Diana Black: TV Writing Checklist Part 4

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you haven’t already read Part 1,  Part 2, and Part 3, now would be a good time.


by Diana Black

Regardless of what type of project you’re writing, or whether you wrote a Treatment prior to this step (Storybook version of the narrative), the Scene Outline is mandatory.

IF this is a TV Pilot, Telemovie or Limited Series, the Outline must follow strict formatting guidelines. Regardless of whether, you plan to write up a story-book version (Treatment), I suggest you read LB’s article “Writing the Dreaded Outline” – not only is a great informative read, the GDD method really works, especially when you’re up against the clock.

But let’s assume you do have your potential novel/story-book Treatment in hand and you’re wanting to transform it into an Outline… all you need do is simply break the Treatment up into individual scenes. The ‘big-print’ for each scene, should only be a few sentences long and if it’s more than that, break it up into two (2) sentences per paragraph…. the more ‘white space’ on the page the better.

If you’re not having to submit an ‘industry-standard’ Scene Outline, because it’s not a TV project but a Feature instead, I’d advise you to create the following document… it’s a ‘multi-tasker’… why create more work when you can create a killer document that does so many things at once…

Create a Table (computer… ‘Landscape’). The number of columns depend on how many sub-plots you have besides your main plot (A). Let’s say you only one sub-plot (B)… create a table with five (5) columns… an Act # Colum (I, II and III, or if for TV -TEASER, I, II, III, IV, and TAG); Scene & Page #; A-plot Scene – containing the Slug Line and ‘Big print’ (description incl. action); Scene & Page# column for the B sub-plot, and the last one, the B sub-plot Scene details….

Fill the table in as you work through the Treatment and mark with a numbered asterisk e.g. *1, if it’s set-up #1 or mark with a numbered check e.g. ?3 if it’s paying off set-up #3 and so on… this way you’ll easily keep track of the set-ups and ensure you’ve paid them off correctly. The pay-offs are not likely to occur for a while, or if it’s a TV Pilot, the pay-off may not occur until the next episode, but you’ll know where they are in an instant and whether in the end, you’ve addressed them.

Outlining the entire narrative arc in this manner enables you to not only identify whether a scene is the main plot or a sub-plot, you’ll also be able to determine the timing and relationship between them. It lets you chart the energy dynamics and pacing of the narrative… cutting back and forth between A & B will likely quicken the pace.

You can also indicate whether it’s a Flashback (FB) scene… but most importantly, you can locate scenes a lot faster than flipping through an entire script. If you add or delete scenes (rows) on the Outline, be sure to re-number them. By numbering the scenes at this stage on both the Outline and the Script (a no-no on your spec submission), it makes it easier if you’re working in collaboration with multiple writers on a project or conducting a Table read. Having to say, “Let’s look at Sc.#30” is far easier than saying, “Let’s look at Hotel Room – Night er… page 53”, don’t you think?

Act
Sc/Pg
A – Main
Sc/Pg
B – Sub-plot
I
1/1
INT. HOTEL ROOM – NIGHT
The PROTAGONIST closes the curtains – watches the street. He turns to the POLICE OFFICER behind him – hands over the box. (*1)

2/1
EXT. ALLEYWAY – NIGHT
BEAGLE BOY ONE throws the gun to BEAGLE BOY TWO – he FIRES up at the hotel window.

3/2
INT. HOTEL ROOM – NIGHT
Glass shards spray the room – Protagonist and Police Officer hit the deck….

Doing your Outline this way, helps you restrict the big print down to the bare minimum; this should reduce ‘over-writing’ … leave that for the novel. And remember it’s, ‘show not tell’. Elaborate on the script itself, if you must.

Okay, you’re now finally onto the Script. Refer to that wad of rough scene notes that you’ve been scribbling – at 2:00 a.m., in the shower, walking along the beach, in the rest room at the restaurant on ‘date night’ etc.

Having done so much work in the foundation stage, you now know these characters intimately, they’ve been present for quite a while in your life and now they’re not only talking, but surprising you with the choices they make and events that are seemingly coming out of left field. Now sit back and enjoy the process of just simply writing.

Scenes should adhere to the principle, ‘arrive late and leave early’ in relation to the characters, as to what’s just happened prior to the scene, and they’re leaving long before the ‘welcome mat wears thin’ – don’t slow/labor the pace. The scene should clearly address the scene objective without being ‘on-the-nose’ description and/or dialogue.

Beats are a way to amp up the pace and explore subtext, there should be underlying conflict and tension between characters, and with only one of them winning by the scene’s end. This is indicated by the character via word or action; achieving their objective via the dialogue or the action. If none of this is making sense to you, read my article: “Actor-Writer? No! Writer… No…”

On a technical note, as you’re writing the Script, have you got something compelling on the bottom of every page so that it’s a ‘page turner’? Supposedly, J.K. Rowling’s strategy. Go and check out one of the Harry Potter books and the adapted screenplays – see if this holds true. If you’re writing a teleplay, have you got something amazing just prior to an act break in the form of a cliff-hanger?

Take a bow. You’ve worked hard!

See you in the next article… TV Checklist – Part 5


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™.

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