The key part, I think, was what you'd now call a praise sandwich or at least a criticism with a bit of a praise topping. He told me that my stage directions had regularly made him laugh aloud, but that my job was to get that life and humour into the dialogue instead. Because, after all, the audience never sees the stage descriptions.
I also remember that when I next did a script, his key comment was that I'd done this, I'd got the energy into where it could be seen. He said it was "a great step for writer-kind".
I've only recently realised quite how much he shaped me in how I write descriptions in scripts. I'm a dialogue man, I'm a dialogue fan, that's where I would've said I put my attention and effort and – however much it is – my talent. No, I'm hesitating over that word. Can I go again? I'm a dialogue fan, that's where I would've said I put my attention and effort and – however fast it is – my typing.
But I wrote a book about Alan's The Beiderbecke Affair and he has great descriptions in there. What's more, he wrote them with a very canny eye toward getting cast and crew to read them where usually they, well, don't.
"That’s right, actors don’t," said James Bolam in my book. "You go yeah, yeah, but his you read. I mean, his stage directions are worth a read in themselves. They’re so funny, some of them, and they’re so evocative. They create the mood that he wants, that he feels, that he thinks. They’re all done in the same way, not sort of stuck in there but part of the narrative."
He also had a way of writing just the right amount. He'd conjure that mood in a very short line and sometimes they'd be funny, always they'd be efficient: you'd get his point immediately and you'd enjoy getting it. So – again, I'm ripping off my own book here, but – take this for an example of apparently simple, short, description. It's from The Beiderbecke Affair:
SC. 11 EXT. TREVOR'S FLAT – NIGHT
Establishing shot of Trevor's flat. The cityscape of Leeds, lights shining like it was LA.
(You can see it for yourself in episode 1, What I Don't Understand is This... which is on a really good Beiderbecke DVD set from Network DVD.)
But can you believe that description was one reason I wanted to write about the show? There were myriad reasons but I knew that if I included that scene description, I could also include one of my favourite Alan Plater passages: the equivalent description from his Beiderbecke Affair novel. The story is that an editor from Methuen was on location, had read the Affair script and specifically because of those descriptions asked Alan if he'd like to try writing a novel. He did and this is what he did with that same moment, translated to a novel:
A panoramic sweep across the urban landscape of the mighty Leeds conurbation at night could easily lead to confusion with San Francisco, if there were a bridge, Rome, if there were a Vatican, or Athens, given an Acropolis and a whiff of lapsed glory. In the blackness, the sub-standard housing and empty factories disappear, and the lights shining out, from street lamps and buses, public houses and filling-stations, police cars and off-licences, seem like beacons of hope in a hostile world. They are not, but they look like it.I love that because of its way of getting you to picture a beautiful camera move, because of its Plateresque wry way of appearing to say very little and to say it with humour while it's really undercut with a vivid example of his worldview. That last "They are not, but they look like it" seems to me to be final, closed, decisive and firmly bleak yet still open and hopeful. It's someone who sees the world as it is but also as it could be, as perhaps it should be and is neither ashamed of being cynical nor makes any effort to hide idealism. If you want to get really, really, pixel-picky, it's the comma. The entire description has stayed in my mind for three decades in part because of that rolling series of city names but mostly because of that comma in the last line. It's a beat, a breath, a voice.
Tell me I'm not detail-orientated.
But listen, this is all on my mind because the other day I co-presented a talk on descriptions at South & City College here in Birmingham. Novelist Robin Sidwell is writer in residence there and runs a regular writing group session. I talked at one about scriptwriting and rejections, and judged a short contest with him. It was a script contest but we both separately remarked that it was unusual how long the descriptions were. He's a novelist, I thought he'd like longer, richer, fuller scene descriptions but we talked about this and turned out to agree on everything. I mean, everything. He had this idea that we could present a talk on descriptions in script versus those in novels and part of me leapt to the Plater example, part of me enjoyed the idea that Robin and I could presumably spar: he'd be the real lecturer, he'd be the good cop championing novel-like long descriptions, I'd be the bad copy.
