Friday 6 March 2015

Seven Tips For Getting Your Script Ready

A deadline looms large. It's the BBC Writers Room window for submitting comedy scripts. From 9th March to 2nd April 2015, their comedy script room will be open. This is something I advise you to make full use of, not because it will mean that your script will necessarily be plucked from obscurity, rushed to the DG's office by a panting courier and a limo sent to your door to bring you to the BBC as the saviour of BBC Comedy. That is unlikely.

A positive response from the BBC Writers Room is well worth having because it means that some people at the BBC know about you. You might start getting invited to some free workshops at which you might learn stuff and hear about opportunities. You might meet other writers in a similar position and maybe get to know some producers. In short, you might feel like you're getting somewhere.

But it's a long process which starts with a script. Is your script ready?

You want your script to stand out. The best way to do that, boringly, is to have a decent idea about something you're really interested in and passionate about. Create some fresh characters with some original stories and write it. It needs to be about something, like a clash of worldviews or a stage of life. A cynically assembled script, designed to be purely eye catching or 'commercial', will almost certainly read as exactly that. It's hack. And the BBC Writers Room - and Channel 4, ITV, SKY and production companies up and down the land - want new voices, not hacks.

Right now, however, we're concerned with the script we have in front of us, and making sure it's match-fit for the scrutiny of the readers of the Writers Room. Here are seven things to bear in mind when going over your script before you send it in.

1. First Few Pages
Let's be realistic. A reader is going to make up their mind about your script by the end of page 2. If your first two pages are badly spelled waffle, you're going to struggle to make any kind of impact with the remaining thirty pages. You first two or three pages are critical. Focus plenty of you time and attention on those.

2. Clarity
There's so much to do on those first few pages, but you're making life difficult for the reader if it's not crystal clear what's going on. Is the situation clear? There is a temptation to create some mystery and do some huge reveal in an attempt to create drama and tension. Well, this is a sitcom script. Clarity is your friend. I'd recommend announcing your comedy themes with a blunderbuss, rather than a cloak and dagger.

3. First Action
Your script will be clear if it's obvious from the start who the characters are and what they're about. What are they doing when we first meet them? And what does it say about them? Sitting, drinking a cup of tea is not a great way to introduce a character. They walk in - what are they holding? What are they wearing? What do they say that gives the reader a clear idea about who this character is and why they are funny? That first action or line for each character is crucial. It should really sum up who they are.

4. Unique Voice
Once you've established your characters, are you sure their patterns of speech clear? Reading a new script for the first time - especially when it might be the eighth script that day - makes it hard to retain distinctive characters in your head. Help this along by giving distinctive patterns of speech, or turns of phrase, to your characters. Ideally, every single line of dialogue should be unique to that one character. If another character expressed the same thought, they'd say it differently. Cover up the name of who's talking, and you should be able to tell who's line it is from the way they say what they say.

5. Tightly Written
Can every single line justify its place? Delete any line that isn't character, action or a joke. There's no room for 'meh' lines. Or wit. Look at each scene and ask whether it could be shorter. Could you come in later? Could you cut earlier? Do you need every line? Are you repeating information? Every script can be shorter. Make yours shorter, tighter, leaner and meaner. A funny 28 pages is way more appealing than a baggy 34 pages.

6. Typo Free
Are there typos all over the place? Or one or two still lurking around? I find it really hard to see typos in my own writing (as this blog demonstrates), so get someone else to check it over.

7. Funny
Are there enough jokes? Again, it's a sitcom script so are you trying to make the reader laugh at least three times per page? You really should be. Is there any way of turning half-jokes into proper jokes? Or you making the most of each moment? If you've done the hard work of getting your characters into funny situations, make sure you maximise the funny when you're there.

So those are my brief tips. Good luck.


  1. Hi James, thanks a lot for this!

    I will also be listening to as much Hut 33 as possible to absorb the techniques that make up a stand-out 30 minute radio comedy.

    If I promise not to make a habit of it, could I ask just one question?

    I’ve been working on my own potential radio/podcast sitcom for almost two years and I’m confident of the quality of the concept, characters and themes. The episodes I have finished have all come out to about 3,000 words. This seems a very natural length to me. However, the BBC radio sitcom scripts for 30 minute radio comedy appear to be 6,000 words. Six. Thousand. Words.

    That’s pretty daunting, isn’t it? I am daunted. I’ve actually almost finished a two-parter with something of a cliff-hanger at the end of the first half. I could try to smooth that out into a single episode and submit it. Or I could take a conceptually representative but structurally unsound episode I’ve been rewriting and (somehow) stretch it out to 6,000 words. Or I could just write something from scratch – though this will probably take me about 100 hours and I’m really not confident about structuring something so long.

    I wonder if you have any advice on how to structure a 30 minute script? There must have been a time many moons ago when you also felt daunt and worked through it. For instance, thinking of a 30-minuter as two connected 15 minute scripts, like two big acts, would that be a terrible idea? Or perhaps it can be done by upping the number of subplots. An A, B, C then a D that doesn’t have to connect to the others? Any suggestions?

  2. I had to laugh when you wrote that the script units would notice a commercial script. Those companies wouldn't notice a great script if it fell on their head! When did they last have a hit sitcom? There hasn't been a decent sitcom for over 10 years