HOW TO WRITE A TV SERIES By Christina Hamlett

HOW TO WRITE
A TV SERIES
By Christina Hamlett
(A ―Buy the Book/Get the Coach‖ edition)
All rights reserved.
No portion of this book
can be reproduced or distributed
without the permission
of the author.
HOW TO WRITE A TV SERIES
Author: Christina Hamlett
IS YOUR TV IDEA READY FOR PRIME TIME?
Whether it's a wacky sitcom, a police drama, a soap opera, or a reality show, every TV
program starts out as an idea in someone's head. Turning that rough concept into a series
that viewers will want to watch every week, however, requires catching the interest of
someone in the position of casting, directing and producing it. No simple task indeed,
especially when you also have to factor in its ability to attract advertisers and sustain the
interest and curiosity of the target demographic.
How do you know whether your idea lends itself
to the limitations of the small screen? For one
thing, it has to be a unique story that will
resonate with an audience. Secondly, it has to be
a story that you have the rights to negotiate; in
other words, your own original material and not
someone else‘s. Third – and perhaps the most
important element in the equation – is that you
have to be truly passionate about what you‘re
trying to pitch for development instead of just
thinking about how much money you could
make that will allow you to quit your day-job.
Too often in my business as a script consultant, for instance, I see aspiring writers who
ignore their own distinctive voice and vision because they‘re too busy trying to imitate
current TV shows that are popular. On the one hand, it‘s easy to understand this line of
thinking when every season seems to debut ―new‖ programs that already feel familiar to
us – the flakey New York roommates, the shrewish wife and clueless husband, the
conspiracy theorists and alien chasers, the love/hate combustibility of coworkers. On the
other hand, why would viewers be lured to follow a copycat as long as the genuine article
is either still in the picture or still very dear to their hearts?
Another common problem is the lack of an action plan that is both
dynamic and plausible to take one‘s characters beyond the first few
episodes. Unlike a feature-length movie where the conflict is resolved
after two hours, a television series needs to keep swimming forward
like a shark and finding new food from year to year in order to survive.
For example, a sitcom family that keeps splashing around in the same dull pond without
any real quest, conflict or threat to the status quo is not as compelling a premise as a
drama in which a man wrongly accused of murder seeks to evade capture and find the
actual killer.
While it can certainly be argued that the right choice of actors can make virtually any
suburban scenario sparkle or sustain a longstanding ―will they/won‘t they‖ sexual
tension, your job as a writer is to hook that cast from the get-go with the kind of roles and
situations that could potentially position them for an Emmy.
That‘s what this workbook is all about – learning the craft and having great fun at the
same time!
BUY THE BOOK/GET THE COACH
The content you‘re about to dive into was originally developed for the online courses I
offer to writers of all ages. Unlike a traditional classroom or Internet chat room where
you have to be tuned in every week at the same place and time and in the company of
other students, my own approach has always been a learning platform where you‘re truly
in a class by yourself! All of the lecture materials you need to understand the principles
of genres, concepts, character development, dialogue, settings, formatting, log lines and
synopses are contained in this package.
When I decided to make the materials available in a book format, it was because I
discovered that not every student who registered for class had the time (or necessarily the
discipline) to finish the writing assignments in each module. Even with the freedom to
complete work at their own pace, life‘s ongoing intrusions – work, illness, vacation,
stress – don‘t always make it possible to carve out enough time to do homework. On the
flip side, removing the opportunity for readers to ask lots of questions, get feedback on
their progress, and even have ―do-overs‖ would defeat my goal of helping aspiring
authors hone their craft. How many times, for instance, have you read a how-to text and
wished you could have asked the writer for additional advice or for clarification of steps
and concepts that were confusing?
Accordingly, this book represents the best of both worlds. You can read the entire thing
from start to finish without doing a single assignment. On the other hand, if you like the
idea of a one-on-one coach to walk you through the process and critique your work, that
service is available for a registration fee of $50. In addition to customized evaluations,
your participation as an active student means I‘ll be providing you with supplemental
materials if (1) there‘s an area of this craft that you could use some extra help with or (2)
there‘s something you really want to know about that isn‘t covered in the basic course.
