Tag Archives: scriptwriting

How to write, structure and maintain a TV soap opera like Coronation Street

Many moons ago, I used to work a lot for Granada TV in Manchester, home of Coronation Street which, since its birth in 1960, has been the UK’s regular ratings-topper.

I never worked in the Drama Department at Granada – mostly I was in Promotions with slight forays into Children’s/Light Entertainment.

But I remember having conversations with two Coronation Street producers at different times about the structure of the soap and they both, pretty much, ran it along similar lines.

The first, crucial pillar to build a soap on is a central location.

In Coronation Street, the BBC’s EastEnders and ITV’s Emmerdale this is a pub – the Rover’s Return, the Queen Vic and The Woolpack.

River City in Scotland and Fair City in the Republic of Ireland have also taken the pub to their soapy hearts.

The pub allows you to have a central core cast – a small staff and ‘regulars’ who live locally – and a logical reason why new characters bringing new plots will enter and leave the ongoing storyline.

ATV’s ancient soap Crossroads used a variation of this by having the central setting as a motel.

In the case of Coronation Street, there was (certainly when I worked at Granada) a formula which went roughly like this…

DRAMATIC STORYLINES

  • one main storyline peaking
  • one main storyline winding down
  • one storyline building to be next main storyline
  • one subsidiary storyline peaking
  • one subsidiary storyline winding down
  • one storyline building to be next subsidiary storyline

COMIC STORYLINES (as with dramatic storylines)

  • one peaking
  • one winding down
  • one building

I have always thought that EastEnders fails in ignoring or vastly underplaying the possibility of comic storylines. When Coronation Street is on a roll, it can be one of the funniest shows on TV.

I confess shamefacedly that I have not actually watched Coronation Street lately (well, it HAS been going since 1960, now five times a week, and even I have a partial life).

But another interesting insight from one of the producers at Granada TV was that Coronation Street (certainly in its perceived golden era) was also slightly out-dated. It appeared to be a fairly socially-realistic tableau of life in a Northern English town, slightly dramatised. But it was always 10-20 years out-of-date. It showed what people (even people in the North) THOUGHT life was currently like, but it had an element of nostalgia.

This was in-built from the start. The initial ‘three old ladies in the snug’ of the 1960s – Era Sharples and her two cronies) is what people thought Northern life was like but, in fact, that was a vision from the early 1950s or 1940s or even 1930s. So modern storylines were being imposed on a slightly nostalgised (not quite romanticised!) vision of the North.

In other countries where pubs are not a tradition, of course, you have to find another central location.

But, in my opinion, if you lessen the humour and harden the gritty realism, you may maintain ratings figures in the short or medium term, but you are gambling. And if your spoken lines sound like written lines (as they often do in EastEnders) then you are a titanic success sailing close to an iceberg.

But what do I know?

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If you are in your 20s & from Glasgow, how do you get a sci-fi film script picked up by Hollywood?… Krysty knows…

So comedian Gareth Ellis told me I should meet 26-year-old Krysty Wilson-Cairns

“Gareth hasn’t told me anything,” I told Krysty when I met her this week at Bar Italia in Soho, “beyond the fact you have just had your film script picked-up by Hollywood after how many years at film school?”

“Two years,” said Krysty. “I did my MA in Screenwriting at the National Film and Television School. I graduated last year.”

In her first year at the NFTS, she wrote a short film All Dead Men based on the true story of a delayed action bomb which landed in BBC Broadcasting House during the Second World War. “We built a whole floor of Broadcasting House from scratch,” she told me. There is a trailer on YouTube.

She later won a BBC Climate Competition award for The End of An Era which follows two cockroaches in a post-apocalyptic future going to the cinema to see Jurassic Park, but instead of dinosaurs, the monsters are humans.

The animation is on YouTube.

“So,” I asked, “if the NFTS thing was an MA, you must have done a degree before that?”

“I did my degree in screenwriting at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland,” said Krysty, “which is part of St Andrews University… but based in Glasgow.”

“So how on earth did you sell a script to Hollywood?”

“In your last three weeks at the NFTS,” explained Krysty, “you get sent round in groups of ten to all the agencies. You have to pitch three ideas and then the agencies that like you meet you again. I had my heart set on United Agents and luckily Marnie Podos there said Yes.”

“And she sold your script to…”

“FilmNation,” said Krysty. “They made Memento and Looper. “I’ve been a massive fan of Christopher Nolan ever since Memento.”

“I didn’t like Inception,” I said. “Too complicated for me. He should have gone back about five script re-writes to when it was presumably simpler.”

Krysty Wilson-Cairns in Soho, London’s film-making

Krysty Wilson-Cairns in London’s Soho

“Oh no, I absolutely loved Inception,” said Krysty. “Stunning. I liked the way he took a heist movie and made it so cerebral and I think it’s what making films is about; a bunch of people sharing a dream. It spoke to me on a really deep level. At film school, I got absolutely hammered for saying I loved it, because we were meant to love kitchen sink dramas and French New Wave films, whereas I love Inception and Die Hard. I want to make commercial films. I want to make films that lots of people see.”

