Friday, December 18, 2009

Shadow Schemes/Trial Scripts

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' 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.


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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

For a full rundown on the BBC's shadow schemes, check out the dedicated page on the writersroom.

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


Want me to read your script? Check out my consultancy page.


Anonymous said...

As usual Danny, thanks for your advice and insight, I'm sure plenty of folks will get a lot of out this post

Lucy V said...

Great post as usual Danny.

I learnt the use of subtitles on telly quite by accident - the baby was always crying, so I'd turn them on so I can at least *half* enjoy the programme with an infant screaming in my ear. I think it improves writers' ear for dialogue in general and also makes the difference between shows very obvious, as well as individual characters'.

Anonymous said...

New poster Danny... regarding the whole trial script culture, I have major problems with the way things are panning out at the moment. Its not a case of it being a foothold anymore. Many of the BBC shows are asking hugely experienced writers to write trial scripts, in many cases, writers who have written episodes of that show before. Its not like doing a spec script under the US system. Once you've done your script, and the show's offered or not offered you an episode, the script's useless, no one else wants to see it.

Personally, I find the whole thing insidious. I recently did a trial script, which the person who asked me to do it was ecstatic about, and I mean ecstatic - even asking her assistant to read it and confirm that it was as good as she thought. Did I get a commission? No. The word came back that even though the script was excellent, they were really looking for writers of the opposite sex.

I guess my point is that shows are far too promiscuous in asking writers to ask for trial scripts. They should only ask a writer to do this if they're pretty sure they want them on the show, and this is just the final check. As it is, they ask a lot of writers to waste time on a script where they really have little chance of a commission. It lets broadcasters tick boxes - they are seen to be encouraging new writers, but the whole process becomes a substitute for the ability to read scripts and exercise judgement on writers, which is their job.

Danny Stack said...

I hear you Anon. I know a good few people who've done trial eps for a well known soap, all great writers, but none of 'em got taken on. V frustrating. The whole system can feel like it's yet more hoops for us to jump through. Even though there are more opportunities nowadays for writers, it's tougher to get a slot, and while trial eps are a good way in, they're certainly not a guarantee, even if they 'accept' your trial script. And don't worry, I've been given that 'opposite sex' rejection line as well. Is that even allowed these days?

However, I just did a trial ep for a soap and they've decided to use it for actual broadcast (a nice surprise!), so going through the whole rigmarole of trial scripts might be frustrating but it's definitely worth doing (and worth sucking eggs for if you're an experienced writer in need of a gig). I know a writer who wrote a couple of Enders who was asked to write a trial for Doctors. He sucked eggs, did the script, and got in.

Anonymous said...

Anon again, I assume that well know soap is the one I'm thinking of... I know a few people who did that trial scheme and got commissioned...which is why I recently did it!

The opposite sex thing... is illegal, but try proving anything.

I've never heard of a trial script being used before. Can you say if there was a problem with the original script, or they just preferred yours.

Anonymous said...

And if they'd only asked, I'd have cross dressed for the meetings...

Danny Stack said...

Once I handed in 1st draft, they told me they would use it but only if I turned around the 2nd draft (incorporating notes etc). I think they would have got one of the regular writers to rescue it if I didn't come good.

Jamie said...

Hi Danny,

Long-time reader, first time poster here (always wanted to say something like that!). First, thanks for a brilliant and very useful blog that I've come to check almost daily, and second sorry for being all take and no give with comments -- until now.

A few months ago I had the opportunity to do a trial for another anonymous soap which resulted in (what seems to me anyway) a rather unusual outcome. It was read reasonably fast and I got fairly minimal notes between drafts -- which I alternated between interpreting as either a very good sign or a very bad sign. Then I got word it was strong in most departments but didn't quite nail the old character voices and so told to follow the show for a few months and come back to them. I've been telling myself that's not a bad result, as surely if there was no hope it'd be easier all round just to pass? Slightly odd still to get neither a yay or a nay, or maybe this is more common than I think?

Determined to go back and nail it though. It'd be a first commission for me so it's a big deal. I have the option to redraft (again) or start over on a new story -- any tips? Leaning toward the latter as even with distance I still reckon (perhaps foolishly) that the script I delivered is solid. I think you did two 'Enders before being commissioned (congrats!) so maybe the evolution from the first to the second is something you might blog about some day.

Anywho, best for Christmas.

P.S. -- RPP running in 2010? :-D

Danny Stack said...

Hi Jamie - thanks for your kind words!

Your 1st script might have been fine so give a brand new one a go; show them how you've been following the show and how you've picked up on the characters' voices. There's no shortage of efficient writers who could do the job. I think you have to demonstrate you're right for the show, that you really care and you really watch it, rather than just want the writing gig. 'Nailing the characters/dialogue' being the most important part.

I kept watching Enders after my rejection, cos I love the show, but also watched with subtitles (out of habit of watching The Wire on subtitles in case I missed anything important). So, when the time came for my 2nd bite at the cherry, I was well prepped and ready to go. Also, I felt confident that I could make the episode 'my own' but still follow the general storyline. I've discovered that's what stands out. Think about it: in a batch of 10 trial eps (or more!), all following the same storyline, a certain scene or moment given a new twist or humourous direction can work wonders (as long as it works!). Good luck!

Jamie said...

Thanks for that, really appreciate it. I've made sure not to miss the show in question since, so hopefully I'll be prepped to go one better this time.