Watch and Write! Writing the TV Drama Series

By Kai-Arne Zimny


“To cre­ate a tele­vi­sion show out of thin air, with­out any­body pay­ing you,

requires a cer­tain amount of delu­sion, and that’s tak­en me very far.”

Matt Wein­er, cre­ator of Mad Men


Do you reg­u­lar­ly watch a TV series? Prob­a­bly yes.

Have you ever con­sid­ered writ­ing one? Prob­a­bly not.

But if you like TV series and love to write, you might want to recon­sid­er. The recent ser­i­al tele­vi­sion land­scape is diverse and of a qual­i­ty as nev­er before. And pro­duc­tion stu­dios are begin­ning to open their gates a tiny crack to meet an ever-increas­ing demand for series ideas and concepts.

In her book, Writ­ing the TV Dra­ma Series:  How to Suc­ceed as a Pro­fes­sion­al Writer in TV, tele­vi­sion writer and screen­writ­ing teacher Pamela Dou­glas offers an approach to learn­ing how to slide through that crack and gain insight into what’s lurk­ing behind those gates.

The book is two things:

First, it is a guide­line for writ­ing a tele­vi­sion episode. The author explains what’s rel­e­vant for begin­ners of the craft, e.g. the basic for­mat struc­ture, fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ences between “seri­als” and “pro­ce­du­rals,” the struc­ture of an episode’s act as well as weav­ing togeth­er mul­ti­ple plot­lines. Dou­glas con­sid­ers her book a syl­labus based on her teach­ing meth­ods at the School of Cin­e­mat­ic Arts at the Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, Los Angeles.

Sec­ond, her book is an insight into the busi­ness itself, pre­sent­ing the steps need­ed to break into the busi­ness, the sched­ule of an entire TV sea­son, the hier­ar­chy of a writ­ing staff as well as var­i­ous jobs and salaries. In addi­tion to the author’s rev­e­la­tions of her own expe­ri­ences, sev­er­al writ­ers and pro­duc­ers of suc­cess­ful shows are fea­tured in interviews.

This may or may not be inter­est­ing for you. If you’re sole­ly focused on writ­ing and flesh­ing out a con­cept, the chap­ters on the busi­ness aspects are prob­a­bly a bit dry. In that case, I’d rec­om­mend a work more exclu­sive­ly focused on writ­ing and struc­tur­ing, such as William Rabkin’s Writ­ing the Pilot or Daniel Calvisi’s Sto­ry Maps: TV Dra­ma – The Struc­ture of the One-Hour Tele­vi­sion Pilot, both of which are short­er and more to the point than Douglas’s work. Douglas’s book is a good first step if you have an idea for a series in mind and are look­ing for basic guide­lines to com­mit your ideas to paper.

Now is prob­a­bly the time to add some­thing like: Yeah, chances of suc­cess are slim, who do you think you are, yad­da yad­da yad­da. Sim­i­lar to any oth­er author on scriptwrit­ing I have read so far, Dou­glas damp­ens her read­ers’ opti­mism with her own ver­sions of the words above.

Fair enough!

But there’s cer­tain­ly some­thing you can do with your promis­ing script. The recent third edi­tion of the book is from 2011, and since then the cracks and gates have opened a lit­tle bit more. Amer­i­can pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies, such as Ama­zon Stu­dios, accept (and read!) pilot sub­mis­sions. Ger­man TV sta­tions like ARD’s and ZDF’s con­tent net­work “Funk” do the same on a small­er level.

So why not take a healthy sip of con­fi­dence, mixed with a few dash­es of delu­sion, start writ­ing, and see what happens?

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