How to Write for Television: 4 Rules of Series TV

Posted by Pamela Douglas on

Break out of the box of traditional screenwriting assumptions! In this excerpt from Writing the TV Drama Series: Second Edition, Pamela Douglas gives you some new rules for writing television that have changed significantly in just the past couple of years.

An hour show has to fit in an hour

Actually, a network hour is less than 50 minutes, with commercial breaks, though pay cable may be longer, and syndicated hours are shorter. Usually, scripts for drama series are around 60 pages, though a fast-talking show like The West Wing sometimes went to 70 pages. On networks that break shows (for example Lost) into five acts plus a teaser, writers are stuck with reduced screen time, and find themselves with eight page acts and scripts coming in around 48 pages. Each script is timed before production, and if it runs long (despite the page count), the writer needs to know what to trim in dialogue or which action to ellipse; if it runs short, where a new beat could add depth or a twist, not padding. And you need the craft to get it revised overnight, which leads to the next rule:

Series deadlines are for real

Your show is on every week, and that means there's no waiting for your muse, no honing the fine art of writing-avoidance, no allowing angst to delay handing in your draft. If you can't make the deadline, the show-runner has to turn over your work to another writer.

From the time your episode is assigned, you'll probably have one week to come in with an outline, a few days to revise it, two weeks to deliver the first draft teleplay, a gap of a couple of days for notes, then one week to write your second draft - a total of around six weeks from pitch to second draft (though polishes and production revisions will add another couple of weeks or so). Maybe that sounds daunting, but once you're on a staff you're living the series, and the pace can be exhilarating. You'll hear your words spoken by the actors, watch the show put together, and see it on screen quickly too.
_x000D_ It's fun until the nightmare strikes. On a series, the nightmare is a script that "falls out" at the last minute. It may happen like this: the story seems to make sense when it's pitched. The outline comes in with holes, but the staff thinks it can be made to work. Then they read the first draft and see the problems aren't solved. It's given to another writer to fix. Meanwhile the clock is ticking. Pre-production, including sets, locations, casting have to go ahead if the script is going to shoot next week. Tick tock. Another draft, and the flaw - maybe an action the lead character really wouldn't do, or a plot element that contradicts the episode just before or after, or a forced resolution that's not credible - now glares out at everyone around the table. Yet another draft, this time by the supervising producer. Tick tock. Or maybe it's not the writer's fault: the exact fictional crisis about a hostage has suddenly occurred in real life so the episode can not be aired. The script has to be abandoned - it "falls out." Meanwhile, the production manager is waiting to prep, and publicity has gone out.

I once heard a panel discussion where a respected show-runner told this very nightmare. The cast and crew were literally on the set and absolutely had to start shooting that day for the episode to make the air date. But they had no script. In desperation, the show-runner, renowned as a great writer, commenced dictating as a secretary transcribed and runners dashed to the set bringing one page at a time. A hand shot up from an admirer in the panel audience, "Was it the best thing you ever wrote?" "No," he laughed, "it didn't make sense."

Drama series have a 4 (or 5) Act structure

Put away your books on three-act structure. Television dramas on networks have for decades been written in four acts, though some shows now use five acts, and in 2006, ABC began mandating six acts for all hour dramas. For now, think about what happens every 13 to 15 minutes on a traditional network show. You know: a commercial break. These breaks aren't random; they provide a grid for constructing the episode in which action rises to a cliffhanger or twist ("plot point" may be a familiar term if you've studied feature structure). Each of the four segments are "acts" in the same sense as plays have real acts rather than the theoretical acts described in analyzing features. At a stage play, at the end of an act the curtain comes down, theatre lights come up, and the audience heads for refreshments or the restrooms. That's the kind of hard act break that occurs in television. Writers plan towards those breaks and use them to build tension.

Once you get the hang of it, you'll discover act breaks don't hamper your creativity; they free you to be inventive within a rhythmic grid. And once you work with that 15-minute block, you may want to use it off-network and in movies. In fact, next time you're in a movie theatre, notice the audience every fifteen minutes. You may see them shifting in their seats. I don't know whether 15-minute chunks have been carved into contemporary consciousness by the media, or if they're aspects of human psychology which somehow evolved with us, but the 15-minute span existed before television. In the early 20th century, motion pictures were distributed on reels that projectionists had to change every 15 minutes. Then, building on that historical pattern, some screenwriting theorists began interpreting features as eight 15-minute sequences. Whatever the origin, four acts are the template for drama series on the networks, but not off-network. Syndicated series, like the various Star Trek incarnations, have to leave time for local advertising on individual stations which buy the shows, and that means more commercial breaks. So syndicated series are written in five acts, and may also have a teaser which is sometimes almost as long as an act, giving an impression of 6 acts, each around 10 pages long. On the other side of the spectrum, cable series like those on HBO have no act breaks, and may be structured more like movies.

Each series fits a franchise

Not Starbucks, though enough caffeine is downed on late rewrites to earn that franchise too. Some typical television franchises include detective, legal, medical, sci-fi, action-adventure, teen, and family. Each brings expectations from the audience that you should know, even if you challenge them. For series creators, franchises are both boundaries and opportunities. You can get a clue why franchises are useful if you ask how hundreds of stories can derive from a single premise.

