Breaking into TV scriptwriting

I’ve always written stories, ever since I learnt to string letters together and make words from them. Exhibit A: literary genius I penned when I was about eight. Who would have guessed I grew up in the teen pregnancy capital of Australia?

romantic dinner

That’s what happens at ‘romantic diners’, kids. Girls get pregnant.

As the youngest of four children we all had to jostle for attention, and writing was a great way to be properly heard amidst the cacophony.

My parents were supportive of my writing malarkey, but later, when it came to applying for uni, they were a bit apprehensive about my wish to do a creative writing degree. They didn’t know if I could make a living as a writer, so they encouraged me to find a middle ground and study journalism instead.

I did, I studied journalism at Charles Sturt University, which is a fantastic course, I couldn’t recommend it highly enough, it was so many worlds of fun and I couldn’t have had better training, but alas, it wasn’t my calling. I would make a terrible journalist. I love news stories, but I just don’t like asking the hard questions and I just don’t have that killer instinct that a journalist needs to have.

lois_lane

I remember my final year at uni and being so worried that I’d have to soon find a job as a reporter when I was so clearly not suited, and I despaired. But as luck would have it in my final semester I took scriptwriting as an elective, and from that very first class everything in the world just made sense.

I remember sitting in my first scriptwriting class and my lecturer was Ray Harding, who, among many things, had been the story producer for Home and Away for years and years. He’s a bit of a legend. I remember him talking about television scriptwriting, and I could hardly breathe during the whole tutorial. I just knew. This is what I want to do. I just knew.

I am a big dork and I followed him through the uni quadrangle after that class and told him in no uncertain terms that I was going to be a scriptwriter. I’m sure he thought I was odd, but he tolerated my weird enthusiasm and over the course of that semester I kind of commandeered him into being my mentor.

When I finished my degree I set about becoming a scriptwriter with all the blind optimism of the young, not knowing how hard an industry it is to break into. I googled and found a list of all the TV shows being produced in Australia at the time, then set about trying to harangue them into giving me a job. I didn’t know who to contact so I called up the network switchboards.

**ring ring**

“Hello, this is the network ten switchboard.”

“Hi, can you put me through to the script producer of Neighbours?”

THEY PUT ME THROUGH!!

Audrey Hepburn 1954 © 2000 Mark Shaw

I’d then tell the harried and bemused script producer that I’d just graduated and wanted to be a scriptwriter, and asked if I could have an email address to send my CV through. Every single switchboard operator at every network put me through to the script producer for every single TV show. It was pretty darned surreal.

I was also doing some extras work at the time, which pretty much involved me mooching around the background of ads and TV shows. It paid well, and there’s a lot of down time which meant I could sit in the corner and study for my uni assignments between takes. Once I realised I wanted to be a scriptwriter I figured I could totally utilise this opportunity.

I’d spend a couple of hours pretending I was a student at Summer Bay high while I was working as an extra, but once the shift was over I didn’t immediately leave the channel seven building like everyone else did. The script writing office was next to the film set, and I’d sneak into the office to have a chat with the Home and Away writers and give them my spiel and drop off my CV. I landed extras work on Home and Away pretty regularly, every two weeks or so, and after every shift I’d pop into the script writing office for a chat and to cheekily ask if they had a job offer for me yet.

Eventually, after doing this for a year or so, I must have worn them down because one of the writers recommended me for a new channel seven show that was in production called Headland. From that I landed an interview as a script assistant!

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At the same time I was offered an interview for a script assessor position at channel ten – a direct result of my cold calling efforts. I got down to the final three for the channel ten job, and I was offered the Headland script assistant job. I couldn’t believe it – although I’m pretty sure I was only hired because I have long, skinny arms, and most of my role involved printing enough scripts to decimate a forest. The printer would constantly jam, and you needed my kind of arms to wrestle the paper from where it was stuck in the crevices of that clunky old printer.

While photocopying I’d listen to the in-house script story-liners and script writers discuss the episodes. It was amazing. I learnt so much. While I was formatting and proof reading the scripts for mislaid commas I’d stop and take time to analyse the differences in each episode’s drafts – from the embryonic script outline stage, to first, second, third drafts, to shooting scripts, and I’d try to learn how a good story was crafted.

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A TV show basically has a stable of in house script story-liners, they’re the ones who decide on the show’s story lines, and they come up with the basic plots for each episode. At the beginning of the season the story-liners figure out where each character’s journey is going to lead, then for each episode they decide on an A, B and C story strand, and which character will be featured for those episodes.

The A story is the lead strand, it’s often dramatic. This is the main driver of the episode and it gets the most scenes. The B strand is often romantic or comedic, it’s a bit of light relief. And then the C story is usually only a few scenes which often will continue on from a story arc which is on-going – for example it will a follow up from the previous episode or it will lead up to a dramatic even in the next episode.

abc

We usually make it so that different characters will be involved in the A story for each episode, so they all have episodes in which their characters have dramatic arcs and chances to shine. The people who put the dialogue to these episodes are called freelance scriptwriters. They’ll only sit in on script meetings for the individual episode’s they’re commissioned to write dialogue for.

The general gist of what’s going to happen has already been worked out months in advance by the story-liners, and the episode’s A, B and C stories have already been decided upon. The script meeting will be about figuring out how the A, B and C story strands are going to play out, scene by scene.

After a day of nutting this out, the freelance scriptwriter is then given the notes from the day’s meeting – this is called the scene breakdown. The freelance scriptwriter will then use this document to create the script – putting dialogue to the scenes which have already been decided upon.

In my lunch breaks I’d ask to sit in on the scriptwriting discussions, and occasionally I’d pipe up with an idea. Mostly, those ideas were met with the polite silence which basically means ‘that’s totally shit’, but occasionally they’d react positively, and my idea would become a character, or a storyline. When that happened it’d take everything I had to not jump up and do a happy dance.

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Sometimes the freelance scriptwriter would be quite a bit older than the characters they’re writing about, and one of my jobs was to translate it to ‘young speak’. So, for example, when the scriptwriter had written “Maddie, you mustn’t”, I’d rewrite it as “Maddie, really? You can’t be serious.”

After a really long time as the photocopy girl, a script story-lining job came up, and I was offered it. It was pretty much a dream come true. I was able to make up stories for a living. We story-liners would decide on the fate of the characters, and I printed out a quote from King Lear and stuck it on the script office wall, something which I thought pretty much summed up our roles as puppet masters of the characters of our show –

“As flies to wanton boys, so are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport.”

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We were in charge of deciding who in the show got to live or die, who loved and who despaired. We told stories. It was thrilling.

Pretty soon after that, Headland was cancelled, along with most of the TV dramas in Australia at that time, replaced by the onslaught of reality TV. I could never again find a job in the industry as easily as I did at 21, when I was completely starry-eyed and unaware of the difficulty involved in landing steady employment in that world.

I ended up in a job using my journalism degree after all, but in news production, safely behind the scenes. My parents were right in insisting upon a practical back up career, and I do love working in news. I sometimes get offered freelance script story-lining or story consulting work, and I still love that, too. But I love writing novels more, and I would never have learnt so much about structure, story, or dialogue if I hadn’t spent all that time feeding reams of paper into that clunky old photocopier, listening to those talented people who got to spend their days deciding which characters to kill for their sport.

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