by Paul Ashton
Paul Ashton is the Development Producer at BBC Writersroom, where he finds, nurtures and promotes new writers for BBC drama and comedy. Paul has previously worked as a script reader, editor and tutor for a variety of companies and universities, while his own writing has been produced for stage and screen. His book The Calling Card Script was recently published by A&C Black.
There are a many things you need to think about when you are creating any kind of story world, for any kind of medium. And as you go on that journey, there are various things you can get wrong (or just not get right yet) – but the thing that always needs to be significantly there are character and story.
I’ve read an awful lot of scripts that might have smart dialogue, sophisticated structure, complex concepts, slick handling of medium and form, or commercial potential stamped all over them – but have been devoid of the beating heart of character and story that brings them to life.
But what are character and story? They’re words we use all the time. What do they mean? Where do they come from? Put simply, ‘character’ derives from the ancient Greek for a tool used for inscription. Story is a complex term - but again, put simply, it is the relation of events forming a narrative designed to engage.
So. Character needs to literally leave a mark; and story is the narrative journey in which that ‘mark’ must engage us. Character and story are all about how we relate with them in the time we are with them. This does not mean that great character (and story) should not have backstory – indeed, they should – but the scriptwriter’s job is to engage us in the ‘now’.
How? By creating empathy – standing in their shoes/inside their skin and seeing the world from their point of view. By making us connect with them emotionally. By making us care/fear for what they will do or experience next. By showing us their capabilities and limits, their talents and failings. By showing the physical, moral, emotional, psychological, social complexities that make them individual and human. By baring the chinks in their armour that make them vulnerable and human. By making them a protagonist or antagonist – a pursuant or opponent – in a situation of conflict. By exploring if and how they are good and bad, heroic and villainous, selfless and selfish. And by allowing that to be complex and not just simplistic. By making them want things and need things. By making them want things they don’t need and need things they don’t want. By making them want things that aren’t necessarily good for them and need things that aren’t necessarily painless.
And by making a journey out of all these things – one which we the audience want to take with them. Because without these things, you have nothing.