Diana Black: TV Writing Checklist Part 1

by Diana Black

There are a zillion ways to ‘get started’ in terms of writing your teleplay and if you’re ambitious, your television series.

If the steps outlined in this series of articles resonate with you – then go for ’em! If they don’t, do whatever does work, but DO IT!

The important thing is to be writing and working on your craft every single day. You’ll never take yourself seriously and neither will anyone else if you don’t start thinking and acting like a pro.

Ideally, at any one time you should be taking actionable steps every day with any or ideally, all the following:

Stories in creative development mode.

Stories that are a work in progress – either draft, re-write (after many drafts) or final polish.

Stories in pitch mode that you’re pitching, or about to pitch in some way.
Your daily work load will of course depend on how many stories you have in the ‘in-tray’ and what sort of ‘day-job’ is sapping your creative energy. How are you prioritizing this? Find a way.

Stories in creative development mode start with a fascinating, compelling, super-cool idea/concept in rough note form. No matter how outrageous or silly these scrappy notes might be, don’t discard them! Lock them up in a drawer somewhere.

People know you’re a writer and such is expected of writers and you are one, aren’t you? They’ll not suspect you of being a serial killer but mark it ‘fiction’ if you must. Always have a notebook on hand to jot down ideas, characters, events etc. for wherever you happen to be and whenever these sparks of genius present themselves.

You’ll think you’ll remember that stupendous idea that woke you up at 2:00 a.m. but chances are you won’t, so be prepared to slip out of bed or at least, have a note-pad by your nightstand and visualize the words on the page as you write them down, so they’re not totally illegible in the light of day.

Put a diver’s notepad along with a pencil in the shower rack – its reusable – the pencil marks can be gently removed with toothpaste.

Now let’s address each component, of which there are many…

The Log Line – also sometimes referred to as the one-line premise or synopsis statement.

Make this statement ‘High Concept’ from the get-go. Check out LB’s take on this in his article, “The Logline” and read the whole article – pure gold. Essentially your logline (LL) must be a brilliant, quirky, mind-blowing concept that the suit/s, especially the seasoned creative professionals, wish they’d written it and saved themselves a bunch of $$ by not having to acquire it from you.

And the other ‘suits’ – the non-creative bean counters? Don’t under-estimate them – they can smell $$ and a marketable ‘opportunity’ like a Ferengi and they’ve got a lot of clout these days.

Let there be no mistake or self-delusion about this, we’ re all in it to make $$, regardless of how artistically brilliant the project might be, or how much you perceive yourself as an artiste, this is a business.

Get busy and boil the LL down to one succinct, compelling sentence that involves character, conflict and the objective that we – as in everyone, can visualize and can’t wait to watch. Such fervor means the concept is deemed marketable. Yippee!

If you’re not sure how to state that LL, Google any film or TV show you’ve seen recently via IMDB and you’ll ‘get it’ by reading the blurb directly underneath the show’s title.

Having already seen the finished product, you’ll understand how this statement does indeed encapsulate the narrative in an enticing way…

…but now go one step further on the path of success, by making the LL succinct – as close as possible to twenty-four (24) words. This is painful, but it will also come in handy later, by helping you develop the ‘elevator pitch’.

Okay, we’re out of the gate, we’ve developed and polished the Log Line, with not a computer keyboard in sight.

However, in relation to the creative development mode, we’re not done yet…

I strongly suggest that before going any further, you write out on a separate piece of paper, all by itself, the rationale for writing this specific story – what is driving you to write this?

It should allude to the fascinating core – the thought/idea that compelled you to pick up the ‘pen’. When you’re at risk of losing your way, or are truly lost, like perhaps in the Act Two doldrums (if subscribing to the 3-Act structure), knowing the rationale for the project will help you find the path to move forward. It may not help with the characters quite so much.

The following should be clear by this point: – inciting incident, theme, and the underlying conflict that glues the narrative together. Even in a comedy, there needs to be a subtle but profound conflict, or you’re screwed.

You now have a decision to make as to which to tackle first – character or story-world.

I tend to go down the Character path, especially when trying to discover the key players, but whatever works best for you.

Regardless, do not put the brakes on anything you write down, no matter how crazy/outrageous – forget about the budget for the moment…it’s far easier to trash later than fill in serious holes when you’re under pressure.

You know at least two of the characters already – the protagonist and the antagonist… they’ve likely made themselves known to you via the LL, but who are they going to play with? And how well do you know them?

Don’t stress, if they’re ‘not talking’ yet. Respect each character by giving them an entire scrap page of their own so that you won’t be scribbling about them over the top of another character. Those pages will fill up soon enough!

