My new Audible Original Podcast: Christmas What The Fa-La-La-La-La… How it happened, what’s in it, etc


, , , ,

If you haven’t been paying attention… I love Christmas. Although weirdly, I’ve only just realised that this year. Ask me last year, and I’d’ve said, TBH, I’m more just interested in it… but this year, I’ve spilled over into fully loving the weird festivity.

The book Hark! The Biography of Christmas came out in 2017. New for 2019 is the Audible podcast, Christmas: What The Fa-La-La-La-La. If you’re with Audible already, click that link and have a listen! If you’re not with Audible, there’s a free trial here, and as soon as you’re in, you get access to all their podcasts, from me, Stephen Fry, Dermot O’Leary, everyone. You can cancel immediately if you like, though make sure you grab a free audiobook first. In a week or two’s time, you might even find the audiobook of Hark! The Biography of Christmas – it should be there shortly.

As for the podcast, here’s what led to it…

I do the Pause For Thought slot on Radio 2 Breakfast Show via a company called TBI Media. They’re fab. They sought ideas for entertaining documentary shows to pitch to Audible, who were looking for non-fiction podcasts. We pitched. They liked it. We did it.

It was a mighty quick turnaround. Kudos to producer Geoff Jein and big boss man Dave Young and bigger boss man Phil Critchlow, and Geoff’s Christmas elf Ollie Seymour, for pulling it all together (like a cracker).

What format then? I was keen on mixing entertaining light chat (that’s Christmassy) with deeper historical sections (that’s also Christmassy), so we settled on the final product – something that got the balance right between fluffy and info-dump. We didn’t want a show that was just two people talking. We wanted guests. We also wanted a bit of depth, so we needed…

A host.

Some guests.

Six Christmas themes, one each episode.



For host, we lucked out and got Grace Dent. A brilliant journalist and broadcaster but above all FUN! She’d introduce, I’d be co-host and we’d waffle away about Christmas present (you should have heard the first recording – our opening 2mins became 30mins very quickly), what we do, why we do it, etc.

For the themes, we wanted to build up to Christmas. So Episode 1 features the earliest Christmassy moments – the shops selling Christmas cards, preparations that are out and about, not in the home yet. It gave us a chance to mull on Christmas’ back-story – Yule, Roman Saturnalia, etc, as well as look at the big story of Christmas past.

Episode 2 would then dive into the Nativity, but also other Christmassy stage things – panto, carols and Christmas pop songs. In Episode 3, we’re starting our Christmas shopping and pondering Santa, Father Christmas and St Nick. In Episode 4, it’s time to put the tree up, and bring Christmas into the home – plus a chance to get Dickensian. Episode 5 is all about the food – perfect listening for the week before Christmas, when you’re basting your turkey and eating too many mince pies. Episode 6 then is Christmas Day itself – so that’s Christmas telly, games, the Queen’s Speech… and a bit on Boxing Day and the Twelve Days into New Year.

Sounding a bit info-heavy? Right then. Guests! The finest comedians: Milton Jones, Lucy Porter, Andy Zaltzman on the lapsed Jewish/cricketing Christmas, Aatif Nawaz on his Muslim Christmas (of basically, working, and never putting a tree up). A food expert on the food ep: The One Show’s Angelica Bell, who also won Celebrity Masterchef (judged by our host, Grace Dent). And BBC 6 Music’s Shaun Keaveny brought festive fun to episode 1.

It’s like Noel’s House Party meets BBC4. And look, for a brief moment today, it was beating Gladwell and Mitchell to top Audible’s charts…


To get it, in brief – and, to be honest, gain me a few quid referral fee even if you cancel and never pay anything:

1. Click the link. Arrive at Amazon’s Audible page.

2. Sign up to Audible’s free tiral. Yes, card details needed, but you can unsubscribe after your free trial easily enough, and keep your audiobooks/podcasts. It would auto-renew at £7.99/mth (for that you get a credit for any audiobook – even the epic ones), but you can cancel before that happens and spend ZILCH pounds if preferred.

3. Once you’ve signed up, find the CHRISTMAS: WHAT THE FA-LA-LA-LA-LA? page.

4. Download the app onto your phone for the best experience…

We had fun making it. Hope you have fun listening to it.

Merry listening!

Comedians With Books #3: Stevyn Colgan + James Dowdeswell


One final Comedians With Books podcast… plus news of Paul’s new Christmas podcast on Audible.

At the 3rd Comedians With Books live show, we welcomed ex-QI elf Stevyn Colgan and wine connoisseur/comedian James Dowdeswell. Hear their chat on publishing, pubs, whodunnits, Rick Wakeman, doggy day care, and much more.

Their books:…




…Plus ample info on Paul’s new podcast over on Audible.

Grab an Audible free trial at


Details on Paul’s gigs – including Comedians & Carols – at

Join Paul’s mailing list

Book group/small group notes for Hark! The Biography of Christmas:


Share this pod / Like / Review / Donate / Thanks!

What the 2019 John Lewis, Sainsburys and Robert Dyas Christmas ads get right/wrong


, , , ,

Ah, it’s nearly Christmas. Ish. Well it’s not but the ads are out. So here’s a one-off return of the ‘Yule blog’…

Of all the starting-pistols of Christmas (Buble on in-store playlists, mince pies on shelves), the arrival of the John Lewis ad is probably the most recent. I mean, all of these are shop-based. Ever since Selfridge’s and Harrod’s raced each other to put the Christmas window displays up first, Christmas creep has been fully down to the department stores. We looked at the history behind some of this on this other previous Yule blog.

This year’s John Lewis ad once again has a delightful fictitious character in a snowy scene (despite the fact that it never snows at Christmas – you’re nearly more likely to get a White Easter). This time they’ve gone historical. It’s sweet, and it’s here…

As a self-professed historian of Christmas, a Santalogist, an Xmas Xpert, and a lover of traditions, this ad warms a few cockles. Firstly, the flames. Fire’s been part of winter festivals since long before Jesus – light of the world, heralded by a star amid darkness. Back in days of Norse Yule, wheels of fire would be rolled into the sea to show defiance of the sun’s apparent vanishing act. The Yule log would be burned (not eaten – it wasn’t a cake, thank you French people) and generally fire was blimin’ everywhere. So that flaming Christmas pudding? All down to that. And the very idea of fire amid frost, that this ad’s based on, goes right back to then.

The olde-wolde Dickensian(?) scene ticks another Christmas box (don’t get me started on Christmas boxes). Poverty and the noble celebration – that was what Christmas looked like through medieval days. The family part of it was more a Dickensian trope, and the gift-giving part – so crucial for a department store ad – has origins in St Nicholas, in nuns putting oranges in orphans’ socks, in the Magi bringing gifts, and in Roman New Year celebrations when gifts would be given up and down the social order (ie. for bosses, not for family). Christmas became a time for giving after the revival of St Nick/Sinterklaas/Santa in the early 19thcentury, thanks to American Santa savers like Washington Irving (who also gave us Gotham City and the word ‘knickers’).

The ice-skating part we can in part thank Prince Albert for – he helped popularise it by being so darn good at it. Snowmen of course back aeons, but the whole idea of the snowy Christmas is a bit Dickensian too – Charles Dickens’ first eight Christmases were white ones, so he wrote that into A Christmas Carol, despite releasing the book in one of the mildest Decembers on record. When his readers read of old snowy Christmases, it helped freeze this idea that an nostalgic Christmas is a white Christmas for all eternity. Like the ones we used to know…

But like Messrs Selfridge and Harrod, other shops have put their commercials out in the week before John Lewis. As soon as Halloween’s out of the way, it’s open season.

The Sainsbury’s ad has also gone Dickensian, and while it’s again nicely done, it slightly rankles with me as it tries to reinvent tradition. See it here…

Giving St Nick a new origin story? I can’t say I approve. I’d much rather a video that highlights the real St Nick, or at least his possibly-real legends. There’s so much to choose from! This guy lobbed pressies through an open window into fireside stockings, to help a widower and his three daughters! He restored cut-up children who’d been jarred and pickled by an evil innkeeper! St Nick as a baby even fasted from the boob two days a week, like a good priest-baby, and only took milk from the right breast, because he was so linked with God’s right hand. Slightly more believably, he punched a heretic at the Council of Nicaea, where they picked the date for Easter (that worked out well – when is it exactly?).

Lastly, seen the Robert Dyas ad? It’s bonkers. But funny. I think. Is it?

Either way I love how it just lets John Lewis and Sainsbury and M&S and Harrod’s do all the fancy-pants adverts with a budget and a snowy set, and instead just gets some store employees to badly deliver a right-on message. Because nothing says 2019 Christmas like trying to be politically correct. So I’d like to wish a very Happy Non-Sectarian Festive Ad Watch to all my readers, regardless of race, gender, sexuality and whatever shop you shop in.

Paul Kerensa’s book Hark! The Biography of Christmas is available from all good bookshops, many bad ones, and after Paul’s gigs.

In The Tall Grass: from book to film with ONE essential new character


, , , , , , , , ,

This may be a very niche post.

a) Like most posts on the all-new PK’s Writing Blog, it’s aimed at writers or those interested in writing and how it does or doesn’t work. You don’t need to be a writer – just willing to tinker under the bonnet/hood (UK/US term for the front bit on a car).

b) You need to either have seen In The Tall Grass on Netflix as I just have… and/or read the Stephen King/Joe Hill novella it’s based on… OR …not mind reading about spoilerific plot points in either, if you’re planning to see/read it.

I was intrigued to see that this slim trim horror story – with a pretty lean cast to begin with – had to add one crucial character to graduate from page to screen. And that in turn is quite telling about an essential part of telling a satisfying story. Which we’ll get to. But first, what you need to know about In The Tall Grass. SPOILERS below…

It’s a horror film based on one neat idea – what if you got lost in a field of grass that was just too tall to see over? Watch the trailer, you’ll get a feel for the whole movie. So it’s a maze: at times repetitive and annoying, at times scary, at (rare) times hopeful, and at times the same characters bump into each other…

Screen Shot 2019-10-10 at 13.43.05

Needs a mow.

Those characters are: our hero the pregnant Becky… her ill-motived brother Cal… a stereotypically cute/scary boy called Tobin who incites their incident (his lost cries lure them into the field of corn – I mean grass)… Tobin’s twisted dad Ross (don’t trust him)… and Tobin’s mum Natalie (the subbest of sub-characters, so you know she’s there just to show you how nasty Ross becomes.

Oh and a dog. Of course there’s a dog. Should they follow the dog? No they should not follow the dog.

But going back to Natalie, her hideous demise comes bang-on exactly halfway through the film. Almost to the minute.

The midpoint. That elusive screenwriting moment that’s a major plot point to shake things up. A realisation of what’s at stake. A false resolution, or an awareness of how bad things have become. In Se7en, it’s when Detectives Mills and Somerset discover John Doe’s lair. In Jurassic Park, almost exactly halfway to the minute, we first see the T-Rex and realise its threat. In Jaws, almost exactly halfway to the minute, the shark’s in . In each case, it’s horrific awareness. In Schindler’s List (Spielberg clearly loves his midpoints), almost to the second, halfway through the film Oskar Schindler goes from self-absorbed egotist to benevolent life-saver. We’ll zoom in on that example in a future blog post – it’s such an effective turnabout.

So that’s the midpoint – time and time again, giving our characters a fuller understanding of the horror show they’re in. It’s like they’ve spent the first half of the film climbing a mountain. Halfway through they’ve climbed the peak, and they can see not only far they’ve come, but the sheer scale of how far they have to go. But at least they can climb down the other side with skills learned and knowledge gained from the first half.

Screen Shot 2019-10-10 at 13.43.35

How do we get out of this movie? We’ve been stuck in production here for years…

The end of In The Tall Grass novella and film differ. Why? Mainly because of the audience. Stephen King and Joe Hill write to shock their readers. The number of Stephen King short stories with downer endings… Me oh my. But films? With very rare exceptions, even horror film audiences seek some kind of happy ending. Tie up the loose ends. Let our hero win the day. They’ve suffered enough! You can still have an epilogue gut-punch if you really want, but most of the time, we won’t be satisfied with a downer ending.

