Sharon Horgan on scriptwriting

How do you write a hit TV show? We ask Sharon Horgan – co-writer and star of Catastrophe, Pulling and creator of the forthcoming HBO comedy-drama Divorce – about getting started, working as a team, and coping when things don’t quite work out as planned…

Sharon (Sharon Horgan) and Rob (Rob Delaney)

There is always something magical in hearing how someone got their first big break, and Sharon Horgan’s story is no exception. It was the mid-noughties and Horgan was bobbing along writing (and acting in) odds and ends for TV. She’d had the odd moment of triumph, including working on the well-respected comedy show Monkey Dust, but big success was proving elusive.

Then Horgan and her writing partner Dennis Kelly submitted a treatment to the BBC for Pulling, a series about three single women in their 30s, sharing a flat in London. It got optioned as a script. “I still think that was probably the most exciting day of my life,” Horgan recalls now, her voice still tinged with a bit of wonder. “Harry Thompson [producer of Have I Got News For You and Monkey Dust, among other influential shows, who died of cancer in 2005] was laughing at me down the phone because of my screams. The script was nothing at that point, but it was everything.”

The usual process in TV is that you will initially be commissioned to write a pilot and then, possibly, a series will follow. But Horgan and Kelly skipped over the pilot stage with Pulling. “The insanity of it is that Stuart Murphy, who I think would happily tell you that he is half insane, he commissioned it straight to series. Dennis and I had written nothing – comparatively we’d done nothing, and they commissioned that series without a pilot, off the back of one script. That was just huge for us because we went from having no status and no credits to running our own show essentially.”

Unsurprisingly, it was a fairly steep learning curve. “Yeah, yeah it was,” Horgan continues. “What amazes me now is we weren’t terrified by the prospect. Somehow, considering we were both in our 30s, and kind of what you might call losers, we were very confident I think. I think we just knew our subject matter so well and Dennis is such a gifted writer, it was just one of those things that clicked. We were just very arsehole-y about how we wanted it done, and who we wanted in it, and how we wanted it shot. Because maybe I guess we thought it was our shot, it was our shot to do something, so we were going to do it our way.”

Sharon (Sharon Horgan) and Rob (Rob Delaney) in Catastrophe
Sharon (Sharon Horgan) and Rob (Rob Delaney) in Catastrophe
Sharon Horgan in Catastrophe
Sharon Horgan in Catastrophe

They got it right, with Pulling proving both hugely popular with viewers and a critical success. It ran for two series but then – somewhat shockingly at the time – the Beeb decided to pull the plug on it, beyond an hour-long special to round it off. “Which was like a polite execution,” says Horgan.

“It was a surprise,” she continues. “But Dennis and I always felt incredibly lucky that we got to do it so we didn’t really do a whole load of moaning actually.” And Horgan, unsurprisingly considering the success of Pulling, also assumed the next exciting project would be just around the corner. But this didn’t turn out to be the case.

“I thought it wouldn’t be hard to bounce back,” she says. “There was a whole ton of exciting things happening at the time, but as it turns out it is hard to bounce back from that. It’s not easy to write a show that people connect with and channels get behind.

“So what I thought was just a step to the left ended up being a bit of a fall into the abyss. Because you get caught up in development, it’s a scary thing. You get a bit panicky, you hear the clock ticking and things don’t move the way you want them to and it’s frustrating. I just put my head down, and wrote and wrote and wrote, and some things garnered interest and some things didn’t and I just kept writing.”

Horgan’s second major break came almost a decade after Pulling, with Catastrophe, a sitcom created with US comic Rob Delaney. The show tells the story of the duo’s unexpected pregnancy and the consequent chaos of life with young children. Like Pulling, its charm lies in its ability to present a heightened but recognisable reflection of relationships and family, in all their painful, hilarious glory.

The genesis of Catastrophe was unconventional, with Delaney and Horgan first connecting over the very modern medium of Twitter. “It’s a really odd way to begin anything,” says Horgan. “It feels manufactured, boyband style. Surely we should have gone to Oxford together, but no, we just met on Twitter.”

“It’s one of the easiest writing processes I’ve ever had,” she continues. “It’s a sensibility thing – he’s softer than me, he has a sweeter energy, and I have a harder, harsher eye. Whatever harshness I bring, he dilutes a little, and whatever sweetness he brings I try and sharpen a bit…. It’s just like a conversation. Then it’s just the usual tricks to make anything good – rewriting it and rewriting it and condensing and finally finding what the episode is actually about and being tough on ourselves. We’re really, really, really tough on our ourselves. If it makes us wince or cringe in any way, it’s gone.

“Also we read aloud constantly. Something can look beautiful on the page and then you get it up on its feet and it’s just a pretentious mush. Or it’s trying to be too cool, or it’s too sentimental. You can hear the falseness once you start reading it out loud. That’s important, for this show anyway because we really want people to trust us. When we’re reading out loud, if the dialogue doesn’t sound real and honest, it just has to go.”

From Catastrophe
From Catastrophe
Sharon Horgan in Catastrophe
Sharon Horgan in Catastrophe

Horgan regularly draws on her own experiences – and those of the people close to her – in her writing. “I’ll try and chronicle as many good stories that I hear along the way as possible,” she explains. “But the actual structuring of it, and the dialogue – the stuff that makes the story work – obviously is your imagination, or what you find along the way.”

