Before writing drama, I used to edit a newspaper. On the first day of putting a new issue together, I'd get a flat-plan showing all the pages and how much space was taken up by ads. I remember the sense of relief when plenty had been sold and there weren't acres of space left to fill. And the panic when hardly any ads were sold and the space gaped at me, threatening - you've got one week to cover me with new and interesting information and NOTHING is happening out there WHATSOEVER!
I was reminded of that recently when I had to write my first serial-only episode of Doctors. Normal episodes have two elements: serial and story of the day (SOTD). The SOTD is your own idea, previously submitted and signed off. It tells the tale of a patient or other guest character and their involvement with one of the regular characters. It takes up the majority of the episode.
The rest of the episode is taken up by the serial element, given to you by the storyliner. This usually has two strands of a paragraph each, covering a handful of beats that will continue the ongoing story of our regulars' lives from the previous ep to your cliffhanger. When planning your ep, you weave the serial and the SOTD together so they complement and contrast with each other. Just when you reach a high point in your SOTD, it is a godsend to be able to cut away to the serial, and vice versa.
But with a serial-only episode, there's nowhere else to go. A vast empty flatplan with no ads at all. And I didn't even have two strands of serial, only one - a few lines in which a long-running story came to a head. It was wonderful stuff. Two great characters coming face-to-face with something deeply hidden. But how they faced it, and what to do for the other 25 or so minutes when they weren't facing it. That was my problem. Not to mention that many of the most memorable episodes of Doctors have been serial-only - Vivien telling Jimmi about her rape, George confessing to Ronnie about Nick - the bar was set alarmingly high.
To begin with, I tried to plan the ep as usual, coming up with a series of story beats that could feasibly culminate in the required confrontation, but even with a textbook structure and all the technical narrative boxes seemingly ticked, it just wasn't taking flight. I needed a different way in, so I looked back at the serial. What did I have, apart from one big moment? Oh yeah. Duh. Two great characters.
I put down my pen and spent some time just hanging out with them, wandering the streets imagining their lives in more depth than you ever get chance to when there's a patient to deal with. What were they really like? What were their fantasies, their fears, their trivial thoughts when they went to the fridge? It was quite blissful actually, indulging in some pretend friends for a couple of days. By the end, I really felt I knew them better and knew what I wanted to do with them. I took up my pen and this time things happened.
As it evolved, the story took in another couple from the Mill, another story, but not to cut away to - to pile the pressure on my main couple, making it impossible for them to run away from each other, and as hard as possible for them to confront the truth. Everything became about them, like on a birthday or wedding day when for once it's all about you and the guests are there to support you. Or cause you major headaches. When I finished, I had what was essentially a four-hander, and a good deal of cutting to do to fit it all into half-an-hour.
When it finally came together, I remembered how it was on the paper when press day rolled around. Even in the quietest news weeks, stories always emerged. People called in, wrote letters, things kicked off. At the last minute, we were never scratching around. Wherever there are people, there is news. Wherever there are characters, there is drama. You just have to take the time and listen to them.