Catch you next time with…TV Checklist Part 2


Diana Black is an optioned screenwriter who has placed in competitions with features and teleplays.  She’s also a professional actor with a Bachelor of Creative Arts – Drama, Film & TV and a regular contributor to TVWriter™.

The Worst Thing That Could Happen

Photo credit: homeadvisor.com

by Leslie Coff

When I was a little girl living near Chicago, I imagined that the worst thing that could happen would be if a tornado hit my school.

Several times during the school year our principal would get on the loudspeaker and announced “Operation Ajax” — which meant that we would line up at the door and proceed into the hallway where there were no windows…

…sitting against the walls with our heads between our knees — our arms protecting our necks against potential flying glass.

As it happened, my school was never actually hit by a tornado.

A few years ago our kids came home fro school telling us about their new drill: “Code Red”.   First, the school principal announces through the intercom “Code Red” — at which point all the students hide under their desks, turn off the lights and lock the classroom door.

You see, “Code Red” means that there is an intruder in the school:  an intruder brandishing a weapon.

Then a little while after that we learned about “Code Blue”.    “Code Blue” is handled pretty much a like a fire drill — all the students quickly and quietly line up and file carefully out of the building.

“Code Blue” is a bomb drill.

We are talking about suburban America, here.
But for many now, there is Red Alert — bombs falling from the sky.

There are things certainly worse than tornados.

There have been, over time,  many people who choose to give up life’s pleasures because they believe it will bring them closer to the Divine — closer to God.

In ancient times, when people took on the vows of the Nazirite, they left their hair uncut, they did not eat meat — or grapes.   They wore sackcloth, did not drink wine and vowed abstinence from other passions and pleasures.

For the Nazirites, as they yearned to be closer to God, perhaps they thought that the worse thing that would happen was that they would overindulge in life’s pleasures….pleasures, I would like to add here — that were given by God.

But interestingly, perhaps in their austerity they separated themselves from their communities — and also from God.

There are indeed scholars who believe that because these Nazirites denied themselves the pleasures given by the Divine:  taste of good food, the fragrance of flowers — that they themselves were sinners.

Even the philosopher Maimonides is known to have said “at the end of our lives, we shall be called to account for every permitted pleasure we failed to enjoy”.

Of course there is a limit to how many brownies we could (and should) eat — and a person can only drink so much wine without worrying everyone around them…but pleasures in life — our families and friends and children — are those which we cannot enjoy enough.

These days we have many reminders of how we need to cherish the taste of late-summer grapes a square of chocolate and the hand of a friend.

Code Red.  Code Blue.   Red Alert.

We don’t have to be Nazirites to appreciate the most basic gift of everyday life.   This year, this month and today — we are all counting our blessings more.

Although in my part of the world things are not quite as dangerous for us as the time of our parents and grandparents pogroms, for many people things are just as dangerous — and more.

Things are very uncertain.

We have become entitled in our expectation of safety.    We have been complacent.

Too much so.

We have forgotten the smell of danger.   Our ancestors, though, lived it and learned to survive through it.

We know in our bones what it is to be afraid and what it is to hope.   We know what an uncertain future feels like.     We, in our souls’ memory, remember what it feels like to pray for survival.

In Joann Rose Leonard’s book “The Soup Has Many Eyes”, the author recounts her family’s flight from the pogroms.   She describes what I am (and perhaps we all are) feeling:

“Braced, we tread across boundaries that separate us from those we love;  pull us far from the place we call home.”

”And too often, we do it in the dark, not knowing if we will arrive safely, not knowing if we will arrive at all; unable to predict how a flick of impulse in our brain…may shape the rest of our life and the lives of our children’s children…”

There will always be danger and darkness in our lives but there will also always be light.   They mix together.

The sweetest blessings in my life I now see better because of the darkness:

  • The moment immediately preceding the Sabbath candle lighting — the moment filled with the expectation of light.
  • The very brief moments in my life when the children were small — when the days seemed so long but the years sped by too, too fast.
  • The very, very brief moments when I have folded the laundry and deluded myself into thinking that ‘today there will be no lonely socks’.

I am so grateful, personally, to have been given one more day of safety.    I am appreciative that for one more hour my family is safe — before our world gets turned on its ear once again.

I am blessed with another chance.   One more chance.  One more day.

I am challenging you to enjoy your life.

And not only because, apparently , enjoying your life is a way to honor the Divine — apart from us and inside all of us.

We are grateful for the creation of a world where nothing is lacking — not a sun or a moon or land or water or beauty.   We are grateful for all of this to delight our human hearts.

