Alison Pennells is a scriptwriter, playwright, novelist and script consultant from Leeds

As a female script consultant  and scriptwriter I spent a good three years working as a core writer on ITV soap Emmerdale, and I was part of the team that helped the soap transition to five nights a week.

It was no surprise, that in the years that have passed five nights a week has sometimes become six – and quite recently, a number of UK soap operas are making the transition from five half-hour episodes to five hour long episodes instead.

Soap storylines

The problems we faced when transitioning Emmerdale from three nights a week to five were many – for a start it meant more, and longer storylines for the show.  Always a worry because it’s hard to gauge the natural length of some stories.  Sometimes the writers can spin out a story too long – or too short. Its often not clear how well a storyline plays with an audience until it’s on screen.

Sometimes viewers complain that stories are going on too long – become too far-fetched (or strung out) – and sometimes a story that has been played short – proves super popular with an audience and as a writing team – you realise you have missed a trick or two.  Soap scripts are written between three and six months in advance of a show airing – so by the time you get real audience feedback – a story could have played its course, or be planned to go on for a further three months at least.

Compulsive for viewers

So, it’s really all about keeping the show as compulsive as possible for viewers.  You don’t want a show extending its viewing time – to five nights a week or to hour long episodes – and then losing the audience due to diluting the quality of the content.

As well as scripts and storylines – these extra episodes or extended running times mean the crew and technicians have to work harder – and sometimes get a lot bigger personnel wise – and that can mean an increase in cast members too.   Actors can only be in one place at a time – so the need for extra content means that soaps sometimes have to introduce a whole raft of new characters – again, something that has to be done correctly and will need serious input and a lot of hard work from the writers.

The question is – if a soap is popular and successful – why risk putting pressure on the team that make the show – by extending the running times (or number of episodes themselves)? Obviously, soaps have fans – and they will watch as much content as the show can throw at them – but from a broadcasters point of view – if a show is doing well – it makes perfect sense financially to increase the running times – after all – the programme makers are already geared up to deliver a lot of episodes – if more are possible, it’s a gamble worth taking.

Soap Scriptwriters

There’s one thing that not many wannabe scriptwriters are aware of about writing soap operas – the sets.  Often only certain sets and locations are available (due to production constraints) and these sort of technical shenanigans – often affect how an episode is written. 

Here’s simple example – If you were writing an episode of EastEnders and the episode featured a big story featuring the character Dot Cotton (played by the late June Brown) you’d expect to have Dot’s house as a location and the Launderette where she worked – but often, neither location would be available due to production constraints – and the emotional scene you had in mind for Dot’s house, would sometimes need to be played out in the Queen Vic – these pressures on production sometimes affect the stories on screen in unforeseen ways – making these constraints work for the episode are part and parcel of the job of a soap scriptwriter.

Alison Pennells is a scriptwriter, playwright, novelist, female script consultant and producer from Leeds. Alison was a core scriptwriter on Emmerdale and The Royal Today. Her short film ‘Me Head’s a Shed’ was winner of The Yorkshire Short film award. Her play ‘Dirty Laundry’ has been a huge success and raised much needed funds for cancer charities across the UK. In recent years Alison has worked as a female script consultant and producer on three feature films. Alison is married, has a daughter, three doggies and no cats (at the moment).

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