I must admit I was a little star struck chatting to Lisa, she immediately put me right at ease and we had a fun conversation. Lisa is a scriptwriter and has been involved in the creation of some exciting dialogue from Emmerdale, Midsomer Murders, Fat Friends, Call the Midwife to name a few and more recently A Discovery of Witches. She is chair of the Writers’ Guild as well as being passionate about women’s rights.
Here is an abridged version of our conversation from 15th April 2021, with some tips for any budding writer.
Deby: What is your connection to Leeds, the greatest city in the world?
Lisa: I agree with that assessment of the city. I’m born and bred in Farsley, and that’s where I am right now. I can drive around Farsley and point to about 10 houses where I’ve got family living. It’s in my blood.
Deby: What is your favourite ever piece of dialogue that you’ve written?
Lisa: It really is going back to the start of my career because I had to fight for it. On an episode of Emmerdale, we were getting rid of a much-loved character, Chloe. She’d been faking a pregnancy. It ended up with Chas pushing her into a bathroom, throwing a pregnancy test at her and saying, “just pee on the stick, bitch!” Everybody got really excited about this. We talked about it in conference and then it came back from our very censorious editorial policy “I don’t think you can say that at this time” – the producer said that it’s a moment of heightened emotion. And we got it into the show, I wish we’d had the social media that we have now. Because I think that might have exploded.
(My thinking on leaving this in the article is that if Emmerdale allow it, so will I, sorry if I offend anyone. – Deby)
Lisa: She was a terrible character. She got dunked in a horse trough, and then chucked in the back of the cab and sent away.
Deby: What is the favourite piece of dialogue that you think somebody else has written?
Lisa: Oh, well, that’s putting me on the spot.
…There’s a scene in Firefly, where two characters are being tortured. I’d show the scene to students, it’s a perfect example of how dialogue should be with lies in everything you do. In the scene – Wash and Malcolm are being electrocuted but they’re having a conversation about something completely different. And you realise Malcolm’s doing it to keep Wash’s spirits up because he’s never been tortured before and it is a most magnificent scene.
Deby: Is it a great scene because of the amount of emotion?
Lisa: Exactly that – every line changes the emotional heart of the scene. And that’s great. I say to students over and over again, the best dialogue are lies, and we do it all the time to each other, the more you like someone. For example, if your best mate comes in, she goes, “What do you think of this dress?” and she looks spectacular. You go “Oh my god, it’s the worst I’ve ever seen you.” You’re saying the opposite. The most boring line of dialogue is “I love you”.
I think dialogue is the thing that makes you click into a show – the emotional heart of it, whether you care about the characters. But if the dialogue is a bit sticky – human beings don’t talk like that. Or sometimes if it’s too realistic. It’s the dialogue that clicks.
The story can be fixed, Dialogue can’t
Deby: Tell me about some of the changes in your business life because of Covid.
Lisa: I’ve been extremely lucky that I’ve been able to carry on working during the pandemic. Since Christmas 2019 I’ve been working on a Sky show called A Discovery of Witches. I wrote an episode for series 2, I must have done all right as they offered me Lead Writer. I spent a week with the Co-Lead Writer, the amazing Helen Reynor, (Doctor Who and Miss Selfridge) bashing out the story – A Discovery of Witches is an adaptation of a book series. The pandemic hit and I seem to remember that the last time we were all scripting we were in a room together we did the elbow bumps, and nobody was particularly concerned about Covid. At first it was “Hey, we’ll get you down to Cardiff when we can”. Then Wales went into quite a significant lockdown. The show travels all over the world, we should have been filming in places like New Orleans, France, Italy. The technical staff and design staff were amazing they have made parts of Cardiff look European, it is mind blowing.
Deby: I started watching A Discovery of Witches. I love the character Matthew – actor Matthew Goode, he’s absolutely brilliant.
Lisa: He’s a very good vampire, I would say. It’s quite an adventure to watch as well as there is a lot going on, it’s not something you can just have on in the background. Series 3 will be with us January 2022.
Deby: What are you looking forward to as we are set free?
Lisa: I miss humans, human beings, and hugs and all that kind of thing is my dream – I’ve not had much physical contact with other human beings since last year.
I miss humans, human beings, and hugs
I have managed to do two theatre workshops with the feminist theatre group Unsung Collective, Leeds, socially distant in a big room with the windows open all freezing. We’ve been coming up with ideas for when we can get back in theatres.
Deby: Tell me more about Unsung.
Lisa: We look at unsung stories, the underrepresented stories of women. The first play – Unsung, looks at four women from history and why they’re not better known. Andrea Dunbar, Ada Lovelace, Lilian Bader and Sophia Jex-Blake. The play expressed what might happen if we brought them all in a room together and they talked about their struggles. It toured really well and sold out across West Yorkshire.
We are now working on two new ideas. One about roller derby, women in sport, women in their bodies, and another about how women get a bad end of the stick when it comes to medical treatment. Pain is not taken seriously. We will do them in a very theatrical, enjoyable night out.
Deby: Do you have to really concentrate and get yourself into a mindset of the character? And how do you do that?
Lisa: I do a lot of reading out loud. Some truly awful impressions. I used to have quite a good Dennis Waterman for New Tricks with his cockney accent. The same with the Emmerdale characters, at the time there were 53 regular characters and I had their voices in my head. It’s very important to gauge the overall tone of the show. For example, on Midsomer Murders it took me a couple of episodes to get fully the tone. It needs to have a very strong, investigative through line. But then, something like Call the Midwife, has such a clear tone and such great voice that I loved working that show. It came off the end of my fingers. It was joyful. A Discovery of Witches, I think, again, felt very much in my wheelhouse. All the work is overseen by a producer/showrunner to measure that every writer is getting to the point they want to serve. On something like A Discovery of Witches, it’s six or seven drafts, and everybody gets to chime in on it. You’re not the only one with an influence on the script and so tone is something that involves everybody. The biggest arguing point on any script is “I don’t believe that character would do or say that”. That’s when the real knock down, kick out fights go on.
top tip for new writers - get it written!
Deby: Would you have any top tips for new writers?
Lisa: Get it written, don’t talk about it, get it written. I talk to lots of new writers. And when I say new writers that can be people who’ve come to it in their 40s, 50s or children at the start of their career writing – there’s not an age limit on it. If you are going to lots of meetings and reading lots of books about writing, but not actually doing any writing, you’re not a writer. The only thing you need to be a writer, frankly, is a pen. Just crack on.
Write that first draft freely, don’t have the audience sat on your shoulder, don’t have a script editor, the producer, don’t think that Spielberg is going to read it. Right? Just get the damn thing written. The only job of a first draft is to be written. The real writing comes with the rewriting. Get to the end. Don’t go back to the first page every time you open the document and twiddle about with the first paragraph.
Put it in a drawer for a couple of days, pat yourself on the back treat yourself, and then come back to it. You will see everything that’s wrong with it that you couldn’t see while you’re writing, you’ll see some things that you love. The scenes that you thought were essential, brilliantly written and hilariously funny or incredibly moving you might decide are actually terrible. And you’ll take parts out, I do that all the time – “What was I thinking?”
When you are ready get someone to read it. There are more opportunities than ever to get your work seen. Make a Tik Tok video, put it on YouTube, put it into a theatre showcase, join Script Yorkshire, which are an amazing organisation who do regular ‘script in hand’ performances of new work and are enormously supportive. And once you join them there are loads of free workshops you can take part in, but get yourself out there.
Don’t write a brilliant script and then put it in the drawer and be ashamed of it. Get it out there because the more you do that, the more you’ll build your reputation.