Wednesday, December 06, 2006

TAPS script editing course • Day 2 notes

Yesterday I blogged with my first day notes from the script editing course I went to in London last week. As promise, here are my second day notes. These mostly focus on The Bill, but there's plenty of good stuff included for those not specifically interested in that show...

TAPS Script Editing Course • Day 2 notes

The second half of the TAPS script editing course used an episode of The Bill written by Stuart Morris as its case study for examining the differing roles of writer and script editing on a continuing drama serial. Stuart ran the day and started by introducing himself. He got his start as a sketch writer, working with a partner. They moved on to Eastenders but eventually sundered their collaboration. From there Stuart moved to Family Affairs, writing 54 episodes of the Channel 5 soap. He says almost all his work since has stemmed from the network of writers, producers, executives and – crucially – script editors he met and worked with on Family Affairs. They’ve since spread out across the UK TV industry, creating a post-FA mafia of sorts.

Stuart Morris (SM hereafter) talked about how he sees the role of Script Editor (SE). An SE should always have an opinion and not be afraid to express it. The SE works for the producer but their job is to help the writer. The SE must express an opinion to the write, otherwise the writer will get frustrated. Honesty is the most important thing. Writers hate to be bullshitted by an SE, so always tell the writer what you think. Be as honest as you can if you want the writer to produce their best work. It’s important to have an honest relationship between writer and SE.

In continuing drama [i.e. soaps or shows with a serial, soap element like The Bill, Doctors, Casualty, Holby] the story doesn’t all come from the writer.

The Bill is the world’s biggest cop show, producing two hours a week and thus 100 hours of drama a year. It’s fast approaching its 500th episode. The show went through a soap-heavy period but has gone back to concentrating on crime stories. It tried embracing serialised crime stories that ran for weeks or even months, but these created massive production problems – change one element in one episode and it has a ripple effect that causes difficulties for months afterwards.

The Bill is now looking to have more individual episodes, and shorter runs for its serial elements. Ideally, the crime story in each episode of The Bill has to have resonance – a big buzz word within the industry at the moment, according to SM – with the regular character’s personal lives, as medical stories seek to have resonance on Casualty et al.

At The Bill the story department generates the long-term stories and character-based arcs. Every three or four months there’s a long-term meeting to plot the way forward. Seven or eight writers can be present, seven or eight SE, the production team and a rep of ITV, plus police advisors and researchers. The meeting lasts two days and is looking at episodes a year in the future e.g. a meeting this month would determine the Christmas 2007 storylines and character arcs. [According to one delegate at the course, SE people do not go to the long-term planning meetings for character arcs and plotlines.]

Three months later the storylines document comes out, detailing the serial elements for the episodes discussed at the long-term meeting. [Note: new writers don’t have to pitch story ideas to get a commission on The Bill, you get a commission on your own merits and then work with what you’re given, adding your own crime stories to the mix as required.] SE and storyliners sometimes interchange on The Bill.

Once the storyline document has been issued, a meeting is called with all the writers who have been assignment episodes in the block under consideration. The writers get their storyline document a couple of days before a meeting to discuss the document. Writers will often call their assigned SE to discuss the implications of the document in advance of the meeting. At the meeting will be the involved SE staff, writers, producer, series producer, story producer and others.

This meeting is the writer’s opportunity to ask questions and pitch ideas. The writer and SE need to identify in advance of the meeting problems with the material they’ve been given. The Bill tells writers upfront what characters are in the story, so the focus is clear. New writers will get a series bible, character backstory sheets and – lately – a chart of character quirks, to make sure each character remains distinct and well drawn. Each storyline document also contains a state of play, so everybody knows where they are. There’s also set plans, notes from police advisors and a research document about the crimes featured in each episode.

The meeting opens by stalking about the serial elements, what the story is trying to achieve. Writers and SE need to be as prepared as possible for this meeting, but not over-committed to pre-created stories of their own devising. Prepare and you’ll get the most out of this meeting – writers won’t get that chance again with everyone in the room.

Each episode of The Bill features eight guest actors and eight locations. Sometimes teams horse-trade guests for locations and vice versa.

A week after the commissioning meeting where the storyline document gets discussed, individual writers will got to the Bill production office for a meeting with the SE to beat the story out. From that the writer has a beat sheet showing the bullet points of their A, B and C story. The writer now has three weeks to do a first draft. Some writers like to do a scene-by-scene before going to first draft, but it’s not required on The Bill – SM prefers to dive straight into the first draft, using his beat sheet as a roadmap.

On The Bill the first section of the show is eight minutes long before a commercial break, so that has to really grab the audience to make them stay with the show. It’s crucial to identify whose is the A story, whose B story it is and so on. All the stories should be active, with the cops at the heart of each story. The Bill telescopes the time required for a real investigation to achieve dramatic storytelling, but strives to be factually accurate.

No scene can be more than four pages in length. Each location must be used at least twice to get the best value from the effort of location filming.

SM likes to maintain a dialogue with his SE while writing his first draft, but writers need to be aware their SE is working with multiple writers on multiple drafts of multiple episodes. Things can change at any time on The Bill, where issues of continuity are in a constant state of flux. Characters can be killed in a previous while a writer is still included them in a subsequent episodes – that’s the nature of episodic, serialised drama.

