Monday, 13 June 2011

EastEnders scripwriter Carey Andrews gives us the lowdown on writing for TV

Carey Andrews has written over eighty episodes of East Enders over the last eleven years. A local freelance writer, she is one of about a dozen core writers for the show.

Carey spoke about Writing for TV at the Chiltern Writers last week. And her enthusiasm and energy were contagious.

How did she get there?

Carey wanted to act, but after drama school, dodgy agents and a growing hatred of auditions, things weren’t working out: no-one wanted a six foot actress. Family pressure to get a real job – shudder – was mounting, and she spent endless days in tears watching daytime TV.

Thanks to Tempophage for the photo on Flickr!

Then somewhere along the way, she started thinking: more people watch TV than go to the theatre. She began taking note of programs with long lists of people at the end of them, and writing letters, looking for an in.

Soon she amassed over 200 rejections. Her top advice:

Keep At It

She finally got her break with East Enders: first as assistant script editor, then, script editor, and finally, on her way to maternity leave, she wrote a shadow script. They bought it! For £1. Apparently, the BBC won’t let you be on maternity leave and pay you at the same time.

But this led to more, and eventually she became one of the core writers for East Enders: under contract to write ten episodes a year.

The core team of about a dozen write roughly half of the episodes. At any time there may be up to sixty writers in total working on the show. Yet contract or no, core writers can still be given the boot at any time, and if the latest through the Executive Producer revolving door takes a dislike, this can happen. It isn’t about job security.

The core writers are always about three quarters male: ‘make of that what you will’.

How do you write an episode?

The writer is offered an episode, a document sent late on a Friday night. On Monday, they must pitch the episode back to the story department, script editors, producers etc. It is then a two to three month process to produce the script, which will go through many drafts.

The commission document for an episode is two A4 sides, and will have five or six story strands. The central strand will have a starting point A, and an ending point B with a ‘Ca Ha’ (cliff hanger).

How the writer takes the journey between A and B is the thrill. The other story strands will follow a similar pattern and must be interweaved around the central strand. Carey picks out the story beats and does scene breakdowns before she writes the first draft.

Interesting bits:
  • writers are under huge constrictions with what sets they can include, dependant on what other sets are being used the same week
  • they also don’t get allocated all of the characters, and, for reasons unknown, if a character has a speaking part in an episode, they must always have lines in two scenes, never one
  • there are actual BBC police: if you leak something you shouldn’t, you will never work again…!
  • characters can’t swear: they can’t even say ‘prat’. Carey has taken to making up her own expletives
  • the rule of writing drama: give a little bit of joy, then take it away again
  • one thing I like: all baddies must get their comeuppance in East Enders! It is an actual rule. It might take a while, but it will happen.
  • a different sort of murder your darlings: the minute an actor starts to throw themselves around a bit, push things or believe they are essential…. ‘they will die’. Mwahahahaha...!
Last resting place of stroppy actors

Carey never planned to be a writer: she was trying to get her foot in the world of TV, and that is where her feet ended up taking her. Yet her enthusiasm and genuine thrill at what she does are so apparent. What struck me is this: creativity will have an out. It may not take you where you thought you wanted to go, but who knows what opportunities will come your way? And all down to keeping at it.


Carey makes her children clap every one of her episodes.


  1. tough stuff! Really interesting to hear about this way of writing - thanks to Carey and Teri!

  2. Sounds like an exciting job - lots of pressure! I love the fact that she makes her family applaud her episodes. Thanks for the insights.

  3. Fascinating insight into the writing process - thanks Teri and Carey. Sounds really hard.

    But why is it that men seem to predominate so much in TV and film writing? Answers on a postcard please...

  4. I've been to two lectures/workshops with Lisa Holdsworth who's written for New tricks, Emmerdale, Robin Hood, Waterloo Road and apart from being absolutely hilarious she also had fascinating insights into a scriptwriter's life - the one that always interested me - about New tricks - was the first question they began writing each episode with - What world is the episode set in? e.g. the circus, the market, big business, therapy. This would influence the way the characters behaved as they would bring their experiences and prejudices to the situation. The world she was longing to do, the BBC wouldn't let her, was the porn industry - Just imagine Brian, Jack and Gerry's reactions! It would be hilarious. It must be one of the joys of taking characters from episode to episode.
    Thanks for posting, Teri

  5. Always so nice to get a peek into another job and world - it's fascinating to see the rules that evolve in any fictional environment to safeguard the expectations of the audience.

    It's ironic to hear about the hefty restrictions in place to keep plotlines under wraps, yet also to see the way that stories are fed to every magazine under the sun in the week the episode will be shown!

    P.S. Tracy - why is it that women dominate the children's writing world? I'm a minority, damnit! ;-)

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