Very much enjoyed your Masterclass at Media City Salford. You have a lovely way of relating to the audience and de-mystifying the process. I left with a renewed confidence to continue pursuing my dream. It’s perhaps a mark of how much I enjoyed it that it didn’t seem long enough. As a result I had a couple of questions that I didn’t get the opportunity to put to you in the room.
I was heartened to hear that you too started out as a journalist. That’s still my day job. I grew up obsessed by television, much more so than film, to the extent that I incorporated commercials into my playtime - much to the amusement of parents and bafflement of playmates. I opted for media production in College, chickened out on becoming an actor, and found myself working as a cameraman. However, I knew I needed to write. It burned in me like an addiction, and journalism was the most accessible way of doing that. Illness led me to write my first novel, but I was strangely unfulfilled by the experience even after finding a publisher and getting a good reviews. Television writing was where my heart was and as I result I began working on scripts. It took me several attempts before I understood how to get coherently get the idea in my head onto the page. I’ve been fortunate to get through to the final stage of BBC Writersroom three times, twice for drama and once for comedy, and as a result been introduced to people in the industry. I have a couple of decent spec scripts which have gotten me some attention and have been invited to pitch for a few shows.
However, here’s my first question: I find pitching a script idea in a couple of pages harder than actually writing the full script. As a result I have been unsuccessful in every pitch so far. (I have a two-page pitch for a recurring BBC series just gone in, so hopefully I can break that losing streak…fingers crossed) Do you have any advice on successful pitching?
From your Masterclass I especially took interest in the use of storyboards in a writers room and how you build an episode. I wondered if you could elaborate on that to its conclusion. I read a lot in books about writing for film as a 3 Act play, but when writing for episode of television what method do you use to build an episode? Is it three acts, or do the number of acts vary depending on the individual episode? I often find myself writing scenes based on timing. Some scenes just feel too long and I cut them down. I think you mentioned 10 pages per scene? Then I play around with it to fit the episode length.
Thanks once again for your time, and if you ever have opportunities just to sit in on a writers room and witness the process that’s something I’d love to do.
David, thank you so much for your kind words and your great questions. I could go on at length, but I am going to try to make my answers as concise as I can.
I have been pitching for a long time, and I still find it challenging, but also extremely useful. A pitch forces you to get to the heart of your idea, communicate what it means to you, and why someone else should find it as compelling as you do. It usually takes some effort for me to come up with the best possible answers to each of these questions. But in so doing I invariably gain a better understanding of the story that I want to tell. I find that if I can’t answer these questions clearly and concisely, it usually means there is something fundamental about my idea that I still haven't worked out.
As for building an episode, the traditional structure for a network television episode was a teaser and four acts, with each section of the story divided by a commercial break. That typically meant that the teaser was between 5 and 7 pages, and each act was between 10 and 12 pages, resulting in a script between 52 and 56 pages long. The end of the teaser and each of the first three acts was a sort of mini “cliffhanger,” intended to entice the viewer to keep watching.
These days, I often write for a broadcaster or platform without commercial breaks, but for me it’s still helpful to look at my story in sections or “acts." Each act invites me to ask useful questions, such as what my protagonist and antagonist have done in this part of the story. It’s an opportunity to gauge whether my protagonist is active and whether the action is “rising,” which is to say are the conflict/stakes/problem growing bigger? If not, then it’s very likely my story is becoming less exciting, not more. I think that in a perfect story the action continues to rise until the climax, which is the culmination of the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist, then I execute the denouement as quickly as possible and my story is over.
Having said all that, let me repeat what I said in Manchester. Pitching and story structure are tools that help me to make sense of what I’m creating. If they’re useful to you, then I encourage you to pick them up and use them, too. But if not, don’t worry. There is no right or wrong way to write, and each writer must find their own path forward. The only certainty is that if you want to be a writer, you must keep writing. I hope you will.