Writing for Television

Some terrific advice here from the screenwriters’ special of Newswipe.


How to be Russell T Davies

In April 2008 Benjamin Cook, a writer for Doctor Who Magazine, emailed Russell T Davies, lead writer and executive producer of the series, to ask if he’d consider offering some insight into the actual creation of the show, “the nuts and bolts of the process, from start to finish”. Two years later, as Davies hands over to the brilliant Steven Moffat we have the complete (seriously: this is a 700 page book) transcript of their correspondence, Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale: The Final Chapter.

Much like his Doctor Who episodes, this book is fast-moving, funny, suspenseful, hugely sentimental and occasionally self-indulgent, but it’s as honest, revealing and self-critical as any writer has ever been in print. It’s also, unlike most of the “how-to” books that try to teach the craft, written by a hugely successful screenwriter at the absolute top of their game, and, with its strict chronological format, by someone who genuinely doesn’t know if it’s all going to work out:

Here’s more [script] … but it’s absolute bollocks … Tonight this feels like a space-opera runaround. I don’t like it much. It’s too big, it’s daft, the Doctor arrives too late and does nothing all episode. It’s lame shit. It feels like we’re going to spend millions of pounds of licence–fee-payers’ money on silly rubbish.

But other than the fact that all writers have moments of self-hatred (no surprises there), what can Davies teach us about how to write TV?

1. On characters: There is a real, vivid selfish streak running through these characters, and that’s very me. I love writing that into characters. Too many TV characters are just “nice”. Make them selfish — naturally selfish, as we all are — and they sing. Allow the bastards to be lovely, allow the heroes to be weak, and then they’ll come alive.

2.On dialogue: Dialogue is just two monologues clashing. That’s my Big Theory. It’s true in life, never mind drama! Truest phrase ever: ‘The opposite of talking isn’t listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.’ Fran Lebowitz said that, and I bloody love it.

3. On making the audience care about the characters: I think what you’re talking about is story, not character. You care about a character because they’re in the story. You’ve chosen this story, you’ve switched on this programme, you’ve picked up this book, you’ve paid to see this film,and that’s where the caring comes from. Your choice. Your investment. From thereon in, it’s up to the story … if the story doesn’t work, the characters aren’t served … I’d just say: don’t think about it. Ever, Don’t sit there thinking, will anyone care about my characters? Put your energy into making the characters real, and honest, and true, and interesting, and three-dimensional — and the caring should follow. Like a dog.

4. On making choices: Any story can go in any direction. It’s not what you write, it’s what you choose — and I’m good at choices. By the time I come to write a lot has been decided. Also, a lot hasn’t been decided, but I trust myself, and scare myself, that it’ll happen in the actual writing. It all exists in my head, but in this soup. It’s like the ideas are fluctuating in this great big quantum state of Maybe. The Maybe is a hell of a place to live. As well as being the best place in the world.

5. On finding your voice: It’s so important to start writing, because then the process never, ever ends. Finding your voice isn’t the last stage, just another stage along the way. You reach the top of that mountain, only to see a whole, bloody endless range of mountains waiting beyond. You’ve a million more things to reach for, a million more variations on your voice to articulate. Because your writing always lacks something. Mine does. Moffat’s does, even Paul Abbott’s does, everyone’s does, and that’s why we spend the rest of our lives, still typing away in the dark, trying to get better. Until we die.