And when I chat to my author mates about television writing, they’re interested but also daunted by an unfamiliar industry. Which is a pity, because authors could learn a lot from scriptwriters.
In my experience, writing on a TV show is a lot like writing a book, but with fewer words, more people to comment, and less time to waste on the internet.
With one key difference. TV writers usually collaborate with each other on plotting the stories. We work together. As a group.
Having other writers to plot stories with sounds like a relief, doesn’t it? It must be like it was for the poor Elizabethans, easing off their stiff corsets at the end of the day (sorry, blokes).
And it is, oh, it is.
Coming up with a story that zings is much easier in a group. Plotting on a new TV show usually begins with the writers meeting the head writer in the Writers’ Room. The Writers’ Room isn’t one specific place, by the way. Physically, the Writers’ Room could be a deserted warehouse with two chairs, or a palatial poolside bar with comfy sofas, big margaritas and unlimited corn-chips and guacamole (any producers reading this? Email me.) Mostly, it’s a bog-standard conference room in a production company.
All that matters is
1. there are writers in the room, and
2. there’s something to write on. Pen-and-paper. Laptop. Whiteboard. Eyeliner-and-napkin. All have been used.
The writers arrive at this meeting having read the show’s bible, a document which describes the characters and types of stories the series will tell. The bible has been created earlier in the show’s development phase, akin to the world- and character-building phase of a novel.
Story ideas zing around the group, and the head writer takes them down with any elaborations other writers add. The aim is to describe the narrative arc of an episode in a few lines, like a very short synopsis. At home, individual writers expand their synopses into first and second drafts, emailing them back to the head writer for feedback.
|Television churns through story faster|
than any other medium.
Well, they’re being paid to be.
In practice, it feels like being a novelist working with a bunch of skilled editors, but faster, and with more muffins.
There’s a reason the television industry plots like this: time. Television churns through story faster than any other medium, which is why a quorum of writers is necessary.
I believe a Writers’ Cell with pairs of generous novelists might work at the plotting stage
I accept that a quorum of novelists sounds nuts, but I believe a Writers’ Cell with pairs of generous novelists might work at the plotting stage.
Each partner must be willing to spend a full hour working on the other person’s story. Bring excellent pastries.
Because my space is limited, I’ll list some nitty-gritty craft-skills that authors can learn from screenwriters:
I create a new document and write in one sentence what the driving conflict in a scene is or chapter is
Without conflict, there is naught. (Go on, drone it in a portentous movie-trailer voice.) Characters can be in opposition with themselves, with other characters, with the world around them. If I hit a part of my novel where I feel bogged down, I create a new document and write in one sentence what the driving conflict in a scene is or chapter is. When I can’t find it, I have to think about the story more deeply.
- ‘Showing’, not ‘telling’
Reading aloud also lets you know immediately when the writing is expositional.
Unless there’s voiceover, scriptwriters can only ‘tell’ through expositional dialogue, and that (i.e. ‘Have a wonderful day, George, working in your city office above the bank,’) is so clunky on a script page, which is mostly dialogue, that screenwriters become excellent ‘show-ers’. You can’t show, you don’t work. I don’t start writing a book until I can ‘hear’ how each character speaks. When I’m really stuck, I read my dialogue aloud as if I’m an actor, to get a sense of the voice. Reading aloud also lets you know immediately when the writing is expositional.
- Each character must earn their place
The way I figure this out is simple elimination. Take the character out of the story and see if there’s any significant difference.
Every new TV character involves casting and paying another actor, which is expensive and time-consuming. Most scripts involve walk-on and guest roles, and figuring out which characters must be in your episode, and which you can kill off, is gold. The way I figure this out is simple elimination. Take the character out of the story and see if there’s any significant difference. No? Kill, kill!
- Writing hooks and transitions
Simply being aware that the final action or emotional moment should throw forwards will help you write these better.
Authors mostly use these at the end of scenes and chapters, while scriptwriters use to keep the audience watching across ad breaks or TV or film scenes. Being able to write a gripping hook which isn’t gratuitous is a skill. Personally, I’m not a fan of transitions that are too breathy or stagey, but at the same time, I want the reader to feel compelled to turn the page.
It’s a balancing act. Simply being aware that the final action or emotional moment should throw forwards will help you write these better. Study them chapter by chapter when you finish the manuscript – are any of the transitions too histrionic? I often tone them down at this point.
- Character is action
Seeing my scripts produced has taught me this –
Rarely do television audiences have the luxury of hearing a character’s interior monologue. Television’s POV is almost always third-person omniscient, so everything a character says and does, every single movement, every word, every look, every stutter, every pause, should inform the actor about how to play that character, and the audience about that character’s interior world.
I think seeing my scripts produced has taught me this – I can see exactly where I’ve underplayed the action and the story is confusing to watch.
- Nothing superfluous
What works here is a deadline.
Television is strictly timed. Unlike my novels where I’ve been told I need roughly 50,000 words for a children’s middle-grade book, I’m allowed 16 pages, tops, for an 11-minute episode of a kid’s show. If I sent my head writer a 22-page script, she’d mutter nasty things about me under her breath, since she’d have to stay up until 2am rewriting that episode herself. What works here is a deadline.
Imagine you have a boss you don’t want to disappoint, and you HAVE to get your manuscript down by 1000 or 5000 words or whatever it takes, by a certain time. Ask a friend to be your taskmaster if necessary.
The deadline is the key, because as it gets closer, I find I get more desperate and start to slash and burn.
See if that edit makes your manuscript better.