So you’ve decided to write a TV show, huh? Let me guess, you got tired of watching “The Office” over and over again until you finally stood up and said: “Hey, I can do that! i’m really funny, and I have great ideas! i’m gonna write a TV show!” Am i close? Well chances are you didn’t roll off the couch and declare anything in your parents basement while Cheetos dust feathered out of your boxers. (If you did however, we should probably hang out sometime because we have a lot in common.)
There is one thing I can be sure of though: you went on Google and looked up something along the lines of “How to write for TV and Film”. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be here. Fortunately for you this blog, out of all the most popular searched blogs, is the best to teach you how to write. “How do you know that?” you might ask. Have i mastered the writing skill? Can you find my Masterclass and learn all my secrets there? No. I am a 20 year old college student who has never set foot in a writers room, and has never had any work published, acknowledged, or even its existence recognized (Because at the moment… no work of mine actually does… ya know… exists)
But I have searched through many of the best articles, essays, and blogs for tips, tricks, and advice to help a young startup like yourself get a foothold in writing for television. I have cherry picked info out of the already cherry picked web pages for your consumption (only the best of the best for you, my liege). So think of this blog like a condensed google search, that took the most helpful pages on how to start writing a TV show and crammed them all into one. Specifically getting your idea down and making your characters. So! without further adieu:
How to write for TV (and sometimes film)
Step 1: Don’t write anything!
Not yet at least. first you need to watch some TV. Now when I say this I mean you need to really watch TV, like a zoologist watches a pride of lions, you need to watch the characters. Listen to the way they speak, the specific words they use are important. Does a snarky city dweller use words like “preposterous” or “rabble-rouser” when describing an injustice committed upon them? Or do they spit out urban slang in between every other word? Do they act differently in certain situations, or when speaking to specific characters? What do they wear, why? WHY? These things and more are what you need to pay attention to while watching tv!
Step 2: The 3 Act Structure and Outlining of your story
Now if I know anything about writing (and i kinda don’t) I know that writing an outline for TV is just as much fun as writing one for any type of written work. It’s a pain, but it will help loads in keeping your story clean and easy to understand. Let’s say you think of an idea for a show: a crime thriller about a hot young detective who is haunted by the murder of her husband, but oh wow she’s also secretly a witch! set up your main characters life, where does she live, who does she live with, where does she work? What happens and who is introduced in the beginning of the story? All of this will be answered in the first episode and an outline will help you do that. But before we do the outline, lets talk format.
Now you should know that most TV shows all follow some sort of format, and are usually broken into at least three acts. Now you don’t need to follow this format, some writers want to stand alone in how they write, however our witch crime drama is pretty cut and paste in regards to most crime dramas, so we’ll be using the three act structure to outline it.
Ah yes the three act structure, Pretty much all narrative fiction follows this form. Each of the acts roughly covers a third of your story and is traditionally referred to as something like set-up, confrontation, and resolution. Here’s a picture I snagged off the handy blog that I read this information from (because in case you forgot, I have no idea what i’m talking about).
In the first act, you set-up your characters, themes, setting, and central conflict. In the second act, your protagonist attempts to solve the central conflict but obstacles (and your antagonist) get in his or her way; And in the third act, the protagonist is able to resolve the central conflict of the story, which may include thwarting the antagonist if there is one.
So for the first Act you must must must give the audience some understanding of what is going on. Imagine most movies or television dramas, they usually start with a establishing shot and a short clip of just where they are and what’s going on before they jump into any dialogue. This keeps the audience grounded and gets the bothersome where and when questions out of the way quickly, so they aren’t listening to your characters and thinking “that’s great but what decade are we in right now?!”. Just do yourself a favor and let them know as early as possible.
Next is introducing your main character(s) and the central conflict of the movie -for the sake of organization we will talk characters in the next point, so lets just focus on story for now). Your protagonist’s mission or goal needs to tie directly into the conflict for the movie. Lets use Star Wars as an example to show this (because the friendly informative blog i read for you used Star Wars and it really is a very good example): the Rebels stealing the Death Star plans and their quest to destroy it is established within the first few minutes. Everything that happens in the story is pushing towards this goal. Our protagonist (Luke Skywalker) becomes involved in the events of galactic civil war because a space battle happened above his home planet. this is our first Act. We have our character, we have our world set, we have our goal, now we just need to bridge the gap between the two in the Second Act.
