I have also been blogging since 2004 at Complications Ensue: The Crafty TV and Screenwriting Blog. There are far more questions and answers there.
Beating Out the Story
do you get away with plotholes?
Making plotholes fun
Characters and their dumbass mistakes
On characters and the dumbass mistakes they make, part 2
On calling for backup, part 2
What can happen offscreen?
Nothing can happen offscreen
Train wrecks and telegraphing
Second thoughts on telegraphing
Addressing viewer expectations
Losing the audience's trust
Fully resolved by first act out?
Suspense v. surprise
On step outlines
The Sucky Point
Getting past the Sucky Point
Going for the gimmes in the 4400 pilot
October 2005: Writing the pilot
October 2005: Tell your story out loud
November 2005: Write a synopsis to tell a story
uncommunicative characters explain each other
The cut away from the predictable conversation
The conversation at cross purposes
Good playing dialog vs. good reading dialog
October 2005: Fineness in dialog
The Writing Room
Your TV Career
foot in the door, or why you should intern
On staffing season
Best Screenwriting School in the World. And it's free, too.
Be a back door man. Or woman
Script coordinator vs. writing assistant
Getting onto a show
Never say "no"
Contests and fellowships
Working with people who can't tell good from bad
Working for less than scale
Why you need an agent, part 37
September 2005: Read for experience, not for long
October 2005: Money and freedom
October 2005: Open-source feedback
October 2005: Don't find an agent in TO if you want to make it in LA
November 2005: Trust your agent
November 2005: Learn from the other
Specs and Pitches
& Pitch Bibles (Longish post)
things any pitch needs to answer
What network do you want your show on?
A few more words on TV spec scripts
Why you must have specs
Why not just write the specs, already?
Network first, or producer first?
Write a spec pilot?
September 2005: How not to date your TV spec (too much)
September 2005: Pitches and spec pilots
November 2005: Spec page count
Bibles and Templates
I just read a bad bible
What is Gilmore Girls's template?
Blowing the template on Corner Gas?
Why Tour of Duty sucks
Who's core cast?
What's the poster?
Episodic vs. serial
October 2005: Bible is battle plan, not blueprint
October 2005: Procedural vs. character based
with 9 year olds
More sex please
Car wreck TV
What naughty girls those L Word girls are
24 has jumped the shark
Project Greenlight, the fake break
October 2005: TV drama moves to five acts
October 2005: Don't write clip shows
November 2005: It's the audience's show
November 2005: Five acts and weak act outs
Guyot, part 1,
part 2, part
3 A "guyot" is an underwater seamount, in case you're wondering.
Eriksen, part 1, part
Jacob Sager Weinstein
Chris Abbott, part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5
September 2005: Stephen Gallagher, part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4
Particularly Superb Posts By Other People
Writing Action Scenes, by John Rogers. "Don't write action scenes. Write suspnse scenes that require action to resolve."
The Second Episode Problem, by Denis McGrath. What comes after your pilot?
Remember, I wrote this over a year ago, and it's fairly basic. Check out my blog for my more recent thinking.
Q. What's different about writing TV?
A. I began my screenwriting career in features. Now that I've got a few tv shows under my belt, I think I can safely say that TV is an entirely different animal from features. The same rules apply to features as to TV; but many more rules apply to TV. In other words, TV is harder.
The most obvious way TV is harder is that the writing is all on deadlines. Short deadlines. Very short deadlines, that change day to day. When you're writing a commissioned feature script, you generally have months to complete it. Robert Towne spends a year writing or rewriting the scripts he's commissioned to write, I hear. And, of course, many motion pictures start as spec scripts. You can spend all the time you like writing your spec script.
A TV show in production has a ferocious appetite for material. An hour drama eats a new script once every five to seven days, depending on the production schedule. That means the writing staff have to turn out a new, polished, production-ready new script every five to seven days. Since it may take three to four weeks to take a new script from nothing to concept to breakdown to outline to first draft to shooting draft, that means the same writing staff have to also turn out a good first draft, an outline, and a network-approved concept in the same five to seven days. A typical TV deadline is a week to take a script of an hour drama from an approved outline to a good first draft. A good writer should be able to do it in four days, or an act a day; the spare day is where you get to make your mistakes. I've had to do a page one rewrite of an hour show in two days. I'm sure other writers have had to do it in one day. Nobody expects great work at that pace, but they do expect coherent, constructive work that you can build on.
All this means that TV writers are not allowed to have writer's block. A writer who can't hack it out is not a tv writer. A hack writer is someone who writes strictly to pay the mortgage, not from inspiration. But sometimes inspiration takes a nap, and there's a deadline, and you have to get something on the page that looks like television. Your craft, the tools that you've developed as a writer, must enable you to write anyway.
A writer who isn't willing to hack it out may be a genius, but he is holding up the show, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars a day. The worst thing you can do in television is deliver the show late. There is nothing worse. When a network purchases a show, they usually have a slot in their schedule for it. You may be writing scripts no more than eight weeks ahead of broadcast. If your script is late, the show runs the risk of being late. If a show is late, something else is going to have to air in that slot. When that happens, ratings go down and people lose their jobs.
So, no writer's block. If you get writer's block, you must go be a feature writer. Or a novelist.
Another way TV is harder is that it has an internal structure that you cannot ignore. "We make our money on teasers and tags, ins and outs," as my showrunner on Charlie Jade, Bob Wertheimer, loves to say. TV is all about commercial breaks. A TV story is structured with a cliffhanger at the end of every act, just before every commercial break. Anything to keep the viewer tuned to your television show; anything to keep them from changing the channel to Battlebots. Every show has a format. For an hour drama it's four acts with, usually, a teaser and a tag. The teaser grabs you and pulls you in. The tag keeps you watching the credits. Everything is there to keep you watching.
(Apparently some people claim there is an underlying three act structure even in hour drama. This is true only in the sense that all stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. You can therefore assign the Teaser and Act One to the beginning, Acts 2 and 3 to the middle, and Act 4 and the Tag to the end. If this makes your writing professor happy, please feel free. The only thing TV cares about is are people still watching when we come back from the commercial? and do they tune in next week?.
When we plot out a television show, we figure out the overall story territory. Then we figure out the beats of the story. After the beats -- sometimes before the beats -- we figure out what the act outs are. They are that important. I've struggled for days with a story because my strongest cliffhangers happened to be coming in the middle of the acts and I was trying to get them to where they belonged. A cliffhanger in the middle of an act is a wasted cliffhanger!
Act outs don't have to be cliffhangers; they can be emotional beats that keep you tuned in. West Wing's act outs are often emotional. But emotional act outs are tricky. If they're not executed right by the director, they won't work, and on to Battlebots. Plotty act outs work. It's the mark of a good and brave show that it is willing to risk emotional act outs.
One way of putting it is that movies flow. TV pulses. It pulls you in at the top of the act and lets you go at the bottom, only to suck you in again at the top of the next act.
Another difference is that TV is written by writers on staff. The original writer of a feature is rarely involved in the production. Even when the director brings in his pet writer to rewrite a movie, that writer is almost never welcome on set. The writer is exclusively a free lancer.
TV staff writers may originate a show or get hired onto the show, but they stay on staff until the last show goes into production. There are endless rewrites. The network may toss out a story or require drastic changes. Production will need to change locations. An actor may turn out to be a dud. Another actor may prove so brilliant everyone wants to see more of her. The writers have to integrate all of these demands into episodes the audience wants to see. Directors come and go on a show; a director can be replaced at the last minute, or even mid-episode. If the writers aren't working out, you have a serious problem, second only to the star not working out.
This means the writers have greater influence and, ultimately, power. In the US, almost all fiction shows are run by writers, or writers who have become producers.
So, in TV, the old joke about the Polish actress who screwed the writer doesn't apply. You can count on writers to develop stories for the characters they like, and kill off, sometimes gruesomely, the characters they don't. Sometimes we've killed a character off because we felt we'd told their story, but often we just didn't find the character interesting; and sometimes the actor was simply unpleasant. TV actors are wise to be nice to the writers.
Of course, no one has all the power. The writers and producers answer to the network. The network answers to the audience. Every movie creates its own audience. You can write an art film and attract an art film audience, or an action film and attract the action film audience. A quirky film like Harold and Maude can attract an audience looking for a quirky film.
From the first episode, a TV show attracts a certain audience and then subsequent shows must satisfy that audience. The TV audience is looking for consistency. When they tune into The West Wing, they're looking for a certain kind of show about power and people devoted to serving liberal causes. When they tune into CSI they're looking for forensics, with a little human drama thrown in. If you read my book Crafty Screenwriting, you know that my definition of genre is "the goods you must deliver." Each TV show is, in that sense, its own genre. Each TV show has certain goods it must deliver.
Consistency is the cardinal rule in TV. You vary your format at your peril.
I noticed that after the departure of Aaron Sorkin, West Wing radically changed direction. The first four seasons under Sorkin had a dedicated band of liberals, all on the same side, fighting the good fight; add a little science fiction and you have Star Trek in its many incarnations. The fifth season, under John Wells, became an office melodrama in which the characters were not always on the same side. They were still all liberals, but they are often at odds with each other.
I don't watch West Wing very much any more.
That means that when you create a television show you have to be really careful what format you choose. You're going to be stuck with it forever.
Generally, even television characters are consistent. Episodes may reveal new things about them, but they don't actually change. They don't generally grow. "No learning, no hugging" was a famous rule of the Seinfeld writing room; but by and large, whatever the characters of a sitcom learn by the end of the episode, they've forgotten by the beginning of the next episode. It took Scully five seasons of X-Files to finally admit that there might, just possibly, be aliens; her personality never changed. That's because we're tuning in to see a show about a believer and a skeptic. Take that away, and you might lose your audience.
Why do I love writing TV? When you're on a show, you belong to an extended dysfunctional family of people who seem extraordinarily alive -- show people always seem to burn a little more brightly than civilians. I love the stress, too. And I love how you write some words, and three weeks later they're building the set you described, or something sort of like it, and four weeks later they're shooting your words, or something like them. I'm not a perfectionist. I like trying to make something great in spite of all odds. It suits my temperament.
And there's nothing like knowing that, even if your show is a flop, millions of people are going to see what you wrote come to life.
Aaron Sorkin's West Wing and Star Trek: The Next Generation show us the same thing: a tight-knit crew of talented and devoted people work together to do Good Things, under a tough, but-surprisingly wise and compassionate leader whom they practically worship.
We watch both shows because we want to identify with those crews. In moral offices or shop floors, bosses can be tyrants or stupid or both, co-workers can be vengeful and spiteful, and people are expected to bleed so their company can sell more widgets, or sell them cheaper. It's a lot of pain for nothing more than a paycheck. But watching the show, you can imagine yourself in a workplace where the crew's success or failure mean the world to millions of people.
On Babylon 5, the characters are not particularly good or devoted, but they are living in historic times when their actions matter far more than your or my actions probably ever will.
On Sex & the City, the characters are empowered women picking and choosing among successful New York men (even if they mostly reject them), eating at fabulous restaurants and drinking at fabulous clubs. They never worry about money, and they always seem to have time -- and affection -- for each other.
On Friends, the characters are still close friends with the five other people they were friends with ten years ago. Until the finale, no one ever drifted off; even marriage and kids didn't separate the Friends from each other. Once they did separate, the show was over.
On Gilmore Girls, Rory and Lorelai, mother and daughter, are also best friends.
I like to call what draws us into watching a show the attractive fantasy.
The Simpsons are a serious dysfunctional family, but no matter what goes wrong, at the end of the episode they come back together, everything is forgiven, and they're a family. For anyone whose family members hold grudges against each other, it's nice to get to identify with the Simpsons, who have much worse problems than you do, but manage to stay together.
Shows can also have a negative fantasy. That's when, simply, the characters have much worse problems, or are just plain worse, than you.
It's reassuring to watch someone who's got it worse than you do pull it out in the end. People watch Oz because the characters have problems relating to each other that are so inconceivably worse than ours -- and yet somehow they get through the day. (Well, most of them do. Some get killed.) If people can survive such a nightmaring environment, then we can survive our own lives. In a negative fantasy, we watch when the problems the characters are facing resonate with problems we face ourselves. We watched The Prisoner, for all its kooky weirdness, because, while we are not actually spies imprisoned in a strange neat little village, we are trapped in our lives and hemmed in by circumstance.