If you decide to proceed as a student instead of just a reader, please drop me an email via
my website at http://www.authorhamlett.com with the subject line: BUY THE
BOOK/GET THE COACH and I‘ll provide you with payment registration details.
Some of the essay assignments can be completed in the form of email text. Projects
involving dialogue, scenes and formatting, however, should be submitted as attachments.
These can be in Word, Rich Text, Adobe Acrobat or Final Draft. There‘s also no shortage
of recommended books and websites throughout these pages to enhance your knowledge
of script development and pitching opportunities.
The culmination of the class is the submission of an original 30-minute pilot episode.
Your script can be in any genre, take place in any setting, and be peopled by as few or as
many characters as you feel are necessary to deliver the story. My only cautionary note
about this is that the subject you choose for your show should be something with which
you‘re thoroughly familiar. If you‘ve never worked in an ER, investigated crime scenes,
flipped burgers, raced cars or defended clients in a courtroom, there‘s a high likelihood
that audiences are going to know when you‘re just making stuff up. That‘s not to say, of
course, that you can‘t define your own parameters of a fantasy, SciFi or alternative
universe; for backdrops such as these, you need only be consistent in adhering to
whatever rules govern it and whatever powers are ascribed to the denizens that inhabit it.
If you‘re simply staying on as a reader, you can skip over this next part and proceed
directly to LESSON ONE.
BEFORE WE JUMP IN…
…I‘d like to know a little bit about you and why you‘re taking the class. Specifically:
1.
2.
3.
4.
What‘s your writing background?
Have you ever done any acting?
What attracted you to take this class?
Do you already have an idea for a TV show? In 25 words or less, what‘s it about?
5. What is/was your favorite TV program and why were you a loyal viewer?
6. What‘s the last show you watched on television? Did you like it or hate it and
why?
7. If you could be adopted for a week by any fictional TV family or work for any
―employer‖ (fictional or nonfictional) on a TV program, who would it be and
why?
8. What would you most like to learn from this class?
Please send me your replies at [email protected] As soon as you do, you can then
turn to the first lesson and get started.
LESSON ONE:
Concepts, Genres &
What You Can Learn From Commercials
PLUGGING INTO CREATIVITY
Once the word gets out that you‘re a writer, don‘t be surprised how many people will
either (1) tell you some idea of theirs that they think would make a good story or (2) ask
you how and where you find your own ideas to write about.
In the first scenario, you really can‘t fault their enthusiasm and sincerity for just trying to
be helpful. Unfortunately, a lot of them don‘t have a smart grasp on the distinctions that
separate concepts for film and TV from novels, stage plays and short stories; they simply
assume that every plot is a one-size-fits-all.
In the second scenario, I often give the reply that real life is full of free material and that
it‘s all a matter of keeping my eyes and ears open. This answer, however, usually causes
them to say, ―But seriously, where do you get your ideas?‖ Non-writers, I think, assume
that ideas are magically beamed into the heads of authors every night via satellite
transmissions from Saturn or perhaps emailed on a monthly basis from the Schenectady
Inspiration Service.
The reality is that every time you listen to music, pick up a newspaper, go for a walk,
look at old photographs, stand in a grocery store line, ride public transportation, listen to
a sermon, talk to your grandparents, eat in a restaurant, watch the news, read the classics
or revisit some of the fairy tales, myths and fables you grew up with, there are squillions
of ideas and characters there that are all saying ―Pick me! Pick me!‖ They‘re also
frequently ―hiding‖ in plain sight but have a tendency to get overlooked because we‘re
either thinking much too hard or telling ourselves that if it‘s such a stellar idea someone
else has already used it.
Yes, they probably have. Those predecessors aren‘t you, though. They don‘t have your
unique voice, your unique frame of reference and your unique outlook on how the world
should be. Imagine, for instance, if Leonard Bernstein had said, ―Well, I guess there‘s no
point in doing West Side Story because that Shakespeare guy already did Romeo and
Juliet.‖ And how many sitcoms might never have been penned if writers embraced the
attitude that The Odd Couple had closed the door on any new shows about roommates?
