Friday 1 December 2023

Books for Writing in Genres - A Handy Guide

Every writer, at some point, has gone 'I'd like to try something new' or 'I've always wanted to write X', but where to start?' You can watch/read your favourites, take notes and study them, but what if you need something more specific? Some type of reference or guidelines, even just something to quickly highlight common tropes you can avoid or find new spins on? 

Well, writing guides to just about every genre in fiction exist, old and new, and many authored by working veterans, are available. Of course, the sheer volume (and then factoring in sites like Amazon permitting self-published works) can be rather daunting and confusing for a newcomer to disentangle. Well today, I'll give that a shot with an easy list of published works: a mix of personal recommendations and ones I've heard on the grapevine.

 Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction - Highsmith, Patricia: 9780715394519  - AbeBooks

This article, for the sake of disclosure, is not sponsored by anyone mentioned - this is just me and me alone.

To be clear, this is not a comprehensive or exhaustive list of genre writing guides, nor is this one about storytelling basics (your Save the Cats etc): I already covered that elsewhere. This is also not a guide to books on entire mediums like film, stage and TV (save one example which I'll explain), career advice (at least, not chiefly) or memoirs by famous writers - this is just for storytelling genres.

There will also be no self-published works (the quality threshold, never mind the sheer number of them, is just too all over the place to be useful or consistent) and I will avoid too many books from within the same series (Teach Yourself and For Dummies do include a number of these guides, if you want an immediate starting point). Last, I will also include, as and when relevant, essay compilations, though this will be geared in the direction of practical writing advice, rather than purely analytical writing.


  • Writing Crime Fiction by Rosemary Atkinson 
  • How to Write a Damn Good Mystery by James Frey 
  • How to Write a Mystery: A Handbook edited by Lee Child with Laurie R. King
  • Writing the Cozy Mystery by Nancy J. Cohen
  • Writing the Mystery: A Start to Finish Guide for Both Novice and Professional by G. Miki Hayden


  • Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction by Patricia Highsmith
  • Writing and Selling Thriller Screenplays: From TV Pilot to Feature Film by Lucy V. Hay


  • Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer
  • Get Started in Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy by Adam Roberts
  • Making Myths and Magic: A Field Guide to Writing Sci-Fi and Fantasy Novels by Shelley Campbell and Allison Alexander
  • Writing the Science Fiction Film by Robert Grant 
  • Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction by Brian Stableford
  • On Writing Horror: A Handbook by the Horror Writers Association, edited by Mort Castle
  • A Sense of Dread: Getting Under the Skin of Horror Screenwriting by Neal Marshall Stevens
  • Horror Screenwriting: The Nature of Fear by Devin Watson


  • How To Write Comedy by Tony Kirwood
  • The Serious Guide to Joke Writing by Sally Holloway
  • Elephant Bucks: An Insider's Guide to Writing for TV Sitcoms by Sheldon Bull
  • The TV Writer's Workbook by Ellen Sadler 
  • The Complete Comedy Writer by Dave Cohen
  • The Hidden Tools of Comedy: The Serious Business of Being Funny by Steve Kaplan


  • Writing and Selling - Romantic Comedy Screenplays by Craig Batty & Helen Jacey
  • Writing a Romance Novel For Dummies by Victorine Lieske and Leslie Wainger 
  • (Interestingly, I've noticed romance seems especially dominated by self-published guidebooks. If you wish to give them a go, well, have at it. Just check out the author's credentials to see they are legit.)


  • Writing for Animation by Laura Beaumont - my one cheat on this list as animation is a medium, not a genre unto itself. However, writing is a criminally underdiscussed part of the animation and few blogs and websites mention it either. There's also incredibly few books discussing children's stories, so another strike.
  • The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults by Cheryl B. Klein 
  • Writing for Children by Pamela Cleaver
  • Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul

Hope this little compilation has helped guide you on the right road!

