Random Witterings

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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.

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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

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

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

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… 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:

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The 80s brought us red and white jam sandwiches.

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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.

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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

What do script notes look like?


An actor friend of mine recently asked if I could read his script for him. Now normally I would say no*, but I like this guy and I’ve been we’ve been chatting about the concept for a while now and I thought – what the hell?

So I read the script and gave some opinions. Just opinions, not facts, just my (flawed) perception of the script as I understood it.

He went away, did some rewrites and came back with a better draft.


Now there’s an odd thing with a script – the better it is, the more notes it generates … until it gets really good and the notes slowly dry up.

Essentially it’s because first drafts are terrible and need major de-and-reconstruction to make them work. I expect to throw out 50% of every first draft. Notes will be along the lines of:

It’s great up until the third act (this means the first act is shit).


I don’t like the protagonist but her friend is really cool (usually because the protagonist was their idea and their friend was the one I wanted to write).


I don’t know, the (insert whatever plot element they specified) is so clichéd now.


None of this makes any fucking sense (which usually means … yeah, I fucked up).

The notes are big notes about big things because the big things don’t work. There are fewer big notes about big things than small notes about small things because there are fewer big things than small things in a script.


The second draft is (hopefully) far better. It actually works as a movie.  It’s coherent, it’s funny/sexy/affecting (or whatever it’s meant to be) … it just works.

Now we can start to make it good.

Now we get onto the small notes about small things.

Now we tear out the writer’s heart and stamp on it.

These kind of notes are awful and upsetting and often feel pointless and overwhelming and … hurtful.


But they’re not. Not really. Well, not always. They’re usually right or at least right from the note-giver’s point of view. They’re not given in a malicious sense, they’re given in a sleeves-rolled-up, let’s-get-into-the-details-and-make-it-better sense.


These notes are polishing. And polishing, by its nature, involves methodically going over every square inch of script.

Every line, every name, every scene heading … all of it.

Experienced writers … well, we don’t enjoy getting these notes, but we expect them. When people don’t interrogate the script and just go “Brilliant! Let’s film it!” (which has happened to me), when they’re apparently not interested in refining the script … the film will be shit. Because they clearly don’t care enough to put the effort into improving it.


Actors, like my friend, I don’t know if actors are used to notes like that. Actors get notes on their performance, true. But I think (and correct me if I’m wrong) that they tend to be along the lines of:

That was great. Can we try one where you’re angry?

Followed by an in-depth discussion/explanation of why the director thinks the character should  be angry at this point.

Actors (I think – I may be talking out of my arse here) rarely get notes which go:

Your left foot, can you move it two inches to the left? Your right foot doesn’t make sense. Let’s rotate it 30 degrees so you’re standing on the outside edge. Your left ankle is fine but your right ankle is too fat – change that …

And so on, all the way up their body, criticising every joint, muscle and sinew until they get told to make their blinking asynchronous.

Maybe that does happen – I suspect (and hope) it doesn’t.


So I gave my in-depth, nit-picky notes on what is now a much better script, sent them off … and was immediately worried – what if he’s upset by my notes? What if he reacts to them the way I did the first time I received notes like that? I think maybe he’s done devised work and de-constructed scenes until they’ve learnt to fucking behave themselves … but what if he hasn’t?

Oh no! What if he doesn’t understand the more notes=better script equation?


Eh … he’s a big boy, he’ll get over it.

But then I was thinking – would it be useful to newer writers to get a sense of what kind of notes they’re going to get once they’re working for a client?

Is that the kind of thing you’d like to read? Would you like me to post an excerpt from a script with development-style notes attached?

I was just going to do it, but this post is already too long and frankly I’m boring myself here … so I put it to you, is this something which would be helpful to those of you just starting out? Or even those of you far along the path who want to know we all get the same level of script-hammering?


Answers in the comments (or by email, which seems to be your preferred means of communication – why is that? Why have you all gone so shy all of a sudden?).

Vote with silence or NO and I’ll not bother. Vote yes and I’ll post something next week … or maybe the week after since there’s a #PhonePhill to write up.

Here’s some Bohemian Rhapsody because … because.


* Because it takes a lot of time to read, think and opine.

Because people (especially non-writers or writers with limited experience) get pissed off and take it to heart if my opinion is anything other than ‘GENIUS! YOU ARE ONE!’

Because people often think agreeing to read one draft is actually agreeing to read the next 78 nigh-on-identical drafts where nothing I say is ever taken into consideration and none of the problems are ever resolved.#

Because I don’t want to.