A few days before I met her, Krysty had Tweeted It’s kinda awesome being part of #HollywoodReporter trend alert after reading a piece about herself in the US film trade magazine.

“I think I was quite lucky with my script,” she told me. “It just captured something in the zeitgeist. It’s called Aether. It’s a dark psychological sci-fi thriller.”

“And what’s the elevator pitch for it?” I asked.

A machine that can turn up dead sounds and they use it to solve murders. Everything that was said in a room is still in the room… I wrote it over Christmas. I had to do something. It was really cold in Scotland and I wanted to stay by the fire. It took me six weeks – 112 pages.”

“112 pages?” I said. “So that’s 112 minutes and it’s sci-fi – so loads of special effects, – so very expensive.”

“No,” said Krysty, “Low on special effects because it’s mostly done through sound: a lot of audio effects.”

“For a movie, though,” I said, “it has to be very visual and very big screen.”

“Ah,” said Krysty, “But there’s a lot of murder, violence and it’s very character-driven; one man coming apart.”

Krysty told me she is flying to Los Angeles next Friday “for the re-drafts”.

Krysty’s Musical Star movie at the NFTS

Musical Star – one of Krysty’s movie projects at the NFTS

“Do they want to change the concept?” I asked.

“I have no idea what they want to do,” said Krysty. “It’s set in London so they might want to move it to LA, which would be fine.”

“Do you have ambitions to direct?” I asked.

“No, nothing like that.”

“But film makers,” I said, “change everything which writers write.”

“That’s the beauty of writing,” said Krysty. “It’s like a kind of shared, amazing dream.”

“More like shared frustrations?” I suggested.

“Well, no,” she said.

“The only way to really control your script is to be a director,” I suggested.

“I don’t need to control it,” said Krysty. “If I wanted to control it, I’d write books. I find it terribly exciting when people take something you’ve written and imagine it and act it out and embody something that you made up in your pyjamas.”

“It’s not a collaboration, though,” I argued. “You write your own script, then they bring in other writers with ampersands and ‘and’s between their names and your central characters will get unrecognisably changed – and the location and the plot.”

“Maybe,” said Krysty, “but I’ll still get to sit in the cinema and say There’s a couple of things I made up in my pyjamas and they spent £20 million on it. I think that’s exciting.”

“More than getting close to what you originally wanted?”

“Yeah. Well, I’ve already what I wanted in the original script.”

“But the film industry,” I said, “is famously full of shysters, charlatans and thieves.”

“I’d be excited to be among them,” laughed Krysty. “I’m from Glasgow – come on!”

From Shawlands in Glasgow (above) to Hollywood (Photograph by S Allison)

Krysty is progressing from Shawlands (above) to Hollywood (Photograph by S Allison)

“Which bit of Glasgow?” I asked.

“Shawlands on the south side,” she replied. “I hail from Craigholme Girls School.”

“Very posh,” I said. “What did you want to be when you were 13?”

“An engineer,” she told me. “I’m very interested in Maths and Physics. I wanted to be an engineer right up to the point I applied to university and then I realised it would be horrific to have to sit and build bridges every day and not make stuff up.”

“Strange,” I said. “I would think the scientific gene is different from the creative writer gene.”

“I liked quantum physics, quantum suicide and stuff like that.”

“Quantum suicide?” I asked.

“It’s an experiment that proves the Many Worlds theory. You’re sitting in a chair and there’s a gun pointing at your head. You make the decision to press a button, so the world splits in two. In one world, the gun fires. In the other it doesn’t. But, because you can’t perceive the world in which the gun fires, it always does not fire.”

“Sounds like Schrödinger’s cat,” I said.

Wikipedia’s attempted explanation of Schrödinger's cat theory

Part of Wikipedia’s attempt to explain Schrödinger’s cat…

“All that kind of stuff fascinated me,” explained Krysty. “I wanted to sit and make stuff up but they were like NO! BUILD BRIDGES!”

“So it’s quantum physics you’re into,” I said. “Fantasy physics.”

“Yes,” Krysty agreed. “Crazy physics.”

“You come from a creative family?” I asked.

“My mum’s in Health and Safety. My dad’s a mechanic,” said Krysty. “He fixes diesel engines. I used to like to tinker with cars. My grandfather was a roofer. He was very creative. He used to fix roofs. I’m still quite a bit of a petrol head. But I was never a very good mechanic. I’m quite good at roofs, though. Good with heights. I could patch something up if I have to, if this film thing doesn’t work out.”

“Have you got other scripts to follow-up Aether?”

“Yes. Eight scripts. Black comedy and sci-fi and thrillers. They’re the three genres I like to work in.”

“I don’t think you will need to mend roofs,” I said.

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How to write the perfect film script: “Die Hard” meets Pixar animated feature “The Incredibles”

This morning, someone asked me about scriptwrtiting. He asked:

“Am I correct in assuming that boy loses girl three quarters of the way though almost every movie?”

