Writing the TV Drama Series

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If you frequently say to yourself whilst channel-surfing, “I could write a better series than that,” think again. It´s a lot harder than it looks. Pamela Douglas, author of Writing the TV Drama Series, explains why.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Let´s start out with some background on why you decided to pursue a writing career and why, specifically, it turned out to be in television instead of novels or plays.

Writing of any kind is a means to discover truth and tell it. Our currency is the truths of real lives, human desire ranging from the most deeply held passions and secrets to lusts and foolishness and mistakes, or whatever brings a moment of joy. Writers deal in insights people gain through knowing each other. And in today´s fractured society, it is absolutely necessary to make sense of our experience in the way humans always have, by creating stories that explain why things are as they are. All that is within the mission of any serious writer. As for the method you choose to convey the characters and stories that make up our world, it doesn´t matter. Each form has opportunities and limitations, but good writing (or bad) is up to you.

Power does matter, though. Through television, you reach millions of people. And because of the intimacy of the medium – how close and personal it is to the viewer – the creator wields great influence. Even the lowest rated shows are seen by more people than all but the most successful movies; and compared to TV, plays and novels aren´t even on the radar. That´s not to say writers shouldn´t explore all means of expression, or that artistic fulfillment can´t be found in art films, novels, poems and plays. But I have always been keenly aware of the power of stories to raise consciousness, both individually and in addressing society´s critical challenges. TV, especially the best dramatic series, can have an impact beyond anything else.

How did you get your first break and who were your mentors?

I had no mentors. No relatives or friends in the business, and no one slipping me onto a staff as a favor to anyone. Instead, I had opposition as a woman in a male-dominated field, as a person of color when the guys in charge were more comfortable with someone like themselves, and later as a person who insisted on quality when stereotypes or an easy laugh line at the expense of truthful characters might have been more commercial.

I built my career by continuing to write, by writing well and growing as a writer, by learning how this business works, and working it as well as I could. Ultimately, by some people´s measure, I failed. That is, I did not become extremely rich or own an empire of shows. But I´m proud of some of what I wrote and glad my work was recognized by the Humanitas Prize, the Writers Guild, and Emmy nominations – though winning awards was not my motivation.

My first paid TV writing job was when I was quite young — Trapper John, M.D. in the mid 1980s. I got it by realizing that a member of the continuing cast, Madge Sinclair, was being under-used and guessed the producers might be open to a pitch with a story for her. I admired Madge´s work outside the show, and knew she was a great actress, though I´d never met her. So I went in to that meeting and told the producers an honest tale about something her character might experience. They did indeed have a commitment to give her an episode, and no one on the staff had a clue. So they bought it, I wrote the script, it was produced, and Madge received her first Emmy award for my episode.

What television shows were you hooked on as an adolescent? And what programs do you never want to miss as an adult?

I didn´t watch TV when I was an adolescent. In the late 1960s and early 70s I was involved with the Civil Rights struggles, and my interest was in writing what was happening around me. Even while I was in school, I published in newspapers and magazines, ran a community filmmaking workshop, and free-lanced some news segments for a local TV station. My writing included fiction and I was always involved in visual arts as well. But sitting and watching TV wasn´t on my schedule.

But if you´re asking about historic series that I admire, M*A*S*H remains remarkably current and incisive. It was also before its time as half hour dramatic comedy and political comment. Later Hill Street Blues was the great progenitor of today´s best drama, followed by NYPD Blue.

Current shows I never miss include (in alphabetical order) Boss, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Homeland, Mad Men, and I sometimes catch The Good Wife, Girls, Nurse Jackie and The Big C.

Among shows not currently broadcast, I strongly recommend binge-viewing The Wire (all 60 hours), The Sopranos and Battlestar Galactica. Friday Night Lights and certain episodes of House are good viewing too.

Lots of people watch TV series and probably say to themselves, “I could write something better than that!” Would you say that it´s harder or easier for newcomers to break into television writing than it was in the days when creative works were all produced on typewriters instead of computers?

People who believe they could write better than shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Game of Thrones or The Wire are deluded. What are these people viewing? The lowest level of any creative form deserves that sort of derision, and it´s easy enough to point to badly written movies, YouTube posts, lyrics and any other writing. I would tell those people to stop watching garbage and tune in to the brilliant literature that is richly available all over the TV spectrum, especially on basic cable, and try to learn from the best.

Most media stopped using typewriters more than thirty years ago, before I started working in television, so I can´t address that. The news in the 21st century is the multiplicity of outlets. Long ago in the era of three, then four broadcast networks, the number of shows was limited. Then came Premium Cable (HBO and Showtime) with innovative dramas. And now basic cable stations – AMC, Starz, USA, TNT, and many others – are all producing drama series, many of them outstanding. In addition Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, Hulu and other Internet entities are going from short gags to full-length scripted shows. This is a great time to write for TV.

What kind of opportunities are open to aspiring television writers and is it mandatory that they live in Los Angeles?

First, aspiring writers should go to a film school that offers a series of classes in writing for television. Be sure the classes are taught by people who have actual industry experience, preferably on quality TV series. Basic courses in screenwriting usually precede the TV classes, so students get essential skills. Then you will be ready to join workshops and find mentors to grow and refine your work. Once you have a professional quality portfolio you can attempt to be represented by an agent (or manager) and find entry-level jobs on shows. Among those beginner jobs, accept anything at all that gets you in the mix, even receptionist or p.a. Higher up the chain are Writers Assistants and Researcher, but those are competitive positions. Joining a staff of a show is the goal, but that usually takes a very strong portfolio, excellent representation and perseverance.

