Going on and on and on …


There are many hard and fast rules about scriptwriting which writers seem singularly incapable of following. Time and again writers break rules which were laid down to ensure their scripts are readable, if not actually good.

One of those rules I see broken over and over again is length:

  • Action description shouldn’t be longer than four lines. Shorter than three is preferable.
  • Dialogue should never be longer than four lines. Again, less is preferable.
  • Scenes themselves should never be longer than three (ish) pages without a damned good reason. Find yourself north (or south?) of five pages and you’re in big, big trouble.

images (1)

The problem, of course, with these rules are they’re utter bollocks.

Well, not utter bollocks. Mostly bollocks. They’re just not rules. Guidelines, maybe? Rules ofs thumbs.* Suggestions, perhaps?

Action should be short – yeah, I see that. Doesn’t really matter but it does make it far, far easier to read. And, if broken up properly, may bring your page count closer to one page=one minute.

Since most scripts are written with gaps between action lines then reading one without them is hard. Why make it harder to love your script?

Dialogue should never be longer than four lines – yeah, maybe. It does make sense because people rarely talk for that length of time without being interrupted.

Unless they’re giving a speech. Or lecturing someone. Or are really angry. Or boring. Or … well, lots of reasons really.


Part of the problem with long speeches is what do the other actors do while someone’s banging on?

Listen? That would be some very polite characters. People don’t tend to listen much. They tend to interject or change the subject or just wander off to make a cup of tea.

Except when they don’t.

Bad actors can’t stand and listen. Probably because it’s quite an unnatural thing to do. If you’re writing low-budget, cast fucking anyone who’ll accept, movies then you might want to consider both the quality of the actor listening and the ability of the one delivering it to maintain the same expression for that length of time.


Plus, it does slow things down. Actors love dramatic pauses.+ They fucking love ’em. Give an actor a one-page speech and you’ll end up with five minutes of footage.

Which may or may not be the director’s fault, I suppose. I don’t know.

This, of course, depends on what the scene’s about. A one-page rant will move faster than a one-page stare-mournfully-into-the-distance-and-recount-the-moment-where-it-all-went-wrong speech.

Both can work. Both can go horribly wrong.

Scenes should never exceed three pages – who the fuck thought that one up?

Okay, so again there is an element of truth in there. Long scenes can, sometimes, slow the pace. If everything’s meant to be fast paced and buzzy, then seven pages of people bantering about shoes may well slow it down again.

images (2)

Or it may not. Depends on the delivery, I guess.

The Aaron Sorkin walk-and-talk schtick helps with this. Get the characters moving, get them doing something and people won’t get bored.

Except when it’s done badly and after five minutes of fast-paced walking you start to wonder how fucking big this newsagent’s is and why they’ve gone past the Chocolate Hob Nobs seven times.

Personally, I get nervous when a scene hits five pages – usually it’s because there’s a lot of irrelvant banter in the middle or because the scene’s trying to do too many things and needs to just wind its bloody neck in.

Three pages feels about enough for most of the stuff I do.

So, you know, it doesn’t hurt to think about limiting action, dialogue and scene lengths … just in case.

Except when you shouldn’t. Except when it’s scenes like this from Doctor Who – The Zygon Inversion.



I love that scene. I fucking loves it, I does. I love the length, the staticness^, the wordiness … it’s just amazing.

To me this proves any rules about length are really there to disguise dullness in a script. Make a scene crackle, make it tense, make it have immediate and terrifying stakes and all the rules can just fuck off.

Limiting the length of things is probably a good rule of thumb@ … but it’s just that. Sometimes your scene can blow all that away with it’s sheer awesomeness. When you’ve got a scene which demands page-count … go for it!

I guess the real skill in writing comes from knowing when it’s appropriate.


* I didn’t know how to pluralise this so I just went all out.

+ Possibly while they scramble to remember the next massive chunk of dialogue.

^ Real word or not? Probably not.

@ Except for thumbs. Don’t limit the length of your thumbs.

Categories: Random Witterings | Tags: , , | Leave a comment



I don’t know about you, but I’m loving Doctor Who this season. Last season wasn’t for me, I found it increasingly difficult to watch to the point I had the last episode on in the background but didn’t really pay attention.

As a long term fan of the show I’ve come to accept this as normal. Some seasons I’ll love, some I won’t. Some Doctors I’ll love, some I’ll find annoying.

Last season … there was nothing for me to like. That’s not to say the show was fundamentally unlikeable, it’s just a personal preference.


This season, I’m so excited. I’ve enjoyed every episode so far. Does that mean it’s quantitatively better?

No, it’s just how I feel about it. There’s always a chance that when I get round to rewatching the season I’ll feel differently, but for whatever the reason# I’m totally hooked again this year.

One of things which is deepening my enjoyment is listening to the Verity Podcast. If you haven’t listened to it, it’s (mostly*) American/Canadian female fans discussing the show. When the show’s airing, they discuss the episodes. When it’s not, they discuss other Who-related topics.


Now, I know quite a lot of Doctor Who fans … but not many who live close by. I could ring them up to talk about the show … but we’re all busy and ringing people up takes time away from our respective families. Listening to other people discuss the show helps fill that void. I like to hear other people’s opinions, even if they differ from my own.

Actually, especially when they differ from my own. There’s not a lot of point listening to your own opinions repeated back to you (apart from when they codify or clarify something you didn’t know how to express).


I like to listen and I like to learn to think about things in a different way.

There are a lot of Doctor Who podcasts, but the Verity one achieves this better than most by dint of being (mostly*) Americans/Canadians and solely women.

