Thursday, 1 July 2010

360° Festival 2010, Report 1: BBC Writersroom Paul Ashton - "The Perfect 10"

Right, so apparently everyone's gone off to Leeds to hob-nob with the great and the good, leaving the rest of us here to... to....

well, gnash our teeth in jealously.

But! Not to be outdone! I thought it might be a good time to post the reports from the BBC NI/Tinderbox Theatre Company 360° Writing Festival held this year (and, by the way, isn't that just the snappiest blog title you've just about ever read up there? Go on, have another look... Back? Classy stuff, eh?) They've already appeared elsewhere, but if you haven't seen them, or you're slogging away on the first 10 pages for your entry to this year's Red Planet Prize (you are entering, aren't you?), these pearls of wisdom from Mr Ashton might just be what you've been waiting for...

For those of you who didn't see the reports from last time (have a look down the sidebar of the blog and you'll find the links), it's four fun-packed days of talks, workshops and mingling with other writers on Film, Theatre, TV and Radio. And lots of BBC tea. And biscuits. Lots of biscuits.

So, without further ado (I’ve never written “ado” before. Is that how it’s spelt? Call myself a writer…) here’s the report from Day 1.

Paul Ashton – BBC Writersroom: The Perfect 10

Paul is the Development Producer at the Writersroom and a very nice bloke he is too. He started off by giving us an overview of their work, and revealing a recent success story for the writersroom.

Jo Ho had never been commissioned as a writer before sending in a script to the Writersroom. That script was read and she was discussed at a regular meeting the Writersroom has with drama department heads, etc . Even though they didn't commission the script, they liked the characters she had created. So Jo was called in, met some producers from CBBC and was commissioned to write a new series, “Spirit Warriors”, which is one of the most expensive series CBBC have ever produced.

So it does happen!! Paul did point out though that this is quite unusual...

There is an interview with Jo on the Writersroom, here.

Paul then went on to “The Perfect 10”. Even though this was based on the same talk Kate Rowland gave last year, Paul came at it slightly differently, and there was loads of great stuff in what he was saying.

A few opening facts/advice....

  • 15% of what gets sent to the Writersroom gets past the 10 page sift.
  • The first 10 pages have to grab the audience. Theatre and television have the luxury of a captive audience. Television and radio don’t, so get them hooked quickly! The first 10 pages have to do a lot! Even if it is a multi-character, multi-strand story. Even if it is a “slow-burner” story, it HAS to grab us immediately.
  • DON’T send your script to them in a decorated box, with a hose inside and a poem on the lid. He then showed us a pic of someone who had done just that… And no, the script wasn’t very good.
  • Very often the best letters they get with scripts are very simple. “Hello. This is me. Here’s my script. Hope you like it.” Let the script speak for you.

And on to the Perfect 10…


Choose the right medium/form and then challenge and subvert it. By form, Paul was talking about the form of television writing and the rules that go with that. You don’t need to re-invent the wheel. KNOW the wheel and then you can worry about trying to improve on it, but you can’t do it the other way round. There is a reason that tv writing works in a certain way and has certain rules – because it works. TV writing doesn’t come naturally to anyone. You have to master the form. To give a simple example, the more white on the page the better. Not to do so doesn’t mean that you are being clever, it means you have not mastered the form.

Say what you mean and mean what you say. Quite often they find with scripts that people think they know what they are saying, or that they are saying something, when in fact they’re not. Your theme needs to be stated early on, and stated clearly, and then followed through. It’s no use sending a script through saying “this is about loss” if that isn’t stated and followed through.

You have to write things that actors can do/show and you have to show in the script not tell. And by the way, there is a n actor on the Writersroom reading team.

In relation to putting camera angles, etc in your script (which has come up often on this site!), Paul said something which I thought was quite interesting. As a writer your job is to be in control of the character, story, plot and dialogue (and everything else that conveying the story might mean), so you don’t need to be in control of camera angles too! Don’t direct the camera. Mmmm… That’s gonna ruffle feathers…


Hamlet. Act 1. Scene 1. A ghost turns up. Something’s wrong…! Shakespeare gets straight in there. There is no time to warm up. Hook the attention and hit the ground running. This does NOT necessarily mean an action sequence, but it does mean that the story should have already started when we come in. If the writer is using the beginning to work out the story and where it is going, fine, but that is a first draft. Don’t include it in the script you send in. Your story should have:-

  • Momentum, purpose and direction
  • Show characters in action
  • Scenes should be the middle of a moment or near the end, not before the moment
  • Don’t preface, set up, introduce – show, show, show!
  • Beware of exposition and backstory


  • · Know your world and story.
  • · Don’t try to do too much.
  • · Know your genre and tone.
  • · Give us a focused way in.

It works for Paul if he reads a script and he DOESN’T take notes, because he’s caught up in the script and in the world of the story.

A lot of writers want to be ambiguous. Be careful of this! It often means the writer doesn’t know what they want to say. Having said that, complex is brilliant! But ambiguous is tricky. To do either needs clarity in the writing.

Genre is not a bad word. It guides you and the audience. This comes back to that idea of some writers wanting to re-invent the wheel. Take something like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” It is incredibly complex, but it is still, at the end of the day, a rom-com. So, you don’t need to be slavish to the genre, but you do need to use it, know it, and know how to use it.

Have a focused way into the script. This comes back to the first 10 pages. Take Shameless. It’s the story of a whole family of complex, mad characters in a very particular world, all of which needs to be set up. The usual way of doing that would be to open episode 1 with them all around the breakfast table. We meet them all. They all get to show who they are and where the live. What does Paul Abbot do? He takes the daughter (the driving character in series one) and opens with her in a disco far from the estate. She meets a guy and they have a bit of a run around over a stolen handbag, his gallant effort to get it back, etc. Their relationship will drive the opening episodes in many ways so this is what he opens with. Then they go back to the house, trip over a drunk dad and wake up the next day to… that breakfast scene with everyone. Seen through the eyes of an outsider – the boyfriend (for us the audience). So, he still sets up everyone, but it’s focused.


This is the one thing you CAN’T get wrong, in the sense that, if you get this right, people (meaning the Writersroom and all those prodcos out there) will forgive you a lot. In fact, Paul said that it is really distressing to see a script that is perfect in every other way, in form and content, and yet you feel nothing for the characters. If you are going to get anything right and everything else wrong, get the characters right!

Definition and Definitions: Character comes from Greek and means a stick which makes a mark, an indelible mark you can’t rub out. What is it that is DISTINCT about your characters? There have been hundreds of characters on EastEnders over the years. How many do you remember? Those are the ones you need to create. And its HARD!

Vivid and Compelling on an Emotional Level: If you don’t make the audience FEEL something for the character, you’re in trouble. The audience has to want to spend time with them.

Desire/Need/Problem/Obstacle/Journey: If your characters don’t REALLY need anything or have a journey then you are in trouble. We want to watch people trying to get something, and trying hard, and having lots of problems getting there, or not getting there.

Individual, not cliché, distinctive: What makes your characters not like characters we have already seen. Your characters individuality is shown by action, by what they do. In Robert McKee’s ‘Story’ he gives the example of a group of characters at a bus stop when suddenly there is an explosion. What each person does after that – runs away, helps, leaves their friend to help someone else – REVEALS character.

See the world from their point of view: Everyone sees things ever so slightly differently. How does your character see things differently?


Stories matter on a human level: Why tell your story? And why does it MATTER? Your story should not be a distraction, it should be ESSENTIAL.

Explore concepts via characters: It’s easy to get lost in concepts, but they have to be coherent. Always pull yourself back to the character.

Empathy/connection/vulnerability/fear: You have to feel something for the characters. How will the audience connect with them?

Emotion = the universal element: They Full Monty was a story which was VERY particular to a time and place in recent history and yet the emotion of a disenfranchised man who has lost his job is told well, so it works.

Physical Effect: A good script should have a physical effect on the reader. It should make you laugh, cry, sweat, have palpitations, and hopefully all of them. What is the physical effect that you are hoping each of your scenes will have on your reader? Every scene. That’s a good test of the worth of a scene! Make sure you have this in your plans for each scene. If the effect is “That’s okay”, well, that’s not good enough. And that works for all genres.


What have you done in your script that no other writer would do? Remember:

  • · Cliché and predictability kills story.
  • · There are a finite number of archetypes
  • · You need to have a fresh take, a unique perspective, an original touch.

In “Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?” the writers told the story of Odysseus by Homer. It has all the elements of the Homer telling, but it is totally different. Take the archetype and do something surprising with it. What are YOU going to bring to the story? Which is of course linked to your voice as a writer.


Unfortunately, Paul began to run out of time at this point and had a plane to catch (!), so the rest of the perfect 10 were summarized, but…

Story IS structure.

Beginnings, Middle and Ends – know the beginning and the end and then get your characters as lost and all over the place as you possibly can in the middle.

The story must be going somewhere, even if as an audience we are not aware of it, so that we get to the end and we think “ah, that was where it was going. Of course, it makes so much sense now.”

Make sure the structure has lots of peaks and troughs and is not just a flat line.

Make sure there is a dynamic purpose for EVERY story beat, sequence, scene, moment.


People don’t tell each other things they already know in an obvious way, so don’t have characters do it in your script for the sake of exposition.

Good dialogue expresses character.

Bad dialogue relates/explains.

Don’t write on the nose – subtext is key! However, you can’t write subtext, but with good writing and characters it will be there.


Does your story keep you up at night?

Are you compelled to write it?

Expedience = Dilution and Second Guessing is Pointless i.e. don’t write what you think you should be writing to get on, or what you think Writersroom or anyone else wants.

10. YOU

Have an individual, distinct, original writer’s “voice”

Write a script that no other writer could have written the WAY you have written it.

And that’s it. Easy!

Oh, and one final piece of advice from Paul…

Send us a script, but not before it’s READY!!!

Paul gave a great session, full of lots of useful advice, a lot of which we may have heard before, but sitting there mentally ticking off whether I was including everything he was talking about in my latest script, I realized there is always something you need to go back to, something you’ve missed, something you can improve on.

So, get writing!

Actually, that was the first part of day 1, but I think that’s enough for now. And I’m falling asleep. And the cat’s trying to catch the cursor on my screen, stupid animal, so I’m going to bed. The second part of Day 1, Humphrey Barclay on Comedy Writing for TV, will come tomorrow. As will the lowdown on the networking session. Bet you can’t wait…

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