Article published on February 12, 2016.
As a screenwriter (BBC murder mysteries, ITV thrillers, US rom coms), I learned about writing with economy. Novels and scripts are very different creatures.
I’m writing this blog in my north London office on a grey January morning. In between each sentence, I pause to think about what comes next. I sip coffee. The cat is perched on my desk, demanding attention.
That’s 35 words.
If I were writing a script the scene would read as follows:
INT. SIMON’S OFFICE – DAY
Simon at work, trying to ignore the cat.
The team – director, set designer, costume designer, actor etc – would take those eight words (twelve including the heading) and bring the scene to life. (The director would beg me to cut the cat: animals seldom do as they are told, especially cats.)
In a book, the author can use interior monologue to convey what’s happening inside a character’s mind. The screenwriter has no such device at his/her disposal and must rely on the skills of others in the process. A script is a blueprint for the work of others, not a finished product.
What exactly is Simon writing? A blog? A novel? A letter to a dying friend? Gags for a best man’s speech? Is the writing going well or is he struggling? Is he cheerful or sad?
The actor will perform accordingly and choices made by director and designers for how the office looks on this grey January morning will tell us a lot about Simon and his state of mind. Is his desk orderly or a mess? Is he neatly shaven and dressed or slumped in his dressing gown. When he sips coffee, is it from a mug or is he the type of person who prefers a cup and saucer? When ‘trying to ignore the cat’, is he gentle or ill-tempered?
‘Show don’t tell’ is the mantra for all writing, but applies particularly to writing for the screen.
Without Trace by Simon Booker is out in ebook on 28th January (Twenty7, £4.99) and published in paperback on 16th June (Twenty7, £7.99)