Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Steven Moffat on Writing

Sherlock, Steven, & the Doctor
My current obsession is Steven Moffat. He's the screenwriter behind the best mind-blowing episodes of Doctor Who and Sherlock on BBC. His plots are crazy creative, with plenty of twist and turns that you never see coming, but are planted so perfectly. I know without looking at the credits every time that it's a Steven Moffat episode. They're that amazing.

So naturally I had to see what this guy had to say about his writing process. I scoured the Internet for anything I could find. (You're welcome.) Steven doesn't like to delve much (you can tell he's tired of getting asked about advice), and I think he's written for so long, the process is simply intuitive to him. But it is still fun to learn what I can from such a genius. Most of all, I was comforted to learn that behind his master mind, he's an insecure writer like 99% of the rest of us.

General Writing Advice: 

“Write. Write lots. Don’t ask for advice, just write. And read the kind of stuff you want to write, because that’s the only advice that matters. If it’s screenplays, read William Goldman’s - he know EVERYTHING.

“Every writer writes about what they’ve personally been through, just because that’s what’s to hand. I don’t know if it’s an important rule of thumb – you should tell the story that most animates you.”

“Just write. The big break is easy if you’re good enough. I hear people saying, ‘I’m desperate to write – I’ve written this script.’ And I want to say: ‘Why haven’t you written 50 scripts?’... You have to write all the time and not worry so much about going to the right parties or the contacts you have in the business – they’re completely irrelevant. And stop badgering people for advice because there almost is none – If you write a truly brilliant script, it will get on the telly.”

On the Controlled Release of Information:

The controlled release of information – which is more or less what storytelling is – is really, really hard. Especially on Doctor Who, where you do need quite a lot going on, because everything is new. It’s not like you’ve got a big regular cast, or one set that you’re going to see every week. In Doctor Who, you’re lucky if there’s one you see every week! So you need to release quite a lot of information. It’s a whole new world and you have to know what a normal day is like there, so you can twist it.”

“I know that, in the past, Russell has given notes to writers, saying, ‘Tell everyone everything that’s going on, all of the time.’ Broadly speaking, I wouldn’t agree with that to the last heartbeat, but I think that comes from the right place.”

“I think that, right up until the last minute, you’re constantly changing your mind about the release of information in a story. There’s a fine line between mysterious and confusing. And I’ve often drifted over it!”
On Writing Villains:

“[V]illains aren’t necessarily evil. But I do think that straightforward evil is actually meaningless. All the evil acts in the history of the world have been committed with a pretty exact and precise agenda: people do what they think is right. You fly a plane into the World Trade Centre because you think it’s a necessary thing to do – not because you think it’s going to improve your day. It’s an insane and evil act – of course it is, it’s appalling – but it’s done to an end. Real evil is just an agenda we don’t understand, and frequently we have to work out what it is.”

Doctor Who stories work particularly well if there’s a good mystery: how does it all fit together? That’s good, because it puts the Doctor at the centre of the story. He’s going to be the man who decodes it, figures it out and pieces it together. If you just have villains who are evil and want to conquer the universe, what does that actually mean? Think what a lot of admin that would be! But if you have villains with complex ideas of their own, then the Doctor is again at the story’s centre. He works out what they want, and what it is that they’re trying to do. And stops it. But it allows him to have a big dramatic moment where he says, ‘This is what’s been going on,’ and looks clever. Him looking clever is important. Whereas a straightforward military threat brings out the least interesting parts of the Doctor. He becomes a bit superfluous.”

“[Y]ou can have the moral debate. But it’s slightly pointless because it then comes down to, ‘I’m better than you. I’m a good man and you’re a bad one!’ It sort of works with the Daleks, but a lot of the time I’m not really sure I care about that. I care about the cleverness of the hero. So the more mystery there is in the story, the more there is for the Doctor to do. He is a kind of Sherlock Holmes character, who makes quick intuitive leaps and is absolutely brilliant.”

On the Importance of Keeping Secrets as a Writer:

“It changes the experience of writing it if I give too much away. Right now, I’ve got an idea for the ending which I’m extremely excited about, but I don’t wanna say it out loud. Not because it would matter if anyone knew about it, but just because saying it out loud might spoil the magic. You might look disappointed. So I need to cling to this idea. In fact, that’s a relevant thing to say about writing. Before, I’ve told people things and they seem underwhelmed, so I’ve lost faith in it from that point on!”

“The most truthful thing I have said in this interview about writing is the importance of these secrets. The magic of Not Telling Anyone Yet. I know Russell thinks that way too – he won’t tell anybody what he’s doing. Because it turns to ashes in your mouth. It almost becomes ordinary.”

On Beginning a New Draft:

“When you have a lot of things to do, sometimes it’s good to write a few pages so you then think, ‘Yes, I can do it.’”

“You think of an idea, then think of all the things you’d like to do with it. ‘Ooh, it’d be creepy if that happened.’... ‘[S]uppose the cliffhanger was like that!’ You can’t fit all these ideas into the story, but you have a lovely period - a golden honeymoon period - where you think you’ll be able to fit all of those in easily. Then you realise you can’t, and you start prioritising to all the cool bits.”

On the Writing Process:

“There isn’t one single script when I’m not, at some point, sick-makingly terrified of my inability to write it. I mean, it’s just hard! I asked Russell, ‘Do you ever wanna stick your head out the window and shout, I don’t know what I’m doing!?’... [E]very time I make a script work, it feels like luck. I don’t think that feeling ever goes away. It really is that hard, and that’s what it’s supposed to be like. The sheer amount of thinking you have to do, to make this work! When I read scripts that are bad, it’s often because they’re just lazy. The writer hasn’t thought things through in the way that I would. There was a quote from John Cleese, around the time he was ruling the world with Fawlty Towers: ‘If I’m any good at writing comedy, it’s because I know how hard it’s supposed to be.’ And that’s it. It’s shockingly difficult and emotionally upsetting!

No one is that self-assured when they’re writing, or that assured about their writing. There’s no experience worse than handing your script in, and waiting.”

“You can go into an empty room with just a desk and a computer without internet, and you’d still lose focus. Because sometimes you’re not ready to write it. You’re not comfortable with what you’re doing and you have to get there.”

No writer truly stays focused, all day, every day.... Two or three hours will pass and I’ll have done nothing: not even had a useful thought!”

“People talk grandly about range, but the truth is that you’re just writing.”



  1. What an awesome post. I am obsessed with Moffat too!

  2. FANTASTIC post, Kathryn!!! He's such a talent!

  3. Wow! What a wealth of info! He is amazing. Thanks for sharing, Katie. :)

  4. Wow! What a wealth of info! He is amazing. Thanks for sharing, Katie. :)

  5. Love! Great writing advise roundup. You are weakening me. I'm going to jump into Season 5 any minute:)

  6. You're welcome, everyone! Steven Moffat is the bee's knees. I was happy to share anything he had to say about writing. :-)

  7. That was so cool! Thanks for sharing!

  8. I Loooove SHERLOCK but haven't taken the Dr Who plunge yet. (I hear it's addicting). I heard today that Sherlock will have a new episode on BBC New Years Day. I'm so excited. Great post!

  9. Thanks for putting that together.