This sounds like one of those formulae I don’t believe from one of those people who charge $800 for seminars in which they say Casablanca is the perfect way to write a script – in which case, the perfect way to write a script is to not know the ending while you’re shooting, have a cast of completely flummoxed actors and to write the script virtually day-by-day-by-night as shooting progresses. I have also heard Alien held up as a perfect piece of movie-making and, having met several crew members, I can tell you shooting on that film was an unhappy utter nightmare. So creating a nightmare situation for cast and crew would be the best way to make a film… Not.

The classic story, allegedly, is a ‘three act’ screenplay and the classic story is “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy regains girl”, but I think those three stages can happen anywhere you feel like in percentage terms.

As far as I’m concerned, there are only two rules of thumb. One is something I was told ages ago…

In the standard US TV movie, the entire basis of the plot and all the central characters at the heart of that plot are introduced in the first three minutes.

The best example I’ve ever seen of this is actually the first Die Hard big-screen movie in which, by the end of the opening credits – before the movie even starts properly – you know that Bruce Willis is a New York cop who has come to LA to see his ex-wife whom he still has affection for and who works for a Japanese multinational company in a large building, it is Christmas and there is a party in the building and (if my memory serves me) you are also introduced to the lead villain who has a team of baddies heading towards the building. All this before the opening credits end. It is a brilliant piece of scriptwriting.

It is done very efficiently by Bruce Willis’ apparently insignificant chit-chat with a taxi driver (whose character also runs through the movie) and by simple intercutting.

Last night, I accidentally saw the beginning of the Pixar animated movie The Incredibles and the central characters, situation and tone of the movie are, just like Die Hard, introduced clearly and concisely before the opening credits. I was interrupted by a phone call so never saw the rest of the movie, but I could tell I wanted to know more and to see more. I was hooked at the very start of the film, which is a big thing…

Because the second movie structure rule-of-thumb is that there has to be a ‘hook’ at the very beginning. If there isn’t a hook at the start of a film, I am never involved either emotionally or intellectually.

Setting up the atmosphere/tone at the start sounds good but doesn’t work.

You have to set up the atmosphere/tone but ALSO introduce the central characters and situation very quickly and succinctly. Another great example of this is the opening of my favourite film The Wild Bunch – everything is set up during the opening credits with dramatic music which sets the atmosphere/tone – you are shown the central characters, the bounty hunters waiting, the start of the opening bank robbery, the physical set-up for an upcoming massacre of the innocents… it is a giant hook of expectation built-up by great music… and even the director’s movie-making philosophy is established.

As the final credit DIRECTED BY SAM PECKINPAH appears on screen, William Holden barks out: “If they move… kill ’em!”

To my mind, the best films and TV episodes and the best novels have this structure… They start with an unresolved problem and end with the resolution of that problem; the plot is the unravelling of the problem and, during the story, you cannot yourself see how it can possibly be resolved so you have to keep watching to find out.

In the case of Die Hard, the unresolved problem is actually that the central character’s marriage has fallen apart plus there is going to be an attack on the skyscraper in which the ex-wife is working/partying. Along the way, bit by bit, there are other little hooks, each of which have to be straightened out. A couple of them are when the wife’s identity is revealed to the ‘terrorists’ and another the point at which the Bruce Willis character (armed) comes face-to-face with the lead ‘terrorist’ (unarmed) who pretends to be a hostage. So the hook running through the movie is Can he save his wife? and Can he save his marriage? And, along the way, there are a succession of little hooks.

I think the best example of this structure of constant hooks throughout a narrative is surprisingly Scots comedian Janey Godley‘s terrifying autobiography Handstands in the Dark – an emotional rollercoaster which makes the Himalayas look like goose bumps – I edited the book but did not write it (she wrote it) and I was therefore the first to be emotionally traumatised by reading it.

At the very beginning, even on the first page, there is a hook; I defy anyone who reads the closing paragraphs of the first chapter not to read the second chapter. And this happens throughout the book. She constantly tells the reader not-quite-enough facts to be satisfied. They have to read on a little more to find the resolution of each particular hook and, by the time they understand what is going on and/or are satisfied with the resolution of that problem, another hook has been set up. The book is also full of page-turning “Jesus fucking Christ almighty!” moments. Thunderbolts come out of the blue without any warning at all. And she intercuts multiple narrative strands throughout – this was nothing to do with me; she did it. It is an extraordinary narrative.

It reminded me, oddly, of Lord of the Rings, where Tolkien separates the central characters, then intercuts between the narrative strands, leaving the story strands dangling so you have to keep reading to find out what happened. Janey doesn’t have separate plot strands in that sense, but she intercuts her narrative. And the ending simultaneously is the biggest cliff-hanger since the climax of  the original Italian Job and also satisfyingly emotionally rounded-off. A neat trick she pulled there.

So my three golden rules for writing a film script (the third one echoes the late Malcolm Hardee‘s Third Golden Rule of Comedy) are:

1) explain the set-up and central characters in the first three minutes
2) structure the narrative with constant unresolved hooks

3) if all else fails, clothes off and knob out!

I should, perhaps, point out I never read any part of the Killer Bitch script until after shooting had finished and have still never actually read the full script…!

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