“So many set out to write a script; so few set out to tell a story.”
This now often repeated thought occurred to yours truly at a round table discussion at the BBC’s Writersroom in central London. Myself, the other script readers, the development producer and the development assistant were trying to figure out why so many of the thousands of scripts that had been sent in were not very good at all.
When I started at the Writersroom they had one or two submission windows each year where anyone could submit anything, so one day we’d be reading features, the next plays, the next sit-coms and the next hour-long television pilots, some written by people with long lists of credits and others written by people who’d had an idea for a long time and had finally set it down on paper. We’d start at ten in the morning and go until five in the evening and, depending on how many thousands of scripts had been sent in, this process of reducing the vast piles down to a few that would be recommended to the development team could go on for months. What became obvious very quickly was that most of the people who’d spent weeks, months and even years toiling over their scripts had somehow forgotten to do the most obvious thing: to tell a story.
This got me thinking, if we could invite all those thousands of writers and would be writers into the BBC, how would we explain to them what a story is so the next time they sat down to write a feature or a play or a sit-com they’d know? I asked some of the other readers and they harrumphed in that supercilious way and said “Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it?” Well, obviously it isn’t as the vast majority of people whose scripts we were reading didn’t seem to know.
This became a puzzle I set out to solve so the next time a writer or producer or director sent me something to read and they’d failed to tell a story I could tell them what a story is – because too often people set out to write a film or a play or a sit-com when what they should set out to do is to tell a story.
And I think I’ve found an answer.