It didn't work out like that. Apart from the, you know, small issue that he knows novels infinitely better than I do, we could've given each other's side of the talk. We did do one swap: he gave me a novel to dramatise in script and I gave him a script to novelise. The bastard improved my story.
So I really wanted to spar.
But he had another reason for this talk. He's got some students who are unsure whether they want to write novels or scripts so they're really doing both. At the same time. In the same piece. I think this is common. I read a script once that had got someone a 2:1 degree in screenwriting and I would've handed it back to them after page 1 because, I believe, it was unreadable. Because of the descriptions. There were technical issues to do with the scene slugs, but it was just stuff that made it really slow to read and I maintain that if a script is slow to read, it doesn't get read.
You can argue that producers and script editors should read on whether something is slow and hard or not. You can also argue that I'm in no position to talk about going on at length.
But working with Robin and remembering Alan, I realised that you can summarise my entire view on script description with that note that the audience never sees the stage directions.
So if you find yourself writing something like, I don't know:
EXT. CENTRAL PARK – AROUND DUSK, THE CITY LIGHTS JUST COMING ON, THIEVES AND MUGGERS JUST STARTING TO SET UP STALL
Brad Chap sits on a park bench. He's 20s, a little the worse for wear, maybe still carrying some scars from when Take That broke up, maybe the wounds of disappointment are still bleeding from when Take That reunited, and if he were a car, he'd be a Renault Megane with hatchback and a decent sound system that he routinely connects his iPhone to with Bluetooth. Brad could have been a lawyer, he could've been doctor, but instead he's an international jewel thief and sometimes – usually when another woman has broken up with him because of his nervous, twitchy behaviour whenever police go by – he regrets his life choices. But not today. Today he's just heard a good joke and it's lifted him, it's made him think that perhaps, just perhaps, life is actually worth living and if it's raining now, it will clear up later and there's a chance of sunshine. Not much of a chance, but enough for Brad. He is the world's greatest optimist. He doesn't look like it, but he is.
What will the audience actually see? If you think they'll just see a man in his twenties sitting on a bench then, no, sorry, you're wrong. They won't even see that much. Because no producer would've read to the end, no producer would buy that script.
Nor would you. Because that description of Brad might as well be a description of the writer: not that the writer is a little worse for wear and all that, but descriptions can describe more than they appear to and in this case what I'd take away from reading this is that the writer is an amateur. It tells me that the writer doesn't understand film. It's not as if there are rules and it's not as if we aren't all amateurs until we've been blooded, but a writer doing that description will not have written an interesting drama.
I keep saying that the audience doesn't see a word of your stage description but actually that's only true of your ultimate audience. Your first one is the producer, the director, the cast and they do. They all see every single word.
They just don't read any of it.
But when something is described the way Brad Chap was, there is no need to read it. Simply registering the length and the type of description it is, you know to reject the whole script.
There's another difference with this first type of audience. The ultimate audience turns up to enjoy the movie, the first audience of these cast and crew are turning up to make the film with you. They are your collaborators. So your script is a working tool for you and them to work together, it is a blueprint for a drama that you will all make.
I put all this effort and energy into dialogue but I will also be as quick and precise and straightforward as I can be with stage directions. So if I were really writing the adventures of Brad Chap, that scene would run:
EXT. CENTRAL PARK – EVENING
BRAD CHAP (20s, optimist in a bad world) waits on a park bench.
That's it. Do you need anything else? If you do, put it in the dialogue. It's harder to put it in dialogue because that's not dramatic, it's just telling people the plot or the backstory or the description but that's why dialogue is wonderful. It carries all this exposition, it propels all of the action, it is the characters. You do it so that nobody notices that the dialogue is even written, you do it so that it is as if these characters had just thought of these words. And you do it so that what they actually say is nowhere near what they really mean and yet the audience gets it. God, dialogue is a reason to live.
Description isn't, not for me. If you want to write descriptions, write a novel. Or a blog. Cough.
To sell me a script, make it quick to read the descriptions and make the dialogue wonderful. I want to enjoy reading the script. I want scripts to get me engrossed and involved and I want them to regularly make me laugh aloud.
And I consider it a great step for writer-kind when they do.