Friday, May 1, 2020

Writing for Television

A few years back, Creative Screenwriting magazine had a column called Know Your Show. It was targeted to TV writers trying to "spec" [write unsolicited screenplays for] different TV series. Spec scripts are a way to showcase your work for agents and showrunners.

One of the most important rules for specs is to know the story rules that govern the show you've chosen. Know Your Show was designed to make those implicit rules explicit, breaking down the requirements for different shows by talking to the showrunners themselves. It was a great column. Here's one I wrote for it.

Ted Rabinowitz

Spec for TV long enough, and someone will tell you to "fill the gap." If you've written two killer procedurals, that means write a Gossip Girl or 90210. If your portfolio bulges with twisted but critically praised fare like Dexter, then try a Psych. With that in mind, we've chosen to examine two popular shows that differ from each other in virtually every way: True Blood, HBO's vampire serial; and Burn Notice, the action-oriented spy procedural on USA Network.
True Blood offers a Deep Southern look at issues like drugs, sex, dysfunctional families...and vampires. It's a good way to showcase your (melo)dramatic chops. Burn Notice is a tightly plotted, high-testosterone action series with a lighter feel. It emphasizes con games, plot twists and authenticity in its covert-ops sequences.
Both shows are internationally distributed, with a deeply loyal fan base. True Blood has received several WGA, Emmy and Golden Globe nominations, and a Golden Globe Best Actress win for Anna Paquin; Burn Notice has won an Edgar for Best Screenplay, received a WGA nomination, and inspired two novelizations so far.

Created by Alan Ball, True Blood is based on Charlaine Harris' SouthernVampire mysteries. With a weekly audience of 6.8 million, it is now one of the most critically acclaimed series on HBO.
Ball, the creator of Six Feet Under and American Beauty, read the first Southern Vampire novel while waiting for a dental appointment. "It was an impulse buy," he says. "And it was so entertaining, I immediately ordered the rest of the series on Amazon. The world was already so complete; I liked how funny it was, how scary it was, and how romantic."
The first episode premiered on September 7, 2008; the series just ended its second season, and the third will air in the summer of 2010.

With the creation of synthetic human blood, vampires no longer need to hunt humans or hide from them, and they have become one more minority in America's melting pot. When Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) a telepathic waitress in the small Louisiana town of Bon Temps, meets Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), the town's first Vampire-American, she's immediately attracted to him; as a vampire, Bill is the first man whose thoughts Sookie can't read. Sookie and Bill become lovers, despite the disapproval of Bon Temps' human citizens and the contempt of Bill's vampire community.
"Sookie is a strong young woman who felt that she was a freak, alone in the world," says Ball. "Now she's found love with someone like her."
Meanwhile, Sookie's best friend Tara Thornton (Rutina Wesley) and her brother Jason (Ryan Kwanten) struggle to find their places in a world that is becoming more and more supernatural. Jason is a "horndog" who never thinks ahead; Tara is smart and tough, but her defensiveness alienates boyfriends, bosses, and anyone who might care about her.
Each season is loosely based on one of Harris' books. "It's about 50% us and 50% the novels," says Ball. The storylines center on Sookie, her relationship with Bill, and the lives of Jason and Tara. In addition, there is usually at least one external threat or mystery. In the first season, a string of murders threw suspicion first on Bill, then on Jason; in the second, a maenad gained control over Bon Temps while Sookie and Bill searched for a missing vampire elder.