Friday 10 November 2023

Honest Advice for new Screenwriters in 2023

This piece is aimed at anyone in the UK who wants to write scripts: maybe you're just starting or coming off a course (BA or MA), or are the intrepid outsider gung-ho-ing it with a copy of Save the Cat. You want to write movies and TV, maybe even get a shot at working on a big franchise like Doctor Who or Eastenders

I must first salute your first step into a creative field. It's exciting and when it comes together on the page, a sublime feeling!

You will also no doubt be aware of everything else happening - the country is dealing with a cost of living crisis, and the entertainment industry has not been spared. Between rising costs and the fallout of the (fully justified) SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes in America, many in the UK film and TV industry are out of work, and many more have left altogether. It's undeniably a grim picture right now: nerves are frayed and with money low, the dream seems always just out of grasp. For the recent arrival to this field, you may be doubting your decision to try script writing.

Welcome to Broken Britain 2023 and a new 'Winter of Discontent' - Revista  de Prensa

However, I've always endeavored for this blog to not just be optimistic, for the sake of new writers navigating an often frustrating business, but practical: to give you resources to find your way. So if you are a nervous student, or a curious enthusiast, here's my recommendations for what you can as your next steps, even in economic turmoil and uncertainty:

  1. Keeping or getting a day job is not a sign of failure or that you need to give up your writing dream - it's literally what's keeping you fed and alive. Balance and finding time to write can be done.  If you take an extra few months to write a script because you've got other priorities, so what? It's not a race - just write something good and damned be if it takes six months or two years to write. No one has ever, in my experience, cared about length of development: just the end result.
  2. If I can advise spending a little on something, invest in a copy of The UK Scriptwriter's Survival Guide: (for clarity, this is not a paid promotion.) Veteran film and TV scribes Tim Clague and Danny Stack (Eastenders, Doctors, Thunderbirds Are Go) give a practical, no B.S. guide on what you can do to help yourself get a foothold in the industry. I honestly believe this should be compulsory reading for all new screenwriters, as it will open your eyes to many possibilities (some we'll quickly touch on below too), as well as give you useful tips and tricks to navigate the business and avoid dead-ends.
  3. Screenwriting and its storytelling methods don't just apply to movies and TV - it's writing, after all. With what you learn, you can diversify into other fields that do put up jobs in a more familiar way (sites like LinkedIn, Indeed etc) than the detective work associated with the big two. Web content (like scripts for Youtube videos), video games, podcasts, copywriting (writing adverts, written website content, promotional materials, pamphlets), all of these will utilize the skills you learn. Indeed, there are other roles where your skills can be used, as I discuss here.
  4. No matter what genre or style you like to write in, keep your scripts budget-friendly. Be conservative and smart with your sets, number of characters, production value and big set piece moments. In TV terms, what's your precinct (where characters will spend most of their time) and how much can you get out of it? This is also true if you write movies: the Hollywood machinery doesn't exist here and your best bet is the world of microbudget feature films. 
  5. In the middle of economic hardship, the standard advice of 'make your own thing' can be, at least, a little insensitive and presumptive. If you were to ask me 'I don't have a lot of spare time or money. Should I do a short film, a video webseries, or a comedy/drama scripted podcast as a showcase/first credit?', I'd say pick the podcast - far lower costs and logistics than anything visual, everyone has a decent-quality mic on their phone or laptop nowadays, and it puts your unique voice as a writer front and center.
  6. Use this time and downturn to build a portfolio of scripts: 3 is the usual advice, but I'd say 4-5, in different mediums/genres is a better investment of what time and energy you have. And I don't mean 4-5 scripts you've just written - I mean 4-5 scripts you have polished and are proud of, which may be your ninth or tenth overall!
  7. Even when things pick up again, everything in film and TV will still be rather SLOW. Everything takes time and everything is about your initiative and productiveness. This is not a career for those who are lazy or just expect, for whatever reason, things to come to them.