Proper spoilers now: the novella ends with Becky, Cal and Tobin all a bit mad, hugging n evil rock, destined never to leave the grass, but this won’t do for the film. Simply put, they need saving.

How do you save a character? With sacrifice. And no, not Children of the Corn type sacrifice on that rock – but with self-sacrifice. We could get spiritual and religious here but I’ll park that for now. Suffice to say, an outsider coming in to sacrifice himself so that others might live sounds a bit familiar.

So this is where our extra character comes in. Not in the book, but entering the film stage left is Becky’s estranged boyf and father of the baby, Travis. For the first half of the movie, it’s not entirely clear if he’s good or bad, but again, at around that midpoint, all becomes clear. The brother is bad – the boyfriend is good. From the midpoint on, we’re just playing out what’s been set up.

Travis’ entire role in the film is to save the day – but the rules mean that doesn’t come easily. He has to sacrifice himself (the only way out of the grass maze is to touch the rock, to gain knowledge – again the biblical metaphors are there, with Eden-based apple-eating and knowledge consumption). Armed with the knowledge of how to escape, but cursed with never being able to leave himself, Travis can save the boy Tobin, who can then save Becky and Cal.

(One bugbear of mine? By saving Becky and Cal, Becky is destined to a life with her twisted brother Cal, but hey, maybe she’ll realise his motives another day, off-screen…)

So there you have it. A cast list of 5 grows to a cast list of 6 from page to screen. Interestingly too, the grass in the book can only alter space, while the grass in the film can alter space and time. By making it 2D, they’ve added a dimension… and a sacrificial saviour, to give us a ‘happy’, if still somewhat unpleasant, ending.

Comedians With Books #2: James Cary, Pierre Hollins, Dan Evans


, , ,

Comedians With Books returns! With live show #3 around the corner, here’s live show #2 for your ears – or at least the book panel second half, recorded live at The Guildhall at Guildford Fringe Festival.

CWB is an occasional hybrid comedy-night-meets-book-festival, on this episode welcoming funny authors James Cary, Pierre Hollins and Dan Evans, hosted by Paul Kerensa (this is A Paul Kerensa Podcast after all). We get stuck into self-publishing v trad v Unbound, writing for radio, the future of the book industry, and much much more.

Also PK’s requests for beta readers for new short stories… details of Hark! The Biography of Christmas book group notes… new children’s book Joe’s Bros and the Bus that Goes… your feedback for future podcasts/audio versions of PK’s Writing Blog… and much much less.


Join Paul’s “A Team” of beta readers for his new book/short stories (and/or feedback about the future of the podcast):

Join Paul’s mailing list

Book group/small group notes for Hark! The Biography of Christmas:

PK’s Writing Blog

Comedians With Books #3 is live at Guildford’s Star Inn on Tue 8th October 2019, with Dominic Holland, Stevyn Colgan & James Dowdeswell. Tickets:


+ this podcast’s books:

Joe’s Bros and the Bus That Goes by Paul Kerensa:

The Sacred Art of Joking by James Cary:

The Karma Farmers by Pierre Hollins:

The Casebook of D.I. Snaith by Dan Evans:

Share this pod / Like / Review / Donate / Thanks!

IT: Two letters & two minutes to w(h)et our appetite/pants


, , ,

Just a quick bloggette, because I haven’t in a while, yet as ever I’m eager to learn from what I watch, to apply it to what I write.

And last night I started watching IT. The new one. Well the first half of the new one. The one that was out in cinemas in 2017.

Whichever version it is, needless to say, I didn’t sleep brilliantly. That’ll teach me to watch it in bed.

But clowns, balloons and storm drains aside… well what comes before those things? The first two minutes gives us a glorious taster of the horrors to come.

I’m convinced that whatever genre we’re writing in, we can learn a lot from horror films, as they’re so slick, so tight, so extreme… and they have to get that visceral response from us, or they don’t work. A bad drama is still a watchable drama. A horror (or a comedy, bizarrely) that fails to get that gut response from you, has failed.

IT does not fail…


We’re in a suburban street. It’s raining. (Instantly I’m getting a sense of the setting, but also a sense that this is not a sunny happy-go-lucky film – although summer sun, adolescent happiness and romantic luck will all have their moment.)

Mum’s (Mom’s, sorry, we’re in America – oh my are we in America) playing some sombre piano music. She thinks it’s sweet probably – it’s actually just a little creepy.

Bill is making a paper boat for his younger brother Georgie. They’re a sweet pair of siblings. Bill isn’t well. Georgie’s doing the running about. (Bill may come to feel responsible were anything to happen to Georgie then…) 

Bill has a stutter. He sends Georgie to get some wax, for the boat.

Georgie asks: “In the cellar?” (He HAS to ask this. He can’t just go. Even though he’s not saying he’s scared, he’s questioning the mission he’s been given. It’s only the cellar. But…)

Georgie takes a walkie-talker before going (Okay, he is a bit scared of that cellar. Did I mention it’s raining?)

Oh, it’s October 1988. (Makes me think of Halloween.)

There’s a pause as Georgie faces the cellar door. Gulp.

It’s dark. The light switch isn’t working. The walkie-talkie is, and Bill barks at him through it with our first little (tiny, weenie) shock. (It’s the first beat of the story that tells us this is a thrill ride.)

There’s stuff in the cellar. The torch just about works. And are those some balloons over there? Is that a face? Nah…

The camera chases Georgie out – but nothing else does. But Georgie’s running anyway. He. Is. Out of there.


“I love it! Well not IT, but it…”

That’ll do for now. The rest of the film continues with storm drains and a terrifying monster and childhood and togetherness and a theme of going down to places but being (rightly) scared to go down there.

In that first two minutes, we got a little taste of it with Georgie and the basement. It whets our appetites before we wet our pants.