     Merlotte's Bar
     Sookie's House
     Bill's House
     Fangtasia Vampire Bar
     The Bayou

In the first season, Sookie and Bill became lovers. Sookie had to adjust both to her first romantic relationship, and to a vampire world in which Bill has killed other vampires to save her (although she has also saved his life). Meanwhile, Jason's fecklessness led him from womanizing to vampire-blood addiction to prison; and Tara's search for stability was sabotaged by her abusive, alcoholic mother, Lettie Mae (Adina Porter).
The second season has been dominated by three storylines: Sookie and Bill's search for the missing vampire leader Godric (Allan Hyde); Jason's involvement with the Fellowship of the Sun, an anti-vampire church and paramilitary group; and the seduction of the citizens of Bon Temps by Maryann Forrester, a maenad who encourages and feeds on violence and sexual frenzy. One of Maryann's key converts is Tara, who falls under her hypnotic influence and begins a relationship with "Eggs" Benedict Talley (Mehcad Brooks).
Ultimately, Sookie and Bill rescue Godric from the Fellowship, only to see him commit suicide as penance for his failures. Sam, Bill and Jason (all in their own ways) try to save Sookie and Bon Temps from Maryann's sacrifice to her dark deity, the God Who Comes.
Along the way, there are other developments. The local vampire "sheriff," Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgård), connives to feed his blood to Tara's cousin Lafayette Reynolds (Nelsan Ellis) and to Sookie. This links them to Eric, both psychically and sexually, and makes Eric Bill's mortal enemy. Lafayette, who spent an horrific time as Eric's prisoner for selling vampire blood, now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. 
Sam Merlotte (Sam Trammel), who has carried a torch for Sookie for years, uses his shapeshifting abilities to save Bon Temps from Maryann. While doing so, he's forced to drink Bill's blood, marking a resolution to their conflict over Sookie. 
After Maryann is dispatched, Bill proposes to Sookie. Before she can say yes, he disappears, and the season ends on a cliffhanger.

The target page count for a script is 54.
Minor storylines usually run four beats, with the major story in each episode at six or seven beats. 
Each episode begins with a teaser that addresses the previous episode's cliffhanger, and ends with another cliffhanger. Story lines are layered – scenes switch back and forth between stories.
The regular characters must be serviced in every episode. Sookie, Jason, Bill and Tara must be at the center of their story lines.
True Blood's vampires are similar to, but not exactly the same as, other vampires. They're inhumanly strong and fast. They have no problems with crosses, holy water, garlic or mirrors, but silver and daylight burn them, and they cannot enter a house uninvited. Drinking a vampire's blood directly from its veins creates a psychic bond between the vampire and the drinker.
Vampires are connected to the older vampires who "made" them. Humans hunt vampires both from fear and from greed: Vampire blood, when drained surgically from the vampire, is a powerful narcotic for humans.
The vampire world has its own politics and lifestyle choices. Vampire territories are ruled by sheriffs, who are ruled in turn by kings and queens. Vampires are split between those who "nest" – live with their own kind – and those who are trying to "mainstream" back into the human community. Mainstreamers are trying to fit in; nesters tend to be the nasty, creepy predators everyone knows and loves from horror movies.

Characters: The regular characters are the heart of True Blood. Get them right, and the rest will follow. "We try to root the story in the characters," says Ball. "For instance, [in Season 2] Tara wouldn't have fallen under Maryann's influence if it weren't for her mom's interference."
To nail the characters, you need a handle on the sources of their actions. "Jason puts on a big macho show, but all his behavior – the horndog aspect, the drug abuse –comes from a deep well of insecurity," says Ball. "He's lost everyone he's ever loved, except Sookie. He wants to feel needed. Deep down, he's a good guy." People think that Jason is stupid. Even though he jokes about it, he's scared they're right.
In her own way, Tara has the same issues Jason does. "But instead of acting out sexually," says Ball, "she's a smart-ass." Tara is smarter and stronger than Jason. Like him, she wants a family. Right now, that family is Sookie and Lafayette – and she is still in love with Jason.
Ball's advice on Tara and Jason: Don't push their main attributes too far. "People love it when Tara mouths off, but don't make her too tough. And don't make Jason too stupid. A little bit goes a long way."
Sookie is strong and moral, but not perfect. "She's a little self-righteous," concedes Ball. This is easy to see when she's in conflict with Bon Temps' good ol' boys and their vampire opposites.
"Bill speaks very formally, because he came of age in the 19th Century," says Ball. Bill's character note is the dichotomy between his courtly, gracious side and his lust for blood and power. He knows the fear he inspires in humans, and he's not above using it.
"Lafayette can play different roles. He's an entrepreneur – that is, an opportunist." As with Bill, there's a useful dichotomy between Lafayette's campy persona and the hard-core fighter and hustler he can be when the need arises. Lafayette is also a fan favorite – although he dies in the novels, he proved to be so popular that he survives in the series.
"After Sookie, Sam Merlotte has the strongest moral compass of the regulars," says Ball. "Like her, he's an orphan and, like her, he thought he was a freak." Although he "pretends to be easygoing and gregarious, that's part of his job. He's actually very cautious and very suspicious." He still loves Sookie and tries to protect her.
Dialogue: When it comes to dialogue, less is more. "We'll always choose subtext over something overt," says Ball. "Nothing on the nose. The best writing is when you understand why someone's doing something without having it explained."
Future seasons: The best way to spec a serial is to know what's happening in advance. The next season of True Blood will focus on Club Dead, the third Southern Vampire novel. Consider reading it before you write your sample – but be aware of the significant differences between the book and the series. 
In the third season, we'll see more of the vampires' Byzantine politics. We'll also see werewolves for the first time. "They're kind of like cowboy gang members," says Ball. "Really arrogant."

