I’m a member of Swansea and District Writers’ Circle, and we’re lucky enough to have some excellent guest speakers at our monthly meetings.
This month’s speaker was screenwriter and novelist Rob Gittins, who has worked on virtually every long-running British TV drama in the last 30 years, including Casualty, The Bill, Emmerdale, The Archers and BBC children’s show The Story of Tracy Beaker. He’s the longest-serving writer on EastEnders and he received an Outstanding Achievement Award at the British Soap Awards in 2015.
As a fan of EastEnders, I found it fascinating to get a glimpse of the show’s inner workings. Rob explained it’s a collaborative process, with the writers sitting round a table and brainstorming ideas. Once they’ve decided what’s going to happen in a particular episode, Rob outlines the scenes in columns on a sheet of A4 card. He passed round some cards for us to look at. His writing is tiny, and totally illegible to anyone else but him. It was weird to think I was holding a whole episode of EastEnders in my hands!
Certain topics don’t make it onto the screen, as they are considered too top-heavy. For instance, a major act of terrorism would have such a devastating and long-lasting impact on the characters it would be hard to follow convincingly with less dramatic events, and would risk killing off the show altogether. Therefore storylines tend to be the kind of thing found on page 4 or 5 of a national newspaper, rather than headline news on page 1.
Sometimes, viewers don’t take to certain characters and they have to be tweaked or removed. A while back when a new family was brought into EastEnders, viewers didn’t like two of the kids, Robbie and Sonia. In order to save them, the writers gave Robbie a dog and had Sonia learn the trumpet! The viewers warmed to them, and Robbie and Sonia are still in the show over 20 years later.
Rob gave us some useful tips for our own writing:
- When brainstorming, nothing is off limits – as he put it, no idea is too stupid. It’s easier to start with an over-the-top idea and bring it down than it is to amp up a dull one.
- When you’re creating a story, ask ‘what if?’ and see what answers come up.
- If an idea isn’t working, put it in the middle of the room and walk around it. See it from different angles, and from the POV of different characters.
- Don’t underestimate the value of archetypes as a framework for your story. The first series of Sky 1’s comedy drama Stella was based on The Wizard of Oz.
- Bury bombs! Foreshadow a major event with a small and seemingly innocuous incident some time before the main action.
Rob Gittins has been lucky enough to write for a living throughout his adult life, beginning with BBC radio plays. He said that sometimes this has been a worry, as he hasn’t had the experience of other jobs to draw on; but it hasn’t held him back. I found this encouraging, as it shows what you can do with enough determination and a good imagination.