WRITING TV DRAMAIt’s important to know your market. Check the schedules and watch as much TV drama as you can – see what genres and formats are on, what’s popular, what works, what doesn’t work, what grips and inspires and entertains you, and what leaves you cold.
It’s always worth comparing the originality of your idea with current and previous shows. Try not to replicate something that has already hit the screens, and try to make everything you write unique in some way. But don’t try to simply plug a gap in the market or write something solely because it might appear to be a novel idea – you should write what you feel passionate about.
Always be specific about what kind of drama you are writing, where in the schedule it might fit, and what kind of audience it might reach. Is it a continuing, prime-time ‘soap’ in thirty-minute episodes? A returning ‘crime’ series in sixty-minute episodes? A six-part, post-watershed serial? A pre-watershed, sixty-minute single drama? Remember that writing for established formats isn’t the same thing as writing to a ‘formula’ – an established format allows for individual expression, but it’s hard to be individual when writing to a perceived formula.
The shape and tone of your story will relate in many ways to the format and slot. A Doctors episode tells a self-contained, character-driven guest story whereas an Eastenders episode normally interweaves multiple character storylines – both are continuing series told in thirty-minute episodes, but they are placed at different times in the schedule, and their tone is likewise different.
TV is easy to turn off or turn over, so open your story as dynamically as you can. Try to hook the interest of the audience as soon as possible so that they will want to stay tuned – and, if there are more episodes to come, will want to keep tuning in. Ask yourself if there’s a strong enough sense of character, drama and story to sustain an audience’s engagement.
Engaging characters are at the heart of all good drama, no matter how mainstream or unusual your idea may be. Your characters should be believable – even if they are in an incredible situation. We should be able to empathise or engage with the main characters – even if we don’t necessarily like them. You should make your central characters as active as possible – it’s hard to care about a character that plays a passive role in their own story. There should be all kinds of conflicts and difficulties for your characters to deal with – scripts are rarely interesting if the writer is too easy on or too nice to the characters.
TV is a visual medium. Reveal your characters and their story through the action as well as through the dialogue. Good dialogue should serve the story as much as tell it, so check whether it is awkwardly explanatory and expository (e.g. ‘But I thought you said you hated dogs ever since your favourite nephew was attacked by a particularly vicious poodle, remember…?’)
All good drama has a meaningful structure. A common problem is that the structure is too episodic – a conflict is introduced but is then either too quickly resolved or never fully resolved. Another common problem is that the storytelling is too un-dynamic – in drama things should happen as a consequence of, and not merely after, what has happened before. And another common problem is of redundant scenes – make sure that every scene moves the story forward.
Formatting your script properly does help: it suggests a professional approach to your writing; it is easier to read, assess and ultimately use; and most importantly, it can help you write to a particular format, and to think and write in visual terms. See Script Smart and Script Archive.
BBC TV drama aims to appeal to the broadest possible audience demographic – it’s worth remembering that you are writing for a potential audience, and it’s worth remembering that there is a watershed at 9pm.