I don’t know any female Doctor Who fans. Not personally anyway. I know women who enjoy or quite like the show … but would never really describe themselves as fans. I could probably track some down if I really felt the need … but if I were my wife and saw me deliberately seeking out women who shared an interest we didn’t … well, I’d be a bit cross with myself. It would be a weird thing to do.


Hearing women discuss the show is fascinating because, although most of the things they talk about are universal, there are certain points of view which don’t come naturally to me. This might be because I’m a man or it might be because I’m British or maybe just because I’m me and not them. Doesn’t really matter, I just enjoy hearing a different slant on things.

Similarly, it’s interesting to hear transatlantic opinions on something which feels so quintessentially British. Especially since their depth of knowledge and level of fandom are far greater than mine.


It also makes me swell with pride. Doctor Who is a massive part of my life but has always been this tiny show, kicked about by the BBC and prematurely murdered just as it was finding its feet again. It had a moment of greatness … but became an embarrassment and something to be mocked. Hearing people halfway around the world loving it feels like a vindication. This is popular, it’s global, liking it is normal.


If you haven’t listened to the podcast, I highly recommend it and would welcome similar recommendations in return.


* Mostly. There’s a Scot in there. And an Australian, I think.

# It might be my new office? Yeah, it’s probably my new office.

Categories: Someone Else's Way, Things I've Learnt Recently | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

River theory


My brain likes to construct analogies. I don’t know why, it just does. Possibly it helps me learn or remember? Maybe I feel it’s the only way I can communicate things to other people?

I don’t know, all I know is they pop unbidden into my head on an alarmingly regular basis.

The latest one is about rivers.

I was thinking about someone else’s analogy (possibly Bill Martell‘s?) about how changing something at the beginning of a story is like dumping dye into a river – it changes everything from then on.

I love this analogy – there’s no such thing as a small change at the beginning of a script, everything has a knock on effect.

Conversely, I also love the one about being asked to change the ending is a bit like being asked to move the pyramid’s point three feet to the left.

No idea whose that one was.

But back to rivers.


It occurs to me that films are like dye-filled-rivers in other ways. To begin with, the river is your story. You know where it begins and in which direction it flows. Personally, I like to know where the end is too.

I want to know it’s a story about someone who does something – the film will be over when that person achieves that thing … or fails in a poignant way. Not knowing that beginning and end point is a bit like watching a race where the end isn’t clear … it’s hard for me to get excited if I’ve no idea how long it’s going to go on for or when anyone’s getting close to winning/losing.


Conversely, I don’t want to be able to see a straight bit of river from the start line to the finishing line. I want to know where the finishing line is … but not how to get there. The best films (to me) have a clear end point which seems utterly unobtainable for the protagonist.

I want there to be twists and turns and bends and dead ends between here and there … but I want to know (vaguely) where ‘there’ is.

I know not everyone feels like that. One of my bugbears is people complaining the end is obvious when it’s inherent in the genre.

  • Rom-coms are boring because you know they’re going to end up together.
  • Hero films are boring because you know Bond/Batman/whoever will win.
  • Detective stories are boring because you know they’ll catch the villain.

Fuck. Off.


Suspend your disbelief, for fuck’s sake! Everything’s boring if you think like that. Football matches are boring because either one of the teams will win or they’ll draw* – it’s the journey, the bit of river on the way to the end which is important.

Knowing the ending in a general sense is important to the process. Imagine watching a football match where there were no goal posts and no scores kept. Players just kicked the ball back and forth for an unknown period of time … and then stopped. I’m not convinced that would become a multi-billion pound industry.


You’re supposed to know vaguely what the ending might be … just not how the people get there or exactly how they’ll cross the line.

Yes, I’m aware I’m mixing metaphors/analogies here but it’s my blog and I’ll ramble inanely if I want to.

Back to rivers.


So the finishing line should be clear, but not visible from the starting line. We just need to know there is one and what crossing it means.

If choosing your story is like choosing a river, then maybe choosing the colour of the (eco-friendly) dye you’re about to dump into it is like choosing the genre?

Most stories can be multiple genres, it doesn’t take much to change a story from horror to comedy or comedy to tragedy. The same basic events can be told in different ways to make different genres. We choose our colour/genre at the outset and so long as we stick to that … or maybe fade gently from one to another^ then we’re fine.


Okay, so you can mix genres together. Frost/Nixon is a political story which uses boxing movie tropes. Fine. Red and blue makes purple, that’s fine … so long as it’s uniformly purple or fades nicely from one to the other. The problem comes when the colours are patchy and random. This bit’s horror, this bit’s comedy, this bit’s meant to be serious but people are still laughing at the last bit. A red bit, a blue bit, some green … it’s a mess.


Pick a colour/genre (or combination of) and stick to them throughout. Contrast if you want to … but make sure the colour changes harmonise.

If colour is the genre then maybe the hue/shade is the tone? Again, consistency is the key. That or slowly fading out or darkening? Imagine dumping green comedy into a river, it’s bright at the beginning but slowly fades away/disperses as we move down river. That’s fine, isn’t it? Most comedies have a serious bit near the end.


A consistent green might indicate a consistent type of comedy. A family/friendly comedy (lime green) which suddenly starts making jokes about fucking cadavers (bottle green) is jarring. Or maybe a comedy where the green fades in and out – funny bit, serious bit, boring bit, funny bit … just doesn’t work.

Unless it does.

