BBC Writers Room: shadowing a top team of writers in continuing drama

BBC Drama Village

I recently spent an intense fortnight shadowing the BBC’s Script Team during a Writers Room for a continuing drama.  I listened to Writers, Directors, Editors and Story Producers and here are the TOP FIVE THINGS I LEARNT about writing for continuing drama.  I hope they help enlighten you too …

#1 IT’S ALL ABOUT FAMILY.  Doctors, Holby City, Casualty … think of the as one big family.  In all the continuing dramas there are the family archetypes: the father figure, the caring mum, the angsty teenager, overbearing uncle.  When you realise that it all makes a lot more sense: “she’s grieving, well it would be the father figure who would go and comfort her…”.  Thinking family can often be a useful shortcut to playing your character pieces.

#2 BE PREPARED TO WRITE LIKE BILLY-O.  When you submit that first draft (which  – you know of course – is far from your first draft) be prepared to write a whole lot more.  SEVEN drafts can be normal for some dramas.  But before you start hyperventilating consider it a good thing: you have the support of a team of experienced story producers and script editors, directors and doctors who are improving your work so it can be the very best.  You’re not on your own.

#3 LOOSEN UP ON THE STORY IDEAS.   It’s too easy to have an idea and stick to it, for example, “a woman (30s) gets home to find her boyfriend (30s) with another woman”.  OK.  But what if he’s with another man?  Or if it’s the man finding his girlfriend cheating?   Or what if they’re in their forties?  Or eighties?  What if it’s not home, what if it’s somewhere else?  What if actually she already knew?  What if the person cheating with the spouse was someone known to them?  Or related?  The writers didn’t have set ideas, they were flexible and looked for the most interesting variation on stories that delivered conflict.  Don’t be wedded to your idea, cheat on it.   Play around and make it better.

#4 THINK ABOUT HOW YOU PROJECT YOURSELF.  I was lucky to sit in with a whole host of writers: shiny new ones to experienced hands.  And the best ones … they had confidence in themselves.  They worked with the Script Editor, not on the defensive or putting themselves down and hoping for the sympathy card.  What the script team are looking for is HAVING CONFIDENCE IN THEIR WRITER and if you don’t have confidence in you … well it’s not going to come across to them is it?

Here’s an example of what I mean:

        SCRIPT EDITOR  “I thought the scene was disjointed.”
        WRITER #1          “Sorry yes I didn’t have time.  It was rushed.  Let me look at it again.”

Bad – they’re not in control, making excuses, putting themselves down.  How does that look to the Script Editor who ultimately takes responsibility for that script?  Here’s how another writer played it:

        WRITER #2:         “I thought that too.  How about I change it by …. and fix it.”

See? In control, collaborating, acting constructively.  No writer is beyond criticism, so learn to take it positively.

#5  NO ANYTHING THAT DOESN’T TURN.  Books on scriptwriting always state, “no scene that doesn’t turn” but that applies at micro to macro level, and you can see it in action in the good scripts, and notably absent in the bad.  Each line of dialogue – is it needed, does it ‘work’ to move things on.  And then each exchange, each beat, scene, act.  Really think of how you’re propelling that drama along.  Think conflict, think + / -.

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