Horror films are great at giving us a little taste of where we’re going – but in a safe way, just hinting enough at the dangers to come. It’s a rollercoaster that hints at the big lurch early on, but juuuuuuuust enough to whet your appetite.

IT’s opening shows us setting (the house, the street, the weather, the family), characters (caring-but-poorly Bill, eager-but-nervous Georgie, aloof Mom), and it doesn’t forget to start the story nice and early too (Bill sending Georgie out into the rain to float his new paper boat). But in all that, it also gives us that taster of things to come – and even includes those themes of up/down, floating, water, light v dark, children as heroes, and so on.

Whatever you’re writing – drama, romcom, suspense, musical – using those first two minutes as a trailer for the rest of the film/series to come can be gold. Especially in an age when people judge and switch off so quickly, don’t waste that first scene. Give us a little microcosm, a little glint of the horrors/fun/chaos ahead.

Oh and don’t watch IT before bed.

Night night x

Mary Poppins Returns: A practically perfect intro to the Hero’s Journey, Save The Cat… and Calendar Theory


, , , ,

I finally watched Mary Poppins Returns. I knew I’d love it, so was waiting for the right time to watch it with the fam(ily). What a joy. Just lovely, and all the right kinds of callback to 1964’s original (the 54 year gap makes it the longest gap between any live action sequels). My children loved it too – and I’m glad they’d seen the original first. If you come to this cold, you’d miss out on so so soooooo much.

But while the secret to its success is its willingness to poach from the previous film, so many of its plot points are there in thousands of other films too. It backs up something I’ve been putting together for a while – a new way of looking at story structure.

I should say that, like Mary Poppins Returns, my attempts are not to add anything all that new. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. I’m more like a marketing guy from Goodyear, trying to present it a bit differently – more user-friendly. I should also say this is just about the craft of blocking a story. The art of it is where the magic comes in. And there’s a whole heap of magic here, from casting to old-school animation to beautiful scenery to music.

So, spoilers for Mary Poppins Returns hereinunder. (We’ll do the below again with some other films in future posts, if you want to avoid and preserve your enjoyment of MPR.)


Reflecting on Mary Poppins Returns.


First, a quick crash course in other theorists’ story structures.

Joseph Campbell or Chrisopher Vogler might look at Mary Poppins Returns and note its ‘Hero’s Journey’…


Ordinary World: Michael Banks is now an adult, a single parent to three children, living in what’s left of the childhood home. All is not well, money-wise.

Call to Adventure/Refusal of the Call: This happens in a couple of ways. The arrival of the bailiffs jolts Michael into action to look for his share certificate (the MacGuffin), but ends up throwing away his old kite (from the first film). When Poppins appears, he refuses to believe that the magic from before was real.

Meeting the Mentor: Mary Poppins takes them on a new path of imagination and hope.

Tests/Allies/Enemies: Colin Firth as a seemingly nice bank manager turns out to be not so. A Royal Doulton bowl cements that idea. Other good and bad supporting characters weave in and out.

Approach to the Inmost Cave: The bank. Dun dun derrrrrr! Just like in the first film, the children approach the holy of holies, the fearsome Fort Knox, the bank vault itself… and then do a runner into scary London.

Ordeal: Michael nearly loses his job. He admonishes the kids, and Mary Poppins. They tried but made it worse.

Reward: They discover the share certificate but more importantly Michael finally believes his children. They’ve battled through London via Big Ben for a physical reward (the share certificate needs to be shown by midnight), and got their house back.

The Road Back: The literal road back down Cherry Tree Lane.

Resurrection: The family literally going up… with balloons, while singing ‘Nowhere to Go But Up’. And Michael resurrecting as the dad he used to be, and should be, and always wanted to be etc.

Return with Elixir: The family return home with reminders it wasn’t a dream – and Mary Poppins returns to the sky till needed again.


…That’s a rough quick version, with loads of bits missing. It’s all very nice and mythic and formulaic, but it can be tricky to remember your ‘ordeals’ from your ‘elixirs’ – which is why I’ve come up with this new one. See below, in a bit… but before that, here’s an incomplete skeleton structure based on Blake Synder’s Save The Cat…


Opening Image…

Theme Stated…


Catalyst… The bankers arrive to issue their demand to seize the house


Fun & Games… Down the bathtub with Mary Poppins, ‘Can You Imagine That?’

Midpoint/False victory… We can sell Mum’s priceless bowl! Oh no we can’t.

Bad Guys Close In…

All is Lost… Michael nearly loses his job. The house is all but lost.

Dark Night of the Soul… A dark night indeed – lit by lamplighters (‘Trip a Little Light Fantastic’)

Break into Act 3…

Finale… Showdown in the bank

Final Image…


…I won’t fill in all of them because a) you can do that if you like homework and b) I want to get onto my All-New Never-Before-Seen (except on writing courses that I’ve run for BBC Writers Room and London Screenwriters Festival) Story Structure that I call…

CALENDAR THEORY (copyright Paul Kerensa 2019)

Because those others, while great, can feel a little unwieldy and tricky to remember without buying their books, here’s my version, based on the calendar year…


JANUARY: New Year/new start… Like going back to work, it’s familiar but different. We need a reminder who everyone is. Oh, that’s Michael – I thought it was the kid. And like January, most films open with a frosty atmosphere. Nature’s alive, but hibernating, and the house certainly feels chilly.

FEBRUARY: Valentine’s… A fleeting encounter. On this occasion it’s the banking bailiffs. Starts off well but goes badly wrong when they serve notice. That encounter leads to an opportunity.

MARCH: Spring… seizes on that opportunity, marching us into Act 2. Kite disposal leads to Poppins.

APRIL: April Fool/April showers… when sun was forecast. It goes badly quickly when Colin Firth turns out to be evil and rains on their parade. In fact it literally rains. With Easter comes a glimpse up of the divine. In this case, Poppins! (There’s a whole essay to be done on what Mary Poppins has in common with Jesus – from a descension/ascension (Jesus didn’t have an umbrella though) to the way she dispenses wisdom by asking questions and letting the listener fill in the answers to work out for themselves, to her parable-like flights of fancy.)