Why do we watch Seinfeld? Because Seinfeld and his buddies are just like us, only even more shallow and vain than we are. Why do we watch Sopranos? Because our family is just like that, only not nearly so bad; and no one's getting whacked.
When you're pitching a new show, you need to be clear what the attractive fantasy is. If you don't have one, what makes you think anyone's going to watch?
You can debate what a show's attractive fantasy is. In S&TC, is it that the women have their pick of great men? Or that they keep rejecting them -- and the audience members wouldn't be so foolish?
The attractive fantasy can be different for different segments of the audience. Probably not that many straight guys watch Queer Eye for the Straight Guy; for them, the fantasy might be that someone will come and turn your crappy pad into a chick magnet. But for the women in the audience, the fantasy is that you get to turn your boyfriend's crappy apartment into something fit for a decor magazine.
Note that the attractive fantasy is usually different from a show's hook. As I described in my book Crafty Screenwriting, the hook is what gets someone to watch a movie or read a script. In the case of television, it's what gets people to tune in in the first place. The hook gets the audience to try out the show; the attractive fantasy keeps them watching. The hook can be the same. Jack and Bobby is a family drama about a pushy single mom and her two sons. The hook is that one of the sons will grow up to be President of the United States. That's also the attractive fantasy. Everything this family is going through matters so much more when it is the formative years of a future president.
As with movies, every show does not have to have a hook at all. People will tune into a TV show if it stars an actor they like. They might tune into a show just because it's heavily promoted on the network they watch or on the billboards around them. If they like it, they'll stay. But a hook always helps.
A show's hook and it's attractive fantasy are both part of its template:
In each episode of I Love Lucy, Ricky goes off and Lucy gets involved in a hare-brained scheme -- to make or save money, to meet a star or be a celebrity, but always a hare brained scheme. Then Ricky comes home and Lucy's got some 'splaining to do.
In each episode of Alias, Sidney Bristow goes on a couple of missions, one involving a lot of athletics, one involving a disguise. Before the mission she's given some special techie gadgets. She also spends some time with her civilian roomies.
In each episode of Buffy: the Vampire Slayer, Buffy kicks some supernatural butt. In each episode of Tru Calling, Tru goes back in time by exactly one day in order to save someone's life.
The basic question a template answers is: what happens every week?
"Every week, Lucy tries a hare-brained scheme. But it goes awry and Ricky has to straighten it out."
The template also tells you less obvious or more structural aspects of the show's consistency.
How serialized are the episodes? Do story lines carry over from one week to the next? Or is the show episodic, where you can pretty much watch one episode without seeing the others?
Obviously, it helps to have an overall sense of the season arc. In the distant past, dramatic shows were often entirely episodic. Each episode was an entirely encapsulated story. You could watch the episodes in any order they were broadcast. The characters did not change, nor did their relationships to each other. Every episode of I Love Lucy, The Waltons, I Dream of Jeannie, The Addams Family and other television classics starts from the same square as all the others in the season. There could be changes from season to season, but there wasn't a sense of an ongoing, overarching story.
Some shows remain largely episodic. You get pretty much all you need to appreciate an episode of Alias from the opening titles voice over. But most shows are at least partly serialized. The relationships on Buffy, the Vampire Slayer grow and change over the course of a season. You can still watch most episodes by themselves, but if you watched the previous one, you'll appreciate this week's episode more. In the case of an entirely serialized show like 24, you're going to be fairly lost if you haven't seen the previous episode, and if you start watching in midseason, it may be a few shows before you know what's going on.
Fans like serialized shows because the story can be more rewarding. They get a thrill when someone who was introduced as a bit part grows into a major character. But I've been told that the average person who says he watches a show catches only one in four episodes. Even fairly dedicated viewers might catch one out of two. The more serialized a show is, the more they're missing.
Also, networks simply cannot be relied on to air shows in order. One series I worked on aired in order in Canada, but in the States it started with episode 2. This after we'd spent soooooo much time and effort on the pilot so people would know who the characters were and what their relationships to each other were, without seeming too expo-y. Then the show bounced around from time slot to time slot so that my parents -- and there could be no more dedicated viewers! -- kept missing it.
Does the show have multiple story lines? How much weight does it give each? An hour drama template might say: each episode has three story lines. The A story typically has 12 beats. The B story typically has 8. The C story has 4. Note that because this is hour drama, the numbers are evenly divisible by four. The A story has 3 beats per act, the B story 2, the C story 1. A half hour comedy template, say Friends, might give the A story 2 to three beats per act, that is 6 to 9 beats; the B story one to two beats, and the C story one beat. (That means that a half hour comedy with three story lines will have about three quarters of the beats that an hour drama will have, not half; the beats are just shorter and snappier.)
On one show I worked on, the rule was that the B and C stories had to arise out of the A story. This was nightmarishly difficult to do, but it centered the show nicely on the main character. This rule is part of a show's template. You could equally decide (and I've written on shows with this rule, too) that the B and C stories need have nothing to do with the main character at all.
Is there a signature scene? In every episode of Sex & the City, the four core characters get together for a meal at some fabulously trendy New York eatery. They complain about their problems, and the theme of the episode comes out. Also in every episode, Carrie Bradshaw types the theme of the episode on her laptop computer. Both of these are part of S&TC's template -- as is the fact that it is a theme based show, and each of the stories has some connection, however tenuous, with that theme.
Does a show go off its sets? That's part of a show's template, though it's also a major production decision. Early Friends episodes never went off the standing sets; later on, when they could afford to, they did.
Do the cops catch the bad guys? On Miami Vice, they didn't always get their man. Columbo always did.
In a speculative fiction show, does the supernatural exist as such? In Tru Calling there's no hint why Tru is sent back in time; no sense it's all part of something mystical. It just happens. It's just a conceit. Buffy, on the other hand, is a Slayer, of a long line of Slayers. There's a mythos behind it. Star Trek in its many incarnations is speculative science.
It sometimes takes a while for a show to find its feet. What's happening is usually that the writers haven't found the show's template, or the audience didn't like the template and the writers are rethinking it. In Goldberg and Rabkin's Successful Television Writing, they talk about trying to find the template for Baywatch. In the first eight episodes they tried all sorts of plots. But they didn't really figure the show out until the eighth episode, when they got two characters trapped in an armored car in the bottom of Santa Monica Bay. It wasn't a good episode, they say, but at least it was an episode that would not happen on someone else's show. They realized that every episode of Baywatch had to have a story line that required lifeguards. It seems obvious enough in retrospect, but it wasn't that obvious until they realized it.
Who are the core cast? Obviously part of the template. Core cast are, in creative terms, the characters who must be served in every episode. If Willow has to be absent from a Buffy episode, the characters have to make a big deal of it, and ideally we should see her for at least a moment. If Buffy's mom is absent (prior to her death of course!), it's no big deal -- she's just a recurring character. Who are core and who are recurring characters is a big part of the show's template.
Note that as the season progresses, the writers may build incidental cast into regular recurring cast, or regulars may get written out, or even killed off. For budget reasons it's a big deal if core cast have to get downgraded. They're often on season-long contracts, and get paid whether you use them or not. But it can happen. That is to say, the template can change. But it's risky, and expensive.
On a subtle level, the show's template goes beyond all of these elements. The template is what makes a show unique. A great episode of television belongs uniquely to the series it comes from. A great CSI can only be an episode of CSI. A great Law and Order could only be an episode of Law and Order.
After Aaron Sorkin left West Wing, they ran a story line in which CJ went to visit her ailing father in Ohio. It was a nice episode, but you could do it on any show. In fact, many shows have done episodes like this, with different parents ailing from different things. When you ignore your template like this, you make your show generic, and people start tuning into other shows.
When you're pitching a show, or writing a spec, it is crucial to nail down the show's template. If your pitch or spec breaks the template, it's not really an episode of the show, and you'll suffer the consequences.
One of the ironies of creating a TV show is that, once you've defined the template, you yourself cannot change it any more. You've got an audience that's tuning in to see the show you've shown on the air. If you change your template, you'll lose that audience. You can't even change your template during production, unless you've got a serious problem. Once the episodes you have in the can have defined the show, that's the show you're writing.
So you better make sure your template includes whatever it is that made you want to write the show; or at least, doesn't rule it out. If what you love is fantasy, don't create a show whose template makes it ruthlessly realistic, or you're going to be hosed.
Be careful what you create; they'll want more of it.
Another lesson here: TV is not an intensely personal medium. If you want to make a personal statement in moving images, make a movie.
It's easy to dismiss this question because, as a writer, you're just supposed to know how. I mean, if you don't have story ideas, you're not a story teller, are you?
But there are some techniques that we seem to keep using in the writing room.
The more serialized the story is from episode to episode, the more there can be what we call the season arc. This includes the way the relationships grow over the course of the season, how the mystery is revealed if there is a mystery, how close the hero gets to the climactic battle with the villain, etc. Hopefully the season arc (or at least its endpoint) has been established before you start writing the season. (If it hasn't, or if the showrunner decides to change course in midseason, or if you run through all the plot you've planned, you're in for a lot of extra work. I hear that 24 ran out of plot halfway through season 2 -- they'd planned to end the season with a nuclear explosion, but they ran through all the plot they had and blew up the bomb halfway through. For the rest of the season they were flying by the seat of their pants.)
So, one of the obvious ways to come up with story ideas is to look at where you want to end up, and figure out what the steps are to get there. Figure out how each step can be made into a story with a beginning, middle and end, and you have a story.
Another way is through character. What does the character need to learn? What is a dramatic story you can put him through from which he can learn it?
What is the character scared of? Stories are all about conflict, so another way to generate story ideas is to challenge your core flaws. If your hero is shy, intellectual, and has low self esteem, then create stories where he's challeneged to be exhibitionistic, to lead with his heart, to look stupid, or to appear confident.
What is the central conflict of the show? On the second edition of Cheers, Sam wanted to sleep with Rebecca Howe. On Moonlighting, Dave wanted to sleep with Maddy, or spank her, or possibly both. What does the protagonist want that he's never going to get?. If you know that, then you have a source of story ideas. In order to get in Rebecca's pants, Sam tries __________. In order to show up Maddy, Dave tries _____________.
Once the central conflict is resolved, the show is over. Moonlighting is generally reckoned to have jumped the shark when Dave and Maddy slept together. Friends got away with Ross and Rachel sleeping together, because it didn't resolve the central conflict. Ross wanted Rachel to think he was cool; Rachel wanted Ross's respect. Even as a couple, Rachel never thought Ross was cool and Ross never really respected Rachel. It's only in the finale that they really get how right they are for each other.
More on this later...
A bottle show is, canonically, an episode written to take place entirely on the standing sets (the sets that remind standing in the studio throughout the production) and use only the core cast (the actors who are guaranteed work on every episode, and who, therefore, cost nothing extra to use, since you have to pay them anyway).
If you have a clever line producer, you can expand the definition to include any episode shooting almost entirely at one location. If this location is one that can double for more than one setting, it's still a bottle show. It stops being a bottle show the moment the big guys in the boots have to wrap things up and throw them in the trucks. (Every time they do that, it's a couple of hours before you're shooting again. Ouch.)
Many of the old Star Trek episodes were bottle shows. The West Wing Season Three opener, "Isaac and Ishmael," had the core cast trapped in the White House -- that is, on the standing sets -- during a terrorist scare. The only new cast were a classroom full of high school students. The episode was written after September 11, 2001, and aired on October 3, so that tells you what you can do with a bottle show.
A clip show is an episode that uses as much already-shot footage as possible. The worst possible clip show -- the one we make jokes about -- is the core cast sitting around saying, "Hey, you remember the time when we..." and then you show the clip. The Friends episode "The One With All The Thanksgivings" comes perilously close to this. The Simpsons episode "And So It Comes To This: A Simpsons Clip Show" makes fun of it.
Usually we try to make some kind of story hay out of the flashbacks. In one clip show I helped perpetrate, the hero was convinced he'd never accomplished anything; the heroine was trying to convince him otherwise. (Or was it the other way around?) So she'd remind him of some of the cool things he'd done, and then we'd show the clip.
