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  • Writer's pictureChristopher McHale

The Beautiful Inspiration of Form.

Writing formats can set your words free.

I’ve written hundreds of radio ads. I can tell you 75 words is all you have for thirty seconds. 138 for sixty. It’s a highly restrictive writing environment and within that restriction lays inspiration.

Writing radio ads is where I began to understand form. I spent quite a lot of time experimenting with different radio script forms. I wanted one that expresses visually the 'radio ear' – a form that reflects the medium.

In Hollywood, format is king. The wrong font gets your script tossed. When I was a young writer those bridles chaffed. But as I gained experienced, I've learned to love the flow of the traditional Hollywood script form.

In radio scripts, word counts shape the form. In film scripts, it's page count. I also use word counts in short stories, and even novels. It’s the quickest and easiest check I have to understand where I am in the story. It’s a reminder to move along, it's a reminder to wrap things up.

I’ve gotten a lot of push back about word count. I once spoke at a marketing conference and mentioned word counts in radio ads. People objected to writing that way. I was used to those objections.

For years as a voice director, writers would speed their 270 word/sixty second scripts to me, and tell me it works. It doesn't. The restriction holds no matter how fast you read. It's simply a matter of accepting and understanding the proper form and working within it. Your best creative solutions are there. The restrictions force a more creative solution and isn't that goal of most writing?

In my twenties, I worked in theater. We were taught to run shows by the clock. The first act curtain needed to come down around 48–50 minutes. Why? Because on average a lot people have to visit the rest room after fifty minutes. Form as a practical matter.

Movies work the same way. You push the boundaries of human comfort for every minute you exceed 100 minutes. In terms of form that means 100 script pages. Working backward from there a workable form evolves. And proper formatting lead you to your goal in an organic way. Form dictating story dictated by expectation.

Of course, there’s many form variants. The 3-act vs the 5-act. TV sitcom form. Hour long drama form. But as a writer, understanding the form of the medium you’re working in, helps get you going, puts your story on the rails, gives you goals, helps you reach the finish line.

I finally found the perfect radio script form. It’s comes from BBC Radio. I discovered it in the Scrivener writing software. I’ve never seen it anywhere else, not even on the BBC Radio Writers Workshop. I think it’s an out-of-date disregarded form, but it’s so beautifully laid out, so perfectly reflects the medium, I immediately began writing radio dramas just to experience the form flow!

I began thinking I might adapt it for graphic novels. Formatting graphic novels is matter very much up for debate. Most of the forms I've tried have come off as clumsy and overly complex. I think a proper format results in the cleanest page possible. I want my writing to look uncluttered organized.

With graphic novels another format factor enters the fray. The artist. Collaborating across different disciplines is a challenge. Can formatting help? I believe it can, but I'm still testing the process.

All I can say looking at the available formats on Scrivener, reading Neil Gaimen and his thoughts on the matter, studying the form suggestions of Marvel Comics, I've yet to find a comic form that feels right, that feels 'writerly', and offers a focused flow, that offers inspiration, and puts creative work first.



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