“Screaming Blue Murder—Writing For Television” (by Cath Staincliffe)

Cath Staincliffe’s work first appeared in EQMM in January 2016. Her latest EQMM story, “The Rat,” is featured in our current issue, March/April 2017, and a third story will appear in EQMM later this year. The Manchester writer is a founding member of the Murder Squad, a collective of crime writers from the north of England. She came to EQMM later in her career than the other members of that group, which includes Martin Edwards, Ann Cleeves, Kate Ellis, Margaret Murphy, and Chris Simms.  Long before her EQMM debut,  Cath had become an award-winning novelist, radio playwright, and creator of the hit series Blue Murder for Britain’s ITV. She has been shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association’s Best First Novel award and for the Dagger in the Library. She was also joint winner of the CWA Short Story Dagger in 2012. Her novel Letters To My Daughter’s Killer was selected for the Specsavers Crime Thriller Book Club on ITV3 in 2014. She also writes the Scott & Bailey novels based on the popular television crime show. The Silence Between Breaths, her latest book, explores what happens when ordinary people are caught up in a terrifying and extraordinary event. In this post, Cath talks about her experiences writing for television.—Janet Hutchings

I ventured into the world of script-writing as a complete novice yet had the incredible good fortune to create an original TV show. With no experience of screen-writing courses or programmes, no familiarity with script-writing theories, and no time spent as a trainee earning my spurs on other shows, it was very much a leap in the dark. So any insights I have into writing for the screen are based on very particular, and I think unusual, circumstances.

Ann Cleeves, my friend and fellow Murder Squad author, first told me that Granada TV, based in my hometown of Manchester, were looking for crime dramas with strong female leads. By then I’d created a successful series of private-eye novels featuring single-parent sleuth Sal Kilkenny but I hadn’t a clue how to approach television. After some further nudging by Ann (thank you so much!) I sent Carolyn Reynolds, Granada’s Head of Drama, a proposal to adapt those books. Carolyn’s response was that private-eye stories didn’t translate well to TV but she invited me in to have a chat anyway.

Excited by the prospect, I sent her another outline before we met based on an unpublished novel of mine. A police procedural, it featured Detective Chief Inspector Janine Lewis leading a murder investigation team.

Carolyn liked the story very much but wanted to give Janine, a single woman at that stage, more domestic responsibilities—like Sal Kilkenny. We talked about the dramatic potential in juggling home and work, and the contrast between a grisly murder and a loving and chaotic family life. Lots of people can relate to the constant switching from parent to worker and back. One minute you’re in an important meeting, the next you’re sorting out lunch boxes and PE kits. The show would combine contemporary drama with the much-loved intrigue of a murder mystery; it would be gritty but not grim, with humorous banter among the close-knit team.

Granada had someone in mind for the lead role: Caroline Quentin, a well-liked British star with a warm, witty and down-to-earth screen persona.

Asked to write a treatment for a two-part pilot, I had to establish exactly what a treatment was (a description of the show and sketches of the characters, with a detailed outline of the plot and all its twists and turns) then do my best to fashion one. Janine was lumbered with three kids and a broken marriage which meant there was plenty of scope for conflict in her domestic life. The children were shamelessly based on my own—boy, girl, boy—and as there were quite big age differences I could cover life with teenagers and with younger ones.

Feedback to my treatment was generally positive and a bid was made for development money. Carolyn asked me if I’d like to have a go at writing the scripts if the bid was successful. My immediate reaction was to demur; I’d no experience, might it not be best to use writers with a track record? To her credit (and my everlasting gratitude) Carolyn advised me to sleep on it and of course by morning I was decided. Yes, it was a risk but also a huge opportunity. An experienced producer would help by giving feedback, acting like a script-editor.

My reaction to the news that we’d been granted funding was a mixture of delight and terror. I needed to identify how a script differed from a novel. Reading other scripts, watching shows on TV with pen and paper at hand, helped me see how they worked. All the thoughts, inner monologues, descriptions and musings of a book go straight in the bin for a screenplay. I had to learn, very fast, to chop, chop and then chop again so scenes from the novel distilled into a page or so of dialogue – with nothing extraneous, nothing repeated.

The following tips helped keep me on track:

  • Think visual. TV is a visual medium. Cut back on words, use the minimum, let the actors show what is happening to the characters.
  • Don’t write camera angles, shots, music or detailed descriptions. Other people bring their skills to those aspects of the film.
  • Keep scenes short, cut into the scene and out as efficiently as you can. Top and tail everything so only the essential action remains. The audience is used to joining the dots.
  • As with any medium be clear who your main characters are—whose story is it? Who do we identify with/empathise with? Put them at the centre of the action.
  • Try out your dialogue aloud; how your characters speak should reveal their personality as well as the facts of the plot.
  • A page of script roughly equals a minute of screen time.
  • Consider carefully where the excitement and pace comes in your story. Commercial programmes always want a “hook” or “cliff” at the end of a part to bring viewers back after the adverts.

We novelists are a pretty lonely bunch, working away in solitude—it’s a far cry from the hugely collaborative process of television where lots of people have an input. I couldn’t be precious and had to accept it when some of my favourite lines and scenes were cut along the way. I also had to take on board the process of re-writing, something I don’t do much with the books. When we got to draft eight of the first ninety-minute episode, I stopped counting. As a beginner, I trusted that the people I was working with were experts and did my utmost to learn from them.

News came that Caroline Quentin was pregnant but happy to proceed if that change could be accommodated into her role. At the same time we got the greenlight for production and the tight schedule meant I had one week to rewrite both pilot episodes to include a detective with morning sickness and heartburn. That time was just a blur, I was over the moon that the project was actually happening and exhausted by the amount of work involved.

In my role as creator and writer I was involved in meetings with the director and then in the read through with the assembled cast, which was a wonderful experience. Filming began in Manchester and I visited the set and even did a Hitchcock, performing a walk-on part in Episode 2.

Blue Murder aired in the primetime slot on ITV in May 2003, over a Sunday and Monday night and attracted 8.8 million viewers, a 37% share of the audience which was brilliant for a drama show in the UK. It was such a thrill for me and my family seeing my name on the opening credits. (By then I’d confessed to the kids that I’d acted as a magpie with their lives but I did pay them some blood money by way of compensation.)

ITV were very happy with the favourable reception and soon commissioned a second series. The show ran until 2009. Five series in all. I wrote an episode for each series and in between returned to writing novels and short stories (including novels based on my scripts). Since then Blue Murder has travelled the world to destinations as different as Afghanistan, Fiji, and Iceland.

My experience writing for TV was hectic, challenging, and thrilling and a complete contrast with the intensely private world of an author working all alone. It was also a great deal more lucrative! But to be honest prose is still my first love.

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1 Response to “Screaming Blue Murder—Writing For Television” (by Cath Staincliffe)

  1. I love this behind-the-scenes peek at the writing of Blue Murder. Janine is so down-to-earth. She’s serious, yet sexual, and is a committed parent. If the show had been made in the states she would’ve been size 4, 5’10” and wearing heels all the time. I wish there were 100 more episodes.

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