Article extract from Writing TV Scripts

Writing TV Scripts Price £12.9 9 €13.99 Format Paperback, 215 x 135 ISBN 9781842850626

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Writing TV Scripts

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Where do ideas come from?

Perhaps a better question would be: is there anywhere that ideas don’t come from?  We live in a cosmic soup of ideas.  We are swimming amongst them all the time and we simply can’t avoid making contact with them.  The minute you accept this you have to become aware that every single thought you have is inextricably linked to every other thought it’s possible to have.  So it’s not so much a matter of you creating thoughts and ideas as God might create a tree but of you patiently searching until you find the thoughts and ideas you need.

The most limiting belief you can have is that ideas are somehow stored inside your head like items in a warehouse, stacked in neat rows just waiting to be used and that when one is used it will be replaced by exactly the same idea (to avoid leaving a gap.)

Obviously if you think like that then you will either be unable to find the idea you want (sorry we just don’t stock that brand) or you will eventually use all the ideas you’ve got and start to bore your potential customers by offering stuff they’ve already rejected.  That’s when you’ll hear yourself saying things like, ‘I’m really short of ideas on this…’ or worse…‘I’m sorry.  I don’t have a single idea in my head.’

Don’t do this.  Stop looking inside your head and get out more.  Start looking around you.  Either literally or figuratively.  I happen to believe that physical exercise stimulates the brain and I do a lot of my best thinking on long walks.  But you don’t have to be like that.  You can open-up your mind to a positive flood of ideas without even getting out of bed these days. 

You can read books, watch television, listen to the radio, use the internet, write letters, call people on the phone and so on.  There are simply no excuses.  Re-stock those empty shelves with new ideas.  The universe is full of them.

So try to see your mind as an exciting workshop rather than a warehouse.  Workshops can be vibrant places where raw materials are turned into objects of beauty but warehouses are often rather cold and unwelcoming places.

Make a note:

There is never any shortage of ideas.  The universe is full of them

Open-up your mind and let them flood in

Think of your mind as a workshop – not a warehouse

Starting small. cast, studio sets and locations

You don’t need a really ‘big’ or a really ‘different’ idea for your 30 minute calling-card script.  Often the simplest ideas are the most effective and they are much easier to handle.


I suggest, as a newcomer, you limit your cast to something like 4 – 6 main characters with perhaps 3 – or 4 others who may say the odd word.

Obviously that means 10 should be the maximum number of speaking characters.   It’s easy to keep the number of speakers down.  Waiters, bar-staff, taxi-drivers, sales-assistants in stores, receptionists in offices rarely need to speak in a drama. 

Sometimes their comments can be useful and help push the story along and that’s fine – especially if they are going to appear on screen more than once.  But never include their comments just to make the script seem more realistic.  Yes, in real-life all these people are likely to speak but this isn’t real life – it’s fiction and it needs to keep moving. 

On a purely practical level performers who speak get paid more than NSE’S (Non-speaking extras).  So always bear this in mind.

Studio sets

This can be quite a tricky thing to calculate.  Sometimes a multiple set, like the various rooms of a house, can be counted as one set but don’t rely on that and certainly don’t expect it to be a ten-roomed house with bedrooms on an upper floor.  (Though sometimes this impression can be given by having cleverly designed segments of a grand house.)

It’s very unlikely that interior scenes will be shot inside a real house.  It’s more likely the rooms will be built a bit like stage sets with three walls and an ‘invisible’ wall only instead of having an audience in front of the invisible wall there’ll be cameras, lighting and sound equipment. 

Suppose the multiple set contains the main room of the house, then the kitchen, hall and perhaps one bedroom?  These would be attached but not as they would be in reality – more like a row of cubicles without doors – lined-up one against the other or clustered together in a kind of circle with each set facing outwards and all at ground level. 

Which means that the camera can’t always follow the characters if they leave one room to go to another because in reality they won’t be going from one room to another: they’ll be moving from one ‘set’ to another and possibly momentarily stepping into a space between the sets that is part of the warehouse where the sets are standing.

So that may require a separate scene to be written every time the action moves from one room to another.  But nevertheless we can probably count that ‘multiple set’ as one set for purposes of cost at the moment.

