Be The Best Writer You Can

Script Writing Strike in the UK?

Script writing is unusually politicised at the moment. I’ve just been reading two fascinating articles on the Writers Guild of America script writers strike.

Two points stand out:

From http://artfulwriter.com/archives/2007/11/where_i_stand.html

“If we strike… in many ways, it’s akin to a prison riot. We’ll kill a guard or two, light some mattresses on fire, a few snitches will get lynched… but after the smoke settles and the SWAT team is done, we’ll be back in our cells, and the Warden will still be in charge… Nevertheless, come what may, I’m with my union. Even though we rich guys get pilloried (while our dues fund this entire operation), I’m with my union. Even though we public dissenters get accused of shilling, selling-out, undermining and Disloyalty To The State, I’m with my union.”

And from http://johnaugust.com/archives/2007/pencils-down

“I’m contracted on two scripts right now, but they’ll be sitting unopened in their folders until the strike is resolved. I have a deal to write a spec for Fox, but that will also have to wait. Pencils down means pencils down. I’m not writing any features or television until there’s a contract. So what will I do in meantime? First, I’ll man the picket lines…”

Loving the loyalty. Script writing needs that kind of passion.
I also take the point about the prison riot, because do strikes ever really work out? Lech Walesa might disagree, but we had a thing called a miners strike over here, which many see as having led to an all out attack on our civil liberties that shows no sign of going away.

But in general I’m just so envious that American writers are loyal enough, and the union is strong enough, that they can actually have a strike in the first place!

Forget what happens, just the fact it’s possible speaks volumes.

A strike in the UK? Yeah, right.

I know a hundred script writers who’d bite your hand off for the offer of that kind of organised protest – collectively we have a list of grievances a hundred miles long – but there’s not a chance we’ll ever get organised enough to make it happen.

Failure of our union? Probably. There seems to have been progress in collective bargaining in the last couple of years, but over the long term it’s been nowhere near as active or aggressive as it needs to be. I stopped being a member a while back, because, sadly, there just seemed no point.

Failure of ourselves? Definitely. And I think it comes from our script writing style. Though we all love and revere certain American shows I think a lot of us, particularly the older guard, still find team writing reeks of creation by committee. I don’t know many writers who really enjoy big story conferences. (I feel the interesting stuff always gets washed out by the end of the day.) Most writers I know hold their freedom to write on their own very dear. Personally I hate it if a script of mine gets ‘polished’, and if I get through to the end I treasure knowing I did every word of every draft.

Team writing bonds and strengthens writing relationships, and turns out some stupendous television in the USA.

Solo writing divides most of us, makes paranoics of many of us, and, as the writers still mostly aren’t show runners, our high volume shows can still feel like they’ve been assembled by a rather dull committee on a wet Thursday.

So. It’s all too clear, isn’t it?

Divided we fall, time after time…

14 Comments
  1. I have no idea how the WG of Canada works, how strong it is. It might be a moot point here, not that much really going on, well, not in terms of the US or UK. The strike is big news in Canada too.

    I do know what you mean about that pride in control over your creative work. I don’t know about team collaboration, I think I would always want a corner of the desk that I could keep to myself, a place with not so much $ at stake.

  2. It’s such a difficult choice – in some way that control goes right to the heart of why some of us choose to be writers, so giving it up like this business really requires is always going to be tough. But you’re very right – keep a corner of the desk $$ free and do those other projects too.

  3. I was wondering how this would effect things overseas or if it did at all. Thank you for the insight!

  4. I think there is merit in both collaborative writing and solo writing. And while there are quite a few American-based tv shows I like, there are a lot of UK shows I like just as much, if not more. When I think of shows like Doctor Who or Red Dwarf or Jonathan Creek or any other number of UK shows, they have something that the other shows I watch don’t. And I like that. Maybe it’s because the writers tend to write alone, or like to write alone?

    On the other hand, I’d like to share the insight of Joe Mallozzi, an excellent producer and writer who works on the tv show Stargate Atlantis. He says:
    “Usually a writer will come up with an idea and toss it out to the room and we will all discuss, developing the idea into an actual story. Then, the writer who came up with the idea will go away and think about it…The next time we get together, the writer has hopefully come up with some more ideas for the story we have developed…We all participate in coming up with the act breaks, the individual scenes and, occasionally, bits of key dialogue. Then…the writer heads off to flesh it out into an outline. He puts out the outline and the writing department offers suggestions and criticisms. Then he heads off to write a first draft – and the process is repeated. Writing on Stargate is a team effort.”

