What Makes a Good WTC Script? By Fran Kirkham
I had a call from a very pleasant gentleman this week regarding script submission, which got me to thinking (in a very late 90s sex and the city style way) about writing, and more specifically, reading potential audio plays. Now, this person may wish to remain nameless (I haven’t asked him) so let’s just call him Man. Man was asking the same types of questions we get a lot from writers looking to work with us – what do we look for in a script, do I have any tips on how to make it stand out, do we only read the first ten pages, are there any big no-nos which he should avoid? – so I thought it might be a nice idea to immortalise this in the electronic ether and write some general points about scripts for the Wireless Theatre Company.
Now you are probably thinking this seems rather redundant, as the art of writing and the process of reading are so subjective that there can surely be no overarching notion of what constitutes a ‘good’ script. Well if you’re thinking that, you’re wrong. Taste of course, is subjective. I for one am willing to admit that I do not like Hamlet. At all. A terrible thing for a theatrically inclined individual (with a degree in English literature no less!) to admit. I do, on the other hand, think that Titus Andronicus is great and much underrated and underproduced. These are opinions and I recognise them as such, but that’s not to suggest I wouldn’t include Hamlet in the category of a ‘good’ script. Whether or not a play suits my personal taste is beside the point, there are certain ground rules we can establish concerning the types of play I would put forward to my WTC colleagues as a possible yes.
- First, and I’m a little embarrassed on your part if you don’t know this, but think about the blooming format. We are an AUDIO theatre company. We produce AUDIO plays. If you haven’t bothered to format your script for audio theatre then we certainly aren’t going to consider it. So if the first page of your script is a beautifully crafted set of stage directions detailing the scenery, the set, the way the curtain is to be drawn, then it’s going in the bin, and the rest of your play is going with it. We don’t have time to repurpose your writing for our audience, that’s your job. We can send you an ‘ideal’ example of how to format a script, just follow that. Sorry to be strict but it’s along the same lines as sending out CVs. If you send our your CV and cover letter to 20 companies and send the exact same thing every time, you’re most likely going to get 20 big fat nos. So that’s the first bit of advice – tailor the script to the format or you’re going to get nowhere. For the record, the Wireless Theatre Company does not accept bribes. Unless they’re really substantial. Send me an email and we can talk…
- Next, and this also goes with the audio theme, think about what is suitable for radio drama. Not just in terms of plot and themes (i.e. car chases don’t work quite so well in audio form and sex scenes can be pretty cringey to listen to) but also the smaller details. If you have a lot of characters, it can get confusing to remember who is talking, especially if some of the actors have similar tone or pitch of their voices. So write in a way that suits the style, make it clear who is speaking, and yes it’s ok to have characters say ‘thanks BOB’ and ‘hi SUSAN’ every so often, even if you think it’s a bit obvious. It does help, and will keep your audience engaged with the story. FYI Bob and Susan are in no way affiliated with the Wireless Theatre Company.
- Think about the practicalities. Sad to say, but we are a small company working with miniscule budgets and so there will sometimes be limits to things we can do. We probably can’t pay the royalties to play Thriller in the background of your nightclub scene, so don’t make It a pivotal part of the plot where it’s the key clue in determining who the murderer was. It’s not impossible to produce plays with a huge ensemble cast of 30 actors, but it’s certainly tricky so think about how necessary the Postman, Waitress, Girl in Park, etc are and if the roles can be easily doubled up. If they can, then say it on your characters page – get us thinking about how we can make your play happen.
- One of the most frequent questions I get asked is whether we only read the first 10 pages. Now, this is a difficult one, because there are a number of us who read the scripts and we all work differently. Usually, more than one person will read a script so you can be pretty confident that it’ll get a fair trial. Admittedly, there will be occasions where a play that doesn’t grab you doesn’t get finished. That’s life. We’re busy and very important people and we need it to have some kind of spark that makes us read on. BUT that does not mean that your first ten pages need to be laced with spectacular events or over the top intrigue. I read a lot of novels and plays and most of them don’t have a major incident, murder, hilarious farce or dramatic conclusion in the first few chapters, but I still persevere. Getting our interest is not about packing the action into the first ten pages. More often than not, it’s about the quality of the writing, the sharpness of the dialogue and whether we think the play is going somewhere that interests us. If your play is well-written and the plot begins to show signs of developing in the first ten pages, we will most likely keep going. Of course, if you have ten pages of small talk between the two central characters discussing the weather and the traffic, you might want to reconsider, unless you’re uber-confident in the power of your Pinter-esque subtext. A little extra helping hand can be including a synopsis in your cover note. And I mean a proper synopsis not just ‘this is a dark tale of passion and deception between two emotionally imbalanced plumbers.’ Actually tell us the plot and give us a reason to get to the end. It’s not going to spoil it for us, I promise.
- Be obvious. It will help us to get a feel for the kind of production we’re looking at if the tone of your play is clear. Most of our plays are under an hour and that’s not really long enough to cram too many different styles/formats/emotions. We’re probably not recreating Ulysses here. Although maybe we should. I reckon that would totally work in audio form. If your play is a comedy, it does sort of need to be funny, if it’s a drama, we need a dramatic hook, etc etc. We do have to get through a lot of scripts in a relatively short amount of time so you can’t afford to be so subtle that we miss it. You don’t have to categorise it to death, but if you’re not clear what type of play you’re writing, how are we supposed to know?
- For pity’s sake, don’t be obvious. This isn’t My Family, there doesn’t have to be a slapstick joke every two lines followed by inane canned laughter. We do appreciate that subtlety can be very effective and not every script falls neatly into a pre-formed category tied up in a little bow. Push the boundaries. If you think it’s too out there or too kooky, send it to us. If there’s things we think need changing, we’ll be honest, but originality is the best way to stand out and again, being original doesn’t mean it has to be set on a sunken oil rig in the atlantic ocean or concern the story of three folk-dancing lepers. You can be original in your characterisation, your dialogue, the way you drive the plot forward, how your characters interact, it’s not all about plot.
I love reading scripts for WTC and I think we have produced some absolute crackers in our time. We want to encourage new writers and we don’t care how many scripts you’ve written before, if it’s good, we’ll do it, if it’s shit, we’ll lie and pretend we’re too busy. That’s a joke. We’ll probably give you some constructive feedback, because that’s what people ask for, even if they then scream at you in shouty capital letter emails about your lack of taste and how you will definitely regret this decision when they’re a super-famous Oscar-winning writer. Yeh, how’s that going? Still waiting for that big break huh?
So keep sending them through, and I hope this helps to answer some of the more basic questions about how our script-reading process works. To sum up – write good and we will read it good.