While she regularly writes alone too, Horgan speaks highly of the benefit of writing with a partner, both for the camaraderie you will experience along the way, and for the reassurance. It also helps in more subtle ways too: “I think with scriptwriting, it’s very easy to go from a to b,” she explains, “but it’s harder to make those little turns and twists that are unexpected, whether it’s a line, or a sheen in an episode, it’s finding those unusual routes that make writing exciting and different. So I think when you’re with someone, it’s easier to find those odd little alleys to wander down. Also, it gives you more confidence to know if something’s good.”

For Horgan’s current project, a forthcoming 10-part series for HBO titled Divorce, which stars Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Haden Church, the experience has been a little different. Horgan is the central creator of the series and is leading a large team of writing staff. Unlike the UK, which tends to follow a more methodical style of filmmaking – writing, pre-production, filming, post – the process in the US is more fluid, with rewrites happening during the filming, an experience which Horgan describes as both exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure.

“You get to manipulate your piece of work as you go along and it’s such an extraordinary thing, and it’s incredible to have that ability, but it’s also terrifying,” she says. “You have to have three hats on at once. It’s flat out hard work. It’s all hard work, making anything like that, that you give a shit about. Because if you give a shit about it, you’re working double.

“It’s a huge machine, and it’s not a machine you would want for every show,” she continues. “I couldn’t imagine Catastrophe working with the same machine, because it’s such a personal story and I can’t imagine anyone but Rob and I writing it. But I think for some shows, it actually can work, if you have the right writing staff. You get all these scripts in and somehow everyone’s captured the tone of the thing and you’re reading them and going ‘this is the way to do this’. It’s been a great experience from that point of view, because I feel like I know how to do this now. I didn’t know before – I’d only ever made pilots that hadn’t gone anywhere, or scripts that hadn’t gone anywhere. It’s hardcore, but I know how to do it now.”

Sharon Horgan in the New York writers' room of her new HBO show Divorce
Sharon Horgan in the New York writers’ room of her new HBO show Divorce
Sarah Jessica Parker stars as Frances in Horgan's new HBO show Divorce, out later this year
Sarah Jessica Parker stars as Frances in Horgan’s new HBO show Divorce, out later this year

It all feels quite a long way from Pulling, and Stuart Murphy’s wise if slightly wild punt on Horgan and Kelly. Horgan has clearly learnt a huge amount along the way, but the most important message she has for writers today is that they must learn the art of flexibility, even in the face of despair, and believe that there will always be new tales to tell.

“There’s lots of ways of telling your story,” she says. “I felt like I was never going to make anything I loved as much as Pulling, or that encapsulated my ethos or whatever. I felt very nervous that that was going to be it, that everything just aligned on that one and I just got lucky. But actually there’s loads of versions of that story, and as you get older there’s loads of other things you want to talk about and you want to explore.

“So people shouldn’t feel that if one script doesn’t work, then it’s that script that is their everything,” she continues. “Something else you care about as much will come along. You have to be prepared to let things go. The only time I’ve ever seen writers fail first-hand is when they can’t let go of what they’ve written. Be it in the rewriting of it, or be it in the abandoning of it. You have to move on because, my god, there’s 400 shows out there at the moment on US TV and it’s terrifying. It’s wonderful that there’s so many platforms but there’s a lot of incredible TV being made and the bar is so high. It’s an industry and you can’t forget that it’s an industry. If you’re not willing to move on, and try again and fail and try again, like any industry, like any business, then it’s not going to work for you.”

“I love giving advice,” says Sharon Horgan. And it turns out she’s pretty good at it too. Here are her top tips for making a career in scriptwriting:

Write things on spec
“The best possible thing is just to write, get your script down. I still write things on spec, because sometimes the idea, you can put it down in a treatment, but it doesn’t always shine through the way you want it to. It needs to be executed to show its full potential.”

Tap those with experience
“Even though it’s now a really exciting time to just bypass the traditional routes and just make your own stuff and put it out there, there’s still a lot to be said for working with people who’ve done it before and who’ve got experience and time, and the ability to turn your idea into a commissionable piece of work.”

Find a like-minded production company
“You shouldn’t work with a production company that doesn’t make stuff that you admire or that is your taste. It’s about finding the people who are the best people to bring out your voice and who recognise your vision, and want to help retain that vision.”

Write from the heart
“I always feel a bit nervous when someone brings you an idea because they think ‘this hasn’t been done before’ or it’s something they feel is in the vein of what’s being made at the moment and what’s successful. It feels kind of cynical. It’s so hard to write – it’s hard to write a pilot, but it’s really hard to write a series, and I just don’t know how you can do it, and do it well, unless you absolutely love your material and it means everything to you.”

Be flexible
“You have to be prepared to let things go. The only time I’ve ever seen writers fail first-hand is when they can’t let go of what they’ve written. You have to move on because it’s an industry and you can’t forget that it’s an industry. If you’re not willing to move on, and try again and fail and try again, then it’s not going to work for you.”

Find your voice
“What’s most important is to write. Write and write and develop your voice. I can promise you the scripts that I wrote when I started out are an abomination, but somewhere in there was a kernel of something. It’s just a process of developing what is your specific talent as a writer.”

  • Mark Bridges

    Excellent insight into Sharon’s process.