Now usually the second act in shows is split into 2 parts, and the midpoint is what splits them. (remember the midpoint in our little graphic up there? that’s important!)
Act Two, Part One
Act two will play out as a series of escalating confrontations between the protagonist and whatever is standing in the way of achieving his or her goals. In Star Wars it was the Empire, in our witch crime drama it could be a serial killer… or ghouls… or serial killer ghouls. Whatever it is your protagonist needs to have some sort of conflict with them.
Then we have the Midpoint. This is basically a point of no return for your character, or a moment where things get very serious. In Star Wars it was when they were trapped in the Deathstar with no way out. In our witch drama it could be when our detective travels into the haunted demonic bowels of a cave to arrest… or banish… or do something to the serial killer ghouls to stop them.
Act Two, Part Two
The second half of act two functions a lot like the first half, with your hero trying to accomplish something, and whatever is standing in his or her way doing so. However because of the midpoint complication, things have become more urgent and the stakes have gotten higher. If you can do this correctly, congratulations! you’ve just built tension in a story! The way the second act ends is usually “something bad happens to your hero and they fall lower than ever before” like i said earlier you do not have to do this… but mostly everyone does so hey, if it aint broke don’t fix it. It’s also helpful because you’re going into your third Act, the resolution, from a very tense angle. Try not to mess it up!
The resolution. This is where you tie up everything that you set up in your first act into a tidy bow. But since this is television, you leave room for more stories to take place after this. The detective must capture/banish the evil ghouls but oh snap! Their mysterious leader got away at the last moment… “This isn’t the last of me!” she says as she darts into a secret trap door! And she’s right, it’s not the last of her, because you need to fill up a whole bunch of episodes and introducing creative villains is hard.
Eventually the action of your story will come to a point in the climax , this is when your protagonist uses what they’ve learned during the course of the story to win the day.
The Star Wars example is really fitting here because Luke is only able to destroy the Death Star by trusting his feelings and using the Force. If you put Luke Skywalker from the beginning of the story in this spot, he would have crashed his X-Wing into the side of the Death Star like red 6 (“Porkins pull up!”). Only from what he learned throughout the movie could he complete the mission. Oh it’s also a fitting example because the climax of the movie is a literal explosion, keep that in mind. there is the climax…then there is nothing.
After the climax, especially with television being rather time-sensitive, you want to wrap up your story as quickly as possible. Star Wars does it in like two minutes. In TV, you’re gonna want to do it even quicker than that.
So now lets get started on our outline. This, so not to make this blog a mile long, is going to be a rather sloppy, bare bones example, but here’s what you’re looking for: First Act, Second Act, Midpoint, Third Act, and answering as many “W Questions” as possible.
-Detective Gabby Linda wakes up, scene of her getting ready, pins name tag to her shirt (G.Linda) and heads to work. Show the audience where she lives (Where).
-Glinda gets to work, talks through hustle and bustle of police station, says goodbye to boss, sits at desk. show the audience where she works. Introduce Glinda’s desk clump and spunky roommate Roquelle. introduce sub character.
-Boss calls everyone in, talks about the serial killer’s latest victim, introduce Antagonist.
-Goofy fat detective talks to Glinda and Roquelle about his poor love life, Glinda shrugs him off and he goes away. New sub character, possible sub plot.
-Glinda and Rochelle go to murder scene, learn info about killer, Glinda uses her powers and traumatic past to discover a strange tattoo symbol on the murder victim (use visual cues to answer the when question).
-They try to find more from this new info back in the lab, introduce new sub character, Raul the forensic scientist, Rochelle likes him, new sub plot. (End Act 1)
-info on the tattoo leads them to believe the victim frequented a night club in shady part of town.
