Diana Black: TV Writing Checklist Part 5

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you haven’t already read Part 1,  Part 2Part 3, and Part 4, now would be a good time.

by Diana Black

You’ve done it!

You’ve completed the Script in probably half the time you’d normally take. (You might take even less if you employ LB’s GDD – see his article on “Writing the Dreaded Outline.”)

And what’s more, the IP you now proudly own is yours and it’s unique; no one can take this accomplishment away from you. Register your work and ensure that you have multiple electronic copies stored on external hard drives and on the Cloud.

Think of this hard work as a solid investment in your future career as a screenwriter. If you’ve worked through all these steps, you ARE a screenwriter and one who’s wisely adopted professional standards; you simply haven’t got paid yet.

Now do individual Passes – one at a time the whole way through the Script.

For each Character, is he/she consistent across the narrative arc in terms of their dialogue? Do another pass for that same Character in terms of their action. ‘Rinse and repeat’ for every Character.

Check ‘your voice’ – have you made it strong and discernible in terms of style across the entire narrative arc? The next pass (in no strict order) is to tighten the ‘big print’ – shorten descriptions and actions, ensure there’s not an adverb in sight and everything is in active, present tense e.g. “He walks…” not, “He walked…” etc.

Next pass, you’re a formatting Nazi. The beauty of that Tabled Outline is that you can ensure that the Slug-line for the same location is consistent throughout.

Have you done a Scene Analysis for each scene? Is each flat or superfluous, or are they all totally necessary, intermeshed elements of a script that’s a real roller coaster ride, and serious actor, director, and producer-bait?

If the scenes still have problems, now’s a good time for one more rewrite. If they don’t have any you can find, then now’s a good time to conduct a Table Read with REAL actors.

Feed your actors well and after the read, ask for anonymous feedback – have scrap paper and pens on the table between the dip, carrot sticks and chocolate. Have someone who’s not reading record the proceedings so you can re-listen to the energy levels across the narrative, sometime later.

Have someone else listen for culturally inappropriate word usage. This may not be a problem for you, but I’m an Aussie by birth and upbringing, so even being married to an American for a very long time and living on US soil doesn’t guarantee that I won’t stuff-up occasionally.

If you can, instead of sitting at the table with the actors, sit across the room, script in hand, and just listen; although mark aspects needing attention on your Script.

You’ll hear/sense slow spots and others where the actors are ‘lifting it off the page’ – evidence that the pace and action are awesome – you’ll literally sense the ‘energy in the room’.

Afterwards, refer to the anonymous ‘notes’ they did for you. Be honest, brave and know when to follow your instincts… ONLY adjust/rewrite if a comment resonates with you. Your script is not a punching bag. Does the comment make logical sense; is it in keeping with the narrative arc?

If you have the $$, send it out for professional Coverage. If it comes back with a “Recommend” get it off to market asap; they may even offer to ‘open doors’.

You could also put it into Competition but be mindful that there are biases out there amongst Competition hosts and amongst the Readers they employ, so take a win or loss with a grain of salt.

However, if it does well, put it into another competition and if it does well again, add that positive feedback to your calling card when you begin seriously marketing.

For stories in ‘pitch mode’ you must develop a Strategic Plan. The mission objective to generate interest and make a sale.

Do your research and take a systematic approach – don’t just throw your work against the proverbial wall to see what sticks.

Develop your data base of prospective Producers and do your homework – is the potential ‘suit/s’ currently or recently working with this genre, does it fit within their budget range, are they open to reading material coming from an unrepresented, unpublished writer?

Is your Query Letter (QL) well crafted, grammatically correct and using simple language? You do have one, right?

Even with a well-crafted QL, many recipients will refuse. Expect greater than a 95% rejection rate, but by the same token, don’t necessarily take that first “No/Pass” as the final answer – they may be testing your determination and whether you believe in the IP enough to put your neck out on its behalf – so be brave.

Your story and the Characters therein are counting on you. If rejected, offer to present them with something else – they’ll then know you’re not a ‘one-show pony’. Those of you who are actors know that the ‘job’ is to audition, not necessarily ‘book’ the job. Same applies here – our job as emerging screenwriters, is to create quality material and pitch away.

If you get a foot in the door via your QL and a, “Let’s talk” interview, know and rehearse how to pitch intelligently by keeping the language simple and direct.

According to Stephanie Palmer’s, Good in a Room, show empathy and interest in them. Have the Leave Behind (TV) or the One page (Feature) on hand – don’t have them hanging/waiting for anything. Show professional awesomeness.

If it looks like an Option Agreement is looming, research what the Producer has produced beforehand (you’ve probably done that already – determining whether to pitch to them).

Think long and hard before allowing a rookie Producer to take your IP ‘off the grid’ for goodness-knows how many months. Have Legal Counsel review any agreement – it’s worth the investment. If this potential Producer respects you and is professionally legit, they’ll expect this. If they baulk/protest, look elsewhere and fast.

By having read this series of articles and taking actionable steps, you’ll have realized that creating a narrative, regardless of the medium, is hard work.

There’s no way around that, so work smarter.

And don’t give up! This venture has kept you off the streets for weeks if not months, it’s saved you a bucketload of money you’d have spent on frivolous outings, and you’ve travelled into an entirely different world for free… no one-way mission to Mars for you – the Universe is yours – enjoy!