MAY: The Maypole… sees sub-characters overlapping and underlapping, from bank managers to animated horses, switching allegiances and leading us on a merry dance. Just as the Mayfair mirrors Halloween, there’s shock and noise at the Royal Doulton Music Hall, but it’s safe. For now…

JUNE: A family picnic is rained off… metaphorically speaking. Foiled plans and false resolution. Mum’s old bowl is not their meal-ticket after all – it’s broken. Mary P sings ‘The Place Where Lost Things Go’, to reassure them about their Mum. Sniff.

JULY: School’s out/the end of learning… They’ve tried logic – it’s not worked. Their upside-down visit to Topsy shows that it’s time to turn things upside down.

AUGUST: The long hot summer… Alright it’s not summer here – it’s pretty bleak – but this part often means trying new things, flying off to new locations, a montage, the hard graft of training (think Rocky), August playground visits to play with our skills before they’re needed, and maybe bumping into old friends who we don’t recognise out of school.

SEPTEMBER: Fall, when we think it’s still summer… Characters stumble (the children are caught listening to Colin Firth’s wicked plans at the bank). The dark of the plot draws in (a dark night in London lit up by lamplighters/’Trip a Little Light Fantastic’)

OCTOBER: Scares! Provoking a change. Digging deep etc. Here, it’s deadline’s day and the Banks family are all packed up ready to leave their home.

NOVEMBER: Fireworks! Heroic day-saving, via Big Ben’s steeple climb and a rush to the bank.

DECEMBER: The darkest day! …As bad as it can get. And didn’t Love Actually (wrongly) say that Christmas was a time when you tell people the truth about how you really feel? This is the moment for that, as Michael realises that he’s got all that matters.

…Oh and shop early for Christmas, ie. something we ‘bought’ earlier in the ‘year’ can be ‘given’ here (the kite we saw earlier contained the share certificate all along!)

Christmas Eve rush – stores closing for Christmas! ie. The midnight deadline ticks on.

…And like Christmas, it’s not about the presents (the house) but the presence (they’ve got each other). Gifts, family and reunion.

…Finally, warmth after being exposed. Zoom out and the snow metaphorically falls (well, balloons rise, but similar) Inside, our heroes are protected. They have a house! There’s a New Year’s-ish celebration of colour and joy, and Mary returns home, and we’re back where we started, only a year on.


True story. 

So there you have it. Thoughts? Do say. I mean, don’t judge it too harshly. The Cover is Not the Book.

I’ll keep coming back to this pattern – and test it with some other films and TV shows. It’s not practically perfect… but then what is?

GoT Finale: 5 thoughts from the screenplay now online


, ,


On a previous blog post here (in fact the first of this new era of PK’s Writing Blog – I’m sure we all have that date in our mental diary since it marked a new dawn for civilisation), I threw some thoughts down on the Game of Thrones finale. Well the script of that final episode has just landed online.

(You COULD read it here on the Emmys’ homepage – though it’s currently down, so that may bring you to an e-pit of despair. It might go up again. Or might stay down. It’s either because demand has crashed it, or because criticism has been levelled against it. The other Emmy-nominated scripts are readable here.)

Various haters have used the script’s recent appearance to pull it apart even more – including how (SPOILER!) Drogon the dragon didn’t burn the Iron Throne deliberately – it was just “a dumb bystander”, as it’s described in the screenplay. Others have mocked their stage directions of Sansa and Jon Snow’s reaction to being asked what’s west of Westeros. “Jon and Sansa look at each other. They both failed geography.”

We’ll have none of that here. They say a screenplay isn’t a work of art – it’s a blueprint, an invitation to collaborate on making a work of art. They can use whatever scene descriptions they want to get the point across to the crew. So I shan’t pile in on that. Benioff and Weiss ended the show how they wanted (presuming with some sign-off from ol’ motorbike himself, George “Rrrrrrrr” Martin).

As I said in the earlier blog post, epics are hard to end when you’re telling a story of good vs evil, because everyone has to pick a lane by the end, and we end up with the goodest of the good and the baddest of the bad, and no shades of grey in the middle. The shades of grey, it turns out, was the fun part in the middle of the show, when characters betrayed each other, were redeemed, etc. The only way they could have upended expectation was to have Tyrion open a door and appear in present-day New York or something. But then that was done already by Amy Adams in Enchanted, so even that’s been done before…


Fantasy character appears in present-day New York: possibly the only way to have ended Game of Thrones.

Instead of pulling it apart, I want to draw some positive general writing pointers from a quick skim of the script. What can we learn from that script? Granted, now it’s offline again, you may not be able to read it. But I’ve had a skim, and here are some immediate takeaways (if the script reappears online, you can check the page numbers then)…


1. Epics look the same as everything else on the page

This script is still just 44 pages long, and adheres to all the usual screenplay layout formatting. The first thing that struck me about this script, is it looked surprisingly normal – just like my paltry attempts. From afar…

It’s also then still got all the same dilemmas re character choice and story beats as any other script. It’s also got jokes – and the moments of comedy leap off the page: see Bronn’s brothel comment on p.40, or Samwell’s laughable attempt at democracy on p.25. Two bits of comedy in a 44-page drama script seems about right I guess, when you’ve started off by referencing a camera shot from Son of Saul.


2. Epic doesn’t mean epic scene descriptions

Brevity is the soul of wit, so said Oscar Wilde (or he could have shortened it to ‘Brevity’s soul’s wit’ – even briefer). The scene descriptions may take up half a page or more, but they’re full of just the right amount of information to make the show. No fat on it. Regardless what you thought of the episode, this is how professional TV (and the biggest show on professional TV) is made. Give the crew what they need.

Look at that second line on the first page:

“King’s Landing is a smoldering wreck of a city.”

That’s all they need to say. We know from the previous episode that the city’s been decimated by dragonfire. Buildings are on fire. Flaming timber fills the streets. There’s a house there still falling down – another over there that’s now ash – another over there that’s… doesn’t matter. Let the production team make all that happen. Just get in the bare bones of what we need to know for the story.