    (you can read the complete quote at: http://josephmallozzi.blogspot.com/2007/11/november-5-2007.html)

    I like the idea of this process as well because it involves the input of other writers, but the writers do get to individually flesh out the script and make it their own. And as someone who watches Stargate Atlantis, I assure you I can normally tell who has written an episode because of the writer’s style. So that’s something.

    (I have a lot to say on the subject I guess!)

  5. That description pretty well describes the team writing process in the US. In the UK, on shows that aim at team writing, it’s more normal for the writer of the ep to ‘break the story’ – ie come up with beats of the story – on their own after an initial serial story meeting, in which the general requirements for the regular characters for that episode are laid down.

    Thanks for the links too – interesting!

  6. Philip,

    May I ask what shows in the UK aim for team writing?

    Thanks!

  7. More linkage (I’ll stop if no one’s interested):

    John Rogers on why we strike

    Rick Schimpf has stories and commentary

  8. Thanks for the comparison between the US and UK team writing process Philip. It’s interesting to see how things differ. I’d also like to know what UK shows go with team writing, to further the comparison.

  9. Most of the high volume shows, like The Bill, Eastenders, Casualty, Holby, operate, or have operated, some idea of team storylining. These things go in and out of fashion depending on the whim of the series producer, and whether they feel they have a strong storyliner in house. What that means is that a handful of the regular writers, plus writers designated for the episodes in question (say 5 to 10 or 15 eps at a time) will meet in a conference room with a whiteboard or three, and talk through the show, where it’s at, where it needs to be, and what would be good for each regular character over this block of episodes. Someone will be taking notes, someone else will be jotting down story beats on the white board, and by the end of the day, or two days, they hope to have enough material to know the shape of that block.

    Then this is all written up, and handed out to individual writers, who run with the eps till they’re finished (or get fired).

    On most other shows that I’ve ever worked on the team writing aspect is minimimal, and the individual writer is very much responsible. You do get teams of writers storylining shorter series, but I’ve never heard of real cooperation between writers on individual episodes as a regular part of the process.

    Even Russell T Grant, the guy behind the rebirth of Doctor Who, is very much a showrunner in the American way (I’ve NEVER seen a person be more across a show than him) – yet even then the team writing aspect, in my experience anyway, was as minimal as taking the final draft in for a polish before it was screened.

  10. Thanks for the insight Philip. And I know this miht seem pendantic, but did you mean Russell T DAVIS, not Grant? I was a bit confused by that.

    I think team writing and individual writing would depend on the atmosphere of a production, among other things. Certainly it seems like a lot of writers are supporting each other in the US when it comes to their rights, but then you have to think about the competitive nature of writing (any insights there Philip?), and whether that might make a difference to what type of writing approach is needed for a production. If the writers are all happy to work together, then chances are they can be a bit more of a team, but if a couple disagree about thing and can contribute different important elements to a production, then maybe they should work more independantly.

  11. I was wondering two things; 1) would this strike over here affect places like the UK or Canada? 2) does it affect video game scripts
    if anyone knows I’d like to know too

  12. 1) As far as I know, shows like Doctor Who, are still being produced. The only way it would affect places like the UK or Canada is if they show US-made shows.

    2) If the video game is being made into a movie or television show, then yes. Otherwise, I believe video games are still being designed and written, though I’ll try to find a source to back that up.

  13. AMZ – Ha! Yes, I did – Russell Grant is a rather camp astrologer who is much in the news over here – not exactly who I had in mind, but I do keep confusing the names. And it’s not that writers are especially competitive over here (well, ok, we are, but we can be civilised about it) it’s more that we just learn to write on our own, so writing in teams requires relearning a lot of the creative process for a lot of us.

    The strike itself, so far as I know, isn’t having an effect on British TV, though it won’t be long before the US production companies realise there is a whole pool of pro writers over here who aren’t signed up to the relevant unions. Be interesting to see where loyalties lie then.

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