Both bottle shows and clip shows take fewer days to shoot, and therefore cost less. With a bottle show you're saving time because you can shoot more pages a day since you don't waste time moving the company. (Technically, if you can rig the script so that you have exactly one day per location, then you can have as many different locations as you have days, and still get most of the benefit of a bottle show.) With a clip show you're saving time because you're just shooting enough new footage to hang the old footage on.
Writers hate bottle shows because it is hard to come up with a compelling episode that takes place only on the standing sets. Hardly impossible -- just hard. On the other hand you can sometimes take advantage of the producers' need for a bottle show to write that intense little forty minute play you've always wanted to write. You can get intense with the characters; you don't have to write any silly chase scenes because you can't.
Writers despise clip shows because it is almost impossible to come up with a clip show that doesn't look like a clip show. And, of course, it's more like editing than writing. You can't rewrite the footage that's already been used. We did manage on one show to come up with a fairly cool clip show. The hero had the villain at his mercy. He accused him of all the crimes we'd seen him do -- and we got to show the clips -- then the villain explained how he hadn't really done the crimes, or how the crimes occurred slightly differently -- so we got to show the clips again, but with a dollop of new footage to give them different context.
Unfortunately that had only about 18 pages of old footage out of 52; we shot 4 days main unit instead of 5 days main unit and 2 days second unit. On the more flagrant example above, we shot exactly one day of new footage out of a possible 5. It wasn't going to win any Emmies. But it saved our schedule.
Directors, by the way, probably hate bottle shows and clip shows even more than writers. They have fewer resources and less time on bottle shows, and clip shows are jam packed with stuff that's not in their style.
Given half a chance, a director will always take your bottle show out of the bottle and "open it up." There is no scene you can write so it's small -- easy to shoot, a nifty little two hander set in an elevator, no extras, no exteriors, no action -- that a director can't reimagine taking place on a street in a rainstorm, during the St. Patrick's Day parade. TV directors are about spectacle as much as they are about story. A scene in an elevator will not look good on their reel, and only the actors and the writers will be having fun with it, so who needs it? A good director will always ask for the moon, and a good showrunner will, most of the time, tell them to stuff it.
Typical parameters will tell you:
In terms of the story, core cast are those characters you're expected to serve in every episode. The audience expects to see them; an episode without one of them is an odd episode that needs justifying. In terms of production, though, core cast are the actors who are contracted for every episode. Some of them may be on flat fees -- no matter how much you use them, they get paid the same amount, so it's a good idea to use them as much as possible, all other things being equal. These are your stars. Some of the others may be regularly recurring cast. They are guaranteed a certain number of days per episode. If they work fewer days, they still get paid. If they work more days, they get paid extra.
Anyone whom the director directs is an actor; anyone an assistant director can move around is an extra. A character with fewer than three lines is a "bit part," and is paid at a lower rate than a "principal," who has unlimited lines.
However, it is not the number of cast that costs you. It is the number of cast days. A character with ten pages all in one location may only work on one day, and therefore costs one cast day. A character with a total of three pages of dialog spread out over five locations may wind up scheduled for five days, and therefore will cost five cast days. (Most actors get paid "scale," or the contractual minimum, so the concept of cast days makes sense. Some experienced character actors get paid over scale, which complicates things.)
These are the sets that remain standing in the studio throughout the production period. Depending on what kind of stories you're telling, you may be able to set a big chunk of your stories on your standing sets, or very little. In a cop show, the standing sets will be police headquarters and, possibly, someone's apartment. In a spaceship show, the standing sets will be bits of the spaceship.
These are sets built only for a few episodes.
Any time you shoot in the real world rather than in the controlled environment of a studio, you're shooting at a location.
You try to avoid moving between two locations during a single day because then the "unit" -- the fifty people who put your show on film -- has to pack up, drive somewhere, and unpack, and that takes an inordinate amount of time in which nothing productive gets done.
You can shoot many more pages a day in studio. In studio, airplanes do not fly overhead, spoiling your sound. (Well, they do, but you can't hear them.) In studio, you don't discover that no one got a permit to shoot, so you must urgently find a new location. In studio, you can take the top off the set and use a crane, or remove a wall to get a neat tracking shot from where the wall should be. Everything in studio is more controllable. Unfortunately, unless you have superlative production design, a studio almost always looks like a studio. Only a location really looks like a location. And of course, you can't do an exterior shot in a studio.
This number keeps going up over the years as CGI costs go down and capabilities go up.
On the other hand, you need to fill out your time slot. A half hour show is generally 22 minutes of screen material; an hour is 44 minutes. You want to have a rough cut with a little extra time -- say 48 minutes -- so that you can cut scenes that didn't turn out well. So a typical hour script might be 52 pages long on an action show, though some Aaron Sorkin West Wing scripts go into the 60's. (More about script timing below.)
Therefore the production parameters will tell you how many pages to shoot for. You should be coming in very close to the right number of pages. Too many pages and you're wasting money. Too few, and your episode will wind up too short.
Action is even harder, because it depends on how much the director pays attention to the action description (the "blacks", so called because there's more ink in the action than there is in dialog) -- most treat it as inspiration rather than actually following it -- and how much detail the writer puts into it. I can describe a high fall (a character falling off a building or some such) in a page or in a line. Supposedly the first scene of West Side Story -- describing a twelve minute fight-and-dance sequence -- looks like this:
EXT. NEW YORK -- DAY
Sharks and Jets get it on.
So the Script Supervisor does something called timing the script. The Script Supervisor is the same person who sits on the set next to the director and marks down what parts of the script each setup included. She is also supposed to correct the actors when they mangle the script, but in practice she rarely does unless prodded. The Script Supervisor is supposed to have a sense for how fast dialog on this particular series tends to go by, and how long action takes to transpire. It's all general experience and specific feel for the show. That means that it's very hard to time the pilot of a show, and you may wind up shooting too much (expensive) or too little (catastrophic).
In general, TV dialog is getting faster and faster paced, so tv scripts are becoming longer and longer. If you're writing for an established show, write your script to the length that show seems to like. If you're creating your own show, write about 53 pages for an hour script, about 26 pages for a half hour, unless you're quite sure some other length is right. (Note that these are page number count, not "complete page" counts. The actual length of the script in terms of complete pages will vary according to how much white space winds up left at the end of each act.)
There is no correct number of scenes in a script. A scene that runs more than two pages is a long scene; rarely should a scene break three pages. A dialog scene that's shorter than a page probably can't score emotionally, but it might work as comedy. Action can be as short as an eighth of a page and still mean something. If you're intercutting back and forth between two ongoing events, you'll probably have shorter scenes than if you're not. If you get too cutty on the page, you may lose your reader; if you can, leave as much of the intercutting to the editors as you can without losing the feeling and pace of the sequence. It makes things easier to read, and anyway, once they're in the edit room, they and the producer really will decide how and where to cut, no matter what you write.
A classic "go to" would be when you need the hero to know something that's going on in the wide world. He turns on the television, and there, conveniently, is a news report about the very thing you needed him to know!
Or, the hero falls asleep, shielding his face with a newspaper. When he wakes up, he notices that on front page of the newspaper is the very thing you needed him to know! Or he buys some gum from a newsstand, and there's his face on the cover of the Post!
These are bad "go to"'s because they stick out. The audience isn't going to get too upset about them because they accept that television sets on tv play nothing but news reports. And, frankly, they're happy to get on with the story. You typically use an expositional go to when you need the hero to know information that honestly, he could pick up any number of boring ways, and you just don't want to waste time on the shoe leather of how the hero learns it. But the audience know in the back of their minds that you're being a bit cheesy and lazy, and they care less about everything else that's going on in the show.
A go to can also be the predictable payoff to an obvious setup. In the Jack and Bobby pilot, Bobby steals his mother's marijuana to ingratiate himself with some bullies. This is such an ill-conceived plan that it's obvious the screenwriters are planning for Bobby to get in trouble for it. But how? The obvious go to is for Bobby to get ratted out by the bullies (or by his best friend who's just joined them). It's less of a go to if the bullies don't rat him out, but he gets in trouble smoking the grass with them because (as set up elsewhere in the pilot) he has asthma, and can't smoke anything. It would be even less of a go to if he gets in trouble not with the authorities but with his brother.
Of course if the bit of expo is something the hero should have to work to learn, then you're not going to use a go to anyway, you're going to build a sequence. But for something trivial, you need to find a way to take the curse off of your go to. For example, it helps slightly if the newspaper is wrapping some fish'n'chips. It might help if the TV is being stolen by a rioter, so that it is running past the hero, not just sitting still in a TV store.
The hero's supposed to interrogate Rodney K. Bellefeuille. How does he find him? If Rodney is a normal person, he'd just look him up in the phone book, something we hardly need to see. But if he's al "the secretive Rodney K. Bellefeuille," in order to protect the character trait you've established, the hero has to jump through some hoops to get his phone number. You can give the hero a source at a government agency that keeps track of people (the tax guys, the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Department of Homeland Security). You can have him look up an old college friend. Generally you want to minimize shoe leather, so quicker is better.
Likewise, you might use a bit of shoe leather to establish how the hero gets into his secret hideout. He goes in through a sewer tunnel, there's a secret entrance, yadda yadda. We need the shoe leather to convince ourselves that the bad guys can't track the hero. Once it's established, you never have to do it again.
Sometimes no amount of shoe leather is going to convince the audience. By trying to explain how the hero knows something, you may be opening a can of worms: the explanation raises more questions than it answers. In that case, you either have to rethink the whole situation, or trust the audience will suspend its disbelief. If you keep the story moving, they'll probably forgive you. No one likes eating shoe leather.
Skip the shoe leather any time realism would be more annoying than fudging it. In Alias all sorts of people are after Sidney Bristow. But strangely, they never attack her at home. Why not? These are people who want to take over the whole world, they consider her home off limits? The reason is that proving to the audience that she keeps her secret identity truly secret would be so annoying, and would drive the writers so crazy, that we all agree to skip it.
One of the most obvious ones is the voice over. Voice overs are held in some disrepute because they're regarded as a crutch. And so they are, if there's some better way to illuminate the hero's thoughts. My rule of thumb is that I'll try to write the story without a voice over, and only if it fails to get the character's inner workings across will I go to a voice over. (A voice over can become a go to, as well.)
A cleverer way is a conversation with someone who knows the character well. If you have a guarded, laconic hero, have his girlfriend understand him perfectly. Then she can say, "You're not really mad about your job, you're mad because your dad died!" (The good version of that, as we say in the writing room.)
This can develop into a cross conversation where each character is voicing the other's issues.
Another clever way is to have the character run into someone with the same problem, or a similar problem. Your character is feeling crippled with guilt? have the character talk to someone else who's crippled with guilt. As he talks her out of her depression, he talks himself out of his depression. Make sure that in the blacks (the action description), you show him coming to a realization for himself -- he looks off in the middle of his speech, "realizing something."
Ross is talking to Joey about A; Joey thinks Ross is talking about B. The dialog is crafted so it makes perfect sense to Ross, but makes embarrassing/wacky sense to Joey, who responds accordingly. A variant of this is --
Phoebe is pretending she's Estelle, but she doesn't know Joey knows Estelle is dead. So when Phoebe (as Estelle) says "I don't think I should visit you," Joey is far more relieved than he'd have been if Estelle had said it while she was alive.
Chandler and Joey act like jealous ex-lovers, but they're just ex-roommates. The dialog is written so it sounds just like a lover's spat, but because we know they're straight, it's funny. The same thing happens when Monica has gone shopping at Bloomingdales with Julie, whom Rachel hates. When Rachel finds out, Monica says all the things cheating girlfriends/boyfriends say ("It didn't mean anything to me!") but because they were just shopping, it's funny.
In writing feature spec screenplays, you're generally supposed to restrict what you write to what you can actually see or hear. Directors get annoyed when you write details of how they're supposed to shoot; actors don't like to be told how to act. Or so the theory goes.
In television production, we ignore this rule in two important ways.
One, we often write what characters are feeling and thinking, rather than putting down detailed observations of how they are acting on the outside.
Two, we sometimes put in camera directions.
The main reason for violating this rule is simply that no one has time to read TV scripts very carefully. They are written quickly, and a director may have no more than a week from the moment he gets the script to the moment he shows up on set. During this time, there may be three or four substantial revisions of the script and three or four minor ones. Unlike in a movie script, where the director and staff are prepping for months, it is all too easy for harried TV production people to miss what's going on unless you make it very clear.
