The business aspects of being a Scriptwriter for the UK Soaps – or how to get a job as a scriptwriter in UK TV – Matthew Cooper (first published 2006)
As a UK script consultant and scriptwriter for hire I did my time writing for the soaps back in the 00s when I had stints on Emmerdale, Eastenders, Family Affairs and Hollyoaks – (I was even BAFTA shortlisted and Royal TV society nominated for my work on Emmerdale).
I was an episode writer on Eastenders, Emmerdale and Family Affairs and I worked on the storyline team of Hollyoaks during the period when the show was revamped under producer Bryan Kirkwood.
The soaps themselves are one of the great training grounds for UK Scriptwriters – Jimmy McGovern, Sally Wainwright, Kay Mellor – just about every major TV soap writers of the last 25 years started their career as soap script writers.
The money is phenomenal – Coronation Street, Emmerdale and Hollyoaks writers can easily earn £100k per year.
The soaps are also the perfect place to get noticed as scriptwriter, build credits and relationships with producers, directors, execs, commissioners and even actors and actresses.
Now, I haven’t worked in the soaps for a long time, so I’m sure some of the following information is outdated, but, as the UKs leading script consultant, I did a good few years working on soaps and this helped me get to where I am now – getting all kinds of work from all over the world – rewriting and fixing scripts and working on varied and exciting original script commissions.
I find I enjoy how I work now, much more than soap writing, its much more interesting and rewarding than the the soap opera script writing world, but I got here, partly down to writing the soaps. And I still recognise that the soaps are still one of THE best places to start a scriptwriting career (just make sure you don’t get stuck on them forever – they can be a well rewarded trap!).
So, as best as I can, I’m giving the following info to help and assist new scriptwriters who need some help starting their scriptwriting career.
The below info was published as The UK Soap Opera Scriptwriting handbook back in 2006 – subsequently, as a lot of the info was out of date I pulled the book (which also needs proofing and copy editing properly).
But since the book went out of publication I get asked a lot for copies of it. So, here it is for those who are interested.
As I said, its out dated – but it still useful.
THE UK SOAP OPERA SCRIPTWRITING HANDBOOK…
HOW THE SOAPS WORK
The Basics. The History. The Background.
Okay, we’re not going into a massive dull history lesson here, we’re going into the nuts and the bolts. And we’re putting aside Eastenders for now as it uses a different system. More of Eastenders later.
Coronations Street, Emmerdale, and Hollyoaks all use this tried and tested system for producing the show, scripts and storylines.
Firstly they have a team of writers, the numbers are between eighteen and thirty, I’ve known shows with more and with less.
The writing teams are in constant flux (which gives you opportunity, more about that later). The team of writers meet, minimum, once every three weeks for a story conference.
The conference will last about three days, in that three days the writers will pitch stories for the next three weeks worth of episodes. Also once every three months they meet for a ‘long term conference’ in which the longer term stories are discussed and the general arc of the show, where the characters are going in their world, and where the show will find the big stories and the ratings grabbing exits.
At both of these conferences, the Producer will decide which stories fit his or her vision and then the stories are agreed with the writing team.
The writing team then go home and…
….This is where the Storyliners step in. The storyline team take away the writers stories that have been accepted by the Producer, and create storyline documents in which the next three weeks worth of episodes are broken down and written up in prose as to what happens in each episode.
This is the storyline document. The Producer and the Story Editor (the Boss of the Storyline writers) will do various drafts of the storyline documents until the Producer is happy.
Each episode will have its own storyline document – so the actual episode writer will know what needs to go in each episode.
The writers are then commissioned, by phone or by email – they are told which episode they will write – that is what being commissioned means. The chosen writers will each receive the storylines as a whole, and the storyline dedicated to the episode they have been picked to writer. The writers will return to the next conference with notes on how they’re going to write their episode.
Then they write it.
Working with the Producer will be a team of Script Editors who relay notes from the Producer to the writer. The scripts will be rewritten or tweaked until the Producer is happy.
Then the scripts are shot.
Most soaps are shot at least three months in advance. So what the writers are currently writing will not be on air for a further three months. You could be writing a Christmas episode on a hot, sunny, summer day.
Before we get to Eastenders, I’d like to look at this and break it down. Where could you fit into this process? And how do you get there.
Firstly, the writing team proper the guys who write the episodes (the core writing team).
These guys are the envy of everyone on the show, even sometimes the Producer! They get to roll up at conference once a fortnight do a couple of days work and then disappear to write three hours a day and get paid almost as much as some of the actors for doing it.
The writing team are soap royalty.
How do you get in here? Well, they’ve come from various places. Some will have got on the show by sending in a spec script and doing one or two trial scripts.
A trial script is when you write a real script from a real storyline, which will never be made. You will be given a storyline document (from an episode that has already been aired on TV). Your job is to break up that storyline into scenes and create your script for that episode).
This trial script should show that if you can, A) Write. B) Know the show. C) Know the characters and their voice. D) Can add something to an episode, remember, a writer on the team has already written this episode. You need to outshine them; this could be your only chance!
I’ve done many of these in my time and I’ve got on shows doing trial scripts.
Other writers will have come from other shows, where they have good reputations and they’ve just appeared after a phone call to a Producer or an email from an agent (More about Agents later, don’t worry, you don’t need one, at ALL).
Others will have come from two other places. The storyline office or the script editing department.
Get a job as a soap storyline writer
Storyliners can be first in line to get on the writing team; they’ll often have to do a trial script. This depends or vision of the Producer, it is their decision who gets to do a trial script. Producers know that storyliners know the show – or should know the show, inside out.
Remember, storyliners are in the best position to impress the Producer.
Script editors, like storyliners are also in a great position to impress the Producer and make a name for themselves in the production office. Often the script editors can have a close and professional working relationship with the Producer. So it is possible, that a script editor, with a good trial script, they can make it onto the writing team when a place comes up.
All of this begs the question how do I get a job as a storyliner or a script editor? More about this later and don’t worry, you don’t need a degree! Although it might help.
Now onto Eastenders, how do they work?
Eastenders works a slightly different way (or it used back when I was working in the soap world…)
The storylines on Hollyoaks, Emmerdale and Coronation Street are about the length of this document so far, 5 pages of detailed prose which basically do all the work for the writer. The writers on those shows just have to structure their scenes to fit the episode – and add or take away anything they see fit. The turnaround time, usually, from getting the storyline document, to completing the script is roughly three weeks.
At Eastenders things are a little different.
Eastenders, although it loves to win soap awards sees itself differently. They always talk about serial drama rather than soap, what they mean is, the writer has to do a lot more work.
Eastenders has a storyline department, but it’s not run the way the other soaps we’ve talked about are. An Eastenders storyline document is barely two pages long and gives only basic information about what happens in each episode.
When the writers are commissioned they’re expected to structure and cast and workout the logistics while working closely with the script editor and the Producer of that week’s episodes. This can be a long process and works through various drafts.
While writers on the other soaps have a turnaround of about three weeks, they get commissioned, they write the episode, they re write it once or twice, then it gets signed off to shoot.
On Eastenders the whole process can take about three months. They get commissioned, they discuss how it will work, they write it, they rewrite it. The script develops, changes are made, production comes in, it’s formed, and a theme develops through the week.
In other words, over three months each Eastenders episode could go through as many as fourteen rewrites. It’s a tough process, but rewarding as more of the writers individual voice gets through.
And if you can crack Eastenders, you’re made at the BBC. That’s how Tony Jordan, a former market stall trader made his millions.
The story with Eastenders is similar to other BBC dramas. Like the entry level soap Doctors. Doctors don’t pay very well, and they expect writers to put in individual stories for their episodes that fit in and work with the basic overall storyline. Similar to hour long BBC serial drama like Casualty and Holby.
Doctors is a great starting to place to get on Eastenders, how do you get on Doctors as a writer? I’ll tell you more about that later.
So we’ve looked at the soaps, we’ve seen a few opportunities, just glanced at them for now.
Before we go anywhere else I think it’s important to talk about the general state of the UK television industry as it is today.
Where we are now …
Writers generally fall into three camps on this.
GROUP NUMBER ONE. The writers who complain that no original drama is made only, they be cry the lack of A PLAY FOR TODAY etc. Yes, it’s true that is harder to get original drama on TV. It’s expensive and doesn’t really get the ratings anymore. But there is original drama still being made, but, if you want to get your original work on TV, it helps to have been a successful soap writer first.
NOTE. The BBC will not usually commission a writer for anything original until they have significant soap experience.
It’s true that if Dennis Potter turned up at the BBC today with all of his plays written, they’d still make him do at least a year on Eastenders to see if he could cut the mustard.
SECOND GROUP, these are usually young writers who only want to write feature films.
REALITY check, the UK makes about 25 to 30 films a year, if that. If you’re not Richard Curtis or you don’t own the rights to some great book. Forget it. You have to be very lucky to get a feature made in the UK without substantial TV writing experience. Jimmy McGovern has had features and original dramas made, but he did a long, lon stint on Brookside first. Frank Cottrell Boyce (Millions, 24 Hour Party People) did it to, but he was at Coronation Street and Brookside for an age.
Also, if you manage to get a low budget feature made after five years of trying, you might get paid about 30K for your massive effort. That works out at about nine weeks work on Coronation Street and sixteen weeks on Emmerdale or Hollyoaks.
You could get on a soap and save half your earnings and within two years you’d have enough money to make your own feature and be as Orson Welles as you like.
THE THIRD GROUP, the pragmatists. They know that the only real way to make money writing for TV in the UK is on the soaps. And that’s what they’re doing right now. And when they get on a soap they really work hard on the writing, pitch well in conference and make sure they pay their taxes. These realists are switched onto the current state of British TV.
And if they’ve got a couple of original scripts tucked in a drawer, they know they’ve got more chance of getting them made because they’ve proved their worth by working on a show for a long run.
