Monday, 20 May 2013

Planning Is Everything

Despite a huge 'writing industry' about how to be a professional writer - to which this blog is clearly contributing - notions about the romance of writing persist. These ideas hang around in movies too. On an edition of Scriptnotes I was listening to recently, John August and Craig Maizin were laughing at the cliche of a writer suddenly being inspired and running to his computer and typing and typing and smiling and typing and smiling.

They laughed because they are experienced and talented writers and it just doesn't ever happen like that.


And yet we are all in love with the idea that the muse strikes and the script writes itself. No matter how many times I've stared at a blank screen over the last fifteen years, I have never seen a script write itself. It's not an option on Final Draft or one of those document wizards on Microsoft Word (as suggested by this excellent Mitchell & Webb sketch).

Given this romantic view of writing - or a highly mechanised one - you can start to think that you're doing it wrong if you spend ages planning and planning and planning. Right now, Richard Hurst and I have the good fortune of being paid to write series 2 of Bluestone 42. We had more scripts commissioned some while back, before the series was commissioned and for months now, we've talked and researched and talked and plotted and planned and redrafted plans and treatments and outlines. We need six scripts by the middle of July, ideally.

And we have not written any of them yet.

We've got outlines and ideas and scene-by-scene outlines for most of them. But no documents that begin "Scene 1. Ext. Roadside. Day..." and run for forty pages with dialogue. So it would be easy to be very very concerned. I was concerned.

Sitcom Legend Alert
But on Saturday, I managed to meet one of my comedy heroes - Laurence Marks, one half of Marks and Gran who wrote The New Statesman, Birds of a Feather and Shine on Harvey Moon - to name the fraction of their work that I've actually seen. They also wrote Goodnight Sweetheart, which was a perfectly successful show, but I don't think I ever saw an episode.

I was heartened by something he said. He said they would usually spend at least 75% of their time planning an episode before writing the script. That's a lot of time not writing a script. In the past, people have marvelled that John Cleese and Connie Booth spend half their time writing Fawlty Towers working out the plots. This is probably a conservative estimate. But the point stands. It seems no coincidence to me that experienced writers advocate that Planning is Everything.

Too Soon
It's the easiest thing in the world to start writing a script - or a novel or even a sketch. But finishing one is much much harder. I've just made up this fact but 91% of all screenplays that are started are never finished. And the reason for this is often you've started writing too soon. Or just started by writing. You've got a great opening scene. You've set the scene. You've blown up a helicopter or whatever. You've grabbed our attention. But what is the story? Why am I going to spend 28 or 88 minutes watching this story? You need to know why before you start writing the beginning.

Who's got so much time on their hands they can afford to get half way through writing a script before realising it's not working and having to throw it away? This is time that could be spend eating, playing computer games or reading to your kids. It's a waste of time.

Occasionally, just writing without a plan a worthwhile exercise, especially early in the conception of s who so you can hear the voices of your characters. But I'd leave writing any actual script of an episode until you know how it ends. You'll think of a better ending as you write the script. But if you don't have any ending when you start writing, you almost certainly won't think of one.

That is why I really do think that planning is everything. But don't take my word for it. Laurence Marks says it.

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