Crafty TV Writing

Some Thoughts on TV Writing

NOTE: This page is out of date and obsolete. It's still here because it's in search engines.

Please see my extensive TV FAQ. Or even better, check out my blog, Complications Ensue: The Crafty TV and Screenwriting Blog.

You can also buy my new book, Crafty TV Writing: Thinking Inside the Box, on Amazon.

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 typically 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 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 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 have a slot in their schedule for it. If a show is late, something else is going to have to go into 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," says my showrunner on Charlie Jade, Bob Wertheimer. 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.

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.

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 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. On my last show, the writers slowly killed off all the actors and characters we didn't like until we had a cast of characters we felt we could work with. Sometimes we killed a character off because we felt we had told their story, but often we just didn't like seeing the actor on screen. 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.

Here's my TV FAQ.

Buy Crafty TV Writing: Thinking Inside the Box.

Back to Crafty Screenwriting.