Writing for TV

Writing for TV - The script
The script

This week I thought I’d tell you what’s involved with writing for TV, which in South Africa, most often means writing for soapies or long-running series. It starts off with your work being commissioned. What happens is that the channel will commission say a thirteen part drama, to test the waters, see if the audience likes the characters and what the ARs (audience ratings) are like.

The one show I work on started out like that; when I was first working on it, it only went out twice a week, and it took years to become a fully-fledged five days a week soapie. The various TV stations have mandates to fulfil (they need a Tsonga drama or an Afrikaans sitcom, for example) and they will send out the commissioning brief based on this. Sometimes it’s an open process where anyone can pitch, often they will invite seasoned production houses to pitch for it.

The reason production companies want a soapie or telenovela is because the funding here is not the same as the UK or the States and you can’t survive on what you make for a thirteen part drama.

We also have to work quickly and often will fulfil multiple roles on the show we’re working on unlike in other countries where you’ll have months to write a script and perhaps even multiple writers working on it. We can but dream of those kind of budgets and the luxury of that sort of time to write our scripts. Considering how we work, I’m exceptionally proud of what we produce – we also have a lot of people watching our shows. One of the shows I write for has a viewership of around 3.5-4 million per night, the other is in the 5 million range and some shows I’ve worked on have been in the 9-10 million range.

That is A SHIT-TON (or even TONNE) of people watching your work every night.
Writing for TV - The software we use
The software we use

I work mainly as a script writer and script editor but I have also done work as a story editor and storyliner. On some shows, I’ll attend weekly meetings, on others I’m completely left to my own devices. But generally, writers will attend a brainstorming session a few times a year to come up with the story arcs for the season. Back in the day, when money was more plentiful, we would go away for a brainstorm, now it often happens in the boardroom of the company or a B&B that’s been hired for that purpose, and in the time of Covid it happens over Zoom or Skype.

Brainstorming is gruelling and it’s even worse when it’s done virtually as you have to really concentrate and can’t just sit gazing into the distance mashing sweeties in your face. If I have scripts to write or edit on the day of a brainstorm, I make sure I do it before the meeting because I’m completely brain-dead by the end of it.

It’s hard to describe the process when we’re all in the writers’ room together, but literally we consume coffee by the gallon, eat everything that isn’t nailed down and just throw around ideas and spark off each other until we come up with reasonable storylines. I have never eaten as many lemon creams, fizzers and chewy sweets as I have during a brainstorm.

In real life, I never eat lemon creams, fizzers and chewy sweets, but there’s something about being in a brainstorm that makes me feel completely entitled to eat EVERYTHING.

Perhaps it’s the sugar and caffeine but people become totally indiscreet and will share all sorts of experiences they’ve been through. No, I am not going to spill the tea here, what happens in the writers’ room stays in the writers’ room. It’s the most fun you can have with your clothes on. Who am I kidding? Reading is the most fun you can have with your clothes on (AND off.)

Keep calm and drink coffee
Keep calm and drink coffee

The story arcs that are devised in the meeting then need to be pitched to channel, or sometimes channel will take part in the brainstorm, it depends. You have to put your ego aside and be brave during these sessions because some people will hate your ideas and will not be afraid to tell you just HOW MUCH THEY HATE THEM. When everyone is happy, these ideas are put into synopses, then broken down into beats, then assembled into scenes and then into breakdowns or treatments. This is done by the storyliners and the story editor and overseen by the head writer. At every stage, notes will be given and more drafts done.

These breakdowns or plans of the episodes are then sent to writers, in an ideal world you’ll be given a week to write the script but often because of deadlines, you’ll get four days, or sometimes only ONE BLOODY DAY. This means you are always on call. Last year I received a treatment on New Year’s Eve and I had a two day deadline to write it.

Yes, the sheer glamour of it often overwhelms me.
Writing for TV - The sheer glamour
The sheer glamour

The scripts are then sent to the script editor, who edits them to make sure the dialogue is on point and that story continuity and emotional continuity have been maintained. If the script is not in a good state, it’s sent back to the writer for a second draft. After the editor’s had a go at the script, she will send it to the head writer and/or other members of the team for notes. Sometimes that’s it, on other shows the editor will have to do many drafts and send it off to Channel and to production. After that it gets translated, in some shows it will get checked over by the cultural advisor.

People often write in with wonderful ideas they have for the various shows BECAUSE WE ARE SO STUPID, WE HAVE NEVER THOUGHT OF THEM OURSELVES, not realising that we have to take all sorts of things into account when writing. Which sets we can use in this script, how many extras we can have, if actor X is available, whether there is even a budget for them and so on. It also makes me roll my eyes when people go on about how useless a writing team is (usually just before they ask you for a job) not realising that we’ve had to cope with the fact that one actor has fallen pregnant for example, or suddenly left the show, and we’ve had to do a lightning fast rewrites. Rewrites are the bane of our existence, but they are a given on any show.

