The aim of the course was to explore the role of the Script Editor and what they do. The first day concentrated on original drama work, while the second day was centred on script editing for continuing drama series, using The Bill as a case study. Day 1 was led by Diane Culverhouse, while writer Stuart Morris ran Day 2. There were 15 delegates on the course, ranging from script editors at the start of their careers to development executives, agents, writers, MA lecturers and book editors.
Apparently the course could have been filled three times over with the number of people applied, but a mixture of experience and backgrounds was chosen to keep things mixed and interesting. I was grateful to have made the cut and studiously took lots of notes. Below are my best notes from the first day. Some of this stuff is pretty obvious or self evident, but it all bears repeating…
TAPS Script Editing Course • Notes from Day 1
The Script Editor (SE hereafter) can make or break a writer. The SE is a writer’s first point of contact. The SE’s role can effectively range from reader to producer, but the goal is always to produce the best possible script and/or TV series. The bigger the show, the more script editors it will have. On The Bill a SE can have up to 12 different writers working on a dozen different scripts at any one time, all of them at different stages of development.
Discovering new talent is a crucial element of the SE’s role. Where is new talent found? Theatre, radio, via agents, from the slush pile, word of mouth, opportunities like the BBC writers’ room, from MA courses and the like.
Script Editors want original voices, even though those writers will have to match their work to a specific remit and be part of a team of writers. Mimics are not wanted. Original voices are sought, but still writing about real people and real situations – with an element of surprise. Characters and dialogue are crucial, obviously. If there’s no warmth or humanity to a script, people won’t care, no matter how clever the writing might be.
Characters shouldn’t all sound the same. Dialogue is not merely functional, it should sparkle on the page. Writers have to be able to tell a story, but structure can be taught. You want to feel there’s a story there, and a freshness to the writing. You’re looking for a writer who’s got something, that spark of potential. It’s one of the most exciting parts of the job, finding that nugget of talent and nurturing it. Original voices can come through in an episode for a soap or a serial, talent shines through.
What do we mean by an original idea? The idea, the core concept – what is it about? What is it really about? Often this is at the back of the writer’s mind. Ask the writer what their idea is, what it means – over and above the narrative. You’re not asking about the plot, you’re asking what’s the angle? It will revolve around a particular character and how we, the audience, relate to their experience. It’s the pivotal thematic point of the story. It’s about the style and tone that’s intrinsic to the story.
Questions for a script editor to ask of a script:
Is the idea interesting or different?
Can we identify with it?
What does it mean?
Will it interest us and others?
Is it of interest to a particular age group [e.g. Hollyoaks or New Tricks]?
Is it a broad appeal story?
Is it clear what the idea’s about, does it have clarity?
Both writer and SE need to be clear what the theme is. Some soaps give individual episode titles that relate to the theme of that script e.g. Jealousy, Revenge. When you ask questions of the writer, you get to the theme of their story.
Characterisation: who is the story about? Whose story is it? Character-led stories are crucial, especially in spec scripts. Stories need depth, warmth and heart. Stories should tell the lead character’s journey. We want to care about characters. If we don’t, then there’s nothing in the script. We don’t have to like them, but they need a redeeming feature. We need to feel passionately about characters.
Characters can do something shocking but it has to stem from their character. Character is about attitude, their unique take on the world. Love to hate characters need a vulnerability of some sort, a redeeming feature.
Dialogue: good dialogue is hard to define. It should be naturalistic and real, but it can’t be truly naturalistic. It requires economy, energy and a pace appropriate to the telling of the story. Dialogue gives characters their identity. Does it leap off the page? Is it sparkling – or leaden? It should never be on the nose, that will destroy a character. Beware elliptical dialogue that goes round and round and round. Ending a scene on a question can create a great image for the finish. Beware the tendency to underline the theme at the end.
Exercises: the course looked at three original drama scripts. One was a ten-minute piece written for the stage, while the other two were generated by a recent TAPS continuing drama course. These two were written under certain restrictions – the number of characters, the number of sets available, the duration, the need to include an ad break halfway through the script. The premise and first drafts were supplied to SE course delegates in advance for reading and consideration.
Questions to consider when reading original drama scripts: what is the writer trying to achieve and have they achieved that in the first draft? It’s key for the SE to ask questions of the writer to bring out their intention.
Strategies for working with writers: SE has to know a script inside out. Know what you think and feel about it. That shows respect to the writer and enables you to work better together. SE should give the script a minimum of two reads to be thorough. The first read will give you an instant reaction. On the second read you’ll know what’s going to happen and what the writer was trying to achieve. You’ve got to be on top of the script.
Diplomacy is important. Suggest changes, don’t tell the writer to make them. The writer should be writing the script, not the SE. You need to build mutual respect. You need to know what they’re intending. Suggest, but don’t impose. Don’t rewrite a writer if it’s humanly possible not to do so.
Script editors should set the tone of their relationship with a writer. You want a friendly relationship but you want them to respect you. Core writers on continuing drama series can be used to do a late polish on a flawed script, if necessary. Returning drama series can be a massive intellectual exercise for writers, balancing their own story elements with the necessary serial elements.
SE should be on the side of their writer and know their writer’s work. SE should be truthful and direct. An SE shouldn’t lie. Give a writer all the positives first. Single, original drama has a far closer relationship between producer and writer. On continuing drama there’s a far larger script editing staff. The bigger a show becomes, the larger the staff, so there’s a danger the number of notes on a script will multiple exponentially. An SE has to weigh up all the notes and have an overview before talking to the writer.
Phrase everything in the shared ‘we’ e.g. are we getting the best from this scene. Ask your writer questions and invite their solutions. It should be a collaborative effort. SE needs to have a huge amount of sensitivity. Criticism should be constructive, of course. It’s about the writing, not the writer. It’s about the specific piece of work. The first page of any script should hit the ground running. The principle characters should appear in the first scene, if at all possible. This scene implicitly tells the audience whose story it is. Never got to an ad break in the middle of a scene.
If something in a script doesn’t work, first you need to explain what’s wrong with it to the writer, convince them. Then you get them to come up with solutions. Always ask a writer what do they think the story is about? Talk about the principle character’s journey. Talk about each character – their role, their function, and their relationships.
A good SE enables the writer to create the best possible script. It’s a nurturing job.