John Yorke is MD of Company Pictures and author of the bestselling book on story structure, Into the Woods. He popped into the Professional Writing Academy chatroom (part of Professional Writing Academy’s virtual learning environment where students meet tutors for real time discussion) to talk to students on the 16-week online course adapted from the book, to answer questions about how to break into writing for the screen.
Q What should I be writing? Is there a genre or style currently in demand? And what’s the best way to predict trends?
JOHN I always think it’s best to follow your heart – just write what gets you excited. If you try to follow genres you end up being one step behind everyone else – I think the think is to be one step ahead!
All that matters really is that you love what you’re doing – whichever form you’re writing in, just write it with the idea that it’s going to be the best police/medical script ever.
Q Should I be watching soaps to learn about story structure? I tend not to due to lack of time, the repetition and the fact they never end.
JOHN Well it’s all writing in the end, but you can learn as much from bad telly as good telly. When I was starting out I watched a whole year of the British soap Eldorado. Most of it was awful, but I learnt a huge amount just asking myself why it was so bad…
Q Is it possible to break into writing for television without prior experience? Where should I start?
JOHN It’s quite hard to break in – because apart from anything else you just get better the more practice you get. There are occasional stories of people doing really well after a hit play, but more often than not apprenticeships are really important as you learn your craft. In the UK the best thing is to write theatre or radio constantly and then just knock on doors, either in soap or look to become second or third writer on someone else’s series.
Agents are really important – broadcasters just trust their clients more. The best way to get one is to write for stage or radio, or write a great spec script, then use all your guile, contact, charm to get them to come to the theatre or read your script.
I worked in radio drama for three years. It’s a brilliant training, partly because you absolutely have to nail exposition; you have to convey so much visual information in words. That’s really hard!
The BBC daytime soap Doctors is a good place to start, and worth contacting once you have a spec script because they are always looking for new talent – that’s part of their remit. So they actively encourage submissions from writers. Because the turnover of scripts is so high, if the team likes you, you may get commission after commission. Work means practise. And practise means you ‘hone’ your skills. Make sure you know the programme well before you pitch to write for it.
Q Why is writing theatre such a good way to break in?
JOHN It’s just fantastic practise. Although there are some differences in the writing, it’s all storytelling – and the more practise you get at telling stories, in any medium, the better you become as a writer. Malcolm Gladwell says that you need 10,000 hours of experience to be brilliant at anything! Matthew Graham says that if you want to be a writer you have to write every day – it took him eight years to get his own show, but now he’s one of the most successful writers in the UK!
Hone your spec script on the online course Storytelling for Screen with tutors John Yorke and David Roden (script editor at Coronation Street).
Next intake 27 January 2014; enrolling now www.intothewoodsyorke.com