Script to screen
Writers including Quoc Dang Tran, Nancy Harris, Nathan Foad and Bec Boey offer their insights into navigating the television industry, from developing new projects and adaptations to the importance of authentic and inclusive storytelling.
With the explosion of streaming platforms around the world sparking huge demand for scripted content, writers have never been more in demand.
They are the people responsible for creating the stories, characters and worlds designed to entertain and exhilarate audiences – but what is it actually like being a writer in the current television landscape?
At Content London last year, a panel of established and up-and-coming writers relayed their experiences of working in the business, from juggling multiple projects and protecting their authorial voice to ensuring series are authentic to people and places they represent.
Frenchman Quoc Dang Tran has been working as a writer for 15 years, with credits such as Dix Pour Cent (Call My Agent), The Bureau, Nox and Marianne (pictured above). His next projects include Disney+ series Parallels and French-Japanese production Drops of God.
Tran: The situation for French fiction 15 years ago was disastrous because we were invaded by British and American drama and we were looking at them like it was Everest. It’s like watching Usain Bolt running and you’re trying to catch him – it’s very difficult. French writers are very conscious about that. We’ve been working a lot; we’re not there yet but we’re making strides. I’ve been working on comedy, cop shows, everything… Every time, I try to avoid to being pigeonholed because that’s a terrible thing in this business.
Nathan Foad has split his time between acting and writing, recently landing his first original commission Newark, Newark. Commissioned by UKTV Gold, the semi-autobiographical comedy is set in the titular market town in England’s East Midlands and follows pugnacious chip shop manager and exhausted matriarch Maxine as she tries to ride out her divorce and find someone who actually lights her fire. However, it’s easier said than done with her big-mouthed, soft-bellied son Leslie dramatically coming out as gay to the surprise of no one and her dullard ex-husband Terry trying ever more desperately to win her back.
Foad: I started out as an actor and decided I hated it, and then I just pivoted into comedy writing. That’s all I’ve done for the past six or seven years, and then I accidentally started acting again. But Newark, Newark has been in development for five or six years now with [producer] Balloon Entertainment. I’ve never really written drama or had much of an inclination to do so.
At one point last year, I took stock and I had 11 shows in active development – that’s so many characters. But Newark’s always been bubbling away in the background. It’s the first show I ever got optioned, and we made a pilot for a few years ago for a different channel. That didn’t go ahead, and at that point I was ready to let it go. Then UKTV were interested and I started developing it with them. It’s like the show I feel every writer does at the beginning [of their career], based on my exact life. It’s a real dream of mine and it’s a joy.
Irish playwright Nancy Harris is the writer of comedy-drama The Dry, which is due to launch this year on BritBox UK. The series follows Shiv, a Dublin girl who returns to her home town after years of partying in London, sober and full of good intentions. But being back with her family makes staying on ‘the dry’ much harder than she expected.
Harris: I started out in theatre and I have been doing that for over 10 years. Through that time, I’ve written on different shows like Secret Diary of a Call Girl, and I wrote a show called Dates. But my main focus had been theatre.
The Dry, which is my first completely authored show, has been about five or six years in development. It came from the idea of alcohol being so interwoven in Ireland. As an Irish person, on one level, we get really annoyed about that stereotype, but on another level, we know drink is a huge part of our culture. I thought there was a lot to be tapped into.
I grew up watching television so it’s just exciting because you can tell a story in a totally different way [from the theatre]. People fear having playwrights on TV because they worry we’re going to write a lot of monologues or that we won’t show, we’ll tell. I actually really enjoy being able to move from one to the other.
Bec Boey is a graduate of the Royal Court’s Young Writers Programme and the BBC Writersroom London Voices group. Last year she was one of five writers selected for Viacom’s First Look Deal for diverse voices.
Boey: I actually started out like Nathan as an actor and very quickly realised that, being British East Asian and an actor in this country, there aren’t many parts for people like us. And the parts that are there are quite stereotypical. I wrote a web series – it was a big moan – about being British East Asian and about the expectations that British society places on us, set in a Chinese takeaway, but it’s not what you’d expect from a Chinese takeaway. That is currently in development with [producer] Sarah Brocklehurst.
How do writers manage so many development projects?
Foad: I’ve had development producers make jokes and little snipes to me, like, ‘I hear your name around a lot. You’re developing an awful lot, aren’t you?’ And it’s like, ‘Well, I have to because it’s how I make my money.’ But it’s really nice when you then are able to just focus on one thing, because you ultimately do a better job.
Harris: All writers are used to being skint and grafting because it just takes that time. Because things take so long in development, you move on to other things and then you come back to them.
