A Very English Scandal. Years and Years. Doctor Who. If shows like these have inspired you, then listen up: Russell T Davies, the man behind them all, has some tips for aspiring screenwriters.
And, we should warn you now, some of them are brutally honest. “Everyone loves to write and everyone has half a novel in their bottom drawer. But first of all: you’ve got to write. Then you’ve got to finish it. Those are my two great tips,” Davies told RadioTimes.com at the BBC Writer’s Room Festival.
“Your rivals have already started, that’s what I tell people,” he added. “There are people you grew up with – your peers, people you hate, people who you’re really jealous of – they’ve started. Catch up with them.
“You could start with War and Peace if you want – it would take you longer to finish, but if you’ve got a great story in your mind then who am I to say don’t do that? You shouldn’t listen to anyone like me telling you what not or what to do to. Simply do it!”
The man behind Queer as Folk also offered some specifics for aspiring writers about one of the trickiest part of scriptwriting: dialogue. According to the former Doctor Who showrunner, the trick to writing realistic speech is to remember people listen to each other a lot less than you’d think.
“The opposite of talking is waiting. It’s not listening,” he explained. “Normally you’re just waiting to say the next thing you want to say. I don’t think dialogue works when it’s very reactive – when people have actually listened to what the other person just said.”
Russell T Davies (centre, standing) with members of the cast and crew of Years and Years at the BFI/Radio Times Festival 2019
Davies also gave advice on writing exposition – something, he suggested, can be penned poorly even by the most accomplished screenwriters. “I was watching a drama the other night from a very experienced writer – I won’t say which one – but the exposition was awful.
“True, you need to explain things sometimes. But just be tough on yourself. Make it believable. If you need to get some exposition out of the way then just write it. Then go back and finesse it. You need to jump the hurdle first and get it down on the page and then be your own best critic. I spend a lot of time on exposition.
“If something is a bit on the nose – if something is too blunt – you’ll be told by your script editor. But it’s even better if you’re going back yourself first!”
And if you’re still struggling with exposition? Think about removing it altogether. According to Davies, if everyone in a room already knows about the inner-workings of a certain plot point – if a group of scientists are about to venture through a wormhole, for instance – then there’s no need for them to discuss it.
“If everyone in the scene should know the information, take a really deep breath and don’t put it in. Instead of the man saying ‘If you go through a wormhole then you go to another place’, just show it,” Davies said. “Credit your audience with some intelligence.”
For those looking to get more writing inspiration from Davies, his latest series, Channel 4’s Boys, is set to arrive on screens in 2020. Following five young gay men in the 1980s, the five-part drama will delve into the outbreak of deadly virus HIV in London.
“They’re all based on my experiences,” Davies previously told RadioTimes.com. “They’re all 18 years old in 1981, that was my age in 1981, in a sense they’re all part of me but equally they’re all invented… Some of them do [die of AIDs].”
Keeley Hawes, Stephen Fry, Neil Patrick Harris and Years & Years frontman Olly Alexander are set to star.
Boys will air on Channel 4 in 2020
BBC Cymru Wales, National Theatre Wales and BBC Writersroom Wales have recently opened their Wales Writer in Residence scheme for aspiring writers. You can find out more information here.