TV Writing: How it's different, how you can prepare - and also clever backstory
At present TV drama is king. Everyone wants to get into it. And why not? The quality and variety of TV at present is dazzling. The long form serial model permits wonderfully complex plotlines and character development. But while it might look easy, TV drama involves a mass of restrictions plus a raft of TV-specific skills, not the least of which is multiple plots and protagonists.
Unfortunately, a lot of emerging writers with a wide knowledge of film writing theory assume that they can easily transition into TV drama, alas, not so. I came into TV writing with stage credits, a feature film on the way and endorsements from a bunch of people, and writing my first episode of TV drama nearly killed me. I could not believe the restrictions.
You'll get the idea when I say I wanted to write a gang-war story, but we couldn't afford the gang (!). And that was just for starters. I can laugh now. At the time there were so many rules and limits my head was spinning.
The problem is, you don’t write for television. You write around the restrictions of television, which (particularly in the cheaper shows, which are most new writers' entry point), are dictated by budget and screen time. These are restrictions like limited sets, story beats, locations, number of scenes (thus limiting lighting set up changes) , actor availability and number of guest actors, serial content, screen time, season arcs, character arcs, limited time span for stories (to prevent costume changes thus save money) and of course, you have to create and interweave multiple storylines, always three or upwards, and always at speed (and I mean four or five days for a scene outline of the whole episode).
It's not a matter of having talent. Of course you have to have talent, but the issue is that you have to know and tick all the restriction boxes with your stories and your characters (and do this very well indeed) before you can even begin to apply the skills and knowledge you have from your film work - great dialogue, great characterisation, powerful emotion and all the rest.
I spent many years on and off first writing all sort of TV drama, then being a TV drama fixer and nowadays, between my film teaching and VR film writing, I talk to new and experienced TV writers about the craft (to the senior ones about the nightmare of feeding binge viewing, and how we can use nonlinear story arcs to create it ).
Fun as it all was and is and artistically challenging as it was and is, you have to understand that television is a business. However dazzlingly brilliant, it's a kind of production line. Yes, film is a business too, but it's different. You get the money and you make the film. Then you go on to the next film. If film is like cooking a slap-up meal for fifty guests at your best friends' wedding - a cook's tour de force, TV series and serial writing is like running a restaurant that has to come in on quality and budget six days a week, with you working from morning to night whenever the situation demands and whether or not you've blown the budget this week because the cooker broke down.
And if you, a new writer, can't do the job then however nice your bosses in the production company are - and they are usually nice and very concerned about their writers, they will have to let you go. The train has to move on. And given there are literally hundreds of writers queuing for the chance, that's not good news for you.
I always find it distressing when I see talented new writers being dropped because they were unprepared. The problem is that they might not get picked up again. I've seen this too often.
Anyway, all of this is why I offered to give a webinar on TV-Specific Writing Skills for the London Screenwriters' Festival people's Talent Campus participants (who are going to be writing a work for TV among other things) rather than bang on to them about nonlinear and flashback storytelling. And since you can't learn TV writing in one webinar (it's not only about learning a mass of completely new techniques - it's about practising and practising so you can build up the speed and strong nerves you need to hit those deadlines) I finally got my act together about online courses and am now about to create an online TV-Specific Writing Skills course for people trying to break into TV writing.
And yes, I know I've been going on about writing these online courses for years and haven't got around to it, but now I am.
I'm basing the course on one I did for new TV writers for BBC TV Northern Ireland and adding a bunch of other stuff for people to do so they can practice and get up their speeds. And I'll include a recording of that Talent Campus webinar if I can. So I'm getting all fired up about this course (I'd have loved one myself when I first went into TV) But I want to test the waters first. Is a course like this something you'd be interested in?
If so, I'd be really pleased if you could complete the survey below. That way I can gauge the demand and create a course to suit you.
And by the way, I've written an e book on TV Writing, called (with great originality) Television Writing: The Ground Rules of Series, Serials and Sitcom. It doesn't have my latest stuff about nonlinear story arcs in long form TV drama series, but it's a sound little book, I think. You will laugh at the cover - a typewriter. ( Seriously? I mean, really... Publisher had the photo and refused to buy another one...) By the way, if you see it for free, it's a pirate copy. Don't assist these people. They're rogues.
While I'm talking nonlinear TV, check out The Cry - very interesting use of nonlinear storytelling in TV. Also, for lovely bit of hidden backstory, have another look at the opening of Series 1 of the wonderful Sally Wainwright's Happy Valley. First scene has the central character, a down to earth police sergeant, revealing a huge slab of her domestic history (plus the character's personality, job skills, class, occupation ) without us noticing (well, we writers noticed, but you get what I mean) because it comes out naturally, dynamically, as part of a story about her talking down a young man threatening to set himself alight having lost his girlfriend. Nice work Ms W.
Here's the survey! Just a quick 'yes' or 'no' would be great. Keep writing those scripts!