A thirty-year career as a TV writer has taught me a lot about writing. It’s also kept me pretty busy. But I didn’t set out wanting to write screenplays. It was always my intention to be a novelist, and over the years I have started several — all of which remain unfinished. Writing continuing drama for TV requires a particular set of skills, especially those relating to narrative and structure. But are there other approaches that are equally valid?
Since it was launched back in 2000, I have written over sixty episodes of the BBC drama series Doctors, as well as several episodes of EastEnders and Casualty. Unlike many other continuing drama series, where storylines are largely generated in-house, Doctors gives the writer an opportunity to create and pitch their own ‘Story of the Day’. The SOTD features guest actors, and needs to start and finish during the episode. There are constraints on how you can tell this story: it can’t feature more than three guest characters, all the action needs to be completed within a calendar day, and one of the main Doctors’ cast needs to be involved as a catalyst.
My first task is to come up with an idea for an original SOTD. This could be triggered by a single character, an inciting incident, a medical dilemma or a simple encounter between two people. In order to get underneath the skin of my characters and come up with stories that have emotional depth, I have mined my personal life and family very deeply over the years. My first ever episode was an account of my late wife’s attempts to get our GP to prescribe cannabis to alleviate the pain and muscle spasm caused by her Multiple Sclerosis. Another was devoted to my two recently deceased grandmothers. Both stories had extra depth because I understood the characters so well.
Once the SOTD has been commissioned (I have something like a 70% hit rate), I am allocated a particular episode and given the serial stories that are running through the series: usually two, sometimes three. I will be given a starting and finishing point to those stories, and several key milestones that need to be hit during the episode, as well as the serial hook that will close the show. It is then my job to find resonance across the stories and weave everything together to produce an episode where everything comes together to produce a satisfying whole.
When I started writing for Doctors, I viewed my SOTD as the main event. The serial stories were a minor inconvenience that got in the way of what would be my brilliantly well-crafted and potentially BAFTA award-winning piece of original drama. Experience has taught me that it is, of course, the ongoing stories concerning the personal lives of the main characters that keep the viewers tuning in on a daily basis. I quickly learned to give all stories equal weight, and my episodes became much stronger as a result.
By its very nature, writing for a continuing drama series is a collegiate effort. Although the scripts carry my name, the contribution of my script editor, researchers, the producer and executive producer all play an important part in the creative process. Before I can write the first draft of my script, we all need to agree on the story we are trying to tell.
The first stage in this process is for me to produce a scene-by-scene breakdown of the entire episode, showing exactly how the story will unfold. Typically, an episode of Doctors will be around 6,500 words across fifty-five pages, divided into approximately thirty scenes. A good scene-by-scene can be almost as long as the final script itself. My latest ran to 5,800 words. Each scene heading will tell the reader where the action takes place, and who is in the scene. I then detail everything that will happen, including key pieces of dialogue. The final product is not too dissimilar to an essay plan — an analogy I have found very useful in my work as an RLF Writing Fellow.
Once the scene by scene is finished (I usually have a week to do this) I send it to my script editor, who will share it with the producer and researcher. When we are happy that we are telling our stories in the right order, I then have another week to write my first draft. This is where good planning pays off. If I have structured my narrative well, then everything has a logical flow that heads inexorably towards the episode hook. I still have to tell the story in as elegant a way as possible, with effective dialogue and action, but it means I shouldn’t have to spend too much time gazing into space while asking myself ‘What happens next?’
But no matter how thorough my planning is, there are still episodes which don’t unfold well at first draft stage. There will then follow a further period of redrafting until everything works. I would normally aim to write four drafts of each script, with a fifth (and occasionally sixth) reserved for the dotting of a few ‘i’s, and the crossing of some well-placed ‘t’s. The end result is a script which hopefully contains high drama with some unexpected twists and turns, has a strong narrative flow and is amusing where appropriate.
A year ago, nagged by a tiny voice growing louder by the day, I started to write yet another novel. Initially I had no more than a strong central character: someone who had existed in my head for several years, and an idea for a juicy inciting incident which would kick the story off with a bang. Beyond that, I had no clear idea what was going to happen, but gripped with a strong sense of ‘it’s now or never’, and a clear idea of the sort of book I wanted to write, I cracked on. I have been writing the novel in parallel with my TV writing and RLF work, so progress has been sporadic. Sometimes I have had to break off from my novel when in full flow, in order to complete paid work that would enable me to buy food and keep a roof over my head. I had hoped to have finished a first draft by now, but twelve months in I’m about three quarters of the way through.
Because I have approached the piece without any clear idea of what is going to happen next, the creative process has been very different to that which I follow when writing for TV. I am able to paint on a much broader canvas, with more characters and locations than I am allowed in an episode of Doctors. The narrow confines of a GP surgery in the fictional West Midlands town of Letherbridge have been replaced by an action-adventure caper which follows my central character’s perilous journey across Europe. In many ways I have found this liberating. There’s a great joy and freedom in making things up as I go along, and at times it feels like I’m reading the book at the same time as writing it. This has led to some great discoveries. I introduced one character, initially as a means to a very specific end, but then liked him so much I kept him in my story, as I wanted to find out more about him. Unsure of how to get rid of him once he’d served his purpose, I then killed him off. This introduced an unexpected poignancy to the story and took my hero in a totally unexpected direction. However, I had painted myself into a corner as far as my narrative was concerned, and things ground to a halt as I worked out how to get back on track.
It would be wrong to say that I have written without any clear sense of the overall story arc. Having run classes on storytelling and the three-act structure, I think I have an inherent understanding of narrative, and the need to tell my story in a certain way. As I head towards the climax of the novel, I am also aware that I need to start tying up my disparate storylines, and with about 30,000 words to go I have now reluctantly acknowledged that I need to map out my closing chapters before I write any more. The joy of writing off the cuff has been replaced by the certainty that I won’t make it to the end without some thorough planning. Although I have enjoyed the creative freedom of having total control over my stories and my characters, I am now yearning for the input of a good editor, and the benefit of a fresh pair of eyes. Maybe writing a novel will also prove to be a more cooperative experience than I had previously imagined.
With luck I should have finished the whole thing in another three months. Then it will be time for the second draft!