To Write For TV
By (the magnificent – editorial note) Philip Lawrence
I grew up with telly. Loved it. It was my best friend and I watched almost everything. Of course it was easier when I was a kid, there were only three channels and they didn’t start until after 11am. Know what else I loved? Writing. Making up fantastic tales, usually about spaceships, aliens or people just being really catty to each other.
By the time I discovered the London Screenwriters Festival in 2012, I had already written for theatre and radio. TV though somehow seemed like a dark art, the sort of thing only select people get to do, hidden behind a big black cloud, created in some other dimension and then beamed onto your flatscreen. LSF opened the door to that nether world and let me peak inside. Oh and it was glorious. TV people have a kind of energy about them, a vibrancy, they glitter. I knew that was where I wanted to be. Maybe one day…
It took another two years for me to have the epiphany. Why… not… me? All this time I’d been carrying around this assumption that I’m not worthy, I’m not that sort of vibrant TV person. But why couldn’t I become that? I went back to LSF in 2014 to arm myself with everything I needed.
If you want to write for TV or film and you’ve never been to LSF, you MUST go. It’s a totally immersive weekend mixing sessions on craft and the industry where people actually doing the job candidly tell you how they started and offer advice. It’s a brilliantly inclusive safe space where everybody ‘gets’ you because they’re all on the same journey. I went in virtually alone and came out with an army, every one of us rooting for one another, an unstoppable force pushing you, willing you to get to where you need to. You just have to say the word.
“By this time next year, I’ll be writing for TV.” OK, I was a tad optimistic on the timing but this was my very public declaration at the end of LSF 2014. It had been an exhilarating weekend, I think maybe because I went in knowing what I wanted. See that TV nether dimension? I want in. I don’t care what I have to do, how hard I have to work, just tell me how.
And so between Kate Leys, Abigal Gonda, Phil Ford, Barbara Machin, Yvonne Grace, Emma Reeves and Simon Harper to name but a few, plus Chris Jones’ excellent closing session where he encourages you to visualise your success, I came away with a clearer image of the goggle box industry and knew the steps I had to take in order to write for it.
The biggest watch word: Focus. I had a reasonably flexible, if poorly paid day job but beyond that, everything became about writing. Hobbies were ditched, socialising that wasn’t connected to the industry was nixed. I leaped out of bed at 6 every morning to write spec scripts, four in the first year (comedy/ drama, feature/ 1hour pilots/ 1/2 hour pilot) honing my craft, training myself to be quick and prolific.
And I watched TV. Loads of it. I quickly realised that continuing drama was the most accessible door into the industry so I went back to watching them just as when I was a kid and rekindled that passion for them – yes, all of them.
I put my work into competitions, continued going to LSF plus various additional courses: Yvonne Grace’s storylining course, LSF’s writersrooms for both Casualty and Doctors and applied for storyliner jobs on both Coronation Street and EastEnders – reaching the final candidates on the latter. All of this put me on the radars of the folks that worked there. These shows need new blood, they want passionate writers.
What followed was more specs, applying for shadow schemes (and getting nowhere), bagging an agent (this helped, suddenly people take you seriously), winning a competition (this also helped, another level of credibility) and more meetings including Olly Kent, at the time, head of all BBC soaps. Finally after a few years of sheer still-being-there-ness, I was allowed to try out for Doctors (commission still pending…) and later through a different set of connections and circumstances, for EastEnders (which was always my favourite. Sh! Don’t tell the others.)
Then in October 2018 (almost four years to the day from my outrageous declaration) I was offered my first EastEnders commission. (And got onto the Casualty shadow scheme. What is it they say about buses?)
This week that episode of EastEnders was broadcast. Not the end of my story by any means, maybe the end of Act 1 – according to John Yorke “initial objectives achieved.” I had a party, so sue me. Anyone that reads my Monday Win thread online knows I’m all about celebrating successes, big or small. Plus it was my chance to say ‘thank you’ to the army that marched beside me all this time. I like to think I’m a ‘give back’ sort of guy.
With that in mind here are my top tips if you want to write for continuing drama:
Watch them, know them, love them. Some you’ll be drawn to more than others but that’ll help you focus. Get the characters into your bones. You have to write authentically for a dozen different voices in one go and you can’t fake that.
Make connections. The shadow schemes may be the main route in but there’s no harm in making your own connections with script editors. Social media has made that so easy now. Asking advice is a great icebreaker. As with everyone, don’t be pushy, be genuinely complimentary and passionate about the show and be patient – they’re extremely busy.
Cultivate a work ethic. Learn to take notes and quickly turn around drafts BEFORE your first paid gig. Trials for shows are intense and quick. My EE trial included 4 scene by scenes and 4 full script drafts IN TWO WEEKS. These shows are machines with fixed deadlines that cannot be missed.
And finally, respect them. Sarah Phelps once said that as a soap writer you’re being invited into 5+ million people’s homes to tell a story. That’s an incredible privilege. You may not want to do it forever, it may be a gateway to bigger and better things for you but while you’re there, be in that room, full of passion and heart and you shouldn’t go far wrong. Good luck.
Philip is currently writing his third episode for EastEnders alongside original work and will be writing his first Casualty in the Summer.