Also, TV is more a writer's medium. The writers have more control. Normally the showrunner -- the captain of the ship -- is the head writer; and if he isn't, the show is still his vision and the writers are working directly under him. The showrunner and his writing staff are, along with the editors, the only people responsible for the overall story being told. The directors, on the other hand, are hired hands who come and go.
If you don't tell the directors exactly what to do, it's your responsibility when they screw up. I've had major plot points lost in production because the director didn't understand what we were trying to get across. If the director then ignores what you wrote, at least it's not your fault.
Sometimes we go so far as to actually make explicit in the script what the point of the scene is. As in,
Yes, this is an extraordinary coincidence; that's the point.
Sometimes you need "subtitles for the nuance-impaired." Obviously the audience isn't going to see the blacks. But the note is there for the directors and the HODs (heads of departments). It will help the production designer tell your story if he knows exactly what the story is, without having to read between the lines. Oh, sure, costume designers and other artsy HODs may ignore what you're trying to get across -- they may be more interested in what will look cool on the screen and in their sample book that what tells your story. Your story won't go on their reel. But you do what you can, until you're powerful enough to fire their obstreperous asses.
By the way, costume people, in particular, are NOTORIOUS in all the performing arts for ignoring orders. In her autobiography, Bubbles, opera diva Beverly Sills talks about how she rejected a gold gown on the grounds that it wouldn't go with her red hair. The director agreed, and told the costume designer to make it silver. Opening night, it came back. Gold.
Beverly got out some scissors and slashed the dress to ribbons.
She got her silver gown.
Unfortunately, writers are rarely trusted with sharp objects such as scissors.
The point is, you cannot write so well that other creative people can't reinterpret, misinterpret, or otherwise foul up your scripts as they put it on the screen. But you can at least write so clearly that if they do, everybody on the crew knows they're doing it.
Third, you actually are writing for a real production. You know the style of the show. You know what kind of shots the showrunner likes. You know when he wants smoke and when he wants rain. Hell, you know if he can afford a rain machine. You are part of the crew, unlike a feature writer. So you're not writing in a vacuum, as a feature writer is. There's some chance that your stylistic descriptions may be treated as the storytelling elements they are.
Under the WGA rules, you have to hire a small number of free lancers if you have enough episodes; at a minimum you have to interview a small number of free lancers.
This is a good rule for the industry as a whole because it gives writers a way in. No one's going to hire a staff writer who hasn't had professional experience, and you get your first professional experience by writing free lance scripts. (A staff writer, after all, in WGA terms, is a free lancer who's come in from the cold, and is now writing his or her scripts in the office. Only when you become a story editor do you start reworking other people's scripts.)
On the other hand, I'm not clear how free lancers benefit the show. Oh, sure, it's good to throw your friends free lance scripts when you can, because they will hopefully turn around and throw you some free lance scripts when you're out of work. But a free lancer doesn't know the show as well as a staff writer. They're not in the room, hearing the problems the show is experiencing. They can only take their best guess at what a good script will look like.
On some shows, a free lancer can bring in good ideas. If you're short on good ideas, that helps you out.
On a show where the template is clear and obvious, a free lancer can get you a little free time -- he can save you, perhaps, a week's work. And on a show, anything that puts you a week ahead might be the difference between exhaustion and seeing your family.
But the more interesting a show is, the less likely its template is simple to follow. So on most of the shows I've worked on, the free lancers had such trouble coming up with fresh pitches that fit the show, that we hadn't thought of before, that we had to essentially break their stories for them. Sometimes we had to hand them a completed breakdown. Then, when their drafts came in, we wound up rewriting them so heavily we might as well have started from the story breakdown we handed them. In some cases we actually did exactly that. This was not necessarily a judgment on the free lancer's writing (though sometimes it was). Often we ourselves were struggling to nail the show's template as we wrote it. If we were struggling, how could someone outside the office get it right?
Even if the show's template is clear and obvious, no free lancer can be familiar with how the production parameters translate into writing rules. On one show I wrote on, characters could run no longer than twenty feet; that was the length of our set. We could have no more than one principal cast member beyond the core cast. We can tell free lancers rules like that, but they haven't internalized them, and can rarely follow them, even though they mean well.
So theoretically free lancers save you time, but in practice I never never found them to do so.
Under the WGA rules, this isn't so tragic, because staff salaries are high; and story editors are allowed to share credit if they do a page one rewrite of a free lance script. Under the Writer's Guild of Canada rules, it's terrible, because the lion's share of the dough goes to the credited writer; and story editors cannot, by the rules, get credit on a script which they were not originally hired to write. So free lancers do a couple weeks work and get all the money, and staff wind up doing all the real work for their weekly salaries (or God forbid, a flat fee).
I hope I've helped out the showrunners on the shows I've free lanced. But if I were running a show, I'd cut free lancing down to a bare minimum, and instead, hire more staff, on low weekly salaries, to be compensated by getting more scripts.
Okay, that's my rant.
A. TV shows almost never buy scripts or ideas from the outside world. (Star Trek is the rare exception; they sometimes buy ideas.) If they don't get all their ideas and scripts from their staff writers, they will ask free lance writers whom they know and like to come and "pitch the show" (i.e. to present ideas for possible episodes of the show).
Networks do not buy TV series ideas, "bibles" or pilot episodes, at least in the US, except from experienced, established TV writers. TV shows are developed from the concept onwards by many writers and writer-producers, with much input from the network or production company and from the star and her representatives. Short of a miracle, your pilot will not match their needs unless you're in that loop.
If you want to get into TV, what you must do is write a pair of spec scripts. These are sample episodes of the hottest, most respected, popular, Emmy-award-winning shows on television now. The hot shows change every year. Call an agency and ask an agent's assistant for which series they're recommending their clients write sample scripts. ("What shows are you telling your clients to spec?")
Generally you want to pitch a relatively new show. After a show's been on the air for five plus years, people are often sick of reading sample episodes of it. Also, if you write a new show, it shows that you can pick up the template of the show without having seen years of it; and it shows that you wrote your sample relatively recently. Showing someone even a good Sex in the City is less convincing; after all, you may have been honing it and honing it for years.
On the other hand, you rarely want to spec a first year show. What if it tanks?
My spies tell me that the following shows are among those worth speccing right now (October 2004):
You should have two specs, to show that (a) you can write a variety of shows and (b) you don't get tired out easily. If you're a drama writer, you should typically write one spec "procedural" show (e.g. CSI) and one spec "character" show (Everwood). If you know that you're a character drama writer and you hate procedurals, you can write two character specs, of course. If you're a gag writer, write a pair of sitcoms.
Your spec should be ready at least four months before staffing season, which begins around the end of March. It takes time to get TV agents to read scripts, and as staffing season approaches, they start working feverishly to get jobs for the writers they already represent. They don't have time to fool around with new talent.
Nobody is anxious to look at anything new much past December 15. The town completely shuts down between Christmas and New Year, aside from shows actually in production. You can, obviously, do business in Aspen then.
Before you write your spec, it's a good idea to see every episode you possibly can of the show you're writing. Check out the official web site if one exists, and the fan sites. They may have backstory on the characters. Some fan sites have show synopses, quotes, transcripts and even actual scripts.
Your objective is to prove that you understand the unwritten rules of the show -- the template. Prove you can write the show's main characters in fresh circumstances. Don't introduce important new characters, because that's not the point. (New bad guys are okay.) Don't be afraid to make your episode more intense or more outrageous than a TV show dares to be. You're not going to sell your spec script, you're trying to show your ability.
The most important thing is to get the voices of the characters right and follow the beats of the typical show. You're not trying to innovate; you're trying to show you understand the structure and world of the show. You're showing that you understand the show completely, down to what standing sets the show uses, and the amount of time it's typically shooting exteriors.
Watch the commercials too. Every show is written for a certain demographic. In plain English, every show is pitched towards a certain audience. Shows intended for the 8 o'clock slot are written for "all audiences" in the sense that there's nothing that should offend the parents of an 8 year old. But few shows are really intended to appeal to all audiences. Some shows are pitched towards young men. Some towards young women. Some towards educated, cultured rich people.
You can tell what the intended audience is by the advertisements airing during the show. Ad people pay for eyeballs. The greater the audience the show has, the more they pay per minute of advertising they air. So if you're Maybelline, you want to air on a show where the highest percentage of those eyeballs you're paying for are women who might buy cosmetics. If you're Lexus, you want to air on a show where those eyeballs tend to belong to people who can afford a luxury car. If you're Maybelline, you want to buy ads on the Miss America pageant. If you're Lexus, you buy time on The West Wing.
(That is, incidentally, why shows with smaller audiences can stay on the air if their audience is wealthy. Lexus is willing to pay a premium to show their ads to a premium audience.)
You can, if you're feeling lucky, risk a gimmicky spec. You hear about the 25-year-old who wrote a spec Mary Tyler Moore show in which Mary came out as a lesbian, and the writing team who wrote a spec I Love Lucy just to show their chops. But if you do, you better be damn convincing. If you have Angel from Angel show up in New York for your spec Will and Grace, your episode will have to somehow ring true to Will and Grace, and show us how the Will and Grace writers would reimagine Angel as Will's vampire crush. (Of course, you wouldn't actually spec a Will and Grace any more.)
When you've written a great spec, find out which of the agents who accept unsolicited manuscripts are TV agents, and query them.
There are other ways to break in. A friend of mine got a job on Millennium (of blessed memory) by writing snippy comments on the X-Files newsgroup about an episode that aired. Chris Carter wrote her to ask, well, what would you have done different? She answered. Chris Carter wrote, well, do you have a Millennium spec? She answered, sure. Just needs polishing. Which meant, no, but my writing partner and I will have one by the end of the weekend. Which Chris probably knew, and appreciated. He read her spec, and hired her and her writing partner onto the show.
Anything can happen. It helped that Chris Carter, along with a few other young, wired showrunners like Joss Whedon and J. Michael Straczynski, lurks on the newsgroups for his shows, and it helps that he likes intelligent criticism. (It may be he already had the same problems with the script, and was hoping no one would notice. Lord knows I've sent something out there with problems, in the hopes it flies anyway. Sometimes it even does.) And the gods were smiling on my friend on that day.
I do occasionally hear that some shows want a spec and some original work, e.g. a pilot for a new show, or a feature screenplay. They want to see what you can do on your own. If that's what they're looking for, your agent will tell you. You do have some original work, right?
That's the only real use for an original pilot, unless you already have credits.
One does hear rumors of production companies willing to look at original show ideas from newbies, but it's rare, and I haven't heard of one that actually got optioned. When a network or even a production company buys a TV show, they're not just buying the idea, they're buying the writer who's going to make the idea into a show. If that writer doesn't have the experience to carry a show, that means they'll have to find one -- one who wants to work on someone else's idea.
Which means that if you have an idea for a show burning in your brain and, feverish, you must absolutely write a pilot episode for a show that does not yet exist, you must find a production company willing to take it on.
No, you can't go direct to a TV star. If they're on a show, they're busy. If they're not on a show, they're busy being bombarded by material from networks for new shows. If they're not being bombarded, they're not a TV star any more, and they can't help you.
No, you can't go direct to the networks. Networks will not look at a pitch from anyone who doesn't have substantial experience. Staff writers and story editors don't get to pitch. Executive story editors rarely get to pitch. By and large you have to have a credit as a supervising producer or better before they'll talk to you at the network.
What you need to do is get your show idea to a showrunner, one of the blessed few writers whom the networks allow to create shows for them. They're the ones who get the "created by" credits. Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek) was a showrunner. Amy Sherman-Palladino (Gilmore Girls), Chris Carter (Millennium, X-Files), J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5, Jeremiah), Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue), Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, Sports Night), Joss Whedon (Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Angel) and David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, The Practice, Boston Public, Boston Legal) are all showrunners. Watch the shows that impress you, that are in the same genre as your pilot, then send a query letter to the showrunners who created those shows. Tell them (or have your agent tell them) that you have a five-page pitch that you'd love to send them, and what the concept is.
It's still a long shot. Everything in showbiz is a long shot. But at least you are knocking on the right door. If your premise is brilliant, and your characters are amazingly real and fresh and compelling to the lucky peon who gets to read your manuscript, your work might get passed up the ladder. A showrunner can make your show a reality.
