Writing Soaps: Can anyone do it?

“Soap operas are rubbish. Anyone can write them.”

People are often saying things like this. However, viewing figures for soaps and medical dramas – as some should actually be called – are regularly far higher than anything else on TV. Many of the people who claim to hate soaps seem to know a surprising amount about what’s happening in them. And those who proudly refuse to ‘waste’ their time watching them are often happy to spend it explaining why, at length – for instance, on a recent Guardian blog about EastEnders. Someone, somewhere, is clearly doing something right.

Viewers watch soaps for different reasons as this interesting report by Ofcom shows. Whether you love soaps, love to hate soaps or just catch them every now and again, pretty much everyone has, at some point, tuned in for one. But does this mean anyone with a laptop and a spare half hour can write an episode? As a script reader for BBC Continuing Drama – which makes Casualty, Doctors, EastEnders and Holby City – I’d say, probably not. Along with my fellow readers, I went on a trip to BBC Elstree Centre to catch up with some of the people working on the shows and find out what they were looking for.

“Comedy!” says Doctors Script Editor Neil Irvine. “The series needs more of this.” He’s also hoping to find “compelling human interest stories that surprise us” and “writers who have something to say.” Simon Harper, Series Producer on Holby City and former Script Producer, agrees: he is looking for “high stakes emotional drama” and “fresh, authentic writing with both warmth and a contemporary spark.” However, he also says: “The best scripts are infused, where appropriate, with humour, playfulness and witty banter…Being funny is vital!” Casualty’s Story Producer Roxanne Harvey enjoys scripts with a “strong emotional impact” as well as “humour and wit.” EastEnders Script Editor Manpreet Dosanjh likes the work of writers who can create “big characters” in a “strong and believable way” and are “able to juggle both comic and gritty storylines.”

Humour is something that many writers mistakenly think doesn’t apply to Continuing Drama, but some of the best episodes and characters have elements of comedy. With soaps there’s a misconception that every scene has to revolve around relationship break-ups, deaths and/ or angry shouting but this isn’t true. For instance, EastEnders has a long tradition of comedy double-acts. Dot helping Ethel to die wouldn’t have been half as powerful if it hadn’t been for all of the entertaining and amusing times they shared together prior to this.

Another thing you might not be expecting Continuing Drama to be looking for is writers who have their own unique take on things: “an individual and original voice,” as Neil puts it. You may think writing for soaps or medical dramas means sacrificing your ‘voice’ in order to mimic someone else’s. However, talking about EastEnders, Manpreet says: “If writers can create their own distinctive original dramas, they are more likely to be successful on the show.” The rest of the group agree. It’s one of the reasons why Continuing Drama prefers to initially read original film, TV, radio and theatre scripts from writers they haven’t worked with before, rather than sample episodes that use pre-existing characters and scenarios.

Other things the teams are looking for include: “economic, sharp dialogue that’s naturalistic and compelling,” “clear multi-strand storytelling” and, perhaps unsurprisingly, people who genuinely want to work for them. Continuing Drama sometimes seems to attract writers who see it as a way of making money and little else. Did you last watch a soap in 1987? Are you struggling to get your trilogy of novels published? Have you accumulated lots of bills printing, posting and copyrighting them? If you’ve answered yes to all of these questions, I’d suggest there are better ways of earning cash without spending hours of your life trying to achieve something you have no real interest in.

Roxanne explains: “Sometimes writers don’t display a passion for the show and its characters, and their scripts read as if they want to be writing something else. If Casualty doesn’t float your boat, don’t apply to work on it. You’ve got to have a love of the show.” Manpreet has similar experiences: “People often think that they know [EastEnders] when they don’t watch it and so write their own heightened, clichéd and over-the-top version of the characters,” she says. Writers getting mixed up with what the shows are and aren’t about can be a problem. Neil says: “There is a preconception that Doctors is primarily a medical drama, when it actually tells human interest stories.” In contrast, Simon says that while Holby City is a medical drama, it is often mistakenly seen as a soap.