The solution is to find "springboards" that propel dramatic conflicts or adventures each episode. Those catalysts occur naturally in most of the franchises: a crime sets the cop on a quest for the perp; someone in trouble beseeches lawyers who must mount a case; a patient is brought for a doctor to save. The hook for each episode is rooted in a specific world in which sympathetic main characters must take immediate action. In other franchises - family dramas especially - springboards are less obvious, relying on conflicts between characters rather than outside provocations. In these, a personal inciting incident (even if it's internal) sets each episode in motion.

Decades ago, audiences expected the franchises to deliver predictable story-telling where any problem could be resolved within the hour. Take Westerns, for example. The template was the frontier town threatened by bad guys (black hats). The good guy marshal (white hat) wrangles with weak or corrupt townspeople, gets a few on his side (room for one exceptional guest role), defends the town against the black hats, and rides off into the sunset.

With that old franchise in mind, think about Deadwood that ran on HBO (now available on DVD). Yup, there's the bad frontier town of rough nasties. And it has an ex-marshal, a lead character who left his badge in Montana to forge a future on the edge of the abyss. But similarities to the franchise are superficial. Everyone in Deadwood is surviving any way he can in a world without an outside redeemer, struggling to make sense of life in a moral wilderness.

Clearly, ER, House, and Grey's Anatomy all use the medical franchise, where doctors must deal with new cases each week. But if you compare them to examples of the historic franchise such as Marcus Welby, M.D., you'll see how far ER and the others had to stretch to reflect contemporary life. Welby, the kindly doctor, free of deep introspection, worked alone in his nice little office. But real doctors face ethical and legal issues as they treat both the victim of a gunshot and the man who shot him, and they cope with their own humanity - guilt, exhaustion, ambition, and the competing pulls of the job and the rest of life including romance on Grey's and a doctor's own physical limits on House. To express today's medical whirlwind, the form itself needed to change, so ER developed "vignette" techniques in which multiple short stories flit by, some on top of each other, and Grey's continues that layering.

From the moment ABC slotted Grey's Anatomy to follow Desperate Housewives, the network mandated the tone: "Sex and the Surgery." Executive Producer Shonda Rhimes responded in Los Angeles Magazine, "I don't think of it as a medical drama. It's a relationship show with some surgery thrown in. That's how I've always seen it."

For a different tweak on the doctor franchise, watch Nip/Tuck on FX about two plastic surgeons, where the real cutting edge is in the relationships and contemporary families.

Meanwhile, the family drama franchise is flourishing - like Big Love and Weeds. Some families. I suppose you could call Showtime's The L Word a family drama too because episodes emanate from relationships among the continuing cast (some of whom are related or living together) rather than external events. Not exactly Leave it to Beaver. On the networks more traditional family dramas do exist, of course, such as Judging Amy and Gilmore Girls. But take a closer look and see if you can identify the elements which update the franchise.

In the detective franchise, a light show like Monk on USA plays out the traditional form: one detective gets one new crime mystery each week and, after investigating red herrings that fall mostly at the act breaks, cleverly solves it by the end of the hour. Though Monk's obsessive-compulsive characterization is a fresh, entertaining element, structurally this is a basic "A" story series.

But if you check out high-profile detective series now on the air, you'll see mostly ensemble casts and complex intertwining plots that are propelled by issues in the news or social concerns. Some use cutting edge forensic technology, as in CSI, where the real star is science that engages the intellect. Detectives have always solved puzzles, of course, but the show's audience seems fascinated with futuristic tools that try the bounds of human capability.

Series that rely on stories that are solved by investigative procedures are called "procedurals" and include forensics (CSI), detective work (Law and Order), and medical diagnoses (House) that follow clues to wrap up a new case each week. Procedurals have always been attractive to syndicators because they can be aired in any order, and after saturation with deeply-serialized shows like 24, Lost and others, some networks are backing off and looking for more procedurals too.

At first, viewers were watching densely plotted novelized series with the kind of passion network executives crave. Dana Walden, president of the 20th Century Fox Television studio, told The New York Times in October, 2006, "It did sort of filter into the ether. We were all having conversations about event drama, and an event drama is a serialized drama."

But how many hours will people devote every week to intense serialized dramas? And if you miss the first few episodes, it's like reading a novel beginning in the middle. Would audiences become commitment-phobic?

Several solutions exist: catch-up marathons (as HBO has always run), replays available on internet sites and DVDs. In fact, sales of 24 after its first year validated the whole business of selling DVDs of entire seasons of series, which was just emerging at that time. On Showtime, Dexter, a character-driven psychological thriller, offers an interactive clues game on the network website to hold its fans. Still, networks wonder if it would be prudent to return to reliable procedural franchises.

And yet, those are volatile too. For example, the action-adventure franchise that thrived in the days of easy bad guys like The A Team and Starsky and Hutch has transformed to shows like The Closer in which a character said "I'm in America observing an empire on its deathbed, a tourist doing charitable work among the addicted and sexually diseased." In this context, Showtime's Sleeper Cell is an ambitious attempt to dramatize a range of characters and motives that are unfamiliar to most Americans. The action and adventure in shows like those emanate from the terrain, rather than having the franchise itself control the story.

Nor could NYPD Blue be defined solely by its franchise, though it's obviously a detective show. And obviously a family drama built on personal relationships among the ensemble. And obviously a spiritual quest built on the "dark knight" in search of redemption. Forget about detective work in the episode when Simone lay dying and viewers dramatically experienced his awesome spiritual transition. "Breakthrough" has been over-applied to various series, and when used for NYPD Blue, the accolade has sometimes missed the show's real strength by referring to its nerve to bare the rear end of a middle-aged man, when that's not where real innovation lies.

I haven't even broached the crazy notion that anyone would watch an insider series about politics, or the hybrids of "reality" shows mixed with dramatic storytelling. For instance, try mixing adventure, romance and even "family drama" with sci-fi/fantasy elements on Lost. A lot is going on!

Speaking of sci-fi elements, now there's a genre that has boldly gone where science fiction hadn't gone before on TV. While the Sci-Fi Channel (owned by NBC) continues a predictable roll-out of fantasy adventures like Stargate SGI and New Atlantis, which serve its niche audience without extending it, the channel also lucked into the critically-acclaimed Battlestar Galactica, which has sometimes been more a searing political allegory than even West Wing was, while venturing into contemporary relationships on the level of premium cable dramas. It deserves to be seen by audiences beyond the Sci-Fi Channel. At the same time, Heroes, using a traditional sci-fi genre, is a hit on NBC, attracting viewers who are not traditional sci-fi fans, featuring an international cast who struggle over having supernatural powers.

If I had to guess the frontier of science fiction writing on television, I would look towards the characters. In 20th century sci-fi series, the leading edge was technology as used by fantasy heroes, usually "perfect," in action-heavy battles between good and evil, which tended to play to children and adolescents. Though contemporary sci-fi shows are as different as Lost is from Heroes or Galactica, they all follow flawed human beings, and the questions they explore involve relationships as much as philosophy; and they're watched by wide demographics. With so much range in this franchise, if you're interested in trying it, I suggest reaching up towards real dramatic writing based on honest characters, and leave cartoon-like thinking to the movies.

The vitality of 21st century television drama has re-interpreted traditional franchises. But that doesn't mean they'll disappear. When I was a beginner freelancing any show that would give me a break, I landed an assignment on Mike Hammer, a network detective series. At my first meeting, the producer handed me two pages of guidelines. The first was titled "Mike Hammer Formulaic Structure." On the second were rules for writing Mike, for example, "Mike speaks only in declarative sentences." To be a strong man, he could never ask questions, you see.

The formula went something like this: At the top of the show, a sympathetic character approaches Mike for help. At the end of Act One, the sympathetic character is found dead. In Act Two, Mike is on the trail of the killer, only to find him dead at the Act break, and yet someone else has been killed (proving there's a different killer). In Act Three, the real bad guy goes after Mike, and at the Act Three break, Mike is in mortal jeopardy. Act Four is entirely resolution, one-to-one, Mike against the killer. And guess who wins. As I started, I thought such a rigid form would be stultifying, but I discovered it was fun. Relieved of certain structure choices, I felt free to be inventive with the guest cast and the kinds of situations that could lead to the turns and twists.

Years later, an executive of the Children's Television Workshop (makers of Sesame Street) asked me to develop and write a pilot for a children's series, later named Ghostwriter, that would be structured like primetime network dramas, complete with long character arcs, parallel stories, complex relationships among a diverse ensemble cast, and even references to controversial issues. I'd never written for kids, but I was intrigued. In forming the series with the CTW team, we began by identifying a general franchise - in this case, detectives because solving mysteries was a way to involve the whole cast and incite each episode's quest. Beyond that, we stayed close to what human beings truly care about, how they reveal themselves, and what makes people laugh, cry, be scared and fall in love - people of any age.

Ghostwriter was originally intended for kids around eight years old to encourage them to read. But CTW was astounded when research reported that the audience went from four years old to sixteen. That's not even a demographic. I think the show exceeded anyone's expectations because the realistic characters rested on a franchise that was so robust it could carry not only a very young cast but also some educational content while moving the stories forward with high tension.

But when is a franchise not a franchise? In 2004, Dick Wolf, creator of Law and Order, told Entertainment Weekly, "Law and Order is a brand, not a franchise. It's the Mercedes of television. The cars are very different, but if you buy a Mercedes, you're still getting a good car. CSI is a franchise - like the Palm Restaurant. CSI is the same show set in different cities, while the Law and Order shows are all very different from each other." No doubt, CSI, which competes head to head with Law and Order on several nights, would describe itself as an even bigger car.

When you're ready to plan a script as your showpiece for a series, ask yourself what the underlying franchise is. Even if the show is innovative and evolved beyond the tradition, the franchise may give you tips for constructing your outline.

Writing primetime TV drama series is an adventure into an expanding universe. If you rise above outdated ideas about television, and have pride in your talent so you never write down, you can create for the most powerful medium in the world.

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