The simple takeaway here is that building a career in the arts is hard. It was already really hard, but the economic plight has compounded that challenge. But, and this is the fuller takeaway, it's not without little rays of hopeful sunshine, twee as that might read. So long as you keep practicing, keep writing and keep on experimenting, you can survive this.

Monday 31 July 2023

I worked on a kids book!

It's funny: I spent years, having an awkward relationship with my disability, I wanted to hide it, pretend to be like everyone else. I didn't want to acknowledge who I was and how harmful masking was. Turns out, being more open about it and discussing it has afforded me my in into creative work: my episodes of Pablo, my place on ITV Original Voices last year, and now this.

I worked as one of several disability consultants on I Am, You Are, a non-fiction kids picture book, talking about disability, life and accommodation. It's a conversation starter for families and kids to think a little more about such people and the world around them, and why this topic matters so much. But this is no tragic story: instead, it's a colourful and vibrant book that celebrates in addition to teaching.

Click here to get yours.

Big thank you to the team at Ladybird/Penguin for listening to me, to the author and illustrator for their hard work, and for Laura Henry-Allain for recommending me.

Tuesday 27 June 2023

Does proper formatting actually matter in scripts?

I was reading the Haunt filmmaker diaries a few months back - Scott Beck and Bryan Woods document their lives as working Hollywood screenwriters while also juggling directing their horror film. It came with a draft of the script as a bonus, which was not only a fun read, but prompted some interesting questions about how the duo used formatting to create a particular effect on the reader.

Formatting is one of the biggest battlegrounds when it comes to screenwriting - it's possibly the only thing as loaded and fraught as discussions on whether or not 'act structure' is real. Scripts, so say some, are done on Courier font 12, with a specific spacing, usually in a programme called Final Draft (but some have also preached about John August's Highlander software, and for a time there was Celtx) that then exports it as a PDF. 

Final Draft Software Review | Is Final Draft Worth It | Music Gateway

On the page, the real meat of the formatting debate, everything is broken down into slug lines (scene headings, like INT/EXT, DAY/NIGHT), and tight action lines to describe what's going on. All the character names and their dialogue is centered, and anything more specific is usually put into brackets (whisper, chuckling, screaming etc.). The key to this, the reason why it's done, is for clarity and ease of reading. And under NO circumstances are you allowed to use the following:

  • Pictures/JPEGs
  • Maps
  • Weird fonts and word sizes
  • Word Art
  • Different colours
  • Random quotes from other sources, like famous politicians or historical figures
  • Specific times of day, broken down into hours and even minutes
  • Long action lines/descriptions, more akin to bits from novels
  • Ending scenes on dialogue instead of an action line
  • Cut To

So, as both a script reader and working writer, how true is all of this? Does it really matter, in my experience, if you chuck in pictures or extra bits, or even if you play with fonts?

Mostly no, but there are some caveats. The top goal is writing a compelling story that people will want to make - so long as it's eligible, and of quality, then you'd be surprised how many people will let slide some minor errors. The only ones that are non-negotiable are the use of Sluglines and having character names and dialogue be centered. Those are the only true fundamentals necessary for a screenplay's format. Everything else is service of creating the mood and style of your script, anything you can do to get the reader utterly sucked in.

To return to Haunt, the writers there use the formatting itself to sell the creepy, surreal atmosphere of a haunted house gone mad. Word size is increased and decreased to indicate sound and proximity, with the odd use of onomatopoeia to punctuate. Even the scene headings and descriptions will flip to the other side of the page to sell the weirdness factor, and it really works. This is breaking the rules, done correctly: it's a horror script and it makes you uneasy.

But, I did warn of caveats - in my experience, most scripts that include all or even some of the gimmicks listed above turn out to be, well, just that: Lazy and poor quality stories, loaded with random nonsense no doubt trying to make it stand out in the submissions pile. The worst of these is inserting pictures: to me, this is simply an all-out failure of writing. You have the written word at your disposal, why not use it to describe something marvellous or weird and let the reader's imagination do some of the work? Changing colours can also fall into this: it can look ugly and there's often no sense of an actual benefit to doing this.

(And, as a cherry on top, most of the pictures tend of be of abysmally low quality. Blurry, grainy, muddy images shoved willy-nilly about the script. This defeats the entire point of even including them to begin with, meaning you just gambled with the reader's tolerance for no reason.)

Ditto the beefy action lines: if you want to write a lot, my advice is break it into smaller, more dynamic sections. It reads cleaner and it can give an added sense of tempo and attention to what's happening in the scene. The best advice to remedy this is, well, read more screenplays - learn how writers sold something ambitious or hefty, and apply it to your own work.

A lot of this comes down to developing your own voice as a writer, and that takes time. You use shortcuts (like say, grabbing a picture off Google Images) to try and get stuff done quicker, and maybe in the process, create a unique presentation. Maybe you want to showcase more of your creativity with some original art or funky font tinkering? However, if it's not done in actual service of the story, then it's not actually helping you: It's just a distraction. You have to give the reader as few reasons as possible to say no, and yours is maybe the fifth or sixth script they have to read that day - every choice you make has to be considered. Sticking to the 'rules' is simply an easier guarantee, one less possible strike against your work.

My advice, if you're really nervous: stick with traditional formatting and focus on fine tuning your writing. However, if you want something extra in, make sure it is justified and actually adds to the atmosphere and style of what you're making. Reasons like 'it looks cool' are utterly worthless and, as said, will just hasten the reader's finger to the big red X. Keep them on the page, at all costs.

Monday 1 May 2023

Review: Haunt: Screenplay & Filmmaker Diaries

With 65 having done its run in theatres, I figured why not share a recent read of mine - the Haunt: Screenplay & Filmmaker Diaries. Writer-directors Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (also the minds behind A Quiet Place) made a little slasher called Haunt back in 2019, a twisted take on chintzy haunted houses where a group of teens get stuck in very real danger. Overseen by Eli Roth, Haunt used its low budget and small cast to its advantage, creating a small but distinct little horror. 

So in 2022, the duo brought out this book, a diary documenting their lives as working Hollywood screenwriters while also juggling directing their horror film. The pair discuss meetings, foods, movies they've seen and even changes in their own lives (like fatherhood and marriage), as the film lumbers from script to production to finished film. It comes with a draft of the Haunt script as a bonus.

Books like this are always deeply fascinating for me - I love getting inside other storytellers' minds and seeing how they tick; how they approach challenges and what are things to avoid. Beck and Woods, writing in a simple, conversational manner, offer this in easy, digestible chunks. They go over every issue that comes with making a film - pitching, writing, rewriting, notes, meeting, casting, budget, working with crew, getting locations, editing, balancing work and home life and then getting it out there. For every success, there's a bunch of setbacks, mistakes and sudden left turns, forcing the duo to think fast and still balance everything. It has the peaks and valleys of good drama, yet Beck and Woods never become sappy or maudlin - they acknowledge the pain, but endeavor to push on and enjoy the good parts.

The script draft, which follows a quick but neat interview with Scott McConnell (, was not only a fun read, but prompted some interesting questions about how the duo uses formatting to create a particular effect on the reader. Throughout, the script will have onomatopoeia to punctuate sounds and movements in scenes, as well as use the spacing and position of words themselves to create a sense of distance and atmosphere. The effect is a highly visual and evocative read that makes the script pop, even as the material itself is very firmly in its genre. 

Yet, it never feels gimmicky or lazy: it always done to enhance that haunted house feeling, giving it a sense of place and style. In my time as a script reader I've seen exactly this sort of stuff done wrong. VERY wrong - quirky formatting done to mask a generic, unengaging script. I and certainly no company is impressed by 2004-level Word Art or goofy Photoshop. However, Beck and Woods do it right - the story is set in a mad haunted house attraction, so it creates the sense of being in a twisty, turny, spooky place. Form and substance marry up.

A definite recommend, even if you're not a horror hound and just like a peek behind the curtain.