Note that in Canada (and other countries like Britain, presumably) it is possible for a "baby writer" to get her TV series pitch optioned, and then get paid to write a show bible and pilot episode. I got one TV series idea optioned in Montreal after having written a grand total of one TV episode. On another show, the one I co-created, Naked Josh, we got the series optioned when I'd story edited only one show, and my partner on the show had not much more staff experience than I. But the Canadian government subsidizes the development of Canadian TV shows, so the North is different.
Q. I'm free lancing a script. Any advice?
A. If you are free lancing, clear some time in your schedule for the rewrites. I had a horrible experience with a free lancer who accepted a job even though he had a week planned at some sort of workshop shortly after his script was due. His script turned out dreadful, but he didn't have time to fix it, because of the workshop. We were pissed off, he was pissed off, the experience was bad all round. Just because you're free lancing doesn't mean you don't owe the script some undivided attention. (Note that most writers will accept multiple gigs as they come in. This is fine so long as each script gets the amount of effort it fairly deserves. This, in turn, is why most writers will claim their scripts will take far longer than they actually will. That's because they're leaving time to take care of other projects that come up!)
Second, obviously, watch every episode of the show you can get hold of, and read every script. Absorb the template of the show.
Spend some time on the phone with the story editor who's supervising you. Ask a lot of dumb questions. Don't be afraid to call. Story editors are all hard at work and they would like nothing better than an excuse to procrastinate from doing their own writing.
Take the outline seriously, but don't take it as gospel. If you have a story problem, if you hit a bump in the outline or find a plothole, call up the story editor and talk it through. It's even better if you can call with your idea of how to fix the problem. What you mustn't do is fix the problem without telling the story editor, or equally bad, ignore the problem and assume the story editors already considered all the alternatives and this is how the story had to go. Free lancers are there to take the weight off the story editors. Many story problems don't show up until the draft. (Many story problems lurk in the outline and make you feel vaguely uncomfortable, but you don't have the energy to deal with them and you hope they'll just go away. Sometimes they actually do. Sometimes you realize in the draft that the problem was something else entirely. That's why you can never fix all the problems at the outline stage.) A free lancer who just hacks out the scenes from the outline is not taking the weight off the story editors.
Note that you must never have expositional dialog that tells the audience anything they already know. If one character needs to know something that the audience has seen happen, have someone start to tell him the news, then cut away to something else. Cut back to the expo conversation wrapping up; we know what was said because we know what happened.
What best takes the curse off of expo is emotional content. The scene needn't be about the facts. It can be about how the character reacts to the facts. It can be about how one character twists and distorts the facts, or uses facts to manipulate. It can be about how we're not sure if these really are facts at all.
A good way to take the curse off of expo is by couching the information in terms of an argument. Two characters arguing with each other, trying to convince a third, can get a lot of facts out there, but it's a dramatic confrontation, not a scene of expo.
TV is compressed reality. We take all the dull stuff out.
TV is story telling. In stories, everything that happens relates to the story. If there is a subplot, it is there to counterpoint the main plot.
It is hard to tell stories and have them make perfect sense. For one thing, life is mostly pretty mundane. I am writing this on an airplane. No one would pay money to watch me write stuff on an airplane (though you might pay money to read something I wrote on an airplane). For another thing, writers don't have time to make perfect stories.
Most importantly, the audience doesn't care whether a story is perfectly constructed. The audience is willing to accept a certain amount of unlikely or unrealistic or illogical behavior if you'll just get on with the story.
That's why we try to reduce shoe leather. Shoe leather is the scenes you need to establish how the hero got into someone's apartment, or how he got to the country house. Shoe leather is anything that does nothing to make the story more interesting, but establishes some detail that might otherwise seem a bit mysterious. Shoe leather might be no more than a line or it might be a whole sequence. If you have a character who's a detective, you can generally get away with showing him inside someone's apartment. The audience assumes he has ways of getting inside apartments. But if you want him to get inside the villains high-security compound, you probably do need to show some of the process of the guy getting inside, or the audience will feel cheated: you said the place was high security. They're willing to suspend disbelief if they trust you.
The degree to which the audience expects to have to suspend their disbelief is part of the tone of a show. When people are shot, how much pain are they in? How seriously do people take guns being pointed at them? A show like Alias assumes the audience will suspend a fair amount of disbelief. The bad guys ambush Sidney Bristow in a parking garage and there's a big shootout. Why didn't they just sneak into her apartment and shoot her when she came in? The audience doesn't care because the parking garage shootout is more fun. The Alias audience is looking for exciting shootouts, so they'll suspend their disbelief when doing so gets them one. In CSI we're expected to believe that a small team of forensics experts handle everything from collecting evidence (really done by evidence techs) to laboratory work (really done by lab techs). Watching the real process of forensics would mean watching dozens of different specialists at work. We'd rather follow a few characters. So we'll suspend our disbelief.
In other words the audience will suspend their disbelief when it will buy them the kind of story they want to see; and they'll do it when it's part of the tone of the show. In a "realistic" cop show like Homicide your cops wouldn't do their own forensics. But they would go talk to the forensics guys when in real life it would be a phone call or some results emailed to them. Who has time for a visit? And in a "realistic" cop show, your cops are handling a few exciting cases, when really they'd have a case docket of dozens or hundreds of homicides, most of them run of the mill. We're still expected to suspend our disbelief, just in less extravagant fashion.
Where the audience won't suspend disbelief is where they feel you've been lazy and where the story you come up with isn't as good as it would have been if you'd obeyed the constructed reality of your show. If you establish that the villain has a high security laboratory, you better show the hero engaging in some amazingly clever or strenuous behavior to get into and out of it. You better show the hero in some jeopardy when he does it. Or the audience will feel you've copped out.
Remember it's story telling. The audience wants a good story. If it gets a good story it will forgive a lot. If not, not. It's like comedy. If the audience is laughing, they'll put up with any amount of unrealistic behavior. If they're frowning, you're toast.
Sometimes in TV you wind up painting yourself into a corner. When you paint yourself in a movie script you can go back and rewrite the whole damn thing. In TV, you've already shot some shows. So you may have established something that gets you in trouble later on. Say the villains know where the hero lives. Why don't they just post a sniper on the roof and put a bullet in his head next time he walks out his door? You may have to choose between a lot of shoe leather every time he walks out his door, or ignoring this plothole. The good solution would be to establish that his blinds are always down and he exits the place through a secret underground tunnel. But then the director goes and opens the blinds because the lighting will look better. (Remember, directors don't know the season, they just know the show they're directing. So they're always making decisions that make their episode cooler at the potential expense of the season.)
Now you're stuck. Do you have the hero move to a new apartment? You can't, that would mean a huge amount of shoe leather and junking the very expensive studio set that was budgeted to last the whole season. What do you do?
Nothing. You live with the glitch. You try not to draw attention to it. You stop having scenes in which the villains are discussing finding your hero. You try not to open the can o'worms. And you hope the audience is willing to suspend their disbelief.
Q. Episode themes?
A. There are a few themed shows, such as Sex and the City, where every episode has an explicit theme that ties together the defferent subplots. Most shows with parallel story lines don't bother. Creating interesting plots becomes much harder when you're trying to make them stick together.
But it does help even the most procedural show if the stories are about something deeper than what's going on in the surface plot. Try to create stories with a theme; or, if you already know what's happening in the story because you need that story to forward the season arc, try to find the theme in the story. If the hero is running into an important character for the first time, ask yourself why he needs to met her on an emotional level, or on a spiritual level. What does the hero need from the experience? In real life things don't all happen for relevant reasons; people get sick or have accidents for no reason at all. (That's why they're called accidents, I guess.) But in stories, nothing should happen without it having a deeper meaning. That deeper meaning doesn't have to be obvious right away; that's called writing on the nose. But if it's there, the story holds together better and means more. The more richness you can give your story, the more your audience will forgive your plotholes and your lack of production values.
Find the deeper aspects of the story and give the scenes enough room for those deeper aspects to come out.
A. One of the most powerful tools for getting the dialog and the drama right is to hold sit-down readings of the scripts. It's immediately obvious what lines don't work when the actor can't get his mouth around them, and better lines will usually suggest themselves on the fly.
If you're in production, you can hold readings with the stars of the show. If you're developing a show, you do them with anyone you can get. Hopefully you're friends with some actors who are willing to come over for a free dinner, just for the sheer pleasure of acting, and the reasonable hope that if they're wonderful, you'll recommend them highly to the casting director.
In practice there isn't always time to hold readings. They also cost money under SAG rules, because you are, after all, asking the actors to act, for which they must get paid. However, whatever doesn't get worked out at the reading is going to wind up getting workecd out on the set with 50 people sitting on their hands while you do it.
I think readings are terrific when you're in development and trying to find the characters' voices. I have worked with producers who don't like them, because it gives the actors who read for you a leg up on auditions. But I think this is a small price to pay.
One frustrating thing about the shows I've worked on is that only about half the actors treat the lines with respect. Many actors like to rephrase their lines so they're easier to say. With the rarest of exceptions, the lines they come up with are less rich, less specific to the character, and less sharp. Actors who find a way to make the line their own, without changing any of the words, always look good. Actors who rejigger their lines to suit themselves always weaken their own performance. Unfortunately, actors are rarely judges of good dialog or able to judge their own performance, so an actor can go through his whole career mangling his own lines, if directors will allow him to.
Q. How much do you have to follow the notes you're given?
A. Are you feeling lucky, punk?
Notes come from all sorts of people, and they expect different things. An important part of your job is figuring out whose notes you have to take and whose you can treat as suggestions. Also, you need to know who expects you to treat their notes as dogma and who doesn't.
As a general thing you have to take notes from the showrunner extremely seriously, followed by notes from the network, if you get those notes directly.
If your showrunner wants something in the script, it will be. If he had to put it in there because you didn't do it, he's going to be pissed off.
The network is paying for the show. It's their dime. If they don't like what you've done, they'll stop paying for it.
On the other hand, they're not paying you to be a typing monkey. If the notes feel wrong, you need to figure out how to address them without doing something wrong. First of all, if you execute a note you don't believe in, the results are not likely to be good. Secondly, you might be right and they might be wrong, and you have diminished the show. They don't want that any more than you do. (Well, they shouldn't want that. Sometimes politics and neuroses come into play.)
If you get a note you feel is wrong, you still have to take it seriously. That's not the same thing as executing them exactly, though. When you're told to do x or y to a script, you should first of all figure out what problem the note is attempting to address. If you can figure out that z is a better way of addressing that problem, you're entitled to go back and ask if you can do z. When you're told that b or c doesn't work, you may realize that really it's a that isn't working, and is making b and c look bad. You can go back and ask if you can fix a. In both cases, you'd better be sure that fixing a or doing z really is better, because if it turns out badly, it's on your head. If you execute a note and it turns out badly, in theory it's on your head for not realizing that, but in practice people will cut you slack for executing their bad notes.
Some notegivers really want you to do exactly what they say. Others are smart enough or self-confident that they'll let you do what you will with them. If they make sense, do them, if they don't make sense, don't.
The key with notes is always communication. If you're not going to do an important note, get back to the person about it and explain why you didn't feel you could take the note. It's even better to say, "I tried that and here's why it didn't work." It's even better if you really do try it. Sometimes you'll find that something you thought wouldn't work does work. Sometimes it won't work, but trying to do it opens a door for you.
Writing good television is a struggle between time and hope. You never have time to do everything you hope for. So you have to decide how much you're going to let your tv job take over your life. If you're on location, with no friends and no family around, it will tend to swallow your whole life; which can be good for your career, if you get lots of good writing done. If you're at home, you'll be torn. There's a proverb, "No one ever lay on his deathbed wishing he'd spent more time at the office." But you're a writer. You might well lie on your deathbed wishing you'd bone better with that show.
So "good enough" is not something people really like to say. It feels like a cop out. "As good as we can make it in the time we had" is what we strive for. I worked with a story editor who liked to say "good enough for tv." I wasn't impressed by him.
So if you're smart, you'll do your best to take notes seriously.
Another constant struggle is how much to change your script when you have a note you consider valid. The two ends of the spectrum are, on the one hand, to make the smallest possible change that will address the note; and on the other hand, to reconsider the entire script and story in light of the note.