#This is weird – you don’t like/trust my advice enough to actually follow it … but you want more of it? Lots more of it? Are you just trying to see how wrong I can be?

Categories: My Way, Random Witterings, Writing and life | Tags: , | 2 Comments

Weekend warrior


I did something this weekend (or last weekend. The weekend just gone. You choose, it doesn’t matter) which I haven’t done in a long time.

I worked.

I used to do that a lot. I used to write every day. Then I got a girlfriend and decided (completely voluntarily and of my own free will. Honest) to limit my working time to five days a week.

Not just Monday to Friday, but a random five days so we could have two days off together depending on her shift pattern.


Tuesdays and Wednesdays for preference.


Then (after marriage and house buying, for we are awfully traditional) we had a kid. Just the one, that’s enough thank you very much. At first this was fine, but then she went to school and suddenly having days off midweek seemed wildly inappropriate.

I mean, what’s the point of having a kid if you’re only going to see her for an hour or two after school?

I am aware, by the way, that I have an incredibly privileged ability to choose when I do and don’t work. I know that’s rare. I’ve worked shi(f)t jobs. I know how it is and what’s good and bad. Some people like it, some people don’t. Lots of people don’t have the choice.


Life (sometimes) sucks. I’m not having a go at you if your chosen profession (or Joe job) involves working ungodly hours to make ends meet. We all do what we have to do to get by.

But I do have a choice and choosing to not be part of my daughter’s life on the only days she’s not at school seems … callous? Wrong? Unnecessary, at the very least.

So I chose not to. I opted to become a Monday to Friday nine-to-five kind of guy.

Well … let’s be honest. Tuesday to Friday lunchtime.


Mondays are my fannying around day, doing things like writing this. Is this work? I don’t know. Maybe.


Anyway. I don’t work weekends any more. Unless we’re in production or I have a deadline I’ve massively miscalculated.

So what went wrong this last weekend?

I’m glad you asked or this blog would be even more pointless than it doubtlessly is.

A couple of weeks ago I sent a list of scripts to a producer. These are my archive scripts, the good ones which I’ve never found time to do anything with. Every time I think I’m going to take one out, dust it off and sell it … someone offers me some work and I get caught up in that. So they never get sold. Poor, lonely creatures sitting all by themselves on a dark hard drive.^


I sent five or six one-pagers, he asked to read three of them. One I was halfway through rewriting as I’d just had the two extra ideas# needed to make it better. That took a day or two to finish off.

The other two were a decade and three years old respectively. The decade old one I know I’d worked on fairly recently because I remember doing it. That’s pretty good. The other one I’d written one draft three years ago and then forgotten about it.

Well, not forgotten. I’d been thinking about it on and off during that time but hadn’t got round to actually rereading or rewriting it.

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The decade old script I pulled out, skimmed through … and it was … well, not terrible, but not good. Not as good as I’d like it to be. It had won a competition at some point in the past and gotten me some interest from a US manager … but since I had nothing else to show him, that came to nothing at the time.

Obviously it was a script with some merit … but my standards have risen over the years. I’m a better writer now than I was then.

So that needed rewriting. That took a couple of days.


The other one, the first draft … well, it was a first draft.


It was shit.

Bollocks, it needs completely rewriting.

Now, I’d already said I was going to take a couple of days to go over the scripts and make sure they were as good as I wanted them to be. I had delivered one on the Friday and promised to deliver the other the following week … but by the following Friday I hadn’t finished.

I could have just waited until Monday before resuming. I could have just emailed, apologised and handed it in on the Wednesday. This guy has only asked to read the script – he’s not paying me, it’s not a production draft, there’s no guarantee he’s even going to like it. Presumably he has dozens of other scripts to read and may even have forgotten he’s asked to read this …

But … I said I’d send it over this week. Not next week. This week.


Sunday’s still this week so I decided to work over the weekend.

And now we’re at the point. Fuck me that took a long time, didn’t it?

Mandy was away for the weekend, making me chief child-carer.

Yes, she trusts me to look after a child. I know! I don’t believe it either!

I couldn’t work during the day, but in the evenings, once she’s (finally) gone to bed, I could crack on.

So at around nine o’clock each night I was breaking open the script and typing furiously.

Which, in itself, is fine.

But it’s knackering. I’d forgotten how knackering it is writing late into the night when you’ve still got to get up around eight the next day.