3. The writers know when to let the visuals tell the story…

Page 4 is dialogue-free. So’s page 15, pp.20-21, pp.41-42… This doesn’t just apply to the very visual genre we’re in here. Many newer screenwriters (especially if they’re come from stageplay or radio) fill the script with dialogue and forget those moments when as viewers we just want to view. When the spoken words have given us enough to think on for now, we sometimes need the breather to take it all in. Again, those visual descriptions don’t direct, but give the director just enough to go on.

See p.20: “In a beautiful, terrifying tableaux, he [the dragon] roars to the sky, the embodiment of rage.”

…Let someone else work out what that looks like.


4. …and when to speak and speak and speak

Another rookie error is writing long speeches. Most speeches in most scripts last between one and four lines down the page. Yet us writers often earnestly think we need to have each character blurt out their life story, or exactly what they’re thinking down to their thoughts on what lovely weather it is for the time of year. Don’t need it.

That said, in epic fantasy, some characters are prone to a bit more Wizardy-Dickens kind of speech. All “forsooth, a goblin” and “thou shalt verily fight me at dawn’s break”. Tyrion’s speech at the top of p.13 isn’t too Wizardy-Dickens, but it is seven lines then five lines (making twelve lines, maths fans), as he espouses on how “Sometimes duty is the death of love.” He’s got some big thoughts to convey before show’s end, and he’s always been a talker.


Edmure: The Boris Johnson of Game of Thrones (if only).

See also Edmure’s speech at the top of p.25. Nine lines, and these are the first words he’s said in about four seasons – because this is the moment where he thinks he’s being grand and claiming the non-existent throne, but then is comedically cut off by Sansa and put back in his place. He overspeaks, because it’s funny, because he’s rubbish.

I wouldn’t expect Greyworm or Bronn to waffle on quite so much. But in this finale of finales, this episode of episodes, sure, sometimes the writers need to let the characters have their last speeches and set the seven kingdoms to rights. Most of the time though, us writers (me included – this blog is aimed at teaching myself, ultimately), need to know when to shut (our characters) up.


5. Some bits still don’t quite make sense

pp.26-27 – Bran is chosen as the new ruler. I’ve seen it and read it and I still don’t buy it. Tyrion asks “Who has a better story than Bran the Broken?” I’d suggest: most of them. People didn’t tune in each week for Bran’s story. They tuned in for Tyrion’s. Jon Snow’s. Arya’s. Bran’s too, but he was never our favourite.

Then a few lines on: “Bran doesn’t look shocked. Simply uninterested.”

Says it all.

BUT it’s not up to me – it’s up to the writers – and fair play to ’em for writing this as they wished. I wouldn’t have written it that way. But then I wouldn’t have got to write any of this stuff…

…Because I’m still learning. And thanks to reading scripts like this (if it’s ever reposted), we get to learn from the pros.





Killing Eve & The Wobbly Stool of Greatness*

Don’t watch Killing Eve when you’re trying to finish a script.

“Oh why do I bother?” you’ll cry, as the superbly entertaining thriller glares from the TV screen at you, judging the paltry collection of words on your laptop. Nah, watch some trash instead.

But one benefit of doing script pass after script pass on my spec comedy-drama script, trying to knock the unfinished product into shape… was that Killing Eve reminded me of the Wobbly Stool of Greatness*. Never heard of it? No, I invented it, but it looks like this:

Screen Shot 2019-07-08 at 12.22.32

The Wobbly Stool of Greatness*: Beermats on standby.

If you’re a writer or wannabe writer or ever watched telly, you might be familiar with the concept though. Three things that make a watchable show watchable:


1. Character

It’s first because it’s first. Our way into the show is via a person (or a dog or an alien, but only if they’re really person-like). We make a connection with that person – normally because we like them, or sometimes because we loathe them but find them charismatic. Even a show with a baddy at its heart has to have SOMETHING to warm to (see Dexter – the serial killer with a moral compass, or Basil Fawlty – a misguided monster whose put-upon-ness and hope endears us to him). Inversely, even ‘good’ heroes have enjoyable flaws. Would we watch John McClane as much if he was just a kickass action hero, rather than also being “two steps away from becoming a full blown alcoholic”? Like they say at the end of Some Like It Hot, “Nobody’s perfect.”

Other characters might reflect our hero – to highlight their characteristics, or show that they’re not as extreme as we think. Their differences will create story – which we’ll get to.

Every scene, every page, ideally every line… should reveal character. The age-old writing advice applies: cover up the character names – can you still tell who’s saying what? If everyone sounds the same, your lines aren’t characterful enough.

Watch Killing Eve, and almost every line glistens with characteriness. Simply put, Fiona Shaw’s character says stuff differently to David Haig’s, who says stuff differently to Sandra Oh’s. So we stick around to see what else will be revealed about these pretend people. Not a cliched “We gotta get outta here” in sight.

So when it comes to my script, I make time for a character pass. Make sure as many lines as possible reveal something about that character, and their unique attitude to the situation they’re in. If it’s not unique, make it unique.

If you watch a TV show where this hasn’t happened, the Wobbly Stool of Greatness* feels like it needs a beermat under the Character leg. It might be funny or entertaining, and the story might bounce along, but we’re not relating to the people onscreen. Fix that leg.


2. Story

Equally I’ve read scripts where the characters are colourful/interesting/unboring, and it’s funny, but the story’s lacking. The fab Scriptnotes podcast read the first 3 pages of writers’ scripts. The fab Sitcom Geeks podcast read the first 10 pages. Both have complained regularly that by those first 3 or 10 pages, the story’s not got going. It’s understandable for the former – you might have a vague plot set up but little more – but if you haven’t got underway in ten pages, something’s up. Especially if it’s a sitcom. (A feature film script might still be setting the scene in the first 10 pages, but even then, that’s one helluva scene).

No. Get moving quicker. Even in a seemingly ‘slow’ TV show (Mum? The Royle Family?), story is happening all around. It’s just not as ‘big’ as car chases and assassinations. Instead it’s whether someone’s going to give someone else a lift, or whether someone should wear this shirt or that shirt for their birthday party. It’s all story. In Killing Eve of course, there are those car chases and assassinations. And each scene, each page, and pretty much each line, things move on.


