Another milestone happened yesterday when the script for my third episode of BBC1 drama series Doctors was locked. Get Smart will be episode 207 of series 12, to be broadcast on Friday March 18th next year. The director is already prepping block 74, which includes my script, so filming will be starting very soon.
[In case anyone's wondering, no, you haven't missed my second effort for Doctors. Wasted Trip is due for broadcast on Thursday November 18th. I've yet to see the finished ep, but a disc of it should be arriving in the next day or two.]
Suspect I learned more writing my third live script for the show than I did on the first two. For those scripts I pretty much nailed the serial elements and my story of the day [SOTD] in the first draft. There was plenty of finessing, but the essence of both eps was present and correct from the first draft of the script.
Get Smart was more of a work in progress. The first draft nailed one serial strand but not the other, and my SOTD wasn't firing on all cylinders. My second draft fixed most of the serial issues and improved the SOTD a bit - but still wasn't nailing it. Either it needed radical intervention or a big improvement to work.
Feedback from the production team and conversations with my script editor identified the underlying problems in the SOTD, and solutions were agreed. Happily, the third draft was the great leap forward needed. A fourth draft followed, ironing out some key moments, polishing dialogue and nailing key character moments.
In the end a fifth draft was needed to cut a sequence from the start [to avoid repetition of similar sequences from eps around it], tweaking a phone call in the middle, and to make one of the guest character's turning points more overt. A couple of tiny tweaks, and the script was finally locked off and done.
So, what lessons have I learned? Plenty. Backstory is a useful tool for giving guest characters motivation, but forcing it into the script can lead to on-the-nose dialogue. The story should be about what's happening to them now, and to the other characters on screen. Tell your story in the present, as it happens.
Don't forget to give your characters attitude. Every character should have a POV that's unique to them. Dialogue between characters should reflect their attitudes to each other, as well as their own personality. Every character needs their own voice. Dialogue is crucial in continuing drama, so make it count.
Remember what inspired you to write a story in the first place. When you're balancig three story strands, shifting timings for events and the added complication of day/night scheduling, it's easy to get fixated by structural challenges. Tell the character story first, the rest can be sorted as you go along.
Now, a lot of those lessons I already knew and some I'm still discovering for the first time. There was one other lesson I definitely knew, but got walloped over the head with once more - don't juggle too many jobs at once. Teaching half the week, writing a computer game and for Doctors was maximum capacity.
Throw in rehearsals for a one act play and an opera workshop, plus various other challenges and it all got a bit much. My first draft definitely suffered from being written too fast. My eager to please tendency can be a good quality, but I need to take more time over a script, especially that crucial first draft.
So, what's next at Doctors? I don't have any more SOTD pitches banked, although several are lurking on a pile waiting to be read. I need to generate more pitches, using the lessons I've learned so far. One more script and I'll have two hours of TV drama credits. Thereafter the BBC will consider me "experienced".
What's that mean? A 25% bump up in my rates, though that's neither here nor there for me. I'm writing for the experience, the chance to learn and improve. Every new draft, every new script is another step forwards. The more credits I earn, the more credible I become as a TV screenwriter. It's all part of a journey. Onwards!