I’d suggest you only have another 3 or 4 completely separate (and singular) interior locations in addition to this.  This might typically include, a room in a pub, the inside of a shop, an office or part of restaurant.  Don’t imagine that it’s easy to film inside ‘real’ places instead of building studio sets.  There may be lots of space for cameras and crew inside a real supermarket for example but mostly there will also be customers and real trades-people who are trying to get on with their lives. 

The people who own the supermarket would expect to be paid for closing part of it off and since many shops now stay open for long hours and for seven days a week there’s little ‘spare’ time available.

All in all it’s more sensible to assume that any interior scenes you write will be filmed on a studio set and leave it at that.  It’s a useful discipline anyway to limit yourself in this way.

Exterior locations

By exterior locations I mean particular spaces where the cameras can be set-up to capture specific shots.  I don’t mean Yorkshire or London to be counted as one location each.  I’d suggest you limit yourself to just four or five ‘specific’ places where the cameras can be set-up to film a fairly ‘contained’ piece of action.  These might typically include: a car travelling a short distance along a road, a crowded street, the area immediately outside the main character’s house and so on.

One good way to gauge if your choice of exterior locations is reasonable is to try and imagine how difficult it would be for you to film it – using actors and technicians to get visuals and dialogue recorded.  Obviously professional crew members will be more expert than you are at getting the shots they require but they aren’t magicians.

They can’t clear the streets of people – stop aeroplanes flying overhead – halt the flow of traffic or simply transport themselves and their equipment from one part of a city to another at the speed of light.  Try it and you’ll see what I mean.

Costume drama

If I say the phrase ‘costume drama’ to my students they are quite likely to think of men in three-cornered hats and women in crinoline dresses; of ornate palaces in France or the dingy back-street slums of Dickensian London.  But in fact this description applies to any drama requiring extensive changes to the present norms.

A drama or comedy set just forty or fifty years ago may cause problems because it isn’t just the clothing styles that have changed in such a relatively short period.  Cars and lorries have changed too and so have other things we take for granted, like telephone kiosks, tv aerials, children’s toys, public buildings, houses and factories – not to mention the ethnic diversity of the population itself.

Set your drama at the end of the Second World War or during the beginning of the rock and roll era in the fifties and sixties and you’ll create an extra problem to be considered. 

Why make difficulties for yourself at this stage in your development?   Even though you are writing a ‘calling-card’ script at this point, that’s unlikely to be produced, why include anything that will give a script-reader a ready excuse to say no?

I think this might be a good place to say something about script-readers in general that most people never really think about.  (And here I’m talking about all sorts of script-readers – ones who work for large well-established organisations like the BBC and others who work for the smallest commercial companies and perhaps combine their script-reading with other duties.)  

The one thing all of these people have in common is that they are more or less obliged to say ‘No’ a lot more often than they say ‘Yes’.  The logic behind this is simple: they get a lot of scripts.  Many more than they need or can possibly ever use.

Many scripts they receive are so badly-written they can say ‘no’ to them pretty quickly and that’s probably a relief to them.  They can simply move on to the next one and so on.  They are doing their job and getting paid for it.

The minute they spot a script with real potential that’s when they have a tougher decision to make.  Once they recommend it, other busy people will become involved and that can mean a lot of time and money being wasted. They need to be pretty sure about it in the first place.  So you see it’s likely to be very much easier to say ‘no’ than ‘yes’.  A positive decision involves much more risk than a negative one.

Script-readers may be lovely people but don’t make life too easy for them by sending in work they can dismiss in seconds.  Keep your calling-card script simple and as free from production difficulties as possible.  Don’t give them a quick excuse to say ‘no’ and head for the coffee-machine.

Make a note

Keep your basic idea simple, contemporary and uncluttered

Have a maximum of 10 speaking characters (4 – 6 main ones)

Limit your interiors sets to an absolute maximum of 6 including one multiple set (of maybe 3 rooms)

Only have 4 or 5 exterior locations (and that includes exteriors of main house)

But we are still talking about creating ideas here so perhaps it’s enough for you to know at this stage that your calling-card script would be better set in a contemporary, and fairly ordinary location, than in the past, in a foreign country and dealing with Hannibal and his elephants crossing the Alps.  We are talking 30 minute British TV shows here – not 90 minute Hollywood Blockbusters.

This is an extract from Writing TV Scripts

Price £12.9 9 €13.99 Format Paperback, 215 x 135 ISBN 9781842850626

Click here to buy Click here for more details on the book

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