Maintaining a dialogue between SE and writers helps the writer evolve their first draft as things change in other episodes. It’s difficult to judge how much an SE should tell a writer about changes that will effect their episode. Be careful not to demoralise the writer by telling them most of what they’re slaving over will never make it on screen due to changes elsewhere, particularly a few days before the delivery deadline. A few poorly chosen words from an SE can screw up a writer’s head and work.

The SE should give the writer permission to call and ask questions at convenient times for both of them. Three drafts are usual, followed by a production draft. Writers get three weeks to deliver their first draft, two weeks for the second draft and a week for the third.

On The Bill events are only seen from the police point of view. You tend to see the effects of the crime and its aftermath, not the crime itself. It’s better to have characters fighting to hold back tears than bursting into tears – make them internalise emotions, as it gives the actors more room to act. In your stage directions, never say NEVE REACTS – that’s too bland, too vague. A better choice is NEVE LOOK DISTRAUGHT – that gives the actor something to work with, without restricting anyone. It reads better, too! Write what’s inside the character and let the actor express that.

Don’t expect all the characters to arrive fully formed in the first draft, it’s a multi-draft process. A good SE and a decent writer should be trying to see the whole process, not be fixing everything all at once – that way can lie madness.

Clarity and simplicity are keywords in TV storytelling at present, but clarity doesn’t deny depth of storytelling. Be intriguing, not baffling. Make the audience wonder, not worry. You want every draft to be a good read, in and of itself. Writers have to be specific in their intention at all times.

After lunch the workshop was joined by James Gillam-Smith (JGS), a script editor on The Bill, and senior script editor James Hall (JH).

JGS: You need a first draft to have a basis from which to work. The Bill is tending towards two-story episodes, an A story and a B story. The A story occupies 25-30 scenes. Reading the first draft, you have to ask if the stories are working. If not, why not?

JH: When reading a script, I put myself in the audience’s position: is it exciting, moving? How does it make me feel? The first read offers an instant reaction, an overall feeling. If the story works, then you move on to the details e.g. characters, structure, dialogue. Bad story will generate bad dialogue because it makes the writer’s efforts a strain. A good SE will tend to give only headline notes on the first draft, as so much is likely to change there’s no point getting into the nitty gritty yet – that wastes everyone’s time.

With the crime story on The Bill, you have to ask yourself – why should we care? Why do we care about the victims or the perpetrators? Always expect curveballs after the first draft as changes elsewhere precipitate change in later drafts. On Eastenders, writers are often required to start and finish an episode with a scene from the A story – that isn’t the case on The Bill.

SM: Every draft has a use, even if it seems useless at the time, because you learn about the characters you’re creating. No draft is wasted – often early draft elements will creep back into later versions.

JH: The Bill has changed a lot in the last two years. It had gotten very soapy and bonkers. Now it’s moved more to being about crime, coppers doing a job and how it affects their lives. At one point writers were getting ten pages of storylined serial elements, that’s now been striped back to three pages of supplied material, giving them room with which to work and be creative. Serial elements on The Bill work best when integrated into the crime story. Every episode must have a self-contained story within it.

After the first draft is delivered, there’s a meeting of in-house staff: the producer, police advisor, senior story editor, the story editor and the SE, with the SE taking all the notes. The info from that meeting is communicated by the SE to their writer, including relevant feedback and any curveballs that have arisen. There’s another meeting after the second draft, more notes taken and communicated to the writer. Again on the third, fourth and any subsequent drafts. But not everyone reads every draft.

The SE is working on multiple episodes at one time, sometimes six episodes with as many writers, keeping all those plates spinning. There’s meant to be three weeks between the final draft getting locked down and the start of shooting – in reality it tends to be only a week, sometimes considerably less. The director comes on board four weeks before shooting begins to start prepping.

It’s about three months from the commissioning meeting to the delivery of the final draft script. Two episodes are done in a block with one director and one SE. The Bill has three units on the go at once, so six episodes are being shot simultaneously. The Bill aims to shoot 12-14 pages a day.

How does The Bill find new writers? Spec scripts from agents and writers. If the production team likes a spec script, it might look further at that writer. However, it wants writers with a bit of experience, not newcomers. The show requires writers to juggle serial drama storylines, lots of constraints, the police drama elements. Writers have got to know the show and like the show, got to be able to write in The Bill’s voice. Writers should be aiming to write at least six episodes for The Bill – it’s not an itch you should planning to scratch once and then walk away.


mark g said...

Great notes. They reflect my experience on the show pretty accurately. I did eps at the apex of the 'bonkers' stage, which was indeed 'bonkers', but did get to develop stories for all 4, 30% to 75% of the shows in question. Which was deeply frustrating for someone who'd never had to incorporate serial stories before, but an excellent crash course in working under pressure.

And the pressure is HUGE. It's a tough, though also very supportive, environment to work in.

TonyB said...

Thanks again David.

After getting such a detailed insight into the Bill are you going to have a go at writing for it? A tutor on a writing course I did earlier in the year had written for it and from what she said it seemed to be a very rewarding experience for the writer - less 'writing by numbers' than the ordinary soaps.

English Dave said...

I too survived the Paul Marquess bonkers Bill. Who can forget the male rape of Mickey Webb? It's a show you have to really love in order to write it well and I'd have to say probably not for the beginner.