Since most shows are written and created in Los Angeles, even when they shoot elsewhere, it is important to live in Los Angeles. However, once in a while staff jobs may become available in New York, Miami and elsewhere.

Tell us about your book and what inspired you to write it.

The Third Edition of Writing the TV Drama Series is essential to writing current television because it combines three aspects you need: craft, how the industry works, and perspective on the future. Interviews, analyses of script segments, and step-by-step guides to both writing and placing pilots and episodes make this the truly complete book on the subject. It has been adopted by TV networks in their programs for new writers, and is required reading at the major film schools throughout the United States and internationally, where it has been translated into other languages. Anyone who has not read it will find themselves out of the loop.

I was pressured to write it by years of students in my classes, and the first edition was the exact class I teach. Initially I was reluctant to take time away from my creative work to spend on a text. But at the time no source was available that I considered complete and current enough, so I had to write this. Since that earliest version in 2005, I have enhanced the book greatly as the world of television continues to evolve in exciting ways.

What´s your best insider advice for someone who wants to pursue a screenwriting career?

Get into the USC School of Cinematic Arts in the Writing Division, and take the entire television track culminating in creating an original series in the TV Thesis. You will graduate with pilots and episodic spec scripts as well as internships that give you insights into how shows run. If that´s not possible, find another film program that approximates this. In Los Angeles, UCLA extension offers non-degree introductory and intermediate classes open to the public. The Tisch School at NYU is another excellent choice. Search around for offerings at universities near you.

If schools are out of the question, read and watch everything you can find, especially produced scripts, and then join a workshop for feedback as you write.

Which type of writing do you think presents a bigger challenge – TV or movies?

Unquestionably TV is more challenging. A single movie script has an arc that ends, and usually has a single major quest or conflict. Of course there are complications and dimensions of characters, and ideally, a fully developed antagonist. But structurally, it´s relatively simple. That´s not to say movies can´t be entertaining and stimulating. For directors, special effects and stunt people and certain kinds of actors, theatrical films may be more fulfilling. And some kinds of subjects – especially fantasy action – are far better suited to movies.

For writers, TV offers a range of story-telling that is long, complex and multi-layered. Because storylines must be able to continue for 100 hours (in a traditional 5-season run) a larger potential has to be developed in relationships, character depth and story surprises. In “the long narrative” a single story doesn´t end in an hour, but may weave through many episodes, or a full season, as in 12-episode seasons typical of shows like Dexter. Even in procedurals like The Good Wife, House, CSI, and so forth, where plots do conclude in each episode, enough “legs” must be present in the franchise and “juice” in the characters to make viewers want to watch the show again next week and next.

For a working writer, TV is greatly more demanding than movies. If you´re on your own writing a screenplay, you can work your own hours at your own pace and take as long as you need to figure out all the elements and rewrite after getting feedback over and over. But television writers have to be on top of their craft and fast. There´s no time learn on the job; if you´re on the staff of a show you must deliver finished, polished work, on time. The show is on every week, and if you don´t write the script, someone else will, and you´ll be gone.

What are some of the most significant changes you´ve observed in the American television market?

Five great changes have made television better in the 21st century. (1) The proliferation of broadcast outlets, especially the increase in scripted shows on basic cable; (2) The high quality of TV literature that now goes beyond premium cable and extends competitively everywhere; (3) alternates in viewing including DVR and other time-shifting technologies that make shows accessible at any time, and mobile and other devices make shows accessible at any place, thus increasing overall viewership; (4) The rise of the Internet as both a delivery and production powerhouse, adding even more opportunities for original shows including those for niche interests; (5) International production collaborations and international audiences for American shows and American-international hybrids. All five demonstrate that TV is in a growth phases, and where newness and growth prevails so does opportunity.

Given the proliferation of reality TV shows, does this mean that producers don´t have much interest in courting writers that know how to pen original plots?

First, so-called “reality” or “unscripted” shows are neither real nor unscripted. They are written by writers and acted by actors who deserve to be credited and properly compensated for their craft. Those who unfairly exploit writers by defying minimum working conditions and labor laws don´t belong at the bank cashing in; they belong in court, in my opinion. Because stations are now backing away from the legal and economic complications of those shows, the proliferation of them is slowing. I´m not saying the number of new reality shows is being reduced because the producers who profiteer off them have suddenly gained morality. They are dwindling because the profits aren´t what they used to be. And finally viewer fatigue has set in.

Original, professional-quality pilots are very much valued.

In addition to being an accomplished writer, you´re an artist. What has art taught you about writing and vice versa?

Both co-exist as expressions of my insights and visions. Some subjects are better treated with words, especially those that rely on character development and explore relationships and issues over time. Visual arts are immediate and passionate responses, and a chance to have a different kind of visceral impact on individual viewers. Writing is more difficult than painting partly because of sitting long hours at a computer, and partly because writing can´t fall back on physical materials; confronting a blank page is more daunting to me than a blank canvas. But neither specifically teaches the other. They are complementary aspects of a creative life.

Writing the TV Drama Series is available at Amazon as well as Michael Wiese Productions (http://www.mwp.com).