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Frank Deasy Award – think about the story...

Zinnie Harris


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I am starting a new project for BBC1, and it occurred to me that I am probably writing at much the same time as many of the writers who will be entering the Frank Deasy, so for what it's worth (and that may not be very much), here is how I am likely to spend the month of January…

First, I spend ages thinking about the story, not totally out with the characters but almost. Dramatic structure always comes first I find, and this is where reading other screenplays is so brilliant. I fill many many notebooks going over and over what will happen in my story and why this is story that needs to be told on the screen and not, for instance, in the theatre. I have to be really tough with myself about this. Television drama allows the audience to have a different relationship with characters, more under the skin / in the eyes of them, and I need to be sure that the story that I am working will suit the medium, and exploit it properly. I think about the scale, both sweeping and intimate, I think about the development of the story, is it right for the time-slot that I have, the high and lows, the most tense moments, the moments of lightness. I spend extra time thinking about the opening and the closing moments, what the experience going to be like for the viewer and what will they be left with when the credits role.

Second, I then start to think about character and point of view – this is still all in my notebook before I go anywhere near the computer - I start to break the story down into scenes, and starting seeing it through my characters' eyes. Who they are, what they want and - crucially - how they are changed by the story; how on page 60 they are somewhere totally different to page 1. At this stage I normally produce some kind of rough (and horribly illegible!) story breakdown.

I always feel a bit relieved when I have got to this point. By now I should have started to feel that it’s going to work, and have a sense of who we are really following and rooting for.

Then I go for a very long walk – sometimes two or three, or if the weather is truly awful, which in Scotland is pretty often, I drink a gallon of tea or do something totally other, spend time with my kids, and try to forget all about it for a day or two. This is when I believe a lot of the creative work is done – away from the page - after the story is broken down but before I have started writing.

Then I go back to my rough notebook, and with a different pen I start to work into my structure. My sister is a sculptor and she says this is like putting the plaster on the wire frame and she’s right in a way. This is where the characters start to come to life, and take possession. It’s where I start to find the heart of the piece. I like these days the best of all because I find that ideas just start to run, and I find connections between scenes that I didn’t know where there, and soon I find that I don’t have room in the margins of my notepad and I have unknowingly started to write sections of dialogue.

Then I take a bit more time to think. I deliberately try to stay away from the computer until almost the last moment. Sometimes I tell the whole story, without reference to my notes, to a friend (the scenes I forget about, probably aren’t necessary) Speaking it out loud in a simple way really helps clarify what it is.

Even then I don’t rush to the writing stage. Only when I feel I know the story inside out, and the characters are starting to scream at me that they want to be written, and I have a bubble of excitement for what is ahead, do I switch on Final Draft and start to actually write.

I just have to hope that it’s plain sailing, as I am usually quite near my deadline by then…!

Zinnie Harris is a writer and one of the judges of The Frank Deasy Award. In 2004 Zinnie received the Arts Foundation Award for Playwriting and she is currently an Associate Artist at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh.  Zinnie TV credits include two 90 minute dramas for Channel 4 - Born with Two Mothers (2005) and Richard is my Boyfriend (2007) and episodes for the BBC drama series Spooks.

The deadline for the Frank Deasy Award is 1st Feb 2013.  If you are thinking of entering read the full terms & conditions on our website.

You can read an interview by Chris Aird, Head of BBC Scotland Drama and one of the other Judges of the Award here.

Read scripts by Frank Deasy for inspiration in our Script Library


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