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™.

Diana Black: Character Chemistry

by Diana Black

While we writers  often feel like the unsung heroes of Hollywood, we do keep the Hollywood planet rotating on its crazy axis. As storytellers, we’re the Master Chefs in the Creativity Kitchen. Without a rippin’ good yarn and characters bursting with vitality, they’ve got nothin’!

For our Pilot to be green-lit, for the first season to have a ‘brother’ and then a sister, there must be dynamic ‘character interaction’ lighting up every page, within every episode and across seasons.

While the individual actor will be a vital ingredient by adding their own unique flavor to the magical brew you’re concocting, there’s only so much an actor can do with on-the-nose dialogue, ‘pedestrian’ action, and lack of ‘character chemistry’.

A-listers are picky about their next project and with good reason, it’s their butt on the line because they’re ‘in frame’, which means they’re also picky about who they’re going to ‘play with’.

While we don’t have much input into the casting process, which is largely the Producer’s job, if there’s palpable chemistry between the actors AND the characters they’re portraying via the dialogue and action, the room will light up.

But what if you’ve pitched your project successfully, it’s been green-lit, and the auditioning process is underway and OMG, the room doesn’t light up, what if the gleam in the suits’ eyes begin to pale… someone’s gotta go.

So how can we ensure our creation provides better-than-great material for actors to work with?

Know before we pitch, rather than vaguely hope, that our material is awesome and from page one and every page thereafter. Conduct a Table read of your work before pitching and use real actors you’ve auditioned beforehand… if you’ve got the chemistry right, you’ll see sparks fly.

An actor eager for a chance to play is one thing, but how do we know our material will stack up under rigorous, if not vicious scrutiny?

For starters, ‘pixie dust’ in the form of great writing is a given and as the humble writer in the room, that’s about all we can deliver.

Our two-cents-worth in the casting process will be just that – minimal, so we must rely on our writing. If we’re a staff writer, there’ll be plenty of other writers in the room only too willing to outshine us and impress the showrunner with their brilliant, pithy dialogue and hip action… no end to pressure – we’re only as good as our last performance.

But what if we’re spec writers without that vicious sounding board?

The writer’s group who meet every third Tuesday may not be a good choice.

There’s sure to be more than one of us out there who’ve received feedback, which calls into question what planet or drugs was the reader on when they ‘read’ it?

Because it’s clear they didn’t; they merely perused it; if that. Most of us are honest, but some struggle with the demons of insecurity, jealousy and downright laziness.

Once you written the entire narrative, run multiple passes on each component of the script: the dialogue – one character at a time and for every scene they’re in; their action; character ‘voice’; mannerisms and style.

Is there consistency across the narrative arc? Does the dialogue ‘flow’? Critique without mercy!

Think about how an actor might play a specific character and deal with the scene, how the characters interact on the page and what’s in it for them.

The actor that’s cast will get under the character’s skin and take on that persona, which means there’s a duality going on in their heads, and you’d be wise to take that into account.

Once you’ve done the aforementioned passes, work through the script scene-by-scene, and do a scene analysis for both characters.

Examine one character at a time. Determine the following: Scene objective, Beats and for each of those, the Beat objective, action, the emotional state of the character/actor coming into that beat and the accompanying Subtext.

This may sound like gobbledygook to you, but actors that are properly trained, go through this process, scene-by-scene in preparation; it’s not a matter of just ‘winging it’ with raw talent and memorized lines.

Let’s gaze into our crystal ball… the project has been green-lit and auditions are underway… if the professional actor has prepared properly, they’ll be able to take direction and make adjustment.

One way to do this is by having three (3) different ways to present the scene. For the Casting Director, this demonstrates flexibility and a willingness to work with the Director.

Have you, as the writer, provided them with the scope to do that? For your work to be true ‘actor bait’, it’s not just the rippin’ good yarn you’ve told and the compelling character/s you’ve created, but also, and especially for A-lists, how well the script is written.

Professional actors are reading scripts or excerpts from them, every day – they know a good script when they see one. If knowing the attached Director, they’ll already have some idea of the latter’s ‘signature style’ and the likely choices he/she will make to realize their vision.

Just quietly, you as the writer, need to set these people up. Make it an enticing, sugar-coated trap, that’s mutually beneficial for all concerned.

Back to the present… once you’re sure that you’ve got each scene as dynamic and polished to the nth degree, seek reputable, industry-standard coverage and/or take a class with LB… he’ll tell you straight.

A study of what’s currently out there – on screen and on the page via the script, will help you better understand the concept of character chemistry. Determine whether it’s happening in other TV shows, and ideally, how you can ‘deliver’ on that.

