Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Episode Breakdown to scene...

Update: Just noticed the dodgy formating. Fixed! Sorry about that!

Right, so having had my little Carrigstown tour, I was sent off with my Episode Breakdowns and given a week to write up my scenes.

So, what is an Episode Breakdown, John?

I'm glad you asked that. Basically, the Scene Breakdown Document (to give it it's full title) is a (roughly) 10 page document which describes/breaks down the episode in question for the writer to then write up in to the full episode. It starts off with a cover page detailing general info - the episode number, transmission date, the time it takes place in that day (from 8:30 to 20:30 for example), what the daylight is for that day (so you know if the sun sets at 20:00, anything you set after that will have to be a night scene). There's then a list of the studio sets available that week and the scenes due to take place in each one:

THE PUB - scenes 2, 5, 7, 10, for example.

There is also a similar list for the lot:

OUTSIDE THE PUB - scenes 3, 8, 11.

Next there's a list of the characters due to appear that week, again with a list of scenes they are due to appear in for that episode. As I said last time, you do have the option of putting extra (available) characters in scenes, if it fits with the story.

Next, the SCENE LIST. In Fair City, the episode breakdown lays out the A, B and C stories, already worked out and in the order they should appear. Generally, there are between 18-20 scenes per episode, with half before the commercial break and half after. Obviously, more scenes are given to the A story, then the B and finally the C. There may also be a bit of a D story in some episode. The balance of scenes between A, B and C really depends on how important each story is in that episode. If you have two very important story strands coming to a head in one episode, your A and B stories may well be fairly equally balanced. The A story tends to open the episode in scene 1. We will then come back to it throughout the episode but it usually also includes the scene before the commercial break, the scene immediately after, and the last scene leading into the cliff.

So, the scene list will have something like:

SCENE 1: LOUIE TELLS YVONNE THAT HE DOESN'T THINK
THEY HAVE A FUTURE

LOCATION: LOT X BEER GARDEN

CHARS: LOUIE, YVONNE

and so on. The scene list provides a brief overview of the episode. Next up, we have the breakdown proper, which takes the Scene List and adds a bit more detail for the writer. So, taking the same scene as above, we'd also have:

TIME: 8:45

Louie and Yvonne are setting up for the day. Louie
doesn’t feel he can trust Yvonne and doubts their future
together. Yvonne tries to convice Louie that nothing
happened with her ex. Yvonne becomes irritated when
Louie wont believe her.

And that's it.

So, how did you choose the scenes, John?

Well, now. Therein lies the rub. For the trial, the task is to take 4 episode breakdowns, choose one and then choose 4 scenes from that episode to write them up. And, to be honest, for me that was the most difficult bit. Choosing the scenes. I read the breakdowns and saw loads of potential scenes and storylines and nice character moments all over the place - some nice comedy, lots of drama, good stuff. And so it should be. That's the point. The episode treatments should be full of drama and intrigue and comedy and character. But it doesn't make that choice very easy. Basically, with 20 scenes per episode and 4 episodes, that's 80 scenes to choose from. Too much choice! Aaarrgh!

In the end... well, in the end, I just chose. I didn't apply some scientific rationale, or process of elimination, or... anything. The main decision to make is do you take one story from an episode and follow it through? Thereby showing you can tell a story over an episode, follow the arc, develop the characters sufficiently, know the characters sufficiently to do it and keep up the pace/interest. OR, do you choose a mix of scenes? Showing that you can do comedy and drama. And that you know a whole host of the show's characters well enough to write them.

And the answer is... I have no bloody idea. I just went for it, chose an A story from one episode and wrote it up. That did mean I'd restricted my characters to only three because of the story, but there you go. What can I say? I liked it, I wrote it. If I'd thought about it any more, my head was going to explode. The only thing I did do was that the last scene before the cliff was set in the pub, so I took loads of other characters from the episode, looked at their storylines during that week, and then added loads of little moments in for them in that last scene, in and around the core scene from the breakdown. It wasn't much (and made the scene much longer than it needed to be) but I hoped it showed that I could (and wasn't scared of) writing for the other characters. Or it showed that I was incredibly stupid, had no clue what I was doing, didn't understand how the show worked, and didn't get the characters. But hey, at least there'd be no sitting on the fence!

So, how did you approach writing the scenes, John?

My, you are asking very intelligent questions, if I do say so myself. Ok, so, without stating the obvious (which I'm going to do anyway), how do you write scenes when you already know what is going to happen, you don't have to invent the plot, someone else has decided what is going to happen, where and with which characters? So, you just have to write the dialogue, right? Easy. Well, not quite.

First off, the script editor had given me the 4 episode breakdowns and the corresponding scripts for the week following "mine". So, I sat down and read the breakdowns and then the scripts. And boy am I glad I did that. It was a real eye-opener. The writers had taken those scene descriptions, completely respected them, but then added loads to them. How? It depended. Sometimes they'd added characters to the scene, which just gave it a different dynamic. Or they added little character moments before the scene breakdown bit, just to contrast with the main scene, or create humour, or to give the scene more of an arc. Sometimes they even changed what was in the breakdown which is fine, as long as the characters get to the same point by the end of the episode (and you don't invent a new family member for them in your "change"). And sometimes they just... enriched the scenes. Which I think was a combination of all the above, combined with really knowing the characters and the show. I've read many times that the key to working on a soap is to know the show, know the characters. Now, I was beginning to see why that was so important.

Right, having had the pants impressed off me by what the show's writers had done, how was I going to make my scenes sing? I went back to my notes from my meeting with the script editor of how to approach the scenes. I then combined these with things I'd picked up from various blogs, websites, books and real live people on scene structure and approach. And came up with a list:

Dynamic?

