5 October 2011

Review: The Calling Card Script by Paul Ashton

Paul Ashton
The Calling Card Script: A Writer's Toolbox for Stage and Screen
A & C Black

Paul Ashton's opinions about writing are to be taken very seriously. There's a simple reason: he's one of the BBC's development producers. Frankly, he could say scripts should all be written on pink scented paper and anyone sensible would run to Rymans immediately and stock up.

Ashton is at his most illuminating talking about the modern writing scene: what producers are looking for, why it's important to write for different mediums, why being sniffy about genre is a bad idea.

His messages, in essence, are that we should do what the hell we like in a calling card script because it's never going to get made. And that script writing is pretty much script writing, whether its for a fringe theatre play or an epic high-concept TV franchise.

The sections on the differences between radio, stage, television and film are particularly interesting. His introductions to each of the four dramatic media are on pages 13-45. He then returns to the topic on pages 64-71 to consider how to choose a medium for a particular story, on pages 92-94 to compare how we relate characters in different media, on pages 167-170 to discuss how scenes are structured in different media, and on pages 172-173 to explain how step outlines function differently in play and screen writing. If you read the introduction and these pages, you've pretty much got the gist.

There's some useful advice about the nuts and bolts of writing in Calling Card, much of it summarised and synthesised from other how-to-write books and the sort of pragmatic advice available on the BBC Writersroom website - as Ashton freely admits. He's not as page-turning on every topic as he is on differing media, but a comprehensive grounding in dramatic writing practice as it stands is clearly established.

Examples usually annoy me, but here Ashton has been careful to use ones which his reader can realistically get hold of, and is very good at returning to a few key works so that we get to know them well. The downside of this is that radio drama is significantly underrepresented, but what can you do?* Of course, Ashton's examples are useful beyond their function as examples because they give us a reading list of scripts he rates (as opposed the scripts that are merely popular) and the reasons that he likes them.**

The Calling Card Script is a neat summary of the hows of dramatic writing. Despite it's subtitle, A Writer's Toolbox, this is not really an instruction manual or a quick-fix reference, it reads instead like a checklist of things that make good scripts. Its confusing organisation makes it hard to read cover to cover or to browse, but its comprehensive nature and original insights (at least, I've not heard them before) make it a bit of a Bible for what the BBC wants from its script monkeys.

* Well, the BBC could make its huge archive of radio drama available online... - I'd pay, if that helps - but it seems unlikely they're going to.
** Not that duplicating a successful show would get me very far. ;-)

1 comment:

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