Wednesday 13 April 2011

Script Competitions

I've never been keen on sitcom competitions, script initiatives, new writing prizes and all that.

Given that the BBC Writers Room get sent thousands of script a year anyway - ever single one of which is read - there seems little need to spend money on competitions and executives to manage them and readers to read the scripts. You could simply pay writers who show promise a little bit of money to make their scripts better.

But I've been warming, slightly, to these competitions recently since they encourage people to write - and finish - scripts. Many people respond to a deadline, so the fact there is a clear date, a prize and the promise of the script being read.

There is, however, a downside to this. Writing a decent half hour script takes ages. Especially a pilot script for a new show. It involves coming up with characters, honing them, storylining, honing the stories, writing, re-writing and editing. It's the kind of thing that would take me at least three weeks before I had anything I could bear to show to another human being who wasn't genetically programmed to love me unconditionally. That's three weeks of Monday-Friday, ten til six. I can do that because it's sort of my job.

Most people don't have this luxury, because they're holding down a day-job, or raising kids. Therefore, the whole process is done in evenings, or at weekends. This sounds really hard to me. That kind of bitty process probably lends itself to sketch writing, but not writing a half hour scripts. (It normally takes me 90 minutes to really get into a script for a day.) And so writing a script this way will take months. But most people don't have this sort of time, or hear about the competition late, or just don't knuckle down early enough. And therefore the script is half-baked, and sent off anyway.

This seems to be a widespread problem. I was interested to read this post on Chortle about Jon Plowman's session at the London Comedy Writers' Festival. Jon Plowman always says very sensible things about comedy and is a good egg, so anything he says should be given great credence. For me, the telling line was "a recurring theme of the festival [was that] writers [should] think carefully before sending off a script."

This chimes with my own experience. In recent weeks, I've been meeting a number of new and aspiring writers, and many of them said similar things about the last bunch of sitcom competitions. Something along the lines 'I entered the competition, but the script was a mess. I couldn't really get the ending to work, and one of the characters isn't funny. But I thought I'd send it anyway'.

People say these things for all kinds of reason. It might be because it's true. It's partly emotional insurance and a fear of failure, which is completely understandable. It's probably lack of confidence too, along the lines of 'I have no idea what works, so I may have written something good without realising it.' But let's be honest about this. It seems unlikely that a script that even you think isn't working would win a scriptwriting competition. So why send it in that state?

Given the proliferation of these competitions, it might be better to wait until the next competition comes round. Take that extra time to make the script good. Or really good. Put the script to one side for a month and then come back to it fresh. Be brutal. Go through each line. Does this line need to be here? Is it a joke, a set-up to a joke, or developing plot/character? If not, delete it.

The reality is that if you write a decent script, a really decent script, you don't need a competition to succeed. This is simply because there are hardly any decent scripts out there. Micheal Jacob, in his last blog for the BBC, writes:

I must have read - taking competitions and College of Comedy applications into account - maybe 10,000 aspiring scripts or part scripts. And the depressing fact is that no more than 100 were any good. The tragedy of comedy is that many people think they can write it and hardly anyone can.

If you can write - and you also write a superb script (not the same thing) - producers will want to meet you and stuff will happen. It's all about the script. Don't sell it short. Don't let it go off half-cock. Plan it. Mull it. Research it. Filter it. Replan it. Write it. Rewrite it. Edit it. Put it to one side. Forget it. Then get it out. Read it. Re-read it. Edit it. Then put in some more jokes. Then cut some of them out. And check it over again. It might then be ready to send.

It takes ages. Even if you're talented. Perhaps the proliferation of competitions gives people the idea that anyone can have a go because writing is easy. It is true that anyone can have a go. But it isn't easy. I've been doing it for over ten years professionally and only now am I starting to think I might have the beginnings of a clue as to what I'm doing. But I do know this. Talent is fine. But there is no substitute for hard work.


  1. Excellent post. Thank you. This helps affirm the position that I'm now taking ... to write what I'm good at and passionate about and to wait until it's ready before sending it out.

  2. This is quite heartening to read. I have writern quite a few pilots now and only two have been sent to the BBC. I suppose for writers who are writing with no inway into the industry, time is a precious thing. Especially because writing is extra curricular due to jobs, etc. And then there's the crippling fear that we'll never get to where we feel we should be. That said, I think I should just send you our script? Go on. I'll buy you a pint if you cleverly drop it in the hands of a producer who won't reply....... And this is me being dignified.

  3. Hi James,

    I saw Paul Ashton from BBC Writersroom speaking yesterday. He said they had 1800 scripts for the last sitcom writing competition. That's on top of the 5000 or so unsolicited scripts they get every year too. Cor blimey guvnor.

    I've entered a few of their competitions in the past, but not for a while now - probably because I feel other avenues have worked for me. But I did find them useful in the beginning mainly because it was like I'd been given a brief - instead of that terrible thing of being given the option to write anything.

    I've also had feedback from the writersroom, back before I had an agent, and that was a definite encouragement to go further. I do feel for them there though as every writing event I've ever been to there's always one or two nutjobs who are really angry that no-one's noticed their genius yet. They get very angry with the BBC especially, after all they pay their license fee so the BBC owes them... er!

    Anyway - good post. I've been working on a TV Sitcom idea and could have rushed to meet the recent competition deadlines but I wanted to take Graham Linehan's advice from the excellent Screenwipe S5E5 about not starting the script until it was properly formed in my head - until it was ready!

  4. You could also say that out of every 10,000 sitcom scripts the BBC actually produces, only 100 are any good.

  5. Given producing the complete thing is so hard unless you are full time (then it's easy?!!) wouldn't script competitions that take synopsis + one scene and give some feedback be more use?
    I'd rather be told "it'll never fly" early than later. Or is it all part of my 10,000 hrs to get good at it?
    I can see constructive feedback takes time but that could be the "prize" - only the top 10 get it (be nice if top 10% got a "you weren't totally awful" reply as well).
    Competitions are the only deadline you have if you are starting out & writing without a deadline is (often literally) endless.

  6. Interesting blog post. Has to be said though that some competitions/script calls give very specific outlines (sitcom must have three characters, one an alien, be set in a funeral parlour and contain constant references to cheese) yet a very short lead time. Therefore they are basically asking usually inexperienced writers to come up with an idea *and* write the script in a very short time - not use a script they have already. A looser brief would allow us to submit that script we've been honing for months. Presumably when there's a specific brief they deliberately don't want old work dusted off and submitted for the sake of it, but at the same time they need to understand that what they'll get won't be anyone's best, honed work.

  7. Excellent post. Thanks for this.

  8. been reading your blog all day, you could call it procrastination, I'm choosing to call it research. I was going to enter channel 4s comedy blaps last year, I had what I considered to be a finished pilot. Instead of entering, I shut my computer off and forgot about the script for a few months. I came back to it later and started from scratch - only now, after a year of fiddling, re-writing and editing am I approaching something worth sending in.. I have another 26 days to get it working properly..