Strategies for developing a telenovela’s step outlines and chapters and for relating to the production team

A telenovela’s first chapter must introduce the protagonists and the detonating element of the A-plot’s first plot twist, preferably through a critical event that will impart dynamism to the script. In Aguinaldo Silva’s Senhora do Destino/Her Own Destiny (2004), for example, this event is the decision of the heroine to leave the sertao - the dry hinterlands of the northeastern Brazilian state of Pernambuco - with five children to look for her brother in Rio de Janeiro. Maria do Carmo and her children arrive in the city of Rio de Janeiro on 13 December 1968, on the exact day that the military dictatorship’s Institutional Act no. 5 (AI-5) is being decreed - one of the most repressive acts of the military dictatorship. There is a significant disturbance in the city centre streets, filled with riots and police violence. Because of this critical event, the protagonist is separated from her brother and meets her antagonist, Nazare, who will steal her youngest child. Aguinaldo Silva observes:

When I created [Her Own Destiny], I decided to set the main character’s arrival in Rio de Janeiro on that day, as she was experiencing all those terrible things that would mark her life. Without her realising it, a historical tragedy was taking place that would affect the entire country.

(Fiuza and Ribciro, 2008)

A telenovela’s first week of chapters will establish the А-plot; viewers must understand and connect with the story.

Writing a telenovela is extenuating work given the volume of content involved. A telenovela’s industrial rhythm leads each author to work out strategies to supply the demand for text production. Benedito Ruy Barbosa, for example, admits he cannot work with collaborators. Recently, however, he co-authored the telenovela Velho Chico/Old River (2016) with his daughter and grandson. Gloria Perez works with more than one researcher, but also prefers to write alone and without a step outline. She picks up from wherever she left off the day before. In the case of working with collaborators, a step outline is essential. Through it the author will ask collaborators for scenes, dialogues or full chapters. Mauro Alencar analyzes how a telenovela step outline should be prepared: “It is all in the planning for the dramatic action over several chapters. In periodic meetings, the titular author and his collaborators define what will happen in the next chapters. Later, he details each sequence to be written and delegates tasks” (2002).

In Totalmente Demais/Total Dreamer (2016), after a weekly meeting with collaborators, quite similar to the one described by Alencar (2002), step outlines were prepared with scene descriptions and dialogue suggestions. The language is colloquial, and the instructions are for authors who are already very familiar with the narrative. Based on a step outline, Alencar (2002) describes three different ways of working with collaborators. In the first one, “by the chapter,” different collaborators write chapters of the narrative by following the step outline. In a second way, “by character cluster or genre,” collaborators write specifically for certain groups of characters or scenes with specific genres such as “action” or “humour.” In a third option, “by scene or dialogue,” an author may delegate only scene descriptions, parentheticals or dialogue.

Gilberto Braga works with a team of collaborators and has co-written more than one telenovela. In Autores (Fiuza and Ribeiro, 2008), he recounts how, in Paraiso Tropical/Tropical Paradise (2007), he used to hold weekly meetings with two of his collaborators to discuss the plot. He supervised the work of another writer (Ricardo Linhares), who was responsible for producing the step outline, or scene list, for each chapter that Gilberto Braga would later distribute to the different authors. Gilberto Braga explains the process this way:

When I get the step outline, I review everything, any little thing I think I need to, and mark what each collaborator will be writing. I distribute the scenes to them. They write and then they send them to me. I put the chapter together and do the final edit.

(Fiuza and Ribeiro, 2008)

Silvio de Abreu, who writes step outlines by himself, used to develop chapters with two collaborators according to the method Alencar (2002) describes as “by the chapter.” Head writer Cao Hamburger, during his 2017-2018 season of Malhaqdo/Young Hearts, discussed the step outline with the whole team and then followed the “by the chapter” method. On Totalmente Demais/Total Dreamer, the team of collaborators worked “according to character group or genre,” but that did not prevent them from writing for other characters when necessary.

Since Gloria Barreto and I co-wrote the telenovela Malhaqao/Young Hearts, season 2012,1 have been perfecting a method of rolling out chapters that I use to this day. Every Saturday, the writer’s team gets together to decide which of the chapter’s cliffhangers would lead to the next turning point of the week and which subplots we will explore. These subplots may be responsible for a commercial break, but rarely for a cliffhanger. Commercial breaks are essential scenes that engender high expectations, but they are not as crucial as cliffhangers. Then the primary author or authors will prepare the step outlines of the week. The strategy is to craft the scenes in order to build the story leading up to each commercial break and, finally, to the cliffhanger. The break or cliffhanger scenes should not be isolated. Throughout the chapter, these scenes are constructed or, in the scriptwriter’s jargon, “planted.” David Howard and Edward Mabley (2002) call this scriptwriting technique set-up and payoff or clue and reward. Usually, near the resolution, when the characters’ circumstances have changed, there is a “payoff” in which the gesture or action takes on a new meaning. The writer then chooses which scenes become clues in order for the plot to reach that point, usually the cliffhanger.

There is an average of ten scenes in a 43-minute-long chapter for a 7pm telenovela before each commercial break or cliffhanger, always alternating plots and settings. In a chapter with this running time, it is not unusual to offer, beyond the А-plot, two more subplots. The А-plot takes up at least half the scenes in the chapter that will total around 40 different scenes. The script may call for situations that are resolved within the chapter so that the viewer watching only that chapter does not feel lost in the narrative. In a teleno vela, a script page is very similar to that of a film script; the difference is that telenovela’s chapters usually contain more dialogue than a film, often underscoring the action.