A ―STORY‖ ISN‘T THE SAME AS A ―PLOT‖
The words ―story‖ and ―plot‖ are often used interchangeably. So much so, in fact, that
new writers often think they share the same definition. Where this belief can lead them
astray is in planning the direction they want their projects and imaginations to go. Let‘s
say that your friends ask you what your new TV show is going to be about. Your answer
may be something along the order of ―It‘s about a homecoming queen who loses her
crown‖ or ―It‘s about a parrot that likes to herd sheep‖ or ―It‘s about a college dropout
who goes to live with his grandfather.‖
The operative words in each case are ―It‘s about‖ — a one-liner summary of the type of
tale it‘s going to be without giving away any of the specifics on where the characters
came from or where they‘re going next. When you can explain the gist of your show in
one sentence like the examples above, you‘re talking about the story. Assuming your
listeners are intrigued with your reply, the next thing they‘ll probably ask is, ―So how did
she lose her crown?‖, ―Wow! Where did the parrot learn to do that?‖ or ―Do the two of
them get along?‖ Any question that queries how a situation happened to come about or
how it is going to unfold in the future is answered in terms of the plot.
Although these two words have independent meanings, they are nonetheless dependent on
each other‘s presence when it comes to writing a good TV script. A story needs a plot to
help it stay on course, open up speed and reach the finish line. A plot, however, needs the
vehicle of an interesting story to give it a starting point to enter the track in the first place.
ASSIGNMENT #1
If there really were such an entity as the Schenectady Inspiration Service, it would
probably be masquerading as a website called Hatch‘s Plot Bank
(http://www.angelfire.com/nc/tcrpress/plotbank.html) . This ingenious resource currently
has over 2,000 one-liner plot entries that can be adapted to stage, page, or screen. For the
purposes of this exercise, I‘ve pulled out 10 of them for you to choose from:
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
6.
starts assuming the role of a dead sibling
ancient oak on family homestead is dying
dad's new business partner shows some unexpected demands
adopts a child without telling anyone
local homeless man will spy for little money
library research reveals a secret about the town
7. local cable show turns into a big hit
8. thinks they have talent for designing lingerie
9. family members take up competing stores
10. mice take over the neighborhood
Your assignment is to choose one premise from this list that you think would make a good
TV series and explain why the premise is sustainable. Determine what kind of character
should play the lead. In addition, you‘ll need to identify (1) the core conflict, (2) how the
conflict personally affects him/her, (3) what he/she intends to do to resolve it, and (4) what
will the consequences be if he/she fails?
This should be in an essay format not to exceed 750 words.
GENRES ARE TO TV WHAT MENUS ARE TO RESTAURANTS
What‘s your favorite kind of food? If your answer is
Chinese, you probably wouldn‘t go to a Tex-Mex
restaurant and find chow mein and eggs rolls prominently
displayed on its menu. Nor would you expect to find New
York–style hot dogs if you went into an establishment
whose specialty was advertised as English tea and scones.
A correlation can be made to the ingredients found in
different kinds of TV programs. While there are plenty of
shows that have ―a little of this‖ and ―a smidge of that,‖
most of them concentrate on a specific cuisine that they
know they can prepare well. In the storytelling biz, this is
called ―genre‖ and clues in hungry viewers on what kind of
fare to expect.
Genre is what makes it easy for you to find your favorite type of movie rental or novel at
a store. If the selections were all mixed together like goulash, it could take you forever to
find the latest martial arts film or Sophie Kinsella chick-lit. Instead, these works are
categorized according to their primary content. Within these divisions, you‘ll also find
subgenres, especially in romance (i.e., Gothic, Regency, romantic suspense) and mystery
(i.e., amateur sleuths, police procedurals, historical).
