Monday, 23 July 2018

Screenwriting Books for TV - A Handy Guide

Movies are, by and large, the bread and butter of screenwriting guides. Three act structure, twenty two steps, story circles, hero's journey blah blah you get it. Naturally, this brings us to the question: what about TV? Surely, with the television renaissance of the last decade, someone must also be trying to conjure up paradigms and frameworks for writers to use to make it in the new hotbed of long-form storytelling?

Well, kind of: the market of TV gurus is substantially smaller than its feature counterpart. There's no 'definitive' text like Story, Screenplay or Save The Cat, or a unifying figure with a following like Robert McKee or Syd Field. The good news is that there's far less titles to cover, so your wallet will be grateful for the reduced strain.


Let's go over what we have. For ease of reference, I'm splitting them up between British and American titles. The latter still have loads of valid advice and techniques for sure, but the former are important as domestic is where you will, and should, be calling first.

First, the homegrown literature:
  • The Insider's Guide to Writing Television by Julian Friedmann and Christopher Walker. A practical guide to British television writing, Friedmann splits the book with Walker, who covers storytelling technique while Friedmann focuses on the nitty gritty of getting out there: agents, meeting, where to go etc. It is decidedly more geared towards the business side over the craft, though Walker still offers some sound advice with examples.
  • How To Write For Television by William Smethurst. The late mind who revitalized The Archers and Crossroads gives you the British equivalent of Cook and Douglas (discussed below), covering how to write for TV and radio, the differences between formats and genres, and where to look for your break. Seven editions have come out over the course of over twenty years, so clearly not an uncommon or unpopular work. Also, chalk up Sue Teddern and Nick Warburton's Writing for TV and Radio: A Writers' and Artists' Companion. Warburton was a collaborator of Smethurst's, so it acts as, well, a companion piece.
  • Writing for Television Series, Serials and Soaps by Yvonne Grace. The Holby City and Eastenders veteran gives her contribution to the prolific Creative Essentials series of books. As the title implies, Grace goes over your main go-tos in TV, who you'll be working with and how to comport yourself  properly. Indeed, there's quite an emphasis, arguably more than the others, on what you do when you get inside.
  • Writing Soap: How to Write Continuing Drama by Chris Thompson. Well, when else am I going to talk about this? Continuing dramas (Easties, Hollyoaks, Coronation Street, Emmerdale, Holby, Casualty, Doctors) are often some of your earliest shots in the business, as well as some of the consistently popular programming on terrestrial TV. Thompson delivers what he promises: a how-to on writing for one of the toughest gigs on TV, where deadlines are tight and notes many.
And now, for the States. Unless you plan to emigrate, you'll be reading these mainly for story advice:
  • Writing the Pilot by William Rabkin and Crafty Television Writing: Thinking Inside The Box by Alex Epstein are two popular staples. These cover all you need to know about writing effective pilots, crafting shows with long term story potential, and what seperates a film from a TV character. Epstein's book also covers writing a whole series and staffing, while Rabkin covers that in his second book, Writing The Pilot: Creating the Series.
  • Write To TV by Martie Cook. Now in its second edition, the Emerson College academic's tome is the television equivalent of Trottier's Bible: a heaving jack-of-all-trades that covers how to write for different genres, formats and even advice on speccing, staffing and career moves out in the City of Angels.
  • Writing the TV Drama Series by Pamela Douglas. One of the older warhorses and probably the closest to a 'Syd Field' of TV, Douglas' work is similar to Cook's, albeit more specifically focused on writing drama.
  • Former showrunner Neil Landau throws his hat into the ring with TV Writing on Demand: Creating Great Content in the Digital Era and The TV Showrunner's Roadmap. These are some of the more current books on television, trading very heavily on streaming and how binge watching has changed the way we tell stories in this medium. Roadmap also is jampacked with interviews from the men and women behind the television revolution of the last decade and a bit.
  • Sheldon Bull, a compadre of Blake Snyder, and Ellen Sadler both step in to dissect sitcoms with Elephant Bucks: An Insider's Guide to Writing for TV Sitcoms and The TV Writer's Workbook, respectively.  Bull's pachydrym never took off like Snyder's feline, but there's some solid advice on what it takes to write half-hour yukfests with a handy beatsheet of its own. Sadler's, by comparison, is exactly what it says on the spine: a solid step by step workthough on building and stress-testing a script.
Naturally, this list is by no-means exhaustive. I imagine more will come out in the future and that, some day, there will be that one towering voice. If you're more adventurous in book hunting, then the same criteria from feature guides applies here too:
  • Author's credentials: make sure the writer is/was a working screenwriter, producer or development person, and has a decent amount of credits. They may not have worked on Hannibal or snagged a BAFTA, but they've been where you've been, know your struggles and will be living proof of the effectiveness of their methods. People who are solely teachers will have less awareness of the demands of the industry, and may not be as helpful in giving you a realistic outlook or proper tools.
  • Gimmicks and cheats: I'm highly suspicious of any 'quack' miracle cures and formulas in 'secret'-style books, though they are, currently, less common in TV. 'Write a Great Pilot in 10 Days', 'Write An Awesome Series in 30 Days Or Less', 'The Secret Hollywood Formula: How you can write a Netflix hit', you'll know it when you see it in shops and on Amazon. It's snake oil: Good craft takes time and being able to write well, not to mention consistently, has to be learnt and earnt. There are no shortcuts.
  • Date: If it's focused solely on writing craft, then it's not a huge concern. If it also touts the business side, however, then aim for a book released/revised within the last 5-10 years, as the industry changes faster than ever before. Also, CreateSpace allows lazy authors a means to upload ancient books in sleek new packages, filled with outdated advice and terminology that won't help you, so beware anything that looks cheap or too new.