Making the smallest possible change may get the note-giver out of your hair, but won't make the script much better. Reconsidering the entire script from the ground up may result in a better script, but you run three risks. One is you will work your fingers to the bone rewriting everything ten times. Two, you run the risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater: every time you do a page one rewrite, you wind up with a first draft, and you can't shoot a first draft. Three, if you're in production, you will drive your production people insane since they have to break the script down again, re-budget and re-schedule.
I've worked with producers who like to see the whole script ripped up and a new one written; I've worked with producers who just want the visible problem fixed. There's no right approach; it's a spectrum. Some writers enjoy ripping up; some writers enjoy the small fix. I'm in the small fix camp. I like to build on what's good in a script, and I don't expect the script to be perfect, ever. I'll rip up a script if it's really not working, but first I'm going to try to fix what's there. This makes me a good writer for a production that's under the gun, but gets me in trouble with perfectionists. The best is the enemy of the good. But if I get a note on a scene, I will look at the other scenes and see if the same note applies.
Know your faults. I tend to be plotty in a first draft. I don't sell the emotion in the scenes. It's a tendency I struggle with. So if I get a note that a scene doesn't feel deep enough, I consider that a warning sign that the whole script may be like that, and I reconsider each scene. But I will usually resist reworking the story until I've made the scenes good. My feeling is, if the story was good in the outline, then if it's not working in the draft, the fault probably lies in the scenes; it's not evidence that the story wasn't good after all.
Try to get notes directly from the horse's mouth. For example, try to read the actual network notes; try, if you're not stepping on anyone's toes, to join the conference call with the network exec so you can hear the tone of voice she's giving the notes in. If you get notes through, say, your producer, he is naturally going to adjust them according to his vision of the show.
Bear in mind what sort of person notes are coming from. When actors give you notes about their character, they are often excellent notes. (Sometimes the actor has a misconception about their character and you can get into real problems. Then it's up to the showrunner to straighten the actor out by whatever means seems to work.) Actors are trained to understand their characters. They won't let you have a character do something that's convenient for the story but unmotivated by the character's situation. But when actors give you notes about story, they often don't know what the hell they're talking about. They're actors, after all. They're not trained story tellers.
There is something good in almost every note. I often ignore suggestions on how to fix things, but I don't ignore the criticism behind the suggested fix. Unless your vision is completely at odds with the note-giver, the mere fact that someone felt something needed doing is evidence that something wasn't working for them. (Try as soon as possible to discover what everyone's vision of the show is, and keep asking questions till you understand it. You need to know where people are coming from.) Just because they're wrong about how to fix something doesn't mean they're wrong that it needs fixing.
What if you just plain disagree? A wise man once told me, "You can be as difficult as you are talented." If it's your show, then follow what you know to be true, and hope you're right. If the show's a hit, then you'll probably be forgiven the disagreements, if you presented them in a polite and respectful way. If it's not your show, and you disagree, then make your disagreement quietly plain, then do what you're told. Then go out with your friends, drink some strong cider and tell everyone what idiots you're working for.
In the old days, the original writer kept sole credit even if he was massively rewritten by a story editor. Theory was that story editors having to rewrite just goes with the territory, and how are staff writers and free lancers supposed to get credit (and the money that goes with credit) if story editors can poach their credit every time they rewrite a script, which is practically always? Under Writer's Guild of Canada rules, this sort of credit-grabbing is actually not allowed unless the story editor is specifically commissioned for a rewrite, which almost never happens, as it involves additional expense to the production company. Under WGA rules, it is allowed, but seen as greedy. After all, what prevents the top writer from grabbing all the credits? He's going to rewrite everything sooner or later, and no one who wants to keep working on the show is likely to challenge the grab.
He may be the creator, or he may be hired onto a show that someone else has created. He often gets the credit of Executive Producer, though there are showrunners, particularly in Canada, who get Supervising Producer credit.
Note that while he is responsible for every creative decision, he does not have final say. The money -- usually the network -- always has final say. But it is his sole responsibility to satisfy the money with what the show is doing creatively.
All these credits can be shared -- there may be multiple story editors, even multiple exec story editors. There can be only one showrunner, except in the case of writing partners. Writing partners receive credits and script fees as if they're a single writer, with the dynamics of the partnership left to the partners.
Or, to what degree do the A, B and C stories have to take place over the same time period?
A. Obviously, asking the B and C stories to play in lockstep with the A story could cripple the narrative. You need to be able to give your acts a nice flow. If you have the hero involved in a bank heist while another core character is arguing with her boyfriend, the audience is not keeping track of how the bank heist unfolds over six hours and the fight probably can't be longer than two hours.
On the other hand, anything that stops the forward flow of the story will be jarring. For example, you generally can't move the B story from day into night, and then cut to the A story and have it still be day. That makes it too obvious you're going back in time.
On the other other hand, if you've made skipping back and forth in time part of your template -- if the audience is used to your doing that -- you can get away with it. Sex and the City's narration allows it to jump back and forth easily without leaving the audience behind.
This question is more or less important depending on how much you try to pack your story into a few days. A show about dating can be vague about how much time has passed. The story only cares about your character's dating life, and people don't go on dates every night of the week. So the audience won't mind a little vagueness. Did two days or two weeks pass by between act 1 and act 2? Who cares? So you can get away with pretty much any sequence of day or night between the A and B stories.
In a detective story, there's often heightened urgency, or even an actual clock set on the action. If your detective is racing to find a hostage before a deadline runs out, you can't have the story jump from day to night to day -- what has the hero been doing all that time? Reading Anna Karenina in the loo?
The audience thinks less about this question than writers do. But it's the sort of thing that, if you get it wrong, jars. The audience may not react -- hey, how'd it get to be day again? -- but they'll have to make a mental adjustment, and that will throw them out of the story.
Sometimes you want to give clues what the hero's been up to during the time spent offscreen -- "as I've been telling you for the past five hours..." -- and sometimes it's best to fudge the issue. If you've got a passage-of-time problem, the audience will bump less if you avoid giving clues.
A. Nothing important.
This is not strictly one hundred percent true. If you give us a character's strong emotional reaction to some cataclymic event that was simply unproduceable, you can have something important happen offscreen. TV is like theater in that it is more about people's reactions to big events than the big events themselves. A movie may show us a battle; TV might show us the characters hiding from the battle, or coming into a bar after the battle's over, or coming home to open up a bar after the war's over.
That's one reason why show people like to say that "Movies are pictures with sound; TV is radio with pictures." TV is more about the dialog; movies are more about the action.
But the question is really about what can happen dramatically offscreen, and the answer holds. Characters should not discover things offscreen. They should not learn things offscreen. They should not work things out offscreen. They should not have arguments offscreen. They can eat, sleep, go to their jobs and watch television offscreen.
This is true whether the offscreen moment is between scenes, between acts, between episodes or between seasons. Characters generally pick up their story where their story left off. If Ross was dating Charlie, the paleontologist, at the end of one season, he's dating her at the beginning of the next -- even if he drops her by the end of the first episode.
To be precise, "nothing important" means "nothing important to our show." A character on a family drama shouldn't get married offscreen. But a character on a thriller could. If Jack Bauer's daughter goes off to college between seasons of 24, that's fine. The story is about counterterrorism. The first edition of Cheers ended up with Sam rich, and buying a yacht. Second edition starts with Sam back in the bar having lost his yacht. Cheers is not about buying or sinking yachts, it's about a bunch of friendly barflies. We could have seen the yacht sink, but what does that have to do with the story?
TV violates the nothing-important-offscreen rule when it has to. Sometimes you have to get rid of an actor because they're difficult or talentless or the audience just hates them. Unless the actor is willing or contractually obliged to participate in his character's demise, you may have to do this offscreen. The show may not have any produceable way to show the change. Your actor may actually die; all you can do onscreen is have a closed casket and a wake, if you're willing to deal with the consequences.
A. First of all, TV watching is now your job. So tell everyone to get off your case. You have to watch TV to write TV.
In particular you have to watch the hot shows everyone's talking about. You have to watch both the new shows, and the shows that keep coming up in conversation.
You should be watching shows by accomplished writers like Amy Sherman-Palladino and Steve Bochco and Chris Carter and David Kelley. Even their failures (Chris Carter's Harsh Realm, Steven Bochco's Cop Rock, Joss Whedon's Firefly) are interesting failures.
Also watch successful shows you dislike, at least once. It will give you a sense of what the audience is like out there.
Buy the DVD's of shows and watch them carefully. Whenever you get to a commercial break, pause the DVD and ask what the act out was. Was it a cliffhanger, or just a strong emotional beat? Ask yourself how one episode sets up the next, if the series is at all serialized. Ask yourself how the audience is going to react to each episode.
In other words, you get to watch TV, but you can't watch TV to relax any more. You're watching and analyzing.
There's no set amount of TV you have to watch, but if you're not thinking and breathing TV, you're probably not watching enough.
This makes it harder for those of us with kids, but fortunately, TV is one subject you can talk to your kids about, if you play down the kissy stuff.
All bets are off if you're actually in production. I barely watched an hour of TV while I was on my last show. There just isn't time. So you better watch it while you can...
The scene that makes production happiest is a two-hander dialog scene shot on a set. Your crew can knock these off at incredible speed if the actors are behaving themselves.
Every time you add a character to a scene, you're adding shots. Even if the character isn't speaking, your editors will need reaction shots, and your director will start getting excited about creating snazzy choreography for the actors to move around.
Every time you add a location, you're adding the expense of a company move. Every time the company moves during the day, it takes two to three hours for the unit to pack up and move. In a twelve hour day, you can imagine what that does to the schedule. Ideally you're in the same location throughout the day. Try to reuse locations, either with the same actors or different actors.
If you have a location that's used only once, and it isn't crucial, it is for sure going to get cut, and the scene moved to a more popular location. So you might as well do that yourself and feel the love.
Every additional character in an episode costs; every time an additional characters shows up in a new location, you're probably paying for another day of that actor. You can tell how frugal (or how over-budget) a show is by how few actors they have in their scenes.
Special effects are getting less and less expensive all the time. An establishing shot of a space station, or anything else mechanical, need not be prohibitive. Animating creatures is still out of the realm of television, though insects, being small and almost mechanical, are borderline affordable.
Q. What's the worst thing you can do in series television?
A. Easy. Delivering a script late. Never ever deliver a script late.
If the script isn't working, yell for help as soon as you know that you cannot possibly deliver the goods. Your story editors can help you. They can bang out the B story that you can't grasp while you work on the A story. They can talk over your problems and help you see what the story needs to be.
A writer not being able to come to grips with an episode is forgivable, given fair warning, and assuming it's clear he's truly busted his gut trying to deliver the goods. A writer simply waltzing in late can cause serious problems for the story editors, and you will not be hired again.
Needless to say, for the writing department as a whole to deliver a script late to production is serious bad news. As my friend James Nadler writes, "that way lies madness." Production needs a certain number of days to prep the episode properly. If they have too little prep, mistakes get made and things go wrong. Short prep means wasted time and effort, and often, a shoddy episode.
So, we Googled the line. 22 hits, none of them in movies or tv shows. IIf you get more than that, you're stealing from popular culture. Which means you're in danger of your line seeming old hat when it hits the screen, but on the other hand this is series television, so it will hit the screen pretty fast.
You should also Google whenever you invent a character name or, especially, a company name. You might be able to get away with using someone's real name provided it's not a distinctive one (no one can sue because their name is John Smith, too), but if you use a real company name, the Errors and Omissions people will make you change it. They're the lawyers who check to make sure you're not defaming any real people, not to be confused with the Standards and Practices people, who make sure you don't do anything the network considers too naughty to put on the air.
A cute trick for coming up with corporate names is to find names with obscure but horrible connotations. I called one company "Yersinia," after the species name for the Black Plague bacillus, Yersinia pestis. I doubt anyone's going to have a company named after the Black Plague.
Q. The Rule of One and the Rule of Three?
A. In movies, you have two hours to tell all the story you want to tell about a subject; anything that you don't cram in there will be lost, unless you luck out and get a sequel. Your problem is to fit everything you want to show and say into those two hours without the movie bursting at the seams.
You have the audience's full attention, too. Unless they hate the movie so much they walk out, they're all sitting in a big dark room with no talking, staring at the movie.
On TV, you're a guest in the audience's living room, den or bedroom. They may be eating. They may be ironing. The lights are on. Their attention is at least a little divided.