The two broadest categories are fiction and nonfiction. While ―real life‖ nonfiction can
often inspire a fictional story or ―what if?‖ tableau, ―reel life‖ fiction takes characters that
aren‘t real people and puts them in situations that have relatable elements for the rest of
us – suburbia, the office, a neighborhood bar. Even when the main characters aren‘t
ordinary, workaday folks – vampires, witches, Dr. Who – they regularly encounter
problems predicated on reward, revenge or escape (the three cornerstones of conflict).
Common genres are:
Action
Comedy
Documentary
Historical
Occult/Supernatural
Science Fiction
Time Travel
Young Adult
Adventure
Coming of Age
Drama
Horror
Romance
Suspense
War
Biography
Crime
Fantasy
Mystery
Romantic Comedy
Thriller
Western
There are also a number of television programs that are reality-based platforms. These
include game shows, talk shows, competitions (such as Dancing With The Stars, Cupcake
Wars, American Idol, Survivor), investigative (such as History Detectives, Myth Busters,
Ghost Hunters) and how-to series that focus on topics such as cooking, dog training,
crafts and home remodeling.
ASSIGNMENT #2
For whatever TV show premise you chose in Assignment #1, decide what the most
effective and imaginative genre would be to successfully hook a following from the
very first episode. Justify your choice in an essay not to exceed 100 words.
The type of TV show you want to write is often a reflection of the programs you most
enjoy watching.
ASSIGNMENT #3
Identify six TV shows that are all in your favorite genre. Two of them should be
shows that are currently on the air. The next two should be shows you really liked that
were cancelled after their first season. The final two should be shows produced prior
to 1990. Consider each of these shows‘ respective strengths and weaknesses. Your
homework – in the form of a short essay – is to describe your own concept for an
original series, its target demographic (i.e., families, teens, women), and how it
compares and contrasts with the six existing shows you chose for study.
Note: If your memory about TV shows needs some refreshing, check out:
http://www.epguides.com/menu/year.shtml
DON‘T TOUCH THAT DIAL!
Could you tell a whole story from start to finish if you only had 60 seconds? How about
30 seconds? Impossible as that seems, TV ads accomplish this 24/7. Their goal is to sell a
product or service to viewers in as little time as possible. Since money is a big factor, too,
they need to meet their goal with a small cast and a small number of locations. And
although they‘re short, commercials adhere to the same three-act structure as any other
form of storytelling – a beginning that introduces the problem, a middle that raises the
stakes, and an ending that resolves the problem.
As an example, here‘s one of Budweiser‘s most popular commercials:
The setting is an Old West street on the back lot of a
Hollywood studio. The director and camera crew are
frustrated with their canine star because he’s not reacting
with proper pathos to the fact his human pal has just been
gunned down. The trainer, desperate to appeal to the dog’s
sense of method acting, pleads with him to recall his most
painful moment. The scene dissolves to the dog’s blissful
memory of trying to catch a passing Budweiser truck by
leaping the fence - and crashing his nose right into it. Back
on the set, he is now howling with such convincing agony
that the entire crew is weeping. What may look like an
amusing sketch concocted to sell beer only works – even
from an advertising standpoint - because it has all the
elements necessary to communicate a complete story:
The Cast: The dog and the Hollywood crew.
The Locations: The Western set and the dog’s front yard.
The Problem (BEGINNING): The dog will lose his job if
the film scene can’t be completed.
The Attempt to Resolve (MIDDLE): Flashback/memory
sequence.
The Resolution (END): By recalling his most painful
moment, the dog summons the necessary emotion to make
the scene a howling success.
The actual placement of commercials is also critical since they need to tap into the
mindset and buying power of the audience. You wouldn‘t, for instance, try to sell baby
products in the middle of a football game or try to hawk real estate during Saturday
morning cartoons. This would be like entering your comedy short in a contest or film
festival that‘s only looking for dramas. Why? Because the best message in the world will
be totally lost if it doesn‘t play to the right crowd.
Advertisers also often use characters that are already
familiar to viewers and place them in unexpected – and
often humorous – scenarios. AT&T®, for example,
portrays Hansel and Gretel as tiny tourists in the Big
Apple who are blissfully unaware that pigeons are
gobbling up the trail of breadcrumbs they‘ve been
dropping along the way. No worries. Gretel
remembered to bring the GPS to get them safely home.