Just Stop

Unfortunately, the other thing my brain likes to do is think up counter arguments to itself. This is about as far as I can stretch an analogy before I start heckling myself and telling me I’m full of shit.

Hey me, it’s just a way of thinking about things. If it’s useful, use it … if it’s not, don’t. No need to get all sweary about it.

Stories are like rivers. Sometimes. Other times, they’re not.


* Actually, this is why I don’t really watch sport – I have no interest in who wins. I don’t know any of the players and I just don’t care. I guess if I picked a team at random and decided to support them I’d get into it … but I don’t need more stuff to obsess about in my life.

^ Yes, I know From Dusk to Dawn crashes from one genre to another in the middle. It can be done … but usually badly.

Categories: My Way, Random Witterings | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

#PhonePhill – Conversation #12: William Gallagher


“One day, someone on the other end of the phone won’t be lovely. On that day I will break with tradition and refuse to name them as such.”

Phillip Barron

I said that back in July.

I haven’t done a #PhonePhill since July because of school holidays and actual holidays and deadlines and spending most of my free time swapping my daughter’s bedroom and my office around*. It’s not that there’s  a shortage of lovely people in the world I want to talk to (although the list is open if anyone fancies a natter), it’s more that I temporarily ran out of nattering time.

But I’m back. With a bang.

Well, maybe not a bang. More of a continuous exchange of reasonably volumed telecommunication signals. This week’s #PhonePhill is William Gallagher and he was …


Lovely. Super double-plus extra lovely, in fact.

To be honest, I’m not sure why I led with that quote or why I felt the need to quote myself. I’m fairly certain only an imbecile would quote me.

William Gallagher is a scriptwriter, author, journalist and tea drinker. You can learn lots about him on his Wikipedia page here or on his excellent blog here.

We were on the phone for a mammoth two and a half hours, nattering on about … well, pretty much everything really. The first half an hour or so was me trying to convince him I was being honest about the nature of the Secret Writing Island and how it works. For some reason William demanded a lot of detail before accepting I wasn’t spinning a yarn … considering the context (which I’m not going into here) I consider that a compliment.


After that we covered  Doctor Who (he’s written some, I haven’t), Blake’s 7 (he has a teleport bracelet, I don’t), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (neither of us are particularly fussed about it), the Midlands (we’ve both lived there, he still does), New York vs. London (we both prefer New York but aren’t really sure why), fuel economy vs. train tickets (it’s complicated and depressing), technology (he prefers iOS, I prefer Android … both are amazing and frustrating in different ways at different times and for different reasons) and how an actor’s delivery of a line can make or break a scene.

This one I find endlessly fascinating. My favourite example is from this scene:

“Is it still raining? I hadn’t noticed.”

Terrible, terrible line which almost completely derails the entire film (which I think is otherwise fantastic).

Except … is it a terrible line? Or is it just delivered wrong? I’m certain I’ve read somewhere that line was meant to be sarcastic. Run it back through your mind, imagine it not as a breathless, yet cheesy, declaration of love … imagine it as a being actually quite funny. How much better is that scene?

Now think about Queenie:

Miranda Richardson’s delivery is extraordinary. Continuously. In a exceptionally well-written sitcom performed by a uniformly amazing cast, she stands out as an absolute genius. A genius among geniuses, I guess … but her performance lifts that role to incredible heights.

As much as we like to think good writing makes good drama, it’s nothing unless it’s performed well.

Or at least I think so anyway. I am frequently wrong about such things.

William, for example, asserts I’m completely and utterly wrong about my dislike for one of the four modern Doctor Who actors. I’m just wrong, apparently.


Adding to that, William also thinks I’m wrong about believing only an imbecile would quote me (because he has and he clearly isn’t one).  He’s so convinced of my wrongness in this regard that he’s written an entire book just about me:


Okay, so it’s not just about me. Other bloggers are available and quoted/interviewed at great length … but surely the likes of Jason Arnopp, Katherine D’Souza or Diane Leigh can’t possibly hold a candle to my magnificence?

Oh … apparently they can.

Well, that’s a blow.

Presumably they can also spell magnificence without resorting to spell-check.


This is the official blurb for William’s book:

Everybody tells you that you must have a website and you must have a blog but nobody tells you how – or why. In this book you will learn the key steps to creating your blog but, more importantly, what you can use one for and how it will become an important part of your creative work.

BBC writer William Gallagher shows you how to write a blog that people will read – and then how to keep on writing new entries. See how to write fast blogs and more considered ones. How to make a blog that works for you because it works for your readers.

The good news is it’s available right now on Amazon.

The better news is there’s a far cheaper PDF version here.

The bestest news is you can get a whopping 40% discount off the PDF version if you use the code: JAMAISVU

£3 for a book which features me? How can you not want that? Go on, treat yourself.

And while you’re treating yourself, why not treat me to the sound of your voice? I’d love to hear from you, no matter who you are or what you do. You don’t have to be a writer or even in the entertainment industry. You could be a plumber or a mystery shopper or a retrophrenologist …. I really don’t care, I just want to have a bit of a chat.

If you’re at a loose end and not sure what to do, buy William Gallagher’s book. If you’re still at a loose end after that, why not email me and arrange a time to #PhonePhill?

Come on, let’s have a chat.



* My office is now much smaller … but much cooler. I’ll show it off properly when it’s finished.

As certain as I am I’ve said all this before.

