03 November 2011
Posted in TV
Chris Thompson explains how he came to write a how-to guide for continuing drama
Early in 2007 I was approached by Aber publishing to come up with a book explaining how to write soap opera. Aber specialises in academic study guides for school students through to postgraduates, but also has a series of Creative Writing Guides on its list. A previous title, Writing TV Scripts by Steve Wetton (author of Growing Pains), had proved successful over time and the publishers felt there would be a market for a new book dealing specifically with the challenges of writing for one of our immensely popular continuing dramas. There are other books on the market dealing with the topic, but it seemed a good idea to take a fresh, up-to-the-minute look at the dark art.I felt qualified for the task. I cut my teeth as a TV writer on Kay Mellor’s daytime Soap Families in the early 1990s, worked on Russell T. Davies’s late night, high camp Church of England romp Revelations and, at the time I was approached, had been a member of the Emmerdale writing team for nine years, contributing well over a hundred scripts. (The figure now stretches beyond two hundred.) Earlier in my career I had also managed to fit in a stint on The Archers, writing 150 episodes. So you could say I was steeped in soap, or rather soaked in it.
My first task was to write a sample chapter and so I put together what I thought was a lively, informative piece about Character, looking at some iconic figures in the history of soap. Packed with anecdotes, it wasn’t quite ‘you’ll never guess what happened round the conference table, or ‘The Soap Awards – the untold story’, but it wasn’t far off. And neither was it what was required. Perhaps one day, assuming I can afford a good lawyer, Confessions Of A Soap Writer might see the light of day, but that’s for the future.
Having been told, politely but firmly, that I was not providing what was required, I adopted a far more structured approach, based on the acquisition of skills. The idea was to take the reader through the process of writing for a soap, step by step, so that by the end of the book, they would have know exactly what was required to work for such a programme. Each chapter would be supported by a series of exercises, to reinforce the particular skill.
Before I began writing in earnest, I produced a chapter by chapter breakdown, showing how the various building blocks would be put in place. Looking back, that was probably the key task in the whole process. It was important to put myself in the place of the writer new to soap, or indeed, new to any kind of television writing. Once I had the structure in place, the writing was fairly straightforward, as I had a focus and context for my accumulated wisdom, such as it is. In some ways the exercise was similar to the process of writing a soap episode, where the choreography, the interweaving and crossing of various plot strands, has to be firmly put in place before a word of dialogue or a single stage direction can be written.
The original delivery date was intended to be late 2008, with a view to publication in 2009, but a series of mishaps and natural disasters (involving contracts, illness, copyright issues, publishing glitches) meant that the final draft was delivered in October 2010 and the book was published in the spring of 2011. For someone like myself, used to seeing an episode written, filmed and on screen in less than six months, this time span was a novel experience.
The book begins by explaining how the programmes are made, making it clear who does what in the production process. It offers advice on how to approach a programme, with a view to being taken onto the team. The role of the storyline writer is described and there is a survival guide to script conferences. I look at the type of stories told in soap, and explain how stories are developed, from the germ of an idea to the finished on-screen article. There is a chapter on how to write a trial script, including the nitty-gritty of layout and structure, not just of a whole episode, but of single scenes. I offer some ideas on writing dialogue and have another look at what makes a successful character in soap.
Instead of my chatty initial offering on the subject of character, I have taken a much more detailed look at the topic. I do look at iconic characters, but try and explain how they become such significant figures. I look at the mix of characters in a show, taking in age, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation. The book gives examples of how new characters are created and brought into a programme, looking at the space they will occupy and describing how their back stories are used to inform the writing. The importance and changing nature of families is considered, as they occupy an important space at the heart of any soap. I discuss who has the power and who runs the pub and look at the ways in which characters leave the show, and the kind of out stories different characters are given depending on their standing in the show and the kind of impact their departure will make. The chapter contains, as they all do, specific exercises, to reinforce the points I make.
The final section of the book deals with how to stay on a writing team, assuming you are invited to join. It covers the editing process and the kind of last minute emergencies that require rapid re-writes. With the kind permission of ITV I was able to use actual storyline documents from Emmerdale, so the reader can go through exactly the same process as a member of the writing team, from receiving a commission, through structuring a scene by scene breakdown, the commissioning conference, and then the editing process. I explain why various notes are given and why certain changes are required and what the writer can do if he or she doesn’t like them.
Throughout, I have tried to focus on what makes writing for soap different to writing an original screenplay or a standalone drama. And, as I say in the introduction to the book, writing for soap is a serious career opportunity for aspiring (and indeed established) television writers. Some of the most significant writers in the past twenty or thirty years have worked on Soaps; others have spent most of their working lives doing little else.
I found the process immensely satisfying, using, as I did, many of the skills I have acquired in twenty six years as a professional writer. It may not be quite the gossip fest I originally envisaged, but I hope it will help other people embark on a similar career. It’s been fun. And for someone used to seeing his work come and go on screen, it’s rather satisfying to have at last an answer to the perennial question, asked when I tell people what I do: ‘Have you ever thought about writing a book?’
Writing Soap by Chris Thompson is published by Aber publishing at £10.99