Writing for Daily Drama (4)

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.

Mapping out the Territory of the Dialogue Writer.

Most writing departments employ a larger number of dialogue writers on a part-time basis, leaving enough time for some consideration in the development of the meat of each episode.

A script that was written in a day or two will stand out like a sore thumb and rarely qualifies as anything more than a first draft.  Part-time writers will have other work commitments and schedule their time accordingly.

For the Dialogue Writer, there is a fine line between creating dramatic reality and tinkering with actual story content.

They will spend somewhere between 20 and 25 hours completing a script at 3rd draft level, leaving breaks in between sessions or days of writing to revisit the text with fresh eyes.

These writers are the lucky ones, as everyone else in the writing department, technically, only has one day to do what they need to on an episode.

For the Dialogue Writer, there is a fine line between creating dramatic reality and tinkering with actual story content. The job is to develop the ‘who says what/does what to whom prose’ from a breakdown into real interactions between characters with each a unique personality, voice and motivation.

It is the very potential for misunderstanding and miscommunication that keeps the audience unnerved, anxious to see how characters are interpreted by others.

It is not about changing content into something seemingly more credible or exciting.

For actual changes they’ll need clearance from ‘the top’ and other subsequent scripts – many already in the process of being written-  might need adjusting.

It sounds simple enough, but imagine how confusing it would get if ten writers all want to change content while simultaneously working on ten different episodes.

Territory

There is no list of golden rules to write by in this genre.  As in all endeavours, practice makes perfect.  Reading your scene drafts out loud to yourself or an objective ear often exposes glaring errors in rhythm or style.

TV dialogue is NOT natural.  It is quite far removed from real-world dialogue, stage dialogue and even film dialogue. There is less repetition, fewer ‘ehms’ and ‘ahs’, it is less disjointed and much more economical than everyday-speak.

The Television audience is impatient, mainly because they have the option to choose an alternative if they are not completely engrossed.  They see Television content as a right rather than a choice.  If you’ve made the effort to go to the Theatre, chances are you’ll sit through the uninspiring bits and wait for the captivating bits.

TV dialogue is NOT natural.  It is quite far removed from real-world dialogue, stage dialogue and even film dialogue.

At home, you’ll go and make coffee or flip to something else, even have a chat while the show is on if it doesn’t have you by the balls.

Therefore, in daily drama especially, the writer has to cater for a shorter, more predictable attention span.  Long speeches are a rarity; long scenes are a rarity; scene length is more consistent.

The genre is driven by dialogue. The demand for content combined with budgetary restraints inevitably leads to minimal variation in visual setting.

It is the characters and their verbal interaction that keeps the audience engaged over an extended period of viewing.

Remote Control

Creating dialogue that allows actors to inject more value into what’s NOT being said, the subtext, the ‘lines’ between the lines, is a skill that is equally necessary in all forms of screenwriting.

The genre is driven by dialogue. The demand for content combined with budgetary restraints inevitably leads to minimal variation in visual setting.

The breakdown will often point to what a character aims to get across.  The Dialogue Writer aims to use words that allude to that aim, with characters often not directly saying what they mean, even when being truthful.

It is the very potential for misunderstanding and miscommunication that keeps the audience unnerved, anxious to see how characters are interpreted by others.

There are many more areas in which writing for the daily genre will require a unique approach. This was a very wordy and drawn out debut-blog, more poop than pop, but I hope it stirs up some thought about the mechanics of the text-audience relationship in this deceptively challenging form of screenwriting.

Jan EllisJan 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’.

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