At the start of October I went to Rewrite, a day-long seminar in Edinburgh for screenwriters about working with script editors and producers. Now my third ep of Doctors is pretty much done, I've got a chance to type up my notes. Here's the first set, from a session led by Philip Shelley on his work as a script editor.
Philip Shelley [PS hereafter] was script editor on two series of Waking the Dead [WTD] and the last two Inspector Morse stories, amongst many other credits. He said most script editors started as script readers. That leads either to writing or script editing, depending on the individual.
PS: A script editor [SE] works on a story through the drafts, from initial idea to finished episode. Seeing how things change during the process, that’s invaluable. SE is seen as the friend of the writer. It’s a small world – getting a SE to read and champion your work is a huge advantage. Producers look to SE for their knowledge of writers, that’s why reading helps so much – even if it does your head in a bit.
Most of the scripts you read aren’t that fantastic. But every few weeks you get a great script, and you’re taking note of the name for future reference. Coming up with ideas is another vital part of the SE job, they are constantly on the lookout for ideas, analysing why stories are successful (or not).
Story is everything. If you haven’t got a fantastic story it’s a problem. Great writing alone isn’t enough. So looking for stories is a big part of any SE job. Some ideas are just a scene, others have enough for three acts – SE needs to know the difference on sight.
Once an SE has a great story, it’s often their job to pitch it. Carlton had weekly development meeting where SEs pitched ideas to the head of drama. There isn’t a perfect format. WTD have a very good format but it did have problems. Silent Witness is a very flawed format, predicated on the pathologists taking over the job of the police. It’s a huge flaw but audiences go with it.
Returning drama series – the repeatable format is gold dust. A show where guest characters can ply off the regulars. Everyone’s looking for that drama series that goes six eps, then 12 and on and on. Writers who come up with such formats make a fortune. They get 10% of the writer’s fee for every episode.
SE has to communicate the vision of the series to the writer. If there’s a serial story, it’s crucial that gets passed on to the writer, especially any changes. The SE has to sell a writer’s ideas to the producer so they progress from treatment to script. Once money gets involved, things get a lot more complicated.
The better the original idea, the easier they are to progress – most aren’t. Flawed ideas are often doomed. The SE can’t expend lots of energy trying to fix a flawed idea, they have to be ruthless. It’s a very subjective business.
Writers shouldn’t second guess the market place, that’s really dangerous. A good SE will rail against cynicism. They’re desperate for originality – that’s what everyone’s looking for. Commissioners don’t know what they’re looking for, not until they read it. It’s very easy to rationalise yourself to death, to self-censor, to water your ideas down.
The BBC often expects writers to do a lot of work on spec, such as all the research and prep required to pitch an idea. If a pitch is liked, the writer gets asked to do a 3-4 page pitch doc, then on to a 9-page doc. It’s a huge amount of work, all too often unpaid.
A good SE can tell if you’re using bottom drawer material, recycling old ideas that have already been rejected elsewhere. They rail against that kind of cynicism, even if it’s understandable in a world where you’re expected to do some much work on spec.
Some writers need to discover a great story as they go along. That’s problematic. Broadcasters want it good and on paper at the start of the process.
When it comes to writing, rules exist to be broken – obviously. In every scene you need to think about who’s POV we are telling the story from. So much of screen drama is about what you reveal and what you hold back as a writer. Screenwriting has to reveal character through dramatic action.
It’s tempting for writers to reveal as much as possible as soon as possible. But some of the best writing is where the audience is trying to catch up with the characters. The default position: we are working with the character to discover the story. What you withhold and what you reveal are key decisions. I advise writers to withhold more, it helps to optimise exposition.
A SE has to be really protective of what works in a script, and the writer has to be prepared to fight their corner. But if it isn’t on the page, you can’t depend on actors to save the story. Good actors can make a bad script better – but most often poor writing will make good actors look bad.
It’s very important to get the balance right as a writer. Yes, you can have asides there for the benefit of whoever’s reading the script – but that’s cheating. You shouldn’t write stuff that can’t be shown on screen.
The SE has to challenge the writer to ensure everything on the page can be shown on the screen. Novel writing in a script doesn’t work, as a rule. If you can’t film it, it’s not going to be on the screen. Having said that, the writer has to be helpful to the reader. Share your vision of the characters with the reader.
It’s hard enough bringing a character to life through dialogue. Give your SE some help with a physical description of the character please.
Character status is really worth thinking about when you are working with characters in a scene. Situation is drama is vital. The film The Hangover has a great situation, three guys on a stag weekend have lost the groom. Situation is the basis of all good storytelling, it’s about how you tell the story from scene to scene.
How you use a cut is crucial, you can energise scenes by where you choose to cut.
My default setting is it’s better for characters to drive plot, rather than plot driving the characters. Create characters that can generate the story for you.
Look closely at how many levels your scene is working on, shouldn’t just be one level. It’s the same with dialogue – characters should be saying one thing but thinking another. Subtext is crucial for dialogue, adds depth and subtlety to your writing.
The writer have to know what genre they’re writing in. Once you are confident in a genre, then you can subvert the rules. Unless there’s a good reason for it, open with the script with your protagonist.
Clarity of presentation is key. Use Final Draft screenwriting software – Celtx is useful for beginners, but has its limitations. Scene numbers are really helpful. Some people will tell you only to add them for a production draft, but they make conversations about your script that much easier, more efficient.
Clarity of writing is crucial. You can over the top of obfuscation, so many strong ideas don’t make it on the page. If a script is confusing in the first five pages, you are making things very hard for everyone else. The SE wants the writer to paint a picture.
How you introduce characters is key – don’t cheat with novelistic writing. Make your characters distinctive as possible. Don’t forget a script is meant to be interesting.
Too many writers respond well to specific notes but the big, general notes are the most important. You have to understand the headline notes. If you don’t agree with a note you have to have that dialogue with your SE. The relationship is all about communication.
Increasingly, people are looking for writers who can think on their feet, come up with solutions in the room. Not everybody has that ability, but it’s a rising skill for writers.