In an ad for Snickers®, Henry VIII and Bacchus are on
a road trip in a tiny car with friends and singing a
chorus of Greensleeves. For a series of insurance ads,
Geico® served up the incongruity of two articulate
cavemen watching TV in their bachelor apartment,
dining in fine restaurants, bowling, and participating in
psychotherapy sessions.
ASSIGNMENT #4
Watch one of the following: (1) a sitcom, (2) a sports event, (3) a dramatic series, (4) a
reality show, or (5) a cartoon. Make a list of what kind of commercials appear in the
program you chose. In a short list, identify the following in each commercial:






The age, gender, and number of characters
The problem presented
The solution to the problem
The number of locations
The length of the commercial
Why this product/service would appeal to people watching
Last but not least, identify the types of advertisers who would be the most receptive to
your own original series and why.
JUST FOR FUN
Want to learn more from commercials? Bookmark these websites:
http://tvadsview.com/
http://guyism.com/celebrities/embarrassing-before-they-were-famous-commercials.html
http://www.bestadsontv.com/
http://www.clioawards.com/winners
And I personally think that the commercials with the biggest heart just happen to feature
the biggest horses: http://blogs.westword.com/cafesociety/2011/08/post_31.php. (My
favorite of this bunch is A Dalmatian channels Mickey Goldmill.)
LESSON TWO:
CHARACTERS, SETTINGS &
WHAT CHEKHOV KNEW ABOUT SITCOMS
When was the last time you watched a TV show that you just couldn‘t get excited about?
Chances are that it‘s because there wasn‘t a single person in the cast you could personally
relate to. Maybe its entire plot was peopled with squeaky second graders. Maybe it was a
panel discussion comprised of foreign speakers who were all over the age of seventy. It
might even have been a sitcom with middle-aged mavens who not only bore no
resemblance to anyone you‘ve ever met but who had relationship problems which,
frankly, weren‘t all that compelling.
Contrast this to the shows that have struck an instant chord. Is it because the characters
love and hate the same things that you do? Are they engaged in adventures or holding
down jobs you think you might like yourself? Have they had things happen to them that
are similar to your own experiences? Are they people you‘d like to have lunch with or
maybe go out on a date? These are the kind of questions that go into the development of
―relatable‖ characters in a television series.
In order to forge an emotional connection
with a fictitious character, an audience needs
to recognize areas of common ground. A
series about teen angst in the classroom, at
home or onstage, for instance, needs teen
characters in the lead roles that teen viewers
can relate to, learn from and vicariously root
for.
As another example, courting the 40+ female
demographic for the sitcom Hot In Cleveland
called for the casting of four age-appropriate
stars: Jane Leeves (51), Wendy Malick (62),
Valerie Bertinelli (52) and Betty White (90).
Seeing these attractive, plucky, single women
navigating life and love in the 21st century
was an instant hit with viewers who found
the situational silliness to be totally plausible.
Inviting an audience into the protagonist‘s shoes every week requires that the protagonist
possess traits, skills, relationships and dreams that the average, workaday person might
like to have themselves. Whether it‘s for their courage, looks, brains, powers, talents,
popularity, large New York apartments or just their ensemble of wacky but loyal friends,
relatable characters are those that viewers will want to stay with for the whole ride.
Just being relatable, however, isn‘t enough when it comes to the longevity of a series.
Whether the genre is comedic or dramatic, the characters must exist within a framework
that gives them sustainable problems. These fall into three categories:
1. THE PROTAGONIST WITH ONGOING BUT INSULAR
TRIBULATIONS. In most cases, the character has been living
with the problem for years but it is neither threatening enough to
create a call for action nor capable of ever being resolved within its
current context. Examples: Everybody Loves Raymond; The Office.
2. THE PROTAGONIST WITH AN ONGOING PERSONAL
QUEST. In this motif, the lead character never loses sight of
his/her core mission no matter how many new relationships,
obstacles or distractions come along. Examples: The Fugitive;
Monk.
