Diana Black: TV Writing Checklist Part 3

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you haven’t already read Part 1 & Part 2, now would be a good time.

by Diana Black

We’re now ready to step into the story-world and start seriously playing, but we do have some decisions to make first…who said screenwriting was easy…

Determine the Design Principle – how will you tell the story and through whose lens? I suggest you refer to Jonathan Truby’s Anatomy of Story. He maintains that most stories, while they’re much in need, don’t have a Design Principle.

Having a modus operandi on a card in your daily line-of-sight, will ensure that the story stays ‘clean’ in terms of its execution. Your narrative doesn’t have to be linear to follow a Design Principle.

Whatever way you want to tell the story, it just needs to be consistent.

You could go straight into writing the Scene Outline, but I’d suggest you write the story-book version of the narrative first, in the form of a Treatment. Think of it as telling a ripping yarn around the campfire. It’s useful if you’re writing a feature; especially if you want to novelize it later (but it works for both features and teleplays).

A story-book version will free you up from getting tied up in formatting issues associated with the ‘big print’ (description/action) of the script. We’re not even thinking about the dialogue at this point and by doing this before you start writing the script, you’ll be free to just see the ‘film’ in your head and your job becomes one of simply noting down the details of what you see unfold.

If you know the ending, from the get-go, which is a great idea, you can ‘reverse engineer’ (work backwards – determining how the characters came to that end – be it sticky or not). Make sure the ending is climatic, stupendous and surprising in a big, out-of-the-box way. Think back to the lead-up and finale of Breaking Bad (AMC, 2008 – 2013).

If it’s a TV series you’re writing, not only will you be considered awesome when you can rattle off what going to go down in later episodes in the pitch meeting, whether they follow your lead or not, you’ll have clearly demonstrated that it’s a cohesive narrative and that you’ve thought about its longevity – this beastie is alive and rattling its cage!

Have you thought about generating buzz? As you’re writing the Treatment, especially as you get closer to the ‘back-end’, deliver one pay-off after another such that, assuming the series gets picked up and airs to plan, viewers – especially binge-watchers – will have multiple sets of clues and “surprises” to keep them glued to the screen.

Essentially, you’re attempting to, and, we hope, succeeding, in generating buzz, AKA marketing gold!

Once you’re done writing up the Treatment, then you can think about structure… if it’s a television series, determine where you think the Pilot is going to end in that narrative arc and for both formats, go back and identify the Act breaks and the structural components therein.

If you’re not sure what I mean by that, pick up a copy of Syd Field’s Screenplay and if its strictly television that your writing for, LB’s Television Writing from the Inside Out.

Identifying the structure (after the fact*) is always a good idea because you don’t know the background, quirks and modus operandi of the gate keepers and suits who might read this document.

*I would strongly suggest at the outset, you don’t impose stereotypical plot points associated with a specific genre onto the narrative, otherwise you may end up with a formula-laden, generic mess.

If it’s a TV show and you’re really on the ball, you’ll have a cliff-hanger at the end of each Act break and a humdinger at the end of the Pilot.

Word of caution, it’s a slightly different ball game for television procedurals wherein the characters have come to us from the beginning of the Pilot, as relatively fully-formed individuals – their Character arc in terms of growth, is minimal. At least in comparison to a Feature or a character like Walter White in Breaking Bad.

We see ‘character growth’ in dramedies as well, such as Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce (Bravo, 2014 – 2018) via the character Abby McCarthy (played by Lisa Edelstein). Yet we don’t see it so much in the character of Sheldon (Jim Parsons) in The Big Bang Theory (Warner Brothers, 2007 -).

Having fully-fledged individuals in a procedural is a marketing decision. The police procedural, NCIS (CBS, 2003 -) has stood the test of time and has fully developed characters who’ve changed very little across the narrative arc, but we do see new characters arriving and some established characters leaving. But being a procedural, it means we can just focus on a new plot each week AND viewers can be recruited at any time within the season and not be lost/confused.

Now that you have your Treatment done, ask yourself, is it a fast read? Get industrial-level coverage if you can’t tell. Your aim is to create a fast, fluent organic read, rather than something that is stereotypical, cliché shlock.

See you in the next article… TV Checklist – Part 4

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™.