Andrew Ellard is a script editor known for his work on Miranda, The I.T. Crowd, Red Dwarf, The Midnight Beast and Life of Riley. He discusses his work and approach for BAFTA Guru.
What does a script editor do?
“I tend to put script editors into three categories (though in practice it’s a lot more complicated and overlappy than this): conduit, contributor and consultant. A conduit runs several writers, collates notes from above and tracks details — this kind is common with soaps. A contributor is in effect another writer, providing gags and ideas — these are big on comedies. The consultant does story and character analysis, provides lots of notes and works directly with writers, and this is where I feel comfortable.
My job is to get you to the best version of the thing you’re already trying to write. You didn’t hire me to add my creative voice, I’m not going to attempt to make it the show I think it should be. I’m lucky, I’ve been working with Graham Linehan, Miranda Hart and Cardinal Burns, they have a voice. You don’t want to get in the way of that or dilute it.
I couldn’t write the Cardinal Burns sketch Vomit Cops, but I still know where the structure is, where the laughs are, what we need to know. It’s interpretive, never mechanical, like providing a review before the show’s even shot.”
Why is structure important?
“You need to understand the situation so you know what is happening, who this character is, why they’re like this — then you laugh. If you’re confused, it almost always inhibits the comedy. My job isn’t to structure something, it’s to look at the thing that you’ve got, figure out why it’s not satisfying yet and then work backwards. Take a show like The Royle Family, that’s very low-key and gentle but the plot is genuinely moving forward all the time and you feel it. More importantly, you feel it when it’s not.
My obsession with structure came from watching a ton of television. I realised almost everything that bugs me about shows could be fixed. You might think this scene you’ve written is hilarious, but you haven't set up the character’s urges to do that or their taste for that thing — those are structural issues that can be sorted out.
It works across genres too: structure will give you a good, well-manufactured laugh, scare or dramatic reveal. Three act structures aren’t rote, you can mix it all up. When you tell a story in the pub, you tend to build to a crescendo as opposed to having a climax in the middle and talking for another minute and a half. It’s not that we’ve written structure manuals we have to obey, it’s that people tell stories a certain way that we find satisfying, so identify the tropes they use.”
Mistakes writers make
1. Scene after scene where nothing happens. Don’t mistake your sitcom for ‘me and my friend sat in a room quipping sarcastically’. That’s when you end up with types: mum type, dad type, teenage type. You never feel like those characters are so memorable they couldn’t be in anything else.
2. Underplotting. Don’t think talking about a subject without changing the situation will be enough to get you through 12 pages. Conversely, over-length – making the same point reiterated in three scenes back to back.
3. Not being fast enough. Watch the first episode of Friends, they nail four characters to the mast in the first scene of the first show in seven lines of dialogue – that’s less than two lines each (read it here: https://storify.com/ellardent/seven-lines-from-friends). It’s extraordinary and impossible to do, but that’s your aim, for your audience to say “I know this character immediately”.
4. Dull character names, so many Dans, Robs, Jeffs, Janes, Fionas. That could be almost anybody. If you call a character Bartholomew, I’m already there, there’s already something there that feels specific. You use them to convey something — there’s something nasal about saying Basil and that fits Basil Fawlty.
5. Unspecific scene descriptions, stuff like ‘EXT – BOAT – DAY’. What sort of boat are we talking about? When Jimmy McGovern was writing Cracker, that character was originally written as being thin and not unlike Jimmy himself. They cast Robbie Coltrane! He might’ve thought he wanted the character to be thin, but what comes off the page from those first scripts won’t have been his weight, it will have been an attitude: the fieriness, the compulsion to gamble, the anxiousness, the focus. Introduce the character with ‘deeply focused but sarcastic’ and I know who that character is, but ‘brown hair and blue eyes’? Shrug.
Tips for young writers
1. Don’t ever put all your hopes on one script. Have three samples that show some variety. Go and get good at all sorts of stuff, you’ll figure out what kind of writer you are.
2. It’s not a race. There’s no gain to be had from rushing and showing people a load of bad stuff. Take your time, get it right.
3. Don’t think you have to go to university to know how to write. Chances are you haven’t lived enough. Go learn more about the world, so you have something else to talk about and draw from.
4. The first notes you get will terrify you to your very soul. But learning how to take and use them is vital. Toughen up. Learn to grasp the meaning behind the note — a bad suggestion is probably still trying to fix a real (or perceived) problem. What was that problem, or why do they perceive it as one?
5. The job of the writer is not to have written one thing, it’s to write. Always, and more.