Monday, March 20, 2006

UK TV specs

Dan Owen recently got in touch with a few q’s about writing TV drama in the UK and I thought it might be useful to share the exchange on the blog.

1. US vs UK.

If you write a TV drama spec script for the UK, should you follow the template of US hour-long drama? They have 1 teaser and 5 acts, structured around their ad breaks. However, the UK has less ad breaks and (if it's on the BBC) don't have ANY!

I have heard many different opinions on this question. Some say treat the hour like a movie and split it into 3 acts, some say you should have a teaser with 4 acts, other say 5 acts.

So what would YOU say is the best way to go?

A: For the UK market, it's best to write an original spec script of your own idea and characters (whether it be feature or TV script) as this is what producers and script editors like to read in order to judge the writer's talents.

In the US, it is commonly accepted that writers should write a spec episode of the show they want to work on and if you do that, you better make sure that you write to the particular style and structure of the series (teaser, four acts or whatever).

An hour of US time is only 42 minutes while an hour of UK time is 50 mins, or sometimes 60 mins if it's on the BBC (depending or not whether they want to sell it internationally, then they'll make it 50 mins so other broadcasters can fit in adverts around the hour slot).

If you want to write a spec script of, say, Dr Who, then my advice would be to study the existing shows back to front. Denis at Dead Things on Sticks has terrific advice on writing spec scripts, including "listening" to the show, not watching it. I’ve lost the direct link to the articles but they’re there…. Anyway, if you do write an ep of Dr Who, make sure to follow the style and structure as much as you can but still sticking to your original voice and talents because ultimately that's what they want to see.

2. Page Counts

Continuing from the question above, what is the accepted page count for Acts in the UK? Many US TV scripts are 50-odd pages long in total - spread in chunks of 10-15 pages per Act. Is that acceptable for the UK market? If not, how many pages per Act should you be aiming for?

A: About 15-20 pages sounds about right for each act. It varies from show to show. The West Wing for example runs to about 80-90 pages in total because it's so dialogue driven while other shows will be 40-50 pages that can be split into standard 10-15 mins segments. But it all depends on format too.

EastEnders and Doctors for example have specific formats that make their half hour duration run into 50/60 pages of script (Doctors has a standard ‘word count’ too: “a typical episode would consist of around 32-36 scenes - approximately 60 pages or approximately 6,800 words).

2. Formatting

I have recently been reading some scripts for Lost. It's a great show and I was interested in how they wrote their scripts. I recommend you take a look, if you haven't already, because I found them to be really enjoyable reads - even having seen the episodes already!

However... the Lost scripts completely break many "rules" I've had drummed into me about writing screenplays. Basically, they describe character's thoughts all the time and generally lead the actors and director by the hand with lots of camera directions and spell out the subtext. They even underline and capitalize stuff. A LOT!

Now, I know giving camera/actor directions like this IS acceptable when writing for TV in the US -- because writers have all the power, etc -- but should a UK spec script follow the same rules?

Personally, I know people say camera directions and suchlike distance
readers from scripts... but I actually find them more enjoyable and easier to totally enter the writers' imagination and visualize the events they want to see onscreen. Maybe I have a lazy directing side to my personality!

Anyway, it just strikes me that other TV scripts read very dry and bland when compared to the Lost scripts. The capitals and underlining also break the the "mundaneness" of a script, imo. I subconsciously devour pages because I can see in my peripheral vision that something REALLY EXCITING is going to happen because the capitals are waiting below!! ;-)

So, when writing a UK TV drama spec script... should you forget the
camera/actor directions and just write them as you would a conventional film script?

A: I think it's fairly impossible to write a script without writing what a character is thinking at some stage, the thing is not to over do it or make it feel over-literary.

Underline or capitals don't bother me when I'm reading a script but if they're overdone, then it's a turn-off. "Lost" does it well because ultimately, they're telling a riveting story and when that happens, format doesn't matter squat.

You've also got knowledge of the show and the characters, so you're reading the script with some appreciation already attached. Spec scripts don't have this luxury so my advice is feel free to use characters' thoughts and underlining, capitalising and even camera angles but make sure that they're inherent to the story, i.e. the script could not possibly be told in any other way in a dramatic and entertaining sense, and the reader won't even notice that the so called 'rules' being broken.


Dan said...

Good post and a way of writing I relate to.

Spec script writers should aspire to deliver an idea by distilling it into an effective image. Spec scripts are read, but their purpose is to evoke a TV prog/film within the mind of the reader. They should stand out by how they speak to the reader, it's story-telling after all. As long as there is clarity, the script can be poetic. Avoid familiar verbs and boring generic adjectives. Yes, be economical but be evocative. The nature of the description should relate to your story - fast paced and dynamic for Action, dark eerie tension for Thrillers etc. Write visually and make your script stand out.

Anonymous said...

Thanks again for answering my questions - your comments were very handy. However, you didn't fully answer my "UK Acts" question. How many pages per Act in a UK script, etc? Should you just watch the type of show you want to watch on ANY commercial station and note when the ad breaks occur and thus find out that way (10 mins, first advert = Act 1 has to be 10 pages, etc)?

Danny Stack said...

If I were writing a spec TV hour on Final Draft software, then I'd aim for 15-20 pages per act.

Dan said...

Okay, thanks very much! Can you explain why only people called Dan or Danny seem to be interested in this posting, too? ;-P

Dominic Carver said...

Writing for Television by William Smethurst is a must buy. It's an invaluable guide to every aspect of writing for UK TV, including tips on how to approach the producers of your favourite programmes.

I read it three months ago and I've already seen an improvement in the responses I'm receiving for my work.

As for spec scripts for existing programmes; it was drummed into me on my degree course that writing these was a total waste of time, as producers want to see how you can write and create your own characters and stories and not how their work should be written.

Piers said...

Whoah there big guy!

You say : "In the US, it is commonly accepted that writers should write a spec episode of the show they want to work on."

Unfortunately this ain't so. No US showrunner will read a script for the show they run - if they do, it's odds-on that some muppet will then sue them for 'stealing my ideas', so no US showrunner will read scripts for their own show. The only exception to this was Star Trek: The Next Generation back in the nineties, where if you signed a release form they'd read your spec.

Your best bet to send to a US showrunner is a script in the same genre as the show. So if you want to write for CSI, say, you would send them a Without A Trace, or possibly a Law & Order. For House, try sending ER. And so on.

Dan said...

I will definitely check out the book mentioned - thanks for the recommendation!

Personally, I can understand why producers want original scripts in the UK. This is the route I'm taking.

Out of interest, does anyone think an original one-hour drama spec should be a legitimate TV Pilot idea (on the off-chance the script AND idea is taken seriously andperhaps developed into a full series? Long shot, I know...) Or should you just write a self-contained "one-off drama"?

Wrting a TV Pilot spec is difficult enough, but even more so if you have to worry about the premise having scope of future episodes!

Just wondered. Personally, I've devised a marketable TV show idea and am in the process of writing the Pilot as a spec... but is it a massive waste of effort? I have ideas for future episodes - a loose "story arc" even - and could develop a Series Bible easily enough.

I'd assume producers would be even more encoraged by your work if your story is not only well-written and plotted, but also screams out for future scripts to be commissioned and a series made!

What's the general concensus? Waste of time developing a "spec series idea", or worthwhile on the off-chance of success with the Pilot spec and impressing producers?

Danny Stack said...

It would be great to get clarification on the US approach. As far as I know, some showrunners won't look at specs of the shows they're working on but a lot of repped writers will work-up a spec on House, or whatever, and try to get in with that. All I hear about from US writers is their research and prep to write specs of the shows they love in a bid to get work, unless I'm confusing this effort with trying to get work directly on their chosen show.

And Dan, the holy grail of UK TV drama (for broadcasters anyway) is the 'returning series' so if you've got an idea that you think can run, it wouldn't be a waste of time to work-up a series bible and the pilot episode.

Dan said...

Any thoughts regarding budget when writing TV specs? It's fairly obvious what can be expensive (locations, effects, etc.), but I'm not sure what the UK can typically afford in terms of ongoing drama?

Is there really any point in coming up with "the next Doctor Who" for the BBC, or are they really looking for "the next Casualty" (in terms of expenditure)?

A lot is made of US budgets, but how does the UK compare to this? Or is it misleading in the US because of salaries? I heard "24" episodes can cost nearly $3m - but I'm sure Kiefer Sutherland doesn't come cheap compated to Ken Stott, etc! ;P

I'm more influenced by US drama than I am UK drama, to be honest, so subconsciously I could write a $2.8m script for a UK market that struggles to afford £500k per episode!

Danny Stack said...

I would say, at this stage, let your imagination go and write what you want to write...

Dominic Carver said...


A one hour pilot is acceptable as a calling card script for the reasons Danny has mentioned above, plus it's an ideal length for a script editor to read. So are one off 90 minute 'event' dramas as they are now coming back into fashion - see The Best Man, ITV, Mon 20th & Tues 21st, 9 - 10.30PM. This is a two parter but still a good example.

As for budget restraints as long as you aim along the lines below you can't go too wrong.

What they want to see: Outside locations are good after all they are looking for scripts with visual interest, combined with good characters, great dialogue and a little action.

What they don't want to see: static scenes - i.e., two people talking at the kitchen table - boring for the reader and the viewer. Anything obviously expensive like car chases, explosions, space ships slicing Big Ben in half (Russell T Davis said that piece of CGI swallowed most of the Aliens of London budget.

But again as Danny says above just write what you want to write, at the end-ofthe-day they'll either like or they won't.

Dan said...

Thanks for that Dom, always interesting to see other peopes' opinions on things.

The reason I asked is because elements in my Pilot script read quite expensive - but the cost isn't indicative of future episodes budget. But the only way you'd know that is by reading an accompanying "Bible" of some description.

Then again, many Pilots are twice as expensive as the episodes that follow (Lost being the best example), so I'm sure producers expect this.

Anonymous said...

Pilots are awkward. All that explanatory stuff setting up the returning characters etc. And, do you write 90 minutes even though a "normal" episode might only be an hour? It's hard to show that you can write a standard episode.

The approach I'm working on right now is to write "episode 2" of a returning series, together with a one or two page overview of the main characters and overall direction.

Hopefully, that way I can avoid all the problems associated with writing pilot episodes, and simply show that I can tell a story.

I still won't get anywhere with it, I'm sure. But it seems a sensible approach to me.

Dan said...

I couldn't write the second episode first myself for a number of reasons:

1. It would mean the reader investing further time to "play catch-up" with any accompanying overview (which I'd assume they'd rather not do...)

2. I actually find most pilots tend to be amongst the BEST episodes of first seasons because everything is fresh.

3. Writing a spec screenplay brings the exact same problems regarding "explaining characters" you mention - but at least TV scripts are shorter! ;-)

I can understand you wanting to avoid writing a pilot, but if the reader JUST reads "episode 2" without reading your overview... it will be very confusing.

You avoid all of that by simply "starting at the beginning" with the pilot, imo.

Tim Woods said...

danny - piers is absolutely correct. no one in the u.s. writes a spec for the show they want to work on. they write one in a similar vein.

there are two reasons for this. firstly, the aforementioned suing, but more importantly, you will NEVER know the characters and story arc as well as the creator does, so it's best you show you can write, but then wait til you get the assignment before actually working on a show script.

there are very few exceptions to that rule and that is usually when the incoming writer is well known to the creator, or has a very impressive track record and then they are not so much speccing, as writing on request.

to put this in terms for uk telly watchers, if you wanted to write for emmerdale, you would send their showrunner, say, a spec of eastenders or the bill.

(and always have two specs, from different shows, so that if the showrunner wants to see something else from you, you've got one.)

also, the reason you often hear americans talking about doing their research for speccing a show they like is not to write for that show, but to practice writing by speccing a lot, thus working out how each show is put together, so they can incorporate those understandings in their later writing.

Anonymous said...

Great site Danny.

The important thing to remember is that there is always an exception to every rule. Tim Minnear wrote an X files spec - Cris Carter read it and hired him. At the end of the day, nothing beats good writing.

Personally I also feel if you love US TV you'll probably write a better US spec than trying to write UK spec on a show that you never watch on the BBC. I would even say the same applies for writing a spec original. Getting to the end is hard. It takes staminia. Writing a spec of a show you love makes just that bit easier to get there, it helps with the 'I still won't get anywhere' moments we all face.

Finally, chances are your first gig will be on a series and the producers will want to see how you handle pre existing voices. If you can do it on one show, chances are you can do it on theirs.

Anyway as I said, theres always an exception to everything. IMO Good writing always stands out.

Danny Stack said...

Thanks for the clarification. Great stuff.

Anonymous said...

Guys, just caught this debate a day late.

I found it really informative with some brilliant contributions.

Essential viewing!

Anonymous said...

FYI: An ITV 'hour' is not 60 minutes. It has four acts broken by ad breaks of anywhere up to 4 minutes long. No act should be less than 8 pages, none more than 15. Act length can be surprisingly flexible in practice. With FD page count you should aim for 45 pages optimum, certainly no more than 50.

An ITV '90 minutes' has 5 acts which follow roughly the same timings. FD page count optimum would be around 75 pages, certainly no more than 80.

End each act with a cracking hook or watch your story crumple and die.

My advice if looking to write a spec that will work for you, i.e. demonstrate to a reader you can write compelling narrative with well-rounded and convincing characters? Write in a genre that's well-established in the UK, e.g. thriller, social drama, medical. Possibly horror (psychological) or supernatural, but steer clear of sci-fi /fantasy or action-led pieces. It is very hard to make sci-fi or action characters seem convincing, plausible, and intriguing given the 'unreal' context of the narrative.

Be realistic. If you are based in the UK and looking to make a living in TV, your market is the UK, not the US. Take inspiration from US shows by all means, but bear in mind UK commissioners have very different criteria on which to base their judgements.

Danny Stack said...

Thanks Mark. An ITV hour is probably around 45-48mins isn't it? C4 have already started doing the American trick of going straight to adverts after opening titles or the teaser... annoys the bloody hell out of me.

Anonymous said...

The timing usually mentioned for an ITV hour is 47 minutes, so a production draft would come in at least a couple of pages shorter than that. However, as we're talking about writing samples rather than production drafts a few pages over the 45 isn't going to frighten anyone.

I know what you mean about the adverts teaser thing - winds me up enormously on Lost, but haven't noticed it on UK produced drama yet. Didn't C4 get scolded for putting too many ad breaks in Lost?