Tips on writing TV drama
Script editor Yvonne Grace shares some of her tips for all budding television drama writers out there. Based in the UK, Grace has over 20 years’ experience in drama production, script editing and script development, with a CV boasting some of the most talked about drama serials on British television.
Working in the television industry is a creative experience and if you have gained access to the inner workings of a drama production as a writer, then you are there primarily on the strength of that creativity, which you have proven via your script(s).
However, a lot of rookie writers - keen but lacking in experience - find it a bit of a shock to their writerly systems when it becomes clear that working on a TV drama is like being part of a big machine. There are demands on your writing skills (mainly those of script identity and time deadlines) that you may not have realised when you were scribing your spec, or writing a shadow episode of an established show.
So working in harmony with the flow of this dramatic production machine is essential if you are to not only to survive the experience but also enjoy it. And believe me, as one who has worked for many years in drama production, it is the best sort of fun a creative soul can have. But your soul has to be resilient and you do have to do everything a lot faster than you thought you would.
Series and serials are the main entry point format for writers new to television. And because of this fact, I recommend you listen and work with those around you as much as you can – you’ll learn a lot. Also be quick to react to their input and use it as an aid to help you get the most out of writing an episode of television drama.
Helping the writer
Here’s a list of the key people who help the writer (bear in mind some series and soaps use different names for the same role):
The story editor / story producer:
Oversees the creation and selection of stories both before the story conference and after it. It will be their job to ensure fresh, meaty, interesting storylines continue to flow from conference through to production.
The script editor (one of a group; assigned to your script):
This person will take you through draft one to camera-ready script. They act as a conduit between the writer and the producer; funnelling the producer's notes to you and guiding you through rewrites.
The storyliner (not often used on series, but more often on soaps):
After the stories are created at story conference, the storyliners plot them through the episodes allotted. They will look for the main drama beats and give shape to each episode; producing a story document that the writer will use as a blueprint for their script.
The producer (there may be more than one if the show is a long runner):
They want you to come up with the best storylines possible and expect you to work to deadline and deliver fresh, engaging drama. They oversee the whole show in terms of look, tone, content and budget.
The director (there will probably be more than one):
Their notes will be more practical and you need to help them realise their vision of your script. They adhere to strict deadlines and have limited time to create a shooting script from your rehearsal script.
Be different – but not too much
Your individual writing style is important to the show - after all, the producers have chosen you because your voice fits with the general stable of writers they currently have. But they will need you to keep your freshness, such as your personal interpretation of the storylines, but also be able to deliver a script that does not stand out in an obtrusive, awkward way from the series as a whole. Be different - but not too much.
Keeping your story outline
To keep your storylines and drafts in check, a writer on a television serial or series will have an episode outline to follow or a story document. There will be a structure and pattern applied to your script at first draft, via the script team and this you will use to control your storylines over the duration of your episode. Use these strictures – don’t fight the identifying stamp put on the episode you write; within this seemingly tightly defined episode lies freedom of expression.
You may find them hateful, not long enough, or think there are too many of them, but deadlines are there for a reason. Without them a drama production doesn't get the scripts to peak condition in time for shooting to start, and will therefore run out of shooting time and likely go over budget as a result. Do your bit and deliver each draft on time.
Wave goodbye to your ego
You can write, otherwise you wouldn’t have been hired. You have a significant voice and you have been chosen on the strength of your individual work but remember that as soon as you begin to write on a television series or serial, your voice becomes part of the greater noise that is made by many writers.
Need further advice about writing for TV? Then contact Yvonne by clicking here. Keep an eye out for her book Television Writing: Series and Serials, which will be out in May 2014, published by Kamera Books.