On Tuesday 12th May, we were joined by Screen and Film School patron Graham Duff, and producer and screenwriter Henry Normal, for an upfront and honest look at the mistakes people make when writing scripts.
Their insight was so valuable, and we’re pleased to be able to share their tips with you here!
1. Know your channel and think about who you’re submitting your script to. Remember that commercial breaks vary per channel – this needs to be reflected in your script, otherwise the commissioner will know that it’s second-hand.
2. Don’t leave everything in – your script will be too long! It looks unprofessional if your pilot episode is too long, so hold back; you can go into detail further down the line.
3. It’s entirely possible to have too many characters. You can always add more in further episodes.
4. Keep props to a minimum and think about cost implications. You’re up against others who are making something easier. Similarly, try not to have too many locations. Keep it simple – how different would The Royle Family be if it wasn’t based in their living room?
5. Make your characters relatable – who wants to watch something if they don’t care about the characters?
6. Not everybody sounds the same. If your script looks like it could all be one character, it won’t stand out. A grandmother would speak in a different way to their grandchild!
7. You could squeeze five jokes into a minute, but really you just need to try to get two or three on a page. If there’s no jokes in the first five minutes, it’s probably not a comedy script. Use that time to introduce the characters.
8. Avoid a lack of tension. It doesn’t need to be extreme; little things can be a big problem for children, for example.
9. Don’t make your script too similar to something that already exists! Do a little bit of work to find out if there’s something like your script out there already and change it if necessary.
10. Don’t under-write women and don’t make jokes about people that have less power than you. Punch up, not down. And give women faults! No one who’s too perfect is funny. You want a character that makes decisions, it doesn’t matter when, just as long as they do. (Side note: Henry writes a character before deciding if they’re male or female, and Graham will amend a script to even out any biases)
11. Think about what day of the week it is. Do they have to go to work? Lots of scripts aren’t as funny as they could be because the writer hasn’t made that decision. People find humour in the specifics, and these details can sow the seeds for future episodes.
12. If you’re writing a long scene, cut it into three or four sections and return back to it over the episode. Too many short scenes make it cartoony, whereas longer scenes give more time to get to know the characters. For reference, 3 pages is a long scene.
13. In comedy, you don’t get swearing in the first few pages – it’s used sparingly, and for effect. There’s only so much you’ll be allowed, and scripts will look weak if there’s too much. There are better tools to use, and if you start swearing early on, you have to keep to that level.
14. Don’t be too sick. The people with money are very responsible, and it’s easier for them to make something funny, rather than sick.
15. Avoid adding too many directions into the script. The director will wonder why you’re doing their job! If something really needs to be described, keep it to the bare minimum. It’s the same with character descriptions – you’ll bore the reader if they’re too long.
16. Don’t include too many additional notes. Henry doesn’t read these unless the script is genuinely very funny. Send your script, wait a couple of weeks, then send the notes.
17. Don’t make it too media-focussed, there’s only so many stories will buy on that. Channels want people away from the media and away from London. If you know a place, write about that. Don’t embark on projects if you need to research them heavily first.
18. Authenticity is important. Write something you know to be authentic, including dialogue – use regional accents where you can.
19. Avoid animals, kids and babies. Unless a channel is looking for this, then life’s too short. It’s also expensive – you need trainers and chaperones. They don’t do what you want, and you’re restricted by how much on-set time you get. Use stand-ins for everything up to the final shoot, where possible.
20. Don’t shoehorn a joke in just because you like it – just remove it. Graham suggests putting a gags in to make the commissioner feel confident that you can make them laugh repeatedly, but don’t push it.
21. Always try to create empathy for your central character. Anti-heroes are generally bad – make them human, or we can’t laugh with them. You won’t laugh at someone you don’t like.