For we need these things to stave off the darkness.

I am blessed with love, light, family, health, color and a warm coat.

Because the worst thing that could happen is that I could live in a place that has a long winter.

No.

The worst thing that could happen is that I would, we would, not see all our blessings and that we would not see them in each other.

As our ancestors helped each other through their pogroms, we pray that all those in danger be released from the darkness.

In this same dark we reach for each others’ outstretched hands — these hands which we will continue to hold until the light begins to rise again.

Until Code Red — or Code Anything….is over.

May we all see the light in the wine, in the morning, in each other’s eyes and souls — and have perspective.


Leslie Coff is a hell of a writer (and artist and chef), who just returned to the U.S. from a longish and fascinating sojourn in Italy., which we hope to help her share with you soon. This post first appeared on one of the most honest places on the interwebs – Leslie’s blog

Peggy Bechko on Subtext

by Peggy Bechko

Do you always say what you mean to say? No?

Neiither does maybe 90% of the rest of the human race. It’s kind of weird, this word play. Almost like we’re constantly playing games with each other’s emotions and thoughts.

It’s also the beauty of making interaction between humans fascinating. And if you’re not taking advantage of subtext in your writing as you do in your life, then you as a writer are missing out on a big chunk of how to make your script or novel worth reading.

So let’s talk about subtext and what is really ‘in between the lines.” How can you inject some really juicy subtext into your tale?

Think about people. How they operate.

Then give your character some objective to strive toward.

There are big picture objectives like winning a war, and there are smaller picture objectives like riding into town. Either way, an objective gives your character something that drives him or her.

It’s a goal. That underlying goal which will almost effortlessly add subtext to every character interplay in your story.

But don’t stop there.

An action when the character is speaking or trying to convey a point is another great way of opening the door to subtext.

You can’t just have your character ask for or demand whatever it is they want. Instead it’s much more revealing to rely on things like body language and tone of voice.

If we’re talking young kids on a swing set there might be some sticking out of tongue involved. An adult might give someone the finger behind their back (or to their face).

Whatever it is that conveys their actual feelings, no matter what they’re actually saying, is subtext. And that action in your script or novel allows your audience to read between the lines of your story to get at what those characters really want.

No explaining on your part necessary (or wanted).

One good way to teach yourself how to handle subtext is to write your scene (make it a short one, especially for the first go-round) and then replace the dialog with, well, nothing.

Type some placeholders but no actual dialog. All you’ll be left with is things like, man blows a smoke ring, woman steps back, man puffs the cigar, woman makes a sour face.

Even without dialog your scene should be pretty clear. In the example the woman plainly doesn’t like the cigar smoke and the guy is plainly using it to antagonize her.

Get it? Try it a few times and see how it reveals where the weak points are in your storytelling subtext.

Another great way to bring in subtext is to give your character a secret or – better yet, how about a character who knows another character’s secret? –  right smack dab in the middle of pursuing that big picture goal? Subtext there like crazy!

Play with it some.

Get a real feel for subtext.

Watch the people around you interact.

If your dialog is ‘on the nose’ and your scenes playing out with no subtext then back up and try another tactic. Our lives are riddled with subtext, so don’t allow your scripts and novels to go without.


Peggy Bechko is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor. Learn more about her sensational career HERE. Peggy’s new comic series, Planet of the Eggs, written and illustrated with Charlene Brash-Sorensen is available on Kindle. And, while you’re at it, visit the Planet of the Eggs Facebook page and her terrific blog.

Bri Castellini: Mid year checkin- New Years Resolutions 2018 – @brisownworld

by Bri Castellini

It’s… going ok?

Resolutions: 2018 Edition

Produce 2 new projects I write to completion.- IN PROGRESS

Back in January I filmed my latest short film, co-written and co-produced by my buddy Colin Hinckley.

We also just completed crowdfunding for my second of the year, season 2 of Sam and Pat Are Depressed! That shoots… starting this weekend… so we’re on track!

Write a feature-length screenplay- PROBABLY AIN’T GONNA HAPPEN

I’d love to be able to end the year with a new feature script, but this has been a challenging one to say the least, and given my workload at my day job (and the four projects I’m producing in full this year- the two I mentioned above and two that I was hired on earlier in the summer) I don’t see this happening. I could surprise myself, especially as I don’t have anything lined up post-August, but I’m also not gonna force inspiration that isn’t coming.

