, the book went to number 1 in its category on Apple’s iBooks Store in both the US and the UK. On Kindle, it was number 2 in the US and nowhere near as high in the UK – but high enough that Amazon listed it has a Hot Seller. Then at some point it became number 10 on Amazon for books in its category. That’s books, not ebooks. Number 10 in its category across both ebooks and physical books.

That speed isn’t just exciting, for me, it’s directly responsible for the best-selling status. For publishing has changed and not just in the fact that there are now ebooks. It’s changed in how I believe it used to be that the book that sold the most number of copies was the best-selling number 1. I don’t know that was the case but it sounds pretty reasonable. Today that is a factor but so is the speed of sales: something selling a dozen copies a minute will chart higher than something selling a dozen a week, even if the former only lasts for one minute.

So the fact that, for whatever reason, the book was immediately popular, that’s what took it into this status. I can tell you we’ve sold a couple of hundred copies so it’s not like we’re shirking.

I’m not thinking of numbers though. I’m certainly not thinking of the money: this is not something that will change my week let alone my life. I’m thinking instead of how this is like the time a proof copy of my first-ever book arrived. I held that book in my hand and I realised no one can ever take it away from me. Good or bad, I’d created that book and long after my death if any other writer wants to cover the same ground, their proposal will have to explain how my book can be bettered.

In much the same way, then, you can argue that best-seller status doesn’t mean what it used to, you can very well argue that it’s a bit different being a best-selling author in a non-fiction technology category than it is being a novelist on the New York Times charts. But you can’t take it away. No one can. I actually am a best-selling author.

I’m a little red-faced with excitement yet also pale: a slow-starting reader, a remedial-class reader, what one pixel changed in my life or my head that turned me into a writer? I am unemployable in any other job: I think a lot about what would’ve happened if I’d not found this in me.

I’m also uncomfortable being proud of this. I’m only telling you, right? And any publisher I ever pitch to, naturally. I’m modest but I’m not stupid.

No, sorry, modesty is wrong. I am British, that is how I feel about it, but I’m also proud and so I should be. I didn’t particularly aim to be a best-selling author, the lifetime ambition has been just to write and keep writing, but now it’s here I am and I should be proud.

I got to this the long way around, I got to it through stubborn persistence. So yes, I’ve been pig-headed for a long time and maybe now I can spend a minute or two being big-headed instead.