Tran: I’m not that young anymore and I don’t have that energy, but I do remember very specifically that, when I started, after two years, I had like 10 projects and my success rate was about five or 10 percent. Today it’s maybe 30 to 40 percent. It means I can choose my projects in a more thoughtful way. I know exactly what I don’t want to do anymore. That’s the good part about it.
How can writers best be supported to focus on fewer projects?
Foad: Speeding up development is never a bad thing. It obviously takes time, but maybe [commissioners] not allowing things to linger too long in development, particularly when you know a show is not working.
Tran: First-look deals are incredible because this is a commitment from the streamer or whoever. This is the greatest thing to happen to a writer because you write something and they read it with attention. In the US, some well-known writers have first-look deals and they can live with these deals for two or three years. That would be the perfect situation for me, but that’s not reached France yet.
Is it easier to get a project commissioned if it is based on existing IP?
Tran: I don’t think the IP trend is a writer’s invention. We didn’t invent that. We didn’t want that at all. It’s just an invention from producers, so they can feel safe or secure. They have something they can hold on to. But as a writer, you’d rather tell your own stories all the time unless you have a book or something.
Foad: It’s almost like a product of anxious producing. I only write original stuff. I’ve never tried to adapt anything. It’s so much more of a leap of faith getting producers and commissioners on board with an original idea where there’s not a piece of IP as a nice safety net for everyone. I feel like my entire career is just me going, ‘No, it’ll be fine. People will like this. It’ll be fine.’ It’s not really a writer’s invention.
Boey: I’ve been working with a production company called Storypunk and they’re really into building their own IP. I spent the summer doing a writers room, which was just world building. At the end, they asked us what we wanted to do with it, and we said we’d quite like it to end up as a three-season arc for a streamer. They said, ‘Great. Why don’t you make the graphic novel first?’ So we are currently turning it into a graphic novel. We’re making our own IP. The graphic novel is just the origin stories of the five characters who we would eventually like to pitch a TV show about.
How do you ensure authenticity in story?
Boey: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with, for example, a white writer putting East Asian characters in a show. I think they should be doing that. That’s great. But if it’s a show that is about the British East Asian experience, you should probably get some British East Asian writers leading that and not just have them in at the end to lend it some authenticity. Having writers involved right at the beginning with new projects that are about their backgrounds, it’s only going to be positive. You’re going to get something that you would not get from someone who’s not from that background. You’re going to get new stories that we haven’t seen on TV yet.
Harris: Some of that should be about imagination as well. I feel like sometimes it’s about telling an authentic story, but imagination can be really authentic as well and doesn’t necessarily have to be grounded in the real. That’s what I think was really brilliant about Squid Game – even though it was real, it also took us somewhere else.
What is more important, great dialogue or story structure?
Tran: We are like triathletes. Great dialogue is, of course, important. That’s the last part. First, you have to create the whole world, then you have to structure it, then you have the dialogue. You can have good dialogue, but you also have to have good psychology. Understand your characters.
You can’t just be good at one thing. It’s impossible, or you need a co-writer who will compensate your weaknesses. But other than that, you have to run, bike and swim. That’s what you have to do.
What’s the best way a writer can get their voice heard?
Foad: Having really robust faith in the writer’s voice and the relationship between the writer and the producer, and knowing you’re all on the same page and knowing exactly what it is you want to make and then just doing that and committing to that, that is really important, as opposed to trying to force square pegs into round holes. Just have faith and confidence in what it is the writer is trying to do.
Harris: The Dry is my first show, so if I learned anything, it was that [producer] Element Pictures and BritBox have full faith in my voice and that I could tell that story. That’s the big leap. It’s a leap of faith in a writer’s voice and their imagination. Taking a risk on a voice can actually pay off because, as a writer, you want to do your best work for the thing you’re most connected to.
Boey: I would hope it’s having a relationship with the script editor and the producer, where you feel they understand you and your voice, and that they are working with you because they want your voice, not because they just want you to fit in and write the thing they want you to write.
Tran: We are dreamers in a very violent business and we get rejected all the time. I now feel much more comfortable when I stand my ground and say, ‘No, I don’t agree with you.’ I didn’t dare do it when I started, because you have to reach some confidence and level in writing to do that. But after a while, it feels so good to say, ‘You know what, I don’t agree with you.’
Sometimes it works out and sometimes doesn’t. But I feel much better now that I know exactly what I can do or what I can’t do. I have learned not to be afraid of anyone, which takes some time, obviously, but that’s very helpful to me. I sleep very well at night.