Some ramblings on TV writing
Television was my first creative love. The words that spilled out of people’s mouths had to come from somewhere and I wanted to be the one who put them there. In my teens I was so enamoured with the idea of writing something that would hold people’s attention from the comfort of their living rooms that I started plotting out scripts. When you write and create TV, you ask people to let you into their homes. It’s intimate.
This Life has a lot to answer for. With its wobbly, shaky camerawork it didn’t look like anything we’d seen before. It was edgy and new and progressive. It made TV feel less passive; like you were living out the events that happened to the characters with them, and not just peering in from behind a window. Now that style has become so commonplace we tend not to notice it. In fact, TV and film have gone a step further and even have a ‘found footage’ genre.
I bought one of those flip photo albums, some markers and a pack of index cards. (I love index cards. Nobody uses them anymore.) I started planning out a TV series called Rush which, even at the time, I knew was a Cardiff-based rip off of This Life. Each of the characters had a tentative link to the title. I never expected to sell it, I just enjoyed planning it.
I then moved on to writing and researching another series call Broody which was about… actually I can’t tell you the details. One of the first things I learnt about script writing was that you never ever reveal creative ideas until you’ve actioned them. They’re like gold dust. I will say, though, that the idea that a 16 year-old could write about the complex and highly adult themes it covered is slightly laughable. I recognised that though. I may have been an immature adolescent, but at least I knew I was.
I persevered, using Gerald Kelsey’s Writing for Television as my bible. I used to imagine winning screenplay BAFTAs and thanking him for teaching me how to get it right. I had a notebook I filled with random comedy moments that didn’t fit anywhere but may have come in handy in the future, similar to the way comedians keep note of stand-up joke inspiration. I think I lost that notebook or, as I commented to a friend last week, maybe Ruth Jones stole it. Stella gives me a strange feeling of deja vu.
By the time I left school my interests had shifted toward social studies and analysing the media from the outside, rather than trying to immerse myself in it. I looked into a few bursaries and grants given to new writers, entered a few short film competitions, but script writing gradually shuffled off the radar in favour of other writing pursuits and a boring day job. Every now and then I’d get a great idea, enter the odd contest, but never felt enough to want to make something of it. Apart from when I watched Mean Girls and decided I could write a modern adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. I’ve still got the books on understanding teenage emotions I used as research. Tina Fey’s got a lot to answer for as well.
Just lately I’ve felt myself dragged back to TV writing. A couple of years ago an academic friend who enjoyed my longer non-fiction work suggested I write short stories because she thought I was a good storyteller. I’d never really considered writing literature before, but I did have a vague idea floating around my head that would work as a series of five overlapping short stories. In November I signed up to NaNoWriMo, expecting to bash out my book. It didn’t work. I hated it. Not just the forced target writing, but every time I tried to describe an emotion my character was feeling, it kept hitting me that a great actor could do the same thing with fewer words and the perfect facial expression. I wanted to write the script, not the book.
Initially I was disappointed in this development but it was a conditioned response, not my true response. I’m not sure where this snobbery comes from between television and literature. Great TV writing is no less valid and worthy than any book, as far as I’m concerned. You don’t just have to write the dialogue, you also have to create a whole package of angles, shots and atmosphere to make the audience feel your intention.
There’s an outdated view that TV is sedentary and passive. That you just sit there and it washes over you. But is it really any more so than reading a book? Yes, reading a book means that you create your own image in your mind. But having an image chosen for you doesn’t mean your mind isn’t engaged in the drama or the emotion of the scene. I bet your heart pounded during that first episode of Broadchurch, didn’t it? Mine did. There was a BBC news report yesterday on how we now watch TV on tablet devices, and there were the usual comments about how we probably watch too much. A researcher also noted that we feel inclined to lie about how much television we really watch, as if we’re ashamed. Nobody would ever say that they felt ashamed of spending three hours a day reading. I don’t feel any need to apologise for enjoying TV.
There is a lot of bad TV out there, I agree. That’s because there are hundreds of channels to be filled 24 hours a day. There are also a lot of truly terrible books out there. We just pick up fewer books. If we read as much as we watch TV we’d throw more away than we kept. Great TV isn’t literature’s poor relation. It’s just the relative we spend the most time with. For the most part, we’re just a little less selective.
Watching that third series of Sherlock over the new year I was gripped; not just by the story and the dialogue but also by how hooked everyone else was, too. Twitter blew up more and more with each episode. Social media means we share TV differently now. It’s not something we do alone. It’s become communal. Nothing else pulls so many people together at the same time and plays around with their emotions in quite the same way. A book can’t do that. While you read a book it’s solitary – a relationship between you and the author. It’s only when you discuss it afterward with others that you share the experience. It’s different. The small screen is the place to be now. Hollywood’s getting stale, the real juicy parts and the best drama is taking place on our TVs, iPads, phones and game consoles.
I think I want back in. TV is so good at the moment I can’t keep up. The final episode in series three of Sherlock had me wondering what it all looked like on paper. How did they script that whoosh into the padded cell when Sherlock’s mind was looping around? I wanted to see it. I’m half way through the second series of House of Cards and it’s so clever I could weep. The characters are so rich and believeably twisted. It takes real skill to write a character like Frank Underwood and have him be both an evil bastard and strangely loveable.
In as much as House of Cards inspires me and makes me want to be part of it, it’s also intimidating. To be that good is a tall order. It makes me nervous to try. What if you write something that ends up in the bad TV bin? What if people invite you into their homes and you don’t move them? But as I’m now more than double the age I was when I first started trying to put words into people’s mouths, I should probably stop ignoring this impulse that keeps resurfacing and just do it. Who knows? I might get to put words into Kevin Spacey’s mouth!