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How to write scripts that actors want to perform

At the London Comedy Writers Festival 2011, Dan Mazer spoke about the importance of getting talent attached to a script. So what makes performers love your writing and want to bring it to the stage or screen?

Panel discussion at London Comedy Writers Festival

Jessica Hynes and Stephen Mangan in discussion with Declan Lowney at the London Comedy Writers Festival 2011. Photo courtesy of Chris Jones.

The festival provided lots of opportunities for performers to speak out on this. Here's a summary of what Stephen Mangan (Green Wing, Dirk Gently, Adrian Mole) and Jessica Hynes (Spaced, Twenty Twelve) look for in a script:

  • Clarity. "It doesn't help if I'm confused early on about what's going on. I want to know who it is I'm playing," said Stephen Mangan.
  • Whether the characters are believable, idiosyncratic and original enough, and whether those characters and their relationships are intrinsically funny. "Odd bits of clunky dialogue can be worked out," said Jessica Hynes. "If I don't feel the writer has asked what's funny about the person, it's hard to see how it will ever be funny."
  • Characters without self-knowledge. Stephen Mangan said he enjoys playing characters where there's a gap between how they see themselves and how they are seen by others. The more they believe their own reality, the funnier it becomes. Characters like David Brent and Alan Partridge are oblivious to how the rest of the world sees them.
  • Humanity. "However smug, monstrous or aggressive the character is, there has to be an element of vulnerability or humanity," said Mangan. Otherwise the end result can seem cartoonish.
  • Surprise. Mangan cautioned against having unicorns leaping out of wardrobes, but said there's nothing worse than thinking you know where the story's going and then finding out a few pages later that you were right. "As an actor, I'm looking to surprise the audience."
  • Good use of the medium. "TV is a very visual medium," said Mangan. "You want a script to enable you to do stuff without saying it. The less dialogue, the better. If a line can be said with a look, take it out."
  • Scripts that resonate with the performer. "You can appreciate a script is good but not be drawn to it," said Hynes. It's important for performers to click with the writer and find the same things funny.

Another session featured a panel of comedians, actors and writer-performers. They performed material written on the day by some of the writers there and gave feedback on it, as well as taking part in a panel discussion. Their tips included:

  • Tailor your work. "It's good to use what's unique about the performer," said Tom Bell. "Write something where the performer can really shine."
  • Write collaboratively. "We enjoy the creative process. If you come to us with an idea, we might want to workshop something," said Max Dickins. Performers don't necessarily want to just buy an idea. They might want to adapt it so it's closer to what works for them.
  • Tune your ear. "I want to see dialogue that works and is real," said Colin Hoult. "If things are overly descriptive or theoretical, it doesn't help." He said he looks for a "true voice that sounds real", so the lines don't sound abstract when he delivers them. He also said a big turning point in his act was when he started to add in sad stuff to add more depth, rather than having pure comedy all the way.
  • Contact a comedian before sending them material. Sara Pascoe said that writers should contact a performer before sending a single page and introduce themselves and why they want to work with a particular comedian. See them live and show them you understand what's funny about their act. If you meet comics they might put a word in for you on shows they perform on.
  • Focus on TV comedians. "Stand-ups have to earn a lot to pay you. On the circuit, you don't earn enough," said Pascoe. "Someone on TV uses material quickly. They usually have six writers."
  • In sketches, be clear about where the scene is set and what's going on. Don't use jokes that rely on people being confused about where the scene is taking place.
  • In sketches, use actions. You can have people running through a scene, maybe bringing something or bumping into it so there's a reason to talk about it, rather than forcing characters to talk about it without an authentic prompt.
  • Know your priorities. Hoult said that the amount of work available is much greater for jobbing writers who love writing jokes. The potential rewards are greater for "vision-led" work, like sitcoms, but you're more likely to fail.
  • Respect the market. Excessively bad language and extremely distasteful subjects will get thrown out. You might think that's obvious, but during the workshop session, there was at least one sketch that went too far.
  • Be true to your own vision. "You do this so you enjoy life," said Pascoe. "People can't write well unless they write their vision. Write as well as you can, honestly. If you're funny, it'll be funny. But if not, it'll be well written and will find itself."

Find more advice on writing comedy here.

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