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?