So basically the current state of UK TV from the writers standpoint is if you want to get paid, get on a soap, if you want to write original material and get it made, get on a soap, if you want to break into features get on a soap. And prove yourself and show you have the craft or can learn it. It’s as simple as that.
Also remember, you can earn a hell of a lot of money for not too much work.
HERE’S A QUICK USEFUL TIP ABOUT THE WRITER’S LIFE AND THE CURRENT STATE OF UK TV. A VERY FAMOUS AND VERY ACCLAIMED AWARD WINNING THEATRE/ FILM WRITER WHO IS A HOUSEHOLD NAME AND KNOWN ON BOTH SIDES OF THE ATLANTIC OFTEN WRITES FOR SOAPS AND SERIAL DRAMAS UNDER AN ASSUMED NAME TO MAKE MONEY, BECAUSE EVEN HE NEEDS IT.
HOW TO GET ON A SOAP, WITHOUT A SPEC SCRIPT.
Two or three ways really, the Storyline Team, the Script Editing team, or the crew.
I can’t tell you how to get on the crew, if you’re young and working as a runner, make sure you work hard and impress the Producer, and ask, beg, plead for a secondment in the storyline office. Then follow the rest of the storyline instructions.
Script Editing. These jobs follow interviews, but can also be given to people from lower positions within the crew or back office if they show the right moxy, follow the script editing instructions.
Okay, first we’ll look at Storylining.
The first thing to remember is that you have to know the show, at least for the past six weeks to three months on screen. This applies to script editors too.
I really suggest right now that you either watch and study all the soaps, or you focus religiously on two you’d most like to work on. This can help you in many ways, apart from obviously knowing the show and the characters it can also help you see the things that the Producer likes, things that work and don’t work, stories that go on too long and stories that don’t go on long enough.
Start actively thinking about pitches you would make, what stories would you come up with? I’ll tell you the rules for a good story pitch later.
Alright, so you’re watching the programme, you’re doing you research what next?
Here’s a little clue, Emmerdale, Hollyoaks, and from time to time Coronation Street and Eastenders advertise for Storyline positions. Coronation Street not as much as they always have people writing in, Eastenders less so because of how it works. But Emmerdale and Hollyoaks all the time.
Emmerdale is based in Leeds; Hollyoaks is based in Liverpool (even though it’s meant to be set in Chester). These two companies are great for putting advertisements out on their websites. Emmerdale on the ITV/Granada website and Hollyoaks through its own website at Lime Pictures.
Both these programmes are currently doing this at least once a year. And here’s a clue, if you only want to write on the Coronation Street storylining team, your best bet is to get on Emmerdale and make a success on that storyline team first, the transfer across is then an easy one to make. Same with Hollyoaks, particularly if your team start to win awards and get noticed.
So, they advertise, but you can also write to them …
So if they advertise or you write to them? What should you put?
What should your CV look like?
This isn’t a CV writing course, but basically you’ve got to show some writing experience, whether it’s in short film (more about that later, it’s a great way in and very easy to do), theatre, radio (another great way in, loads of writers have radio experience to help them break into TV and radio work pays pretty well too). If you’ve just come out of film school make it clear what you did as a writer – i.e. wrote two shorts and one feature film spec script over the three years.
If you’re older, and have had success in another career, make that clear too. They like success, hard work and commitment. If you’ve done that in some other field talk about it, but still make sure that writing and TV and THAT SHOW in particular comes across as your passion in your covering letter.
Listen, I know some people who’s CV had information on it where artistic license and a little padding had been used. I’m not saying you should do that, they might check, don’t put you’ve worked on THE BILL when you blatantly haven’t. IN TV everyone knows each other; it’s easy to get tripped up. So – tell the truth, but sell yourself, you should be proud of what you have achieved, not boastful, but point out what you are good at, what you have succeeded in, sell yourself!
If they take a shine to you, if you say the right things but they’re not sure about your CV they might give you a trial in the story office. If you’re a headcase, they’ll have you removed by security (I’ve seen that happen too, and the security at the big soap compounds, particularly Coronation Street are tough guys, you’ll be out of there very quickly).
Okay, so you see an advert for an Emmerdale or Hollyoaks Storyliner. You send in your CV and you get an interview. What will happen in the interview?
Firstly, for a storylining post it will probably be three people:
The Story Editor (basically the Head Storyliner).
The Production Manager.
And maybe the Head of Human Resources.
What will they ask you?
A little about your experience.
What you think of the show as it is. Good and bad.
What would you improve about the show?
And they might ask you to pitch stories for the following week on screen, which means they want to see what you think will happen next week (on screen). So you better have watched the show religiously the weeks before the interview and thought a lot about twists in the plot and characters, arcs and plot.
Two things here, when they ask you what you like about the show, really be enthusiastic. I can’t stress this enough. Do not have a flat monotone voice that does not show any passion. The professionals that you are sat in front of work very hard to make these shows a success. It is nice for them to hear positive feedback, but don’t be too over enthusiastic, keep your tone at the right level.
Talk about great stories or characters from recent i.e. the last three months, episodes. Talk about actors and characters you love. Talk about emotion and feeling. Talk about Comedy and Tragedy.
When they ask you about the stuff you don’t like be very careful.
The best answer is to say the good stories seem to run too short, and that some stories seem to run too long. It’s a valid criticism of every soap, and all Producers know this, and it’s hard to get a grasp on because of the system of how the soaps are made, so this is a safe criticism.
Another point, if you’re going for an interview and it’s a new Producer, and his or her stuff hasn’t appeared on screen yet, you can be a lot more critical of the show, still be enthusiastic, but make it clear you would try and improve the show a lot. That’s what the Producer wants to hear, new broom and all that.
But if the Producer came from the existing team, be very careful, you might already be critiquing things they’ve done. So do your research.
Okay, your interview is nearly over. But now they might ask you to tell them what you would think happens or what you would do with next week’s stories on screen. This is all about preparation.
If you’ve watched the show, you should have some idea of what happens next week on screen, and you can pitch what you would do. What you think should happen with the regular characters and their stories.
What I suggest is a little research, buy the soap magazines and the Radio Times and read what does happen the following week before you got to the interview, get on the internet and read the spoilers, learn what does happen and then make a few slight changes, hopefully clever ones.
I’ve done this personally and then made one slight, but important and very clever and funny change to what actually was storylined.
The Producer’s face went red in the interview and he banged his fist on the table and said ‘We should have done THAT’.
Pretty much then and there I knew I had that job.
My friend had a similar experience, more of that and her later.
Okay, so you’ve done you’re CV; you’ve had the interview, what happens next.
We better say this right away, if you’re nervous about public speaking, if you don’t like speaking out loud with a load in front of a load of people you’ve never met, relax, EVERYBODY does. I’ve seen writers with years of experience still shaking while they pitch a story. It’s normal, and hopefully for most people it gets easier the more you do it.
The first time I spoke out at an Emmerdale conference I was nearly physically sick, but it got a lot easier, you got to build up the nerve and do it if you one day want to be on the writing team.
At storylining and script editing stage, you can slowly break yourself in by speaking to small and larger groups. It is good training for being on a writing team.
But don’t worry, I’ve known some writers who never speak in conference and still make 100K + per year. But they’re not really singing for their supper, and they’re not playing the game.
You should always try to have something to offer, however large or small the contribution, whether this is a fresh story, or how to fix a current story, a small comedy story, anything, but some contribution should be made.
Okay, Mock Conference, what’s that?
It’s getting a more and more popular on British Soaps to find Storyliners this way.
Hell, they might even skip the interview and do a cattle call for Storyline writers and get you all in for a mock conference.
Be prepared to shine.
With this manual, remember a lot of the other people will have no idea of what to expect either in the interview or at mock storyline conference stage, so you’re already well ahead of the game with this manual. Be confident, and prepare.
Always your first piece of presentation is to watch the show religiously for however long you’ve got before the conference, take notes, reams of them.
List the name of every character, write what you think about them, get to know them and their attitudes and whom they interact with. Get a big notebook and do this, it pays dividends later.
Especially when you’re in a mock conference and the guy sat at the side of you can’t remember the names of the most popular character (believe me, it happens all the time).
So in the mock conference you goal is to prove and impress upon the people there the following things, and make sure you STAND OUT by showing you know the show ‘inside and out’.
- You know and love the show and you’re passionate about it.
- You can speak well and make sense in front of a large group.
- That you can pitch a story.
- That you can fix a story.
- That you can tell when something works and it doesn’t.
- That you’re organised and understand logistics.
- That you’re not an unpleasant person, but that you’re professional.
- That you understand the basics of storytelling.
If you can get anyway towards proving any of these points you’ll get hired, unless someone’s relative is on the mock conference too. (And YES, that can happen.)
There is nepotism in TV, and it can count on whom you know. But don’t worry, if you impress enough you’ll get the job later down the line. At the end of the day, it’s a business, and if they think they really need you or that you can do a great job, you’ll get hired. It’s all up to you to impress this upon them.
Okay, so back to the mock conference, who’ll be in there?
The Story Editor for sure.
The Assistant Producer.
The Head of Production or his/her assistant.
Maybe a Storyliner from the actual team.
And if he or she has got time, the show’s Producer.
The Head of Production on a soap has one of the toughest jobs in TV. It’s up to them to organise the shooting of the show, they have nightmares with cast numbers, locations, stunts, and just the basic feat of organising and scheduling the shooting of 5 episodes a week.
At Eastenders, the square is tiny. Two crews can’t shoot on the lot at once and a lot of the sets for people’s houses are flat packed away because they have so little room in the studio. It’s a nightmare for production, same on most of the other soaps.
Hollyoaks, the actual village set is about as big as my back garden, and they do shoot with two crews on the village, often having to exchange takes they’re that close together. Hollyoaks budget is so tight they’re stuck for any other locations than on the lot. They often dress the production offices as the school, or a hospital corridor, or a police station corridor. It’s a nightmare for all involved, but a good Storyliner can help the Head of Production. And everybody on the team will like this.
