Kelly Lefever was in the Line by Line hotseat on August 17 and provided both a reality check and optimism about working as a writer in TV land.
Kelly has worked in television since she was 17. On Prisoner of all things - a show I am old enough to remember playing it's first run. You could be excused for thinking she is still 17, so large is her enthusiasm for her work. When she speaks, her experience betrays her youthful exuberance. And boy what experience! She's done Neighbours, Home and Away, Blue Heelers, Always Greener, Something in the Air, All Saints, The Circuit, City Homicide...This is not a woman tainted by the bitterness of time spent working an industry that doesn't pay. She earns good money working very hard on the work she loves. We could all be so lucky. Of course luck has nothing to do with any of it.
Kelly has also written and script-edited feature films (some in development and production as she speaks). She has edited The Black Balloon and is currently producing a Rom-Com with writer Edwina Exton and funny man Tim Ferguson (yes, I am also old enough to remember him at his prime in D.A.A.S) and producer Tristram Miall (Strictly Ballroom, Looking for Alibrandi). However, writing for TV is her first love and a romance she returns to for all kinds of reasons.
WHAT IS SO SPECIAL ABOUT TV?
Kelly challenges us to think about what we love about TV. Like a good box of chocolates, you can't stop at just one episode, such is the power of episodic storytelling. It’s highly structured for long-term satisfaction with characters you love. Whether it's via the boob tube or the box set, you keep coming back for more.
WHAT’S TO LIKE ABOUT TV FOR THE WRITER?
While money definitely does NOT top the list of Kelly's reasons, the idea of earning around $20,000 for 8 weeks hard work on a one hour drama script not only appealed but dropped jaws in the Line by Line audience. Television writing can be a career!
Now that I have your attention, what else is there to like?
Kelly prefers the storytelling method that TV imposes. You can structure story and deconstruct it again to make it work over a period of time. You can explore a seemingly endless array of character traits, politics and interactions with new story lines both complicating things and breathing life into the format.
In TV the writer gets to play with characters for longer periods of time. They become the writer's friends and a very big part of their life. In film, you see one portion of a character's life, such as falling in love. In TV, you can have all your characters meet and then explore falling in love, getting married, having a child, being tempted by others, making mistakes, breaking up, making up etc. If film is the first date, then TV is the relationship. The writer and the audience can return to these well known friends time after time and grow, smile and mourn with them. This is and always will the primary reason Kelly loves TV most of all. That's why I've listed this special way of working with characters as different from story or the structure of TV shows themselves.
If your idea is taken up, the fruits of labour are on air quite quickly. Turnaround for an episode from idea to edit might be just 12 weeks. Your work really can be current in TV.
TV allows you to cut your teeth on storytelling - write to a brief, a deadline, with no such a thing as an I-don't-feel-like-it-today moment. TV gives you a broad canvas with which to test your ideas.
TV Audience is potentially millions, and it's instant. Feature films require a paying audience so reach is usually lower over a longer period of time (not just cinema but the long tail DVD and video on demand options). The TV audience is prepared to stay home and watch subject matter they wouldn’t necessarily commit to leaving the house to pay to see, so you can get people to think about things they wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to.
ROLES IN TV
In Australia, the person with control is the script or story producer. In a room of writers, the script producer is the top person with the vision and creative ideas, keeping a handle on where the story is heading and if necessary leading people there. In this collaborative environment, ideas about structuring episodes are thrown around by freelance writers under his or her guidance.
When the writer leaves the room he or she works alone to explore the stories discussed for the delegated episode. If you're good enough to write well for a show, you could be put on "turnaround" which is where you write a script every 4 - 10 weeks throughout the year. That’s a cracking pace!
The “turnaround” schedule for the writer begins usually with a week for the scene breakdown, 3 weeks to draft a 1 hour episode and 2 weeks for the second draft, with notes and meetings in between each stage.
The script editor, who works for the story producer, is the contact point for the writers and works to get the best out of them and make sure the in-house vision is being serviced. The script editor takes the writer’s work at each stage, and holds script meetings with the writer and other writers connected to story through their episodes. Notes from the story producer and broadcaster are presented and guide changes, new stories, new characters etc. At the end of the drafting process the writer passes on the work to the script editor who takes it from there.
Many shows, including Underbelly, are beginning to use a slightly different model with about 6 permanently employed writers who work together to plot and edit each other's work, which is becoming a trend in Australia.
Other roles include script co-ordinator or researcher - from these backgrounds, script editors are often born.
The pay for the freelance writer for the approximately 8 weeks work (ie per episode) is $20,900. A script editor earns about $2,600 to $3,750 per week and the story producer around $4,000 to $5,000, both permanently employed for the duration of the production.
Kelly’s experience writing for TV has taught her a thing or two, so she was able to answer lots of questions from our eager audience.
She suggests fixing problems at scene breakdown stage or the same problem will still be there at draft stages.
