How To Write For Television
THE CALLING CARD SCRIPT
You are preparing to write a ‘calling card’ television script that will show your talents as a writer. This script is terribly important: in fact, it’s the only thing about you that is important. Nobody in television will care about what you’ve done in life, or who you are, or who you know, or what your thoughts are about EastEnders plotlines these days. All anybody will care about is:
a) can you write?
b) can you write the sort of script I’m looking for?
Your ‘calling card’ script, as it is known in most script units, is expected to show what you can produce using your own skills, imagination, and judgement. It is the play that you yourself want to write and it will be respected as such. That said, and without compromising the script you believe will do justice to your talents, it makes sense to target the market that you ultimately want to write for.
Perhaps you already have a story in your head – some characters – a subject you believe will make a great drama. But how do you know if it is the right sort of script to ‘sell’ you as a writer? Or how many characters and locations you ought to have? Or how long it ought to be? Before we consider anything else, let us look at the basics:
- the best length at which to write;
- the ideal number of characters and locations;
- the best kind of drama to write.
THE BEST LENGTH AT WHICH TO WRITE
Recognised writing slots are as follows:
- Ninety minutes for major ‘event’ drama. The advantage of writing a major 90-minute play is that it shows your ability to create characters, to write dialogue, to utilize the camera, and to handle your plot. It also shows that you are capable of sustained writing on a major theme. Major ‘event’ dramas can be longer than 90 minutes – they can be a two-parter, spread over two consecutive nights’ viewing, but it is pointless for a new writer to attempt anything longer than a 90-minute script.
- Sixty minutes for series and serial drama. The advantage of the 60-minute play (only 50 minutes in running time, when advertising breaks and trailers are taken into account) is that it shows the above virtues without requiring script editors to read as much. It also saves you printing and postage costs. And if you are writing to a common theme – e.g. love lost/found/betrayed or the paranormal – it has a faint (but real) chance of being ‘packaged’ with others in a season of one-hour themed stories.
- Thirty minutes for soap operas and sitcoms. This is not a good length for a calling card drama script. To open, develop, and conclude an original drama in 30 minutes is very difficult.
Other than Doctors there are rarely any 30-minute slots for self contained dramas, and soaps are not interested in reading scripts written for their existing characters/plots. If you are interested in writing a sitcom, however, this is the length to aim for.
Ten minutes for drama ‘shorts’. The advantage of writing a 10-minute short is that it is short – and the script editor is therefore more likely to actually read it. It gives a glimpse of your talents without requiring labour and effort. Ten-minute shorts are, though, at the end of the day less convincing than a solid 90 or 60-minute play, they are very difficult to write, and there may not be any 10-minute series in production (and consequently no script editor to read your effort).
THE IDEAL NUMBER OF CHARACTERS AND LOCATIONS
A new writer will generally find it easier to introduce and develop a small group of characters, rather than juggle with a large cast, and it is certainly a kindness to the script reader who is now reading her fourth or fourteenth script of the day. It is also wise for the new writer not to get entangled in location action that involves complex camerawork. That said, there is virtually no market today for plays that involve very few people sitting in a room talking to each other. Today’s television audience is blase´ and easily bored. Producers who want high viewing figures (i.e. all of them) must try to provide the sort of action and location shooting common to the cinema and to films made for the video market. Your script (unless it is a sitcom, see Chapter 9) needs to take us out and about, and include visual action. You also stand more chance of success if you give good ‘production values’ (i.e. provide interesting things to look at) at a relatively low cost. From a budget point of view, a play that has only half-a-dozen principal characters, and takes advantage of, say, the scenic beauty of a nature reserve, a fairground, or perhaps the haunting, sad atmosphere of a seaside resort in winter, is good. A play that requires a cast of thousands, location shooting in Paraguay, and a comet crashing on the Houses of Parliament, is bad. It is true that major drama ‘events’ have multi-million pound feature-film budgets and can afford global locations, special effects, and large casts, but these films and series are invariably written by experienced writers.
THE BEST KIND OF DRAMA TO WRITE
Some types of drama are more in demand that others. Some are to be avoided by a new writer. Here we look at:
- human-relationship drama;
- historical drama;
- sci-fi and the paranormal;
- existing series and serials;
- children’s drama;
- comedy drama;
- situation comedy.
The BBC and Channel 4 have traditionally been proud of their reputation for tough, contemporary, socially-aware drama, and there was a time when most one-off television plays had something to tell us about society in Britain. The years of The Wednesday Play and Play for Today are gone, but a contemporary drama dealing with social issues (e.g. Channel 4’s Sex Traffic and BBC Two’s White Girl) is, nevertheless, a good bet. Even if your play is not bought, it will most clearly show your ability to write contemporary dialogue and characterization. ‘EastEnders, Holby City and Casualty will continue to tackle difficult and sensitive issues’ says BBC One. In truth, socially-aware drama does not have to be relentlessly grim and serious: many arewritten as love stories, comedies (see below), or as thrillers that take us into the world of high finance or environmental disaster. Can you find an area of modern life that has not been exploited by others? Is there something about which you feel strongly? Something you passionately want to write about?
