This fortnight, I’m really grateful to ROXY COOK for sharing her thoughts and responses to the script reading experience for the 2023 Channel 4 screenwriting course.
Roxy is one of this year’s shadow script editors on the Channel 4 course and has also just been announced as the winner of the Theatre 503 International Playwriting award. Congratulations Roxy! And thank you for this excellent piece of writing.
‘Reading 281 scripts over 7 weeks was a bit of a gruelling, overwhelming experience… but one I’m very grateful for. Engaging with that much content gives you a sense of what people are writing, what they’re not writing, and what makes the good ones stand out. So I wanted to, alongside Polly’s excellent notes a few weeks ago, offer some humble provocations…
This consistently came up in our weekly meetings. Our worlds have shrunk over the last few years, and so, inevitably, the stories have followed suit. And while there’s something to be said for writing from your own experience, it’s also worth considering how you can play and stretch within that space. Write your morning routine, but from the perspective of your cat. Talk about the issues facing your local community, but put a clock on it – an asteroid is headed for earth, and it’s hitting YOUR cul-de-sac first. Or… break out of your own experience entirely. Pick up a newspaper and riff off the wildest news story you can find. You’re likely to find a bit of yourself in it anyway. The world we live in is wacky and wild… so write wacky and wild. Write 100 loglines in one sitting. A hook isn’t everything but there might be three ideas in there you didn’t realise you wanted to write. And if genre and high concept isn’t your thing… write that moving family drama but find a point of difference. Want to write about how people cope with grief? Write SEVERANCE.
CONSISTENCY IS OVERRATED
This is something I like to proclaim loudly after a couple of glasses of wine, so maybe there’s nothing to it. As people say – “let the audience know what your play is about in the first 10 minutes”. And I can’t argue with that. I also recognise that some of the best work out there sits firmly in a familiar genre, and that engaging with tropes and an audience who know them is an art in and of itself. But there IS something to be said for shows that start out as one thing and evolve (or veer sharply) into something else. I, at least, love them.
Bill Hader’s BARRY is a great example of this – what could have so easily been a forgettable high concept comedy has instead evolved over three magnificent seasons into something deeply profound and unsettling. Time and time again, it takes us right to the brink of where we think we’re going to go, and then swerves sharply in the other direction – making for a completely thrilling viewer experience. And what’s so brilliant about BARRY is that we end up somewhere entirely unexpected, but simultaneously utterly inevitable. So maybe my point isn’t about inconsistency at all, but rather misdirection.
Admittedly, this is easier done over a series than a pilot, but there’s still something to be said for letting your reader end up in a completely different place to where they started, for threading through questions and moments we don’t quite understand, but want to come back to.
FIND YOUR VOICE AND LET IT CARRY THE READER THROUGH YOUR STORY
People talk a lot about finding your voice as a writer. Without trying to figure out what that means, one thing I noticed re: scripts I was engrossed in vs scripts I switched off for, was how I was being “carried” through the script. e.g. a lot of scripts approach writing dialogue and writing scene descriptions / action as two different things. And while they DO ultimately have different functions, they need to a) flow and b) be part of the same world / tone / voice. One of the scripts I read and recommended (now on the course) was a comedy where almost every line of description was not only informative… but laugh-out-loud funny. Description is not just a practical tool, but an opportunity to consolidate who is taking us through the story and how – whether that’s writer, narrator, character, or a mix of all three. It can be an opportunity to get inside your character’s heads, speak to the reader, and have a bit of fun. Don’t underestimate it, especially if it takes up 1/2 of what your reader is looking at.
(Scriptnotes just did a great episode on this called ‘What You’re Looking At’).
ASK QUESTIONS, DON’T ANSWER THEM
Perhaps more about my personal dislike for the righteous 280 character world we live in, but I think the most interesting writers offer up problems and then leave us to sort it out amongst ourselves. Was Kwame wrong not to tell Nilufer he was gay in I MAY DESTROY YOU? Is THE MORNING SHOW’s Cory Ellison as bad of the rest of them? Are the souls of THE LAST OF US’ infected trapped inside their bodies, or gone forever? Write knotty, messy, inconsistent characters and put them in complex, morally murky situations with other knotty, messy, inconsistent characters. And then leave us to figure it out. Which couple in THE WHITE LOTUS S2 is the most functional? If there isn’t a right answer to the question (and there usually isn’t) then embrace that.
FIND A GENRE, THEN PLAY WITH IT
This one is probably a love child of my earlier points, but in a world of infinite content, every genre has been done and then done a hundred times again. Don’t underestimate novelty. Pick a genre (or better yet, mash two together like SEARCH PARTY did) and then twist it. I’ll never forget the moment GIRI/HAJI (the creme de la creme of inconsistent shows) put a black and white dance sequence in the middle of the finale’s violent climax. It was utterly bizarre, but they’d earned that audacity, and so it worked. That show’s stylistic sensibilities really refreshed (at least my understanding of) what a detective show can do. THE INVESTIGATION is another one I’ll never forget. Tobias Lindholm, sick of gratuitous true crime, decided to dramatise the story of a murdered journalist without ever showing the victim, and without ever showing OR NAMING her killer. It was a challenge for the audience and the creators, and a lesson in setting your own rules, pace and tone within a familiar genre.
FIGURE OUT WHAT YOUR DRAMATIC QUESTION IS, AND THEN CIRCLE AROUND IT A DOZEN TIMES
Sometimes the simplest stories are the most complex. One of my favourite shows recently was SOMEWHERE BOY. At first I thought the story was too small – boy leaves house after 18 years, boy learns how to live outside said house. But it completely floored me in its ability to take a simple question and then build every plot and character detail around different facets of that same question – of hope vs fear, good vs bad, live vs die. Tony Kushner’s musical CAROLINE, OR CHANGE is another one I always come back to. It’s a wildly simple premise: a young, white Jewish boy starts leaving spare change in the pockets of his jeans for the older, black maid who cleans his clothes. She finds this insulting, and begins to unravel, along with the washing appliances she spends most of her days with. It’s a simple premise and yet one of the most nuanced explorations of civil rights and the relationship between Black-Jewish communities I’ve seen.
Ultimately, you need to write the story you want to write, that feels true to who you are and the kinds of things you love to watch. Manufacturing a wacky premise won’t work if the idea behind it isn’t solid. But it’s also worth considering how you can break out of your comfort zone to make the story you want to tell work as effectively for you as it can. Genre and form is more up for grabs then it’s ever been, so have some fun!’
Thank you so much Roxy.
The next newsletter will be out on Friday March 24th.
Until then, Best Wishes,
Friday March 10th 2023