Select a program and do multiple viewings of the same episode, focusing on one actor at a time.

Does he/she (the actor) look comfortable? Does the banter between the actors match their body-language? It always cracks me up watching Actor A (in character) say, “I love you, sweetheart” to Actor B (also in character), while shaking their head in denial.

Look at their eyes – you’ll generally be able to tell if the actor is ‘in character, boots an all’ (or not). For the dialogue, listen to the banter (don’t watch) and get a sense the ease of interaction (or lack thereof).

If the program is now into subsequent seasons, they must be doing something right; at least in the eyes on the viewing audience, and that’s what matters most (to the suits).

Take for instance, Arrow (The CW, 2012 -) … Oliver (Stephen Arnell) & Felicity (Emily Bett Rickards), are a classic example of opposites working together brilliantly.

Look at Lucifer (Fox, 2015 -) … the character Lucifer (Tom Ellis) & Chloe (Lauren German) are a couple flawlessly adept at weaving magic through their delightful witty banter and sexual tension; well done writers – namely, Tom Kapinos (and of course the actors).

If you can’t read the actual screenplay, study the dialogue across the seasons – for specific characters and think about how the actors (under direction), are maintaining energy, consistency and dynamism in the scene….

Remember, as “mere” writers, we don’t have much say as to which actor is cast, so we’re totally reliant on the script via the dialogue and action.

Get busy and be awesome!


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. She’s a ScreenwritingU Alumni and a regular contributor to TVWriter.com.

Writers and Concentration – Distraction Doesn’t Have to Win…Does It?

Nathan Bransford, author of the Jacob Wonderbar series of books, is one of TVWriter™’s go-to guys for writing and productivity tips and tricks. One particularly relevant example of Mr. Bransford’s helpfulness is the article below. Especially to this TVWriter™ minion in particular because, as my partner often says, “Distractions?” You don’t just  succumb to them, you create them just so you can do the succumbing.”

Sorry for the TMI. This should make up for it:


How to regain your concentration
by Nathan Bransford

Around the end of last year, I noticed something really alarming: I was having a seriously hard time concentrating.

  • I couldn’t write a blog post without flipping through random tabs.
  • I couldn’t read a book without checking my email.
  • I could barely make it through a long form news article.
  • Forget about trying to sit down to be productive writing a novel!

Since then, as you may have noticed with the uptick in blog post frequency, I’ve made a nearly-full concentration recovery.

You too can once again have an attention span greater than a hamster’s! Here’s what I learned about how to regain concentration.

Turn off your notifications

All of them, except for the barest essentials.

I now keep my phone almost entirely in Do Not Disturb mode, and have programmed just a few exceptions, namely phone calls from family members in case of emergencies. And I turned off notifications on my computer entirely.

Now…

  • When I walk down the street, I can let my attention wander without getting pinged. I have ideas again!
  • When I’m at my computer, I’m not getting distracted with incoming emails.
  • I’m not getting a random notification about the latest Netflix show I’m not going to watch.

Decide when YOU want to look at your phone. Don’t let your phone decide that for you.

(And for a look at some of the science behind the effect this type of technology is having on us, check out Jennifer Hubbard’s recent article in Creative Nonfiction).

Close all those browser tabs

I used to have about twenty tabs open to sites I would check frequently. Email. Facebook. Twitter. The weather. The news. You name it.

The problem with having a million tabs open is that I got into this mind-numbing habit of scrolling through them and checking for updates… even sites that basically never update.

And meanwhile, every time I got a Twitter notification or a new email, I’d jump and check it, interrupting whatever else it was I was doing.

Close those tabs, or at least limit to the precious few that you need to check a million times a day. Otherwise, open stuff only when you need to.

Write in full-screen mode

Even when I was writing, I was still constantly distracted. I’d see a new email open up behind my writing window and go and check it. And good luck if you happened to have Twitter open underneath your word processing application….

Read it all at Nathan Bransford’s Blog

Dawn McElligott: Philly to L.A. – The First Step is a Doozy

by Dawn McElligott

In February 2017, I was living in Greater Philadelphia and working at a global not-for-profit organization. The pay was low, the work was hard, and I was having tension headaches. Relief came in the form of feedback on the 2016 People’s Pilot contest from a distinguished gentleman with the initials, LB. The gist of the feedback was that the script showed enough professionalism to earn a staff writing position on a TV show but moving to Los Angeles was the first step.

By late March, I was ready to take that step. I quit my job, notified the landlord and started sorting my belongings. It took me two weeks of non-stop work to donate my used furniture to various charities and pack what I could take in the car. I borrowed money from a retirement plan for the journey. Finally, my car was packed a little after 5 pm on April 5, 2017.