Southern Gothic melodrama...with fangs. Gritty stories about dysfunctional people trying to be their best selves.
"I've seen so many vampires that are 'operatic,'" says Ball. "But Charlaine's vampires are small-town Louisiana. This is not Underworld. This is not Anne Rice. These are Wal-Mart vampires."

True Blood is a hot series. A good spec will demonstrate your ability to write for premium cable (i.e. to write grittier, more "R" rated material). It will also showcase your chops with vampires, serialized shows, small towns, and (most important) character-driven, atmospheric drama.

Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin, X-Men, The Piano): A waitress and a telepath, Sookie has "a strong sense of right and wrong that sometimes makes her a little self-righteous." At the start of Season One, she thought she was a freak, alone in the world; now she's found love with another outsider, Bill Compton.

Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer, Quills, 88 Minutes): A vampire and a veteran of the Confederacy, Bill is trying to "mainstream" – live as a normal human. His vocabulary is reminiscent of the Old South, and he retains his courtly manners – unless his vampire nature gets the better of him. He would die or kill to protect Sookie. As a vampire, he's immune to her telepathic abilities.

Tara Thornton (Rutina Wesley, Numb3rs, How She Move): Sookie's best friend. Smart and strong, she has a troubled past that also makes her angry and defensive. Her abusive mother Lettie Mae is a constant obstacle in her life, and she is in love with Sookie's brother Jason.

Jason Stackhouse (Ryan Kwanten, Don't Fade Away, Flicka): Sookie's brother, Jason is a womanizing ex-jock who can't stay out of trouble. Fundamentally good-hearted, he's deeply insecure. He fears that he's stupid – and then acts in ways that confirm it.

Sam Merlotte (Sam Trammell, AVP:Requiem, Going to California): Owner of Merlotte's bar, Sam is friendly, guarded, and in love with Sookie. He's also a shapeshifter – a secret revealed in Season One.

Lafayette Johnson (Nelsan Ellis, The Soloist, The Express): Tara's cousin, and the cook at Merlotte's. A drug dealer, hustler, and role-player, Lafayette genuinely cares for Tara and Sookie, but he's sold drugs to Jason, and he can be ice-cold when he needs to. He's gay, but not currently in a relationship...with anyone human. After being a vampire's prisoner in Season #2, he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, and a psychic link to the vampire Eric Northman.

In the middle of its third season and returning for a fourth, Burn Noticepremiered on June 28, 2007. The premiere episode won an Edgar Alan Poe mystery award for Best Screenplay. Its creator, Matt Nix, was primarily a movie writer before approaching USA Network with the project that became Burn Notice
Nix's initial vision was for a dark and gritty spy series set in Newark. After meeting with USA Network execs and getting a sense of their programming, he lightened the tone considerably and set it in Miami. 
"My friend Michael Wilson" (a producer and consultant on Burn Notice) "was an inspiration for the show," says Nix. "He has a long background in intelligence, but his stories don't focus on danger and violence; they're about things like the sand in Afghanistan screwing up your Walkman. That formed the sensibility of Burn Notice."

