16 Oct SCRIPT EDITING – THE LOW DOWN
I was a Script Editor on Eastenders. That’s how I started in the television industry.
Prior to my baptism of fire on the then twice weekly popular soap from the BBC, I had been running a script development company called The Deptford Wives out of the Birds Nest Pub in Deptford and was getting quite a bit of attention from writers, producers and agents all interested in new writing.
It was fun, Martin, the pub landlord, had cut a deal with my friend and I, that if we increased his bar sales on the nights we did our rehearsed script readings, we could keep the takings from the ticket sales and he wouldn’t charge us for the use of the theatre space upstairs. I was skint as always seemed to be in those days. I had been an actress but soon realised it was the script that fascinated me rather than the delivery of that work via acting. I had over the years, become obsessed with scripts; the writing of them, the reading of them, the working with them, and also my favourite people were writers.’ I loved to discuss their work, to break down their plot lines, to talk about character, story beats, drama, resolution, conflict; you’ve heard all the lingo and to me, in those early days of my script editing career, I swallowed anything to do with writing, technique and expression for the stage and screen.
So I was passionate about writing but so far had failed to land myself a job that paid the rent and the rest. And then one night, having totted up the night’s takings and realised with relief that I could now meet my rent that month, someone said ‘have you ever thought of script editing?’
I looked into it. Script Editing was something they did in television, but it was actually what I had been doing for ages, but I and those theatre types I associated with, called it Dramaturgy. Which is odd enough, sounding, as it does, like a cough syrup but I liked dramaturgy, I was good at it and if that’s what script editing was then I was sure I could do it for television and the bonus being it appeared, from the research I did (there was no internet then; it’s an astonishing fact to write, but totally true that no-one I knew in the early ’90’s had a computer) it seemed the job paid and regularly too!
I was really lucky. Helen Greaves and Leonard Lewis (producers of Eastenders) were looking for someone who was interested in writing and scripts in general and not someone who was a keen fan of the show. Which was just as well, because I got all the names of the characters (apart from I think, Dot Cotton) wrong at my interview but talked well and most probably with a barrow-load of enthusiasm about drama, writing, characterisation, story-telling, and what it was that I loved about the business of telling stories to a wider audience.
I say all this because a good script editor (and I sincerely hope you only work with good ones) will have similar interests and passions as I blabbed on about that day at Elstree Production Offices and an expert script editor will be not only able to improve your script with confidence, but will make the process enjoyable and even stimulating. A fantastic script editor, the best, the sort of course that I hope I managed to morph into over the years that I did the job, will improve your work, give you a very enjoyable experience and after the final draft has been delivered and your baby is twinkling away under the studio lights on the day of principal recording, you will probably not be able to recall how it was that you changed your original plot twist to this much better one in Sc 20 or the process that resulted in that marvellous cliff hanger that so seamlessly bleeds into those iconic drum beats as the famous signature tune kicks in.
But a process was most definitely followed and your script editor was taking you through it, draft by crafted draft, it was done with humour, some delicacy and a lot of solid, common-sense.
A good, expert, fantastic script editor will be able to give you script notes (some large, some small, some irritating, some illuminating) without you, the writer, ever feeling exposed, or unsure, without ever feeling that your work is being ridiculed, overly-criticised or downright changed too much.
The writer on any long running show is an essential part of the dramatic process because obviously, without them, there wouldn’t be a script. However, although the writer is very important, on a long-running, story-gobbling, writer-exhausting, fast-running train that is the drama series format, it is the relationship between the script editor and the writer, that is, in many ways, more important.
The key to a good relationship with your script editor is collaboration and an ability on you, the writer’s part, to let go a bit (and this may make some of you un-used to the idea of team work within a large series feel a bit sick).
The script editor assigned to your script has a job to do which involves several layers; it is a complicated and demanding job, but the main element of their job is to deliver your script to camera, to length, with all the correct story beats, character development and plotlines in tact, with the correct amount of ad breaks and a fabulous cliff hanger TO DEADLINE. If you don’t invest in the relationship between your script editor and yourself, if you find it hard to take notes and make the process an un-easy, un-enjoyable one, the process falls apart quickly and it’s that much harder for everyone to get the script you are writing, to camera and on time.
The script editor sits in the sometimes rather turbulent waters between the writer, and the producer of the show you are writing for. It is their job to pass on all the producer’s concerns and notes on your draft to you, without drawing any blood or hopefully generating any tears.
The script editor will also have their own opinion on your script. They will have had their input heard by the producer before you came to your edit session and the director will also, at (most usually at a later stage) have their notes to give too.
Bearing in mind that your script, your baby, is just one element of a much bigger picture, the script editor must be: diplomatic, eloquent, direct, confident, hard-wired into how to make drama happen on the page, funny helps and good at collaboration.
This is because it is not always possible to transfer all a producer’s notes to the writer without the writer feeling beleaguered or without committing the cardinal sin of puncturing a writer’s confidence. I say this because as soon as you are commissioned, and you are part of a writing team on a long-runner, everyone it will seem, will have an opinion on your work.
Notes will come from all sides and it takes a very good, competent and confident script editor to dilute the voracity of some notes, to deliver others in an oblique way, or to ignore the note altogether. Sometimes this is a tactic to save a perhaps new writer from too many script notes, and other times it’s because the script editor did not agree with the producer’s note and has decided that in the mix of all the changes necessary, the producer will not notice if this note fails to be carried forward. (This tactic doesn’t always work. A very successful producer of series drama who shall remain nameless, was like a heat seeking missile regarding his notes and if I had tactically decided to ‘ignore’ any, the fallout was heard all the way to the Thames Barrier).
Script Editing is a job that demands innovation and a creative brain. A good editor will be able to infuse more drama into your script, give you suggestions of better or more numerous plot twists, direct you into more interesting territory via a character or group of characters and generally enthuse you into doing a better draft at each session. It’s also a collating, organising, structuring job. According to the rigours of that particular show, there will be so many sets allowed, so much location, and in every block of scripts there will be a certain amount of characters that must be catered for in story terms. There’ll be a story document that the script editor may or may not have had an input in compiling, and you will both use this to keep you to the correct plot line and deliver the correct drama beats so that your script will pick up and hand over the story line at the right point. It’s a job that demands the juggling of information both creative and administrative.
So they work hard these script editors. And they often do so behind the scenes as it where. The writer (and quite rightly so) gets the credit for the marvellous script and hopefully continues to get commissioned as part of the writing team and the script editor gets to do it all over again with the next block of scripts.
Look out for the script editor as the credits roll. They’ve certainly earned their place.
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