WHAT’S YOUR PROBLEM? How to Write a TV Script

WHAT’S YOUR PROBLEM? How to Write a TV Script

Writing for TVAre you trying to learn how to write a tv script? Writing for television requires the same fundamental skills as writing drama or fiction for any other medium, although you need to be looking at a series rather than a one-off play or film. Writing a TV script is much like writing a film script and here are some of the tools that are crucial in making your TV drama or series work.

‘Writing’ said Paul Abbot, ‘is re-writing’ and with more tv drama hours under his belt than most, I would take his word for it. Also, having spent a large part of my career in television and now via my Script Consultancy Script Advice, helping writers write better scripts, I can whole heartedly endorse his comment.

Your script all planned out, you’ve done the leg work, you have a wall/floor covered in post it’s or postcards, or with pieces of paper festooned with crosses and some doodles. You’ve even written a treatment; the idea is solid – you have the characters and the plot, you think, has no feasible holes. But, a little way through the script, you come to a shuddering halt.

Why is it that although you may have written several painless, fun, exciting, successful scenes all of which push the story on, explore your characters, are literally bowed down with subtext, you suddenly here, for no reason other than a dark and mysterious one, stop writing? There’s a wall. Your brain has frozen. And it is then that you start to think that the fridge needs a clean out and you ought to put a wash on.

Stop. Leave the mucky fridge. Do not put a wash anywhere. There’s a script problem and procrastination doesn’t sort it, it makes it worse.

Plot?
The first question to ask yourself is; where in the structure/layout of my script have I become stuck?

The usual problem area is what can loosely be called ‘the middle’ it may be your second act (if you are following a traditional framework) or approximately half way through the body of your story. This is the yawning pit that appears in many plotlines if the centre is not as strong as the introduction or the ending. In nine cases out of ten, if the narrative flow is getting jammed here, then it will be a lack of plot (things actually happening) that is the problem.

The lack of text is an issue; more storylines, more tangents, more development of your original idea is needed to fill this gap. Go back to your characters; look at their motivation, look at what drives them through your script and what message you want them to convey. What they do, as well as what they say, is essential to a well-balanced story. What a character does is your plotline – why they do it is your subtext. Revisiting your characters, will produce more plot – should you need to fill a hole.

Subtext?
Does this all feel a bit – forced? Do you feel you are working too hard to get your meaning across? Is there too much action and not enough intrigue? Are you spoon-feeding your audience? Your problem could be subtext (or lack of it) .

This is the subtle art of clever screenwriting and without it your story falls flat. So make sure you have underpinned the text of what is said and done with that which is not said (the elephant in the room) or that which is not shown, but suggested, and any sagging narrative problems may well be cured.

If you get stuck again, ask yourself: ‘what is it that I want the audience to know, or feel here, that I don’t want my character to say out loud?’ Remember, you are dishing out this storyline in bite size morsels, don’t go heavy handed, don’t state the obvious and if it’s shown on screen, don’t feel you have to tell it as well. Subtext written right can be delivered with a light touch, but holds a deeper meaning.

Structure?
Plot, subtext, characterisation, are all linked. Structure is the framework you put in place to hold it all together.

If you are finding it hard to continue along the plan you originated, it could be that there are scenes you thought you had nailed, that you placed earlier in the script, or you may have planned for later on in your narrative structure, that are in fact in the wrong place and so are now thwarting your writing progression.

You are an innate story teller – your urge to tell stories and get them down in script form is what makes you a screenwriter, so listen to that nagging sensation, even if you are motoring, through what you envisaged was a coherent, well planned script, because this doubt crawling into your line of vision and spoiling what you ‘see’ as you write, means there could be something wrong with the order in which you are choosing to tell your story.

Structural decisions are not just about where you have decided to place your scenes, they are also dictated by how you have linked storylines and therefore character arcs in your script. Structural problems then are also connected with characterisation, and how you allow them to appear and what you allow them to do within the script framework you have established. So perhaps you have a structural problem that may be solved by picking apart a particular character (or characters’) storylines and re-weaving them together in another way.

Characterisation?
Being able to create believable, credible, engaging characters is one of the skills every screenwriter should have in their lexicon.

The people we see on the screen will carry your story to the wider world and so you must make them ‘live’ on the page to your best ability. That is to say, dig deep when you create character. The people you chose to populate your screen world, have to be as real to you as the people you see in the real world. They all must have motivation at their base root, desires and needs to be met, goals to achieve, flaws to show or to hide and every last one of them must be able to do a specific, (in writing terms) clearly defined, job on the page, which will inevitably translate on to the screen.

If you are finding, in this place of stasis you have reached, that writing for a character is difficult that can be due to several things:

i/ a lack of motivation for the character – subtext comes into play again here. Consider both the surface action that engages this character as well as the below surface stuff we don’t see but we ‘know’.

ii/ a lack of connection with the other characters – in story terms, who do they link/clash with?

iii/ a lack of a specific job on the page – are you duplicating this one with another character?

iv/ a lack of credibility – is this character under-developed? Is this character two rather than three dimensional?

v/ is this character a cypher for the storyline rather than a character in their own right? Often, characters that are created to carry information or establish plot connections between other characters suffer by the nature of their on-screen ‘job’ – make sure you don’t have any ‘vessels,’ only people in your scripts.

Dialogue?
Strongly linked with characterisation; the ability to write cracking dialogue is a gift given by the screenwriting Gods. If you are a natural dialogue writer, then you are very lucky indeed. This is the hardest skill to acquire if you don’t have an innate ‘listening’ ability.

As much as possible, dialogue should be credible and informative at the same time. Use the visual skills at your creative fingertips as well as your verbal ones, to create layered, interesting scenes and avoid always, stating the obvious (talking the text) and over-emphasising plot points or bits of linking information (often called ‘on the nose’ dialogue).

If it’s an uphill struggle writing for a particular character(s) and you can’t make their scenes work, it could be because you don’t ‘hear’ them and your inner ear is not tuned in to how they would talk. Try to make a connection with a real person you know, to get an angle on how they sound and feel to you. If they have a specific role to play in your story, then there is a legitimate place for them. Who do they remind you of? Their voice is as important on screen as they way they look.

Both the visual and the aural elements need to work together in a scene for it to feel right.

Pace?
Linked to plotting and structure, the pace of your script could be a problem for you if you have become entangled in reasons why your script isn’t working.

Keeping the over-view ‘flow’ of your story in your head as you write is a great skill to have and if you are one of those lucky writers who do this instinctively, then you will be able to recognise when your script starts to feel stodgy and will do something about it. If you don’t have this ability, fear not, re-visiting your step by step scene outline (or beat sheet) that you wrote when planning your script, will re-familiarise you with the ups and downs, ins and outs of your various plotlines.

Looking at the way your story progresses (the narrative through line) you will be able to see clearly where you can up the ante in terms of energy, or chose to dip into a quieter atmosphere, or mood. Some sequences you have created will demand a gentle touch, others will take a faster pace, so you must make that decision and get the scenes down accordingly.

Re-reading your script, you should be able to feel when the energy dips and when it increases – always remember your audience will feel the same ebb and flow too – and in this way, you will be increasing their connection with your story on screen.

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