Start the mock conference by checking cast and location restrictions, it won’t matter in a mock conference but they’ll be impressed that you did it. Also. Check it’s not double banking.
Double banking is where to cover holidays or Christmas once or twice a year the soaps, to keep in front, shoot twice as many episodes as normal. (The episode writers love this; they get paid twice as much).
So instead of shooting fifteen episodes, they shoot thirty. This can severely restrict the amount of characters in each episode. After all, actors can’t be in two places at once. And it restricts the locations, 2 crews in the same location doesn’t work.
The smoothest this works on any of the soaps is Emmerdale, they have the biggest internal film studio, in Leeds, (The Emmerdale village, in Harewood, Yorkshire, is a brilliant and vast location) both are the largest in Europe.
Okay, so impress the Head of Production and the rest of the panel by being aware of any shooting restrictions and proving you understand the process. Go even further with this by asking about character counts per episode.
Even though, it doesn’t matter in mock conference, this is a good place to make it clear you know how a soap works; you can even ask this in interviews.
Character count is the amount of actors budgeted for each episode. I’ve seen as little as 11 actors per episode on some soaps and as many as 25 in another. It varies according to the budget and the stories. I’ll come to more about this later, when we look at story lining in more detail.
I want to get you the job first.
I know one Storyliner who went into mock conference with a big pad and loads of coloured pens and basically did what the Head of Production would do. He organised the stories pitched into a real live document with character counts and everything during the live mock conference!
I’d have given him a job in the production office, but the Producer was impressed and gave him a stint on the Storylining team, where he proved a real success in organisation of the logistics and worked well with the Producer.
If you have a real analytical mind and an eye for detail that could be a way to play it, but remember, you are also there to pitch stories and talk about the show and the characters.
Remember, when pitching a story, do it using emotion, and GET INTO THE CHARACTERS HEADS. Producers love that. DON’T just talk about what happens; tell us what the characters feel about what’s happening. If you do that in mock conference they will love it!
We’ll talk more about that in the secrets of Storylining later.
Now, you’re going to pitch stories, other people are going to pitch stories. What do you look for?
See if they work within the show, see if they’ve been done recently on this soap or any other, and see if they fit within the characters. Make sure, and this is a great tip, that the stories pitched, including yours, only use characters that already in exist within the show.
This is a great point, and a constant rookie mistake.
It makes you stand out as someone who does not have a clue of how the process works.
NEVER, EVER pitch a story that involves introducing a new character; ONLY pitch stories around the existing characters in the show.
When the Producer wants a new character he will decide and put that out to the writers and the storyliners. When the Producer wants to, not when you do.
On the writing team, they can often pitch stories that need one new character to get them to work, and they can just about get away with that.
When I’m talking about characters I don’t mean a social worker say that has a few lines in an episode, I’m talking about characters that are going to be needed to make the story work.
Any pitch that starts with … This new character moves into – the square, the village, the college – forget about these pitches for now. Save them for when the Producer decides to bring in a new cast member.
So in the mock conference, I want to hear some of your stories, told from inside the regular characters heads, stories with emotion, I want to see that you’re organised and understand the process.
I want to see you can work with other writers. If someone has a great story, help him or her with it. I want to see you pick other people’s pitches apart, tell them why they won’t work – in a professional and respectful manner of course. And – I want to see you defend your stories to others. Make sure you can back up the story you have pitched and be able to defend it to the death. Have confidence in what you are saying; it will come through to those that are listening.
If possible, I want to see you lead the group. If you can be more dominant than the others in a mock conference, if you can speak more, and speak well. Not be nasty or mocking of others work or stories, we want thoughtful and professional. I’d be impressed, the professionals listening to you will be impressed – and you might just get the job.
Also, now this is very important – never take the mickey out of the show. Just watch, someone, in the mock conference will.
Now, there is a lot of gallows humour on soaps, but when you start out and until you’re an untouchable hero of the Producer, never, in your writing or in front of the Producer take the mickey out of the show you’re working on.
The television industry is a serious financial business. Soaps want ratings, they need ratings, and some rely and survive on commercial advertising. They want to be the best, win awards and viewers hearts. There is a lot of money riding on this for you, so remember, don’t take the mickey.
Remember, everybody else in that mock conference won’t have read this manual. So that puts you well ahead or the pack, they’ll be nervous and will make basic mistakes. You’ll be prepared and as I said, preparation is everything.
Don’t worry if you don’t get the job straight away. From mock conferences they sometimes take two or more people over time. If you impressed then they’ll remember the NEXT time there is a gap in the storyline office and get back to you.
Okay, so what happens after this? You’ve impressed in the mock conference or the interviews and you get a call.
Depends on the soap to what money a storyliner can earn. At Hollyoaks starting pay is 18K a year and will rise quickly and steadily from there. Eastenders is as always – different pay scales. Emmerdale and Corrie a storyliner can get £25k +, depending on experience. The other thing is the length of the contract. It can be as little as three weeks!
Now, I know you’re panicking; I go through all this for a three week contract! WAKE UP.
This is TV. Media students are killing themselves to get a three week contract on any programme, and the competition is fierce.
The more you impress in either the interview or the mock conference the longer contract they will give you to start. But don’t worry; do not drain yourself about this. You are going to need all your energy for your work in the story office.
If you only get a month or so, it’s up to you to make sure you do well and get a proper contract after that. The longest contract is six months usually. Just make sure you keep doing well.
Storylining itself is, in my opinion one of the toughest jobs in TV. And believe me I did it for 12 months, as a UK script consultant I know what I’m talking about here….
You’ll be writing some weeks, 30,000 words or more. You’ll be doing late, late nights. You’ll put on weight or lose it. You’ll smoke more, some days you’ll do nothing at all but wait for the Producer to read what you’ve written. Some days you’ll have a lot of fun. Some days, the shit will hit the fan. And you’ll always rewrite everything over and over again.
Okay so here are some rules for surviving in a storyline office.
- Eat well; you’ll need the energy. Get plenty of sleep when you can, you’ll need the energy.
- Never tell the actors about what you’re going to do to the characters, you’ll get in trouble.
- If you’re worried about your grammar keep a copy of ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’ handy.
- And follow the rules of the individual soaps to a letter.
- Write from inside the characters heads, this happens, that happens but what do they FEEL about it? What do they want? What are their true needs?
So most of the soaps work on a three week cycle. Let’s look at what a storyliner does on a three week basis.
THE STORYLINERS LIFE.
You’ll probably have the day off! Good start eh? One of you might be covering the office for any problems. More than likely nobody will phone and you can spend all day surfing the net and drinking tea. You’ll have a long leisurely lunch in the canteen (film crew food is great, unless you want to diet, but hey, there’s always the healthy options!) After lunch there may be some admin to do, filing storyline documents, photocopying, answering emails. After that you might hang out on the set and talk to a few of the actors or crew. Or you’ll be at home sleeping.
It’s day one of the conference; all the storyliners will be in early. All will have read the last block of storylines from cover to cover over the previous weekend. (Even though you wrote them).
You’ll meet in the conference area with the Producer and the production staff for commissioning, one of the real stressful parts of being a storyliner.
In the morning it’s commissioning. All the writers who have been commissioned on the next three weeks worth of episodes are in.
They’ve read the storylines they’ve been given based on the conference three weeks ago. Now they’ve got notes on the individual storyline they’re going to write. You and the story team better be prepared.
One by one, the writers will thank the Producer for the episodes they’ve written and then ask questions or advice on the storylines. They might want characters changing, and they might want to do something different. And god forbid, they might not like, or want to do what you’ve given them.
The Producer has signed these storylines off and he/she is happy with them. So most of the questions should be answered by the Producer or the head storyliner, The Story Editor.
The Producer, might turn to an individual Storyliner for some clarification, be ready for this.
The worse thing that can happen is the Script Writer has spotted a glaring error in the storyline document. This just shouldn’t happen, be it spelling, character count or whatever. The Story Editor and the Storyliner should have picked up on this.
Character count is given on the opening page of each individual storyline, if you’ve put a character in who shouldn’t be, or isn’t accounted for, you’ve made a mistake that could not only cost money, but could cause problems for the shoot.
When characters first appear in a storyline document they should be highlighted in BOLD. So that the characters can be quickly counted and budgeted and scheduled for. If a storyliner has missed a BOLD and the character has remained in the storyline document but has not been counted the Producer will be a bit miffed, if not rightly pissed off.
ALWAYS WATCH YOUR BOLDS.
Some of the writers on the writing team may well be ex-storyliners. They may fall into two camps, those who will keep a storylining mistake to themselves and those who love to pick out the errors.
Okay, so the writers in turn will go through the episodes. Hopefully they don’t have too many problems.
Then it’s lunch, usually with the writers who will be desperate for any office gossip. Beware. Writers on a soap work from home. They are at times, starved of company because they are working hard at their job. Any office has its fair amount of gossip, we all know that.
But under no circumstances enter into any gossip with the writers, actors, and other production staff. Be friendly, be chatty, but do not gossip. It might make its way back to the Producer. The last thing you want is to spoil all your hard work and get a black mark against your name with the Producer. And – it’s unprofessional.
After dinner, the other writers who haven’t been commissioned this time arrive. Along with the Script Editors, the Researcher, some people from production etc.
Now all of you, usually upwards of 35 people are crammed into the conference room. And it’s time for conference to begin properly. Now every storyliner should be ready with a pen and pad or a laptop, or in some cases even manning the wipe board.
The wipe board is a breakdown of the next three weeks episodes that is placed at the front of the room, at the moment it’s empty; you might have to take it in turns to fill it in.
There are A stories. B Stories and C stories.
An A story is the main story running in the episode or for a week.
B is the second story in an episode or running through a week.
C is the minor story in an episode or running through a week.
More about that later.
The Producer will have sent all the team an agenda, detailing where the team are in the long-term structure and what he wants to do with the next three weeks.
Here is a rough example – The Battersbys, (Coronation Street).
We haven’t seen them on screen for a week. What comedy can we get out Les’s new job and the affect it has on the family?
Something like that. Done for each of the characters.
Okay, so the Producer will kick things off and the writers who will have had this agenda for a week or so and are fully prepared, will start to pitch and re pitch, argue, disagree, meld and change ideas until they come up with at story for each episode, each week.
It’s up to the Storyliners to take as many notes as they can. The Producer will govern the conference and decide when he’s happy with what’s written. This will then be broken down and go up onto the boards or the Producer will turn to the Story Editor and ask if they’re happy.
The Story Editor will turn to his/ her Storyliners to check they’ve got everything they need.
If at this point you’re not happy, feel you need more material THEN SAY SO. Tell the Producer, SPEAK UP! There is nothing worse than a Storyliner moaning to a Producer after the fact that he doesn’t think a particular story works.
If you find yourself in this position, you haven’t done your job, you are giving the Producer, who is already in a stressful position, more stress – and it is your fault because you didn’t SPEAK UP!
The conference goes on until about five or six. Then everyone goes home for the day.
Second day in conference, same as Tuesday afternoon for a full day.
Third day in conference. The same as Tuesday afternoon and all day Wednesday, this might end about three, in which case all the writers happily head off home. The storyliners do not.
This is where the real work of the storyliners starts.
They’ll return to storyline office with reams and reams of notes. At this point, the Story Editor will play a large role.
We now have a pile of stories. We need to know which storyliners will be doing which stories, there will always be one or two stories everyone wants to do and some stories none of the storyliners want to do for whatever reason.
The Story Editor will decide which storyliner is going to write which story for a group of characters. Some storyliners may have characters they write for on a regular basis. But remember, your colleagues go on holiday sometimes, or are off ill – so you have to be on the ball with everyone’s story in case you have to take over at short notice.
Then it’s time for the coloured cards and the marker pens!
The big wipe board in the story office is similar but more detailed to the boards in conference.
The wipe boards have each week broken down into days and into four stories. A, B, C, D.
Now the technical questions will be asked.
What is the A story in Monday week 1? The big ratings story? So each of the Storyliners have now to break down the individual stories they have been given into A, B, C, D stories for each episode.
The A story being the main story through the episode that would end in a HOOK.
A hook is a mini cliffhanger that gets the viewers to tune into the next episode. Every episode must end in a HOOK.
Also, if you are working in commercial television, the episode will have a break after about 12 minutes. When the adverts come on. Here you will need an AD TAG. This is a type of mini-hook, where you want viewers, to come back after the break, to continue watching the rest of the show. So thought has to go into your ad-tags also.
Now on top of all this, the breakdown of the stories and the working out of the HOOK’s and the AD-TAGS, the story team need to take into account the actors availability and the sets.
This process can take hours.
When the board is full, each episode outlined in A, B, C, D stories and the hooks/ad-tags, the Storyliners will then write out a document for themselves telling them what to do.
The document may look like this.
Monday, Ep1. A Story, the students. Hook, Will is a stalker.
Tuesday, Ep2. B story, the students have suspicions about Will.
Wednesday, Ep3. A Story, Will makes a terrible error. Hook: Will is caught stealing from the halls.
Thursday, Ep4. C Story, Will is interviewed by the police.
And on and on for all the stories you are given to write.
Once this is done, the Producer will come in and check the boards. But that won’t happen today.
In early for some nice breakfast at the canteen.
Then in the office to surf the net and chat to the other storyliners.
Do some admin work, answer emails etc.
Then wait for the Producer to check the boards.
If you’re lucky he/she will be in early and look over the wipe boards, asking questions about the hooks and whether there is enough material for an A story on Wednesday etc.
He/she might swap a few hooks around. You make notes and amend your documents.
It’s important that everyone is on the same page.
Finally, the wipe boards are given the thumbs up by the Producer. The Head of Production may pop in and check them over too, for actors that are going on holiday when they come to shoot or just basically looking for any glaring errors.
When he/she is happy. You can go home and relax, but it won’t last long.
You’re up early, to write ALL day.
Forget about the shopping, or cutting the grass or watching the match.
You have one ten page story to write, mostly a C story that runs through the first and second week say.
That’s easy; you’re not worried about a 10 page C story.
It’s the A story that concerns you, 20 pages of mostly A strands that runs through the first and second week that the Producer is really keen on.
While writing you remember the golden rules of Storylining.
- An A story is 6 to 8 paragraphs (called BEATS).
- Your B story is 5 to six paragraphs, (or BEATS).
- Your C story is 3 to 4 paragraphs, (or BEATS).
- Your D story is 2 to 3 paragraphs, (or BEATS).
- Each paragraph should be between four and seven lines long.
- When characters are first used in a story they should be in Bold.
- The first paragraph of the story should set up the situation at hand, and the tasks the characters want to achieve.
- The second paragraph should see the whole thing fall apart.
- The rest of the paragraphs should be about the characters trying to put things back together.
- Then end on a FANTASTIC hook.
ALWAYS GET INSIDE THE CHARACTERS HEADS. WRITE ONE SENTENCE ABOUT WHAT IS HAPPENING, AND THE REST ABOUT HOW THEY FEEL ABOUT WHAT IS HAPPENING.
Okay, so you write all day Saturday and guess what?
You write most of Sunday as well, then you email your stories in for Monday morning.
You wait for the Producer to read the stories. Today is all about surfing the net, drinking tea, doing some admin work, answering emails and trying not to worry about your notes.
The Producer might have now read all the stories; each of the Storyliners and the Story Editor will go in for notes.
The Producer might want to change everything at this point. Always bear this in mind, or – he/she might love what you have done – but – remember, the Producer is experienced in this area, they know best. So if there are changes, be prepared to take good notes and then go away and make those changes to the storyline document.
You go home and rewrite.
You rewrite some more.
All the Storyliners are in, and they now one by one start putting their storylines into actual story documents. With the help of the Story Editor, the first drafts of the actual storyline documents are created.
Initial character counts are done and locations that are needed.
Friday night all these first draft story documents are emailed to the Producer.
SATURDAY AND SUNDAY
You’re free for the weekend with any luck; time to recharge your batteries because next week is the hardest.
Each of the Storyliners will be assigned individual episodes to re write. You go in and get really, really detailed notes from the Producer.
You rewrite in the office, because at this stage all the storyliners need to speak to each other, as the episodes need to be seamless, everyone has to be on the same page.
Same as Monday.
The episodes go back to the Producer a week at a time. He might have more notes, he/she probably will.
More rewriting, double check all the character counts.
Officially the document should go out to the commissioned writers today.
It probably won’t. More rewriting, more tweaking. This could go on until midnight in the office. It’s stressful and hectic.
Working closely with the Producer the storylines are finalised and sent out. By this time the Story Editor is frazzled and the Storyliners are truly worn out.
A siege mentality sets in when you’re still re-writing at late at night.
Finally they are okayed and signed off by the Producer and they’re emailed and couriered to the writers.
It’s late at night, you walk out of the office knowing, it will all start again next week.
This is why, if you can survive and do well in the story office, if you can contribute during the conference and impress the Producer of a show while being a hardworking, contributing Storyliner, you have an excellent shot of getting onto the writing team.
This is not about sucking up to your boss, telling him or her you like their outfit, how they have done their hair. Producers in television have heard and seen it all before. Your job is to work hard and show your talent and initiative. That will impress them no end.
You will also gain invaluable knowledge while working as a storyline writer. An insider’s experience of a show that they cannot teach at any college. It’s a tough and gruelling experience and also very rewarding – you will learn SO much in a short space of time.
Some Storyliners go on to be Story Editors. This is a highly paid job that often leads directly to the Producer’s job when he/she moves onto pastures new.
Even if you want to Produce, the storyline office is the best place to start. The knowledge you will gain about the machinery and mechanics of running a popular show is invaluable.
But you have to last, at least six months to a year. Then when you’ve impressed enough ask to do a trial episode.
Nearly all great TV writers have worked as Storyliners at some point.
All good Producers will encourage you. Hell, at Coronation Street, they give you a month off paid, to do a trial and they’ve got lots of great writers from the story office that way.
OTHER JOBS IN THE OFFICE THAT CAN LEAD TO THE WRITING TEAM ARE …
An archivist basically records all the plot of every episode. They will watch each episode and write up what happens in it – in a short format, concise, informative manner. Sounds boring, and it can be at times, BUT – you will be the number one expert on the show.
You may be asked to find some plot or episode from years back, so your detective skills may come into use here. You will be expected to know everything, and to be able to find everything and it’s not a fantastically paid job – but – remember, you will the memory of the show, and be an expert on it – and you could come in useful in the story office – as a storyliner, if you asked the Producer for a chance. I know of two archivists who got great jobs in television like this. One became a leading writer on Coronation Street, the other gained a top story editing job at Emmerdale.
Just because you are in a lowly position, don’t let that go against you. Work hard, look at how your job – for e.g. archivist can stand you in good stead – and use it to your full potential.
These jobs come up sometimes on the television company website, so apply! The worst thing that can happen is that you don’t get an interview. The best – that you do get an interview.
AND THEN YOU CAN USE THE KNOWLEDGE I HAVE GIVEN YOU TO SHINE IN THE INTERVIEW.
The archivist will at times, work with the Researcher …
A researcher is always at story conferences. For example, if a story has a character that has a diabetic condition – then the researcher has to find all the current information on diabetes. If a character is going to court for a crime, the researcher has to know what sentence that character is likely to be given.