Covert operative Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) is in the middle of an operation in Nigeria when he gets a "burn notice" – someone has tagged him as unreliable. He barely escapes with his life, passes out from his injuries, and wakes up in his hometown of Miami. His accounts have been frozen, and agents follow his every move to ensure that he doesn't leave the city. The only people who will talk to him are his ex-girlfriend and gunrunner Fiona Glenanne (Gabrielle Anwar), his old spy buddy Sam Axe (Bruce Campbell), and his mom Madeline (Sharon Gless). With no other options, Michael dedicates himself to finding out who burned him and to helping local residents with problems no one else can solve.
Episodes usually feature an A and B story. The A story is the "case of the week" in which Michael, Fiona and Sam use their covert-ops skills to help friends, family, and needy strangers defend themselves against the scum of Miami, from hit men to human traffickers. The B story is the "Burn Notice runner," in which Michael tries to salvage his career. In Seasons 1-2, that meant discovering who had burned him and why; in Season 3 the focus is on getting his job back.
Often woven into the A and B stories is a C story that focuses on Michael's relationships with his friends and family, or (rarely) on the status of another regular.

     Michael's loft (Int./Ext.)
     Madeline's house
     Café Carlito
     Fiona's house

By the end of Season Two, Michael had escaped the power of "The Organization," the shadowy group that had burned and then forcibly recruited him. Leaving has had consequences, however. Although the Organization controlled Michael, it also protected him from other groups and from old enemies. Now he is "back on the radar"...and still burned. Soon the Miami police, in the person of Det. Michelle Paxson (Moon Bloodgood) are investigating Michael's activities, and old enemies are out for revenge.
After neutralizing Det. Paxson by helping her solve a case, Michael uses Diego Garza (Otto Sanchez), a local operative, to reestablish contact with his old spymasters. Fiona tries to be supportive, but she can't hide her disappointment that Michael still hasn't given up his dream of "getting back in."
Matters escalate when Michael is approached by "agent to the spies" Tom Strickler. Strickler offers Michael money and information if he'll take the assignments Strickler offers. When Michael resists – he feels that accepting will make him a mercenary, not a patriot – Strickler offers the one thing Michael can't resist...a way back in.
Michael accepts, only to find that Strickler has arranged for Fiona's death in order to keep Michael focused on the mission. When Strickler tries to stop Michael from mounting a rescue, Michael kills him to save Fiona.
Strickler's death triggers a firestorm. The first nine episodes of the third season end with the killing of Michael's one agency contact by anonymous assassins, and Michael waiting as they come for him.

Scripts run between forty-nine and fifty-two pages; usually they're at fifty-one pages "packed to the gills." There are four acts, a teaser and a button:

The teaser runs one to two scenes in three pages.
The first act ends in the late teens.
The second act ends in the late twenties (often at 29).
The third and fourth act are ten pages each.
The button is 2-3 pages.

Michael's voiceovers on tradecraft must be dry, matter of fact, and impart information that is both true and unexpected.
For the case of the week, Michael will have developed a plan by the end of Act One and will pursue that plan through Acts Two and Three. At the end of Act Three, something unpredictable will disrupt that plan, and Michael will be forced to improvise a new one...and this is the hard part.
"I cannot tell you how many stories die on that particular beach," says Nix. "The second plan cannot be unrelated to the first plan. It must be a logical outgrowth of the first plan that leverages the successes and failures of Acts Two and Three."
Although each episode has at least two storylines competing for time, Nix says the best ones are those where there's "a thematic echo in all three stories. For instance, in the episode "Broken Rules," everything is about rules and breaking them: In the A story, we have two bad guys – Diego (Tony Perez) who follows the rules of the old gangs, and his boss (Idalis de Leon) who breaks them. In the B story, we have Agent Bly (Alex Carter) who breaks the rules by going after Michael's family, so Michael blackmails him by creating evidence that proves he's corrupt. And in the C story Michael and Fiona break their own rules by sleeping together."
POV rules are strict. The audience can only know what Michael knows, or occasionally what Fiona and Sam know. 
Finally, there must be a scene in which the case of the week is resolved conclusively, preferably at the moment in which the Bad Guy thinks he's won. "We don't let the Bad Guy go in the case of the week," says Nix. "He can be arrested, intimidated, fled, whatever, he doesn't escape consequences."

Nix and his fellow writers are espionage aficionados who focus on the covert-ops details when writing. "When writing a new episode, we often work backward from a spy technique we like," says Nix. "We copy a lot of 'bad guy' techniques. So we'll say something like 'Here's how Hitler bamboozled Stalin. Why can't we do that?'" If you can pitch an episode based on an interrogation method or covert strategy they haven't used, that's sure to impress.
Another possibility is to take a technique that's already been used and "stand it on its head. We do that a lot," says Nix. "If you watch some episodes closely, you can see where they relate on a deep level to other episodes."
The cases of the week can't be about run-of-the-mill crime solving. "It's important that these are problems that cops or PIs can't solve," says Nix. "Michael is neither, and if the case demands something other than Michael's unique skills, he'll pass." 
Solving the problem can involve intimidation, explosions, break-ins, con games, impersonation, interrogation, and gunshots, but not depositions, eyewitnesses, or whodunits. "We have a certain minimum level of mayhem," says Nix. 
Michael's motivation is always personal. "Michael has no abstract commitment to justice," says Nix. "He helps individual people with problems. I know a pitch is going to fail when I hear the words 'Michael decides to investigate.'"
Another pitfall: spending more screen time with Michael's clients than with the bad guys who hurt them. "The Bad Guy is usually the guest star," says Nix, "not the Client. Unless the Client is a source of conflict in some way, it's the Bad Guy who's more important."

Light and fast, but not frothy and not filled with gags. 
"This danger is the water they swim in," says Nix. "So the humor arises from the tonal contrast, from the human side of the dire situation." A bad break up or a smashed loaner car matters as much as the man trying to kill them.

Burn Notice spec is a good showcase for your ability to write believable action and espionage, to generate story twists, and to write to a demanding structure. However, to do it, you must truly enjoy the world of John leCarré and Tom Clancy. Nix advises caution. 
"Everyone tells me this is the hardest show they've ever had to write. I've actually never heard of a completed Burn Notice spec, only abortive specs that were abandoned after ten pages."

Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan, Changeling, Crossing Jordan): Once a world-class covert agent, Michael now uses his skills to help clients with nowhere else to go. He is an expert in martial arts, surveillance, and undercover tactics. The son of an abusive father, Michael is more comfortable with guns than emotions - especially when it comes to Madeline and Fiona.

Fiona Glenanne (Gabrielle Anwar, The Tudors, Scent of a Woman): Gunrunner, ex-IRA member, Michael's girlfriend, and practitioner of therapeutic violence, Fiona never holds anything back. She feels that Michael always puts the mission before their relationship, but she also knows that he remains the most important thing in her life, even when they are not together.

Sam Axe (Bruce Campbell, Evil Dead, Hercules): An amiable ex-Navy SEAL, Sam can take a punch, cause a distraction, or run an interrogation. His friends in law enforcement are Michael's primary source of background information. When not helping Michael, Sam successfully pursues his two other vocations: women and beer.

Madeline Westen (Sharon Gless, Queer as Folk, Cagney & Lacey): Michael's mom, a chain-smoker and hypochondriac who can still push his buttons. Madeline knows that she did not protect Michael from his dad as she should have, and is trying to reconnect with him. She is also tough and savvy – bad guys underestimate her at their peril.