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Resilience, collaboration and inspiration in the writers’ room

Three screenwriters offer insights and advice from the television writers’ room. At a time when the industry is changing, so are the voices behind it.

It is frequently said that we are in a ‘golden age’ of television. With US networks breaking free of traditional, PG programming, Australian drama is similarly undergoing change. Gone are the days of year-long episodic serial drama. Apart from soap operas Home and Away and Neighbours, mini-series television seems to be the way forward (although The Heights is a notable exception). And it is shifting how television is written, with competition fierce, and audience attention split.

“Once upon a time there was a captive audience,” says screenwriter and producer Jane Allen. “When we got big numbers for an episode of Blue Heelers, we would get three and a half million people watching.”

It was water cooler television. “When we killed [Lisa McCune’s popular character] Maggie Doyle, that was really big news.”

Allen, who has been working in the industry for 20 years (Janet King, Cleverman) landed her first job on Blue Heelers, Channel Seven’s long-running weekly drama.

“It was a great place to start because at that time we made 44 episodes a year, and it meant that there was a really good dialogue between the writers and the actors. We would give them something to do. We would see their response to it, and things that they could do well so we could write more to their strengths … That's a great sort of dialogue between the writers and the actors that we just don't get to do now.”

Allen points to cost and ‘competing platforms for eyeballs’ as the reason. But she says television is a much more exciting place for storytelling than it ever has been. Film is too expensive, with a reliance on blockbusters to get bottoms on seats.

<h6>Sarah Walker</h6>
Sarah Walker

“Television used to be the cinema for kids, and cinema was the thing for grown-ups. And now, cinema is the thing for kids and TV is the thing for grown-ups.”

It makes it much harder to sustain a career as a screenwriter, Allen says. Writers are no longer able to learn on a TV show, placed in a script department. It means you need to be versatile. “In some ways, it is interesting creatively because you have to put yourself in a whole lot of different worlds much more frequently than you did if you were doing a long-running thing.”

RESILIENCE

Versatility is important, but so is resilience.

“You have to be resilient and have your ideas knocked down,” says Sarah Walker, a screenwriter with 20 years’ experience (Wonderland, Wentworth).

“If you've got an ego that's fragile, forget it, don't work in television.”Sarah Walker

It was a pragmatic decision 20 years ago to get into television to earn a steady income, but Walker says it laid the foundations for a fruitful career as a screenwriter. And an important lesson she has received is that of story flexibility and fluidity as a writer.

“I can remember, my first job in television was on Breakers and the producer of that show, Andrew Howie, was very tough. He had an expression where he used to say, ‘Nice idea darling, stick it up your ass’.”

Walker says she learned not to take offence, to laugh it off and keep producing ideas.

“To take anything personally or to be precious about it… you wouldn't last very long in television because you need to be able to work in a team… If you can't do that, then it's very difficult to survive in the industry.”

Walker points out that a long-running serial requires two-and-half hours of television per week across 42-44 weeks a year. “That's an awful lot of story, and so for starters you constantly have to be inventive and try to tell similar stories, but telling it different ways.”

This means being able to build characters to achieve variety in story. Then, as a writer, to pitch your stories and even write them, and then be rejected, whether it’s a case of not liking the idea or because it’s not achievable in production.

“If for whatever reason they don't want that story, you need to be able to then quickly, without any kind of artistic trauma, turn around and redo the whole thing and come up with five alternatives to that story that will still fit within the wider frame. I think it just makes you constantly nimble with your creativity.”

Wentworth series 1

COLLABORATE

It means writers also need to work collaboratively in the room. Journalist and novelist Malcolm Knox recently made the move into screenwriting when he joined the writers’ room of Stan’s reboot of Romper Stomper. The change in writing was a “revelation”, he says, for someone his age – he has worked as a writer for about 25 years.

<h6>Jane Allen</h6>
Jane Allen

The “very obvious” difference in the process of writing a novel compared to being a writers’ room is that the latter is a collaborative engagement.

“When I'm writing a book, and I know that everybody's different, but I'm in an extreme solitary end of the spectrum. I don't tell anybody what I'm doing, I don't share it with anybody, I don't get people to read drafts along the way. I will normally work at a novel for maybe two to three years, before anybody else knows anything or sees anything of it.”

Knox realises that working collaboratively requires “a great sense of confidence in your writing” to receive input from others. However, he was able to abandon his sensitivity to feedback in the writers’ room.

“And that’s probably in part because the TV programs I've worked on have all been initiated by other people. And I come in with a sort of humility and I'm there to help those people bring to life their ideas so that's probably an explanation as to why I don't feel personally insecure about my ideas being shut down.”

For Knox, the shift from writing solo to being in a room full of people has been positive. “The exciting thing for me has been to meet great people and get the stimulation from other very creative individuals [when] I have always been quite a solo free writer. So it's been kind of a late discovery for me – the joys of the collaborative process.”

And while he finds the exchange of ideas invigorating, he admits that it’s exhausting. “You come out of a room completely washed out.”

Allen loves the collaborative nature of television. “I often find, going into a writers’ room that I don't know what I think about something until somebody challenges me on it, and then I have this response.”

She says it’s all about compromise. “If you have a singular vision and you don't want to get any input from anybody else, write a novel… And for me, the magic of what we create so often is, it's in the space between the people who are in the room. And that is exciting.”

Allen acknowledges that rooms can sometimes be combative, difficult places. “I don't find that a terribly productive way to work. Some people do find that conflict does actually [help]. It's kind of like the oyster in the sand creating the pearl. I would prefer to have a room which is playful and full of laughs, and that's my preferred way to make people feel safe and open, and to get things done.”

STORY

But ultimately, there is a shared goal – to tell good stories. For Knox, the differences between novel writing and screenwriting has taught him a lot about story. There are certain formulaic requirements for television; it’s a shift for a novelist who is not beholden to genre. But all story is ultimately about engagement with the audience – making dialogue count, for example.

“There's a kind of storytelling accountability that I like and I think I'm taking that across into novel writing now.”Malcolm Knox

<h6>Malcolm Knox</h6>
Malcolm Knox

Walker believes that authenticity is crucial to a satisfying story; being relatable, for characters to be empathetic and authentic, for the story to encompass the writer’s truth, particularly with an increasingly discerning audience.

“Another thing is just making an emotional connection to somebody. I guess in television, too, there's an element where there needs to be a satisfying beginning, middle and end,” says Walker. “Leading through a story in a way that's really satisfying and making them feel like they've watched something that's meaningful and something that has had an emotional effect on them.”

And television is a more open space now. “Before, we would be looking for stories, and we would maybe fudge things a little bit more. We were less able to tell the truth, too, because it was a more conservative era, [and] sex and swearing and themes that were taboo or a little bit shocking weren't allowed to be properly explored.”

“I think what's probably changed is that everybody's much more willing to get in and try and find the truth of situations, and not shy away from the reality of people's sexuality or their psychology or whatever. We're far more diverse and interesting in the room these days, I think.”

Allen agrees, saying that television is “the village storyteller of the 21st century”. “We are the keepers of the culture. We are reflecting back to our community, who we are, and also, hopefully, being provocative and questioning who we are. I'm certainly interested in writing things that have something to say and are about something. And I'm not a great believer in politics by stealth. So, through something being entertaining, it's a chance to challenge ways of thinking and offer alternative ways of thinking, but without shoving it down people's throats.”

And there’s a greater diversity of voices to be heard. “We're getting to see things that are reflective of a broader view of society, but also voices which have been marginalised or silenced before now [are] being allowed to speak. So we are having shows that are about what it means to be black or queer or trans.”

There are also more female protagonists, says Allen. Although there is still a way to go, Allen is pleased that marginalised voices are finding their way into the space, but says the challenge is in their lack of experience. “That's tough because you do have to work with somebody who is experienced and who doesn't come from that background. But, that's an interesting thing too, that sort of sharing of experiences …”

It’s what Allen did working on ABC’s Cleverman, working with junior writers who had the requisite knowledge and understanding of the culture being represented on screen. As someone who began her career in her mid-30s, taking a job as a runner on Blue Heelers to break into the industry, Allen tries to pay it forward by working with and mentoring younger writers.

“There's always things that I can learn from people who are just starting out as well. So, it's not just me being bountiful and generous. That's a two-way street.”

Janet King series 1

ADVICE

Indeed, getting a big break in television is a challenge for screenwriters, but both Walker and Allen encourage writers to take experience where they can on a production.

“Simply because every single thing you do, whether it's good or bad, contributes to the development of your craft,” says Walker. “You learn as much from things that don't work or aren't good as you do from things that are.”

“And it’s really important to take any opportunities you can and try to seek out work. Whether or not you think the show is great, it doesn't matter, because if it's on and it's happening, there's a reason for that, and that's because it's connecting with people, an audience, and maybe it's good to find out or explore why some stuff gets made, and how it gets made. Because you often find that the things that, you know, people bag them, they're actually incredibly hard to write and is really hard to make.”

Allen offers similar advice: “Be persistent. And if you can get a job in any department, anywhere, get in. Even if you're in the art department, at least you'll be there, you'll be reading scripts, you'll be seeing how it's made and you can learn from that and you can see who the writers are.”

In terms of their work, Allen also advises writers to be authentic – in the stories they tell and how they pitch them to networks. “What I say to people is, ‘Be true to what it is that you want to write because something that has a feel, that comes from an authentic place and a desire to tell a particular story is what is going to sway people. Not trying to make something that's like something else’.

“And also, just keep testing yourself. I think what's interesting about fiction is that it's about truth. It is ultimately an examination of the truth of what it is to be human and dealing with who we are and where we are. It is absolutely a tool to uncover truths.”

Meanwhile, Knox advises to simply keep writing without fear of rejection or being shut down. “Even though I don't show people my fiction for a long time, I'm not afraid just to write and write and write and see what happens. There's nothing wrong with trying and failing.

“I think in both spheres of writing you just have to let it go out there and let it live or die … because it's not going to live or die if you keep it inside.”