Soap operas are the biggest employers of scriptwriters on the market, they provide regular, well-paid work for writers, are widely acknowledged to be the perfect training ground for any scriptwriter, and they reach audiences that most movies can only dream of.
So why does every wannabe scriptwriter on the block turn their nose up at soaps and dream about writing the next British blockbuster?
Maybe it’s a snobbish thing. British scriptwriting has always had a problem shaking off the deadly legacy of the theatre. There’s still a class system in British scriptwriting circles that accepts that the stage is the aristocracy, films are the vulgar middle classes and soaps are shell-suited council estate trash.
But there’s also a truism to the old adage that if Shakespeare were alive today he wouldn’t be writing stage plays, he’d be churning out episodes of Eastenders (“A pox on thee, Phil Mitchell, thou baboon-faced wretch!”).
And yet, even though I’m a budding scriptwriter myself, I don’t watch many soaps, so it was with trepidation that I went along to Stagecoach’s soap writing workshop in Birmingham.
A lot of writers in the West Midlands region had been demanding workshops focusing on writing for TV, with a particular interest in soaps, so Stagecoach invited Hollyoaks writer Lucy Gough along. The key aim of the day was to get into the nitty-gritty of what being a soap writer really involves, with a particular emphasis on ‘storylining’ – that’s the creating of story lines: crucial to any long-running soap.
Lucy’s lucky break
Lucy always considered herself a stage and radio writer until she spotted an article by Phil Redmond talking about a new soap he was producing for teenagers, called Hollyoaks. At the time she’d written a number of plays for young people, so she wrote to him, got an interview and found herself writing a trial episode.
“The whole edginess of adolescence fascinates me,” says Lucy. “I just love the contradictions. I love the way adolescents think they’re immortal and yet are obsessed with death. And I suppose because I had a baby in my teens as well, that part of my life was quite memorable.”
A few years later and she has 70 episodes under her belt. It seems like an incredibly lucky break but she insists it’s not unusual. Perhaps the key thing to note is that she had a real passion for the subject. Time and again, throughout the workshop, her key advice is know all about the soap you want to write for: never try to fake it.
The fine art of storylining
The workshop itself gets right to the heart of what it takes to work on a soap like Hollyoaks. Lucy shows an episode and then invites the group to come up with ideas for the next day’s episode. This is an actual storylining conference: a group of writers sitting round a table throwing in hundreds of ideas for what happens next. After an hour of arguing, the four main storylines that will form the next episode are all there and it’s time to split them into scenes.
At this point I lose my neutral observer status and get roped into the process (they bullied me into it). We break the stories down into the twenty-odd scenes that will form the episode, then each of us has to pick a scene and write it. What really hits home with me at this point is how sparse the dialogue has to be with soap writing. As the others have their scenes read out I find myself crossing out whole chunks of dialogue from mine, reducing speeches to monosyllables and nods. “It’s all in the subtext, really,” says Lucy. “What’s going on emotionally is in the subtext. I suppose partly it’s because it’s such a visual medium.”
By the end of the day I’ve emerged with a much better idea of the skills you need to be a soap writer, and I get to interrupt my flatmate’s viewing pleasure by knowingly harping on about the importance of hooks, why those intro scenes with no dialogue at the start of the episode are called menu scenes, why it’s always good to start a scene with an action, why you have to keep characters moving in and out of scenes and, of course, why you must always end on a question. I had to stop doing this when my flatmate started throwing things at me.
The key mantra that stays with me, though, is:
- Know the programme
- Know the characters
- Know the shape and the tone of the programme
Time and again Lucy warns us never to try and blag it. If you want to work for a particular soap, you should be watching it. Sounds obvious, but it’s amazing how many writers apply for jobs on TV dramas they don’t actually watch.
The characters are crucial
Because soap writing is such a collaborative enterprise, it’s a mixture of writing to order whilst slipping in parts of your own voice. “Sometimes you’re working on stories that you don’t know as well or don’t believe in as passionately as other stories. That’s where you need inventiveness: you need to tap into something that you didn’t know you had, to find a way into that story; stand on your head to try and find a new way of looking at something.
“I think you can watch Hollyoaks and you can say who’s written each episode because you can see their voice in there. But at the same time there’s an evenness. The characters control how it’s presented because the integrity of the characters is crucial. There are certain perimeters within which you work: the characters, the profile of the programme, and within that there’s room for your own voice.”
The day to day
Not surprisingly, it involves a lot of meetings. A storylining conference can last two days, with writers, producers and script editors hammering out a series of episodes. A few days later you’re assigned your very own episode.
You get about two weeks to write a first draft, then the producers and script editors read them and invite you in for a day to go through your script with the other writers of the same batch. You go back home with notes for changes and do a second draft. Any third draft problems are dealt with over the phone. Then you go over your script with your director and get a day or two to make final changes. After that you won’t see it again till it’s on TV.
So what does it take to get onto the Hollyoaks writing team?
“There are real opportunities to break in,” says Lucy. “I think my timing was right, and that’s a lot of it, but the other important thing is you have to be good at storylining. They want people who are good at stories, that’s what they’re looking for, so you need to go in there bubbling with ideas.”
To get an interview, you need to have written at least one original script, something to give them an idea of your style, so they can see if it suits their sort of programme.
When Lucy first started on Hollyoaks there were only a few writers, but now there’s an 18-strong team. “They’re always on the look out. The turnover isn’t massive because they’re a good company to work for and people tend to stay, but there is some turnover, and also as more episodes are being needed they have to bring in more writers.
“The important thing is if you want to do it, go for it, because it’s not impossible. I would never have dreamt that I could do it, but I am. That’s what people need to realise: if you really want to do something, just stick at it and don’t think that any of these places are citadels that you can’t get into because it’s just not true.”
A version of this first appeared on Channel 4’s Ideasfactory site.