How do characters arc through the scene? e.g. starts off happy and content, then confused, then angry, then shocked and broken. How does this dynamic contribute to the characters dynamic through the episode? What could you add to the scene to increase the difference between a character's dynamic at the beginning to the end of a scene? You should be able to draw this dynamic as a line on a graph. The position of the line should be different for each character at the end of the scene than it was at the beginning. The same for the beginning and end of the episode. The more ups and down in the graphs, the more dynamic the scenes, the better the episode.

Other chars?

Could you add other characters to the scene? Who is available? How would various characters change the scene? Do they add anything worthwhile to the story of the scene?

Who Gains?

Who gains in the scene? What do the gain?

Who loses?

Who loses? What?

Conflict?

Where is the conflict in the scene? Are you starting the scene as the conflict starts? Are you ending it before it is resolved? Do you want to resolved it here? Is there inner conflict for char(s)?

NOTE: Conflict is NOT always arguing!

What do chars want?

What do they actively want in the scene? Do they achieve it?

What do chars need?

What do the characters need to learn/know/realise (they may have no idea that they need to learn/know/realise anything)? Do they? Why? Why not?

How do chars change by the end of the scene?

In mood, dynamic, resolve, character. They ALL should change in some way.

Jeopardy?

What is at jeopardy for each of the characters? What are they fighting to save?

Choices they make?

What character-revealing choice does each character make? Is this choice forced on them? Could it be?

Where is the truth of the scene/char/situation?

Take a step back and look at the situation these characters are in. What is the truth of that situation? What does/could it tell us about human nature? What does it tell us about them? This doesn't need to be something huge. It could be something fairly banal, but revealing the truth of a banal situation. The scene is set in the morning? How can you make it less generic than the "morning" scenes we usually see on the telly? What do you do in the morning that you've never seen on telly? Keep it clean, now! Remeber that 8 yr old viewer.

What does the scene reveal about the chars?

Where is the potential in the set up/scene to show the truth of that character? What would they really be like in the morning? What would be so them to do? Or where can you show their insecurities, secrets, inner self in this situation?

What is the thing that we relate to as an audience?

Where is the universal truth in this little morning scene? Again, pulling it out of the generic, what will draw the audience in because they recognize and relate to how you are presenting these characters in this situation.

Ideas?

Anything else that I think might add to the scene?

References?

Any references to previous storylines, character traits that might add to the scene.

Physical/Visual?

Is there any way of using anything other than dialogue to tell the story and change the dynamic of the scene?

Cliff? Hook?

So, there's the cliff at the end of the episode. And another half-way through for the commercial break. But could you have a little cliff at the end of your scene? Can you make your scene end with a question, reveal, doubt that will make the audience decide they want to sit through the next couple of scenes because they want to see what happens next?

Of course, you don't have to answer ALL these questions for ALL the characters in all the scenes. Some of them just won't be relevant. But I found that asking these questions and writing down the answers forced me to push the scenes and characters in different directions. I started coming up with loads of different ways of looking at the scenes, making them more/less dramatic, seeing how those characters would really deal with that situation. I probably spent an hour or so on each scene going through this stuff, but it added so much. Most importantly, I got to the end and felt that I wasn't just joining someone else's dots in the episode breakdown.

Then I wrote the scenes and changed everything.

But that's cool. Going through the scenes, looking at the possibilities was what allowed me to come up with the scenes that I did.

Anything else, John?

Now, let me see.

If the show is 20 scenes on average and 23 minutes (or thereabouts) then you are talking about 2 pages a scene. Not much when you are trying to show conflict, character reveal, arcs, truth, what the chars want/need, and the rest. But hey, who said it was easy?

Having chosen my scenes, I realised that they depended on knowing what happened during the story in the previous week. That created a bit of a dilemma - call the script editor and risk annoying her by asking lots of questions? Or find a way of writing around those story elements?

I really liked the scenes I'd chosen, but if you'd asked me which characters I would have chosen to write about for my trial, I would never have chosen the characters in that plot. I didn't feel as if I knew them particularly well. Or that they had very distinctive voices. How wrong I was! Going through the scenes, exploring the characters, I got to know them much better and realised how much watching the show for the past year was paying off. It goes back to the same thing I was saying earlier - you suddenly realise that knowing the show and the characters is key to writing soap.

And that was it. Except to say that I absolutely and thoroughly enjoyed it. I'd always felt that I'd love to write for soap. I'd always felt that I'd enjoy it. And it was a great kick to have that confirmed. I had a ball. And going back to that whole "where's the fun in writing when you can't make up what happens?" thing, it really wasn't an issue. There were other challenges, other ways to be creative, other satisfactions in feeling I was getting the voices right or knowing how a character would behave.

So, what next, John?

I'm glad you asked that, faithful reader. So, I finished the scenes, did a bit a re-writing and cutting, decided they were still too long but to hell with it. So, I hit "send" and off whizzed my email and my scenes.

I sat in front of the computer, staring at the inbox. I'd heard that an answer could take between 4 and 6 months. Having spend a week thinking about nothing but the ups and downs of Carrigstown life, the thought of a 6 month wait wasn't exactly what I wanted to hear. Still, that's the way it goes. It's always the waiting game. So, I decided not to stare at the inbox any more. 6 months of that was going to do my head in. And off I went to make a cup of tea and think about what was next. Finish that script I'd been writing...? Still enough time to do Red Planet...?

I sat down in front of the computer to make decisions.

And an email in my inbox.

From the script editor.

Oh, Jesus...!

She'd had a quick read and liked the scenes! Wey-hey! And she'd be back in a few weeks to discuss the edits.

Eh?

Edits?

No idea what that means, but I don't care. Looks like I got past the first post!

Now, for passing all the others. Posts, that is.

Whatever.

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