Monday 26 March 2012

Myths - #2 The Big Idea

Let's take a moment to dispel another myth about breaking into writing. The myth in question that it's all about the new, clever, original idea for a show - an idea that's never been done before and is so self-evidently brilliant that the originator of this idea will be showered with script-commissions.

There are numerous problems with this notion, mostly because it isn't true. And you can tell when someone's falling for it, because they are very protective and secretive about their idea. They will ask you to sign some sort of agreement before sending it. They are paranoid about having the idea stolen because they think they've hit a magic formula that will act as a wand, opening locked doors and ensuring success.

The idea is an attractive one because it feels like it's just a question of coming up with the right idea, rather than spending years and years learning a craft. We see dumb luck all around us - especially on the internet, where one small idea goes global very quickly. One three minute song is the beginning of a pop career. But lots of decent web ideas fail. Lots of pop songs don't lead to successful long careers. The Big Idea myth is the writing equivalent of this.

You can also tell when someone has bought into this myth when they tell you their idea - and you tell them that their idea has already been done. They often get angry at this point, because you're raining on their parade. They are being confronted with the stark reality that it's not ideas that create success but the execution of them. But as Cromwell said to Charles the First, it's all in the execution.

For Example
I've been working on a show that might well go into production at some point soon - and was explaining the premise to a fellow writer. I explained the overall idea of the show, and said it's a bit like [insert name of successful show here]. There is an overall resemblance in terms of place and tone. I went on to explain a key dynamic/relationship within the the show. And he said 'Oh, you mean like [insert name of another successful show] here'. This hadn't occurred to me, but it was correct. If I'd been a more inexperienced writer, I'd have been crushed, or worried by this relevation. Or offended by this friend's suggestion of similarity to another show that I hadn't spotted.

Come on, it's 2012. Humanity have been telling stories and writing them down for about four thousand years. If it's not in the Bible, or a one of Jesus' parables, it's in the Gilgamesh epic, or Homer probably did it, or Ovid. It'll be somewhere in the Arabian Nights stories, and/or Chaucer and/or Shakespeare. And they'll be two successful movies and nine unsuccessful ones about the same thing. Who cares?

Hut 33
A while ago, I wrote a sitcom for Radio 4 set in Bletchley Park. It was only after I started writing it that I realised that the set-up of the three main characters was exactly the same as ITV's Only When I Laugh, which I used to watch growing. It's a working class man (James Bolam/Tom Goodman Hill) against a posh man (Peter Bowles/Robert Bathurst) with a peacemaker stuck in between (Christopher Strauli/Fergus Craig). Only When I Laugh was in a hospital. Hut 33 was in Bletchley Park during World War Two. This didn't bother me at all.

The fact is an idea will not open doors. A decent script might open a few. A really good script and a bag full of ideas might open some more over time. But there's a misapprehension that it's possible to come up with a silver bullet of an idea that guarantees success as a writer. It's a myth.

How to Succeed as a Writer
If you want to be a writer, you do need to come up with good ideas, sure, but then you need to show that you can write them. If your idea show promise, and your execution looks good, you need to show that you can write several episodes of that idea. And you need to be able to following through on that and be able to write.

Ultimately, there's no substitute for just bashing away at a script, and rewriting it, and then writing more and more. But if you need a bit of help, and you want to write comedy and sitcoms, consider coming to a day-long course with me and the highly experienced comedy writer Dave Cohen (sorry, another plug) on April 20th (for Radio Comedy) and/or 4th May (for TV Sitcom). More details here. I'm not promising we'll tell you everything there is to know, because nobody knows that, but we might be able to point you in the direction - and help you learn from our mistakes. Plus you might meet a kindred spirit and form a writing partnership. Or help you feel like you're not wasting your time. Maybe see you there.


  1. Thank you for this, too many good ideas are discarded because someone says i'ts like so-and-so.

  2. I'm always amazed when movie studios simultaneously release movies on some abstruse topic, i.e. "we've both been developing a $100m epic about vulcanologists, what are the chances of that".

    Doesn't seem to happen with sitcoms though. I mean nobody wants the second sitcom about a time-travelling bigamist going back to WWII? And we all know of initially well-received projects that have been shelved because the production company have something similar in development or have heard that a competitor does.

    Can anyone think of a time when two very similar sitcoms were developed separately but broadcast at the same time in competition with each other? (i.e. discarding the generic situation of BBC1 pre-watershed sitcoms like My Family and Life Of Riley all being identical, and the slew of BBC3 "teen" sitcoms such as Grown-Ups, Coming Of Age etc that were all vomited up from the same hellmouth.)

    1. I've seen scripts turned down because of just that - there are too similar projects in production, commissioned or even just in development.

      Off the top of my head I can think of one example - Studio 60 vs 30 Rock.

  3. Very good points, James.

    One of my (very early) sitcom pilots was set in an hotel. No, not a 'Fawlty Towers' type of hotel, but a modern, souless, Holiday Inn-style of hotel. The characters and style of the show were as-far-away-as-humanly-possible from being compared with Basil & Co. - in fact, myself and the producers went through many drafts until we were confident we'd exorcised any comparisons with 'Fawlty Towers' (other than, I hope, the fact it was funny).


    Yep - you guessed it - the network commissioner, despite enjoying it, dismissed it pretty much straight away on the grounds that "it'll be compared with Fawlty Towers". A show that's over 30 years old now, but has left such an impression on British television, that to even try to do a hotel-based show is almost akin to trying to set-up an alternative monarchy. (Even the late, great John Sullivan came a cropper when he had a go.)

    I hope many a comedy commissioner reads your blog. Too often these days, the 'Big Idea' leads the commissioning process. Coming-up with a 'Big Idea' and getting the commission seems all-too-often to be considered the finish line with many sitcoms. The actual quality of the scripts and the potential of the characters seems (almost) an afterthought.

    Enjoy your blog. Thanks.