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Losing the Script?

Comparing writing scripts to novels

How many of you have thought about writing scripts for a play or musical or even a screenplay? Perhaps some of you have done this already but for those who haven’t, you may well wonder what the differences are.

On one level the differences are pretty obvious, in a novel you’re telling a story sometimes from a first-person viewpoint and it is up to the reader to fill in any blanks that aren’t there. What does that mean? Well, you may have a scene set in Rome, but you can only give so much time to poetically describing the beauty of this ancient city and then the reader can spend as much time as they want, imagining the details of narrow cobbled streets, and renaissance architecture. In a production, this has to be made and shown to the audience (although in some cases it can be imagined). Novels are storytelling at its best, it is sometimes educational and inspiring, but it does not, and cannot explain everything that happens in fine detail.

My experience is limited to some work I used to do day in, day out. For some years I ran a business in which we wrote plays and musicals and then provided all the resources so that practically anybody could put them on. And although one or two were very creative and I’m proud of them, a lot of them were written to a brief for small theatre groups or (what became our greatest time consumers) creating shows for the major tour operators.

Even the children’s shows needed original songs, scripts, stage sets or backdrops costumes et cetera. My original idea was to sell what was called a ‘show in a box’ package so that people could put on a play or musical anywhere in the world. And although I digress, it is worth telling the story of my very first website which I created in 1997. I was astonished that people just bought things straight away without any marketing and our first sale was in the Bahamas! What people in the Bahamas were doing with a musical comedy about six teachers, going to a holiday camp in 1960, I just haven’t got a clue, but seemingly they enjoyed the rehearsals and the performances went down well.

It was when I was on holiday with my children and met holiday reps struggling to put on performances that the business model changed. I instantly realised there was a greater need. Some businesses like Thompson (now called TUI) covered every base. They employed actors, singers, and dancers, and they were extremely good. So, the writing for them had to be different than for those people who had no experience.

Writing to a brief was common and although we refused to actively promote products in our work we had to, for instance, allude to sun safety and suntan cream. We had no problems with that.

So, my task was to create different versions of a particular theme. In one we would offer a complete backing recording which included prompts so that little experienced actors could cope with the amount of dialogue and then that would have to be re-framed for people with more experience.

A script is practically all dialogue and direction. The direction explains where the people are, what is going on around them and where it fits in with a story. Any songs clearly must carry the story, they cannot be irrelevant and at the end of the day much like our novels, it has to be entertaining.

I once wrote a script for the BBC. It was for a children’s show and had an inclusive theme (in the late 90s), I remember thinking how relatively easy it was to pull off. I would still say it was easier than writing books. The only problem was that they got back to me (having enjoyed the script) but said they would share it as a pilot if I could give it back to them as a complete cartoon. You can imagine what it would cost to get somebody to create a cartoon before we had fully formed CGI. It was something I couldn’t do, but in all the time that I was involved with writing scripts, I very rarely had somebody pulling my writing to bits.

In terms of tour operators, TUI was possibly the biggest. Once, my partner and I were sitting in a very grand office in central London, discussing the development of the work and they would literally keep saying ‘Oh you know what you’re doing’, but of course rather than being flattered, we knew that their interest was in making money and nothing else. The chances of keeping the rights to our work were minimal, to say the least.

I apologise for rambling on about my own experiences, but this is where my interest in writing started, and I would encourage anybody to have a go at writing scripts. I found it extremely rewarding, more so than writing novels. Even if you had a go at writing a very short drama there is a chance at some point that you’ll be able to persuade somebody to perform it for you even if that is a local amateur theatre group. You can only imagine how rewarding it is to watch an audience enjoying something that you have written.

It is a totally different experience from fiction, and I do believe that the whole world seems to have become that much more combative. There is a demographic out there sitting around waiting to pull everyone’s books to bits. Sorry if I sound cynical, but when I compare my two experiences of writing, I’m astonished at how relatively easy it was to write scripts and then impress people with them. You can only draw one of two conclusions from this: either people are less rude about scripts compared to novels or societal attitudes have deteriorated.

I once knew someone who did screenplays, and I was fascinated by the work they did. Like all jobs, they found it tedious after a while. My friend seemed to find it quite easy, translating a narrative into a script but was tortured by TV companies or studios, who would want to water it down, simplify it and make it a good fit for a certain audience.

So that brings me back to the notion of why we write. We should write because it’s an art form whether it’s a script or a book. When that drive to make money or to make money for somebody else comes into play, everything seems to change.

In 2011, I put together a musical to help raise funds for a prominent northwest homeless charity. It’s no easy task writing 10 songs and a script and then running it with both non-experienced and experienced performers. I now offer the script and music free except that Amazon won’t let me charge less than 77p for it. ‘A Week in Space’ was meant to be an in-depth philosophy about how all faiths and none, come together to make a better society in the future although (thankfully!) most of the audience just saw it as a bit of fun which hopefully it was.

If you don’t feel like writing a new script, take a chapter from one of your books and turn it into dialogue. Then find some actors and get them to perform it at a book launch or promotion. It is like our MTA ‘snippets’ which helps to bring your book to life.

You’ll be amazed at how rewarding it is, especially when the audience reacts.

If you need any help or advice with any of this, contact MTA directly.

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