Getting Your Comedy Script Ready
Writer and Script Reader
It’s that most wonderful time of the year! March! Which means the imminent opening of the BBC Writersroom Comedy script submissions! In 2019 the submission window opens on April 1st, and it’s “no joke” that we can’t wait to read all the hilarious comedy scripts from you, the budding writers of the UK and Ireland. In fact you’d be quite the “fool” not to apply. You could even say it’s “April”... No, that one doesn’t work. But yes, now is the time to be putting the finishing touches to or frantically typing out your script, wondering where you can slip in a topical vegan sausage roll reference. There’s many a blog on this here website offering you top tips for how to help your script stand out, such as this excellent edition from comedy impresario Keith Martin, which you can go and rampantly gobble up with your mind. Here and now though, lets take a look at some practical considerations which can help you in making your script nicely polished, so the readers can purely focus on the exquisite quality of the words what you have done chosen to plonk out on your keyboard.
Figure out your timing
So when the submission window opens on April 1st this year, if you’re not busy performing amusing telephone pranks, you may be so giddy with excitement about the script you’ve been sitting on for months (Non-literally, unless you needed a boost on your chair) that you will want to send it in right away. STOP! Well, don’t stop, obviously you can do that if you want to, but the fact is there’s no rush. The window will be open for four weeks, and sending it in early doesn’t give you any real benefit, a bit like getting speedy boarding for a plane. Now some of you will possibly be working like fevered beavers until the deadline looms to get your script finished, but for those who feel you’re done and dusted early, maybe take the time to look it over once more. Perhaps take a week’s break from the script and return with a fresh perspective. Look for the jokes which could be funnier, characters who could be clearer and flabby scenes which could be tighter. If you’re working a job, looking after a family and have to attend to numerous miniature ponies it can be hard to find the time, but just a few hours of committing to a new draft can do wonders to a script.
The old missive that “Writing is rewriting” is so apt that you could get it on a commemorative tea towel or as a talking-point tattoo. On the flip side of this, PLEASE don’t leave submitting your script until the very last second, as there is always a chance that you could have technical difficulties, particularly if you haven’t set up a BBC Writersroom E-submissions profile before (this is different from your BBC ID for iPlayer etc). You don’t want to risk your comedy gold getting lost forever in cyberspace, or simply missing the cut off point. And while an edit or two can help, don’t make yourself sick with rewriting, as the NHS is already over-stretched and there’s a chance you could accidentally start cutting out good material just because you’ve read it too many times. Like being a tightrope walker, it’s all about balance and wearing a jazzy leotard.
Hit the Ground Running
You may or may not know that in each open submission window the scripts go through three rounds of consideration - a ten page sift, a thirty page sift, and a full read with a detailed script report. Then a psychic octopus picks the finalists (Just kidding, it’s technically a squid.) It therefore stands to reason that your opening section really needs to pop in order to progress. Unfortunately if your last ten pages are a whizz-banging whirl of unadulterated guffaws, the fact is we won’t get to read them if the first ten pages are meandering, uneventful set up. Just like attending a sophisticated cocktail party, you need to boldly strut into the room and announce “I have arrived!” while you whirl off your cape and regale everyone with a humorous anecdote, even if it’s a lot easier to quietly lurk near the mini quiches and hope someone decides to notice you. If you were watching or listening to a new comedy, you would be expecting laughs as quickly as possible, and it’s no different with your own scripts. If you can get one funny moment on your first page, that’s encouraging. If you can get three, that’s great! If you can get eight, well, frankly that sounds exhausting. You won’t get rejected out of hand if there isn’t anything rib-tickling on the first page, but if there is, obviously that makes a positive impression.
It also helps to get into the meat of the story as soon as possible. Do we need to see your protagonist being woken up by their alarm clock when we could see them in the middle of running from the police with a stolen psychic squid under their arm? Your aim is to make the reader intrigued about where the story is going. If by the end of ten pages the main plot hasn’t kicked in yet, it’s less likely we’ll want to read on, unless the dialogue is particularly sparkling. Remember you’re not just setting up the story but also the key dynamics. If it’s a two-hander, for example, but your lead characters don’t meet until the penultimate page, we won’t get to see the central relationship which should be the lynchpin of the show.
We will always read the first ten pages in the first sift, and if we’re curious there’s a chance we might sneak a peek at a little bit more. But it is the start of the script and nothing else which will determine whether you make it through the first round or not. This is because the scripts are always read anonymously and we won’t know if you are an award winning star of Twitter who is renowned for composing earth shattering conclusions and has a lovely haircut. As ever, there is a counterpoint to this, and here it is! Don’t go to the extreme where you invest so much time and effort into your first ten pages that it completely goes off the rails on page twelve and turns into an incomprehensible fever dream, as that will make it harder to get through the later stages of the initiative. Not impossible, but certainly harder.
The Idea Isn’t Important. But…
A big BBC Writersroom edict is that we are judging the writing, not the concept, and we begin every meeting by chanting it five times, just to be clear. This means you don’t need to tie yourself in knots trying to come up with the most original idea possible, particularly if it gets to the point where it feels inauthentic or laboured. Communist zombies running an underwater roller-rink is not necessary - though I would probably watch that. It’s certainly true that some intriguing concepts don’t make it through to the final round because the writing doesn’t show as much promise as other scripts. That being said we are looking for elements which make your work stand out from the crowd, be that a particular world, your unique voice, fresh characters or a different sense of humour. We often find that an authentic perspective makes a script exciting, so think about your personal experiences and understandings, rather than what you imagine someone somewhere might want to read. And if your concept is entirely generic with nothing distinct about it, the writing would need to be exceptional to make a reader interested in it.
Remember that there is a difference between being influenced by comedy that you like, which is quite natural, and actively imitating it. We want your original work. If you’re just mimicking Bain and Armstrong, why would anyone hire you instead of them? (Admittedly, you would probably be significantly cheaper) So avoid being derivative, and maybe keep those scripts of “That Country” and “People Barely Do Anything” to yourself or fanfic websites.
Keep It Simple, Silly
It can be tempting to think “This is my big chance to show the world what I can do!” and chuck every single idea that’s ever entered your beautiful brain at the script. Obviously this can be problematic. If a script is flooded with storylines and characters it may become cumbersome and confusing. Sometimes having one or two really strong and memorable characters pursuing a clear plot is a much more effective framework. It allows you to focus on creating compelling and funny events, rather than twelve independent plots which are more complex than the human genome. Of course you can write an ensemble piece with many characters, but you need to make sure they have distinct identities and purposes. It can help to review if you really need every character, particularly if they are unnamed or will never be seen again. Should they be taking time away from your leads? No! Get the heck out of here, you naughty non-regular characters!
Make Things Clear
Stage directions are a vital part of a script, even if you’re not writing a play! (I know, right?) Each scene should begin with an indication of which characters are present and what they are doing so the reader gets a quick visualisation of what is occurring. However, avoid getting too bogged down in details or florid descriptions. If it’s important that your lead character is wearing a hat, because it later blows off their head and they have to chase it down the road, you should mention it. But don’t feel you need to say, “He wore a beaten sombrero, frayed at the edges with a bite mark - possibly canine or human - the carnival colours that decorated it now faded like his youth, though once in a while the toot of festive trumpets still flared up in his eyes.” Not only is that a load of old nonsense, it’s better suited to a novel, or an article in Take A Break magazine. Effective stage directions are simple and informative.
It’s also important to use stage directions, or audio if you are writing for radio, to create action, so your script isn’t simply people talking, but is visually or audibly interesting. Maybe chuck in some explosions, they’re fun. When introducing your characters it can help to have a couple of basic descriptors to give the reader a quick impression of how they might speak or behave. For example “ANGELA (Mid 40s, sharp and cynical)”. Again be cautious about getting carried away and writing their entire back story about their traumatic childhood encounter with a rabid rhinoceros, particularly if their dialogue doesn’t back up your description. Bear in mind that the audience don’t get to read the stage directions, so they only learn about your characters through their behaviour and interactions, a bit like how most Tinder profiles don’t reveal your date is a raving sociopath, but their actions make it entirely clear.
Looking at Lovely Log Lines
Named after the ancient tradition of drawing lines on logs, maybe, every submission needs to include a log line, which is a brief summary of the idea you are sending in. There’s a grand blog post here about how to compose these tricky little beasts. It’s worth recognising that a log line isn’t simply a case of telling the reader about the script, it also indicates if you have a clear grasp of your concept and can succinctly explain it. Imagine if you were describing your latest favourite TV or radio show to someone - you’d clearly summarise what it’s about to make them want to check it out. An ideal log line should describe the general idea, your lead character’s key desire, and what they do in the particular story of this episode to pursue their goal. Basically channel your inner Radio Times.
The Proof is in the Reading
Sorry to make more demands on your time, but if you’re able to proof read the script before you send it, that is a good habit to get into. It’s true that we would never reject a script because of a typo here and there, but there’s a difference between occasional mistakes and consistent errors. If characters change names or personas, or suddenly appear or vanish, chunks of dialogue are missing or scenes are in the wrong order, it gives a general impression of a lack of care. And when it gets to the crunch decisions and hairs are being split to decide who goes through and who doesn’t, you don’t want something as simple as some errors you missed to make the difference. If you struggle with grammar and spelling, maybe see if you can persuade one of your particularly pedantic friends to check it over for you. You know the kind, the ones who correct you when you say less instead of fewer. You must be friends with them for a reason, right?
Take a Chance, Take a Chance, Take a Ch-ch-chance-chance
Though it may sound like there’s lots of work to be done, well, yes, that’s kind of the point. Good writing does involve a lot of work. But if you’re umming and erring about whether to send in your script, even if it’s not quite to the standard you want it to be, it’s still worth submitting. Someone may see your potential and you might do better than you imagined. Realistically the odds are tough, with thousands of entries going down to around ten, but having a go gives you a better chance than not trying at all. Even if you don’t end up a finalist, you will be on the BBC Writersroom's radar, and there is the possibility that you could get invited to future events or receive a script report which can offer some valuable insight into how to develop your writing.
Now, not to invalidate everything you’ve just read, in all honesty you could potentially ignore all of this advice and still get through because your natural talent is simply pouring off the page. But that’s a bit of a risk to take. And if you do advance you’ll still have to learn a lot of these techniques further down the line. So if you can start following best practice now, that’ll give you more time to develop other important skills.
Good luck to all those entering this year. If you're not successful this time then try not to take it to heart, and make sure you celebrate your successes, including finishing your script and submitting it in the first place. Even managing to do that is a success in itself. So get out there and be successful! The psychic squid says you can do it.
10 Reasons Why You Should Enter Your Script - by Lynda Kennedy, who was in our Comedy Room group as a result