“The highs since then? Getting 16.85 million viewers for A Touch of Frost would certainly be one of them.”
What have you found to be the key differences between the skills needed for scriptwriting and Young Adult fiction writing? Do you have a preference for one particular form?
I’m not sure that it’s a different set of skills that’s required so much as an understanding of the very different parameters within which you’re working. With both story is paramount, of course, but especially so where scriptwriting is concerned. Beyond that scriptwriting also has a number of really quite strict principles to which you must adhere or, at the very least, remain closely mindful. I recently read an interview with a Hollywood screenwriter in which she described the process as being like writing haiku poetry. I think that’s right. It’s an extremely exacting form which demands control, economy, subtlety and nuance but in which so much can be expressed visually. With fiction you have much more freedom but are forced to describe things. You can also employ devices such as the interior monologue through which to explore your characters. However you can also end up running away with enough rope with which to hang yourself. A particular skill that scriptwriters (should) have is to write good dialogue. Not all novelists have that. Even some otherwise well-regarded novelists are capable of writing slabs of dialogue that would make any scriptwriter wince. Not only because of their length but because they’re often shorn of subtext, any sense of a character’s individual voice and are stuffed to the gills with exposition. As for which particular form I prefer: I really can’t choose one above the other. It’s all writing. Making up stories. I love both.
How did you get into scriptwriting and what have been the highs and lows so far?
I honestly can’t remember if the first script I wrote was for stage or radio. Either way, I started out writing for those. Mainly radio. Short stories and, eventually, drama. My first television commission came about when a writer friend invited me to a meeting an independent production company had set up with the BBC. Having come through the selection process, I was one of the writers invited to write a couple of episodes on the series – a police drama. I was writing novels at the time and had a literary agent. The producer suggested I moved to an agent who worked in film and television. I took his advice. The highs since then? Getting 16.85 million viewers for A Touch of Frost would certainly be one of them. Alongside that: having several of my own, original projects commissioned. The lows? Seeing some of those projects fast-tracked only to be derailed a little further down the line for one reason or another. I still have a note from a BBC exec framed on the wall next to my desk. ‘I think the word is out we should make (name of project) with or without (name of famous person).’ That’s one of them. It wasn’t made in the end. In that particular case because a Head of Drama left their post and the project was sidelined (enough train metaphors now, I think). Not that much of a low really. That’s how it is writing for television. Much more gets picked up than ever gets made. It’s just that when you get close… it hurts that little bit more. You need to accept the disappointment and move on to the next idea. It’s the same for everyone.
Have you ever had specific actors in mind for a role within your scripts and why?
For existing series etc you know who you’re writing for. Otherwise, unless a particular actor has been suggested or is actually attached to the project (which has happened to me on a few occasions), I’ve never really written anything with a specific actor in mind. I’ve simply written for the character(s) in my imagination. Either way, some actors and characters are easier to write for than others. I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily better to write for the character(s) in an existing drama or to invent them. I’ve enjoyed doing both.
You have also written drama, documentaries and short stories for BBC Radio 4 and other stations. How different is this to scriptwriting for television?
You have to create pictures in your listeners’ imagination. You haven’t got the luxury of being able to show things visually. At the same time, you do have the luxury of being able to take them wherever your imagination wants. You can jump from continent to continent – any location you like – with no additional expense. Beyond that, it is – in my experience, at least – a more relaxed medium for which to write. TV productions are on a much larger scale. Accordingly, there’s much more pressure.
What drew you to writing Young Adult fiction and what were your key influences when you were younger?
My agent was approached by the publisher and I pitched an idea that was originally a proposal for a TV series. It had gained quite a lot of interest but hadn’t gone into development largely due to the expense and the fact that there was another project with a Civil War setting already in production. I had written a couple of unpublished novels before getting into TV drama but I hadn’t thought of writing YA fiction up until that point. A key influence on that particular project – Rebels – was Mark Twain. I loved reading Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn when I was younger. Adventure stories in general. And that’s what Rebels is: an adventure story. It was later optioned by the BBC for film development. It didn’t happen – then. But who knows, maybe another time?
Can you tell us about the Online Scriptwriting Workshop which you run at Cardiff University?
The Scriptwriting Workshop Online is open to writers at all levels of experience and ability from across the UK – and beyond. It isn’t a ‘course’ – I run one of those separately. What I do is help writers develop their scripts on a one-to-one basis via email, providing feedback, guidance and advice on as many rewrites as people want to undertake during the process (which lasts approximately ten weeks). The fact that I am a working writer with a variety of scriptwriting credits does, I think, give me a particular empathy with writers working on their own material. I know what it’s like to get script notes. I know what it’s like trying to incorporate them into a script. At the same time, having been employed on the ‘other side of the fence’ as a script editor and script reader/consultant I also understand the demands and pressures there. Clearly, if you’re working as a script-developer/consultant you want to have accumulated some good scriptwriting credits or dealt directly with scripts at production level within the industry. I’m fortunate enough to have done both. It’s not a bad combination. Most recently one of my students reached the full-read stage of the BBC writersroom script-window. Others have gone on to gain representation and full TV drama commissions, to win and be shortlisted in various scriptwriting competitions and to make their own short films. I’ll be running the next Scriptwriting Workshop Online in September. Details will be posted here http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/learn/choices/humanities/creative-writing-and-media sometime towards the end of June if anyone’s interested.
What would you do if you weren’t a writer and a lecturer?
If I wasn’t involved in scriptwriting (or any other form of writing) I can only imagine I’d do something similarly unhinged, obsessive and lacking in security. Your guess is as good as mine. The fact is, I couldn’t imagine not doing it.
Russell Gascoigne is represented by Frances Arnold at Rochelle Stevens (Film & TV) Ltd.