Post a blog twice a month and a personal YouTube video once a month.- PARTIAL FAILURE

I’ll definitely meet the blog post criterion, but I’ve already skipped… two months of videos. Well, vlogs. I’ve shot/edited around 20 videos in the past two months for the Sam and Pat crowdfunding campaign, so it’s safe to say I had other things going on. There was also a part of this resolution that had to do with doing more interesting shots in vlogs which also definitely is not happening.

Write 2 new TV scripts- one original pilot, one spec script.- IN PROGRESS

I’ll definitely have a new original pilot written unless I do nothing from now until January 2019, but I doubt I’m gonna get to the spec script. In terms of my personal creative/career priorities, like the feature screenplay, it might just not be my year.

Close caption all previous (and new 2018) projects – IN PROGRESS 

Brains, Sam and Pat season 1, and Relativity are all entirely closed captioned! What remains is Ace and Anxious, both Brains extended universe projects, and anything new I release online (might be Sam and Pat, might be Buy In, might be neither). This one I’m pretty confident I’m gonna complete. The hardest stuff is already over!

Save $1500  IN PROGRESS

Savings so far: $1060

I’m on track AF!

Leave New York City at least twice.– COMPLETE

Trip #1: New Jersey to speak on a panel/ participate web series screening!

Trip #2: Toronto for work

Technically I also left the city for Hoboken for a web series shoot, and I will be home in Colorado before the end of the year as well. So DOUBLE completion!

Eat out less than three times a week and do something active every day.- FAILED

This happened for a little while, then work started piling up a pretty excessive amount and I had another infected ingrown toenail issue which made walking pretty painful, so I have not kept this up in a while. I wouldn’t say it’s entirely my fault, but it’s a little my fault, and it’s definitely a failure overall.

Take a photo every day- FAILED

Having a cell phone that makes a noise (that I cannot turn off without jailbreaking it) really hampers your ability to do this well, because taking photos in public, even of random stuff, is super embarrassing. I have definitely taken MORE photos this year than previously, but the letter of the law was not met, so this one is defo a failure.

Talk less, listen more.- IN PROGRESS

I feel like I’m doing alright at this? I definitely forgot this was a resolution, but in general I am making a concerted effort to talk less in conversations as I tend to be a bit of a bulldozer. I’ll keep a closer eye on this one for the rest of the year.

Final tally…

1 COMPLETE!

6 IN PROGRESS!

FAILURES/PARTIAL FAILURES!

Not great? But not terrible either. This year has been stressful in a way I’ve not ever experienced, which I’m sure I’ll write about next month when the main stuff is over. In the meantime, I should probably memorize my lines for Sam and Pat this weekend…..

*if anyone wants to help me CC Ace and Anxious, let me know!


Bri Castellini is an indie filmmaker and Community Director at Stareable, our favorite web series hub. Watch the remarkable Ms. Castellini’s award-winning web series, Brains, HERE. See Sam And Pat Are Depressed HERE. This post first appeared on Bri’s wonderfully refreshing blog.

Diana Black: Character Chemistry

by Diana Black

While we writers  often feel like the unsung heroes of Hollywood, we do keep the Hollywood planet rotating on its crazy axis. As storytellers, we’re the Master Chefs in the Creativity Kitchen. Without a rippin’ good yarn and characters bursting with vitality, they’ve got nothin’!

For our Pilot to be green-lit, for the first season to have a ‘brother’ and then a sister, there must be dynamic ‘character interaction’ lighting up every page, within every episode and across seasons.

While the individual actor will be a vital ingredient by adding their own unique flavor to the magical brew you’re concocting, there’s only so much an actor can do with on-the-nose dialogue, ‘pedestrian’ action, and lack of ‘character chemistry’.

A-listers are picky about their next project and with good reason, it’s their butt on the line because they’re ‘in frame’, which means they’re also picky about who they’re going to ‘play with’.

While we don’t have much input into the casting process, which is largely the Producer’s job, if there’s palpable chemistry between the actors AND the characters they’re portraying via the dialogue and action, the room will light up.

But what if you’ve pitched your project successfully, it’s been green-lit, and the auditioning process is underway and OMG, the room doesn’t light up, what if the gleam in the suits’ eyes begin to pale… someone’s gotta go.

So how can we ensure our creation provides better-than-great material for actors to work with?

Know before we pitch, rather than vaguely hope, that our material is awesome and from page one and every page thereafter. Conduct a Table read of your work before pitching and use real actors you’ve auditioned beforehand… if you’ve got the chemistry right, you’ll see sparks fly.

An actor eager for a chance to play is one thing, but how do we know our material will stack up under rigorous, if not vicious scrutiny?

