This week –
A piece I’ve written that is also going out today via the BBC Writers Room about the spec script & the writer’s voice.
And a tribute to one of our great crime writers, COLIN DEXTER, who sadly died recently, written by DAVID BISHOP, who knows everything there is to know about Colin Dexter, and the whole Morse, Lewis, Endeavour oeuvre. I was lucky enough to script edit the last two INSPECTOR MORSE films, THE WENCH IS DEAD and THE REMORSEFUL DAY, so I experienced at first hand Colin Dexter’s brilliance. A huge thank you to David for writing this tribute.
THE SPEC SCRIPT / THE WRITER’S VOICE
IDEAS / AGENDAS
The initial idea behind the script is all-important. As one of the writers on this year’s Channel 4 screenwriting course put it, ‘I try to focus on what’s bothering me.’ If you’re writing a spec script that you hope is going to open doors for you, try not to be too influenced by perceptions of the industry and what’s fashionable at that moment. You can be sure that by the time you finish the script and want to send it out into the world 6 months later that what was so fashionable then, is old hat now.
Ideally, the spec script you write should be a script that only YOU could write. Think about what areas of life particularly excite you, where your passions lie, and also what things you know a lot about. We’re all different and we all have our own obsessions. It’s so often these strange specifics that are unique to you that will make you stand out from the crowd.
The writer’s agenda is so important. So much of the best work is predicated on a writer’s passion, fury or enthusiasms. Make sure you believe in what you write, and find ways to express that belief through your story.
What I want when I’m reading a spec script is to be emotionally engaged – I want your script to stir my emotions. So you need to tell a story that you know is going to stir YOUR emotions.
This isn’t to say you have to always ‘write what you know’ – but you do need to ‘know what you write’ – research is such a key element of good writing. Immerse yourself in the world you’re writing about, and make sure you’re bringing a perspective and a knowledge to the subject that is revealing and honest.
LEAVE GAPS FOR THE AUDIENCE’S IMAGINATION
So much of the best story-telling is incomplete – encourage the audience to fill in story gaps for themselves. The best stories ask us (the audience) to do much of the work, providing our own imaginative answers to the spaces in the story. One of the narrative virtues of film is the cuts between the scenes. Take us on a journey but don’t show the driver unlocking her car, doing up her seat-belt, setting up her sat-nav, checking the mirrors…you get the picture. Show the driver getting into the car, then CUT TO the accident, the pick-up, the road rage (or whatever). Story is about the choices you make, the moments you choose to show, and – crucially – the moments you choose to leave out.
FINDING THE UNIVERSAL IN THE SPECIFIC
So often it’s the specific visual detail / action that reveals a character or a relationship. In the best stories, we see moments that are so strangely specific, that they feel honest and true – and therefore recognisable. Conversely, the familiar moments often feel familiar because we’ve seen them in other films, TV shows – and we resist them.
So many of the best dramatic moments come from a simple, specific visual – in a way that pages of dialogue often fail to achieve. If in doubt tell your story in visuals and actions rather than dialogue.
STEAL / OBSERVE
Don’t invent story – steal and adapt it from real life. Take your earphones out when you’re in town, walking, travelling on public transport, in any public space – and OBSERVE. Identify the people, places and things that pique your interest, and take notes. And think about what it is about the interesting people that makes them interesting to you. Take a person you’ve observed, and create a life for them, suggested by their manner, the way they dress, the things you overhear them say on their mobile phones – and imagine the rest of their lives.
But steering away from the too obviously commercial, making sure your idea doesn’t feel too ‘second-guess-y’ doesn’t mean you shouldn’t also immerse yourself in the craft and culture of screenwriting and other dramatic writing. So – if you’re writing a rom-com, it can sometimes be enormously helpful to minutely study the genre – watch and read as many rom-coms as you can manage, think about what works about the best ones, what doesn’t work about the worst ones, and apply the lessons you’ve learnt to your own story.
IN CONCLUSION – ‘VOICE’
The big thing that script editors, producers, literary agents seem to agree on about what they DON’T want in a ‘spec’ script is familiarity, something that feels derivative, as if the writer is second-guessing what they think the industry wants, writing something self-consciously ‘commercial.’
