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.
The writing/production environment
The practical implications of the production of daily drama seriously influence creativity in the process. Firstly, consider the structure of a typical writing department and the process through which each script is produced and realised on screen.
It generally breaks down like this: Producers, Head Writer, Script Coordinator, Script Editor, Storyline Writers, Dialogue Writers and possibly Box Producer and Director/s meet anywhere between once and four times a year. During an intense brainstorming session they propose and deliberate characters, depending on actors’ contracts and availability.
Storylines are proposed for the long term (six months to a year), mid-term (three to six months) and short term (two weeks to a month) and the appropriate primary story arcs are developed.
Similarly, on any given day, people in various departments will be dealing with episodes’ scripts each at a completely different stage of their individual evolution: one-line scene breakdowns; paragraph scene breakdowns, 3rd draft versions, edited versions, revised versions, approved versions, camera scripted versions.
A dialogue writer will be composing a draft for an episode that will be shot two months later and broadcast three months after that, while the script editor will be streamlining dialogue and checking continuity issues in an episode (with the preceding and following episodes very much in mind) that is six weeks from shoot.
On the same day a director will be planning camera shots and cutting points for an episode to be shot in three weeks or a month. An editor will be finalising an episode that is due for broadcast in a couple of weeks. And so it goes every day.
How many writers, did you say..?
The Head Writer – bless his/her soul – will deal with a number of episodes every single day, churning out a daily instalment’s worth of new content for the Storyline Writers who convert it into scene summaries (breakdowns). Episodes coming in from the Script Editor will need to be read for approval, then sending to the Producers for further approval.
The Head Writer also reads and approves previous breakdowns from Storyline Writers and deals with overall discrepancies in continuity, logic and character-consistency. Because of the domino-effect from already-written episodes, often solutions are needed to avoid collisions with others further down the production line, or in episodes yet to come.
The Dialogue Writer receives that blue print called the “breakdown” script. Their aim is to flesh out the prose style skeleton into a scene with beats, rhythm, dialogue which is character specific and consistent, dramatic tension or comedy where appropriate and, most importantly, authenticity.
Breakdowns vary on different productions from fairly detailed summaries of the interaction in each scene to a mere few sentences describing the overall aim of the scene and what the characters motivations are.
In our case, each breakdown is about 4,500 words in length, representing a standard of 13 to 14 scenes per episode. We have a team of about ten dialogue writers, each delivering an episode every two weeks on average.
The deadline for delivery is set five days after receipt of the breakdown. While not writing, each writer reads all other breakdowns, as well as all final scripts as they are approved to ensure they are up to date across all levels of content.
The Script-Coordinator – usually a mere shell of a human being due to exhaustion and stress – manages the scheduling, filing and archiving protocols of this web of rotating script-versions and keeps everyone in the Department (as well as Production and Art Dept.) informed of every single detail that may be changed, cut, replaced, reworked, etc.
Suffice it to say, for every pair of eyes and ears that are needed to make sure that screen content flows well in any other genre, daily drama needs five pairs… and still errors inevitably slip through the net.
Jan Ellis is a multimedia 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 who continues to write regular episodes for the popular South African daily drama, “Binnelanders”.