Wednesday, 12 May 2010

360° Festival Report 3: Kate Rowland/BBC Writersroom...

More of the occasional series from the BBC NI/Tinderbox Festival...

Day 2, Part 2

Ok, so after Nuno had brought us up to speed on what the “kids” are doing “online”, we all felt very uncool and unworthy, and slunk off for a bit of a break before the BBC Writersroom Roadshow. Which reminds me of Swap Shop, or one of those Radio 1 roadshows. Do they still do those?

Hope Keith Chegwin isn’t gonna turn up….

Oh god, I’m old.

Anyway, this was the most attended event of the Festival, reflecting the amount of interest there is in the Writersroom and how is works. Which is a good thing. Just makes you realize how many other writers there are out there. Even in a place as small as Northern Ireland. And these are only the ones who’ve shown up... Eek!

The talk was led by Kate Rowland, who runs the Writers Room, and very nice she was too. She comes from a radio background, and indeed still commissions for the Radio 3 strand, The Wire (no, not the cop show …. find out about the Radio 3 Wire here and listen to it here).

Kate started off by telling us that the Writers Room receives about 10,000 scripts a year. The first thing they do is the 10 page sift, where they look at the first 10 pages of the script and if they like it, give it a full read. So, those first 10 pages are important. We then went on to have a look at the first ten minutes of Funland (you can read the whole script on the Writer’s Room site, here).

Kate got us to talk about what we had noted in those first ten minutes. For those of you who haven’t read or seen it (and you should have a look), it started with a guy on Blackpool tower, in an ape’s uniform, falling to his death (suicide...?) and.... then got even stranger. Lots of story, lots of characters, lots of quirkiness, in your face. You REALLY knew where you where with it tonally after 10 minutes, and it had also raised lots of questions. Whether you liked it or not, it was definitely different.

Kate then took us through the important things for the first 10 pages of your script. Well, some of them. Someone will always come up with others.

  • Medium and Form. Use industry formats, don’t handwrite it, the usual stuff. They (The Writersroom are fairly flexible about this (although it's good to remember that a lot of prodcos may not be), as long as it is readable and in some kind of recognizable/standard format. Don’t direct from the page. This was interesting. We are constantly debating on this Sharpshooters and blogs about whether or not this matters, or rather how much it matters, and it was interesting to hear that Kate described it as a definite, unequivocal no-no.
  • Get the story going – hit the ground running, show characters in action, don’t waste time with too much preface, set up, introducing characters/world and beware of exposition/backstory. Of course, you also DO have to set up the world and characters. Just don’t waste time doing it.
  • Coherence – know your world and story, know your genre and tone, give the audience/reader a focused way in, don’t try to do too much and beware beguiling distractions…. which means cut that scene you love if it isn’t essential!
  • Character is everything – they should be vivid and compelling on an emotional level. Make the reader want to spend time with them. Make sure they have an active goal, journey, obstacle, dilemma. Make sure they are an individual – not a cliché or stereotype and know the moral line that they will or will not cross. What is the world through their point of view? What is their “faith”? Not necessarily religious, that last one.
  • Emotion. Stories matter on a human level. Explore the concept via the characters. Kate also spoke about the “squelch” principle. Meaning, make the reader/audience have an emotional response to the characters and story. The thing that makes them go “ooh…”
  • Surprise. Clichè/predictability kills story. There are a finite number of archetypes, so you need a fresh take, a unique perspective, an original touch. Have you seen your basic idea before? What’s different about your version?
  • Structure is key. Begin in the right place. The story must be going somewhere. There must be a dynamic purpose for each story beat, sequence, scene, moment.
  • Exposition and Expression. People don’t tell each other things they already know. Good dialogue expresses character, whereas bad dialogue simply relates or explains. Inarticulacy is what you are after, strangely – the fact that people struggle to express themselves, and will often talk about something else rather than express what they really feel – subtext, not writing on the nose.
  • Passion – gotta have it. Is your story keeping you up at night? What keeps you up at night? What are you compelled to write? Don’t try to be expedient. Don’t try to second guess.
  • Be yourself – which kind of comes from your passion. Have an individual, distinct, original voice. Write a script that only you could have written.

Finally, don’t think first draft, but first read. Make sure it’s ready!

So, easy then….

Paul Ashton goes into the whole "first 10 pages" deal in great detail on the Writer's Room blog, here. And, indeed, Paul came over to the next festival to give his take on the whole first 10, which I'll put up at a later date.

Kate then took questions from the floor. One of the most interesting things here was the amount of questions around “So, will my script be produced if Writer’s Room likes it?” And the answer was...

...that’s very unlikely.

Most people’s scripts are taken as specs, and can lead to getting writers to come in for a talk, putting them on a scheme, etc, rather than actually producing that script. Very few scripts will be taken up through Writer’s Room and be made. There have been a few. But the BBC is not going to give a completely new, unknown writer 6 episode of a new series to write. Think of your script as a calling card for your writing, and as a way in through the door, not as a way of getting it produced.

People also asked about the readers and the process at the Writer’s Room. Basically, they have a team. They do read everything. If it gets past the first 10 pages shift, then it will have a full read, and if the reader has any doubts, they will err on the side of caution and send it to another reader, rather than dumping it. Most scripts do fall at this first hurdle, however (only about 20% get full reads). After the full read, the writer will get feedback and could be asked to send further work. And at some stage they could be asked to come in for a meeting or to go on a radio/tv/comedy workshop or course. It’s also a good idea to indicate when you send a script it, what it is you are interested in writing for. All writers/scripts are logged, so they can “follow” you, and they do check on a writer’s progress. They are currently “developing” about 150 writers – following their work, sending them on workshops, etc.

And that was it. The thing that came across most I think was the feeling that it is a huge system, and they have a lot of scripts, but they are very dedicated to what they do, and genuinely looking for that great script that they will get excited about. It’s not just a slush pile. If you have talent, they will find you.

Oh, and she collected a VERY big pile of scripts to take back to that big London. I hope Kate wasn’t expecting to check-in online going home. That lot wasn’t going in the overhead locker as handluggage…

That’s it for day 2!

Oh, and there was no Kieth Chegwin.


  1. I went to one last year, in Liverpool, good stuff, and thanks for posting it as a refresher :)


  2. No problem, Dawn! Haven't heard from you for a while! How are you?