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Why You Want to Write TV
When I was first coming up in the biz, movie writers looked down at TV writers. "If this doesn't work out," they'd say, "there's always TV." TV writers had an inferiority complex: "I'd love to work in movies. But I can't afford it." (Even then, TV writers made more money.) A movie could be made for a niche audience, but not TV. The three networks only aired shows that the entire country could watch. It was the '80s, and Miami Vice was the most innovative thing on television.
Then cable blossomed. Now everyone from HBO to the Playboy Channel to PAX to FX to Showtime is producing their own flavor of programming. Groundbreaking pay cable shows like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under have forced the networks--now five of them--to push the envelope on language, nudity, moral darkness, and narrative invention. Today, the sheer appetite that all these channels have for programming means that an offbeat story has more of a chance of finding a home on TV than it does in a movie theater.
That's all good. But it's not why you want to write TV.
A movie is a one-night stand. Every movie invents its own world, its own characters, its own tone, its own dialogue style, its own way of coming at a story. Even sequels change the rules--just look at the difference between Alien and Aliens. You spend a night with a movie, and you move on. That's exciting, but it's limiting. How deep can your audience's relationship with a movie be? How much can you, as a writer, show the audience about characters they'll never spend more than two hours with? For the writer, a movie has the frustrations of a one-night stand: all that emotion, and in the morning it's over.
A TV series is a relationship. Its world lasts, whether it's lost dinosaurs, cops 'n' DAs, or yuppies competing for a job working for Donald Trump. Each episode shares that world and fleshes it out. We get to know the same core characters better, coming to love or hate them. A series tells stories with a consistent tone, reusing the same narrative structure, allowing it to concentrate on the richness of those stories.
As a writer, you're the person who'll spend the most time with your characters and their stories. If you're a movie writer, you'll be the one creating the world and then losing it--especially if, as usual, you're not the one asked to write the sequel, or even the shooting draft. If you're a TV writer, you can get to play in the world you and your fellow writers have created for as long as your show runs.
That's fun. It also means that TV is about twice as hard to write as movies. How do you find a format that can sustain 100 episodes? How do you create characters who will be consistently compelling over that many stories? How do you find a tone you want to sustain from fall through to spring? How do you lure the same viewers back week after week?
The answer is in the template. Every TV show, whether drama or comedy, fiction or "reality," has hidden rules that define what it does--the format of the storytelling, the goods that every episode must deliver. Delivering those goods according to the template's hidden rules, while still keeping your stories surprising and compelling, makes TV writing hard. Delivering those goods regularly and on time, facing notes from everybody from the assistant director to the head of the network to the actor calling from the set, makes TV writing harder. If writing a movie is a one-night stand, writing TV is like a marriage. There are a lot more rules, and you have to work at it harder. But you get an experience that's richer and deeper, that can fulfill you for years or even decades.
To write TV, you have to know about twice as much as you need to know to write a movie. You need to know everything a feature film writer needs to know, plus a whole 'nother basket of knowledge about "act outs," "core cast," character revelation, and how to play nice in the writing room.
The hours are longer, and more people scream at you in TV.
That's definitely not why you want to write for television--though, if you're tempted by a challenge, you're in luck.
Because it's harder, television writers are in an entirely different ball game than movie writers. You heard the old joke about the dumb actress in Hollywood--she slept with the writer? Movie writers are often banned from the set. They are rewritten willy-nilly by the director, the producer, and the star. Sometimes the writers aren't even invited to the premiere.
TV writers run the asylum. In American television, the person running the show is almost by definition an experienced writer who is in charge of the show's creative vision. Usually the showrunner came up with the idea for the series in the first place. TV writers get respect. We have clout. Oh, we're not the only ones with clout. After all, we're playing with the network's money; and ultimately we all work for the audience. But if we don't get final say, we get first say.
We have to take notes, but we get to decide how to take them, at least until we're fired.
It's our show to win or lose.
That's why you want to write TV.
How do you write TV? What do you need to know about a show's "template"? How do you find out what it is?
How do you integrate notes from the producer, network, director, star, and production staff, all while episodes are hurtling toward an airdate that cannot be put off? How do you work in a medium where writer's block is verboten?
How do you get a job? How do you move up the food chain? How do you get to the point where you can create your own show?
Crafty TV Writing will show you how working TV writers do it--how they look at and create television series.
Then you can run the asylum, too.
Copyright © 2006 by Alex Epstein