I often get asked what I do. It’s normal when you work in the arts.
However, for me, the conversation often goes a bit like this –
“So, what do you do?”
“I work in script development.”
“Oh, so what kind of scripts do you write?”
“No, I’m not a writer. I don’t write scripts, I develop them.”
Blank stare ensues
People know what writers do, but not script developers. Most people have no idea who we are or what we do. This is, in a way, understandable. Writers are the creators; the scripts are theirs and they have to put in the effort and creativity. However, although we are not as important as writers, script developers and people in development do play a useful part in the journey of a script, from laptop screen to silver screen.
Simply put, development is the area that deals with everything that happens to a script before it is put on a stage or has a camera or microphone pointed at it. We make sure that the script is fit for purpose. Development works with writers to help their ideas grow, to literally help develop them. This can be from the initial stages of an idea or with a later draft of an existing project.
For example, I know two writers who found an interesting historical figure from the early 20thCentury. They pitched this person’s life to a production company and they are now writing the first drafts after initial chats with the development team. Drafts will then be sent back to the team, notes will be given, advice taken, rewrites started and then the cycle will start again.
With a later draft – we once received draft 10.5 from someone – it is then about asking the writer what they need help with and then looking at the script to provide helpful feedback at that stage of the writing process.
It is still about helping grow, helping develop, that script into the best version that the writer can create. We give advice, we encourage, we enable. That is the role of someone in development: helping the story become its best self.
The journey continues onto the set or soundstage. Someone from the development team (normally a script editor or a senior member of the development team, sometimes the head of the team) will be on set during a shoot. They will know the script pretty much as well as the writer, as they will have been there for the whole writing process. Their job during production is to act as the script’s guardian through filming and to act as the link between the writer and the production team on re-writes and production decisions.
A colleague of mine was working as a script editor on a project which had an emotional break-up scene set on a cliff. In the original scene a storm raged in the background providing a tumultuous natural backdrop to the emotional chaos between the two characters. However, production couldn’t shoot this scene this way - mainly because it was too expensive. They approached the script editor and asked if they could set the scene in a kitchen instead. They already had the set for the kitchen. It would be better if the scene could be set in the kitchen. So, the scene had to be moved to the kitchen. The script editor had to confirm that that would be ok and then work with the re-writes to make it the best version of that scene, but now set around a kitchen island, not on the cliffs of Cornwall.
Alongside not knowing about how development teams aid writers in their writing process, there are a lot of myths that exist around the script-writing process itself. I’d like to look at a few of them to help clarify a few things.
People think that scripts just happen – they don’t.
It is a common phenomenon, as a creative person, to look at an excellent piece of art, a performance, a piece of writing and think that the artist has had no help; that their work has emerged fully formed and perfect into the world. This is not true. The only person I know of who created work perfectly in one go is Mozart. Everyone else has painted a terrible painting, put on a terrible performance, written a terrible script. All artists do these things, keep doing them and get better as they do so. And they will have had advice and help on how to get better.
We have this romantic view of a writer being a solitary genius in a garret room or at a table in a downtown coffee shop valiantly striving by themselves. This is does not have to be the case. Often it is not the case. You don’t have to do it by yourself. You can’t. You will need help from others.
Everyone from Phoebe Waller-Bridge to Quentin Tarantino will have had help and advice on how to make their work better. And they’re really good. But they still they didn’t do it alone.
And neither do you. Don’t feel bad getting advice from outside.
Another common phenomenon is that we encounter people who say that their script is not ready to be seen or who are nervous about people reading it. This is understandable. It has just been you and your script for a long time, it is the physical manifestation of your imagination and several hours/days/months of work. However, it will need to be seen by someone at some point. There will also never be a point where you are completely satisfied with your writing. You will never feel like it's at a perfect stage to show everyone. So don’t worry about someone else having a look at it. You will at some point have to let it go.
The point of development is also to help grow a project. We have seen writing from all stages. Script development is there to help you on your journey.
Now, some people will take that advice, run with it, and show their script to anyone and everyone, which is also not always helpful. Showing your work to family members or friends who don’t work in the scripted side of the industry can be just as unhelpful as keeping your script to yourself.
Someone who is close to you may not be the best person to give you feedback on your work. They will get all your jokes, all your references, that others who don’t know you may not, and they won’t want to give you any real feedback for fear of hurting your feelings. They will just say that it’s great. Or, conversely, if they do spot things that may need tweaking, they will just point out things that they don’t like but not give you any way of re-directing or altering those things. Neither of these is very helpful.
It is always good to give your script to someone who is dispassionate about it. Not that people in development don’t care – we do – it’s just that we can see the whole woodland rather than just the individual trees, as we’re not caught up in the dense undergrowth of all the story-growing. We can stand outside the whole thing and judge it as a whole.
Script-writing doesn’t have to be a lonely process; people are there to offer advice. However, don’t seek advice or feedback from just anyone, as what you get back will probably not be the most useful.
Script developers are there to be the middle ground – people who are there to help but won’t start trampling all over your creativity. The point of development is to hold the writer’s hand and say this is alright, it will work. We all love stories, and we want to make the best ones possible.
So, what do I do? I help build stories.