In my twenties I twice went 10 days without sleep. Now, if I get less than seven hours a night, I’m miserable.

And so I was. Miserable. With my daughter. That’s not meant to happen.

On top of being irritable and annoyed with everything, I’d forgotten how difficult it is to stop thinking about writing during the day.

There’s a great bit about this on one of the Scriptnotes podcasts talking about how writers carry their workplaces in their heads and how hard it is to stop working when you’ve left your desk. Bricklayers don’t find bricks in their pockets when they’re putting their kid to bed, but writers are, likely as not, wondering if they’ve got enough vampires left for the final showdown when they really should be concentrating on bathtime.

I’m normally pretty good at this sort of thing. Given that I go to the Caribbean to write most weeks, it’s absolutely fine to spend all of my working week thinking about the script. I have no requirement to interact with reality at all during that period.




I’m also pretty good at setting and meeting targets so my weekends off are my weekends off. I leave it all in a folder at the back of my mind and pick up again the following week.

Sometimes, if I’m very lucky, my unconscious mind sorts it all out for me.


This is how I like to work and it benefits my family too.

Spending the whole day thinking about structure and tone whilst not having had much sleep and trying to amuse a seven year old is not my idea of fun.

Or hers.

And yet, I know that’s what lots of writers have to do. Lots of us have day jobs and families and have no choice but to write late at night and over the weekends … and you know what, I salute you.

You’re awesome. To keep that up week after week is, frankly, amazing.

I did it for one weekend and I have no intention of doing it again.

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Unless I have to for production/deadline reasons. I’m not cut out for that kind of thing. Those of you who are and do … I just think you’re brilliant and this blog post is a virtual toast aimed squarely in your direction.

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I used to hate having weekends off as a youth because going out on a Friday or Saturday night was so unrelentingly awful. It’s amateur night, when all the nine-fivers come out to play and try to forget how unpleasant their lives are*. Everyone’s out for a fuck or (possibly and) a fight. People are desperate to enjoy themselves because this is their only chance before getting back to the grind on Monday.

Standing in a pub which is so packed I can’t move my arm far enough to drink the drink which is pressed up against my chest by a wall of people I don’t like isn’t really my idea of fun.

For some reason, nightclubs opt for playing the worst music imaginable on weekends too. I don’t know why they do this, presumably because most of the people who are miserable during the week want to be miserable over the weekends too.

Midweek you get lovely people meeting up to share a love of the same specialist music. Weekends you get a load of …

I never liked going out on a weekend. Let’s just leave it at that, shall we?

* If you’re a nine-fiver and your life isn’t unpleasant, then congratulations!

^ Have Pixar made that movie yet? Bet they will soon.

# Oh. I went to link to the blog post about this … but I haven’t written it yet. One day this will link to it. Probably.

Categories: My Way, Random Witterings, Writing and life | Tags: | Leave a comment

Director of better

I love W1A, it’s easily one of my favourite sitcoms of recent years. I’m pretty certain that’s not how the BBC operates, but it feels like it probably could be.

I’ve definitely been the writer in that meeting where it’s clear the producer not only hasn’t read the script but has no idea what it’s about. I think we’ve all had that meeting, haven’t we?


I’ve also borne witness to the same kind of corporate fucking-about-ness which gives birth to jobs with bullshit titles like ‘Director of Better’. The urge to leap onto the table and shriek “what’s the fucking point of you? I mean, what do you actually do here?” is often overwhelming.

And yet … I like the idea of better.

I think humans are happiest when they’re getting better. When they achieve things and have a sense of progression. Doesn’t matter what those things are, even if it’s just collecting stamps … but the ability to look at your life and understand you’re this much better than you were last year is invaluable.

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Or at least I think it is.

I feel like it’s my job to be better.

A better husband, a better father, a better friend, a better writer … just better.

Every day I try to be a little nicer, to refine how I interact with people in the hope of pissing less of them off and getting pissed of at less of them in return.

I exercise. I try to get a little fitter, a little healthier. I read. Try to get a little smarter, a little more depth or breadth to my knowledge.

I … do you know what? This is something I’ve been thinking about a bit recently – gym bunnies.b6b95da840183b3ea1e9dce216d97be4

I’m using that as an asexual term.

I know people who go to the gym every day. They’re obsessive about it … but not in a good way. They’re not trying to be better in a positive way, they’re worried about how physically attractive they are and are actively trying to be more attractive.