You also have a whole season of episodes (22 or 24 or 13, depending on the network and the initial order of episodes) to get across your stories. It's less a problem of having too much to fit than needing to find enough meat to put on the bones of the season.
The two of these driving forces come together to create the Rule of One.
It's hard to nail down the Rule of One as a rule, but the Rule of One keeps cropping up. Roughly, it's that one dramatic thing should be happening at a time. If two characters are in a scene together, A wants one thing he's not getting from B, and B has one thing she's not getting from A. If you need the car to crash, there is one thing wrong with it. If the hero needs to set off after some object, there should be one thing he needs.
The exception to the Rule of One is the Rule of Three. The hero might not need one thing, he might need the thing, the thing and the thing. The first thing is easy to get. The second thing is harder to get. The last thing he doesn't get at all, or he gets it, but sets off the alarms. The Rule of Three also applies to comedy. There are three tripwires. He misses two and trips over the last.
A. A button is a line of dialog, or a dialog couplet, that neatly ends a scene. (It might have come from button the button nose on a finished snowman; I don't think it comes from buttoning your trousers after... oh, never mind.)
A button is often flip and witty. It can be dark and mysterious. It gives you a feeling that the scene is done, and we're ready to move on.
Movie scenes have buttons, too, but buttons are particularly important in TV scenes. That's because TV pulses, as noted above, while movies flow. TV has to keep grabbing you. It's in the room with you and all your other distractions. It's competing for your time.
It's a dictum of all screenwriting that you should get into a scene as late as possible and out of it as soon as possible. Sometimes it's hard to figure out where those points are. In other words, you can't find the button.
One tool for solving this problem is to stop worrying about how to get in and out of the scene. Write the entire scene from the earliest possible point to the very end, from door open to don't let the door hit you on the ass on the way out. Then start trimming. I usually do this in a separate document so I don't start stressing about what I'm doing to the page count.
As the late Kenneth Koch used to tell us, you don't have a limited supply of words. You will never run out of pages. If you're not sure about something, there's nothing to prevent you from writing it both ways, and then choosing one.
(He also used to tell me he was terrified I would turn into a TV writer -- he was a poet -- a slam I thought ridiculous at the time. So he knew whereof he spoke.)
Q. Pushing vs. pulling
A. Pushing is giving the audience more story than they can absorb.
In a detective story, you want the audience to be pulled into the story by questions that they have. If the detective (or the camera) is uncovering clues faster than the audience can ask questions, they're going to stop being an active viewer and just passively accept the events you're pushing at them.
In a drama, you want the audience to be rooting for the main character to get somewhere emotionally. They should feel the dramatic tension and want it released. If the drama gets resolved faster than tension builds, you're just pushing dramatic events at the audience.
In a horror movie, we all love the moment when the character pauses outside the haunted house, wondering whether to go in or not. That's the moment we're screaming "Don't go in the house, stupid!" If you lose this moment, the story is the same, but you're just pushing the story at the audience.
Let your scenes breathe. Give your characters time to wonder, and ponder, and pause. Give them time to absorb the emotional shocks, which is also the time for us to wonder how they'll react. Don't move onto the next beat before you've given the characters, and the audience, time to absorb this one.
This can be a little difficult when you've set a clock on the action. If the stakes are the destruction of the world, when is there time for the hero to pause and be human?
Screenwriters usually fudge the issue, and we appreciate that they do. There are tearful reunions in every thriller. Even in 24, where every minute is accounted for, and the stakes literally are an atomic bomb blowing up Los Angeles, the characters take time to indulge in their emotions.
Better than fudging the issue, trap your characters somewhere for a bit. If they're in a car driving to a destination, they have time to talk, and emote, because they're doing all they can already. If they're caught in a cage or an elevator, and they cannot possibly get out until someone comes for them, they can take a moment and catch up emotionally: cry, or rage, or reconcile, or accuse. They also have time if they are hiding, though they have to emote quietly.
Or, hold back the crucial bit of information that would send them off on their life-or-death mission until they've had their dramatic scene.
You are also pushing when you're giving the audience information that the hero doesn't have. You've put them ahead of the hero; he's got to catch up with them. Instead, make sure they've got the same questions he has. Then his questions pull them into the story.
In African dance music, the drummers often drum everything but the beat; they let the audience fill it in for themselves with their feet. You want to leave room for the audience to participate in the story. Leave mysteries in your detective story. Don't resolve your dramatic issues until you're ready to pose new dramatic issues. There should always be something to pull the viewer into the story.
Q. Which do you prefer, working on your own show or someone else's
A. In theory everyone would like their own show. Right?
There are a few nice things about working on someone else's show.
One, it is not your responsibility. Someone else's head is on the block. You can make creative suggestions, you can decide what you'd do in their shoes, but ultimately, they'll hang for their mistakes and you will not.
Two, you might actually learn something from working under someone else. Few people get their own shows without bringing something to the party. Your showrunner might have an amazing sense of how to make a story visual. Or might be great at making single-purpose scenes into richer, deeper, complex scenes that serve multiple ends.
Having your own show too early can be more damaging than getting it too late. If you spend a few extra years working for other people, you'll see more of their mistakes, and you'll be less likely to make those mistakes yourself.
But if you have more time, people's expectations go up. The longer you have to perfect something, the more perfect it's supposed to be. TV is not, by nature, a beast that wants to be perfected. So after a certain point, the more time you have, the more your work falls short of expectations. It's good to have enough time, it sucks to have less than enough time, but it's not necessarily a wonderful thing to have more than enough time.
Having barely enough time rarely results in better television. Sometimes it can free you to make intuitive leaps, but usually it means there are holes in your script. But it is often more pure fun to write on a short deadline. You don't have to second guess yourself because you don't have the time to rethink everything even if you did.
I have written on a long deadline (eight half hour episodes written over more than a year) and I've written on a short deadline (twenty hour episodes, one due each week). I've had more sheer fun writing on a short deadline than on a long one.
Of course that may be a character flaw... but if you really want to be able to take infinite pains, you may actually be a feature writer, not a TV writer, while if you thrive under pressure, you're probably a TV writer.
I can measure my output. In a good day I can easily write an act of an hour show (12 pages) or half of a half hour script (say 14 pages), assuming I'm working off an approved outline, and the approved outline doesn't have any massive plot failures that only show up when you try to write from it.
But how much time do I spend actually writing? There's an awful lot of puttering in there. I read The New York Times a lot. I read Slate. I read Neil Gaiman's blog. You get the idea. I also nosh. I put on 15 pounds on my last show from getting up for a little nosh every time I finished a scene.
And then there's shooting the breeze. On my last show, we must have spent two or three hours a day chatting about politics and whatever. It seems to go with the territory.
You'd think that if you did less puttering, you'd get more writing done. But writing is stressful work. You wouldn't think it was hard work, since all it is, is sitting at a chair, typing. But it's exhausting.
It's a bit of a cliche, but it's true. If the writers don't putter a reasonable amount, they get stressed. When you get stressed, you stop being able to tell good dialog from bad. You start either questioning the good things in your script, or accepting the bad things without questioning them. Either has bad results.
That's why, though I can also write two acts of an hour show in a day, or a whole half hour script, I try to avoid doing it. The results are not primo.
That said, you do need to be "at the office" most of the day. Sitting in a cafe talking is not writing. Watching a movie or tv show, though part of the job, is not writing. Only writing is writing.
In Jerry Seinfeld: Comedian, Jerry recounts how he had finished his morning writing jokes one day when he saw some construction workers heading back to work. He thought: if they can go back to work, and their work sucks, why can't I? Ever since then he's been putting in a full day's work on his comedy. I have no idea what that looks like. What does writing jokes look like? It probably involves a lot of puttering. But it is puttering in the office, and at the end of the day, jokes have been written or rewritten.
Q. What makes a good TV writer?
A. What makes anyone a writer are two things:
Having a sense for how a story is going to go into your audience's brains, and how they'll react to it, and what will entertain them, is what it's all about.
This should seem obvious, but you'd be amazed how many TV writing samples I get that are simply not good story telling. Some of the people I've read couldn't tell a good story even when we gave them the outline to write from.
On top of general story telling ability, what makes a good TV writer is the ability to treat your writing as a craft. You have to be able to write -- and be happy writing -- what other people tell you. Sometimes you have to be able to guess what other people want when they can't explain themselves very well, and then write that. A novelist can write whatever she likes. Not even a showrunner can write everything he likes. Too much money is riding on it -- and it's all other people's money.
Also, a good TV writer thrives under pressure and can work long hours alongside other crazy people without actually biting them. If you can get a good night's sleep even no matter how much pressure is on, that's a bonus.
(In Successful Television Writing, Rabkin and Goldberg recount how they grew up on The Dick Van Dyke Show. They wanted to be Rob Petrie. He got to sit around all day, crack jokes with some very funny guys, and then go home to Mary Tyler Moore. And, say the writers, being a tv writer is like that. You hang around all day with some very funny people. You shoot the breeze, and then write some stuff up. And you get paid a whack of money.
What they didn't realize at the time was that where you have an episode where, say, Rob is seeing flying saucers because he's pulling a week of all nighters because the script isn't working -- well, Rob is pulling a week of all nighters because the script isn't working.
TV eats the weak.
Q. Does dramatic TV have a future?
A. There's been a lot of guff about how reality TV is going to kill off fictional television.
Reality TV is cheaper to produce than drama. Production values are practically nonexistent, you don't need writers or actors, just people willing to embarrass themselves on TV and a catchy, cheesy concept.
For a while there we were all hoping that producers would run out of Reality TV concepts. After all, how many Survivor rip-offs can the public swallow? At some point they have to get bored.
And they will. Eventually. (There are more cheesy concepts out in the ether than anyone realized.)
But there's another element of the market that may rescue dramatic TV before concept exhaustion does: the DVD.
Reality TV fails utterly in reruns. No one wants to watch the episodes of The Bachelor that they missed. It's like sports. Once you know who won, you're not interested in how. They especially don't want to watch episodes they've seen before. Reality TV is almost all sizzle and no steak. Who will Donald Trump fire this week? Once you know that, can you stand to sit through the episode to see why it happened?
So, DVD sales of Reality TV have flopped. At the same time, DVD sales of well-written, well-produced series like The West Wing are through the roof. You can watch your favorite episodes over and over, without sitting through the commercials.
Game shows used to be the bane of dramatic TV. Then talk shows. Now it's Reality TV. But people have longed for good stories ever since the invention of fire gave them a reason to stay up past lights out. There will always be an appetite for well-told stories.
DVD sales may also see off another threat: the TiVo. People with TiVos can ignore the commercials. Commercials pay for the shows. In the future we may have to go to a subscription model -- think HBO. But people are already paying for cable, so that might work.
So I have been feeling fairly sanguine about the fate of dramatic television. But a friendly network exec points out that DVD sales may be counterbalanced by MPEG ripoffs. Just as the music industry may be suffering from file sharing programs like Kazaa, there's little to stop people from trading pirated episodes on the Net.
On the other other hand, there is the argument that the "slump" in the music industry is just because CD sales were unnaturally boosted so long as people were replacing their vinyl; and that people tend to rip tracks that they would not otherwise have bought anyway. My parents would buy DVD's if they could figure out how to plug their DVD player in (they still don't have Call Waiting); they would never consider ripping off Season Two of Sopranos. (Nor would I. I don't think people who make a living selling content should steal it, though I'm less sure it's evil to pirate Microsoft products.)
I do think we're going to be seeing a huge rise in the number of TV shows available on DVD, just because it costs almost nothing to package up the content and sell it on Amazon. The marginal cost is tiny. Which is good for all of us TV writers who need to research shows we're spec'ing.
Another reason not to worry about fiction is that the quality of the eyeballs it attracts are better. With the exception of subscription cable like HBO and Showtime, the networks get paid not by viewers but by advertisers. Movies are about getting asses in seats. TV is about getting customers' asses in couches.
People who watch fiction are watching it more closely -- more likely to actually sit down in front of the show rather than to glance over at the TV while doing something else. That means they'll actually watch the commercials, too. Also, they are higher quality viewers, from an advertising point of view. Smart shows sell expensive products to well-educated, rich viewers. A show like West Wing survives not because it has mammoth ratings but because it has superb demographics and reasonable ratings. One businessman watching a Lexus ad is worth -- to an advertiser -- ten high school students watching Target ads.
