As an actor, it feels like you are always being told by friends, casting directors, and career advisors alike, that “you need to start making your own content,” or to “write your own story.” But where on earth do you start? Backstage spoke with the BBC and Channel 4 for their top tips and resources to help launch your writing adventure.
What’s the very first step?
You can start by getting into a practice known as “morning pages.” Build up your discipline and get into a routine of logging something down every day. If you don’t feel inspired, just go for 15 minutes – you’d be surprised what can come out of it. Then carry a journal or keep a note on your phone so you’re ready to save any useful thoughts or observations as they occur. Maybe that strange comment you heard in the queue might be uttered by one of your characters later. Phoebe Waller-Bridge had been jotting down ideas and anecdotes for years before she started properly penning Fleabag.
What should I write about?
Fiona McDermott, Head of Channel 4 Comedy, explains: “In comedy, we’re not changing the world. It really is just people doing what I’m doing – parenting, work, family, daily obstacles. Then, what makes a show unique is the characters.”
Time and time again we hear: “Write what you know.” If we look at many acclaimed writer/performers, their work is testimony to this rule being the case. For example, Jamie Demetriou with Stath Lets Flats wrote about an eccentric Greek Cypriot family perhaps not entirely dissimilar to his own; and Samson Kayo with Sliced scribbled down his bizarre personal anecdotes working for a London pizza delivery company. And Michaela Coel was inspired by her own experiences to create the sidesplittingly funny Chewing Gum, or the phenomenal drama I May Destroy You.
Where can I do my research?
McDermott says: “If you don’t know how to structure scripts, you can find that out in five minutes. There’s a myriad of resources, so tool up and learn how to do this.” One great guide is Save the Cat!: The Only Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Sydner.
Gregor Sharp, BBC commissioning editor and writer on multiple comedy series including Two Doors Down, recommends: “There are a few simple things that are really worth doing and cost nothing. Reading scripts, particularly in the genre you’re planning to write in, will help you get to grips with the different formal elements – scene headings, transitions, stage direction etc.”
Another bountiful free resource is BAFTA’s Soundcloud where you can hear interviews with award-winning writer/performers, or you can find video masterclasses under the Guru tab on the website. For example, if you loved BBC’s hilarious awkward mockumentary People Just Do Nothing, you can listen and learn from the show’s creator/performers here.
How long should my script be?
Shane Allen, Controller at BBC Comedy Commissioning, advises: “For a BBC half-hour – around 36 pages. We go on roughly a page a minute but you want the script a little longer so there’s room to chuck out things for pace and quality in the edit.”
A Channel 4 “half-hour” is slightly shorter – generally, it needs to be a 30-page script.
How do I find my ‘voice’?
Sharp points out that it is worth “focusing on what the core of your show is. Whose story is it and what is it about? Try to make sure your opening episode deals with those questions. As humans, we instinctively love being in the hands of a great storyteller. You want your audience to be absorbed and hanging on every word, dying to know what happens next. If you have anything in your script which is there just to fill time or explain something which is implicit or which is repeating something, then you have to be ruthlessly rigorous in cutting it…. that’s where your voice becomes clear, and that’s the thing that audiences respond to more than anything else.”
Once I’ve got my concept, what makes a script really jump off the page?
“Characters!” cries McDermott. “When we read comedy, it’s all about the characters created on the page – I want to see you come to life or see that your take on the world is fresh, remarkable and funny. Funny! I know it sounds obvious, but we actually look for jokes. It is a specific and rare talent to be able to create characters and have a high gag count.”
She adds: “Inventiveness is essential with how you bring your life to work… In the olden days you were able to say: ‘Come see my live show.’ Now, you’re not able to show the full version of yourself, and that is tough for writer/performers.” So, how do you attach your personality to how you write? “Film a snippet of it.”
What about sketches?
At the BBC, Allen reveals: “We love short-form content. We have specific goals to aim for – The Threesomes on BBC Three are three times three minutes, and Comedy Originals on BBC Two are 14 minutes. The new iPlayer world has freed up duration restrictions and we can find a place for it as long as something is funny. There’s an easier way in for writer/performers to film and send in their own work, but we’re still looking for those writers with funny short-form ideas as they’re the longer-form sitcom writers of tomorrow.”
Top tip from Backstage: check out shows like BBC’s Famalam to see how brilliantly refreshingly funny TV sketch comedy can be.
