“Reading leads to writing.”
So said the novelist Penelope Lively at one of the Folio Academy Sessions at the British Library. It’s an obvious statement: you’d be hard pressed to find any novelist or poet or playwright who didn’t have a long list of favourite books they’d devoured in their formative years. Personally, I read everything: one of my favourite novels is ‘David Copperfield’ by Charles Dickens which has a sublime opening sentence that sums up everything a personal history should be – ‘Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.’; a favourite contemporary playwright is Martin McDonagh whose play ‘The Pillowman’ I can read and re-read because it begs the question: Is this a work of genius or a work of madness? And a favourite poet would have to be Kipling because in his poem ‘If’ he sums up the struggle every artist goes through: ‘If you can make one heap of all your winnings and risk it on one turn of pitch and toss, and lose, and start again at your beginnings and never breathe a word about your loss;’
But this isn’t the case when we think about scriptwriting. We all have favourite films and TV shows that inspired us; films and shows that we watch over and over again because they resonate deep within us. But, as Robert McKee is fond of saying, what we watch is an interpretation of the original creative act – which is, as with novels, poems and plays, a writer typing out words to tell a story. Yet the millions upon millions of words that scriptwriters have produced over the decades have only been read by a few people. But scriptwriters don’t agonise any less than other writers about finding just the right words to evoke an emotion, to set a scene, to draw a reader into their world.
I have many favourite scripts but one that stands out is David Webb Peoples’ ‘Unforgiven (The William Munny Killings)’. One of my students in a script analysis class said it best: it was like reading a novel. So thoroughly and lyrically does Peoples’ draw you into his world that you actually forget it was made into a film starring Clint Eastwood because you start to image your own William Munny. In an interview Eastwood said he tried to play around with the script (that’s the director’s prerogative) but in the end he shot it exactly as Peoples had written it. Essentially it is a simple story well told.
“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.