Killing Eve: A show in which things happen. A lot.

If not? Wobbly stool.


3. Comedy

I’ve known drama script readers who still look for these three things, but instead of Character, Story, Comedy it’s Character, Story, Dialogue. Do the words sizzle off the page? Do the lines entertain, move or intrigue you? Each scene/page/line shouldn’t just reveal character and story – it should also give us a good time as we go. Otherwise this rollercoaster is a train track for ages, only dipping and thrilling for rare turns in the story/track. So let’s make the rest of it fun too.

It doesn’t have to be a laugh-a-minute (no that’s way too long to wait – laugh-every-ten-seconds) show like Not Going Out (I’m biased), Modern Family or Brooklyn 99. Going back to Mum, the jokes are subtler but they are there. It’s beautifully funny throughout. Critics will say it’s through character – and it is – but it’s also through cleverly crafted dialogue that is simply Funny.

Another off-peak example of three perfectly balanced stool legs is in BBC1’s daytime sleuthcom Shakespeare & Hathaway: Private Detectives. Who needs 2hrs for a Midsomer Murders when this show cracks through a convincing whodunnit plot in 44mins? The characters are a joy (Mark Benton’s Frank Hathaway is a downtrodden hoot, Jo Joyner’s Luella Shakespeare is a brilliantly spiky foil to Frank, and Patrick Walshe McBride’s fed-up actor-turned-secretary steals every scene) – and it certainly passes the cover-up-the-character-name script test. The story moves on apace, and it’s laugh-out-loud funny – in both dialogue and in great visual setpieces.

So I ensured my recent script had all 3 passes, for character, for story, and for comedy/pithiness/interesting dialogue. Look at each line. Is it doing at least two of those things? Then it can stay? One of those things? Hmm… it’s on borrowed time. None of those things? Then what in the world is it doing in my script?


Gerrouta my script!

Test each line in your script for those three things. And meanwhile wonder at those shows where the Wobbly Stool of Greatness* is rock steady. Killing Eve? Not a beermat in sight.


*It has been pointed out by Jim Vine that a 3-legged stool can’t wobble. It can only slope or slant. While I want to blow a raspberry in his face, he is of course quite right. I should have done another pass at this blog for geometric sense.

Years and Years: Family first

BBC1’s (or more to the point, Russell T Davies’) fab series Years and Years has just finished what HAS to be its only series.

RTD has said it’s a one-off, and given that it projects into the future, by one year each episode (it mostly spans 2024-2030), it would be tricky to see a series 2 without it going full sci-fi. This prophet-warning show has its futuristic elements sneak up on us while we aren’t looking – like the Weeping Angels in Doctor Who (reference included to annoy Whovians).

Years and Years has no lasers nor spaceships. It builds up to internet brain implants and consciousness stored on water, earning their place over several episodes. Episode 1’s science fiction was nicely restrained: an artificial island, an Alexa-esque smart speaker called Señor, and a funny scene involving a sex robot and Noel from Hear’Say.


“Pure and Simple, gonna be there.”

Years and Years doesn’t feel like a sci-fi, although it does dwell on science and fiction. It never forgets that at its heart, it’s a family drama. Superior acting talent helps (Anne Reid, Rory Kinnear, Russell Tovey, Jessica Hynes… though for me scenes were stolen by relative newcomers Ruth Madeley as feisty Rosie and Lydia West as can-play-15-or-25 Bethany). But this blog’s about writing, so what can we learn from Russell Typewriter Davies (to give his full name)?

I think the headline has to be Family Is Everything. And that doesn’t mean a nuclear family (pun noted, given the literal fall-out in episode 1). As RTD is fond of doing, notions of traditional family are swiftly discarded as plus-ones and minus-ones are added/subtracted to the family dinner table. From ex-wives to gay lovers to lesbian partners to stepchildren… all are welcome at Gran’s. And as Gran kisses on the forehead an unlikely ally (no spoilers here as to whom), the message is clear: your place at the table is not based on your relationship, but your attitude. Kindness is rewarded. Selfishness is not. Good eggs are invited back. Be a good egg.

But traditional family roles are still there. Anne Reid is our forever Gran – whose tea and timing is impeccable. The middle generation switch flip-flop between being responsible parents and petulant children, before ultimately assuming responsibility and taking charge of their own futures (and ours). The youngest generation master the tech, have a few tantrums, and ultimately grow up. Characters keep changing roles in terms of ‘who’s playing Dad’, ‘who’s playing Mum’ etc – but the writer’s love of family, and of this family, always shines through. Davies has chosen to look into a crystal ball and focus on one family – the Lyons clan – rather than give us unrelated individual survivors of the post-Brexit, still-Trump era.


“Everybody eats when they come to my house…”

This family focus helps ground us. Whenever the plot goes a bit weirdy-AI-upload-to-the-cloud-dystopian, we’re brought back to reality – well no, back to familiarity – with a cosy line about one of them being most “happy when he finds a big crisp”. Keep bringing us back to the family table, and you can get away with a lot more plot-wise.

The crisp line reminds me: this isn’t a comedy show, but its use of occasional comedy kept us going through the dark times (and there was a lot of dark in this grim satire). The final moments included a passing reference to the Leaning Tower of Pisa finally falling over. It didn’t relate at all to anything else in the story. But “fun” bits like this (I know, it’s not fun for the people of Pisa) help us on our merry way. Comedy connects with our brain differently – and after such heavy story work, a little humour goes a long way.

Two blog posts ago, I waffled on about how Game of Thrones was doomed when it dropped the unpredictable shades-of-grey fun and games for a predictably binary Good-vs-Evil finale. It’s a problem in almost all films and TV series, and Years and Years is no exception. So sure enough, the final episode felt a little more predictable (good HAD to win) than its mid-series shockers (the beach – oh my…). Series finales are rarely the place for those stand-out memorable moments.