For starters, ‘pixie dust’ in the form of great writing is a given and as the humble writer in the room, that’s about all we can deliver.

Our two-cents-worth in the casting process will be just that – minimal, so we must rely on our writing. If we’re a staff writer, there’ll be plenty of other writers in the room only too willing to outshine us and impress the showrunner with their brilliant, pithy dialogue and hip action… no end to pressure – we’re only as good as our last performance.

But what if we’re spec writers without that vicious sounding board?

The writer’s group who meet every third Tuesday may not be a good choice.

There’s sure to be more than one of us out there who’ve received feedback, which calls into question what planet or drugs was the reader on when they ‘read’ it?

Because it’s clear they didn’t; they merely perused it; if that. Most of us are honest, but some struggle with the demons of insecurity, jealousy and downright laziness.

Once you written the entire narrative, run multiple passes on each component of the script: the dialogue – one character at a time and for every scene they’re in; their action; character ‘voice’; mannerisms and style.

Is there consistency across the narrative arc? Does the dialogue ‘flow’? Critique without mercy!

Think about how an actor might play a specific character and deal with the scene, how the characters interact on the page and what’s in it for them.

The actor that’s cast will get under the character’s skin and take on that persona, which means there’s a duality going on in their heads, and you’d be wise to take that into account.

Once you’ve done the aforementioned passes, work through the script scene-by-scene, and do a scene analysis for both characters.

Examine one character at a time. Determine the following: Scene objective, Beats and for each of those, the Beat objective, action, the emotional state of the character/actor coming into that beat and the accompanying Subtext.

This may sound like gobbledygook to you, but actors that are properly trained, go through this process, scene-by-scene in preparation; it’s not a matter of just ‘winging it’ with raw talent and memorized lines.

Let’s gaze into our crystal ball… the project has been green-lit and auditions are underway… if the professional actor has prepared properly, they’ll be able to take direction and make adjustment.

One way to do this is by having three (3) different ways to present the scene. For the Casting Director, this demonstrates flexibility and a willingness to work with the Director.

Have you, as the writer, provided them with the scope to do that? For your work to be true ‘actor bait’, it’s not just the rippin’ good yarn you’ve told and the compelling character/s you’ve created, but also, and especially for A-lists, how well the script is written.

Professional actors are reading scripts or excerpts from them, every day – they know a good script when they see one. If knowing the attached Director, they’ll already have some idea of the latter’s ‘signature style’ and the likely choices he/she will make to realize their vision.

Just quietly, you as the writer, need to set these people up. Make it an enticing, sugar-coated trap, that’s mutually beneficial for all concerned.

Back to the present… once you’re sure that you’ve got each scene as dynamic and polished to the nth degree, seek reputable, industry-standard coverage and/or take a class with LB… he’ll tell you straight.

A study of what’s currently out there – on screen and on the page via the script, will help you better understand the concept of character chemistry. Determine whether it’s happening in other TV shows, and ideally, how you can ‘deliver’ on that.

Select a program and do multiple viewings of the same episode, focusing on one actor at a time.

Does he/she (the actor) look comfortable? Does the banter between the actors match their body-language? It always cracks me up watching Actor A (in character) say, “I love you, sweetheart” to Actor B (also in character), while shaking their head in denial.

Look at their eyes – you’ll generally be able to tell if the actor is ‘in character, boots an all’ (or not). For the dialogue, listen to the banter (don’t watch) and get a sense the ease of interaction (or lack thereof).

If the program is now into subsequent seasons, they must be doing something right; at least in the eyes on the viewing audience, and that’s what matters most (to the suits).

Take for instance, Arrow (The CW, 2012 -) … Oliver (Stephen Arnell) & Felicity (Emily Bett Rickards), are a classic example of opposites working together brilliantly.

Look at Lucifer (Fox, 2015 -) … the character Lucifer (Tom Ellis) & Chloe (Lauren German) are a couple flawlessly adept at weaving magic through their delightful witty banter and sexual tension; well done writers – namely, Tom Kapinos (and of course the actors).

If you can’t read the actual screenplay, study the dialogue across the seasons – for specific characters and think about how the actors (under direction), are maintaining energy, consistency and dynamism in the scene….

Remember, as “mere” writers, we don’t have much say as to which actor is cast, so we’re totally reliant on the script via the dialogue and action.

Get busy and be awesome!


Diana Black is an optioned screenwriter who has placed in competitions with features and teleplays.  She’s also a professional actor with a Bachelor of Creative Arts – Drama, Film & TV. She’s a ScreenwritingU Alumni and a regular contributor to TVWriter.com.