Jan Ellis writes for South-African television as one of the team on “Binnelanders”. (Interestingly, he does this from Sydney in Australia.)
For us, Jan explores what it is that sets daily drama writing apart from other screenwriting genres.
Differences of space/time
The second aspect of daily drama writing that sets it apart from other screenwriting genres is the configuration of space and time. Weekly drama often transcends the boundaries of real time. An hour-long episode can represent a series of events that play out over weeks, even months or years and skip forward or backward in time with great effect.
Although flashbacks are used to an extent in daily drama, flashing forward is rare (unless the characters themselves have some clairvoyant skills). So is leaving out substantial periods of time, except when weekends are deliberately used to suggest breaks in continuity from a Friday episode to a Monday episode.
Daily drama scripts are largely bound by a day-by-episode format in order to parallel the viewer’s calendar. One of the consequences is that issues are often dwelled on much longer in terms of screen time.
Whereas a conflict and resolution (that say, plays out over a week) between two characters can quite easily be represented in a few key scenes in a single episode of a weekly drama, writers of daily drama are forced to use more scenes (meaning more interaction and more dialogue) to tell the same story, as they cannot afford to put too much distance between characters in space and time. If a certain issue is at hand between two or more characters, it needs daily attention in the show, whether those characters interact daily or not.
Because of the sheer volume of screen time that needs to be filled by daily drama and the limited time available to fill it, here are a few general time-space issues that probably create greater challenges to the writers of this genre than others:
1. A => B => A
Unlike most American dailies, those from Australia, the UK and South Africa avoid the classic ‘Cut from scene A to scene B and cut back to Scene A’ structure. By this I mean: cutting from Ridge and Eric arguing to Brook and Stephanie reconciling and then back to Ridge and Eric still arguing, a la The Bold and the Beautiful. New scenes generally mean new interactions, rather than continuing where the characters left off in previous scenes.
The challenge is to overcome the obvious choice of starting scenes with one or more characters present in a setting, and another character arriving to prompt interaction. The aim is to start scenes mid-interaction, presupposing dialogue that the audience is not privy to.
2. Left to ponder.
Another pitfall is to continuously end scenes with a character leaving another behind to ponder whatever they discussed. It can be used to great effect, but should be done sparingly. The idea is to get in after the start and get out before the end of an interaction (again implying off-screen dialogue), which keeps scenes less bookended and ensures better narrative flow.
A tactic to keep things dynamic is for a character to exit from a situation as another enters either to interact with the character left behind or approaching another character that happens to be in the same communal space as the first. The two-hander is the most frequently used character combination used in daily drama scenes. Under time constraints, it speeds up the writing process and often provides a more classic bipolar interaction for the viewer to absorb.
3. The never-ending story.
Daily drama is, by definition, perpetual, resembling a stream of consciousness with highs, lows and temporary resolutions. The aim is to keep going, not for a season, not for a year, not for a few, but for a lifetime.
In most weekly genres, a particular issue or event is dealt with in each episode. In CSI, this week’s murderer is caught (or gets away with it, rarely) and next week, a new case arrives.
Daily drama, on the other hand, consistently juggles three main storylines at various stages of their individual arcs at any given point in time, with cliffhangers being required every 24 hours. A story will almost never begin and end in the same episode. One storyline (which could play out in a month) might be in the infancy of its cycle, another (which has developed over three months) may be reaching a crisis point, whereas a much longer story-arc might be in that phase of the cycle where its effect on current events is marginal.
A healthy mix of two- and multi-character scenes (with more complex interactions), added to the odd scene where all or most of the characters in the story are present, e.g. the Christmas Party or Dance Competition, brings balance in terms of the audience’s view on the individuals and the communal world which they all inhabit.
Jan Ellis is a multi-media all-rounder with a glittering career in South African Film, Television and Theatre, who moved to Sydney in 2007 to train as a Video Editor and continues to write regular episodes for the popular South African daily drama, ‘Binnelanders’.