Most of these people are already extremely physically attractive. They have what most people would consider perfect physiques given that ‘perfect’ isn’t one shape, but a wide range that most of you already fall into.


The gym isn’t going to make them any more attractive. It might help them maintain their current level, but an extra millimetre off or on a thigh here and there won’t make a blind bit of difference.

So why not swap one of those gym days for a day at the library? Your body gets you the first ten seconds of attention, your personality carries you for the rest of your life.

Realistically, wearing a top hat will get you exactly the same amount of attention as a year’s worth of gym membership.



Maybe it won’t.

Sorry. Someone asked me last week if a millimetre was more or less than half a centimetre and it really depressed me. All that gym time only to fall flat the first time she opened her mouth.

I think we, as writers, spend a lot of time learning new things. I certainly do, I squirrel away bits of information about all sorts of odd things … just in case they come in useful.

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Which they rarely do.

Lots of people don’t seem to do this. They don’t seem to seek out knowledge. I’m not sure why. I guess it isn’t really useful to them.

On the other hand, looking at this a different way – that woman (she was 27) was actually asking about millimetres. She was trying to find out and I guess mocking her for it is a bad thing.


It’s never too late to learn new things. Even things we should have learnt at primary school.

It’s never too late to get better.

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

Spoiling yourself








Too many cooks may spoil the broth, but too much information definitely spoilers the movie.

For me, at least.

I’ve long been bamboozled by the level of spoilers in soap operas. I can’t understand why people want to know what’s happening in an episode before they’ve seen it.

“This is the one where so and so finds out thingamajig is her dad!”

As far as I can tell that’s every episode of every soap ever, but why would you want to know that before you watch it? Why is that fun? Why would you want to know anything about an episode of your favourite show before you’ve seen it?

Same goes for films. Why do people spend the year before a film is released dissecting trailers in the hope of finding out what the story is about? Why do people hunt down leaked screenplays and set images?

Isn’t half the fun of seeing a movie being surprised?


Or is that just me?

Some films don’t wait for their audience to hunt down spoilers, they just spoiler themselves right off the bat.

The piece de resistance when it comes to spoilers has to be Saving Mr Banks – never before has a film been so comprehensively spoilered by its own title.


How much more amazing would that film have been if you didn’t know P L Travers’ objections were all about Saving Mr Banks? Imagine what a revelation it would have been to have got to the Walt Disney speech where he figures it out and have a light bulb click on in your own head.

I don’t even know if I’d have linked the flashbacks to P L Travers if I’d hadn’t read the title of the film.

But no, they put the twist in the title of the film. That’s like calling “The Empire Strikes Back”, “Vader is Luke’s Dad!”.

And just in case you didn’t get it from the title, they put the revelation scene in the fucking trailer. Right in there. Front and centre. Who made that decision? And why?

Imagine that person or persons cutting a trailer for The Sixth Sense. Would that film have been better or worse if it had a shot of Bruce Willis staring at the camera and saying “I’m dead, aren’t I?” in the trailer?

I’m voting worse, you may beg to differ.

“Let’s not call it “The Sixth Sense”, let’s call it “Kid Counseled by Dead Guy” that would be sooooooooo coooooooooool.”

“It’s about Saving Mr Banks, isn’t it?” For fuck’s sake – why was that line in the trailer? Why was anything from that late in the film in the trailer?

All I want in the trailer is the set up and maybe a montage-y thing summing up the first half of the second act. I want it to be a pictorial version of the blurb on the back of a DVD.

Or BluRay, if you want to be fancy.


“This is a story about someone who wants something but can’t get it because of reasons.” Thanks very much, that sounds interesting, I’ll go and see that.

“This is a story about someone who wants something but can’t get it because of reasons and there’s this really cool bit at the end where you realise everyone has escaped from his imagination.”

No! Noooooooooooooo! Fucking NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Stop spoilering films for me! Stop spoilering them in trailers and posters and especially stop spoilering them for me on Facebook, at great length, and then tagging me in the post.


I don’t want to know. Honestly, I don’t. I’ll unfriend you. Seriously, I’ll fucking do it.

Well, okay, I won’t do it because I’m vaguely interested in your amusing cat stories and the outside chance you might post a photo of yourself in your pants … but, come on! Don’t spoiler the film for me.

Hell, don’t spoiler the film for yourself.

And trailer makers, just fucking don’t.

In general.



Categories: Bored, Random Witterings, Rants, Sad Bastard | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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