by Kelly Jo Brick
With approximately 60% of TV crime procedural viewership and 80% of crime literature being consumed by females, women have a very strong interest in crime drama. The Writers Guild Foundation explored this passion for crime procedurals and serial crime dramas by bringing in three highly successful female writers and creators to share their experiences in the genre.
Diane Frolov (CHICAGO MED, BOSCH, THE SOPRANOS), Judith McCreary (NCIS: NEW ORLEANS, SECRETS AND LIES, LAW & ORDER: SVU) and Chris Levinson (TYRANT, TOUCH, LAW & ORDER) spoke candidly about the craft, challenges, research and influences of writing TV crime drama.
WHY WOMEN LOVE THIS GENRE
We hide ourselves and observe and plot because we can’t always get to places directly. There’s an identification with looking at characters and how they get what they want.
A lot of it has to do with that we are by far mostly the victims and we’re trying to learn what not to do. It’s interesting because on SVU, the largest audience was girls 12 to 17. They were consuming the show and it was perhaps was in order to go that’s not going to happen to me.
IN TV PILOTS, WHY IS IT THAT WOMEN TEND TO BE THE VICTIMS
In pilots, there’s a shorthand. If you discover a dead body in the opening, you don’t want to be raising questions that deviate from your pilot story. So if it was a man, that already raises different questions as far as breaking the story. Who was able to overpower him? It’s not the norm. It’s not what we’re used to. We’re used to finding a dead woman in a field, in a trunk or a refrigerator. So in a certain way we’ve grown so accustom to it that we can just move past it. It says a lot that we can find a dead, mutilated woman and it doesn’t give us pause.
EVER WRITE SOMETHING WHERE YOU SAY, WHERE DID THAT COME FROM IN ME? AM I OKAY? SHOULD I GO TO THERAPY?
You discover places in yourself that you hadn’t looked at before. Experiencing that and being on the set with that can be very hard. When you actually write something on the page and, oh, this is fun. When you’re on set and you know it’s pretend, but it is still going on in front of you, you can feel really revolted.
HOW TO SWITCH GEARS BETWEEN STYLES OF SHOWS
A lot of what we write are mysteries even if they’re not “mystery, mysteries.” You’re still creating the same frame of what is this about, who is this person, what do they want and you’re asking those same questions. Those are the shows that really pull you in when they have those mysteries going. It’s not a big jump.
TIPS ON STRUCTURING A PROCEDURAL
You need drive. You have your dead body. You need to discover things about your dead body. You need people who care about that person being dead. You need to have the drive to solve whatever the case may be, but also make the audience care as much about that dead body as the people who are reflecting on who that person was. That is the difficult thing to do.
You have to do something to connect with the audience or you lose them and they’ll say, “Who cares.” It’s one thing FORENSIC FILES does very well. They take real cases and as you listen to the people who work on the case, you can see why they cared so much even though they have many other cases to do.
NAVIGATING BEING THE ONLY WOMAN IN THE ROOM
You’re often going to have to fight to be heard. Remember by being in the room, you’ve been invited to the table and have earned that seat. It is without a doubt harder, but don’t let it deter you.
GROWING YOUR WRITING CAREER
If you want to write, produce or direct, film school isn’t necessarily the way to do it. Being a PA or assistant and working your way up is the best training you’ll ever get. Because film school, when they take your $100,000 or more, is not going to give you the benefit of working for peanuts while learning so much by being on sets and in the offices discovering how things work.
What’s the pecking order? What are you supposed to do? You’re meeting all the people who can give you your next job and your next job and your next job. Pretty soon you’ve learned it all.
HOW TO PITCH A PROCEDURAL
Leading with character is always wise. Go in and tell a personal story, why do I want to do this show, why this idea. If you make it personal, already they’re leaning in. Then pitch the tease. It should be exciting and it should whet their appetite. Then talk a little bit about the show and walk through the characters. After that, walk through the pilot story.
Have a pitch no longer than 20 minutes. If they have questions, you have done your job. With cable they expect you to have the season mapped out. They expect you to really know where you’re going. Once you’ve done that, they’ll ask how can you get us to a season two. Go in knowing. If it’s a procedural, know your rules.
KEEPING VILLAINS INTERESTING
A big pet peeve for the speakers is when you have a villain who is just crazy. You have to look at your villain the same way as you look at your lead. They need to be just as interesting. What makes that person behave the way that they do in the same way as what makes your lead behave the way that they do, they’re human. They’re the hero in their own story. Keep that in mind.
GETTING THE FACTS AND PROCEDURES RIGHT WHEN WRITING CRIME
Research, research, research and read real cases. You can use that as a basis for your writing. There are textbooks you can buy including Practical Guide to Homicide Investigation and Practical Guide to Sex-Related Homicide Investigation. Some police departments have programs for civilians where you can drive with officers and learn procedures like how you enter a house and how you do a variety of things as a police officer or investigator. It’s a great way to learn it so you can visualize it when you’re writing.
You must get the law right. Before you get it right, get your story up to speed. Get a great story then you can always go back and find the accurate procedural elements to it.
The Writers Guild Foundation regularly hosts events that celebrate the craft and voices of film and television writers. To find out more about upcoming events, go to wgfoundation.org.
Kelly Jo Brick is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor. She’s a television and documentary writer and producer, as well as a winner of Scriptapalooza TV and a Sundance Fellow. Read more about her HERE.