Our drama series need to feel smart and stylish and relevant to the lives and loves of a 25–34-year-old drama audience – 75%of whom have young families and all are asking questions and exploring all areas of adult life.
BBC Three commissioning brief
Human relationship drama
In terms of subject matter you will not go far wrong if you write a story of human relationships: a story of romance, love, sex, and possibly intrigue and betrayal. And if you set it against a background of contemporary life and involve contemporary social issues, your subject matter will have even greater appeal, because you will be combining what the viewers want to see with what the producers and directors want to do. Such a script will show your potential to write for a wide range of soap operas and series dramas. Just as plays about social issues do not have to be relentlessly grim, stories about love do not need to be soft and romantic. Plays in the strand Love Bites included a tale of single parents and drug addicts in Glasgow; a searing study of date rape (which included flash forwards and split screens); and a bitter-sweet comedy about love between a black girl and a white boy. If you’re a young writer and want to script programmes like Skins or The Inbetweeners then human relationships described with wit and humour (dark or otherwise) is what will appeal to script editors. ‘The Inbetweeners delves into the psyche of the British teenage boy and discovers equal amounts of porn, sick and cheap lager’, says Channel 4 helpfully.
Avoid unless you have a stunning idea that the programmers cannot resist. Certainly the market is growing, particularly for dramatizations of events in the recent past (e.g. Einstein and Eddington, Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley and BBC Two’s hugely ambitious Decades), and series like Robin Hood and Merlin have been very successful, whilst City of Vice has given us a colourful and sexy cop show in 18th century London. But the expense is great, most historical plays that reach the screen are adaptations (see below), and projects generally originate with programme makers rather than writers. Another problem is that agents and script editors have difficulty assessing your skill with modern dialogue and characterization when you are writing in a period setting.
Sci Fi and the paranormal
Very much in vogue, from a rejuvenated Dr Who and its spin off Torchwood to Demons and Apparitions. Subjects and settings can be diverse: BBC One’s Empathy follows an ex-con whose paranormal visions assist in a murder hunt; Lifeline is a supernatural love story. BBC Three’s Being Human (described by the production company as ‘witty, exciting, sexy’) is about a werewolf, a vampire, and a ghost sharing a house. If you have a good idea, go for it
Existing soaps and series
Do not write a script for an existing programme like Coronation Street, or The Bill, even if you eventually want to write for the programme concerned. Most script editors will not even look at your script – they are interested in your own original talent, not in how well you copy what you see on the screen.
Most serials are written by one writer. If you have a cracking story that you believe needs telling over several episodes you should write the first episode (60 minutes) and short summaries of the other episodes. Even if the series is not made, it will show your dramatic skills and creativity.
There’s quite a lot of it, but the market for new writers is not as great as that for adult series and soaps. If this is your interest, your best bet is to devise a four-part or six-part serial, and write one episode together with synopses of the rest. It might not be accepted, but if your work is liked you will be encouraged and pointed in the direction of children’s programmes that use outside writers. Children’s drama is almost always low-budget. Independent production companies that do children’s programming include Red Kite (Dennis and Gnasher), Kudos (Code 9), and Dot to Dot Productions.
Although adaptations – particularly of classic novels or detective stories – are frequently made there is no opportunity here for the new writer.
Very much in demand, but surprisingly little reaches the screen. At Home with the Braithwaites scored brilliantly, achieving both a best new drama award and nomination in the British Comedy Awards. ITV’s single plays are often comedy drama, and BBC One says it is planning to do more in this area. Writing realistic drama that also makes us laugh is not easy, but if your instincts take you in this direction there is a ready market. A new comedy drama series (e.g. ITV’s Sold) will have carefully selected writers for its first outing, but if it does well and another series is commissioned there might be oppportunities to join the writing team.
This is a big market, and the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV are actively looking for new writing talent. See Chapter 9 for specific sitcom writing requirements, and Chapter 13 for information about what programme makers want.
Is it true that anyone of average ability can learn how to be a scriptwriter? You must have an aptitude for writing dialogue. Everything else can be learned.
Is it true that you should always write about what you know about?
Generally speaking, yes. But you need to avoid the more obvious situations. Producers get sent a lot of dramas about students living in squalid flats from students living in squalid flats, and about teachers who are sick and tired of teaching from teachers who are sick and tired of teaching. That said, a doctor, nurse, or hospital porter is more likely to write a hospital drama with conviction than a solicitor would. Script editors are impressed – or at the simplest level comforted – if they believe you are writing with inside knowledge. This does not mean that you can’t write a drama about life on Saturn unless you’ve been there; it does mean that you need to know everything there is to know about Saturn and the technology needed to sustain life on it.
The setting and subject do not have to be exotic. Stacking supermarket shelves at night might not be glamorous and exciting, but if your story is well told viewers will be fascinated to know the hidden dramas, rivalries, loves, and routines of supermarket life in the secret hours of the night.
BBC Two drama aims to ring true with the big themes in the life of the diverse UK audience.We deliver this through our commitment to the best writing and on-screen talent.
BBC Two statement of programme policy
How gritty and controversial can I be?
As gritty and controversial as you like. Putting on gritty controversial plays makes BBC and Channel 4 producers feel that they are more than mere hacks in the entertainment business: it makes them feel that they are people of influence in society. In recent years we have seen television dramas about drugs abuse, child abuse, incest, oppression within the family, homosexual oppression, rent boys, transvestites, lesbians, racial tension, prison scandals, mob violence, and corruption. Studies in fidelity, honesty, loyalty, and the happy state of England, however, are only seen on ITV.
So aren’t gritty, controversial plays old hat?
Well, possibly. Today’s drama heads and commissioning editors are likely to be more concerned with property values in the Ardeche than social values in inner-city Britain, and today’s script editors (who are nearly all in their twenties) seem to be apolitical, though healthily interested in sex and money. A play about old age pensioners dying of hypothermia might make their eyes glaze over, but give them a script called Lesbian Snogs and they’ll sit up and take an interest right away.
The truth is that they want it all. ‘BBC Two drama offers thought provoking storytelling,’ says the BBC. ‘We are more than ever committed to drama as entertainment,’ says Channel 4.
So make your play thought-provoking and entertaining, and everybody will like it.
Are some subjects or settings more likely to be accepted than others?
Yes, but fashions can change very quickly, and all script editors are liable to decide they’re sick of buggery plays just as you put the finishing touches to a cracking 90-minutes on the subject. There might be a leaning towards northern drama series (a successful heart-warming family saga set in the North will be followed by two or three others in similar locations), or there might be a fashion for witty, ironic plays set among young people in London, but by the time you catch the mood of the moment it will have changed, and although it only takes a second on your computer to change ‘Iona’ to ‘Islington’ throughout your script, it is unlikely to help you sell it. By the time a drama reaches the screen it might well be three years on from the time when it was proposed, and two years, perhaps, from the time when it was commissioned.
‘Any series should be based around a bold, provocative idea, covering worlds you have not seen before or from a fresh angle... the target demographic is 16 to 34, but we do not want to make that too exclusive.’
Ben Stephenson,Channel 4 Drama
Both Channel 4 and BBC Three very clearly and openly target younger audiences (after you’re 35 you might as well be dead).
The constants, of course, on all channels, are police/detective dramas and medical dramas. Or dramas that cleverly combine both elements.
Is it all right to use ‘bad’ language if it’s realistic and true to character?
In moderation, but a surprisingly high percentage of scripts from new writers have characters using crude language, repetitiously, and this doesn’t impress script editors, because they are professionals looking for scripts that can be broadcast. (See Chapter 7.)
What if I have a great idea for a series of 30-minute dramas, and don’t think the stories will stretch to an hour?
Write to the length you are comfortable with. Script editors would much rather read a good 30-minute script, even if they don’t have any 30-minute slots available, than a 60-minute script that rambles about. And there is always the possibility of a 30-minute drama strand being launched in the future (particularly in a low-budget, late-night slot).
Are any drama slots specifically designed for new writing talent?
The BBC provides opportunities for new writers through low-cost drama series like Doctors and has an excellent website (bbc.co.uk/writersroom) devoted to seeking and nurturing new writing talent. The Writersroom also gives advice on possible markets, current trends in drama, and script opportunities (see Chapter 19). Another good source of information about new writing slots, and indeed about much else, is twelvepoint.com. Much of the search for new comedy writing is now done online, and a good source of information and advice is Robin Kelly’s Writing for Performance (writing.org.uk). Channel 4’s excellent website for new comedy writers, 4laughs, has disappeared, but there are hopes that it will resurface so it is worth checking the site. For more detailed advice see Chapter 18.
Should my script for the BBC be longer than for ITV or Channel 4, because there will be no advertising breaks?
Nobody is going to be timing your calling card script, and it wouldn’t matter if they did, because the BBC makes many programmes to the same length as the commercial channels in order to allow for advertising breaks if they are sold abroad. (This also has the happy effect of allowing the BBC promotions department several minutes every hour to fill with programme trails.)
Should I put commercial breaks in my calling card script?
Yes, in the version you send to ITV or Channel 4 or Channel 5. Not in the version you send to the BBC. You should not call them commercial breaks, but ‘End of Part One’, ‘End of Part Two’, etc.
- Sixty minutes is a good length for an original calling-card drama script and 30 minutes for a sitcom. Don’t worry about accurate timing, but using a standard layout (see Chapter 10) your drama script should be around 60 pages long, and your sitcom around 40 pages long, depending on just how fast and funny it is.
- You should write a contemporary play, because this will more easily demonstrate your ability with dialogue and characterization.
- It is better to introduce and develop a small group of characters than to juggle with a large cast. The critical part of your ‘calling card’ script is the first ten pages. If you succeed in writing even one interesting character, in an interesting situation, and leave the script editor wanting to know more, you will have done very well.
- You should give us visual interest (without demanding enormous special effects) and show that you can cut between interior and exterior scenes.
- It will be an added bonus if you can give us an insight into an area of life we would not otherwise know about.
The BBC advises new writers to write the sort of play they themselves would like to see on the screen, choosing subjects from their own experience.