Suzie Tullett is a screenwriter and novelist, who has written for the BBC drama series Doctors, and also published three novels.
Suzie’s second novel Little White Lies and Butterflies was nominated for the Not The Booker Prize 2013.
Thanks for meeting with me, Suzie. You got your ‘break’ in scriptwriting, working on the BBC drama series Doctors. What would you say are the main similarities and differences between writing scripts and writing novels?
When it comes to anything I write, I always begin with my characters. So for me, one of the similarities between writing scripts and writing novels, is the need for strong characterisation, characters that a reader or viewer can identify with or care about on some level. Good dialogue is also important for both, it needs to be clever, saying a lot without actually saying much at all. Be it a book or a TV show, bad or out of character dialogue screams out at the reader/viewer, something we writers definitely don’t want. Scriptwriters and novelists also have to do the same amount of research. If we don’t know our stuff, our audience/readership will certainly tell us.
As for the differences between the two forms, scriptwriters do have the added luxury of a screen to play with. An actor can be doing one thing, whilst something else takes place behind his back; an action that we as an audience can see, but the protagonist can’t. Unlike in novel writing, where everything is usually seen from the protagonist’s point of view – so if he or she can’t see it, then neither can we.
Following on from this, when it comes to scriptwriting there’s never any mention of the word ‘feel’. In a book, we can talk about what’s going on inside of a character’s head, but what’s going on inside of someone can’t physically be conveyed in a visual sense. What can be conveyed, however, is how a character reacts to these feelings. So to give a very basic example, instead of writing something along the lines of ‘Johnny feels sad’, in a script it would read ‘a tear springs into Johnny’s eye’.
Then there are other differences to take on board. In a script, we have to allow both the director and actors their interpretation of what we write. We also have to consider any cost implications should we choose to include something along the lines of a helicopter crash or two, no way would your average TV producer go for that. Whereas in a novel we can have as many crashes as we want if the story calls for it.
It’s interesting because I’ve been on both sides of a scripted performance – as an actor and as a writer – and there is definitely more of a collaborative feel to scripts, whereas there seems to be more creative control with novel writing.
So in terms of your novels, what is your process? Do you outline everything first, or begin with a premise and take it from there?
You’re right, scriptwriting is definitely more collaborative.
As for my novel writing process, I always, always, always start with my characters. It’s their story I’m telling so I have to know everything about them. From what they look like, to their backgrounds, to their earliest memories and even their favourite colours and star signs – character profiles are my way of getting into their heads and making sure I stay there. It’s from here that I start to think about the inciting incident, the one thing that happens to turn their lives upside down, which inevitably leads me to the plot line. As you can tell, I’m a plotter not a panster, so I then go on to write a breakdown of how the story is to develop and only then do I set about writing the book. This probably sounds a bit unnecessary to some but I love each of these stages. My imagination gets to run riot no matter where in the writing process I happen to be.
What about you? Do you outline first, or just dive straight in and see where the story takes you?
I always outline novels but don’t always outline short stories as it can be fun seeing where they lead. Although in saying that, my last short story collection featured interlinked stories, so I had to outline those very carefully so as to avoid any errors..!
By the way, I was very pleased to see Little White Lies and Butterflies shortlisted for the Not The Booker Prize 2013. How was that experience? I imagine it must have been quite a surreal moment when you were told!
Ah, the best of both worlds.
As experiences go, getting shortlisted for the Not the Booker was a bit surreal, yes. Firstly, it was only my second book and it felt quite daunting to see my work featured alongside the talents of Neil Gaiman and Kate Atkinson. And secondly, as a writer of humorous fiction and romantic comedies, it was the first time this kind of novel had ever made the short list. I don’t who was more surprised by this, me or the judges; in fact, at the time, I remember it causing a bit of a stir amongst the judging panel. It was all thanks to the book reading public, of course, who were fantastic. It’s because of them that Little White Lies and Butterflies made the list to start with, but to then award it third place in the final public vote… I can’t thank them enough.
Well it’s definitely a huge achievement, so congratulations again. So how are you finding the marketing side of being an author? Is it a chore, a joy, or a bit of both?!
Long gone are the days where we write our books and leave everything else, including marketing and promotion, to the experts. Publishers often talk about the need for authors to have a platform, a means of visibility, so whether we like it or not, we have to do our bit. As for how I feel about my role in this, on the whole it’s something I quite enjoy.
Of course marketing isn’t simply about shameless self-promotion. No-one wants to hear an author continually shout buy my book, buy my book and nothing else. Yes, it’s about spreading the word, but personally, I see marketing as an opportunity to actually engage with my readers. Something I might not be able to do were it not for book signings, literary events, and even social media.
There’s also an added bonus to this marketing business. As you’ll no doubt know, Angelo, writing can be a lonely profession. Depending on where we are in the writing process, we authors can spend days in isolation planning and penning our novels. In a funny sort of way, marketing can help ease that solitude.
It gives us a link to the real world without taking us too far away from our fictional ones.
That’s very true, and a really nice way of looking at it.
What are you working on at the moment? I know you’re moving so I imagine you’re having to be very disciplined with your time…
I’m currently working on my fourth novel, a romantic comedy about an abandoned wife, an abandoned chateau and a mysterious chainsaw artist. You’ve probably guessed from the ‘chateau’ that it’s set here in France, which is quite ironic considering I’ll be leaving in a couple of weeks.
As for being disciplined with time, try as I might, I’m not sure I’m being all that successful. As you can imagine it’s been a bit hectic trying to organise a move back to the UK, especially with the house there not having a stick of furniture. Thankfully, I’ve managed to sort out a bed and a sofa so at least I’ll have something to sit and sleep on. Everything else will have to wait until I land.
I know, it’s going to be an interesting Christmas.
I guess it’ll definitely give you some good material for your next book though…
So, lastly, what advice would you give to any aspiring novelists or scriptwriters who might be reading this?
Indeed, as Julie Wright said, what doesn’t kill us gives us something new to write about.
When it comes to advice, I’d encourage all budding novelists and scriptwriters to learn their craft. There are a number of reputable courses out there, but more importantly make sure you read widely or watch a variety of films and TV shows to see what works and what doesn’t. Look at how novelists and film makers develop their characters and stories, and at how they negotiate their plot lines. Think about conflict, both internal and external. And if your serious about writing, keep at it, don’t give up.
Thanks for having me here today, Angelo, it’s been fun.
No problem at all, Suzie. It’s been a pleasure. And good luck with the move!
You can find Suzie at: