How to Be a Writer (Part Three): How to Get Rejected by the BBC (and other production companies)

Writing

By Ingrid Boyd

 

My, the BBC is having a bit of a time of it aren’t they? I would like to say I feel bad for them, but I don’t. I am secretly a tiny bit pleased because they have toyed with my emotions for kicks one time too many.

 

You have finished your TV drama. That’s marvellous, but now what? You need to sell it, of course.

 

There are various routes to the mythical nirvana of actually persuading someone to give you cash money to take your teleplay and bring it to life, using actors who have either played a corpse in Holby City, or a shoplifter in The Bill.

 

(That covers most British actors by the way, leaving only the cast of Downton Abbey, who are the crème de la Menthe of British drama)

 

When you have written your first TV script your first port of call may well be the BBC writersroom, which is the only point of entry to that venerable institution for the un-agented writer, and the place, so they say, where new talent is nurtured.

 

Once you have sent your script, you will feel it is only a matter of time before you get the call, inviting you down to London to that all important first meeting with a commissioning editor, where you will iron out the minor plot points, and discuss the necessity of casting Ray Winstone.

 

Four  months of total silence from the Beeb and finally you receive a letter. It’s from them! This totally puts into shade the time your cousin Donna wrote into Blue Peter and got a badge. This is an actually letter, addressed to you, from The Telly!

 

Unfortunately inside is what they call a script report detailing everything that is wrong with your script, and explaining why, this time, they will not be “taking things further” with your work.

 

Once you have adjusted yourself to the unexpected shock of rejection, read the report thoroughly to find out exactly how you have alienated Auntie to this extent.

 

Your first mistake may have been not setting your drama in either a hospital or a police station. This is a classic beginner’s mistake.

 

An important part of creating a series than can run and run, is to set it somewhere where you can keep bringing in new characters , and have multiple storylines running simultaneously. Hospitals and Police stations are great places to do this in a somewhat realistic fashion.

 

What about the characters in your opus? Have you made the error of having more than one working class character of the same gender in your drama? It’s worth remembering that the BBC is entirely run by young Oxbridge grads called Lucy, who can get very confused by the fact that your script has two characters who both speak in the idiom of the common man. Lucy may feel that these characters do not have enough to differentiate between them. Especially if they are both called Paul.

 

There may also be some comments about the structure of your masterpiece. Remember all those books you half read about how to write a successful screenplay?  The inciting incident, in other words the thing that happens to kick off the drama in the first place, MUST take place by page 3. Or is it page 5? Pretty quickly anyway.

 

The trouble is, that, what with “our busy lifestyles” and, what telly channels like to call “multi platform programming” there is a lot of broadcast media out there to choose from.

 

As a result, the people who make television are getting increasingly antsy about their audience’s attention span.

 

The rule used to be that a show would need to grab the audience’s attention within the first 3 minutes.

 

Now it is 12 seconds. After that, apparently, your fickle viewer may well switch off in favour of online bingo.

 

This fear of losing audiences has led to some very expedient plotting, to the extent that you seem to be in the thick of the action before you have even got the wrapper off your Toblerone.

 

The other thing that all the books and screen writing courses teach you, is that there must be no exposition ever, so we are now at a point where everything on TV drama is shown in a fleeting, almost minimalist series of scenes, very little is said, and then suddenly you realise you have literally no idea what is going on. This is exactly what they want.

 

So, your inciting incident was too late, there was far too much dialogue (or “not enough white on the page” as they say in The Biz), and your characters are interchangeable.

 

Oh well, better luck next time. And remember; only 1 in 10 submissions to BBC writersroom actually get feedback at all, so hold your head high, and take your place among the honourably rejected.

 

Lastly, despite the fact that, however much TV production companies say they want new ideas, but actually want more of the same, the rules sometimes do need to be broken.

 

The famous quote (first coined by the Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman) about what sells in Hollywood is “nobody knows anything”, and while it would seem more comforting if somebody, somewhere knew something, it is probably true.

 

 

Ingrid Boyd

Ingrid is a native of Leeds and a graduate of the University of Westminster Film School, where she learned much about filmmaking; the most important lesson being never to admit a film crew into your house.

She has lived in Glasgow, London, Oxford and New York, and has worked (among other places)at Merchant Ivory Films, (doing the filing), in a diner, as a costume assistant on musicals, and in a department store, where she once sold a pair of socks to Bruce Springstein.

In 2007 Ingrid returned to Leeds to study writing at the University of Leeds, where she successfully wrote and directed a play, and began to compile an impressive portfolio of writing, from screenplays to short stories.

After graduating with merit in 2009, Ingrid began copywriting and blogging for a range of small businesses.

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