Writing for Daily Drama (1)

Jan Ellis writes for South-African television as one of the team on “Binnelanders”.  (Interestingly, he does this from Sydney in Australia.)

For us, Jan explores what it is that sets daily drama writing apart from other screenwriting genres.

This is my first blog post.  Pop.

My briefing was to highlight some of the unique methods in writing text for daily drama as opposed to other genres of screenwriting.  The differences between daily drama writing and film writing are more obvious, purely because films are mostly discreet units of narrative with a set-up, conflict and resolution (open-ended or not).

When it comes to writing for daily drama as opposed to weekly drama, the differences are more subtle.  But they still have a profound effect on the way the respective scripts are conceived and produced.

1.The Role of Daily Television in our Psychology

In all genres of screenwriting, some basic methodology is valid across the board.   Certain aspects, however, become accentuated when dealing with daily drama texts and its strictly formulaic structure.

As a starting point, it’s probably a good idea to consider the unique psychological relationship a daily drama audience has with the story and the characters.

The very routine and timeslot of the daily 30 minute ‘fix’ of voyeurism conveniently fits into the Monday to Friday pattern of either a housewife/husband’s mid-morning coffee break or the supper hour in which the household temporarily settles down and ‘mingles’ with their on-screen ‘family’.

The relationship with on-screen characters seems immediate; the soap reflects the viewer’s own routine more closely than film; the characters become partners in the daily grind.

It is not surprising that many hardcore fans cannot seem to dissociate the characters from the actors portraying them.  When it comes to daily drama, viewers tend to refer to the character’s names without knowing the name of the actor playing the role — even after meeting the performer in person.

This is probably why producers of other screen genres are often reluctant to cast actors who have been playing a daily character for a substantial period of time.

For producers of daily drama in all departments – writers, directors, actors, editors and schedulers – the relentless pressure of delivering 22-24 minutes worth of dramatic content every day is an immense challenge – one very easily underestimated by those who produce drama formats regarded as ‘superior’.

In some ways, yes, the daily audience might be more forgiving when storylines or characters lack drastic development or change, as this often more accurately coincides with the seeming consistency of their own routines.

On the other hand, they may be even harder to please as they simultaneously demand to experience a world that superficially reflects their own, but which is infused with extraordinary events, scandal, high tension and extreme emotions.

After all, if a character has not been seriously ill, kidnapped, threatened at gun point or been shot, stabbed, been cheated on or cheated on someone, been on the precipice of financial disaster, nearly killed in a car accident or injured in some other way, been robbed, betrayed, psychologically scarred or brainwashed by a religious cult in the last six months, what are they doing on your TV screen?

-Jan Ellis

Jan Ellis

Jan Ellis is a multi-media all-rounder with a glittering career in South African Film, Television and Theatre, who moved to Sydney in 2007 to train as a Video Editor and continues to write regular episodes for the popular South African daily drama, ‘Binnelanders’.

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