Death, taxes and rewrites are the only certainties in life.
Signing the contract when Things Unseen got optioned
Signing the contract when Things Unseen got optioned

I got my start in TV writing when my son’s kindermusik teacher came to see the play I wrote and directed as part of my master’s degree (shout-out to Annette Stark!) That was seventeen years ago. I had already been writing educational plays for theatre but writing for the screen was a different animal and it was a VERY STEEP learning curve, particularly as I was pregnant at the time and doing my master’s.

I’ve written for dramas, sitcoms and many, many soapies and I’ve also written on a couple of movie scripts but they haven’t made it to the screen – yet. I’ve probably written in the region of about 500 TV scripts and I’ve edited 2500. When I started I battled to write a script in a week, now I can write one in half a day.

I was lucky enough to have my second novel “Things Unseen” optioned for TV at the beginning of 2018. What this means is that the production house has twelve to eighteen months to make the show, after which time the option reverts back to you. They didn’t make it but one of the members of their team, Tammy Lewis-Houghting was still keen, so we’ve been developing it together.

We have made a teaser for the series – which I even got to act in – yes, I started off as a dancer and actor back in the day. But we are still looking for funding to make our limited series. You can watch the teaser here and if you’ve got a few spare millions lying around and feel like funding a limited drama series, do get in touch.

Shooting the teaser for Things Unseen
Shooting the teaser for Things Unseen
I started writing my first novel a few years before I started working as a TV writer – which is perhaps why it never made it out of the Drawer of Shame.

Because I have to say that TV writing has taught me an enormous amount about story structure, back story, how to write decent dialogue, continuity, believability and about cliffhangers. Cliffhangers are of paramount importance. They are the reason you keep watching the next episode of the show, in books, they are the reason you keep turning the page.

My workload in any given week might consist of writing two scripts – for two different shows and then editing five or six scripts on yet another show AND working on a movie script. I also write this blog every week, do author interviews a couple of times a month and I’m working on a joint novel as well as my own novel (now woefully neglected). Plus, I am THE VERY IMPORTANT director of this company (no, I’m really really not that important).

When I said I was a workaholic, I wasn’t kidding. (And no, it’s nothing to be proud of.) This is why I MISS hot lunch at my daughter’s school. I mean miss it like I miss an actual person. Having to think of what to put in her lunchbox and what to cook for dinner every day is my worst #justsaying.

Writing for TV - Work never stops
Work never stops

It is possible to earn a decent salary in our industry, but you work insane hours, and the job is stressful. To combat the stress, I meditate and do yoga and walk – sometimes three times a day. I also have to walk because I managed to pop a disk in my back a few years ago so I have to be careful about that. If I can give any advice to aspiring writers, it would be to take care of your back.

Also be born into wealth (if you can) – or marry well – that works too.

TV recommendation for this week: Elizabeth is Missing based on the book by Emma Healey. Good God, it’s riveting and harrowing and you must watch it. It’s about an old lady – Maud – who thinks she’s solving the mystery of her friend Elizabeth whom she thinks is missing, but really ends up solving a completely different mystery. A harrowing portrait of dementia, Glenda Jackson deserves ALL THE AWARDS for her performance. What made it even more poignant for me was listening to a dear friend describing her mom’s battle with Alzheimer’s which made me realise how spot on the movie was. The book is also FABULOUS. Read the book before you watch the movie.

I also noticed local movie, Dust on DSTV Box Office. I had the chance of reading the script just before they started shooting – it’s very violent but riveting and a FEMALE LEAD THRILLER. Give it a watch. I see our own David Butler is in it and it’s produced by old mate Greig Buckle while fave, Ryno Posthumus was involved with the publicity side of things.

Book recommendation for the week: I have had the privilege of reading an ARC (advanced review copy) of the new Fiona Snyckers’s book about scary Tiger Moms and Dads called The School Gates. Out next year, it’s a MUST READ. Another one that’s out next year is Kololo Hill by debut author Neema Shah. It’s basically about a Ugandan-Asian family in the 70s who have 90 days to get out of Kampala because of the lovely Idi Amin.

Gorg cover and it sounds both intriguing and heartbreaking, can’t wait to tuck in.  

I’ve also read Rob Lowe’s memoir Stories I only tell my friends. We all had MAJOR CRUSHES on Rob back in the day, so I did find this kind of fascinating. Also, Rob has an Instagram account which you must follow simply for the comments his kids make about him. HILARIOUS. And yes, he’s still bloody gorgeous and has a very gorgeous wife AND THEY ARE STILL TOGETHER – which I love.

Book recommendations
Book recommendations

Have a good week, everyone. In Joburg there’s a heatwave this weekend and the jacarandas are starting to bloom. It’s my absolute FAVOURITE time of the year. Happy reading! xxx