Writers block. For television, you just have to get over it. One way to get over the block is to know your story and characters well. You cannot make a character get to a story point that he or she would not naturally get to. When the plot point is crucial, think about what character is needed to get you there. Otherwise, go back to the character - what is he or she telling you they want you to do? Well drawn characters will dictate story to you, not the other way around.
Kelly is a big fan of short docs. Story beats in short form, the start and finish and plot points, and understanding how the story is structured will all help form the piece of work.
When you get stuck, think about where you story starts, the end objective, what are the obstacles, what are the pillars, the big scenes? Think about the 6 or 7 in your head. Go back to the pillars, the big moments and see if they work for the narrative. If you're lost in trying to work out a road map for your film, sometimes getting down those big "pillars" can help.
TV is all about character, it's why people tune in. As a writer you need to have something to say and ensure that those characters you are working with will get you to where you need to be, because if not you need to rethink them.
In Kelly's experience, 98 percent of films she reads have the same problems. The writer doesn't know the story they're trying to tell, what they're trying to say or why. And/or the writer doesn't know the characters (which includes knowing their wants and needs, where they came from and what has happened to them before we even meet them that makes them who they are, in other words, what makes them tick). Both require going back to the beginning and really thinking about the answers to those questions. So while looking at the big pillars, the big moments helps with structure, this is very different to knowing what you film is about and the characters who will take you on the journey.
Two types of film (Kelly elaborating on a Cleary theory question raised by a LbL member):
-When a character begins with wants and needs that are well balanced, the drama must come from external sources. External conflict. Therefore it’s a plot driven scenario, it's not an internal character journey that drives it. So these are the action and genre films where the plot or external events drive the characters.
- But when the character begins with the balance of wants and needs completely out of whack, the character needs to learn that what he wants isn't what he needs – therefore the character is taken on a big inner journey to learn. So these are the more character based films.
On the differences between writing for TV and Film:
‘Show, don't tell’ applies more to film.
Don't make concept too big or complicated for film, there just isn’t the time to fully explore. TV manages multiple narratives and multiple characters more efficiently.
Dialogue is king in TV. This is because of domestic distractions for the audience and the size of the screen, so more information is conveyed, even repeated, through dialogue.
And for film you have to think differently about market.
Otherwise, managing the story is very similar, structurally.
The biggest pieces of advice from Kelly came for those wanting to break into TV writing as a career.
HOW TO START OUT AS A WRITER IN AUSTRALIA
Advice 1. Join Australian Writers Guild (AWG) to meet writers who are generous with their time, learn about the industry. Kelly has been involved in the guild for 17 years (currently sitting in a Vice President role) and in the AWGIES judging.
Advice 2. Target shows and producers you are interested in and are of the quality you admire (they want to work with passionate people who love TV).
Advice 3. Crucially, watch and know the show you are applying for.
Advice 4. Ask to sit and observe how the process works by attending a meeting - don't need to provide input because most of what you say probably won't work for a variety of reasons. But if you have an idea, and it seems like a pertinent time to bring it up and you're not breaking the flow, then do it! Yet another skill for the writer to develop is knowing when to talk and when to listen.
Advice 5. Read lots of TV scripts, guild has some and its library is getting bigger. You learn from reading bad writing as well as good, which applies to scripts across the board.
Advice 6. Meet people and behave professionally, don't wait til you get drunk to be noticed. Sometimes intimacy of industry makes it seem personal when it really is professional so reputation is everything. This includes being careful who you add as a Facebook friend if your status updates are, shall we say, unsavoury.
Advice 7. Ask a show if you can do a submission, which is writing a script on spec. Most shows don't accept spec scripts but will ask writers to have a go. But it must be better than the professional writers you are competing against. Also, short films and webisodes are coming in as calling cards.
Advice 8. Networking is not a pitch opportunity for a project. Networking allows you to meet like-minded people - some you might even like to work with in future and others will exchange nuggets of wisdom with you. If you meet someone you connect with, and they're interested in what you are writing, offer to send a one page synopsis and follow through. When networking or writing to industry people, don’t rubbish other TV shows or films. Let your documents speak for themselves.
Advice 9. Improve the quality of your writing. That means WRITE WRITE WRITE. The more you write the better you'll become. Writing courses are creating a better craftsperson but the writer must have that x factor too. Entry level jobs don't always allow you to show that x factor but the hard work will pay off if you are good at what you do.
By the end of the feverish session, Kelly had most of considering how television might be included in our plans. She got us thinking about what format really suits the story we are trying to tell. And best of all, she gave us hope that one day it might be our work up on the big or small screen.
We thank you Kelly for generously spending your time with us – and even more time with me applying your wonderful editing skills to ensure this blog is accurate.
If you haven’t got the writing fever yet, get into it, there are only 3 more weeks until the last session of Line by Line!
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