So I'm not worried about the demise of fiction.
What has been happening over the past few years, though, is that cable television has raised the bar for dramatic tv. Back in the day when there were three channels, a show like The Waltons thrilled no one, but made everyone content. Now more families have multiple television sets, and everyone can watch a show that might thrill them. HBO shows like Sopranos and Six Feet Under that push the envelope for violence, foul language and experimentation with the medium continue to raise the standards for drama. Broadcast shows are becoming sexier, fouler-mouthed and more daring conceptually in order to compete.
Another force is CGI. Science fiction concepts that would have been impossible to produce on a TV budget a few years ago are now feasible.
The problem is this. As a staff writer, you get feedback from your story editor, who will eventually take the script away from you and do a polish or a rewrite. As a story editor, the head writer or showrunner will do the same thing for you. (I almost wrote "to you" but that's the atavistic writer in me not wanting to be rewritten. Down, boy!) But when you're on top, it's very hard to get good feedback. The writers below you are not as experienced as you; they'll give you feedback, but it may be surface notes about lines they're bumping on, not in depth notes about scene order or structure. And yet you hesitate to turn something into your network exec that no one's given you real notes on.
The problem is, no one's first draft is perfect. A first draft is a first draft. A good first draft always has problems. My first drafts tend to be too plotty and not emotional enough, because I get excited about the developing story.
Writers are hyperarticulate. But they are not, by nature, friendly, sociable people. Writers are by nature people who observe other people being friendly and sociable and then go home and make fun of them. On paper. Sometimes immediately, sometimes years later. In other words, they're fundamentally anti-social.
TV writers have to be much more friendly and sociable than novelists; TV writers have to have the most social skills of any writers alive, really, except for gossip columnists. If they're successful, they've generally conquered their shyness to the point where they might even appear extroverted; but they're still fundamentally shy.
They are also egomaniacs. But they express their egomania by bossing their characters around and creating worlds; in real life, they're used to not being listened to.
They are, obviously, artists, full of pride, full of pain, a little touchy.
So you might expect that managing a roomful of anti-social people who are spending 10-14 hours a day might be a chore. It's not, because writers tend to be hysterically funny. They're used, after all, to coming up with sharp dialog. They've honed their wits.
Running a staff is a lot about keeping egos from being bruised and, on the other hand, preventing egos from running wild. Especially when other people bruise their egos. When writers are angry or upset, they generally can't concentrate on their work. In fact when TV writers are angry or upset, their being friendly and sociable means they vent like crazy for hours. Often hilariously. But no writing gets done. A graphic artist can do their thing angry, but when the writing staff gets in an interpersonal jam, no work gets done.
Management is probably the same everywhere on some level. But it's always more dramatic with show people, because show people are all drama queens at heart.
Always start with praise. If you can't praise execution, praise the effort. If you can't say "good work," say "good start," or "thanks for putting in the effort." If you start off with criticisms, your writer will only hear half of what you say; the other half of his brain will be thinking of ways for you to have an unfortunate fatal accident.
(I once forgot whether I'd told a writer "good work" episode, so I called him up to ask him if I had. He said, "You always say good work. That's the way you start every email." "That's because it's always good work," I told him. "If it sucked, I would have said 'Good start'!")
I used to be in a writing group. We were all professional writers -- novelists, a tv writer, a feature screenwriter, a comic book writer -- but one of the rules was, praise first. We went around the circle and everyone said something nice. Then we got into the criticisms.
Keep responsibilities clear. Make sure it's always clear who's working on what script. When you have free lancers, assign each one a story editor who can develop a relationship with them. If possible, keep the same story editor with them; he knows their weaknesses.
Keep your staff working. Make sure everybody has something to do, even if it's thinking up story pitches for the future. Writers have an unlimited ability to write email. Just because they're at their keyboard doesn't mean they're working.
That said, don't expect your writers to work all the time. Writers need to shoot the shit. They need to hang out on the phone and send emails and sometimes even read books in the middle of the day. Judge a writer by his output, not by his sitzfleisch. Try to sense when your writers are usefully letting off steam, and when they really are goofing off.
The best deadlines are often the ones writers give themselves. Ask "when do you think you can have this by?" Then encourage them to turn things in on time. You don't always have this luxury, but if you give the deadline, sometimes you'll be overgenerous; and a writer with a next Monday deadline for something he can get done this Friday will turn it in next Monday and have a great weekend. Also, if a writer says "Friday" he'll feel more obliged to hand it in Friday than if you were the one who said "Friday." Also, he'll be more likely than you to know whether there's really a day's worth of work in the notes or a week's worth.
Try to let your writers do their work. Only take a script away from someone if they're really not going to be able to do the job in time. You'd rather get a script that's 80% there from the original writer than a script that's 90% there from a story editor or 95% there from yourself. First of all, it's less wear and tear on the staff and, in particular, you. Second, it makes writers devoutly unhappy to be rewritten, especially if they feel they could have done the job themselves. Third, you get more diversity in the scripts. Fourth, if you do all the fine tuning, your writers never learn to fine tune things themselves. Work towards the long term. Remember that show business is small, and how you treat people less powerful than you is how you'll be treated when you need a break later on. There's nothing more heartwarming than being able to help someone who needs it who helped you when you needed it; unless it's watching some jerk drown in quicksand because he's pissed on everybody who could throw him a rope.
The flip side of this is to be aware when you, yourself, are written out and when you should suggest someone else take the job over. Assuming you're doing all you can, it's no shame to let people know you've taken a script as far as you can. Everyone loses perspective eventually; everyone writes themselves out on a given script after a certain number of rewrites. Only absence from the script and time will restore you, and there's never enough time in TV.
Pace yourself. Keep perspective. You can't burn yourself out on one episode or you'll have nothing left for other episodes. If you're so stressed you can't see how this job fits into your life, you're probably working too many hours. Try to leave work earlier, but focus better during the hours you're there. If you're not a little stressed, then you don't care enough or you're a fool.
The most important word to use is "we." Some writers are hyperaware of what they've contributed to the show, and want to make sure everyone knows it. Naturally, these writers have a superb memory for their own contributions and a poor memory for anyone else's. (Actually, all writers remember a disproportionate share of ideas as their own; only some writers feel the urge to tell everyone about it.) This sort of writer is less than a joy to work with.
It's hard to tell what people's contributions actually are. It's easy to see who wrote a line or who turned in a draft, and sometimes there's one person who's crystallized an idea in a couple of clear sentences. But how much of the goodness of that line came from the bad version of the line that came before it? How much of the value of a good draft came from an offhand comment someone made two weeks ago that triggered a good idea that someone jumped on and promoted and someone else turned into a plot point and the writer of record turned into a draft? Is the person who first articulated an idea entitled to credit, when they had the idea after a two hour conversation and then everybody honed the idea for another two hours?
I once rewrote a feature script and found everyone applauding me for having "saved" it. Only I could tell that the previous rewriter had entirely fixed the script's structure, but had made it so dark and unhappy that no one could stand it. I just had to lighten the story and the characters, and write lots of snappy banter, something that comes easily to me. Fortunately for me, when I told people so, no one really got what I was saying, and they continued to give me credit for both of our work.
I think it's crucial to instill in everyone the feeling that the writing room gets credit for everything that comes out of it. Sure, on a first or second draft, where the writer had a lot of independence turning the outline or breakdown into the pages, they deserve a pat on the back. But when I send in a revision as a story editor, even if it's a page one rewrite that I wrote every word of, I send it in as "our revision"; and when producers ask whose idea something was, I say "It came up in the meeting."
This prevents a lot of hurt feelings and encourages team spirit. It has the added advantage that when the producer hates and despises the draft, no one person takes the heat.
Nor should any one person take the heat. A draft should never go out without the writing staff having a chance to read it. If none of them pointed out the problem before the draft went out, it's everyone's fault the problem wasn't fixed.
(Ultimately, no one remembers who had all the ideas. The people on the show remember how much fun you were to work with, and how well the scripts turned out, and whether the show was a hit. As far as the people who aren't on the show, well, they're just going to look at the IMDB (Internet Movie Database) and see what your credits are. The more you go around claiming stuff as your own work, the less likely other people are to believe you.)
As Head Writer, you can boss or lead. Bossing is no fun for anyone. Leading is fun. And if you're not having fun writing for a living, what's the point?
A stickier question is what to do when a staffer isn't delivering the goods. It's your department. You're responsible for delivering the scripts. You don't want to be in a position of running down your staff to your boss. That never looks good, especially if you hired the guy.
If you are turning in an unsatisfactory script because your writer failed, your first line of attack is to fix the problems yourself. But you don't always have time to rewrite everything yourself.
Obviously you have to decide whether the problem is laziness, personal problems, or the occasional case where a writer simply doesn't click with a particular story. If it's laziness, you can let the writer know you need more. If it's personal problems you can wait till the blow over or try to help the writer separate them from his work. If it's not clicking, you can try again.
If the writer is writing at his or her level of ability, there is very little you can do aside from resolve not to hire them again, and give them more time to do less work. This is painful for everyone else, but not as painful as turning in bad scripts.
But what do you say to your boss or showrunner?
I think the answer is: try to keep a lid on it unless you're asked, and if asked tell the truth. The first part is as much strategy as courtesy. Everyone knows there are problems in every department. If you take the position that everything in your department is your responsibility, your boss will assume that there are some problems you're not telling him about, you're just quietly handling them. If you whine about every little thing, your boss will figure you just can't handle a staff. So it doesn't make you look good to run down your crew. Defend them when you can, take the blame whenever you can, and handle the problem in house.
On the other hand I think it is legitimate to ask for advice how to motivate your crew better. Most people don't ask enough advice of the people around them that know more than they do. This is strange because everyone likes to be asked for advice. Just make sure it doesn't come off as whining.
It is crucial to warn your boss of problems while there is still time to deal with them. If you get a draft in that you may not be able to fix in time, you've got to tell him about it. You don't have to blame anyone; just let him know that the draft is going to be weak. He may have options you're not aware of. It may be that the weak episode can be shot later. It may be that he hates a story line anyway, and was thinking of asking you to cut it. The sooner you both know, the more time there is to solve the problem.
It is crucial to tell the truth, when asked, in any job. (I feel compelled to point out that, in life, always telling the truth also makes your occasional lies so much more convincing.)
Q. Naming your characters
A. In movies, character names don't really matter too much. Only fans and, occasionally, screenwriters remember character names, unless they're exceptional. When people describe Die Hard, almost no one says, "John McClane" did this or that. They say "Bruce Willis" did it.
TV characters spend more time with us, and we get to know them better. We even feel we have a relationship with them. Many people have no idea of the name of the actor who plays Ross on Friends. When they see David Schwimmer on the street, a lot of people call him "Ross." They may even get upset if he plays a role very different from Ross, and take some time to adjust to it.
So be careful naming your characters.
If you are creating a show, another reason to worry about your character's name is it may wind up being the title to the show, or part of the title. Think of Jack and Bobby, Grace Under Fire, Will and Grace, Ed, The Simpsons, Angel, Buffy, Tru Calling, Everybody Loves Raymond, and the show I just finished, Charlie Jade. On the show I co-created, our original title had to be changed. Unfortunately our main character's name didn't lend itself to catchy titles. We struggled for quite a bit of time coming up with a new title.
The flip side of this is, if you name your show after your main character, that character is inevitably going to be the center of the show. You won't be able to move that character off center stage if you find another character, or another actor, more interesting. There is no Joey without Joey. Friends could have dumped Joey if things hadn't worked out with him, or with Matt LeBlanc.
Q. Do pitching festivals work?
A. There are all sorts of public events where people with credentials as executives or producers listen to pitches from would-be screenwriters.
I have never heard of a show getting on the air from a pitching festival, for two reasons.
One, a show gets on the air from a combination of good ideas and proven people to implement those ideas. If an experienced showrunner or story editor pitches an idea, the network can hire him to take that idea all the way to functioning show. If a lawyer friend of mine who'd like to try his hand at television pitches an idea, who's going to make it into an actual show? No sale.
Two, there is an established process for getting shows on the air, and festivals are not part of it. Execs and producers participate in pitching festivals either because they're paid or because they're trying to do someone a favor.
On the other hand, if anyone has heard of something good coming from a pitching festival, please let me know and I'll change the above.