Categories: #PhonePhill, BBC, Someone Else's Way | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Deleted from a galaxy far, far away …


Last week, while wallowing in nostalgia for Back to the Future* I managed to sidetrack myself by watching deleted scenes from all three of the Star Wars movies. Specifically, the ones in these videos here:

Don’t worry, I don’t expect you to watch those videos … although they are interesting. Two things struck me though:

  1. It amazes me that I’m still learning things I never knew about Star Wars after 38 years of continuous fandom.
  2. All deleted scenes are essentially the same – deleted for a good reason.

Okay, not all. Barring scenes which were omitted from the theatrical version due to lack of money or interference by people who thought they knew better but didn’t … most deleted scenes are deleted because of pacing or because they restate information the audience already has.

Or both.

In other words, they slow the film down. They’re just not needed.


All films have scenes like this: subplots which go nowhere, exposition heavy scenes which just aren’t needed, character development scenes which show the character doing character-y things which reinforce the type of character we’d already assumed they were …

And so on.

In retrospect, they’re clearly pointless or a waste of time … so why write them in the first place? If it’s so obvious watching the film, why isn’t it obvious when reading the script?

I mean, okay, writers are in the maze trying to figure their way through … but script readers, directors, producers, they have an overview, don’t they?


No, not always.

A good director is down there in the maze with you. A good producer might be there too. On the first draft they may have an objective view, sure … but on the tenth? Or the twentieth? Sometimes the opposite thing happens and whole chunks of exposition and character development get deleted because we all know he’s a murderer due to his mum forcing him to wear the wrong colour pants – it’s obvious!

But it’s not. Not to anyone who hasn’t read fifteen drafts of the script, including the fourteen drafts which actually mention the pants in the first place. Sometimes obvious things are a lot less obvious than we imagine.


Similarly, a script is not a movie. An actor standing on a set, wearing specific clothes under specific lights with specific music playing whilst holding a specific prop against a specific background can convey a lot more information than a single action line in a script.

In a script, you either have to call things out and explicitly state something … or allow the context to build up to an inescapable conclusion.

Often these conclusions are quite escapable because readers all read their own stuff into a script§. Part of the development process is weeding out words which may cause confusion. If a character is a werewolf in half of his scenes and occasionally growls in annoyance when he’s not … well, the word growl is confusing. Is he a wolf at this point or just annoyed?


Clear on screen, not so clear on the page.

So sometimes whole sequences feel absolutely vital on the page … only to be completely redundant on screen. There’s an oft-quoted story of Steve McQueen crossing out dialogue, knowing he could say it with an expression … and that’s fine. He knows he can do that. Not all actors can. Not all readers/producers/directors can see that expression when it’s written down.

Deleted scenes will always exist because of the disconnect between translating one media (writing) into another (film). Pace on the page doesn’t always equate to pace on screen … and vice versa.

It would be nice to be able to identify which scenes will be deleted before filming. Or even before writing … but I’m not convinced that’s possible. There will always be deleted scenes, most of them are interesting … but ultimately pointless.

download (1)

A bit like this post.

I might just delete all the stuff about the elephant.^


* 2, technically. I guess?

Yes, three. There are only three Star Wars films. Shut up.

Excluding that one summer when my younger brother watched the film once or twice a day, every day for six weeks. That was pretty annoying and almost put me off for life.


∞ Underpants, if you’re American – no one ever became a murderer because of their mother’s taste in trousers. That’s just silly.

§ And completed scenes, to be fair. Think of that whisky scene in Skyfall – your interpretation of Bond’s reaction may well decide how you view the rest of the film. Is he hiding how upset he is or is he a callous misogynist~? Bet that was clearer in the script.

~ Who wants to guess how many attempts it took me to spell ‘misogynist’?

^ There is no elephant. Don’t look for the elephant, you’ll never find it.

Categories: Industry Musings, Random Witterings, Things I've Learnt Recently | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Welcome to the future!



Happy Future Day!

It’s today!

Today’s the future!

Welcome to it.

In the course of my life many days have been thought of as the future. 1984 because of surveillance culture; 1999, because that’s what we used to party like it was; 2001 because … fuck knows, something to do with black rectangles and Space Jesus; 2010 because Space Jesus did something to Chief Brody …


All of these days (and more) have come and gone and somehow the future never arrived, I mean we always seem to be living in the now. Star Trek would had us believing the future would involve everyone on each planet wearing the same clothes (or lack of them, if you’re a woman).


That didn’t happen.

2001 would have us believe we’d be harangued by mental computers on our way to Jupiter (or Saturn – depending on whether you prefer the book or the film).

That didn’t happen.

Prince would have us believe the future involves … death? Is that right? Why were we supposed to party in 1999? Is it because the moon got ripped out of orbit and things went correspondingly wonky?


Who knows?

Didn’t fucking happen anyway, but at least women got to wear something on the moon.

Today though, today is actually the future. It’s future day as foretold in Back to the Futures I and II.

We made it! And um … yeah. Very few hoverboards. No flying cars. Can’t see anyone wearing their trousers inside out. In fact, weirdly, everyone I’m currently looking at is wearing clothes from 1985.*

Fax machines are slightly less prevalent than expected. TVs are smaller … but not by much. Portable computer tablet device thingys are here. Weather forecasting … hmm …

But you know what? Who cares? The fact is Back to the Future II was set in the distant, far flung future of today.



I was 12 going on 13 the year Back to the Future came out and I loved it … despite the fact I should have been annoyed by the obvious Doctor Who ripping off – which never bothered me in the slightest and is probably just all coincidence.

Back to the Future was the first film I saw with my friends without grown up supervision. It marked the beginning of adulthood for me, a freedom to come and go (at least as far as the cinema) as I pleased.

I remember coming home and describing the film to my parents in excruciating detail. I can even remember how bored they looked.


It’s one of my favourite films, one of those films I can watch from any point every time I catch it on TV without feeling bored.

Huey Lewis and the News became the first band I decided to like because I liked them, as opposed to liking because everyone else did and they were in the charts. I made it my mission to track down their back catalogue. They kindled my interest in guitars and led (indirectly) to me learning bass a few years later. They were the first gig I ever went to (again on my own, for my 16th birthday – cementing my friendship with the guy who was to be my best man at my first wedding).

I became a little obsessed with Deloreans (didn’t we all?) and used to moon over the Volkswagen Sirocco because it looked a little similar. I even bought one of these …


… for much the same reason.

Okay, maybe not from that angle.

I read and reread the novel until I could no longer distinguish between the film I’d seen and the words I’d read.# Did Marty’s thrilling escape from detention with the chewing gum, the matches and the elastic band happen in the movie or not? I could see it vividly … but couldn’t be sure. No one else remembered it, but that’s no guarantee of accuracy.^

I became obsessed with finding a Walkman which was as small as his … and eventually found one smaller.

SANYO Walkman JJ-P101 01

I tried (surreptitiously) to copy Marty McFly’s style – for years I never left the house without wearing a t-shirt under my shirt. I even found a body warmer (a Washington Redskins one died black) to wear over my (orange) denim jacket.

I. Looked. Awesome.



I also loved his fifties’ ensemble and have been vaguely in love with fifties’ stylings ever since.

Most of all though, whenever I lose my way with my writing, I think of Back to the Future and I try to remember that it’s exactly the kind of film I want to be writing – adventure and excitement with a heavy dose of comedy.

The sequels I like~, the original I love. I love the world, I love the characters and I love the way they make me feel. I want to write something which has that effect on someone. Even if it’s only one person, that’s my ultimate goal.


It feels utterly bizarre to be in the future of Back to the Future. It feels equally bizarre that my seven year old daughter loves the film – I’m not convinced I’d have loved a film in 1985 which told the tale of someone from 1955 travelling back to 1925. But hey, maybe she’s just more sophisticated than me?

Oh who cares?

The future, we made it.

Happy Future Day!



* This is a lie. The only people I can see from the window of my rooms on the Secret Writing Island are wearing bikinis. Which may or may not be inside out, hard to tell from here.

# Remember this was in a time where it took AGES for films to come out on video … and then pretty much only to rent, buying was still expensive. Going to see the same film twice at the cinema was expensive and pretty much didn’t happen (for me) so the book was the only way to re-experience the movie.Remember this was in a time where it tooks AGES for films to come out on video … and then pretty much only to rent, buying was still expensive. Going to see the same film twice at the cinema was expensive and pretty much didn’t happen (for me) so the book was the only way to re-experience the movie.

^ A similar thing happened to me with Terminator 2 – I have vivid memories of scenes which didn’t show up until the director’s cut because they were in the novelisation.

The opposite happened to me with Return of the Jedi – there was this photo in one of the tie-in books which showed Luke hanging from the grating in Jabba’s Palace. The text described him leaping over the Rancor and going hand over hand along the grate … until the denizens of the palace knocked him back into the pit. Everyone I know insisted it happened in the film, I was adamant it didn’t. By the time the film came out on video I was no longer friends with any of those people and missed out on a rare opportunity to be right.

~ Have you watched Back to the Future II recently? Watched it through the eyes of a writer? Every second scene is exposition. Almost literally every second scene involves someone explaining to someone else what’s going on. Occasionally with diagrams. If you just assumed people understood how time travel works then that film would be about 14 mins long.

Categories: Future Tense, Random Witterings, Writing and life | Tags: , , , , , | 6 Comments

Rose vs. Jurassic Park


Following on from last week, I’ve been thinking more about parcelling out information. Whereas there are undoubtedly lots of different approaches to this, two examples always spring to mind.

My mind, anyway. Maybe not yours.

These examples are polar opposites yet are equally as effective as each other. As I’m sure you’ve deduced from the title of this post, the first of those is Jurassic Park, the second is Rose (the first episode of the current run of Doctor Who).

Both are master-classes in delivering exposition and yet take totally different approaches.


Jurassic Park goes for the info dump. The first … what? Half an hour? 45 mins? … is a science lesson. We get told how dinosaurs died, evolved, what a velociraptor is (because none of us knew back then) what DNA is, how it’s extracted, how it’s spiced with things, how it’s turned into new dinosaurs, how incredibly fucking stupid that is … and so on.

The genius for me here is I didn’t get bored. I didn’t roll my eyes or start yelling “Get on with it!” at the screen … I just sat there and learnt the things I needed to know. The fact a lot of the exposition was disguised as either a theme park ride or a story told to scare a child/accountant helped. The fact the theme park info-ride didn’t go the way Hammond planned nicely foreshadows what’s to come.


To me there was the perfect amount of information, all clumped together so the following action can be uninterrupted thrills and spills.

That’s version one for me: get it out of the way upfront and then get on with the story. But make it fun and thematic and part of the story.

Version two makes me think of Rose. Russell T. Davies does a fantastic job of feeding us the information in tiny sips. This was probably the best choice here because half of the audience were Doctor Who fans who knew all this, the other half were brand new who had no idea what the show was about.


So he feeds us a morsel at a time.

We focus on Rose*, we see the normal, boring world from her point of view – it’s normal and boring.

