Are you a Jackson Pollock sort of writer? Do you like to chuck words on the page, smear them about a bit, roll your storylines around and hurl characters at the screen until something sticks?
Matthew Graham, clever, talented writer of tons of television, but most notably co-creator of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, refers to writing as being akin to sloshing paint around and having fun and I don’t disagree. Of course, writing should be fun.
It is good to slosh; to splash your ideas around and see what starts to emerge as a good idea, but sooner rather than later in my view, the hard structural work must begin.
The job of writing well for television demands a two-fold approach:
Creative flair (the Jackson Pollock stage)
Structural detail (the architect stage)
Never dismiss the power of a good story structure. With the framework in place even the simplest story – possessing perhaps only one decent dramatic moment and several smaller story beats – can be delivered with flair and impact by a writer who knows how to present a story from the page to the screen.
Here for you then, mapped out in four stages, is the journey of a story and how it is shaped by the process of series drama production:
The story conference – (creating the stories)
Storylining – (creating the story shape)
Script writing – (delivering the story shape)
Script editing – (polishing the story shape)
The story conference
Most long running shows have story conferences every three months. These are essential in long-running drama production in order to generate as many long and shorter run storylines as possible in the allotted time. Most series are planned at least three months ahead of production, so the story machine has to keep churning out the good stuff.
As a writer, this is the time to be both imaginative and market savvy. The story conference in the series’ production calendar is both a creative and a selling event. You need to come to the table prepared to pitch your best stories, to contribute to the overall discussion of other stories and expect to see parts, or all of your contributions, fall by the wayside as the best stories for that particular show, at that particular time, reveal themselves.
It is the Producer’s and Story Editor’s job to identify the best stories coming through and it is also important that the available cast is kept busy to keep to the terms of their contracts, so at Conference, storylines must be created for individuals or character groupings.
Pitching your story at Conference like this, makes a television writer adept at recognising a good storyline for the dramatic potential it contains. You soon get good at pinpointing the major drama beats, seeing the opportunity for linking to other storylines, and become practised at using story to reveal the subtext/motivation of a character.
The story conference has two levels: the splashing-about stage, where there is a lot of (healthy!) argument; and out of this creative melee, comes the structural stage, where as many storylines as possible are identified across the episode blocks, for specific characters.
All storylines going forward must best suit the show, be character appropriate and have the best dramatic potential. There will be at this stage, obvious drama highs and lows within the storyline; a shape will have begun to emerge.
Next in the shaping process of our story comes the storylining and this is where that rare, specific and talented creature, the Storyliner comes into their own.
Storylining demands a relatively rare combination of skills: creative thinking and logical application. To control numerous storylines across several blocks of episodes demands an organised mind as well as an instinctive one. The Storyliner must take each storyline and stretch it across the allocated episodes, adding and refining the drama beats and plot twists and turns along the way.
At the beginning of the storylining process, there will be an empty whiteboard on the wall. At the end of an extremely busy few weeks, there (hopefully) won’t be any white gaps left on the board and all episodes will have the maximum amount of story in them – all peaks and troughs identified, cross references with other storylines achieved, and within each episode, a clear picking-up point from the episode before, and a clear cliffhanger at the end. Advert breaks also will be identified at this point: the Storyliner will use these to aid the drama progression of the storyline through the episode.
This shaping, refining, stretching of storylines is the proving part of the story process. This is where a storyline will be polished until it is the best it can be and then stitched into the Story Document that pertains to each episode within the block in question.
Here the Storyliner writes in a clear, pithy, witty, attractive, engaging way, the outline of each episode. Episode allocation has been worked out from the contents of the whiteboard on the Storyliners’ wall so now, their creative skill comes into play.
Each episode will have an A, B and C storyline and be presented in as interesting a way as possible to inspire the writer to get their creative skills working.
And so the story baton is passed on another stage…
Yvonne Grace helps writers write better scripts for television.
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