How long will this all take!?
McDermott recalls working on Jamie Demetriou’s wonderful Stath Lets Flats: “It took a long, long time – nearly four years. And as proven by three BAFTA wins, it was absolutely worth it. His persistence, and his commitment to it, is pristine. It is an incredible case study in ‘don’t give up’ – it takes a long time!”
Sharp reminds us that it is “important to bear in mind that scripts are incredibly complex works which involve hundreds upon hundreds of options and decisions for the writer, so you are never going to write something ‘perfect’ at first-draft stage.”
How do I format my script?
“One of the helpful things about having industry standards in terms of layout is being able to assess length quite easily,” says Sharp. So, if you want to invest in professional software like Final Draft, which is the main choice in studios and production companies, you can purchase it online for between £150 and £200 (dependent on versions or deals available at the time). Fiona adds: “It sounds obvious, but make sure it’s all spelt correctly! I don’t think you need to buy fancy expensive software to present something that is readable and presentable.” So, if you’re strapped for cash, why not check out free software like Trelby or WriterDuet. Even Google Docs now has a template which will assist with layout and formatting.
Help – I need somebody!
Talk or perform your ideas through with friends, or find a co-writer. Working in a vacuum can be hard, so McDermott suggests you team up. Good collaborations can be like gold dust – a lifesaver when you hit a wall. She elaborates: “When we made Catastrophe with Rob and Sharon, they had each other to fall back on – they came up with ideas together. They respect each other’s work; their writing is brilliant. They performed all their scenes before they nailed their dialogues to paper. Their script process was excellent on that show.”
Gregor concurs, “Once you’ve done all the rewriting you can, it’s time to get some other eyes on your script. Friends and family if they’re willing, but what’s most valuable is objective feedback which doesn’t really have to bear your feelings in mind… Try and find someone, or a group, that can give you some sort of dispassionate critique and then try and process the feedback and use it as you rewrite again.”
From your experience, what is the biggest mistake you see again and again?
McDermott warns: “A common mistake is to send something going: ‘Hi, this is my idea!’ and just writing that in a paragraph. The proof is in the writing. Go and see if you’re a writer! Show you’re committed and dedicated to improving your craft as a writer before you start contacting people. Have a body of work – it doesn’t need to be loads, even just four or five sketches. Just get over that hurdle. It’s a journey.”
Allen says: “Anything too first-draft or flawed lessens its chances. You want it to be in its most perfect state before reaching the broadcaster hurdle.”
Sharp adds, “Pilot/first episodes are notoriously tough to write and trying to do too much is a definite trap. Readers/viewers want to be engaged and entertained, not bombarded.”
So, do I need a producer?
Yes, that is a very good idea indeed! Allen advises. “In BBC Comedy Commissioning, we see ourselves at the end of the creative process for new projects so ideally, an idea will have been through the filter of a producer/production company to reach its most developed state before it gets to us. A producer will be able to help shape an idea and interrogate it, hopefully put it through some read-throughs or workshops to make sure the characters are firing and the story is tight. Experienced producers will also know the market in terms of what’s already been commissioned and how to make a project more distinctive and exciting to a broadcaster.”
McDermott at Channel 4 agrees. “The feedback will always be you’ve got to go find that producer or that agent or that collaboration outside of yourself. Seek out producers who have content that you like. When you’re watching programmes, watch the credits – don’t let Netflix skip them! Go and research them. Find their development team and ask what their protocol is for finding new ideas.”
Sounds gruelling. Is there any other way in?
Don’t give up, says Allen: “In some ways, it can feel like a closed shop, and we recognise ‘the way in’ is the hardest part of the journey, so we run three bursary competitions for unsolicited writers across the year: The Caroline Aherne Bursary, with a leaning towards writer-performers; The Felix Dexter Bursary with a leaning towards diverse talent; and the Galton and Simpson Bursary which has an emphasis on mental health. The subject matter for these competitions can be about absolutely anything.”
Anything else we should know about?
If drama is more your genre, Channel 4 has an industry talent scheme called 4Screenwriting specifically for writers who do not yet have a broadcast credit. There is also the BBC Writers Room and the BAFTA Rocliffe New Writing Competition which has categories for both comedy and drama. Good luck!
More industry advice for UK actors? Click here.