The researcher is the eyes and ears of the show. The Producer, the storyline writers and the writers will all rely on you to come up with the goods. You have all the legal and medical jargon to cut through for example, and to make it understandable for the Producer, Storyline Office and the writers.
Again, not the best paid job, but a very important one – and – if you’re good, on the ball and can contribute at conference you can progress from there.
Remember, just because you are the researcher, or the script editor does not mean that you cannot contribute at story conference. If you have a great story, then SPEAK UP!
These shows eat up stories, if a Producer is given a great story from a member of his team, he/she is always grateful. I know many researchers who have gone onto to be storyline writers, story editors, and development producers.
These are people who know who to find out information quickly and present it in a form that everyone will understand. A good researcher is invaluable to the show – and – they usually work alongside script editors …
SCRIPT EDITING POSITIONS
As a UK script consultant I can tell you that Script Editors are vital in soaps
Firstly, you need some genuine script experience, whether from your own stuff or from Film School, the stage or radio.
Script Editor jobs are heavily advertised and there are even some pretty good courses and training run through the local screen agencies for Script Editors.
Same routine for applying and interview as the storylining positions.
But instead of mock conference they’ll give you a current first draft script to read and make notes on. It’s basically as if you were doing the job for real.
Basic script editing techniques and things to look for are –
- Dialogue that is too on the nose – i.e. that character are saying exactly what is on their mind. Too blunt and straight to the point.
- Scenes should start as late as possible and should finish as soon as possible.
- Bad, dialogue, or dialogue that isn’t in the character’s voice (The Dingles talk a certain way, different to say Eric Pollard; it’s about rhythm and the words they use). If a character doesn’t ‘sound’ correct this should stand out to you.
- Overwritten scenes, Underwritten scenes.
- Static talky scenes that can be broken up with action and gesture, or indeed, silence.
- Structure. If it’s an ITV or Channel Four soap, does the episode break have a strong enough Hook? Does the episode end on a good Hook?
- Does the break – for commercial television, have a good ad-tag?
- Could the scenes be swapped around to make more impact?
- Cross overs. This is why every soap has a pub. A cross over if where two or three stories are in the same scene. Usually in the pub, or in Eastenders often in the Square. Are the cross overs working, or could we get more out of them?
- Is there a minor adjustment to the story, that could make it stronger?
These are some basic things a good Script Editor will look out for. If you are a writer, it’s good to look at the above list and make sure you’re pre-empting the Script Editor as much as possible.
If you’re a writer, making friends and working well with Script Editors is invaluable to your career. MAKE SURE you’re easy to edit, because if filters back to the Producer (as a UK script consultant I can tell you everything filters back to the producer even what you do at the writers xmas party)
Don’t get cocky or clever with a Script Editor over his/her notes. The Producer will find out straight after you’ve spoken to the Script Editor and it puts a black mark next to your name.
A good Script Editor is worth their weight in gold. They can get you out of tricky areas in your script, they can make you feel confident that you can tackle the massive re-write you have just been given, they can be inventive – when you should be – but can’t because you are drained out with the hard work.
But – don’t rely on them too heavily, they have other writers to edit, you are one of many, make sure you contribute to the edit also, you are getting paid a lot of money to do this job, so do it.
Remember – a good Script Editor will make you a better writer.
And vice versa.
A good Script Editor will get the best out of their writers.
This is what the Producer is paying you for – say this at your interview! They want to hear this – but – they want to see you put it in practice when you are on the show.
OTHER WAYS TO GET IN, WITHOUT A TRIAL SCRIPT.
When I’m talking about short films, I don’t mean something shot in your back garden on a camcorder. I mean funded short films, and no, not ones made at University either.
Currently, in this country we have a lottery funded Film Council. These all have regional agencies, which are in place to fund and help new talent get into the film industry.
Often these regional screen agencies will have a yearly call to make five, six or sometimes as many as eight or nine short films. Usually about ten minutes in length.
These films are usually produced to a reasonably high standard, have good professional actors, (not your mates!), have a well thought out script, with decent sound, music and titles. All in all, a professional piece of work, to show YOUR writing talent off to it’s best potential.
These agencies are there for you. Why shouldn’t you be funded? If you are polite, professional, and even just a nugget of talent, they will give you the time of day. They want to nurture new talent. You keep them in a job.
You don’t have to direct the film (though you may want to), but if you think that is not your area, then they can link you with a new director. Again, they are all about finding and supporting new talent. You may not wish to produce the short film, (thought you may want to. Again, same applies; they can link you up with an up and coming Producer.
Anybody can apply, you don’t need any experience, you just need a short film script that could be made for a reasonably low budget. i.e. no massive special effects, or casts of thousands.
Keep this as your golden rule. A good short film should be no longer than ten pages, it should have no more than four characters and it should have no more than three locations.
The above is the best advice you’ll ever get on writing and GETTING SHORT FILMS MADE.
Seek out your local screen agencies and look at what schemes they have to offer, you can find all of them through the Screen Council’s web page.
Getting a good short made is a real big stepping stone in a starting off writer’s career. And a good short film can get you a job in the Story Office, if the Producer feels that you’ve got potential.
To get a Soap Producer to think your short shows potential, your short would benefit from consisting of the following elements: –
- A drama
- Low key, about real issues.
- A hint of comedy, but not sitcom, or slapstick.
- Set in a real world.
How can you make your script stand out from other scripts the film council or local screen agency gets?
Okay, firstly they can get a lot of badly written, badly constructed short film scripts. Remember, they are professionals; the film council have been doing this job for longer than you, so they know a good script when they read it.
Secondly they get a lot of stuff that can’t be made for nine or ten grand, so as above, try to stick to small, human dramas, which are also the staple of soap opera writing.
One great tip I got from the film council when working on one of my short film scripts was – don’t write anything with ghosts, young children, or tragic deaths. These are the most regular themes of scripts that they are sent. But – if you can think of a different way of telling that particular type of story, then DO IT!
Remember, be professional, be polite, write a good short film script and these regional agencies will definitely be interested. These are professionals who are looking for talent – why shouldn’t that talent be you?
Here is a case study that might interest you …
A CASE STUDY.
A friend of mine, wanted to be a soap writer. She was working part time at the NHS. She was a single parent. She wrote a spec screenplay, sent it off to the soaps – and got nowhere.
She then wrote a short fifty minute theatre play and put it on herself, she get some decent publicity and the proceeds went to charity (good Karma, but also easier for people to support you and easier to get your play on somewhere).
From this she got local press interest, and was reviewed by The Stage.
She then wrote a short film that received funding from the Film Council.
With this small but committed CV and a copy of her short film she wrote a lovely letter to the Producer of a top ITV soap.
The Producer was impressed by the short film and the CV. He invited her to meet.
My friend followed the rules you have already read previously in this manual regarding the interview. The Producer was impressed but didn’t think she had yet enough experience to go straight into the writing team.
He asked my friend if she would like a stint in the story office.
She snapped his hand off, and went from five grand a year part time at the NHS to twenty five grand a year as a Storyline writer.
She did a year in the storyline office and then did a trial script and was accepted onto the writing team. Because she is regularly commissioned by the show, she is earning one hundred and fifty thousand pounds per year – and still going up.
Writing the spec screenplay took three months, writing the short took three weeks, writing the theatre play took two months. All this done while working as a part time secretary and a full time mum. No film school, didn’t know anyone who worked in TV. NEVER HAD, NEVER NEEDED AN AGENT.
All she had was a theatre play and a short film on her CV. But – it proved that she had good organisational skills, she could get off her seat and put on a theatre play herself – no easy feat. She got a good review from The Stage, that showed she had talent – which she included a copy of with her CV. She had managed to be funded by the Film Council, and wrote a lovely short film about human emotions – that the Producer could watch.
If you follow these rules you could be on a writing team, just like the writer above that I know, earning literally thousands of pounds per month in a very short space of time.
She went from working part-time in the NHS, to being a professional television writer, she bought her own house, her own car – both cash and put her daughter through university.
Last I heard she was buying a holiday home in Crete …
For a little hard work initially, this writer gained that top job on a UK Soap.
Okay, before we go any further. Let’s have a little chat about AGENTS.
REPRESENTATION – how to get an agent
I know what you’re doing, you’re trawling through the Artist and Writers Guide book, highlighting the agent’s you’re going to send off your spec screenplays to. (UPDATE – I have a blogpost here which lists all UK script writing agents with links to their websites)
That’s fine in itself, just so long as you understand what a TV and Film Writer’s agent actually does for you.
An Agent, will have relationships, at least a good one will. An agent will have relationships with various people in TV. Producers, Commissioning Editors, Executive Producers etc.
An Agent might be able to get you meetings with people. He won’t be able to get you work.
Let me say this again.
AN AGENT GETS YOU MEETINGS, HE DOESN’T GET YOU JOBS.
IT’S UP TO YOU TO GET THE JOBS.
And if you don’t continue to produce original work on a regular basis that your agent likes, he won’t be able to get you meetings anymore.
I know, what you’re thinking.
BUT I CAN’T GET WORK UNLESS I GET AN AGENT.
That’s rubbish; if you follow my instructions you can get on a TV writing team without ever needing an agent.
ANOTHER CASE STUDY.
I recently worked with a young female writer, on a top UK Soap. This writer had literally walked out of college, into a top soap interview. She had sent some work (an original script) that was read and deemed to show talent. Eventually, she was asked to do a trial script and got on the writing team and has been there for ten years, earning six thousand pounds a month or more.
This can happen. It is rare, but it does happen. This young, female writer is bright; hardworking and I have seen her pitch good stories at story conference on a number of occasions. She contributes to the show, she is passionate about the show, she is easy to script edit. Who wouldn’t employ her? I would if I was a Producer.
And for her all-important interview, she was prepared. She knew the show inside out, she had passion, she was enthusiastic, didn’t talk down the show or take the mickey out of it and had good story ideas. This writer was prepared to the highest extent, showed her commitment and was there to impress.
Very unusual to be plucked out of college and get a trial on a top UK soap. But this young writer has maturity, a hard work ethic and a goal to achieve.
BECAUSE SHE KNEW ALL ALONG WHAT YOU NOW KNOW.
She’ll be able to retire very rich at 40. No agent.
WHAT ABOUT THE CONTRACTS?
Soap contracts are all the same; everybody gets the same standard contract, unless you get to a really senior writing position on the Eastenders or Coronation Street team. If you do, you’ll be able to negotiate yourself.
WHY GIVE THEM TEN PERCENT?
MY CASE STUDY.
Okay, so now the bit you have been waiting for … my story.
I had an agent when I started out, one at a very prestigious London agency. I got him because I won a writing competition. We’ll discuss writing competitions later …
He loved my Spec script, it was hot and lots of people wanted to make it. Big people with Hollywood money.
My agent asked me if I wanted to write TV, I said I wanted to get paid, I’d write the phone book if they paid me enough. He liked that attitude – he would, he’d get ten percent.
Agents, even though they won’t tell you this, aren’t that enamoured with new writers who just want to write feature films. They don’t take them on; they know films rarely get made. Unless the script has some heat and might get made. If the film does get made, they’ll push them towards TV afterwards. Doctor Who or Torchwood are great fun they’ll say.
Anyway. My agent impressed me; he got me meetings (based on my script) with Guy Richie’s company, Granada TV, a couple of other big companies. I went to the meetings and met the people. Very exciting.
No money, but very exciting. In fact, it cost me money for the train fare.
I thought my agent was great, I waited for the call, and I waited for him to get me on a show.
More nice meetings came with people from big film and TV companies.
Nice, meanwhile I’m working 48 hours a week in a warehouse on minimum wage, waiting for the next call, the call that would get me a job.
I got on Emmerdale by writing to the Producer and sending my script myself.
MY agent was really pleased with me!!!!
I bet he was, I got myself a big, high paying job, and he got ten percent of everything. Including the repeats, which he still gets ten percent of, even though we parted amicably three years ago.
So let’s repeat this again. An agent sends out your script (can’t you do that yourself?) An agent gets you a meeting; you get the job, not him/her. They get a cut of your money for what????
Most of the big writers on soaps don’t have an agent. They know, they can easily get another job on another soap through there own contacts. They don’t need an agent.
They defiantly don’t need an agent who collects ten percent for doing nothing.
Don’t fall into the I need an agent trap. GET OUT OF THAT MENTALITY, BECAUSE IT SIMPLY ISN’T TRUE.
And don’t fall into the when’s my agent going to get me a job trap.
They don’t. It’s up to you.
Get yourself an agent, if you really want to, if it is your burning desire, do everything you can to get an agent. Knock on every door, send those scripts off, I am not putting you off at all – I am just giving you practical advice, the truth.
Alright. In the next section we’re going to look at writing the great spec screenplay. The one that will get you onto a soap and get you other work.
A spec script is a writer’s calling card; it needs to be as good as you can be.
THE GREAT SPEC SCRIPT
Firstly. New writers always worry about two things –
1. Screenplay Format.
Okay, questions of format can de answered simply for Screenplays and TV, whether it is soap or drama. BUY FINAL DRAFT.
Final Draft is screenplay and TV formatting software, it’s brilliant and all the pros use it. As do most TV companies.
Theft. If I send off my work someone will steal it.
They won’t. In fact, they’re already snowed under with similar ideas.
People have the same or similar ideas all the time.
If they like your idea, but don’t like your script, the worse that could happen is they buy you off, but they won’t steal it.
And if all that doesn’t stop you worrying about theft, maybe you should just forget sending off anything. That way people won’t steal it.
And then you’ll never get anywhere.
Right, moving on…
(Sorry, if I’m a bit short on that one, I‘ve taught a lot of screenwriting classes, there is always one student terrified of people stealing there precious ideas. So much so that it’s become a cliché).
First off, I can’t teach you everything here, and I don’t intend to. If I knew how to write the best spec script ever then I’d be a lot richer than I am. And maybe one would get made. I don’t pretend to be Robert McKee the famous guru who wrote the book STORY.
He’s a guru, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen his name in the credits.
I’ve seen my name in the credits and I’ve got work from scripts I’ve written, so I’ll try my best to help and be honest.
DEFINATLEY invest in these three books. If you can’t afford them, get friends and family to buy them for your birthday/Christmas pressies: –
- Hollywood Animal. By Joe Eszterhas.
- Writing Screenplays That Sell. By Michael Hauge
- Writing The Character Centred Screenplay. By Andrew Horton
The above three books are all the books you need to own on Screenwriting.
Listen, I’ve read them all over the years. The above 3 are fine. All 3 American and one a biography.
There is an out of print book by Phil Parker, a well-respected screenwriting tutor. That too I’m sure is excellent but I’ve never managed to get hold of a copy. A lot of writers on Eastenders were Phil Parker’s ex students and spoke highly of his class in London.
Secondly, a good spec screenplay is about 90 to 100 pages long. That is SET IN STONE.
You send in a script that’s 130 pages long; it will be read last, if at all.
That’s the truth of that.
Thirdly. Most good scripts follow the three – act structure: –
First 20 pages, act one.
Middle 50 pages, act two.
Last 20 pages, act three.
You must get to your inciting incident by page 20 at the latest.
When I say inciting incident, I mean the thing that kicks off the story that must come at the end of page 20 at the latest. Page 10 would be better.
Same as the short films mentioned earlier. You must write low-key drama with maybe a hint of comedy. Soaps and serials are looking for drama writers who can make us laugh and make us cry.
They’re looking for scripts that take place in a recognizable real world with realistic characters that have good individual voices.
You are less likely to get on a TV Soap with a SCI FI Spec Script. Or a HORROR script or an ACTION MOVIE script,
This is Britain, it isn’t America.
British TV readers are looking for something like Secrets and Lies in spec scripts. They’re not looking for Seven, or Rambo, or Cloverfield, or Dawn of the Dead and definitely not Star Wars.
They want scripts about everyday things that build into moving and sometimes funny drama.
This is not saying that you have to write Mike Leigh films, but …
Character’s voice and dialogue is massively important. Good dialogue and characterisation must shine in your scripts. When I script read (and I’ve done it professionally), I want to read five pages of the script and by the fifth page I want to know which character is speaking without haven’t to read the character name. And I want to be desperate to turn the page, not bored to tears.
Chance here to discuss Script Readers. The bane of a writer’s life. BUT these are more than often professional readers. They have read hundreds, maybe thousands of scripts. And they know what they are looking for. BBC Writersroom employs them, ITV employs them, almost everyone employs them.
They are usually someone with experience of working in Television, writing, script editing, storylining etc (like me), it is not well paid, sometimes undervalued, but again, you can learn so much doing this job. Structure, dialogue, character, story, that is what a script reader is looking for, and they become very astute at spotting new talent.
They are employed by the bosses – Producers, Executive Producers, Development Producers so they don’t have to read the overwhelming amount of scripts that are sent in.
Remember, the Producers of any soap or TV drama are busier than you will every imagine, they have deadlines, actors to cast, schedules to work out, storylines to pass, writers to commission. They don’t have time to read everything that is sent to them – they will only read the cream of the crop.
So – the script reader sifts through the scripts and starts reading. When I get a script I concentrate wholly on the first ten pages. I know by the tenth page what I have in my hand. (You should try to hook the reader in by the fifth page, but you MUST do this by the tenth page).
Your mission is to get the script reader to WANT TO TURN THE PAGE. You must ensure you do this at all costs. Script readers have to wade through masses of similar ideas, low grade writing, and if a diamond appears they will rush to their bosses and sing your praises. They are panning for gold. MAKE SURE YOU ARE THE GOLD.
Out of every 100 scripts sent in, basically between 2 and 4 will be passed to the Producer. YES, this is the reality, 2 or 4 out of every 100. Make sure you are in that script reader’s hand as he takes the scripts he/she believes are showing talent.
You HAVE to demonstrate to the script reader that you understand the basic rules of scriptwriting …
Remember, as in life we all talk at a different tempo, inflection, accent, attitude. So should your characters. As in story lining, I want to read a script where the writer has got under the skin of his/her characters. So I know what the characters are thinking even IF, they’re saying the opposite. THAT’S SUBTEXT and the more you have of it in your script the better it will read.
GET INTO YOUR CHARACTERS HEADS.
Labyrinth plotting isn’t important. It helps, but if the characters aren’t there you won’t get anywhere.
There are only a certain number of plots anyway – read some Joseph Campbell or buy the book Twenty Master Plots by Ronald Tobias. Pick which plot you story most closely resembles and use his structure notes.
You should also read lots of screenplays yourself. The best to read that are available are Withnail and I by Bruce Robinson, a brilliant, if overwritten script for a classic film – but look at the way the characters are drawn. And guess what? Three characters really, and two locations. If Bruce Robinson hadn’t have got that made – he could have made some serious money writing for the soaps.
Another very good script to read is an American comedy by the Coen Brothers. The Big Lebowski is funnier on the page than it is on the screen, a perfectly written script. Again, look at the characterisation, the small cast, the smallness of the plot that develops and develops.
When reading scripts look at structure, dialogue, how they write the action.
There are lots of other great scripts available to buy, Potter, Pinter, Bennett. The BBC often publishes produced episodes of Eastenders and Casualty on its website The Writersroom. Read them and learn.
So basically, in an ideal world you’re a good enough writer to produce a short 90 page screenplay, written on Final Draft software, based in the real world, in the UK, about a small group of well drawn characters that go through and emotional, sometimes amusing journey. With a little subtext and a few locations. THIS SHOULD BE A SCRIPT THAT SHOWS YOUR VOICE.
They always talk about this, Script Editors, Producers, and Execs.
THEY WANT NEW VOICES, ORIGINAL VOICES!
WHAT IS YOUR VOICE?
Your Voice basically means writing a script in a way that nobody else could. It’s about your attitude, your point of view. Your take on the world.
Your spec script should give something of your own self, your beliefs.
That is, as long as your beliefs aren’t offensive to others.
If you’re a glass half full or a glass half empty sort of person I want to be able to tell that from your spec script. If you’re funny, with an unusual take on things I want to hear it.
BUT BEWARE; YOUR VOICE SHOULD ALWAYS BE A COMMERCIAL ONE. If you want to be Terence Davies, that’s fine, but let’s get you a bit of work on a soap first so you can earn some money.
Other tips on spec scripts in general.
Don’t bore us all to death, don’t let your characters bore the reader either.
Do your research, make sure everything stands up.
The main tip is, and it’s an old one. But, WRITE ABOUT WHAT YOU KNOW. MAKE US BELIEVE IN YOUR STORY AND YOUR CHARACTERS.
If at the end of all this, you still don’t fancy writing a spec script just yet, don’t worry, write a short, write a short theatre play, or just apply for storyline jobs. You can still get on. I’ve seen it done.
But eventually as a writer, to keep a career going, or at least for your sanity alone you should write some original material.
What happens in most cases is, a young writer full of ideas, writes a great short/spec script/theatre piece and gets picked up by a soap.
They start on the soap, still burning to write original drama.
Then they get used to the soap writer wages, then they forget about the original material. Then they get very happy, very comfortable and very scared to ever leave the soap.
They stop writing original material, they stay on the soap for ten plus years and then they retire loaded.
It’s a shame, BUT THERE ARE WORSE THINGS IN THE WORLD!
I HAVE A GREAT SPEC SCRIPT. WHERE DO I SEND IT?
You can find the addresses of where to send scripts on the internet, Hollyoaks is Lime Pictures, Coronations Street is Granada Manchester, and Eastenders is BBC Elstree.
But what, ABOUT THE BBC WRITERSROOM itself, which read over 10,000 scripts per years (this gives you, your first realistic idea about the amount of competition out there, there are only about 600 soap writing jobs in TV. Don’t worry; you’re already in front of the rest by buying this manual).
The BBC is obviously a government-funded body and by its remit it must help new writers to get work seen and encourage voices from all over the UK and all aspects of society.
So they created the Writersroom as a place, a department where under one roof they could read, sift through and discover new writing talent and nurture it.
I know people who, through the Writersroom have got jobs on Doctors, which have then lead to jobs on Eastenders.
The Writersroom also, is a place where the BBC advertises its various schemes and Competitions.
The Schemes and competitions are very good, valuable experience and very defiantly worth entering.
Remember – I got an agent from winning a writing competition – BUT I got my own job on a soap. NOT FORGETTING I won a writing competition – which impressed the Producer of a UK Soap when I had my interview with him. Writing competitions are always a way to get noticed – get some heat – but always, always, send in your best work. There are others who want to win. Do everything you can to make sure YOU WIN.
Leaving this aside for a moment, let’s say you’re got a great spec script and want to send it to the Writersroom outside of one of the schemes or competitions.
Great, I’d say send it. But what I will warn you is. The better that script is, the longer it will take to get a response.
As a tester, I’ve sent a script to the Writersroom. The script that got me on Eastenders and Emmerdale. A Charming little comedy/ drama, bristling with originality (if I say so myself).
It took over a YEAR for the BBC to get back to me.
They are very, very busy, BUT, if you script shows potential, shows originality, they WILL get back to you. DO NOT PESTER THEM, they are a professional organisation, if you pester them they cannot do their job – WHICH IS WORKING TO FIND NEW TALENT.
As is standard, I sent a follow up email with my identification number of the entry after three months. Then after six months, then finally after a year.
The script had finally been read by everybody.
You see, the better the script, the more different readers will have to read it.
So that, is you basic timetable. By all means send your script, but expect to wait.
AND REMEMER, NEVER, EVER start hassling people with a weekly email. You don’t want to appear unprofessional by hassling VERY BUSY and stressed people about reading your script. Let them do their job. DO NOT HARRASS THEM.
And the longer it takes, the more chance you have of getting a trial for Doctors. Then follow the trial script rules.
What about the competitions and schemes?
Here is an example for you – they’ve recently run two competitions. One for comedy writers and one for drama writers. Total entries where about 2000 for both combined. So the competition is fierce.
Even a competition open to all writers, they’ll still look for people with some experience …
THIS DOESN’T HAVE TO BE PROFFESIONAL PAID EXPERIENCE.
It can be, amateur theatre, it can be ten films on YOUTUBE (more about the internet and its fabulous opportunities later). It can be a book that has sold modestly on LULU. It can be stand up, it can be acting, and it can be radio plays. IT CAN BE FUNDED SHORT FILM.
WHAT THEY’RE LOOKING FOR IS SOMEONE WITH A BURNING DESIRE. A COMMITMENT TO WRITING.
AND if your script is better than people with miles more experience you’ll still get a look in.
You can be 21 or 81. They want original voices, great stories.
The thing about cracking the Writersroom is to show you’re committed and have lots of ideas and material.
SUBMIT, but expect to wait.
WHAT ABOUT THE BBC WRITERS ACADEMY or THE EASTENDERS NEW WRITERS SCHEME?
Enter, but again, they’re looking for people with good scripts and a little (or a lot) of experience.
WHATEVER YOU HAVE, WHATEVER EXPERIENCE OR WRITTEN WORK YOU HAVE – SELL YOURSELF!
I am a product of the Eastenders new writer’s scheme and enjoyed the training I received from Tony Jordan. His energy and enthusiasm for Eastenders was very affecting.
The main thing he taught was about how Eastenders looks for elements in a scene.
One element is plot. One element is character. One element is subtext. One element is theme. One element might be a reference to another plot or character.
Eastenders at its best has lots of different things going on in each scene, and Tony was the master of it.
He also gave us a stark warning.
The history of Eastenders and its writers is like this.
A couple of hundred writers have written one episode.
Maybe a hundred writers have written two episodes.
Less have written three.
Even less ten.
Very few get into the thirties or even 100+ episodes.
It’s not like other soaps.
It’s a very hard show to write.
But if you can crack it. THE BBC WILL LOVE YOU FOREVER, BECAUSE EVEN THEY KNOW IT’S TOUGH TO WRITE.
I’ve met writers who would do anything to write Eastenders, there are lots of them. Eastenders knows this, and they’ll fire writers who can’t cut it very quickly. They know there are always more who want to try.
Remember I said I would discuss Doctors …
This is a long running soap – or serial drama on BBC1 daytime.
It has regular characters – and – a story of the day.
THAT IS – a self-contained story within that day’s episode.
Watch it – they have some really nice stories on that show, and it a chance for the writer to get their voice heard. A chance to get a shot at a little original material nicely placed within the regular characters and their stories.
The team at Doctors are very open to hearing from new writers.
Send them a SHORT, professional letter. Tell them a little about whom you are, what you love about the show and why you want to write it.
Include a SHORT, (no longer than 100 pages – PLEASE – they don’t have time to read War and Peace) – but nicely written script.
With engaging characters, good dialogue and a story that makes them want to TURN THE PAGE.
It doesn’t have to be a medical story at all – you just have to demonstrate you can write. If you want to write a medical story – then show them that you have researched your facts. DO NOT TRIP YOURSELF UP by making something up that wouldn’t happen medically.
If you do get on the show, DO NOT WORRY about medical jargon, they will have researchers and script editors who will be much more experienced than you and willing to help. But do not be lazy – DO SOME RESEARCH YOURSELF – show the production team you are a hard worker, intelligent, and committed to producing good scripts that have a great story of the day – with medically precise content.
DO NOT HARRASS or pester this production team for an answer. They WILL get back to you. They are busy reading your script; so let them do their job.
Remember, they are looking for new talent, so send your best work and leave them to read it. Doctors take on a large proportion of new writers every year, so don’t put them off taking you on.
They are not the highest payers – BUT you could get a chance at Eastenders through this route.
NOW ONTO THE ALL IMPORTANT – INTERNET …
Okay? What’s this doing here? I just want to talk really quickly about the internet (or as Seth Armstrong on Emmerdale used to call it the T’internet).
Why is this here? Well it just might be the future of soap (And the future of Broadcasting). As I write this manual, I’ve been hired to storyline and write a new soap for the internet. Very exciting.
Why is this happening?
Because less and less people are watching the TV, especially young people. Especially since the BBC and ITV cut back on youth programmes and drama’s. Kid’s today look to YOUTUBE or BEBO for some video CONTENT to entertain them. And it’s spreading, office workers look to the internet to entertain them during their dinner hour.
Bebo, the teenage networking site last year launched a teen soap called KATE MODERN, it was apparently getting 8 million hits or viewers per episode. That’s more than Eastenders was getting at the time.
Other internet soaps and projects are appearing all the time. One video on the comedy website FunnyorDie, has had 50 million hits. That translates into 6 million pounds worth of advertising for the sponsors of the site.
When the advertisers desert TV for the internet all hell will break loose, and it will be an open market.
How does this help me get a job in TV?
Just keep your options open; TV isn’t going to vanish yet. Instead TV will become CROSS PLATFORM. It will be TV and internet combined. So keep your options open and your head alert to this, if you’re pitching new ideas always think about the web possibilities.
And if you’re a new writer looking to get some experience on your CV, make a few films for youtube. I’m not talking about the stuff that gets a hundred hits. I’m thinking if you can get 5,000 or ten or twenty thousands hits and you can show a Producer that, it adds to your experience and shows you know what you’re doing.
Lots of comedy writers and performers just starting out now are building a fan base through sites like YOUTUBE.