Then something scary happens! And there’s this guy who shows up and saves her! He’s weird! He’s exciting! He’s called The Doctor! He blows something up!

And then he’s gone.

And life is even more boring without him.

Who is he?

And then there he is again! He’s an alien! He’s clever, he knows things we don’t!

And then he’s gone again.

Just before the mystery tips over into confusion (which is problematic), there’s a conspiracy theorist who gives us a mini-info dump … which we deserve. We’ve earnt a little respite from the mystery.


Now we have some answers … and a lot more questions. Is this guy immortal? Is there more than one of them? Is he some kind of time traveller?

And then he’s there again and it’s all action and adventure! And we’re in the TARDIS, which is … what? Another mini-info dump. It’s a spaceship, it’s bigger on the inside … stuff like that.

There’s only about ten minutes to go now and we nearly know everything … except we don’t. The Nestene Intelligence hints at things even hardcore fans don’t understand – why is it scared of the TARDIS? What’s a Time War? Something’s happened in the 16 years the show was off air. Something we won’t find out about for a few weeks yet.

Even when all’s resolved, there’s still one more piece of information. The very last line of the first episode completes the basic set up:

45 mins to fully educate the new audience as to the nature of the show. Without leaving people confused or bored.

Well, I wasn’t anyway.

True the actual story feels a bit light … but that feels inevitable in reintroducing the concept to the masses. It’s a simple story with few twists and turns … but they are there and the sense of mystery the episode creates makes up for the lack of story.

I think so, anyway. You may have a different opinion. Good for you.

Those two extremes are how I think about exposition. Which serves the story better? Is one inherent to a film (because you have a captive audience in a cinema and more (or less, depending on how you look at it) time to tell the story?) and the other better suited to TV (because people will change the channel if they’re being lectured for 30 mins)? Can you do a mixture of the two? Is there a better, third way?#

All these questions and more will probably never be answered by me because by now I’ve either forgotten I’ve written this or am already bored of thinking about it.

I just like to think about these two examples whenever I start a new project.



*To me, this centring the show on the companion is both a genius move and a bit of a problem. I may talk about this in more depth at some point … or I may not.

#Depends, probably not, possibly, I imagine so, probably.

Categories: Someone Else's Way | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Arnopp’s hands


Have you read Jason Arnopp‘s insightful post on How to be a Safe Pair of Hands? If not, toddle off and read it, we’ll wait …

… all done?

Jolly good.

I think that’s a great post and applies equally well to script writing as well as novels … but there’s something I wanted to add. I too want to feel like the author is under control and leading me masterfully on a journey. I want to respect the author’s authority … and included in that is a desire to be taught things. I want the author to know things I don’t, to educate me because they’re cleverer than me.


If they’re describing Paris, I want to believe they’ve actually been there. I want them to understand what the city is like and where everything is in relation to everything else. I want to believe the characters are in a real place doing real things.

Unless the book’s set in someone’s imagination. In which case, it’s less important.

Similarly, I want things and procedures and … well, everything described properly. I don’t want anything to spoil the journey. The details are there to persuade us of the reality of the story, to suck you in … so when they’re wrong, when the author clearly doesn’t understand how something works or what it’s like to ask a Parisian for directions or why you can’t get from A to B in a certain city because B isn’t even in the same fucking city … well, it’s just annoying.


For me, it destroys the illusion of control. It highlights that I’m not in a safe pair of hands.

Take, for example, the latest book I cracked open. Mere pages into it, someone was in car crash and was rushed to hospital.

Oh noes!

It doesn’t look good, they’re not going to make it!

They flatline! Double noes! Their heart has literally stopped beating!

“Quick!” yells the doctor “Hand me the defrib!”


Hand you the what? The defRib? What the fuck is a defRib? You mean a defib? A defibrillator?

Maybe it’s a misprint? Nope, they’re all calling it a defrib.

Worse than that, they’re using the “defrib” to restart a stopped heart.

Okay, so I know this is a TV/movie trope – defibs stop flatlining. Everyone knows that. In the same way everyone knows vitamin C cures a cold and bad things come in threes. You know … common knowledge, or bullshit as it’s more commonly known.

Defibrillator stops fibrillation. It de-fibrillates. Fibrillation isn’t flatlining … which is death. Probably.


Fibrillation is a random and spasmodic pulsing of the heart. Connect a defib to a flatlining patient and it will recommend CPR, not a shock … because a shock won’t do fuck all.

I know this, the author doesn’t. The author is therefore stupider than me and since I’m not very clever, the author must be an imbecile. This book is written by an imbecile, how can I possibly believe anything he says now?

He has no authority. He’s not a safe pair of hands.


Contrast that with the novel I read immediately before, David Nicholl’s Us … which I loved. Us takes place in a variety of European cities, all of which I’ve been to, all of which felt familiar to me in the book.

I’m no expert on these places and some of them I haven’t been to for over a decade, but to my tortured memory they seem like accurate descriptions of cities I love.

To me, he’s a safe pair of hands – I can relax and enjoy the story without frowning and uttering my old catchphrase: “This makes no fucking sense”.


Obviously these sorts of things are very subjective. There’s accurate and accurate-enough. Most authors (and scriptwriters) aim for accurate enough on the grounds the majority of the readers won’t be physicists or geneticists or any other kind of -cists … but they might be and we have to understand that the ones who are won’t feel safe in our layman’s hands.

Luckily, there’s a cure – research. Research the shit out of everything, don’t assume we know even the tiniest detail because we’re probably wrong. So’s that episode of Minder we copied it from.

If possible, find someone who works in that field to proofread that segment.

If we aim for total accuracy then we’re clearing all the logs off the tracks for our story. Now all we’ve got to do is make the story interesting in and of itself.


Categories: Random Witterings, Someone Else's Way | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments



I have a second spec TV project on the go at the moment. That’s second to the one I’ve been talking about the last few weeks. If you haven’t read those posts, this possibly needed clarifying … or possibly not.

Anyway, there’s two of the buggers.

Unlike the first (which is genuinely the best thing I’ve written for years) the second isn’t quite right yet and is undergoing a B-story-ectomy. This is a massive pain in the arse and something I’ll talk about in the future.

Unless I’ve already blogged about it, in which case I won’t. I often get confused about which way round time moves.

This second script is something I’ve been kicking around for years (without really putting much effort into). Over a decade ago, the movie version of it won stuff and got me interviews with managers … which came to nothing because I didn’t have any other scripts of similar quality. I was, back then, a one trick pony.

download (1)

Now I have more tricks and sleeves to keep them up and everything.

That movie script was okay, but really it needs to be a TV series. So I’ve rewritten it as a pilot episode … and I love it. It’s one of those kind of programmes I’ve been lamenting the lack of. It’s a rollicking Saturday evening, team-adventure thing with a sci-fi twist. It’s exactly the kind of thing child-me would have loved.

The main difference, I guess, between this programme and its ’80s equivalent is that the ’80s version would have had an all white, male cast. With maybe a token sexy-woman thrown in.

Keen not to write the ’80s version, this one is much more diverse.

For a start, three of the five team members are women because … well, I feel like there’s an awful lack of women in these kind of things and I don’t really understand why. Some or all of them may or may not be sexy, it’s hard to tell from words on a page.


There is a token sexy-bloke though because … well, why not?

The other guy may or may not be sexy too, it’s hard to tell from … blah, blah, blah.

The secondary character in the movie was a young Indian woman because fourteen years ago (when I first wrote it) I had more Indian friends than then existed in movies and wanted to redress this. She’s still Indian in the TV version.

One of the other women is Egyptian because … well, she needs to be for the story.

She’s also in a wheelchair because I’ve been trying to include at least one clearly disabled role in everything I’ve written since that BBC drama thing a few years back.

This one feels odd to me since, generally, it doesn’t matter if two, three or all of them are disabled. I don’t think it matters to the story one way or the other … but I want to help represent the large percentage of disabled people in the UK and this is my way.


Is she a token disabled person?

Maybe. Depends on who’s cast in the other roles. Hopefully there would be disablity-blind casting … but, sadly, we all know that any character whose gender, ability, race or sexuality isn’t specified ends up being a white, able-bodied, male hetrosexual.

Even in our minds, say BARTENDER or DOCTOR or SKIER and our default image tends to be white and male and … so on.

So at least one of the main roles is specified as disabled.

One of the women is a lesbian because it’s the best thing for the pilot story and it helps (un)define the relationship between her and one of the men. They become best of friends, but will never be lovers. There is no sexual tension between them and never will be. That’s important for later.


Similarly, one of the men is gay because it’s the only mechanic I could find which makes sense and creates the right reasons for the events which unfold throughout. He’s not necessarily camp though. His sexuality is absolutely incidental to the week to week unfolding of the story … until the end. At the end of the first season his actions retrospectively make sense because of who he’s in love with.

So there’s a gay one and a lesbian one and an Egyptian one and a disabled one and an Indian one and three out of five of them are women and …

Oh, hang on. None of them are black.

Right … so, whereas it would be nice if there was naturally an ethnic mix across the remaining three cast members, we come back to that default white casting setting.



So why not specify one or more of them as black?

And maybe one should be Chinese or Japanese or Korean?

Ooh, and transgender! They’re not very well represented, one of them should be transgender.

And I’ve always thought one of them would be best played by Warwick Davies. This isn’t a “let’s get a little person in there” thing. I just think he’s awesome and genuinely the best actor for that role, irrespective of height.

So now my mental casting looks like it’s been done by the commitee for minority integration. It’s starting to look less like a bunch of people doing a job and more like they were all hand picked to represent something.

Which is kind of 50% true, I guess.


The playing field isn’t level. The default casting tends to discriminate against a lot of people. I don’t know why this is, I don’t know if there’s genuinely a dearth of variety among actors or if there’s an unconscious bias which prevails in a predominantly white, male industry. It kind of doesn’t matter because I have no control over any of that.

Unless I give up and reduce the straight, white, able-bodied male writers by one.

What I do have control of is how I specify characters in my scripts. If I say nothing, there’s a better than average chance they’ll cast the default. If I get specific, they’ll search for that type of person.

Unless there’s a bloody good reason not to. Isms not being a good reason.

It’s kind of part of my job to write diversity into the script.

But. and here’s the thing I need to keep reminding myself,  I don’t have to fight every battle all the time.

This isn’t the only script I’m going to write. I can keep some of my white, middle class male guilt for the next script and the one after that and the one after that. Maybe the next script will have a transgender character in it? Preferably one whose story doesn’t revolve around their trans-ness. Maybe the next script will have five transgender characters in? Or five wheelchair users? Maybe there won’t be a single white, able-bodied, straight man in the whole script?

Or maybe the next script will be only about white men because that’s what the story demands?

I don’t know what story that might be, but maybe it will?


I hope not.

The point I keep having to relearn is that no one script will change the world … but a general trend towards diversity will.  At the moment, making sure the characters are an even mix of race, sexuality and ability can look a little odd. Hopefully that’s changing and in the near future it won’t?