-Glinda and Rochelle go undercover and find a ghoul eating another fresh victim in the back rooms of the club. chase scene out of club and through abandoned building, ghoul escapes. Glinda is upset she couldn’t save the person in time and that they are dealing with dark arts. Also more bodies will be found if they can’t catch the ghoul. Things are getting serious now. (Midpoint)
-investigation of new victim, more info about secret cult. Glinda takes her cult info to her grandfather, a closet warlock and asks him about it. He tells her they are a dangerous group of necromancers. Often hiding in caves.
-Rochelle takes the non-witch evidence to Raul and gets asked on a date!
Glinda investigates the caves alone because Rochelle is on her date with Raul.
-Glinda discovers the ghoul hideout and is captured. Introduced to shady villain in charge of the ghouls. (End act 2) Glinda uses her witch powers to contact Rochelle who has to ditch her date awkwardly to come save Glinda.
-Rochelle busts Glinda out and they fight with (Climax) and eventually capture the ghoul but the villian gets away (“this isn’t the last of me!” blah blah)
-Glinda banishes the ghoul and calls backup.
-Glinda’s boss arrives with help and the (Resolution) happens. “Bunch of cannibals, huh? i’m getting too old for this shit, Glinda” “Yeah captain, cannibals,” *Wink wink*
-Shots of police wrapping up as Glinda leaves, says goodnight to Rochelle as she goes to her room. Glinda goes to bed satisfied, “but there is still the real villain out there, and his day will come however… for evil cannot hide from G.Linda The Detective Witch!” End episode.
Now of course this is the rapid fire spit-out-an-outline-in-two-seconds version but you get the idea. Get the whole story on paper first, then flesh it out with dialogue.
Step 3: Characters are key
Lets talk characters for a minute. We’re going to start on the main character first because that’s who you’ll put the most effort into in the beginning, and because i just feel like we should.
Ok! I hope you like sub-points, and sub-sub-points because we’re going to break things up a LOT. Characters take a lot of work, especially the protagonist, so you need to think long and hard about everything in this characters life to define who they are. Lets start simple:
Concept: What is your character?
So this one should be pretty easy to grasp; what, literally, is your character? Right now our character is a widowed female detective, as well as a secret witch. She lives in an apartment with her friend and coworker. Young but not inexperienced, attractive but doesn’t flaunt it, (no crooked nose or warts here!) and is deeply absorbed into her job, a classic workaholic.
Backstory: What lead your character to this moment in life?
so why a detective? does it run in her family, or is she the black sheep? how did she meet her friends, and how well does she know her family? A good trick for this is to start with the first moment of episode 1, and reverse time. Our character starts in her apartment, if we were to reverse time we’d see her moving into the apartment with Rochelle, before that, at her husbands funeral or discovering his body. Before that, living with her husband and getting promoted to detective, as well as meeting rochelle. Further still, being a police officer (Detectives start as police officers and then are promoted into that position…right? ah well, anyway…). then her growing up struggling with her witch powers and knowing her family members as a child. I could go on, but i shan’t.
take these moments and apply them to your character’s personality. How did her husbands death change her? Think about how the backstory molded the protagonist and keep things consistent.
Personality: Glass half full, or glass half empty? Maybe “Glass thrown in another character’s face”?
personality is extremely important for your story. Personality is basically how your character reacts to situations, and it will drive them down specific avenues. It’s your job to create a unique and believable personality that the audience is going to like as fast as possible. A good way to start solidifying your character’s personality is to picture what your character would do in some defining situations. Are they a fighter or a flighter? How would they act if the person sitting next to them were talking on their cellphone in a movie theater? what do they do when they see a cute dog?! Think about all of these things and start to chisel out a personality for your protagonist.
Physical appearance/ clothes: clothing; an external reflection of character
Physical appearance may not seem to be a very internal factor about a character, but it is… well, Actually, it’s not, it’s entirely external, but you still need it. Your audience does not feel exactly what your character feels all the time, but appearance and clothing is a perfect way to externalize your character’s mood and feelings to the audience. Good examples of this could be a police captain who is always dressed in full regalia, compared to a police captain who wears just a dress shirt and holster with slightly loosened tie. Imagine the two of them side by side and how they would act. Dress your character from the inside out.
