How detailed are your scripts?
Really quite detailed, but very succinct. There's nothing worse, I think, than overlong. But I'll tell you what I do. When it comes to a character, I'll give them three adjectives. Please don't say, 'Not the sort of woman who takes fools gladly'. Don't do a cliché like that. So I will go: 'Stan walks in, thirty-five, bald, short, spiky.' There, you've got him, you know what he's like, he's in a bad mood. There he is, you can see him.
You don't read many truly experienced writers' scripts where they say 'They're wearing yellow. ' Don't bother to describe what they're wearing unless it's vital to the plot, just be really succinct, because actually the dialogue should be telling you what that person's like - not just the dialogue, the fact that they're in the scene in the first place, why they're there and what they're doing.
And the set description, I would say two lines at the most. You know, wooden eaves, nice and dark and cold and misty and autumnal, fire burning in the grate - that's enough. You don't need to say any more, you don't need to say there's three doors.
I think people want to get on with it. When people are reading a script they just want to get on with it and find out what the story is. They're not reading a novel. But at the same time, I spend ages choosing the right adjective, so when I just described Stan as spiky then I sat there going, is he blunt, is he edgy... the difference between edgy and spiky, because there is a difference. So actually, you would find me poised at the keyboard for half an hour, describing which word fits Stan.
I never use adverbs in stage directions. I think if you say quickly that's a posh way of saying fast. You should say fast in a script, because it's a faster word than quickly. I know that sounds daft but I literally sit there doing that with my scripts, honing them. There's actually a website at www.thewriterstale.com which has got a lot of Doctor Who scripts on it, so you can see what I mean. I spend an awful lot of time working out what it looks like on the page.
I'll tell you one thing everyone does, and it drives me mad, you get some great dialogue and it's interrupted every two lines by 'She sits down.' When you get great dialogue you want to read it, you want it to flow. Let it flow. If you've got a whole page of speeches, that looks like two people having a great conversation. If it's interrupted all the time by stage directions it looks annoying, and you think, I'm not going to get into this, because I keep being told things about it.
And things like 'She sighs' or 'She looks askance', that's really poxy, irrelevant, if it's important that they sit down then say so, but otherwise just don't, just let them speak. Or if it's a chase, and you look at the finished page and there's a great big chunk of speech, you think, oh well that's not a very exciting chase, is it, if someone's stopped it with a great big speech.
Paul Abbott has got a screen that is vertical, not horizontal, and you get a whole page of a script on that and you can really see the shape of a scene just by the shape it follows on the page. I spend an awful long time doing that. Everyone talks about character, story, and plot, and I say what it looks like on the page really tells you what's happening.
How do you feel when you're writing?
When I'm finished I'm absolutely exhilarated and happy, and when I'm writing I'm more miserable than I could possibly tell you. I find it very hard work, all the time, and it never gets any easier. And my friend, years ago, told me that the more you write the harder it gets, and I didn't believe her, I said oh no, by the time you've done it for ten or fifteen years it must get easier, you know what you're doing. And it gets harder every single time. I don't know why that is. So very hard work, but the joy in it when it's working is absolutely fantastic, so it's worth it.
What's the best bit of advice you'd give to somebody entering such a competitive industry?
Just write, it's as simple as that. Stop talking about it, and go and write. Everyone talks about it, and they go online, and they blog, and then they sit in the pub moaning about it. Stop it, shut up, work.
And when you've written one script do another, if you've got one script, that's no good, it's very unlikely it's going get made straightaway. If you want to write Doctor Who, there's very little chance that you'll get to write Doctor Who. You've got to want to write other things. You've got to want to write, full stop. So keep doing it, stage plays or radio plays or anything. It's finish one script and start the next one, and just make it real, just make it practical. Every time you write a script you'll learn something, I absolutely swear that's true. Every single time you learn something about yourself or you learn something about what it's like on the page, or you learn something about the process or you learn what not to do a million times, but you've just got to write yourself to death all the time.
As a showrunner, what is it that you look for in writers?
It's a spark, that's really what you look for. Like actors, when they walk in the room, they've just got something about them sometimes. It's something in the dialogue, I think, on the simplest level. It's reading a dialogue that really clicks with you, something original. Someone who puts something into every single character. When I first started reading Paul Abbott's scripts, the difference between Paul Abbott's scripts and anyone else's scripts were that there were no small parts. If there was one line for Sandra, the secretary, the main character walked past Sandra the secretary saying, "Get me a cup of tea," and she said, "Get your own." And that would be her only line in the whole thing, but that character was just a wow. A lot of actors say there's no small parts, but it's true for writers as well, there's no-one on the page who isn't real, they've all got their own lives. So if you can just fit in with that sort of life somehow... It's really hard to teach, but it's just having confidence.
And to be honest, when you meet writers, the dialogue tends to sound like themselves. It's hard because you've got to spend a lot of time, a lot of learning, differentiating between the voices in your script. An old woman's got to sound like an old woman and a young man's got to sound like a young man, and a rebel's got to sound like a rebel. At the same time when you really write well they all sound like you somehow, and that's just practice, keeping writing and keeping going and learning to trust yourself. I think it takes you a long time to learn to put your own voice into things, on a very really simple level. And you know we have the Doctor saying Allons-y now, and I've said Allons-y for years, I don't know why, it's like one of those funny things I'd say, let's go, Allons-y. And I like it as a phrase and I think it works for him. And so it's quite a nerve to put yourself on the page like that and go "I like that phrase so I'm putting that in," and now you see David using it, and I feel like an idiot when I say it now. I've had to ban it from my own speech.