18,February
2014

Writing For TV: Trial Scripts/Shadow Schemes

For practical and proactive tips to make it as a writer, get the UK Scriptwriter’s Survival Handbook, available on Kindle and paperback!


In exciting news, I just made the top 5% cut of BBC writersroom‘s latest script submissions (Feb 2014) out of 2900 scripts! Not sure what this means exactly, apart from the kudos of selection, but it prompted me to think of this post from the old blog (below) about writing trial episodes and/or taking part in shadow schemes for TV. Never heard of them before? Read on!

If you’re keen to make it as a TV writer, then an inevitable step in the process is to write a trial episode for one of the soaps. These trials are also known as ‘Shadow Schemes’. Essentially, you’ll go through the process of writing a real episode from the official storylines without it actually being broadcast. There usually isn’t any fee for trial episodes although some of the one hour dramas may offer some remuneration.

A trial episode is a big deal. It’s your foot in the door. It’s make or break time. In some instances, you’ll be asked to write a handful of sample scenes to see if you’re suitable to write an entire trial episode. Other times, the sample scenes will be enough to guarantee a commission. It varies from show to show. Let’s break it down.

SAMPLE SCENES:
‘Sample scenes’ may sound fairly straightforward but you’ll probably be asked to write 10-15 scenes, or maybe even half an episode. This will usually be the A story of the intended episode, to see how you get on with the characters, dialogue and the arc of that particular plot line.

TRIAL EPISODES/SHADOW SCHEMES:

First draft, notes from script editor, second draft, then a decision is made on whether or not you’re suited to the show. Naturally, writing the entire episode gives a much fuller indication of how well you know the series, the characters, etc. It’s also a lot harder than you think. You might be good enough to write for the show but there’s a lot of competition. You won’t be the only one doing a trial episode. Make your script shine.

APPROACH:

Some soaps use scene-by-scene breakdowns (written by the storyliners), and you write the script from there. Others give you a 2/3 page outline of what happens in your episode, and it’s up to you to come up with the scenes, structure, etc. Whatever the case, you may settle down telling yourself not to stray too much from what you’ve been given, and to give them what they want.

This is a bad approach. As it’s a trial, they want to see your take on the episode, your original voice. This means giving them what they want but not necessarily what they expect.

Work out the stories. What’s really going on? Is there a better beat to be had? What’s the character feeling? Is my B story really the A story? Follow the flow of what you need to do but don’t just hit the beats. Add flavour, humour, surprise, something that says ‘YOU’ but within the acceptable context of the show.

When you’re familiar with a series and its characters, then follow your instincts on how they would react and behave. When you’re unfamiliar, you probably just want the writing gig and your lack of passion or awareness will show.

If you want to break away from some of the storyline, do not be afraid to speak to the script editor and discuss your thoughts. Give solid reasoning why a character would or wouldn’t do something. Script editors will know more than you in terms of the wider impact of what you’re suggesting, so if they agree with you, you’re on the right track. If they think you should stick to the storyline, then listen to what they have to say.

DOING THE NOTES:
It’s important, nay vital, to take on notes but it’s equally important not to slavishly follow what you’ve been told (especially if you disagree or don’t understand). Absorb the notes as much as possible so you understand the underlying emotions and motivations of what you’re being asked to do. That way, you can still remain creative in your dramatisation (sometimes surprising the script editor) but still sticking to the overall sense of what they wanted. Avoid using script editor’s suggestions verbatim. Notes are guidelines and suggestions, not instructions or demands. They can be very specific at times but there’s usually a good reason. It’s a tricky balance. Handle with care. If in doubt, SPEAK TO YOUR SCRIPT EDITOR.

NOT GETTING THE CHARACTERS RIGHT:
This is the most common form of rejection when writing trial episodes. So, while you may think you’ve done what you’ve been told and followed the storyline, it may read quite bland or safe. You haven’t given the characters some personal sense of detail, dialogue, humour or an unexpected (but plausible) turn of behaviour. So, the most important part of any trial episode is to KNOW THE CHARACTERS. Know how they speak and behave, and what personal history/relationship can be interwoven into the storyline.

HOT TIP:
Watch the show with the subtitles on. Get familiar with the rhythm, tone and tempo of how various characters talk. Soap dialogue can be very tight and sparse but the subtitles occasionally trim the lines back further. Watch and learn.

OVERVIEW:
TV writing is hard work. There’s a lot to consider, not to mention negotiating the practical documents that detail what sets or actors are available, and other restrictions. But this is the process, this is the reality. Do your research. Immerse yourself in the show as much as possible. Be prepared and then impress them with your love of the show, and how your original voice will add to the series’ continued success.

Previous posts on trial episodes: Not Going Out, UK TV specs, Introduction to EastEnders.

For practical and proactive tips to make it as a writer, get the UK Scriptwriter’s Survival Handbook, available on Kindle and paperback!

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