    Monday, 9 July 2018

    Writing for the Market - Screenwriters, Please Don't

    Trend chasers are nothing new in any artistic business. After all, if something made money, why not just make more of the same? When The Matrix was a hit, cue all the big effects-heavy sci-fi duds in the early 00s that tried to mimic its success. Lethal Weapon? Hello The Last Boyscout and all those buddy cop movies that populated the 90s. Disney hit it big with Little Mermaid? Let's see Warner Bros. humiliate themselves with Quest For Camelot and The King & I in a vain effort to catch up.


    At the level of the studio and big pro-cos, this is understandable. It's on the newbie screenwriting level, however, where it's a surefire way to mess up first impressions. Anyone who has worked as a reader (myself very much included) knows exactly what I'm talking about: oh joy, ANOTHER Tarantino wannabe with more 'Melon Farming' than you can shake a Royale with Cheese at; ANOTHER pilot about a secret government agency that fights supernatural phenomena; ANOTHER romantic comedy about a dweeby loser who gets a girl well out of his league, despite being a moron?

    It's easy enough to see how this happens: we're all fans and have particular movies we love and would like to make ourselves. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, after all. You love stories about the gangster with the heart of gold who protects his kid? Write your own! With so many being made and smashing the box office or the ratings, and a common bit of advice being to pitch to companies who make that content, surely this is foolproof, right?

    And yes, I know of Scott Kirkpatrick, his book and interviews on Film Courage. There's some interesting stuff in there, but it's important to bear in mind what industry level he's aiming at. Namely, TV movies and VOD content in the American market, where low cost, fast turnaround and a flashy title are the norm.

    What companies and producers are looking for, with small variations depending on who's in charge, boils down to a marriage of concept and talent. 'Same but different' is something you've heard thrown around and it's true: familiar enough to be marketable to an audience, but also different enough to justify its own existence. What's special about YOUR giant robots script, YOUR girls-night-out-goes-wrong script, YOUR vampire script, and how is it different to the one they just made?


    Budget also plays a role: if it's a drama or comedy with few locations and a small cast, or a horror set in the woods, you're better off just raising some cash and shooting it yourself, rather than speccing it. Projects like that were tailor-made for indie and don't really make sense to try and pitch to guys with bigger resources. With crewing resources like Facebook film groups, ShootingPeople or Stage32, as well as Indiegogo and Kickstarter for cash generation, these are now more doable then ever.

    Furthermore, what's special about how YOU tell it? How good of a read is your script? Does it move at a good pace? Are the characters all distinct? Does it have strong conflict that a reader can get invested in? Does it have a compelling theme or worldview? In short: why THIS, why NOW? When I went about, pitching my kids superhero pilot, those were questions I had to answer. By doing so, I landed myself a few notable contacts, who saw I was serious, and got talking on some pretty cool stuff.

    But if you can't answer that question, don't bother continuing (and for the love of all things, don't just say 'well it's fun'. It might be to you, but A) everyone's idea of fun is relative and B) it doesn't really give a meaningful justification for the time that will be spent on it). Remember, you're asking these people to commit several thousand to several million pounds to make your script a reality: don't you have the courtesy to at least send something good, if not great?

    However, it must be stressed copying the market is not the same as knowing it: A smart writer is aware of it and keeps an eye on things: mainly, to know where gaps exist for you to pitch your own ideas. More importantly, it helps with what NOT to pitch if it died in the ratings or at the box office recently. 2011's Outcasts, written by Ben Richards and produced by Kudos, was a noted sci-fi flop that stalled homegrown, non-Doctor Who sci-fi TV for several years until Humans came along in 2015, with the help of AMC, to restart the engine. It was a total dead zone.


    But wait Abel, you say, what about TV Specs, like in the States? Those are about as 'for the market' as you can get, as they're potential episodes of a produced TV series.  Well, I already did a whole piece on the value of American-style specs and fellowships before here, so read that if you want to know more.  In short, different country, different system and it's for a very specific reason: selling your writing ability, not getting it made.

    How can you stay up with the market? Read the trades: Deadline, Hollywood Reporter, Screen International (for film) and Broadcast (for TV), all releasing regularly with the latest developments, partnerships and deals. Occassionally browsing on IMDB is not good enough: you have to have a steady flow of reliable, well sourced information, if you want to stand any chance in this line.

    And if after all that, you're still not convinced that market copying is folly, look up the story of the now defunct Amazon Studios. It was a nice dream, opening the floodgates for writers around the world to pitch to a juggernaut and see their scripts become movies and TV. However, the tidal wave of copycats, knock-offs and remakes-in-all-but-name destroyed that beautiful dream and now, wannbe screenwriters have one less powerful ally. Please don't be that.