Introductory note to screenwriting course for TV – (Seminar given London Film School 27.11.12)

IMG_1227Introduction to screenwriting for TV series.

Film writing can be a very pure form, highly individual in genre in subject matter and in expression – as an analogy with music it shares some of the esoteric quality of classical composition and the free-flowing spirit of jazz.

TV screenwriting is more like pop. It exists primarily in the highly commoditised world of fast turnover programmes – audiences often enter free and feel no obligation to stick around for more than a few seconds if don’t like what they see – after all with 3/400 hundred channels to flick through (or a million other options if viewing on the net) why should they?

But writing for TV can be a rarefied art form too. Some US cable work; Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Homeland along with network; The Mentalist, The Good Wife, have matched if not surpassed the heights of material tipped for Oscar-hood in the more hallowed temple of theatrical film.

So what differentiates good TV writing from good Film scripting?


You need characters. You need stories. You need incident. You need plots (lots of it) action, emotion, and intrigue. IN reality script-writing for TV is really no different in its demands on the imagination of the writer or the requirement for application in terms of quality.

In some ways it is more challenging because in a serialised form you cannot end your story, you have to keep it turning. There are no easy stunts; killing characters off is costly – especially if you have spent weeks building them up – it will take as long to build new ones – so lives and actions have to be accorded with respect for the consequences to the continuing drama.

Also the challenge exists that you cannot write a series on your own. It is true that you are lucky if you get to be the sole writer on a film these days – and certainly in Hollywood a film has to have some kind of congenital defect to born of one parent – invariably there are hundreds but that is not by the design of the original author, more usually it it is at the behest of the producers of the studio head.

In TV it is essential to have the fertilised egg carried by numerous surrogates from the off. It is simply not possible to deliver a 13 hour series to the audience on your own.

This introduces the question of who originates an idea – how it is authored and who ultimately takes control for running the show?

The model I advocate and prefer is that of the writer/show-runner. The concept by which we run our studio is that the writer takes the lead in all matters relating to the development and production of the series. That they are really given the mandate to run the show.

This is how it works in the states which is why they are able to deliver at the top end of the spectrum such outstanding work in this medium.

Here in the UK the model is finally catching on. We have the lies of Russell T. Davies who masterminded the reboot of Dr. Who. Then there is Sherlock brilliantly run by Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss. Line of Duty by Jed Mercurio and so on. But it has taken a while to take hold.

Recently I just completed production on Allan Cubbit’s The Fall for BBC 2, starring Gillian Anderson and coming out next spring. Allan was effectively the writer, producer and supervisor on this five part serial and took responsibility for all the major decisions on this serial as well as being on the set for the duration of the shoot.

We are very much hoping that when we get to shoot a second season he will have the opportunity to direct it as well.

(Here is the clip).

After viewing this I would like to talk to you all directly about shows you like and also what ideas you might have – however embry0nic for series concepts of your own.

And of course I hope you will also ask me questions too!


About dancing star

TV and Film award winning producer and writer with 28 years experience in British and North American programs. Credits include ; Cracker, Prime Suspect, Queer As Folk, Longitude, Sunday, Sweeney Todd and The Fall. Interests; creative development and production of all drama medium, also education, story-telling theory and practice. Additional pursuits; photography, poetry and history. Mentor for the London Film School MA screenwriting course and a regular visiting lecturer on National Film School producers course.

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