Poking through some old files this week, I came across some notes I put together from the 2010 Everyword festival at the Liverpool Everyman. Aimed at scriptwriters, this is great advice for everyone who works with story.
The BBC Writers’ Room workshop was given by Paul Hardy. The BBC encourage unsolicited scripts. In fact, twenty-five percent of their radio plays are written by new writers. Every submitted script is passed to two readers who will each read at least the first ten pages.
Paul took us through the slides readers are shown during training. Here are some of the questions they are encouraged to ask, together with some relevant quotes by radio drama writers and producers (taken from a handout provided after the session). I have selected, edited and combined questions from my notes, and made some educated guesses here and there where my handwriting let me down. If a question doesn’t make sense or ring true, that’s probably my fault.
1. Has the writer chosen the right form?
Readers might be presented with a TV script, or a radio play. They’ll accept stage plays too. Each form has its own strengths and different stories suit different forms. They don’t accept unsolicited adaptations or spec scripts for existing shows.
2. Is conflict at the heart of the story?
So there goes my ‘what I did on my holidays’ piece.
Every scene should have the protagonist somehow failing to get what he wants.
3. Is the story the sum of its constituent parts?
Everything must pull its weight in your script.
Think of the rhythm of scenes – balance them with light and shade, have some scenes that grab us like a whirlwind of emotion and then have stillness.
4. Does the writer hook attention right from the start?
Hit the ground running. In a montage of the opening moments of dramas played at the workshop, every example began with high impact and with unanswered questions.
Cut to the action, let us know where we are with sound, or lull us into a false sense of security
Radio is great for starting slap bang in the middle of the action and making the audience find its bearings by having to listen. Then they are hooked
5. Are the characters emotionally engrossing?
The listener has to care.
6. Are the characters distinct individuals?
If you have more than two characters make sure they’re different not just in the voice but in personalities.
7. Is this a fresh take on its subject?
Does it say anything new? Does it say it in an original way?
8. Does the piece begin in the right place?
Not too many entrances and exits (fine to start mid-scene – very boring hearing people come in and out of doors all day)
9. Is it always going somewhere?
Drama is like a bicycle – if it ain’t going somewhere, you fall over.
10. Does it have a satisfying ending?
Know your ending and leave us satisfied – a lame ending is no reward for sticking with a story.
11. Is there a dynamic purpose for each beat, sequence, and scene?
Give each scene its own idea independent of the story-arc
12. Is the dialogue good, and is it layered?
It’s amazing when you’re writing dialogue, how much reading aloud helps. You often say things differently to what’s on the page, and so speaking it can make dialogue more realistic…
13. Is there (controlled) compulsion in the writing?
Never be complacent, it’s easy to switch off. Delight with twists and turns, revel in the aural richness of place; reveal what it is to be human. Don’t let the audience off the hook!
14. Is there a unique, original voice?
If you can’t be funny be fast