I set the GPS for 200 Santa Monica Pier. Pulling out of the apartment house parking lot, I felt like I was blasting off for the moon. I drove as far as I could that evening. Fearing the effects of fatigue, I pulled over for the night and stayed at a low-budget inn. I had gotten as far as Shanksville, PA, the final resting place of Flight 93. Not exactly a good omen, but I took it to mean this was a significant journey.

The next morning, I headed out into the rain and drove to West Virginia. I had lunch at a McDonald’s restaurant. Returning to my car, an older, bearded man laughed heartily at, I suppose, my bumper stickers promoting the Hillary Clinton campaign. He got into his black pickup truck and drove away. I continued my journey too, reaching another small town, outside of St. Louis, MO, the following night.

The next morning as I prepared to leave the Comfort Inn, my Hillary Clinton bumper stickers yielded pairs of raised eyebrows from the older man and his wife, parked next to my car. Nevertheless, they seemed good natured and jovial, understanding that interstate highways bring all sorts of people together, even liberals and conservatives. They drove away and so did I.

Throughout the drive, I had too much time to think about dead relatives and friends that had passed away. In the solitude of my vehicle, I simply cried about my losses and fears for my future. Driving without the distractions of local traffic, allowed me to cry out numerous frustrations.

I might have wept out the heartaches that led to the tension headaches in Philadelphia. I began to realize why road trip movies had been so popular, years ago. Driving long distances does force introspection. The physical journey becomes a spiritual one.

Around New Mexico, I start to regret my decision not to buy a GoPro for the car. I would have picked up such spectacular footage! New Mexico’s tranquility informs me why it’s called “The Land of Enchantment.” I imagine my great loved and loving Shepherd-Rottweiler, “Punkin,” dead since 2014, reliving her youth by running happily throughout the valleys.

On Sunday, April 9, I set out from Albuquerque, NM to drive as far West as I could. I drove into Arizona and saw my first road signs, saying Los Angeles was a certain distance, 500 miles or so. What a welcome sight! I felt tired as I drove through Arizona, but I was determined to reach California, that evening.

As twilight descended, I arrived at the state’s westernmost frontier. The setting sun gilded the pointy peaks of the mountains before me, adding drama and an air of fantasy to the long-anticipated drive over the Colorado River, into Needles, CA. Hollywood couldn’t have staged a more dramatic entrance into the Golden State. Alas, no GoPro!

Not seeing any Comfort Inns or any other predictable, franchise establishments, I continued westward, despite the fatigue, until reaching Barstow. In Barstow I stayed at a hotel, part of a well-known chain. Undergoing major repairs, the inn appeared to be as close to collapsing as I was. Waking up the next morning, I realized that neither I, nor the hotel, was in a pile of rubble. It seemed like a good sign to me.

After paying the bill, I headed for my car in the parking lot. A lady parked next to mine said to me, “I love your bumper stickers… we tried.” We chatted for a bit and she left. I knew I was in a better place. I headed for Santa Monica. A traffic jam caused me to pull off the freeway in El Monte.

I found a business that does oil changes and car washes. When I paid for both, the cashier urged me to sit outside at a cute, little table in the warm sun. This was in high contrast to East Coast oil changes where I’ve been stuck indoors, pouring non-dairy creamer into coffee brewed during the Spanish-American War. Now, I was in the Golden State. Sipping soda outdoors, watching people towel dry my Hyundai Tucson, I thought of the new world I was entering.

I continued further until reaching the destination on my GPS: 200 Santa Monica Pier. A decade and a half earlier, I had lived in Anaheim but had to go back East when the Southern California economy collapsed in 2002. Now I did something I’d been waiting to do ever since. I waded along the shore of the Pacific Ocean.

Too exhausted to spend the rest of the day looking for an apartment, I treated myself to tacos, beer and conversation with the gentleman at the next table. It turned out that he had been raised in a small town next to Monroe, NY, where I’d grown up. He appeared to be an out of work actor, and in spite of facing homelessness himself, he wished me great success as he left with a wave and a “Welcome to L.A.!”

During much of the drive, I’d been afraid Southern Californians would see me only as “a woman of a certain age” arriving in Tinseltown too late for the party.  I’d thought of them as having arrived before me because they were more successful, alpha types who would see me as a failure upon arrival. I’d even envisioned them locking arms to prevent my entry into the City of the Angels.

As I watched the man go, it came to me that I was being hurt by old prejudices that I had to shed. Nobody here was trying to stop me. The only person I had to overcome was myself.


Dawn McElligott is a an award-winning writer and filmmaker in Los Angeles by way of Philadelphia and other points East. You can learn more about her HERE