Jeremy Dyson, one of the creators of The League of Gentleman, told me how they used to perform The League in pubs. They’d hire out an upstairs room and invite people to try and build up a following and get the show off of the ground (VIC REEVES DID THE SAME THING) it’s called thinking out of the box.
If they’d have been doing that today, I bet they’d have put some stuff on youtube.
OKAY. WHAT TO DO IF YOU GET A TRIAL SCRIPT
I’ve a working script writer and UK script consultant I’ve written trial scripts for Hollyoaks, Eastenders and Emmerdale. And I’ve got onto those shows.
So now you’re in a position to write a trial script. How do you ensure you shine?
First off, if the soap is new to you, i.e. you’re not a storyliner and are coming onto the show fresh – ask questions. Don’t be shy. First of all ask for a copy of a decent script by one of the show’s best writers, a finished script that has been broadcast and was a good episode.
If possible ask for it to be emailed to you.
If you’re storyliner you should be reading the scripts already!
Secondly make sure you’ve got the format of the script right.
If you’re using Final Draft and the show is using Final Draft make sure you use the right template.
Eastenders uses Final Draft but it uses its own template within the programme. Make sure you get that emailed to you.
The production staff are there to help you, and they will if you ask. They want you to be the next great writer who comes up with ratings grabbing stories that help keep them in a job. It is in their interest to help you – and if you ask nicely, professionally – they will.
Now when you look at the sample script you’ve been sent, (from Coronation Street, Emmerdale, Hollyoaks, Eastenders etc), you need to read it thoroughly and take notes.
- How long is it?
- At what page does the writer do the advertising break – the ad tag?
- Try and stick to these page numbers.
- You’ll also have done your own research so you’ll be more than familiar with the show, remember you need to shine in these trials and show you know each and every character and how they talk.
- If you’ve been watching the show for a while you MIGHT have even seen the episode that they’ve given you to trial on. DON’T stick too closely to what they ended up with; remember they want YOUR voice, your take on things.
- It’s always good if you can surprise them a little, do write the script as storylined, but you can come at some scenes from a different angle. Try and make a few scenes up that aren’t in the storyline, but be careful not to tell too much of the story, you might be killing the next episode in the chain if you give too much away in your episode.
- Remember the best way to describe soap writer is like a sausage in a chain of sausages, you want your sausage to be the best, but you don’t want to steal meat from the next sausage linked to you. I’ve seen lots of writers on trial scripts do this and they don’t make it onto the show. You want your sausage to be the best, but you’ve still got to understand it’s linked to the others.
- Always remember my best advice and TRY AND GET INTO THE CHARACTERS HEADS – Producers will love you.
- Make sure your characters aren’t saying exactly what is in the storylines and exactly what they are thinking.
- Remember use subtext.
- The best example of subtext I have ever seen is in the Barry Levinson film DINER. Get it, and watch the scene where Daniel Stern and Ellen Barkin argue about a record collection, the scene isn’t about the records it’s about their marriage and marriage isn’t mentioned once in the scene, it’s pure genius.
- Make sure your ad tag and your final hook are as strong as you can make them.
- Remember when you’re watching the episodes of the show on TV COUNT the scenes of at least three episodes. That’ll give you an idea of scene count of the average episode. Also count the scenes in the sample script they’ve given you. Most soaps on the commercial channels are under thirty scenes, Eastenders can be forty or fifty or even more.
- Look for good opportunity to overlap stories that aren’t in the storylines. Your CROSS OVERS. Use cross overs to keep the scene count down. But if you can use CROSS OVERS to comment through subtext on the OTHER stories also going on in the storyline then even better.
- I’ll give you a simple example of this. Say, in the storyline a couple are getting together in the A story. Say, in the B story a couple are breaking apart. Use the A story couple in the pub pledging their love over a pint while the B story couple look on, in the midst of their break up. That kind of hokum is what the soaps love.
- Always start your scenes with some sort of action. Someone slamming a phone down or something, even as simple as someone coming in with a cup of tea, or drying their hair, something simple and in character.
- Try and have various elements going on in a scene, i.e. Max has come around to tell O.B some really urgent bit of gossip. O. B is interested but can’t find his sock from last night and spends the scene searching for it while Max tells him the information. It keeps the scenes alive and moving and NOT STATIC.
- If you’re stuck with how to end a scene, end it with a question – WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO?
- Keep your description short, and to the point.
- Remember don’t try and be too funny, unless the scene, story or characters are funny.
YOU ARE NOT WRITING A SITCOM. I’ve seen many writers do trials on say, Eastenders and fill it with laughs. Doesn’t sound too much like Eastenders as it is on screen.
Don’t try and change the show until you’re on it! Eastenders does have humour, but it’s a certain tone, make sure you match your tone to the show.
Now if you’re doing a trial on Eastenders or through one of the BBC new writer’s schemes you may actually have an edit with a real life Script Editor.
REMEMBER to be nice and enthusiastic. You’ve got to learn about taking notes and not take it personally. When the script editor pulls your script apart to rebuild it, take copious notes, make sure you know WHY they want changes, and try to get them to explain clearly why doing it this way will be better and then AGREE.
When you rewrite, make sure you make it work EVEN BETTER using the Script Editor’s notes. DON’T GO OFF ON TANGENTS. Stick to the notes and rewrite with as much GUSTO as you can muster.
Remember the Script Editor works directly with the Producer, if you say the Script Editor is wrong about a set of notes then YOU are saying the PRODUCER is wrong.
Hardly the way to get onto TV Soap.
I’ve seen writers; many very experienced and earning TONS of cash fall out with a Script Editor over a set of notes. They blame the Script Editor, when in reality it’s the Producer. They soon get fired. DON’T FALL INTO THAT TRAP.
Okay, so you’ve done a great trial, you’ve possibly done a great rewrite based on the Script Editor’s notes.
Producers are really busy; it’s impossible to explain to anyone who hasn’t worked on a soap how busy a Producer is. They work very very long hours and are totally dedicated to making the show work.
So, they will read it, but it might take time, someone might read it for them and give them notes. This is why it’s important to be patient with everybody. The Script Editor may give her/his opinion of you and your work.
Be prepared, because you might have to do another trial on a totally different episode; this isn’t unusual, if they’ve given you a light comedy episode to trial, they might now give you a darker more dramatic one.
Or vice versa.
Follow the instructions again, and don’t be dismayed. I had to do three trials on Emmerdale over six months. My patience eventually earned me lots and lots of money for very little work.
If you think about it – they did me a real favour – BECAUSE – the more trials you do the more ready to hit the ground running you will be when you actually get onto the programme.
So finally, you’ll be called by the Producer and told he/she wants you on the team. Brilliant. What happens next?
THE REAL LIFE OF A SOAP WRITER.
It’s a lot easier than being a Storyliner, although it’s a little lonelier.
The conferences can be scary, you’ve GOT TO gradually start speaking, pitching stories, and having a say.
As a writer on a soap you’re in effect one of the authors of the way the WHOLE show develops. If you’re not contributing enough the Producer will notice. Everyone will notice.
You’re also, whether they will admit it or not in competition with ALL of the other writers for money. You want that commission, you want that phone call or email – the commission for an episode means money – A LOT OF MONEY – in YOUR pocket.
Some writers might be write the best scripts, but are not very good at pitching, but at least they will try.
Other writers might not write the best scripts but they make a MASSIVE contribution in conference, they PITCH STORIES that keep the show ALIVE.
Other writers write okay scripts and say very little, they won’t be there long.
Other writers, some just starting on the show might write bad scripts and say nothing in conference, or worse, talk rubbish. – YOU WON’T SEE THEM AGAIN.
Now when you first start on a soap, the Producer might invite you to a couple of conferences first.
This is a tough thing to gauge. You are new and in story conference – and not commissioned yet. I would say a few things, comment on stories that you think are good, why they are good, what’s exciting about them, be positive, support other writers.
Then if you’re invited to another conference without being commissioned (this happened to me) only then would I pitch a small story, and I’d have it well worked out.
When you get commissioned, (asked to write a particular episode – YOUR episode), you should definitely start to sing for your supper a little bit more. Pitch stories and get involved in the debates at conference. DON’T JUST SIT THERE LOOKING BORED.
And remember, if you’ve just being commissioned, none of the other writers will see if you can write or not for three months until your first episodes appear on screen.
Try to be social with the writers and go for the meals they organise, but beware. ALL YOU WILL TALK ABOUT IS THE SHOW YOU’RE WORKING ON. It can wear you out.
If you’ve come from the Storyline office all the writers will want to know some inside the office gossip. Tell them NOTHING. It will soon get back to the Producer.
Be nice to the Script Editing and Storylining team, they have tough jobs.
The writing itself should be easy. You might have a few tough episodes that require more than a couple of hours work a day.
Remember – not to rely on your script editor, but if you have a good relationship with him/her, it is going to make your life a whole lot easier.
And remember when you start to get commissioned a lot you’ll be writing one episode while you’re rewriting another. You get used to it, it can be hard work, but the pay is immense. You’re more than well compensated.
The best advice I can give you is to make sure you save at least 25% of your money to PAY YOUR TAX. This might seem a lot – but you will be earning huge amounts of money – so SAVE as much as you can.
The Inland Revenue do not mess about when it comes to wanting their slice – and let’s face it, you are in the top high earners, you can afford to pay them.
You will be on 40% tax rate – BUT – you will be earning huge amounts of money – so SAVE as much as you can. Splash out, enjoy yourself, of course, but squirrel/invest/save that cash.
And – VERY IMPORTANT – get a GOOD accountant. Get a good accountant as soon as you get your first commission. You pay them, not a huge amount of money to do a great job for you – they take all the strain – just make sure you save all your receipts!
And, once you get onto a show, stay on it for as long as possible, become friends with the Producer and the Executive Producer and make sure you become a core writer. Then you can be the next Jimmy McGovern, Tony Jordan or Frank Cottrell Boyce.