NO SPOILERS PRESENT It’s the 50th Anniversary of Corrie tonight – and *that* infamous tram crash is coming! I for one CANNOT WAIT… Coronation Street has been my favourite soap since I was a little child – and it’s possibly my favourite TV programme, full stop. The brilliance of Corrie is it’s all about the characters – nowhere on television can I find characters, esepcially women, I identify with as much. Can’t wait to see what the response of the current cast – Rita, Emily, Molly, Deirdre, Leanne, Carla and especially the fabulous Becky. On this basis then, when the marvellous Yvonne Grace of Script Advice Writers Room (who even used to work on Corrie! JEALOUS) offered this blog a post about soap writing, I jumped at the chance… Enjoy!
I cut my teeth on Soaps. They are a fabulous place to learn, develop and grow your skill base. They are definitely not a training ground; you have to know your stuff before you hit the ground running, but Soaps continue to nurture some of the best writers and Producers working in the industry today.
Many of the leading show runners who started writing Soaps and series television see Soap writing as an invaluable experience. Yet the snob-factor still remains regarding this particular drama genre. Here I will attempt to take the mystery out of writing for Soaps.
Very few programmes ever reach the Olympian ratings-heights of our much-loved, much-discussed Soaps. Having spent a large proportion of my career as a Script Editor and Producer making them, I can honestly say that apart from a memorable shopping frenzy in Marylebone High Street back when I had an empty new flat to fill and a concrete credit rating, I have rarely enjoyed myself more.
However, Soap land can be an unforgiving place and an inadequately-prepared, wet-behind-the-ears writer can come a proper cropper if he or she is not careful
Some tips on how to be a good Soap writer:
* Watch a lot of television
It may sound obvious to say this but I would recommend you watch a lot of television before honing in on a Soap-writing career. Most people engaged in the all-consuming task of making Soaps are usually pretty much addicted to the whole process of storytelling and cannot get enough of television drama across all genres.
It’s a highly competitive business, generating storylines, and a producer worth their salt is aware of the storylines being covered by their rivals and are obsessed with the task of generating better storylines to appeal to more people. They will love you to bits if you can aid them in this process.
* Have strong opinions about the characters
It’s hard to be a shrinking violet in Soap land. As a writer, you will be expected to have strong opinions about the characters that populate this world and as a result, you will have to prove you can create stories for them. Be prepared to fight your corner (preferably without shedding blood or resorting to name-calling) and nurture your favourite characters like you would your real-life friendships; it’s always more fun spending time with people you like. This makes for better results and a more enjoyable experience all round.
* Look ahead as much as possible
Generating story and scripts that fill a year of television drama output is no easy feat. The producer and the script team need all the help they can get from writers who not only understand the size of the task in hand, but can clearly help solve some of the problems inherent therein.
The show will need both short- and long-term storylines to keep the audience happy and the character groupings productive. I have found that writers do not come to the story table with long-term storylines as easily as they do the shorter variety. If possible, don’t fall into this trap. If you can get used to seeing the bigger picture and generate material that arcs across a body of episodes and not just one or two, you will be making a vital contribution to the story bank and providing the script team with a firm foundation on which to build a strong through-line of stories across a healthy number of episodes – thus lightening their burden. If you can take the attention, they will all fall in love with you.
* Have strong story ideas
On a Soap, stories are like oxygen to the production process. It is vital, therefore, that you make sure the stories with which you arm yourself at your first Story Conference are not just one-note wonders. They could be anecdotes that sounded good in the pub but in fact fall apart horribly when pitched to a room of fellow writers and a story-savvy script team. Many ideas turn out to be turkey twizlers when spoken out loud.
Your story will need a clear shape and in the telling, you should explore the characters involved and reveal something interesting about them to your audience. If you can’t succinctly summarise your story to yourself in the privacy of your bathroom at home, spare your own blushes – the story needs clarification and talking it up in front of your fellow writers will only highlight its flaws.
* Familiarise yourself with the script team
Forearmed is forewarned. Do your homework. Find out, before you get in the lift up to the Production Office, the names of the key players and especially those on the script team who will be able – should you make it a pleasant experience for them to work with you – to make your life positively marvellous on the show. Conversely, the opposite can also apply.
* Find out as much as you can about the production process
Not all Soaps are run on the same lines. Show interest and ask questions (when appropriate) about the process of production without being in the way or a burden. If you understand something of the pressures your script editor, for example, may be under to deliver your script to deadline, it’ll go a long way to creating a harmonious partnership and that editor will want to work with you again.
* Be positive and helpful to work with
Script editors are your friends as are the story liners. These fabulously creative people are here to help your labours run more easily and smoothly. Use them, don’t fight them, they speak on behalf of the producer and so keeping them on side and not fighting every script point because you feel protective about your work will get you a regular slot on the writing team. Being open-minded to script changes, collaborative in your approach to your writing task and even though it may smart, saying yes and doing the rewrites without having a mini breakdown about the time frame they have given you will ensure you are invited back again.
* Embrace the fast turnaround and keep at it
Like pretty much everything in life, Soap writing becomes easier with practice.
Be organised. You are about to enter a story factory with very fast script turnaround and an ever-hungry camera team wanting to shoot on time with an ever-demanding producer wanting great scripts on time and on budget and an ever-urgent cast wanting their scripts on time and an ever-ready director wanting your script changes to be on time and to make the script better to boot.
Everything is about timing on a Soap. There is never enough time but you have to work within the deadlines you are given. Don’t panic. The structure and rigours of Soap writing are put in place to help you generate an amazing number of drama hours in very little time.
* Be collaborative
Show respect and listen to the opinions and ideas of your fellow writers. You will have to top and tail their scripts and having your colleagues on side and encouraging them, especially at Script Conference, will make your life easier when you pitch a storyline you think is a winner and it receives the thumbs down.
* A word about rejection …
Take the rejection of your storyline as you would the acceptance of it. Both reactions are from the same Soap family and one will more than likely follow the other in rapid succession.
… and last but not least
Keep your interest fresh and true in the show by taking time out to watch it. When you feel jaded, write a radio play, or do something entirely different and come back to the show refreshed.
Remember, good Soaps need good writers. If that means you, get out there, get in touch, give it a go and HAPPY SOAP WRITING!
BIO: Yvonne Grace is an award-winning Television Drama Producer who runs a training/mentoring company called Script Advice for writers in need of a second opinion, editorial help or a script reading and treatment writing service. Join Script Advice Writers Room on Facebook.
Yvonne is currently designing a Summer short course in Writing For Soaps for The National Film and Television School. If you are interested in receiving details of this course, please send an email to yvonnegraceATscriptadviceDOTcoDOTuk and Yvonne will be in touch.
(This article originally appeared in The Script Writer Magazine; created and edited by Julian Friedmann)