The Keys to Succeeding as a Professional Writer on TV.
I have been checking books about TV writing for some time now, and I must say that many get old very quickly. The reason is obvious, the TV drama world is changing at the speed of light.
After reading a few, I’ve decided to select Writing the TV Drama Series by Pamela Douglas, who has been updating her book, and I’m sure she will continue to do so on a floor that changes every other minute.
Why is everything changing so quickly?
A NEW GOLDEN ERA
The rebirth of TV brought a Golden Era, which in American TV was impulsed by a bunch of very brave series that mostly run at the start of the XXI century, like The Sopranos (1999-2007, 86 episodes over 6 seasons, HBO), Six Feet Under (2001-2005, 63 episodes over 5 seasons, HBO), The Wire (2002-2008, 60 episodes over 5 seasons, HBO), Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009, 75 episodes over 4 seasons, SCI-FI), Lost (2004-2010, 121 episodes over 6 seasons, ABC), an era which we could it say it ended with Mad Men (2007-2015, 92 episodes over 7 seasons, AMC) and Breaking Bad (2008-2013, 62 episodes over 5 seasons, AMC) and had an extra extension with Game of Thrones (2011-2019, 73 episodes over 8 seasons, HBO). Now we are in a kind of “consolidation” era. Whether it’s a Golden one or not, it’s not for me to say. Let’s give it time.
THE TV PLATFORMS
Secondly, and connected to the previous paragraph, the expansion of the new TV platforms changed the whole game. HBO (just check how many times these 3 letters appear in the super-list above), Amazon Prime Video, Disney + (the newcomer, at this date) and, above all, Netflix have become the new kings. Months of a pandemic have drawn even more people to them.
Expressions like “Showrunner”, “Mid Season” or “Binge Watching” have become part of everyone’s vocabulary. David Simon, David E. Kelley, J.J. Abrams, and Vince Gilligan are heroes to TV series lovers.
But, then, compared to film, how modern TV Series are written? Let’s listen to a little bit of what Pamela Douglas has to say in her book.
A FEW BASICS
Among the traits that distinguish dramatic series from other kinds of screenwriting, three are especially significant for writers: endless character arcs, the “long narrative” for serials, and the collaborative process.
Episodic drama comes in three forms: anthologies (including season-long and limited series), series with “closure,” and “serials.”
Today, the best shows that close each episode also have ongoing dramatic stories and build followings on their continuing characters. From a writing point of view, they are constructed as procedurals (more about that term later), but the categories have blurred.
A serial is any drama whose stories continue across many episodes in which the main cast develops over time. It’s called the “long narrative,” the epitome of what episodic television can offer: not one tale that ties up in an hour or two but lives that may play out over 8, 12, 36, even hundreds of hours. If you calculate 12 years of The Walking Dead at 12 episodes per year, for example, you would get 144 hours of living with these characters and their struggles, 144 hours dealing with the consequences of twelve years of experiences. Think about it — as a writer you have the opportunity to tell a story that is so rich that it expands for years.
If you go on to write for television, you’ll never work alone. Series are like families and even though an individual episode is written by one writer, the process is collaborative at every step. Writers sit around a table to “break” each story then review the outline and all the drafts together. Sometimes a writer may be placing a long arc in many episodes rather than writing a single episode.
THE 2-PAGE SCENE
I use the two-page scene as a target for students partly because inexperienced writers have difficulty accomplishing a complete dramatic beat in fewer pages, and when they write more than two pages, their scenes tend to lose focus or become redundant.
One of the writers behind House says:
“What I do and I recommend to all the other writers on House is write in a four-act structure and then add two act breaks.”
Pamela Douglas continues:
I asked a friend who is on a prestige series (that she asked me not to identify) how her writers’ room breaks stories. Her show has no commercials so the episodes have no visible acts. Keep in mind that movies have often been discussed as having three acts (beginning, middle, end), in which Act Two is twice as long as Acts One and Three, so in old fashioned terms, Act One of a movie is 30 minutes, Act Two is 60 minutes and Act Three is 30 minutes. Translating to hour drama, Act One would be 15 minutes, Act Two would be 30 minutes, and Act Three would be 15 minutes. But as soon as you add a midpoint in the center of the second act (a usual dramatic turning point) you get a regular four-act structure.
With that context, here is her answer to how her writers’ room navigates without act breaks: “The show reverts to a three-act structure. We break the beats by character and then do a weave. We put everything up on whiteboards where each character has a beginning, middle, and end, which is why I say it has kind of a three-act structure. Although in truth, we don’t break anything by acts at all. We break it by character. Typically the big reversals are in the A story so we break that first, and don’t worry how the other characters’ stories fit into it if they’re not inherently a part of it. The reversals are built into what journey the main character takes in each episode. The reversals tend to come where you’d expect — page 40 to 45 out of a 55-page script.”
A teaser, also called “a cold opening,” refers to dramatic material before the titles (before the name of the series and credits). It may be a one-minute “hook,” or as long as ten minutes that includes several scenes, making it nearly as full as a traditional whole act. In any style, it exists to grab viewers faster than the enemies, which are the remote, mouse, or esc button. The notion is to open the hour with an action, image, situation, or character that provokes enough anticipation to keep viewers through the title sequence and into the first act. However, increasingly, networks have dumped title sequences along with theme music, preferring to grab viewers with uninterrupted drama. The “tease” is the story itself, and titles scroll over Act One.
BREAKING YOUR STORIES
“Breaking a story” means identifying the main turning points. On network TV it involves structuring the episode so strong cliffhangers occur at the act breaks and the story engine runs all the way from the inciting incident in the Teaser (or the beginning of Act One) to the resolution in Act Four.
ANS SO MUCH MORE
There’s so much more in this book: it tells you about how to break in, it invites a bunch of professionals in different stages of their careers to tell you all about it; it even takes you on a trip around selected world locations to check on the state of TV drama on our globe.
Before saying goodbye, a couple of additions.
First, an article on the best 50 shows of modern TV so far, according to The Definitive Dose.
Plus a post on How to Structure and Format Your Television Scripts from thescriptlab.
Find more about TV in our posts TV Is Not The New Film and The 11 Best “One Shot” Fight Scenes in TV and Movies.
More on Screenwriting? Check How Billy Wilder’s SOME LIKE IT HOT Was Written, How Stanley Kubrick’s EYES WIDE SHUT Was Written, Andrew Kevin Walker on SE7EN and 8MM, Best Screenwriting Books: Dmytryk’s ON SCREENWRITING, Best Screenwriting Books: THE ART OF DRAMATIC WRITING, Best Screenwriting Books: ESSENTIALS OF SCREENWRITING and many more. Just type Screenwriting in the web searcher.