Spent the past two days at the Script Factory's Storylining for Long Running Television Drama: Soap Story Conference Workshop, led by Yvonne Grace. Snap verdict: it's well worth every penny if you're interested in working on soaps as a writer, script editor or storyliner. Yvonne brings a wealth of experience to the two days, having been a script editor on EastEnders, worked on Coronation Street, produced Holby City and executive produced Crossroads. She's sparky, funny and great out coaxing out good ideas from people. There's a maximum of eight people at the workshop, making it an intimate but enjoyable experience. I was the only male in the room, so there was a refreshing lack of testosterone and aggression.
The workshop started with everybody introducing themselves, their backgrounds, why they were interested in storylining and what they hoped to get out of the two days. Yvonne ran us through the roles of those intimately involved with story and script developments on soaps: the executive producer, the producer, the storyliner, the script editor and the writer. Next we moved on to discussing Harkness Hall, the fictitious soap Yvonne had devised for the workshop.
A week earlier we'd been sent material about the show: a list of sets; a page about the setting, tone and dynamics; and, crucially, character outlines, interrelationships and backstories. Yvonne has suggested ways in which characters might develop and storylines that could generate, but we were encouraged to bring a plethora of possible plots with us to start the workshop. We talked through these, everybody chipping in ideas they'd had. Some made the cut, some didn't.
Our goal was to create storylines for eight episodes of Harkness Hall, devising arcs for each of the seventeen characters. Spread across one wall was a vast empty grid, with all the character names running down the vertical side and eight episodes sprad sideways across the horizontal. Our goal: fill all 136 rectangles with plot points and multiple story beats. We concentrated on the first episode first, working our way down from top to bottom, finding links between characters and forging new dynamics.
Once the first episode had been put in place, storylines were developed across the remaining seven episodes, pushing characters and plots to their logical [and sometimes illogical] conclusions. Ideas came and went, some stories got developed but went nowhere, and characters were summarily culled to allow for changing circumstances. The process of filling the grid went well into day two, requiring stamina and a lot of mental agility. By lunchtime on day two we had blackmail, multiple infidelities, sexual metamorphoses, a wedding, arson, a car crash, death, a funeral, divorce and a kidnapping/siege scenario. Not sure I'd want to live in or near Harkness Hall, but life there would never be dull.
Crucial to this process was spreading our big incidents across all the episodes. Once that was settled, we had to identify our mid-episode commercial break and end of episode cliffhangers. Each episode needed to have a title that helped nail down what was at the heart of the story it was telling. Crucially, we had to identify the A, B and C stories. In some cases episodes had a D, E and even an F story, such was the plethora of incidents and accidents our characters experienced.
Finally, each person had to turn all these story beats, plot points, characters moments and crises into a storyline document for their assigned episode. The key here was finding expressing the emotion of a story beat, how characters react to their situation, how they feel about what's being said and done. You need to be visual and descriptive, exploring the story beats, adding flavour and texture to them: make your storyling juicy and writers will be eager to script it - result: better scripts.
I thoroughly enjoyed the two days. The friendly, positive environment created by Yvonne, the other people on the workshop and our hosts at the Script Factory were a big part of that. But the workshop underlined my enthusiasm for storylining and collaborative writing. I love those moments when somebody suggests something and it sparks half a dozen new, exciting ideas. I love being able to stand back and see the sweep of storyarcs across multiple episodes. It felt like I could see the moments, the transitions, the points where stories needed to be accelerated or teased out. It was fun, and I want more.