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™.

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?

A – Main
B – Sub-plot
The PROTAGONIST closes the curtains – watches the street. He turns to the POLICE OFFICER behind him – hands over the box. (*1)

BEAGLE BOY ONE throws the gun to BEAGLE BOY TWO – he FIRES up at the hotel window.

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™.

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™.

Diana Black: TV Writing Checklist Part 2

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

by Diana Black

Let’s say you now have a motley crew with which to flesh out the story world… the latter can be achieved via the seemingly almost magical ‘What If’ – an outline/description of all the aspects of the story world you’re creating.

If you have a singular lead (not an ensemble cast) then the narrative will be seen through his/her lens, but regardless, it remains a work in progress as things come to mind. Do your homework on this from the get-go. It’s far easier if you set up a solid foundation, even if most of it is never used, than having to scramble to come up with something out of the box when the suit/s say, “Let’s talk.”

List every aspect you can think of via bullet points – the rules a.k.a. the modus operandi, including the geographical, social, and chronological parameters that govern or exist in this fictitious world. Work through the ‘5 W’s’ – the where, when, what, who and why for each of the major characters.

If you’re working on a TV series, you’ll get lucky with some of this material providing valuable insight into the ‘Legs’. If it’s a Feature; this effort could provide resource material for the ‘B’ & ‘C’ sub-plots.

Don’t hold back, be outrageous – you never know what ‘nuggets of gold’ you’re likely to unearth. You can then use a polished version of the ‘What If’ to help create ‘The Bible’ for the series.

For an extreme example of ‘outrageousness’ look at the television series, Shameless (Showtime, 2011 – 2018); what’s even more outrageous is the thought that this level of dysfunctionality could indeed be a ‘slice of life’ for some hapless people, here on American soil.

The antics of Frank Gallagher (William H. Macy) would make Homer Simpson blush.

For both the characters and the story world, they need to be larger than life. While the plot might be ‘slice of life’, the characters and their world can’t be – your creation isn’t a documentary (possibly a mockumentary).

Regardless, all three components cannot be the same – you either have ordinary characters in an extraordinary world where the weirdest stuff happens, or it’s larger than life characters, struggling to deal with an excruciatingly ‘ordinary’ world and failing.

Okay, now we’re about to enter the work in progress phase by entering this amazing world and giving ourselves permission to play… but just prior to closing the door completely on the outside and stepping ‘in’, I suggest you do the following…

This next step is onerous and time-consuming, but it’s an investment in the future – for the series and for you as the writer – you’ll look so awesome if you already have in place a detailed document for each substantial character, the In-depth Character Profile.

I’m currently writing a Telemovie/ Limited Series and for most of the leads (an ensemble piece) each profile is around 8 – 10 pages. Suffice to say, these documents take ‘forever’ to write, but once done, there’s LOTS of things you know about your character, which you can then draw upon, as need be.

I’d advise you to do this on computer – draw up a table with the following sections:

  • Character Logline
  • Narrative Arc (from their POV)
  • Specific ‘issues’ (they contend with)
  • Character arc (do they grow/change?)
  • Subtext logline (their essential character e.g. ‘damaged goods’)
  • Subtext (what’s really going on, are they cognizant about it or not)
  • Subtext identity (what drives them subconsciously)
  • Potential drivers to their subtext, that include intimate relationships – past & present, relationships with other characters, backstory of the character, world view, belief system/s, attitudes/convictions, source of passion -what do they care about
  • Attitude towards the natural environment
  • ‘Life metaphor’ (code of ethics or lack thereof)
  • Rules they obey (or not )
  • Strategies they use to get what they want
  • Justification for the way they feel and act)
  • Character traits – physical and psychological
  • Special skills
  • Conscious desires
  • Conflicting desires
  • Subconscious need
  • Character flaw (and why)
  • Guarded secret
  • Paradoxes – personality and behavior
  • Internal wound
  • Source of vulnerability
  • Meaningful and difficult Choices including rising Challenges across the narrative arc
  • Dilemma.
  • Know that in each category, you need to answer the above in relation to the premise, theme and story-world you have set up – just don’t make shit up – it must resonate with the narrative, and the other characters.

Now go a step further and develop a Character Web, as in how are the Characters and the incidents occurring in their respective back stories related?

This is mind-bending stuff, but it serves two functions – the characters, if they’re ‘real’, will evolve on the page – you’ll learn things about them you never knew existed.

I know this sounds ‘loopy’ – just get on with it. I’ve come from a scientific background where being analytical and detail-oriented, ruled supreme and in my humble opinion, if you want a really, rich story world and 3-dimensional characters, you’ve just got to do this stuff.

Also, because the characters are so tightly integrated, the narrative will be a cohesive whole AND it will make each character much harder to cut or merge… the actor who lands the role will thank you.

You won’t have these documents set in stone at the outset, but the dynamics between the characters and their interrelationships (the Character Web) will have begun to evolve as you set them on their narrative journey.

Trust yourself as the writer and trust the characters. Don’t forget they’re relying on you to serve them well. Don’t cheat them of anything less than your undivided attention, or they may just bite you on the butt and ‘stop talking.’

P.S. I’d also advise you work on these character documents – an hour on/fifteen minutes off, and so on.

See you in the next article… 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™.

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™.