I got into the Northern Writers Group after I’d sent a script to Henry Swindell’s predecessor Jo Combes, which BBC comedy producer Carl Cooper had shown some interest in. After one of the regular group meetings Henry took four of us aside and told us we’d been selected to be part of a new online drama project, in which we’d write an episode each of an overall 4-part series. Woohoo! The project was a partnership with Salford Uni and would give us insights and experience into the whole business of writing as part of a team: brainstorming, story-lining, beat sheets, scene by scene breakdowns, drafting and redrafting – all for eventual production by the Salford students. AND it was a paid gig!
Media City – like Minecraft with wind – and we’re in the Salford Uni building. I walked in with the three other writers to be met with about twenty expectant faces. My palms started to sweat a little. Who were all these people? Turns out some of the students made up the production team that would eventually go on to make our scripts and the rest were there in a writing capacity, to shadow the whole venture. Gulp. Henry kicked off by asking each of us to say which actor we’d like to play us in the movie of our life. Now as an actor I’ve spent my life gobbing off amongst groups of strangers quite happily but at this moment, inexplicably nervous, I couldn’t think of a single name. Not one. Then it was my turn and my voice said Jessica Hynes and I have no idea why. Note to self – trust subconscious more, it makes good choices.
We batted around opinions of online dramas we’d been looking at, what worked for us and what didn’t. I was keen from the off that form should marry content; these eps were going to be short (5 mins). Henry countered this with the view that just because the form might be small (in terms of time), our ambition for it didn’t have to be. The four of us threw around ideas, overseen by Henry with input from the rest of the group. It was hard to know, with all these synapses buzzing, if we were getting nearer or further from a story. Then, towards the end of a three hour session, a brand new idea emerged. It often seems to happen this way – the biggest revelation just as the therapist calls time. The new idea, security guards and their strange worlds, seemed to appeal to everyone’s preoccupations. Next up, detailed character studies of who would drive our story.
Probably the single biggest lesson I’ve taken away from the experience is about economy of dialogue (always more than you think) and allowing visual storytelling to do more of the work. Character bibles in prose can bang on forever, it’s encapsulating all that in a stage direction. Writing the first ep brought certain challenges because of the tension between establishing the world whilst hitting the ground running. “What’s OTN?” I asked Henry of his acronym, all over the margins of my first draft. “On the nose” he said. And I looked again. It’s amazing what you don’t see til it’s flagged up. The upside of going first is that you’re not inheriting story strands from another ep, you have a clean slate. But you do have to make sure the baton you pass on provides the other writers with what they need. After all, these characters belong to all of us. Over to episode two…