As with all kinds writing, there is a limited amount of people who can write soaps and medical dramas exceptionally well. The fact so many episodes are produced means that, inevitably, some are more successful than others. That’s the nature of television production. However, everyone working on them aspires to make every episode great. It’s only with talented writers – ones who share their belief in the shows’ potential – that they’re able to achieve this and create the kind of big, memorable moments in television that Continuing Drama, at its best, does brilliantly.

If you’d like to write for EastEnders, Doctors, Holby City or Casualty (and you watch and enjoy them), you can either send an original script to the Script Room when it is open for submissions or, if you’ve had work already produced for stage or screen, directly to BBC Continuing Drama

Find out more about the BBC Writers Academy and shadow schemes for writers on Continuing Drama shows.

Written for BBC Writersroom

See below for full interviews, including more information on what each of the BBC Continuing Drama shows are looking for:

BBC Continuing Drama interviews

EastEnders

Manpreet Dosanjh is a Script Editor on EastEnders. These are her thoughts on writing for the show:

What does EastEnders want from an ideal sample script?

  • Economic, sharp dialogue, which is naturalistic and compelling.
  • Drama – EastEnders relies a lot on the ‘cliff hanger.’
  • Feisty, distinctive male and female characters.
  • Strong and authentic character voices.
  • An individual style. If writers can create their own distinctive original dramas, they are more likely to be successful on the show.
  • An ability to write ‘big’ characters truthfully.
  • A strong and believable world.
  • The ability to capture East End working class life authentically, even if the sample script isn’t necessarily set here.
  • Able to confidently structure multiple story strands.
  • Able to juggle both comic and gritty storylines. A sense of humour is useful.

What are the common mistakes people make when writing for EastEnders?

  • Writers struggle to capture characters’ individual voices. This is the biggest problem.
  • People often think they know the series when they don’t watch it, and so write their own heightened, clichéd and over-the-top versions of the characters.

How is EastEnders different from the other Continuing Drama shows?

  • It is the most writer-led show and well suited to writers with their own distinctive style.
  • There are four story strands per episode and writers are only given a one-page synopsis, which is short compared to some of the other shows.

Holby City

Simon Harper is Series Producer on Holby City and was a Script Producer for two years, producing and developing new writers. These are his thoughts on writing for the show:

What does Holby City want from an ideal sample script?

  • High stakes emotional drama – adrenaline and excitement balanced by humour and wit.
  • Fresh, authentic writing with both warmth and a contemporary spark.
  • Complex but clear multi-strand storytelling.
  • An ability to make viewers laugh and cry.
  • Characters which are truthful and recognisable but also fresh, flawed and complex.
  • An ability to write ambitious, aspirational characters.
  • Smart, sparky, sharp dialogue.
  • Subtext.
  • The ability to create, from scratch, fresh and distinctive guest stories-of-the-week.
  • Ambition and wit. Being funny is vital!

What are the common misconceptions potential writers sometimes have when approaching Holby City?

  • Seeing it as a soap rather than a medical drama.
  • An underestimation of how much it is down to the writer to generate dynamic plot and story.
  • The tone of the show – the best scripts are infused, where appropriate, with humour, playfulness and witty banter.
  • The need for pace, excitement and adrenaline – it’s not a “talky” hospital show.

How is Holby City different from the other Continuing Drama shows?

  • Holby City episodes have a strong focus on the serial element – more so than Doctors or Casualty – but also need satisfying guest stories, although these dominate less than in the other shows.
  • Episodes are sixty minutes long, which is longer than the other shows, but they don’t go on location, which is also a dramatic challenge.
  • There are, with the guest stories, sub-plots and three serial strands, sometimes up to nine or ten strands. The challenge writers face is to bring out the themes and connections and interplay between these to make their episode feel like a crafted whole.
  • Holby City has a slightly more heightened tone than Casualty.

Doctors 

Neil Irvine is a Script Editor on Doctors. These are his thoughts on writing for the show:

What does Doctors want from an ideal sample script?