Wednesday 5 April 2023

4 More Screenwriting Negatives FLIPPED into Positives

Since everything gets a sequel nowadays, might as well do one for my piece on annoyances in screenwriting. These were the common fears and pitfalls that can trip up a writer and lead to doubt, confusion and upset. I attempted to offer some remedies, new angles at which to look at them.

Now, for four more headscratchers, and how I think you can fix them.

  • When a contact ghosts you, it doesn't mean you caused it.

Ghosting is one of the worst things in this industry: silence is always worse than a flat 'no'.  You have no idea what the person (producer, director, exec etc.) thought of your script, or if they've even read it. This can be a deeply painful experience, especially if the first meeting was positive and the person seemed nice and genuine. Maybe you think you pestered them too much, or did something wrong.

However, you should not shoulder the blame on yourself. The sad truth is this often has more to do with workload and time than you. People are always reading and being sent stuff, and inevitably, some take greater priority over others. Your follow up emails can, alas, be drowned in overfull inboxes. People are busy, they forget and sometimes, it's just rotten luck. You did what you could - be proud you were able to pitch well, get your script out and always remember, you can have dozens of nos, but all it takes is one yes. Don't let the guilt weigh on you.

  • When you're told a character isn't likeable, you don't need to make them so.

A classic note you'll get sooner or later: your character isn't likeable enough, so the reader didn't get invested in their journey. They may be too nasty or harsh; they may be greedy, cruel or narcissistic; they may just be unpleasant to hang around with. The common fix is to, well, make them likeable; give them a cute cat or some funny lines or have them do one nice thing amidst all the bad.

Thing is, this one is super-contextual: I've found 'likeability' is really a shortword for 'interesting': your character may be a bad boy, but they're not actually interesting or engaging. Characters like Don Draper, Walter White, Raymond Reddington and Villanelle are all deeply bad people, but they are engaging because they are textured, three dimensional characters. If you are writing a script that demands a morally grey protagonist, then before you 'cute up' your mob boss, really go over and ask - are they interesting? Are they complex? Are they making tough and interesting choices? IF, on the other hand, you're writing, say, a fun kids script and the main kid or animal is just an unlikeable dick - that then is a case of your character not fitting the story, or even the genre. Match the protagonist to your genre and audience.

  • If your writing is getting too much, you shouldn't be ashamed of stepping away.

We want to give everything to our art: it's the suffering artist trope. Everything else in our lives doesn't matter: we HAVE to get the script written. We HAVE to get it done by x date for this or that opportunity. We HAVE to make it revolutionary and different and so utterly unlike anything else. When a script bombs, or is rooted heavily in personal trauma, it's tough to deal with that. You feel like you HAVE to hang on, have to keep fighting.

However, you're only human: sometimes, it's not only good but necessary to wave the flag, step away and re-calibrate. A single-minded drive can be deeply toxic to your physical and mental wellbeing. I gave three years of my life to one mad pursuit of a tv script, and when it came crashing down, when I had to stop, is where I actually learnt what I was doing wrong and changed my routine and philosophy. It may have hurt, but it was the right thing to do for me. It wasn't cowardly, or lazy, it was the smart play for the sake of actually being able to have a career.

  • If you don't live in London (or Los Angeles), it doesn't mean you can't have a career.

The old wisdom was you had to move to the big media hubs, spend a lot on rent and gamble on being able to network and meet people. London, Liverpool, Edinburgh, Hollywood - that's where the cool kids are at. Especially the cool kids with money. If you live in a small town or village, well, you're screwed right?

The pandemic did a lot of harm to peoples lives. There is the tragic aspect, of course, but there is a silver lining: it blew up online communication and meeting. Programmes like Zoom and Microsoft Teams have upended a lot of the old rules when it came to getting meetings with some of the biggest of big cheeses. The ability to set up a meeting any time, anywhere, never mind the sheer freedom of email and social medias, means so long as you know how to find people (IMDBPro, LinkedIn, Twitter, company websites), you could and can get yourself out there.