So when you’re writing your six-part TV series (and may that please happen), when you face that final episode conundrum, where everything needs to be tied up a little too predictably… if you’ve got a tight-knit family of likeables like the Years and Years‘ Lyons lot, then lovable characters will help bolster any thread-tying plot points. Great characters help carry us over those gaps in the road – whether it’s a predictable story beat or a just-go-with-it chunk of wibbly-wobbly sci-fi.

So I’ll miss the Lyons family, knowing we probably won’t see them again. They told a great story – or more correctly, the granddaddy did: so thank you, Russell Typewriter Davies.

Chernobyl – an opening that throws you in at the deep end

“What is the cost of lies?”

The opening line in HBO/Sky’s astounding miniseries Chernobyl. It asks a question, then spends five hours answering it.

Apparently it’s IMDB’s highest-rated TV series of all time. It’s not one I’ll revisit, but in terms of efficient, compelling (terrifying) storytelling, it absolutely delivers. In my new blog attempting to decode why good/bad storytelling is good/bad, I thought it’s worth looking at why Chernobyl is so effective. So having spent the first post of PK’s Writing Blog looking at endings (Game of Thrones‘ in particular), let’s go now back to the start.

Many writing tutors suggest verbalising your story’s theme in the first few minutes/pages. Blake Snyder suggests having a secondary character blatantly state the theme to our protagonist by page 7. In Casablanca, Ilsa tells Rick he sounds “like a man trying to convince himself of something he doesn’t believe in his heart…” – and Rick then spends the film trying to act on his convictions. In The Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne tells Red: “Get busy living, or get busy dying.” Red spends the rest of the movie learning what he means.


What is the cost of lies? Or a cassette recorder in 1986?

It’s no hard and fast rule though. Main characters can state their own theme, or it’s not stated at all. In Chernobyl we find a Soviet state fixated on swift cover-up and deceit. It’s efficient to its core, so it’s appropriate to be efficient in its own storytelling. No hanging about – the show opens with our protagonist, Valery Legasov played by Jared Harris, reflecting on two years of failed nuclear clean-up, by asking that opening question. By the end of the series, he summarises the answer to that question: “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, the debt is paid.”

The true story (revealed in the excellent accompanying podcast interview with the show’s creator Craig Mazin) is that Legasov recorded these confessional and accusatory tapes, then committed suicide exactly two years to the day since Chernobyl’s accident (this isn’t really a spoiler – it happens in the first two minutes and sets up the show from there). He didn’t ask that question in real life, but TV necessitates condensing reality into palatable gripping dialogue. By having the hero ask that question in the very first line, writer Mazin gets to the nub of the show immediately.

How I Met Your Mother‘s opening line similarly sets out its stall from the off: “Kids, I’m going to tell you a wonderful story – the story of how I met your mother.” Arrested Development tells us what (or who) it’s about: “This is Michael Bluth.” Goodfellas famously sets things up with “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” No messing.

Others aren’t so swift to establish theme – and that’s fine too. Reservoir Dogs begins: “Let me tell you what ‘Like A Virgin’ is about.” Breaking Bad and Four Weddings & A Funeral both start with a string of expletives that set the chaotic-yet-fun atmosphere of a normal character thrown into chaos. They establish tone, if not the big theme.

The excellent ScriptNotes podcast (co-hosted by the aforementioned Craig Mazin, who wrote Chernobyl, as well as two Hangover movies and two Scary Movies – it turns out you don’t have to be confined to one genre) made a good point about theme. Theme, they said, isn’t a one-word subject matter. It’s not ‘Brotherhood’ or ‘Family’. Instead, your theme should be an arguable point. An explorable question. Like Chernobyl‘s opening ask, or When Harry Met Sally‘s ‘Can men and women ever just be friends?’ Ask a question, then answer it. When you have, roll credits.

Sitcoms have a similar theme thing going on. What the show’s really about isn’t what it looks like its. Perhaps Absolutely Fabulous isn’t about the fashion industry, but about the quandary: ‘Can a daughter play mother to her own mother?’ Blackadder Goes Forth is arguably about how class intermingles at life’s worst moment – and it compellingly ended with class making not one iota of difference when Darling joins Blackadder, Baldrick and George as they left the trenches via the wrong route.


Cunning plans no help here.

I’m trying to write a political comedy-drama right now. It opens on election night, so I had my first couple of pages full of aides zinging around with coffee and stats. Scene-setting panic – all urgent calls and reassuring the candidate. Then I saw Chernobyl‘s opening. Why not start with a question then?

My new start has my candidate staring at a TV screen, asking: “Did we win?” That touches on my show’s theme too – asking at what point politicians have truly won. There’s a much pithier opening line I’m sure – it’s a work-in-progress. But I vastly prefer those three words to the two pages of waste-of-time chaos I had in the first draft.

I’ve taken too many words to talk about efficiency of words.

Next post: irony.

Comedians With Books #1: Rosie Wilby, Matt Parker, Aidan Goatley


, , ,


The all-new PK’s Writing Blog continues below (and above) – right now, here’s a one-off podcast…

A one-off (or at least very occasional) pop-up podcast with an excerpt from a recent Comedians With Books show, recorded live at The Star Inn with Guildford Fringe. It’s a new thrice-yearly hybrid comedy night meets book festival. This panel discussion features anecdotalist Aidan Goatley, relationship ponderer Rosie Wilby & stand-up mathematician Matt Parker, hosted by El Capitan Paul Kerensa.

Come see the next Comedians With Books live! Mon 8th July 2019 at Guildford’s Guildhall, with James Cary, Pierre Hollins & Dan Evans, hosted again by PK.

The next night, Tue 9th July 2019, new theatre compilation show Three Times Tables hits Guildford’s Star Inn:

Our 3rd Comedians With Books will be on Tue 8th October 2019, at Guildford’s Star Inn, acts TBC:

More of Paul’s gigs:

And this podcast’s books:

Never Eat the Buffet at a Sex Club by Aidan Goatley:

Is Monogamy Dead? by Rosie Wilby:

Humble Pi by Matt Parker:

Hark! The Biography of Christmas by Paul Kerensa:

Share this pod / Like / Review / Donate / Thanks!