The McGrath Point

Contains spoilers for the first few episodes of Lost and Firefly.

Denis McGrath is off to Los Angeles. Possibly for good. And his blog, in its current format at least, is going into the long archive.

So as we bid him farewell or au revoir, I want to share something that he brought to my attention many years ago. He called it the commit moment. I think the McGrath Point is catchier.

And, hey, my blog.

It’s the moment when you’re watching a TV show, and you sit up, and you think: I have never seen that before. The moment when you think, I’m in. I’m committed. I’m going to watch the rest of this now.

I work with people who read unsolicited scripts. A lot of unsolicited scripts. And, when asked what it is that makes a script stand out, makes it irresistible, makes them want to meet the writer and find out more about them and their craft, they all say the same thing:

Show me something I’ve never seen before.

Might be a character. Might be a world. Might be a moment. But always, it’s something new.

Which brings us to the McGrath Point.

In his original post on the matter, Denis talks about Walkabout, the fourth episode of Lost, and the moment at the end where we realise that Locke, in his previous life, was in a wheelchair.

The title itself hides the mystery in plain view. It’s a twist that not only puts an entirely new spin on every scene in the episode, it reveals new facts about the island, and the rules of the world.

One moment in the script that makes you think: I’ve never seen that before.

Joss Whedon does this magnificently in both of the pilots for Firefly.

Towards the end of the first episode, our heroes have been betrayed by their allies. Meanwhile on the ship, a hostage situation has developed. A bad guy has River at gunpoint. She’s dead unless the captain does what he says, gives him a ticket out.

And we know how this goes, we’ve seen it a dozen times before. The hero walks in. There’s a negotiation. Bad guy uses his hostage to get away, then does something foolish (usually breaking a promise) resulting in his downfall.

Not here. Mal walks in, shoots the bad guy in the face without breaking stride and the still-warm corpse is unceremoniously dumped out the back of the ship in a well-rehearsed manoeuvre.

Right there. Something I’d never seen before. Something that made me certain I was going to watch the rest of this series.

And he does absolutely the same in the next episode, The Train Job. Big Evil Henchman has been defeated, is captured. And Mal offers to set him free. And he does the Big Evil Henchman speech, the I-will-track-you-down-and-kill-you-all one.

So Mal kicks him into the (running) engine of the spaceship. The next henchman is much more reasonable.

It just takes one moment that you haven’t seen before to make a script great.

The nomenclature of showrunning

Over the last few years there’s been a growing call in the UK drama industry for a move to a US-style system, where the person in charge of a TV programme is also a writer. In this country I’m only aware of two shows that do this: Doctor Who and Holby City.

Unfortunately, this system is often incorrectly called the showrunner system.

Every show has a showrunner.

The showrunner is the person who makes the final decisions, creative and otherwise.

Sure, networks and studios give notes, and they can cancel the show or fire the showrunner if they don’t get implemented, but the person who who gets to make the final decision on what happens and what doesn’t – that’s the showrunner.

The UK has showrunners too. They’re mostly producers without a writing background, who came up through script editing and script development – the same as the US system used to be up until the 70s.

(It’s still possible in both the UK and US systems to have someone who’s in charge of all the writing of a show, without being in charge of the production. In this case, they’re usually referred to as the Lead Writer, but the person in overall charge of the production is the showrunner.)

Most showrunners in the US, however, were hired as writers first, and learned their producing trade over the years. There’s a career path in the US writers room system, from Staff Writer all the way up to showrunner, and the amount of producing duties involved grow as you work up the ladder.

I personally believe that having a writer-producer in charge is the way forward for television series. Now you can call that the writer-showrunner system, or the US system, but let’s not call that the showrunner system.

Because we already have showrunners.

Letters From America: A good day, on the whole.

originally posted 8th March 2004

Draft Zero of the Enterprise spec is finished.

It’s not a First Draft. It’s not at that level yet. What it has, is enough words to fill fifty pages in screenplay format.

Now that the final “Fade out.” has been typed, I’ve printed it out and read it end-to-end for the first time.

The first act is pretty good, in my humble opinion. Unfortunately the other three-quarters of the script sucks big-style. Genuine queue-up-to-avoid-it type writing.

I read the whole thing for the first time a couple of hours ago. When writing the Zeroth Draft I try to not go back at all if I can avoid it – the temptation is too high to spend your life re-working the bits you know are wrong instead of finishing the damn piece.

But now, reading it end-to-end for the first time, I had my Editor hat on. And the *structure* is mostly there. It’s just the words that need changing.

If I was a showrunner who received this script, I’d fire the original writer and pass it on to the person on my team that was good at dialogue to straighten the damn thing out.

Unfortunately, I’m on my own here.

But I can see where the problems are. Looking at it now as a final piece, I can see what the original author is trying to do in the script. Despite the fact that everyone wears their hearts on their shoulders and baldly states their point-of-view.

So what I’ll be doing over the next couple of weeks is taking the scenes apart and attempting to re-build them with real characters instead of the cardboard cutouts currently serving duty as place-holders.

Then maybe it’ll be worth showing to someone else.

But having said all that, finishing Draft Zero is worth celebrating. It’s a cut-off point, a waystation, a milestone.

So I treated myself. Since I moved into this apartment building, I’ve had my eye upon the big switch in the elevator marked “Emergency Stop”, and I’ve been saving it for just the proper occasion.

Worth the wait.

Show me on the doll where the bad script touched you.

Balls Out is a screenplay that does exactly what it says on the tin.

You’ll love it or hate it. I think I can safely guarantee you won’t have a neutral opinion.

The script did take a little while to go all the way with me, but once it got into a rhythm, it was the most mindblowing read I’ve had in a long while. So don’t give up too soon. And make sure you have plenty of lube.

The quotes on THE ROBOTARD 8000’s homepage, by the way, are genuine. BattleDolphinZero, half of THE ROBOTARD 8000, has described the writers as being “A-list adjacent”.

Now pass me the doll. I need to push my fingers deep into its heart.

Dear John

Paying a reader to give you notes on your script is like paying a prostitute to give you notes on your sexual technique.

Yes, they’re a professional.
Yes, they’re good at what they do.
And yes, if you’re just starting out there’s a case to be made that advice from someone who’s been around the blocks a few times is going to help.

But in the long term, both of them have a vested interest in continuing to receive your custom. And that means two things.

One: You’re never going to be told you’re that bad
Two: You’re never going to be told you’re that good.

To keep your custom, they have to always see that there’s room for improvement, while also approving of your current skills and grasp of technique. Especially the techniques that they happen to like.

Now, if they’re being paid by someone else to judge your work, then you can trust ’em – to a point at least.

They might not like redheads, or muscleboys, or people who dress to the left, but that’s just life. If someone else is paying them to evaluate your performance and they don’t like you, that’s just incompatibility. Bad luck. And they can be as sharp as they like with their critique, because you never get to see it.

But if you’re the one paying for the evaluation, they’d be a fool not to give you what you’re asking for. Really asking for, which is recognition of the skills you’ve got, tips for improvement, and a haven’t-you-done-well.

Whether you actually have any skills, or need any improvement.

In other words, you get what you pay for. Not necessarily what you need.

10,000 hours

That’s how long it takes to get to be a world-class expert at something.

Or 8,000 if you merely want to be good.

There’s an extract from Malcolm Gladwell’s new book over at The Guardian today, which backs up my earlier post on the irrelevance of talent.

My thesis there, backed up by Gladwell, is that hard work is it. There’s no magic spark, no such thing as god-given genius. Just bloody hard work over a period of years.

To quote from the article:

“This idea – that excellence at a complex task requires a critical, minimum level of practice – surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is a magic number for true expertise: 10,000 hours.”

The number comes up again and again, in studies across all fields. 10,000 hours of practice will make you a world-beater.

K Anders Ericsson and his colleagues studied violinists at Berlin’s music academy. In addition to the fact that the world-class violinists had 10,000 hours under their belts, they found this important information:

There were no outliers.

No naturals who could beat everyone else while practising for less time. And no grinders, who worked harder than everyone else but didn’t make it to the top.

Talent equals hard work.
Hard work equals talent.

So how long is ten thousand hours?

That’s twenty hours of practice each week for ten years, with two weeks off each year for holidays.

I know how hard I’m working on my scripts.

How about you?

What Bonekickers Did Wrong

It’s not what you think.

Spoilers follow.

If you’ve talked with me about television recently, the odds are that I’ve told you in some detail about my love of the recent archaeological action-adventure show Bonekickers.

Each episode kicks off with a bit of archaeology, and ends in madness.

For example:

In the first episode, our intrepid heroes find an old coin at the beginning of the episode. By the end of the episode, they are having a swordfight while swinging on ropes thirty feet above the ground of an immense cavern filled with crosses brought from the Holy Land, one of which is the One True Cross, and all of which are on fire.

For example:

In the third episode, our intrepid heroes find an old coin at the beginning of the episode. By the end of the episode they are fleeing to avoid the poison gas drifting down the tunnel behind them – but the tunnel in front is blocked by an explosive minefield made from Roman hand grenades.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I love a good action-adventure show. So I’m perfectly happy with the idea of archaeologists fighting evil. I mean, it worked for Indiana Jones.

Where I think Bonekickers falls down is this: Each episode starts with the ordinary, and leads you into the realm of the bonkers.

Compare and contrast with a James Bond film. Or indeed, an Indiana Jones film. There’s a reason that they always have that huge stunt before the credits: it establishes the sort of world that Bond lives in, and more importantly, it establishes what’s possible in that world.

With Bonekickers, the world begins ordinary, and you’re led into the strangeness.

Now, one of the things that I love about the show is that it does that. Each step on the route from coin to cavern is a small one, with no great leap of faith. And then when you get to the end, you have a big action/adventure. I like that change in pace.

But there’s a problem with doing it like that. You start out thinking you’re watching one show. And you end up watching another.

Let’s take a look at the opening credits.

  • Logo
  • Looking through a cave by torchlight
  • Dusting off a Skull
  • Hieroglyphs
  • Microscope
  • Man with a sword from the past
  • A coin being examined through a magnifying glass
  • An explosion
  • Putting a fragment of something on a microscope slide
  • Lighting a flare and throwing it underwater
  • Looking at something through a microscope
  • Overhead view of a dig site
  • Heroes stand round a table on which is laid out archaeological finds

The first and last shots last about four seconds each, while each of the others lasts for about two seconds.

Let’s break it down.

  • Shots that lead you to expect an action-adventure series (explosion): 2s
  • Shots that lead you to expect an archaeological procedural series (most of the rest): 18s
  • Shots that could go either way (flare, swordsman, cave): 6s

That credits sequence leads you to expect a series that’s about solving the mysteries raised by archaeology. A programme like Bones, or CSI, but with archaeology. And this expectation’s then re-inforced by the fact that the show always starts in the ordinary world with them doing just that.

But the thing is, that’s not what the show’s about. So you can (rightfully, I think) argue that this isn’t the show you signed up for.

I think establishing that world up front, in the credits, or in the first few minutes of the show, would actually have helped Bonekickers become the success that it deserved to be. So the viewer knows what they’re getting when they watch.

Because it’s not about archaeology. It’s about adventure.

And right now, it’s not selling that.


As far as I can tell I’m the third blogger to go on a TAPS Continuing Drama course, following in the steps of Lucy in 2006 and David in 2007. Perhaps they only let one of us in each year lest we contaminate the other talent and they all start blogging too.

Anyhow, here’s what we got up to:

Beforehand, you had to write a one-page pitch of an original drama which would be shootable on the Emmerdale sets (you get a list and pictures) with no more than six characters.

Friday is getting-to-know-you: introductions, a go-through with a script editor of your pitch document, and a glass or few of free wine.

The course itself started properly on the Saturday with Bill Lyons, a 46-year-veteran of the TV industry telling you about how storylining on a soap works, from story document through to filmed episode, all of which we got to look at. He’s entertaining and full of useful information, and it’s fascinating to see something go from beginning to end.

Main helpful hint: spend at least 25% of your time doing the breakdown. Even if you’ve only got two days, spend the first morning doing the outline.

After lunch, we had an hour to rewrite one of the produced scenes, only without one of the driving characters. They got handed in for later, and the next day, Bill took us through each of the scenes we’d written as they were performed.

Here’s where I fucked up:

I knew that the set we were using wasn’t in fact a set at all, but the interior of a location, and that the exterior of the fictional location was, in fact, the actual exterior of the real building. So I split the scene in two, with a third of it set just outside the front door, thinking that it would be a move of just a few feet.

I was told in no uncertain terms that had this been a real soap, the moment Bill saw EXT. HOUSE, the script would have been binned.

What I’d forgotten is setup time. The entire crew would have had to move outdoors. And all their equipment. And everything would have had to be re-lit. Assuming that the weather’s acceptable.

And, bear in mind, the reason that I’m rewriting this scene at the last minute is because they’ve just lost one of their lead actors and are running behind. So they don’t have time to do that.

Bin. Lesson learned.

It’s more important to be on time and shootable than to be good. A scene can be as brilliant as you bloody like, but if they can’t shoot it, it’s a failure.

At the end of the day we also had to pitch our one-page story in under thirty seconds. It’s a good idea to get a bunch of the other writers together in the bar the night before and practice on each other. Just a couple of go-rounds with live targets makes a huge difference.

Now I’ve got until the 22nd to write up my pitch as a 23-minute script. With an ad break at 11’30”. So that should keep me busy for a while.

I’ve only one real regret about the weekend: I didn’t have anyone with me to take a picture while I stood on the invisible lift in Cardiff Bay.

Ah well.

Cardiff TAPS

This weekend, I shall mostly be on a TAPS Continuing Drama course in Cardiff.

TAPS is an industry training scheme for writers. For two-and-a-half days you get taught how to write a Continuing Drama (with particular emphasis on Emmerdale), and then you go away and write a short drama using the Emmerdale sets.

Some of these even get filmed and shown to Important People.

But that’s in the future. Or not, depending on how well I do.

More important, is this:

I’m going to be travelling up the night before, that’s this Thursday (the 28th). Should be arriving in Cardiff about 9:30pm – so if you’re on TAPS yourself, or are in Cardiff generally and fancy meeting up on the Thursday night, let me know.