3. THE PROTAGONIST WITH AN ONGOING COMMITMENT
TO RESOLVE OTHER PEOPLE‘S PROBLEMS. Dramatic series
that revolve around lawyers, doctors and investigators fall into this
category and feature an ensemble cast that interacts each week
with new characters whose presence is typically confined to just
one episode. Examples: Grimm; Rosemary & Thyme.
ASSIGNMENT #1
What are the last three TV shows you watched? For each one, explain which of the
categories described above apply to the lead characters and why.
ASSIGNMENT #2
In the original series you want to write, which of these same categories apply to your
protagonist and why? What is the prevailing social hierarchy (office, family, school,
marriage) and how does your protagonist fit into it?
CONFLICT GROWS OUT OF CHARACTER/CHARACTER GROWS
OUT OF CONFLICT
No matter what genre you choose for your TV
series, there has to be something at stake that
continuously drives the action forward. Conflict is,
thus, the intersection where your characters‘
respective intentions, beliefs, and past experiences
all crash into each other. Conflict, however, can‘t
simply emerge from nothing; it needs to be fueled
by the clash of wills that occurs whenever people
who feel they have nothing in common are forced to
share the same space.
Bringing these dissimilar personalities together is what ignites the conflict that keeps the
story watchable. Think of your script, then, as a figurative ―locked room‖ in which the
characters must either learn to co-exist with their differences or to disable the opposition.
Human beings – even the fictional ones running around inside your head – are works in
progress. In the episodes you‘ll be writing for them, your characters will routinely – and
even reluctantly - be forced to confront their fears, flaws and value systems when
presented with problems they‘ve never faced before. Whether it‘s a rampaging monster
that comes into town or a loved one who‘s moving out of the picture, the lead character is
sometimes called upon to make some adjustments to his/her thinking. If this conflict had
not been introduced, things would have pretty much stayed status quo.
This evolution is called the ―character arc‖ and suggests that whoever a person was at the
beginning will be impacted by the conflict, a condition which will foment the seeds that
challenge him or her to expand beyond previous limitations by the final scene. While this
works handily for movie scripts that have a finite resolution, TV characters tend to evolve
very little from season to season. Accordingly, no matter the situation that arises, we can
predict with a fair amount of accuracy how they are going to react to it and this is exactly
what makes us feel so comfortable with them.
Although there may be occasional moments when they do something completely out of
character – i.e., The Office‘s conniving Dwight Schrute performing a selfless act or the
dependable Joe Hackett from Wings having an angry meltdown – it‘s only a short-lived
lapse. When series fail, however, it‘s often because their writers attempted tactics that took
characters out of their comfort zones. This reinvention phenomenon has been dubbed
―jumping the shark‖ and has its own website: http://www.tvguide.com/jumptheshark.
PERSONALITY PROFILES
Back in the days when I ran an acting company, a routine component of the rehearsal
process was for my actors to complete a one-page questionnaire about the characters they
were playing. Although the questions asked sometimes had nothing to do with the actual
roles (i.e., asking what type of car he or she would drive, even though cars had yet to be
invented in the era being portrayed), it was a useful exercise for understanding their
characters‘ personalities inside out. Specifically, they weren‘t as likely to forget their
lines during a performance if they had spent the time beforehand immersing themselves
in who their characters really were. This exercise also works well for writers because it
provides a blueprint from which to develop situational comedy or drama.
ASSIGNMENT #3
Pretend you are the lead character in your TV series and answer each of the following
questions.
Full name:
Age/Gender/Ethnicity:
Relationship Status:
Occupation:
Education:
Living relatives:
Lifestyle/Locale:
Pet(s):
My greatest strength:
My biggest weakness:
My deepest fear:
My most treasured possession:
What I‘d do with a million dollars:
My closest friend:
My worst enemy:
The last time I laughed:
The last time I cried:
My favorite food:
My favorite song:
The person I‘d most like to trade places with:
The one thing I hope no one ever learns about me: