“Quality drama, and the best screenwriters, are all to be found on TV these days.” Whether you agree with that statement or not, it’s certainly hard to argue that shows like Homeland, the Red Riding Trilogy, Breaking Bad and Downton Abbey don’t contain some damn fine writing skills.
So, if you want to make a break into writing for telly, whether you come from features, or starting screenwriting from scratch, here are some rules to consider. (All rules are made to be broken, yadda, yadda, yadda)
1. Character Cast Size
Consider how many characters you will feature. Typically 4 or 5 with a stronger ‘lead’ character seems to work. Pick a handful of shows and check for yourself.
2. Characters in Conflict
Create characters that will constantly create their own conflict, even if just locked in a room together. Take a look at Family Guy for example: a slob dad, an uptight mum, a scheming baby, and an intellectual dog. Put any two of those in a room together and they would be arguing in 5 minutes, just because their personalities are so different. Conflict is key, both for drama and comedy – and having characters that generate it automatically, rather than relying on outside ‘plot’ will be extremely helpful.
3. Characters Don’t Change
In general, if you’re writing a returning series, especially a sitcom, your characters shouldn’t change, grow or arc – they need to be reset to their default position at the end of every episode. They may learn, but they don’t grow (think Scrubs). There are obvious exceptions to this, but it’s a good rule of thumb.
4. Make Characters Want Things
Give characters goals and motivations – make them want to achieve things. This should keep them moving, and bring them into conflict with other characters (when they want different things, or both want the same thing but only one of them can have it.
5. Use ABC plotting
Your A plot is the main storyline, your B plot the secondary storyline, and your C plot (if used), the tertiary. Use a roughly 60/30/10 split. Giving characters goals (i.e. the previous point) is a great way of generating these plots.
6. Ad Breaks are Act Breaks
If you’re writing for a broadcaster who advertises, your act breaks will come at the ad breaks. These all need to be cliffhangers (N.B. there are different types of cliffhanger). If you’re going to show without adverts, then you need to figure out your own act breaks. Typically there are 4 acts in television.
7. Dialogue Comes Last
Snappy dialogue is the hallmark of much good telly, but it shouldn’t be your focus, even in sitcoms. Good structure, good plotting and good characters should make the dialogue easy to write – so focus on those first.
8. Create a Series Bible
Even if you’re only writing one or two episodes on spec, create a series bible that contains the bigger picture. Character bios, episode outlines for the whole series, maybe some background, notes on the setting etc. Keep it snappy and interesting though – the word ‘bible’ can be misleading – think of it more as a pitch document.
9. Research the Formatting
Do as much research into formatting as possible. It can vary quite widely and you need to match it to the preferred style of whomever you are submitting to.
10. Know your Audience(s)
You need to have a specific audience in mind – a good way to research this is paying attention to the target market of adverts played during similar shows. You also need to have an idea when you see your show airing and what content is suitable for that time. Research the watershed rules. Finally, you need to know who broadcasts shows like this: BBC 1 and BBC 3 are very different, let alone Channel 4, Sky, and of course all the independent production companies. Do your research.