Monday 13 March 2023

4 Tips on how to write a TV Pilot, from a working writer

Writing TV can be an exciting, as well as daunting, endeavor. You're not just writing one good script, you're writing the opening act to an entire saga, a story that could run 3-100 episodes, depending on the project. Maybe it's a five series fantasy epic, or a four part family drama about a forgotten murder: whatever it is, it's a big job that can, if you find the right people, pay off big.

The Last of Us: Cast and Character Guide

As someone who's been at this for several years, with stuff broadcast and in development, I've learnt my share along the way. I've written for kids and adults, worked in ITV Studios and gotten recommendations from some rather hefty players in the business. I don't claim to know all: I'm still learning too, but I hope you can avoid some of my own blunders with this quartet of advice.

1. Build your series treatment/bible first, not your pilot

A television pilot is more akin to the first chapter of a book than a whole novel: it's the introduction, the setup that will give us a taste and template of what's to come. How many times have you ever heard of an author planning and writing just the first chapter of their book? 

A series bible/treatment is basically everything your show has to offer: the cast of characters, the theme and central conflict, the setting, the storylines you will tell, rough ideas for upcoming episodes. People may be wowed with twisty-turny plot, but they won't be back for more if the characters don't click, so spend the time in this document to flesh them out, give them flaws, arcs, secrets. Another important thing to remember: TV casts tend to be big, which means you also need to think about how relationships between the characters and what conflicts they have (that's a keyword, so remember) over the course of the series.

2. Please have subplots, and have them be discernible

Do not fall into the trap of having your pilot be nothing but A Plot, A Plot, A Plot. You need subplots to not only fill the runtime, but also give your cast more to do and see the characters be explored. In a pilot, these subplots will often also help set up longer running storylines and conflicts: secret romances, betrayals, family stories, alternate perspectives, the plans of the antagonist.

If you've done your bible, there's less risk of this not being present. However, this is where outlining will help too: being able to have clearly defined A, B, C and even D plots (sometimes you may even get E and F, depending on the type of show and the length) will enable you to treat them like individual stories, not random scenes that break up the main action for no reason.

3. Everyman/ordinary protagonists should not be dull

The protagonist, hero or dick, is the person we will be following throughout the whole show. Even if they are not a Sherlock-level genius, or a Marvel superhero, they should still be complex and interesting. Even if they still live with their parents and work a crappy till job in a deadend town, they will still be three-dimensional people with hopes, dreams and vices. If they don't care, why should we bother watching them?

I've watched every episode of Happy Valley and it's British TV at its best  - we need more like it - YorkshireLive

Often, an ordinary protagonist is a reflection of the writer, and while there's nothing wrong with that, it's important to step outside your own head: just because you know something and take it as a given with your views and personality, that does not mean it will make sense on the page or be clear to the reader. Even if they are based on someone real, do the work and make them come alive on the page.

4. Be economical with your sets

While budget is less important than a good story and characters in a spec script, remember it's still television. if we are constantly changing locations every single scene, not only will the cost go up, but it means the show has no anchor. People, even the rich and diabolical, still have places to live and hang. Homes, hangouts like clubs or bars; businesses and places of work like shops, offices and schools, even vehicles they often are in like cars, trains and buses.

These places effectively function as precincts, as returnable standing sets that will help get the most out of the budget, and as a place where multiple characters can be expected to interact, thus creating conflict and drama. This is true, even in animation where there isn't a hard limit on sets because no construction costs: characters on those shows still have places they frequent. Ducktales has McDuck Manor and the Money Bin; Octonauts has their ship and underwater base; Simpsons has the house, Moe's Tavern, the Plant, Springfield Elementary, the church, the Retirement Castle, the Aztec Cinema, the list goes on.

I hope these will be of use to you. If you still feel like you need more help, I've also done a list of books I'd recommend about TV writing. Go check it out!