The workflow plan I made for the script team of the three last telenovelas I wrote as the primary author runs like this:

SATURDAY

Staff meeting and elaboration of step outline 1, sent to the collaborators. The staff meeting discusses next week’s main breaks and cliffhangers. These daily cliffhangers bear a direct relationship to the principal turning point laid out in the synopsis for that month and, consequently, with weekly subplot turning points.

MONDAY

The principal authors elaborate step outlines 2 and 3 and send them to collaborators.

(COLLABORATORS TURN IN SCENES FOR STEP OUTLINE 1)

TUESDAY

The principal authors elaborate step outlines 4 and 5 and send them to collaborators.

(COLLABORATORS TURN IN SCENES FOR STEP OUTLINES 2 and 3)

WEDNESDAY

The main authors elaborate step outline 6 and send them to collaborators.

Principal authors reread and edit chapter 1.

(CO-WRITERS TURN IN SCENES FOR STEP OUTLINES 4 and 5)

THURSDAY

Principal authors reread and edit chapters 2, 3 and 4. (CO-WRITERS TURN IN SCENES FOR STEP OUTLINE 6)

FRIDAY

Principal authors reread and edit chapters 5, 6. Main writers revise and send the week’s chapters (6) to production.

This continues for about six months, depending on the extension of the telenovela. Many writers prefer to begin with a large number of chapters already written. Silvio de Abreu used to work with 70 chapters in advance, for example, modifying them if viewers rejected a given character, plot point or actor. Unforeseen problems are commonplace: an actor might have an accident, get sick or the city may have a week of heavy rain, which could lead to script alterations. A well-wrought synopsis, however, with specific turning points, facilitates delivering chapters when the time allocated for the creative process is limited.

At Saturday meetings and in writing the week’s step outlines, there is great care to restrict protagonists to six sets. Because there are six days of shooting per week, planning is needed to ensure that the script is viable for production. On average, at least 60% of a telenovela takes place in a studio, 30% on built exterior sets and 10% on location. In the studio, productivity is much higher, because of the number of cameras and lighting already designed and established by the set, compensating for the slower pace of a built city set and location shoots, which additionally suffer from every manner of unpredictable events: weather, traffic, construction, passersby.

A good relationship between the script crew and the director is essential, and practical examples abound. If an author does not communicate with the directors, an event may be impossible within the telenovela’s time frame or budget, for example. By event, we mean a group of scenes that require investment. One example would be a chase scene with car crashes and stunt doubles; another example would be a party with a large number of extras; or an event that mobilizes most of the cast, preventing any possibility of shooting on other fronts - usually a wedding. The author must communicate in advance a turning point in the plot to the director because it may demand specific preparation for the actors. Also, the authors’ use of songs, books and poems that need rights clearances must be anticipated. New sets with a significant number of scenes must be budgeted in advance lest they upset all production planning. In the telenovelas I worked in, we negotiated four- week intervals between each delivery of six chapters and the exhibition. This way we could still change the story if we needed to and the production had enough time for pre-production, one to two weeks, shooting, one week, and post-production, one week.

According to Alcides Nogueira: “When you write a page, you know it means work for three or four hundred technicians, production staff, directors, makeup artists, costume and set designers” (Fiuza and Ribeiro, 2008). Writing and producing a telenovela requires pacing, professional commitment and industry level resources.

The telenovela is a hybrid work with commercial characteristics and a business model based on advertisements. What I hoped to demonstrate by describing the elaboration of a telenovela narrative is that precisely because it is written while being exhibited, with an industrial pace of production, the primary author eventually retains autonomy over his creation. Oguri, Chauvel and Suarez (2009) interview several authors - Gilberto Braga, Manuel Carlos and Ricardo Linhares, among others - and TV Globo executives and conclude that, despite the search for knowledge through research, improvisation is an essential element of the production process. It focuses on the figure of the author, who transforms his or her original narrative according to his or her sensibility, whether influenced by what he or she has learned from research, which he or she may take into consideration or not, or by information gathered from his or her own everyday life. According to the researchers, “The telenovela writers interviewed in this study are almost unanimous in mentioning another source of information about viewers: remarks overheard on the street, from people known and unknown” (Oguri et al., 2009). To the researchers, to use a jazz band analogy, TV Globo executives lead but know that ultimately the musical result lies in the hands of their musicians: “And at Rede Globo, the great ‘soloists’ are the telenovela’s director and, above all, the author” (ibid.).

Once a synopsis is approved, and the telenovela moves into the production stage, any manoeuvre demands the author’s cooperation lest there be a break in the production mechanism and a significant loss of time and resources. In 2017, for example, according to data made available by the station during the 2017 International Emmy awards, TV Globo’s telenovela chapter cost USS 300 thousand per chapter at the time, including implementation, which means, in the case of Totalmente Demais/Total Dreamer, with 176 chapters, a total of USS 52.8 million. The author, in the final instance, is the centre of a chain power of the most important and expensive Brazilian audiovisual product, that, beyond mobilizing hundreds of professionals and considerable resources, commands a massive viewership in Brazil. This power does not mean that telenovela authors do not worry about viewership or are unwilling to make changes to increase viewer numbers, a common interest in commercial television.

In the next chapter, I will reflect on the relationship between telenovelas, authors, broadcasters and viewers, taking into account the new technologies and transformations in spectatorship. I will discuss in what ways the connected viewer may or may not interfere in a telenovela.

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