On Screenwriting, with Advice from Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat

Writers are storytellers. That is what we do. We use our words to capture the imagination and tell our stories to the world. But just how do we choose to tell those stories?

When it comes to mediums, the writer has plenty of options at his or her fingertips. We could write a novel, a short story, a poem, a song lyric. But what about the more visual-minded?

When it comes to visual storytelling, there’s no better medium than screenwriting. Recently, Australia was lucky enough to play host to two of television’s most successful screenwriters, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat.

The pair are, of course, responsible for writing/creating the BBC cult-hit show, Sherlock. They are also both heavily involved with long-running BBC series, Doctor Who, with Gatiss serving as a regular writer and Moffat taking the reigns as head writer/showrunner.

In the last week of November, Moffat and Gatiss travelled to Australia for the Sydney Doctor Who Festival, as well as the “Sherlock: Script to Screen” Panel at Melbourne’s Regent Theatre. Here, they shared some of their tips, experiences, and advice on writing for television.

But before we discuss what industry professionals have to say, let’s first take a look at screenwriting, and how to break into it.

Writer Alyssa Boorman picked up some awesome tips at the recent Doctor Who festival. Image credit: Erin Hogan

What is Screenwriting?

Screenwriting is just what it sounds like: writing for the screen. Or, in other words, writing for film and/or television.

It is a visual form of storytelling that allows the writer’s work to be interpreted and brought to the audience through a collaborative process involving directors, actors, editors, producers, musical composers, and so on.

Why Choose Screenwriting?

Screenwriting is a particularly unique form of storytelling, not only because of its highly visual nature, but also due to the level of collaboration involved. When a writer creates a script or screenplay, they allow their story to be blown into life by every individual involved in the filmmaking process.

This extensive collaboration allows the story to expand, in such a way that it seemingly takes on a life of its own. It lives, and breathes, and grows – like a person, from infancy to adulthood. Each collaborator makes an impact on the final state of the story.

Screenwriting also allows you the potential of reaching a wide audience, all at the same time. For more on why to choose screenwriting, visit the Writers Store.

How to Write a Script/Screenplay

When it comes to writing a script or screenplay, there are particular rules and formatting that writers must abide by. This is because your script will need to be read by so many different people in the industry (i.e. directors, actors, editors, etc.).

Scripts and screenplays must therefore follow a standard format, recognisable to all involved in the filmmaking process.

The Writers Store provides a helpful example of the basic layout of a screenplay. However, for any writer who is thinking of screenwriting professionally, you may want to consider taking a short course to better understand the ins and outs of the medium.

A selection of these courses are offered by such organisations as the Australian Film, Television and Radio School and the Australian Writers’ Centre.

Screen Australia also has a remarkable resource for screenwriters, in their publication I’ve Got a Great Idea for a Film. Similarly, a list of helpful screenwriting books can be found here.

But now, to some writing advice from Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat.

Screenwriting is a highly visual and collaborative medium for writers. Image credit: Rafael Leonardo Re via Flickr Creative Commons

Screenwriting Wisdom from Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat

Writing Alone or Collaboratively

Both at the Doctor Who Festival and the “Sherlock: Script to Screen” Panel, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat spoke about the different ways they compose screenplays.

From what they discussed, the professional screenwriter must always be prepared to write either alone or collaboratively. For example, as a writer for Doctor Who, Gatiss revealed he is often approached with a pitch for a script, which he is then able to go off and write on his own.

This was the case for the “Robot of Sherwood” episode, where he was simply given the pitch “The Doctor meets Robin Hood”. From there, Gatiss created a remarkable episode, involving a robot-alien invasion of Sherwood Forest, and an epic spoon fight between the Doctor and the Prince of Thieves.

When it comes to Sherlock, however (which Gatiss and Moffat co-created), there are times when the two writers have come together in collaboration. Surprisingly, though, this collaboration has not often resulted in the two “working together”.

At “Sherlock: Script to Screen”, Moffat and Gatiss revealed that, although they have co-created episodes together before, the new Sherlock special, “The Abominable Bride” (in Australian cinemas January 2nd), is the first episode they have written together where they have actually written together, in the same room, at the same time.

Writer’s Block with Mark Gatiss

Ahead of the Sydney Doctor Who Festival, Mark Gatiss recorded a short video, providing advice for new writers. At the Festival, however, he was able to share his advice in a much more interactive manner via his Writers’ Masterclass Q&A panel.

It was during this panel that one audience member asked him about his secrets for conquering writer’s block.

I love having a hot bath,” he revealed. “I call it a ‘think bath’… Or I go running. It clears your head. It’s good to think about something different. If you’ve got another project on the go, if you start doing that, sometimes it frees [you] up.”

Gatiss then shared some wisdom from his Sherlock co-creator and Doctor Who showrunner, Steven Moffat.

I was talking to Steven Moffat about this the other day… and he said, ‘Really, in the end, you’re blocked because something you’ve done isn’t right. It’s not working.’ So you can unblock yourself by sort of admitting that, and going back and fixing it.”

Mark Gatiss shares his best tips for overcoming writer’s block. Image credit: Erin Hogan

Sharing Ideas with Mark Gatiss

As with any writing, it is important for screenwriters to be able to share their work and ideas with others. This is particularly true due to the highly collaborative nature of screenwriting.

However, sharing ideas can be very difficult for writers. We can become protective of our writing, to the point where handing our ideas over to others for scrutiny can be horribly nerve-wracking.

But for any beginners who are grappling with this fear and anxiety, it is comforting to know that even the most experienced of professionals struggle with this problem.

When asked how far along in the writing process he likes to share his ideas, Mark Gatiss exclaimed,

Never! I hate sharing ideas. Everybody does. It’s a terrifying moment.”

But if the fear of sharing is something writers never get over, what exactly are we supposed to do about it? The answer: do it anyway!

You are always going to be nervous about showing your writing to people, so just do it anyway. No matter how fast your heart is beating, or how sick to the stomach that “send” button makes you feel – click it anyway.

It’s a terrifying moment handing your work over to someone else, but if we don’t find the courage to press “send”, we’ll never get our stories out into the world.

Considering Logistics with Mark Gatiss

One slightly peculiar thing about screenwriting is that once you have written a story, it becomes the responsibility of others to actually make your story a reality.

So what does this mean for the writing process? Is it down to the writer to consider such things as budget, special effects and possible locations? Should the writer be aware of how their screenplay can actually be realised on screen?

According to Mark Gatiss, the answer to this question is a resounding “no”.

You never think about that. You can’t really think about that. Because you’d limit your imagination. I know you can’t write bits, and think they’re going to happen in that way, but it’s amazing what we can do.”

He then went on to share a story about fellow Doctor Who writer, Peter Harness, and his reservations about his script for a recent season nine episode, “The Zygon Invasion”.

Peter Harness was telling me he was a bit trepidatious writing the first part of the Zygon story, because it was taking place all over the world, but it was realised absolutely brilliantly,” asserts Gatiss. “You can do a lot more these days. I think the key is to not limit yourself.”

Mark Gatiss discusses the screenwriting process in a recent visit to Australia. Image credit: Erin Hogan

The Best Thing About Screenwriting with Steven Moffat

Although much of this article has focussed on advice from Mark Gatiss, writer Steven Moffat also shared some excellent advice on his recent trip to Australia.

At the “Sherlock: Script to Screen” event, I myself was able to ask Moffat a couple of questions on screenwriting. Namely, what advice does he have for hopeful screenwriters, and what is it that makes screenwriting so special?

Here’s what he had to say…

First of all, Moffat emphasised that, as a writer, there’s nothing to hold you back.

There’s really no excuses when it comes to writing… You can start writing now.”

He also spoke about the way script/screenwriters can learn from the very best in the industry, simply by sitting at home and watching different films and TV shows.

One of the great things about writing for television is… in the corner of your room, with the television on, you can watch, and you can learn, and you can see.”

Steven Moffat, the driving force behind two of TV’s biggest series. Image credit: Erin Hogan

However, the best advice Moffat had to offer was not necessarily in what he said, but rather in how he said it.

As he sat there on stage, the writer of two of today’s biggest cult-hit TV shows, discussing what he does every single day, Steven Moffat was visibly ecstatic. His eyes lit up and his gestures became enthusiastically emphatic.

The best thing about being a writer, [rather] than any old job in television is, at the end of the day, you get to make it up. You know, that’s your job… You get to make it up!”

And here, no doubt, is the secret to Steven Moffat’s unfaltering success. At the end of the day, he is still as passionate about writing now as he must have been the day he first picked up a pen.

So if there’s any piece of advice writers should take away from his words, it is this: never lose your passion. Steven Moffat still believes he has the best job in the world.

And he is absolutely right.

Alyssa Boorman

Alyssa is an emerging writer from the Blue Mountains, NSW. She has dreamed of becoming an author from the time she could read, and spent much of her childhood stapling together her own little picture books. She has recently finished a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) degree at the University of Western Sydney, where she studied English Text and Writing. Due to graduate later this year, Alyssa is now in the early stages of drafting out her first novel, and hopes to make her name in the writing industry. In her spare time, Alyssa enjoys curling up with a cup of tea, a good book, or an intelligent TV show.

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