by Larry Brody
The key to successfully writing for television is to remember that it is primarily a storytelling medium. All other considerations are secondary.
No one in TV is crazy enough to say that character and dialog don’t matter, but the truth is they don’t matter AS MUCH as story.
Writing teachers can say all they want about character-driven screenplays and teleplays, but for all practical purposes all television scripts are story-driven. Characters are created to service the story, not vice versa.
The primary purpose of a television episode is to keep the viewer tuned in for the next commercial, or, in the case of premium cable and most streaming sites, to make the viewer want to cough up next month’s fee, so swift pacing, designed to capture and keep the viewer’s attention, is essential.
The TV writer’s job is to pack as much story as possible into each one-hour (really about 46 minute) and half-hour (actually 18 to 22 minute show. That means that scenes have to be short and punchy. Most series, in fact, simply won’t allow any scene to run longer than 2 ½ pages.
This doesn’t mean, however, that you can write those short, moody, “beach-walking” or “staring at the sunset” scenes that feature films do so well. Those are character moments, not story scenes. Besides, television’s limited budget means there’s no time or money for lots of quick moments. It’s go! go! go! Build a scene and move on, build another and move on again.
This may sound stifling, but look at it this way – THE ILIAD and THE ODYSSEY have endured just about forever because of their emotion-charged and action-packed stories. And we love and relate to Odysseus BECAUSE of how he rises to the challenges the stories provide.
With a little work maybe your next television script can also live forever.
Another in what I hope will be a long run of helpful hints for TV writers here on TVWriter™ every week. Which brings up a point: If you’d like to share some writing tips with your fellow TVWriter™ visitors, please get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll try to make a guest post happen.