Flaws and Traits: Nobody likes a Mary-sue
Flaws are what make your character human, and they are needed in a good story. Unless you are writing a Japanese anime about schoolgirls, all of your characters will have flaws. Which is good! if your character didn’t have flaws they would have no trouble overcoming obstacles and lead a very conflict free life. Imagine a show like Breaking Bad, what would happen if Walter White didn’t have the flaw of too much pride? Do you want to know? He would have taken the job offered to him by his friend at Grey Matter Technologies, had great health benefits, beat cancer, and had all the money in the world to take care of his family, legally. Gee golly, what a heartwarming tale TOO BAD NOBODY WOULD WATCH IT!
Use your characters backstory as a leverage point here, what flaws may they have from growing up and apply them to your character now. Does our Detective Glinda have terrible commitment issues after the death of her husband? Will this be reflected in her love life throughout the series? What about her big witch secret? does she push people away to keep them from finding out? keep things like this in mind, they will be factors that drive conflict in your story.
Use these tips to make all of your characters, but focus mainly on the protagonist. They drive the story forward and are who your audience sees the most, so put effort into them! Now lets talk about the characters your audience sees a little less.
Your sub characters are basically everyone who is not a Protagonist or Antagonist. They fill all the little gaps in between and they, as a whole, are vital to your story (unless your story takes place on a desert island and your protagonist is, was, and will be alone… and doesn’t have a phone.)
Making characters compliment one another: Get your OTP’s and your Will-they Wont-they’s here! hot and steamy!
So when building your sub characters you should follow the same rules and guidance that you did for your protagonist, but what you need to think about also is how they will compliment the Protagonist as well as each other. Here’s how to do that.
Get a wide variety
If you have a show that’s 5 rambunctious high schoolers who make the principals life a living hell, that’s ok! But make them different rambunctious high schoolers who make the principal’s life a living hell. Then, make their parents different! Then, make all the teachers different! Then, give one of them a girlfriend and GASP she doesn’t like smoking pot, oh noo! Have a wide variety of people, this will give you countless situations to work with, and will make it that much easier to show the audience just who your characters are. Think: my characters are like paint, each a different color or shade, the more colors and shades i have, the more unique paintings i can make. Writing is an art, so give yourself every color you can think of.
Give them a role
Each and every person in life (real life, that is) wears many hats. I, for example, hold the titles of student, brother, son, friend, skier, runner, boyfriend, employee, etc. Each of those roles identify me in some way, so too should they identify your character. Perhaps Rochelle is the bubbly friend who acts as an emotional support when Glinda falls, as well as detective in the workspace, she wears those two hats: detective and friend. Of course she can wear more than two but don’t let sub characters get too complicated, that’s why you have so many! mix and match!
Use them more than once
Ok let’s vent for a sec together. Making characters is hard! I don’t want to explore 25 peoples pasts’ and make them all unique and likable, and i’m sure neither do you! So reuse your sub characters! your audience will like it too, they don’t want to have to meet a ton of new people in a show, the same way we don’t want to meet a ton of new friends every day. We like having people we know, it’s easy to have fun with them after the work of learning who they are. it’s the same with TV, fill your roles with a wide set of likable characters and work with what you got, and hold on to the option of adding new characters when you need to.
Remember these are minor characters
Lastly, remember that these are not your protagonist, and they serve the purpose of aiding the protagonist in moving the story forward. So put effort into them and give them their time in the spotlight, but don’t overdo it or your audience will start to get confused as to who the real star of the show is.
That’s all Folks!
Now i could write and write for days on end about how to make a show good. But that would take a lot of work, and a lot of google searches, so i will leave you with these gems of information. Now go, set your heart aflutter and, like the beating of its little wings, let your pen skitter across the page staining emotion onto its marble flesh.
I, however, will take a nap i believe, maybe retreat to my couch donned in my cheetoey boxers and let my mind go numb to Michael Scott and his staff in their crazy office antics. Then maybe i’ll take my own advice and write a show of my own, make Glinda the Detective Witch a reality, seeing as i’m an expert now.
I hope my Blog helped you out, and saved you some google searching, good luck and god speed to all of you.
Want to read what i read? Here’s some Sources: