Steven Moffat On Writing

Thanks to Steven for giving me the go-ahead to run these previously unpublished extracts from an interview I did with him for Doctor Who Magazine.

On whether he still writes script outlines:
“No, I never ever do. I’ve always stuck to this theory, apart from one occasion when I was very tired: you never write a storyline and you certainly never submit one. Or at least, I haven’t had to for years and I rebel if asked! You write the script, and you write it in order. Because if you ever find yourself in a situation where... (thinks for a moment) You want each scene to justify itself and be good at the time. The ride has to be good at every point. You can’t be justifying things because they’ll be interesting later. If that makes sense! You could have the best idea in the world for the second half of the episode, but if the first half of the episode doesn’t have an interesting way of getting there, you’re screwed. So if you write everything in order, you know that it’s good.
“It's probably worth adding that lots of brilliant writers, much more brlliant than me, do outlines, and swear by them. I think - I'm a bit hazy - that Paul Abbott is one of them, and he's the very best. Everyone's different, and the 'no outlines' things is just personal preference. Also on a show like Who, some amount of outlining is inevitable. I'm outlining series 5 right now, after all. And okay, Russell let get me away with it, but the truth is, the absolute truth, he was just avoiding spoilers! He was the only Who fan in the country who knew everything that was coming, and he wanted the odd surprise! Ah well.”

On whether he still has to pitch to executive types:
“I did pitch Jekyll to a degree, because people wanted me to. But I was pretty confident. The reason I don’t pitch is not because I’m not any good at it. Honestly, I could pitch my laundry list and people would buy it – and they’d be wrong to, because it’s my bloody laundry list and it would be rubbish. My problem is, I’m so good at persuading people that I will successfully short-circuit people’s judgement and get them to give in. And I don’t really want them to – I want their critical acumen to be in place, to see if I’m going to be wasting my time doing this thing!
“At a certain point, you get very good at pitching but I think it’s an absolutely useless skill. The problem is, you make everything sound better than it could ever be, then at some point you have to hand in the arsing script! When I did Coupling I refused to write treatments, or letters detailing the story. I said, ‘No, I’m not going to do that. I’ll just write it. I won’t even take any money off you. I think I know what I want to do. But I don’t want to say it out loud.’ Also, it seems pointless writing a treatment for a comedy. What do you write? ‘It’s funny, it’s funny, it’s funny, with hilarious consequences’?”

On the US Writers Strike:

“All the TV shows shut down. With movies you’d barely notice, because they take so long to get going. It just seemed like they were having a slightly longer lunch than normal.”

On how Doctor Who companions shouldn’t complain:

“Even at the very beginning of Doctor Who, Ian and Barbara wanted to go back to the TARDIS all the time. Sometimes, even the Doctor didn't wanna be in the adventure! Which was bad storytelling – you then have to invent reasons to keep them away from the TARDIS, which takes weeks. You know they’re not going to get back to the TARDIS, so don’t waste your time with the scene! There’s always a girder or a boulder in front of the TARDIS! Just make it a lovely adventure that they want to go on, and you don’t have to worry about it ever again.”

On missing out on writing a two-part story for Doctor Who’s Series Three, but writing Blink instead:
“I was exec-producing on Jekyll as well as writing it, so there wasn’t enough time to do a two-part Doctor Who story. I kept asking for a later and later story. Then I finally said, ‘Look, I’ve messed everything up – I will throw myself on the grenade of the unpopular episode and do the low-budget Doctor-light one!’ I just wanted to stay involved with the season, really.
“Blink remains the fastest thing I’ve ever done, because it was so late! I did a second draft with no notes from anyone, because there wasn’t any time. Then it was straight into the script meeting, then into the tone meeting, and then it was in production 10 days later! Blink feels like the tiniest sliver of my writing career because I really can’t remember it!”

On how remarkable it is that Blink’s plotting is so complex, given the limited time he had to write it:
“Complex is probably what I do when I’m in a hurry. It’s my default setting and my biggest weakness. But I’m only starting to realise now, looking back, that in all immodesty that’s a really great episode!”

On being an executive producer:
“When you’re in that job, you don’t get any pats on the head. I’ve done that job, and people generally just complain. I remember handing in the last episode of Jekyll, being really proud of it, and the producer said, ‘We need to talk. We’ve spent a lot of money. Again.’ And you don’t want ‘We need to talk’ – you want, ‘You are wonderful and great! You haven’t embarrassed yourself with your hideous pretentiousness!’.”

On advice for aspiring writers:
“Write an awful lot, and always write. Don’t go round whining that your stuff is better than everything else on television, because that’s a hopeless waste of talent. Don’t rave at the world for not employing you. Don’t moan that television executives are fools: I’ve worked with television executives and none of them are fools. They’re really bright, and they’d take most people to pieces in a conversation. It’s all too easy to be a neglected genius in a reeking bedsit, railing at the world.”

Want more vintage Moffat, on this very site?  Hit this link, then scroll down a bit, for an entire two-part Doctor Who Magazine interview.

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Lee said...

Tell Moran to put that cat out. They're no good barbecued, they've got to go in pies, or pasties.

Great stuff, will definitely be picking up DWM for the rest.

There's a really nice, long interview that Craig Robins did with Moffatt, here.

James Moran said...

Marvellous stuff - fascinating as always, and a real insight into the thought processes.

And that's just my Swiss girl cat exploits. The Moff interview's very good, too.

Lucy V said...

James you little bugger, you don't NEED any tips from The Moff, we all know you are his manly gimp that entertains him so he might entertain us.

Frankly one thing was missing from this post Jason and that's the Moff's home phone number so I might try and usurp James??? A girl's gotta try... I will do anything to break into TV after all.


James Moran said...

We *all* need tips, there's always more to learn. The day I ever think I don't need to know any more about writing, is the day I become a monstrous buffoon, madam.

Jason Arnopp said...

"Become", you sayyyy?

Danny Stack said...

A blog exclusive! Nice one, sir, top stuff.

potdoll said...

slurp. thanks x

missread said...

Thank you sir! Interesting stuff.

Have fun in Cheltenham...

Jon said...

Crackng good stuff, Sir. Thanks!

Jaded and Cynical said...

Thanks for taking the time, Mr A.

I'm slightly stunned that he doesn't use outlines.

And, come to think of it, he's right about how fundamentally silly the whole pitching thing is.

Jon said...

That lack of outlining is genuinely staggering.

missread said...

Gives me hope - I hate outlining.

Jon said...

I hate outling too- but the last time I didn't I ended up with a 250 page crime thriller! Just the 150 pages over-length then!

James Henry said...

Cor, great stuff Jason, thanks.

Anonymous said...

Last paragraph:

Well we know that *someone* was reading Lawrence's blog...

Sofluid said...

I also find it difficult to outline. A compulsive writer, I need to just sit down in front of my laptop and just write a whole load of script, if not a complete one, before leaving it, re-reading it, getting a few others to read it and comment, pondering it for a while... And only then do I go back to it and really get stuck into the structure and all other improvements! I also agree with him that there is always more to be learnt. It's wonderful to think that we can always better ourselves in some way.

Ray Frensham said...

Now that Steven is in his new post, what future for Torchwood?

(Is there a future for Torchwood? If so, do you think, Steven, you could make it, well, just a little bit, sort of, Welsh?). Oops!

Jonathan Green said...

Great piece! I could sit reading Moffat on writing and Doctor Who until the cows come home - or the sun sets, like tonight.

Matt Cruse said...

Great article. Interesting comments about not doing outlines. I generally don't like doing them either but usually need to knock something up somewhere between the first and second drafts. I don't write in sequence.