Wednesday 13 January 2010, 13:32

Dan Tetsell Dan Tetsell

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OK, that's show two all printed off. We're now waiting for our cast to arrive from their snowy country retreats (and for some game changing news event to make all our sketches obsolete), so I've got just about enough time to post this on the subject of laying out sketches.

The first sketch I ever sold was to a short-lived and now forgotten Channel 4 show called Barking. My writing partners (Danny Robins and Marcus Brigstocke) and I had spent long hours laboriously single-finger tapping it out, letter by letter, on Marcus' word processor with the screen about the size of cigarette carton. We then printed it out on his dot matrix printer (that dates me) and posted it off (that dates me even more) to the producer. Who said, "Do us a favour - make the next one readable". We'd just written it out like we did for our stage scripts, trying to fit as much on one page as possible without any thought to font, layout or formatting. Thinking back it must have looked like a black page with a light dusting of white.

Reading as many sketches as I do for Newsjack, I can understand where that producer was coming from. If a sketch is hard to read, it can be hard to laugh at. Obviously, the most important part isn't the way the writing's laid out, but the writing itself. It's only the film industry, I think, who live by arcane rules of formatting - and isn't adorable how they use Courier so they can pretend it was written on an old typewriter? As long as what's on the page is clear, good writing will out.

However, I think taking the time to get your formatting right for radio will actually help the writing shine all the brighter. In radio the physical script, the pieces of paper with your words on them, is central to the whole production. In TV and film the actors learn their lines, in radio they don't. The sound engineers, the producer, everyone works from the same script the actors do. In radio, it all springs from the script. That's why it's such a writer-friendly medium - that and there isn't enough money to attract the massive, greedy idiots that can make film and television such a chore. So your radio script has to be clear and understandable, everything you want to say has to be right there in black and white - and the standard radio template we use in comedy is there for a reason. It's simply the clearest for everyone to read.

There's another, more selfish, reason why I'm urging you to take the time to lay out your sketches properly: IT MAKES MY LIFE EASIER. When I go in to tweak a line here or cut and paste a section there, it's seconds of my life wasted changing Times New Roman or Tahoma or Wingdings Italics or whatever into normal, sensible, clearly-the-best Arial 12pt. Those seconds add up. Do you really want me to lose precious moments with my young daughter over a serif font? This is no time to assert your independence from the hivemind. Arial. Arial. Arial.

I apologise if this is teaching anyone to suck eggs, but here's how you layout your basic vanilla radio script for Newsjack (and pretty much any other radio show):

DO NOT USE SCRIPT SMART. Controversial, I know, here in the heartland of Script Smart usage but, frankly, it's a nightmare. I'm sure it can be useful for longer scripts (though I just use Word without any macros) but for a three page sketch I don't see the point of using it. Plus, we can't edit it - and everything gets edited. When I see that 'Enable Macros?' box come up, my heart sinks, and you don't want my heart sinking just before I read your sketch.

FONT. Use Arial 12pt. It's the best - certainly the clearest for sight reading. It's what we'll change it to anyway, so be a mensch and use Arial.

Start by clicking on Format.
Then click on Paragraph.
See 'Indentation Special'? Set that to 'Hanging' and '4cm'.
Change 'Line Spacing' to 1.5 Lines.
Now after writing your CHARACTER NAME or FX (sound effects) or GRAMS (music) cues on the left, one tab will take you to the start of the cue - no need for multiple tabs or pressing the space bar. You can also set the hanging indent by moving the bottom margin arrow to 4cm. At the end of each cue, Return twice and start the next.

CHARACTER NAMES in capitals, FX and GRAMS in capitals, bold and underline.

FORMAT WHILE YOU PROOF READ. It's become second nature to me now, so I do it as I go along, but if you just want to get the words down without worrying about margins etc, just combine it with your final proof read.

DON'T FORGET THE BASICS - Name, email address in the Header, page numbers in the Footer. Everything that's in the writers' brief, basically.

If you're confused by any of that or unsure in any way, have a look at some of the radio comedy scripts on the Writersroom site - like this one by a couple of thrusting young Turks. As long as it looks like that, you'll be fine.

So, that's the easy way to format a radio sketch - and, like everything in this blog, it's only my opinion. Based on years of experience. Smiley face emoticon.

To sum up: it's the writing that counts, but making it look right can't hurt.

That Barking sketch turned out pretty weak in the end, but it did get sampled on DJ Dee Kline's Don't Smoke (Da Reefa), so take heart - maybe your next sketch will end up as a 1990s novelty drum n bass No. 11 chart 'hit'.

Next time on the Newsjack blog: Explosion In A Clown Factory - why a funny news story doesn't always equal a funny sketch.

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    Comment number 1.

    How is that sitcom by Sylvia Plath doing?

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Saved By The Bell Jar?

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Thanks for the tips...Arial, 12pt - check!

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Dear Dan,
    Sheila Crosbie at Celtx has just put out their latest version of what they call BBC Scene and BBC Cue options but neither of them offers the change of font when typesetting into PDF to use anything but Courier. Moreover, I've been corresponding with her trying to work out glitches with the transfer of contact info from the title page into the header/footer slots, and with trying to get the final typsetting options to cease breaking dialogue lines into the middle of the sentence.

    ScriptSmart hasn't been updated for us mac users for some time, and we are trying, and thanks for any more info at your end about what works.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Hi Dan, thanks for the blog it’s proving really useful. I’m a beginner to sketch writing so this is real exciting learning curve for me. I’m also taking your advice and I’ve requested tickets to come and see the show recorded on the 27th. Quick question, does it count as a sketch to you guys if we write an interview between Miles and another character, for example a comedy interview between Miles and a politician? Thanks again for the advice.

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    Comment number 6.

    Dan, you point out that in radio "there isn't enough money to attract the massive, greedy idiots that can make film and television such a chore."

    I'm intrigued. Who are the "massive, greedy idiots"?

    Do you mean financial backers? Producers? Or the creatives - directors and actors?

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    @Adam - Miles talking to another character would be a sketch. Basically everything that isn't a vox pop / correction is a sketch. Even a song. (NB. DON'T SEND SONGS)
    @Pete J Garbett - that would be telling, wouldn't it? A more my-career-friendly way of putting it would be that radio doesn't pay as well as TV so more often than not you can count on the people involved doing it for love of the form as much as anything else.
    @inkstain - I'm not familiar with CeltX, though I've heard good things. If it's free, that's great, but I don't think anyone starting out needs dedicated script formatting software (unless you're writing for those fiddly films)just a copy of Word - or your Gates-busting ersatz-Word of choice. If there's demand, I can show people how I painlessly lay out all the sitcom scripts I've ever written. Of course, some people find all formatting painful and for them a programme is a boon. Also, I'm fetishistic about which pen I write with even though a biro would work just as well so I'm no better.
    @MaldwynP @GriffP - Some Ovens Do 'Ave Em? No, no, I'm a busy man - must not get involved in pun games.

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    Comment number 8.

    @Dan, @MaldwynP "Father Figure Ted"

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    Comment number 9.

    This is a excellent blog and much needed. Yes please to showing us painless outlays of a sitcom script, I'm not sure I've got the time to see all of the scripts you've ever written. The comments are just as interesting as the blog. Cheers

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