What we’re all looking for is something that expresses your unique ‘voice’ as a writer – the qualities that express who you are as a writer, that articulates your passions, and plays to your specific strengths. So – above all – please yourself. Write something that you’re excited to write, something that you need to write, a script that you’re prepared to get behind, a script that you can pitch with passion and excitement. Trust that if it excites you, it will excite your reader.
‘A tribute to a dead author may seem an incongruous inclusion in a newsletter about scriptwriting, but the recent loss of Inspector Morse creator Colin Dexter deserves more than a passing mention. His characters changed the face of British TV drama – for the better, and forever, as Mark Lawson wrote in a piece for the Guardian newspaper.
When the curmudgeonly Oxford police detective first appeared on screen in January 1987, it revolutionised how crime fictions were being made and broadcast. Until then only dead authors like Conan Doyle and Christie were regularly given the deluxe treatment – contemporary crime dramas were original series like Taggart or Bergerac.
ITV set aside two hours for each Morse episode, telling a complete story as if each was a film with high production values, an original music score and extensive location work. A few in broadcasting thought it reckless, but the series won critical accolades, BAFTA awards and huge audiences (peaking at close to 19 million in 1991). At one stage Morse was so popular and so universal that episodes were being repeated both by ITV, and by rival Channel 4 – an unimaginable situation in our fractured, multi-channel world today.
The show attracted affluent viewer beloved by advertisers, which did wonders for ITV’s profile. It sold to 200 countries worldwide with an estimated total audience of a billion.
In his Guardian piece, Mark Lawson argued that only the serialised storytelling of Charles Dickens matched Dexter’s impact on television drama, as the Morse franchise had helped position detective fiction at the heart of mainstream British schedules.
“The lessons it taught about place and pace have never been forgotten,” Lawson added. “In the leisurely, immersive experience it offered, Inspector Morse was box-set television long before the concept existed.”
Some might consider Dexter an author who simply got lucky – the ever humble man himself certainly did – but his Morse novels were already winning prestigious awards from readers and his fellow crime writers long before anyone considered adapting them.
Unlike many authors, Dexter remained actively involved with the TV series. Ten of his novels were directly adapted for the screen, while the other three were all used as source material for the series. Dexter also wrote several lengthy original treatments for the show, provided story ideas and approved all the scripts personally. His frequent Hitchcockian cameo appearances on screen helped underline his importance to the series.
The series concluded with its 33rd episode in 2000, adapting Dexter’s 13th and final novel The Remorseful Day, with the chief inspector solving his last mystery. Morse died, but his sidekick Lewis was elevated to lead in 2006 for a series of new mysteries. That show never attained the critical acclaim given its progenitor but Lewis still attracted large audiences while it solved another 33 mysteries over the course of ten years.
Uniquely, Dexter’s characters have inspired a third TV series: Endeavour. Devised and written solely by Russell Lewis, it focuses on Morse as a young police detective during the 1960s in Oxford. Seventeen stories have already been broadcast and ITV recently commissioned six more for the fifth series – the largest ever run for a Morse-related show.
For mystery writers and readers, the loss of Colin Dexter marks the end of an era. British crime fiction became more than a little becalmed after the Golden Age of the 1930s and 1940s. But the emergence of writers like Dexter, PD James, Ruth Rendell and Reginald Hill pushed the British crime novel into bold new areas, creating space and possibilities for those who came after them like Val McDermid and Ian Rankin.
Indeed, McDermid provided a glowing tribute to Dexter in the Guardian, arguing that his Inspector Morse novels were as “intricately plotted as anything from the Golden Age of crime writing, but … set very firmly in the here and now.”
Morse’s creator is gone, but his stories endure on the page and the characters created by Colin Dexter will remain on our screens for a long time to come.’
David Bishop, author of Endeavour: The Complete Inspector Morse
A message from Deirdre O’Halloran from the Soho Theatre about the prestigious VERITY BARGATE AWARD 2017 –
‘We recently launched the Verity Bargate Award 2017. In the run-up to our submissions window opening 31st May-5th July, we have an exciting workshop series here at Soho Theatre, and are travelling the country to deliver free information sessions about the award also.’
And finally, can I point you in the direction of ROBIN BELL’s writer interviews for the www.tributepodcasts.co.uk dramatic monologue series.
These writer interviews are fascinating – both about the writing process, and insights into the scripts and why the writers have tackled the subjects they have. They are a great companion piece to the monologues themselves.
The next newsletter will be on Friday May 5th
All the best
April 21st 2017