I guess my job is to add to the trickle which builds to the flood.


Categories: For Want of a Nail, Industry Musings, My Way, Things I've Learnt Recently | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

The second thing


Last week I went on (at great length) about how changing the arena of a script instantly made it more appealing to people. This week’s post is kind of an extension of that, a further twist to the arena knife which allows the story to haemorrhage awesomeness.

Wow. Haemorrhage is a really hard word to spell.

My writing partner and I had moved our story from a council estate to a community which grew out of the Great Sunday Squat. Set on an illegally occupied airbase it had all the qualities of a council estate with none of the resistance we’d been meeting whilst trying to get people to read it.

But something still wasn’t right.


All the time Jay and I had been writing this, the story had been fighting us. Scenes felt dated. Attitudes and locations felt somehow wrong. It was a real struggle to keep it feeling fresh and modern … and then the shift in location/arena added a new problem.

This society had been set up in 1946. Most of these squats were gone by the mid-fifties. Keeping one around longer than that is a stretch, but not a huge one. Maybe one or two did continue longer than that? Maybe one is even still around to this day?


But then … does that ring true? Would a large swathe of illegally occupied land be left to fester under the no-longer-caring control of a bunch of squatters? Would any modern council allow those people to keep what will have become prime real estate?

In short, is it believable?


Not to me, no.

It may actually be true (maybe?) but it’s not believable … and that’s a problem.

The way I’ve written this blog, it makes the solution seem obvious … but it really wasn’t. This blog makes it sound like there was a dead body with a stab-wound and a man holding a bloody knife … but that description doesn’t include the thousands of other facts which could obscure that obvious conclusion.

It took us a while, but eventually the blindingly obvious struck us – this wasn’t a contemporary story any more, it’s an historical one.


Suddenly, all the scenes which had felt horribly 80s became typically 80s. We went from thinking people don’t live/behave like this to realising people did live/behave like this.

Suddenly it all made sense.

And the more I looked into moving the script through time, the more sense it made.

This script has a parallel narrative – the same characters go through two different yet interconnected stories which are set 7 years apart.

Think about what someone in 2015 wears. Now think about what someone in 2008 wore. Could you identify which set of clothes belonged to which year instantly?


Think about someone holding an iPhone 3G up to their ear. Now imagine it’s an iPhone 6. Or an iPhone 5 (if they can’t afford the latest model) … is the difference so pronounced there’s no possibility of confusion?

What about cars? Is there a significant difference between now and then?

Not to my eyes.

Now think about the difference between 1978 and 1985. Think about seventies clothing. Now think about the eighties … is there a clear and recognisable difference to you? There is to me.


Okay, so I know there was a blending of styles between 1978 and 1985. Some people in ’78 wore flares, some were punks. Not everyone wore decade-defining clothes … but the point remains. I think it’s easier to spot the difference between a 70s’ suit and an 80s’ one

il_570xn-275105582 9aafe10a3804aacdb05ccbcdb1b39cf0

… than it is between a modern day one and one from 08.

download images

Hell, even the police cars were completely different. The 70s’ ones were the blue and white panda cars:

download (1)

The 80s brought us red and white jam sandwiches.

images (1)

What did police cars look like in 2008? Exactly the same as they do now? Silver Battenberg models as far as I can remember.

Police_car_in_Edinburgh_Scotland_2008 image

To our eyes, changing the script from present day to the seventies/eighties gives it another level of intrigue – it’s another change to the arena which is inherently interesting. Plus, in that time Britain moved from a Labour government to a Tory one. Drastically so. There’s a world of difference between Callaghan and Thatcher – visually and in terms of policies. Policies which exactly mirror the attitudes of our dual protagonists.

If the Prime Minister was on a black, flatscreen TV in the background … could you tell at a glance if we were in 2008 or 2015?

Well, yes, probably. Especially if it was a close up of his face. Brown vs Cameron is an easy spot. Blair vs Cameron is trickier – two suited pretty boys who look like they’re dressed by the same stylist.

2f486fdb1279572dcb4fcb053f2835f8 2f486fdb1279572dcb4fcb053f2835f81

Now think of the difference between Callaghan on a wooden TV and Thatcher on a brightly coloured plastic one.

Changing the time just made sense.*

Suddenly the script was set in an interesting location at an interesting time. Visually it’s striking and it just sounds different. The arena is unusual and therefore more intriguing.

So although this post and last week’s are technically about two different things, they’re really about one thing – arena. Where does the script happen? What’s the world, is it interesting to explore?

A sitcom about a  office worker who’s desperately in love with a girl but keeps fucking it up because he’s an imbecile sounds … familiar. I guess the execution might be good.

The same story set in Ancient Rome … that’s more interesting.

The arena is different. It’s the same com and needs to be equally as funny, but the sit’s different. The sit is what attracts people to a sitcom. The com is what keeps them watching.


Or maybe not. I just made that up without really thinking it through.

If it is true, then I think the same is (at least partially) true with all stories – find an interesting arena and you’re one step closer to making a sale.

Bullshit or not?


* It also made a fuck load of annoying work while I tried to figure out what was invented when and how people did simple everyday things in 1978. 1985 I can remember fairly accurately, but 78? I was 6, I have no idea how petrol stations worked or banks or the police.

Categories: My Way, Random Witterings, The Ties That Bind, Things I've Learnt Recently | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

Blog at WordPress.com. The Adventure Journal Theme.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,622 other followers