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Jack Thorne's 7 top tips for writing drama

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Jack Thorne is an award-winning writer for television and theatre. He’s been part of the writing team for such shows as Skins, This Is England ’86, The Fade and The Last Panthers. Most recently, he also penned the script for the West End sensation that is Harry Potter and The Cursed Child.

Whatever your opinions on his works, it’s obvious that he has skill in writing drama that engages wide audiences both on the British Isles and internationally.

From his talk at the BFI and Radio Times Television Festival, here is a list of Jack Thorne’s top tips for writing drama for the small screen.

 

1. Find Your Author’s Voice

To any writer, having your own style and your own voice is incredibly important. No matter how unoriginal your plot might be, it will be how you tell the story that will make people want to read or watch what you’ve created.

However, this isn’t something you have to develop by yourself. “Authorship can be shared – you just have to know that you’re both on the same page.”

Thorne has worked with other writers and directors as well as the actors who take on the characters he has helped to create, and it is all these visions working together that have created the wonders of television that we’ve seen. “You’re all holding the pen,” he says.

Whether you write in a group or write alone, it will be the support of those around you – to listen to you talk out your plots or character arcs, or to read over something you’re uncertain about – that will help form your final masterpiece.

2. Start With The Plot Twist

When writing a drama, create your storyline around one major plot point. In the case of This Is England ‘86, Thorne and co. formed the story around one moment – the inevitability of a character taking the fall for another’s murder.

"We said, okay, what needs to happen for this to happen? And then we framed this with the weddings at the beginning and end – both of which didn’t happen.”

By starting with your plot twist, you know where the story has to go. This will help with foreshadowing and coherency in your story. 

3. Know Your Characters

Something that sounds simple but is often quite difficult. Creating characters sometimes gives them a life of their own – they go through your own arcs over the course of the stories and one relationship might drag you further and further away from your original idea.

Some people know nothing about their characters beyond the basics before they start writing. Some people need to know everything and create fact files on every minute detail from childhood pets to the chicken pox scar on their left ankle. Thorne finds their voices first.

“I write a lot of dialogue and then throw it away. Sometimes you have to be prepared to do that. I will write sometimes 25 drafts of dialogue and only ten of them will be seen by someone else.” He also reminds us that everything we write needs purpose; “what have you learnt from what you’ve written?”

If the answer is nothing, chances are it needs to be binned.

 

4. Genre Doesn’t Matter

Some writers are famous for writing in one specific genre. Thorne, however, has written across all genres from the domestic to the supernatural. But he doesn’t seem to look at these as different genre pieces. When asked if he found it difficult to switch between, he disagreed, affirming that no matter what the overall genre, "you’re telling the same kind of stories."

“When I started on The Fade, all we thought about was that this was a story about a boy who didn’t want to be a superhero, and eventually it became a story about pacifism. So, we took that and had to figure out the best way of telling that story.”

The advice is – don’t think about meeting the requirements of a genre. Think about your theme and how the character reacts to the challenges that help tell that story.

 

5. Keep Them Guessing!

Not giving away the entire story is a sure way to make sure that you keep your audience engaged. For National Treasure, Thorne deliberately wrote the story with a sense of ambiguity. “We felt it was important that the audience act as jury,” he stated.

By keeping the uncertainty, the idea is that the reader will be hooked long enough to read to find out the truth. This also means that you can drop in hints and red herrings and other literary devices that mean they are never quite sure what is going to happen.

 

6. Tell A Story That Is Important To You

Writing is a very personal experience. You will put yourself into your story without even realising so it’s important that whatever you write tells a story that means a lot to you. That will make it something that no one else will be able to write as well.

Thorne spoke about wanting more disabled characters and actors in his work – “disability is something I’ve spent most of my career trying to speak about” – and it was that want which brought Cast Offs and Don’t Take My Baby; very truthful, complex and unique stories about people living day to day with a disability.

Because of that passion, these stories are formed and told in a way that only Jack Thorne can do.

7. Use your passions. Write something that only you can. Be unique.

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