  • Compelling human interest stories that surprise us.
  • Believable dialogue and characters.
  • Writers who have something to say; an individual and original voice.
  • Writers who demonstrate the potential to be creative within the series confines (see below).
  • Comedy! The series needs more of this.

What are the common mistakes people make when writing for Doctors?

  • Writers underestimate how difficult working on the show is. The hardest thing is naturally involving the GP character in the story-of-the-day.
  • A preconception that Doctors is primarily a medical drama when it actually tells human interest stories.
  • Despite the daytime slot, any subject matter can be tackled. Sensitive handling is key.
  • Writers need to know our characters in depth – all of our regulars react to things in different ways.

How is Doctors different from the other Continuing Drama shows?

  • About two thirds of an episode is the story-of-the-day, which is generated by the writer.
  • Doctors offers writers a platform to tell the stories they want to tell – effectively ‘afternoon plays’ interweaved with a number of serial stories.
  • From time to time the format varies on Doctors – there are serial-only episodes and ‘lifesavers’ with no serial element.
  • Doctors has the most flexible format of all the Continuing Drama Series shows, sometimes stepping outside reality (for instance, through fantasy episodes) and playing with different genres.
  • Doctors offers a lot of creative freedom and is suited to newer writers – perhaps already working in stage or radio.
  • There is usually one protagonist in the guest story, which tends to span the working day at the Mill or the Campus Surgery.
  • Scripts have a six week turnaround time and episodes are low budget with a maximum of three speaking guest characters and two guest locations.
  • Inexperienced writers get to write a shadow script initially, while experienced writers can go straight to pitching story ideas with some key scenes.
  • Doctors has an ‘ideas bank’ where writers’ successful story ideas are stored and called upon when needed.

Casualty

Roxanne Harvey is the Story Producer on Casualty. These are her thoughts on writing for the show:

What does Casualty want from an ideal sample script?

  • Contemporary, active, standalone story.
  • Ability to create stories that can sustain across an hour or more.
  • Strong emotional impact.
  • Humour and wit.
  • Ability to create three-dimensional believable characters an audience will care about.
  • Ability to manage multi-strand narratives.
  • Believable, authentic dialogue.
  • Sparky, lively writing.
  • Set in the real world.  You might write a brilliant sci-fi script but it’s hard to tell from that whether you’d be able to write Casualty.

What are the common mistakes people make when writing for Casualty?

  • Writing serial stories separate to the guest story, rather than integrating the two.
  • Struggling to create enough story to sustain an episode.
  • Thinking that upping the medicine means plucking an unusual disease off the internet.  It doesn’t.  It’s about finding the ethical dilemmas within medicine or how medical turning points affect the emotional situations you’ve created between your guest characters.
  • Sometimes writers don’t display a passion for the show and its characters, and their scripts read as if they want to be writing something else.  If Casualty doesn’t float your boat don’t apply to work on it. You’ve got to have a love of the show.

How is Casualty different from the other Continuing Drama shows?

  • The tone is gritty realism, rather than the glossiness of Holby City.
  • Casualty is reliant on a sustainable guest story, and we have the opportunity to see our guest characters journey from the outside world into the precinct, meeting them at a real moment of crisis.
  • Casualty is primetime Saturday night drama, so it requires the ability to create suspense, tension and, yes, more often than not a big exciting stunt.  It’s got to make you gasp and have high entertainment value.
  • Casualty isn’t afraid of tackling controversial issues ignored by other dramas. For instance, recent episodes focused on female genital mutilation.
  • Our writers are encouraged to visit A&E’s, go out with the paramedics and even on occasion the HEMS (Helicopter Emergency Medical Service) crew. They get the opportunity to see what it’s like to be a real-life hero for the day.
Advertisements

Tagged: , , , , , , , ,

One thought on “Writing Soaps: Can anyone do it?

  1. Vincent Varney June 4, 2013 at 10:14 am Reply

    My mum watches Neighbours every night, and while I’m pretty sure I hate the show, I know all the characters and always ask her to fill me in in the latest plots. Maybe I secretly live it?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: