Archive for writing for TV

Film school used to be the way to get a job or up your chances of selling your projects in Hollywood. Now the studios are making bigger and fewer movies and the action is shifting to other platforms.

On The Wrap, Brent Lang writes, “In the digital age, institutions including New York University, the University of California, Los Angeles and Boston University have torn down the old barriers between teaching television and film production, and merged film and interactive departments. The internet age has led film schools to encourage students to think about narrative in different ways than their predecessors did.”

He quotes Bob Bassett, dean of Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts: “Twenty years ago, people went to film school to become the best filmmaker they could become so they could go out and make films. Today, they have to be much more calculating about developing their skills, because those skills are what lead to paying jobs.”

The new outlets: YouTube, Funny or Die, and other sites, as well the the more adventurous cable TV outfits. YouTube has joined with various companies to start new channels. I wouldn’t be surprised if before too long we’re watching Facebook TV.

The formats are new, too. On the internet there’s no particular reason to think of programs in chunks of 30 or 60 minutes. There’s room for stories that take 30 seconds, and for all kinds of media combinations and interactivity.

I’ve always felt that the one big advantage of going to film school is the contacts you can make. You needed a path to reaching the powerful people who ran the film business. The digital media landscape is much broader and you have more ways in. I’m not naive enough to think it no longer matters who you know, just that it matters a bit less than it used to.

Does it make sense at all to go to even the new versions of film school—what I’d call digitelefilm school? Sure–you’ll learn a lot and find collaborators and make useful connections, too. That’s if you can afford it or don’t mind racking up big student loans. Otherwise, get out your Flip or point your New iPad at some actors, or teach yourself Flash or HTML5 animation, or make some stop-motion figurines and make something brilliant.

(What you still need is a good script–which is the missing link in most productions made for the web. A good place to start is my book, “Your Writing Coach,” published by Nicholas Brealey and available from Amazon and other booksellers. It’s not specifically about writing scripts but it IS about crafting the kinds of solid characters and storylines you need.)

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Pete Hamill

Journalist and Pete Hamill, whose latest book is “Tabloid City,” described in The Writer magazine how he approaches writing a novel. I think the same method works for anyone getting ready to write a screenplay:

“I start by walking around a lot, letting the major characters rise in my mind. The way Dickens did, and others. Sometimes I make drawings of their faces, and then scribble more notes in the margins. I know vaguely what the story will be be, but I don’t make detailed outlines because they remove the joy of discovery in the actual writing.”

…If a fiction is set in the past, I read histories, letters, memoirs and even old newspapers. Then I let my notes marinate for a while, usually a few months, until they become a memory…the memory of one or more of the characters.”

Those kinds of historical documents are so much easier to find these days, via the internet. Newspapers, including the New York Times, allow you to access their past issues, and the British Museum and many others also have put massive amounts of documents online. Writers starting out now takes this kind of access for granted, I imagine, but we old-timers will remember having to throw ourselves on the mercy of librarians and spending days in the dusty stacks. Hamill goes on:

“If the places I am describing are still in existence, I go to look at them, to stand before them, listening to what they are saying to me.”

These days with Google maps and other sources of information, you can simulate going to most locations although of course it doesn’t match being there, breathing the air and hearing the sounds in person.

Another possibility is to contact someone who lives in that location, using social media to find them. I think most people would be flattered to be asked to help someone writing a screenplay. If you’re nervous about emailing strangers, put the “six degrees of separation” to work–ask your friends whether they know anybody who lives in the place you want to find out about. If not, ask them to ask just one or two of their friends the same question. In most cases it won’t take more than that to find someone.

Sometimes when we have a new idea we are tempted to go to the keyboard and start writing right away, but there’s a lot to be said for Hamill’s method of immersing yourself in the characters and locations before we start.

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In the previous post I shared Robert Ringer’s first (of three) rules of writing. Here’s his rule number two, which I think is even more important for screenwriters than for novelists.

Simplicity is crucial. Can the reader quickly understand what you are trying to say? Eliminate verbal furniture.

Ringer says he learned this from the classic book, The Elements of Style. I think it’s more important than ever because these days there are even more distractions for the reader and because overly ornate or long-winded descriptions can slow a screenplay down to a crawl.

That doesn’t mean your writing can’t have a style. Elmore Leonard has a great sparse style. So does Raymond Carver but I don’t think you’d ever mistake his writing for Leonard’s. In screenwriting, William Goldman is a good example–his scripts have personality but it doesn’t overwhelm the story.

In doing the research for my new book, Your Creative Writing Masterclass, which includes writing advice from classic authors, the notion of simplicity comes up again and again. Anton Chekhov and Mark Twain were among the proponents.  (Plug: that book comes out in January—you can pre-order it now from Amazon.)

One way to simplify is to hunt for unnecessary adjectives. Newer writers sometimes go for the rule of three on this: three adjectives per noun. Too much.

Adverbs also are great candidates for pruning, especially when they apply to how dialogue is expressed: “Give me that right now!” he said angrily–or in screenplays, the parenthetical (angrily) between the character’s  name and his dialogue. Given the words themselves and possibly your description of the person, it should be obvious that he’s angry.

Ringer quotes from  Elements of Style: “the power of understatement is enormous.”

Next post: Ringer’s third rule of writing.

One of my rules of writing is, if you need support and guidance, get it! One way to do that is to join my online Writing Breakthrough Strategy program. You can find out more and sign up at

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