Tips for Writing for TV – Clare Dowling | Resources | Essential Guides | Write for Stage & Screen

Clare Dowling

“If you read a lot of books, you’re considered well read.  But if you watch a lot of TV, you’re not considered well viewed.” – Lily Tomlin.

I’ve been writing for Fair City for twelve seasons now, with over a hundred episodes under my belt, but I’m still learning on the job – how best to build tension, how to choose the strongest hook and cliff, when visual moments say ten times more than dialogue ever can.  Having a great idea for a television script is the fun bit – it’s turning it into a brilliantly crafted piece of work, brimming with drama, tension and memorable characters that’s a little bit trickier.

Here are some tips that I’ve found useful along the way:

–       Watch telly.  This seems very obvious, but you’ll find your best teacher on the TV screen in front of you.  When I was trying out for Fair City, I would record episodes of it and transcribe it to see exactly how a transmitted episode looked on paper.  I learned an enormous amount about dialogue, structure and basically how things work in soap.  Easier still, you can buy scripts of anything from Frasier to The Sopranos (if you don’t mind being too depressed by the fantastic writing).

–       Every scene should have a purpose; that is, it reveals some new information that drives the drama on.  If it doesn’t earn its place, or has the whiff of a ‘filler’ scene about it, then be brutal.

–       The importance of biography and scene breakdown.  Di Burrows, writer and producer, who has written extensively for such shows as ‘Bad Girls’ and ‘Footballers Wives’ and, most recently, was Series Consultant on Fair City, has this tip:

“Depending on your favoured way in, begin with biographies for your characters (so you know who they are, what drives them and how they’re connected to each other) and a synopsis of your story with a clear arc – beginning, middle and end. Once you’re happy with your synopsis, progress to a scene breakdown – a brief outline of scene content. This is a clear way to structure your script and may undergo many drafts and re-drafts. It’s much simpler to work with than moving around huge chunks of dialogue in a 100 page (or more) document.”

–       Layer your drama.  While a scene may have a particular story point to deliver, there can be ten other things going on the background that make your story meatier.  When you’re looking for these complexities, it can help to see where each character is at in any given scene.  What’s going on emotionally with them?  What’s their exact purpose in the scene?  How do they feel about the other characters around them?  Then you have material to play with.

–       Create interesting characters.  It doesn’t matter if your idea is explosively brilliant; if your central character is a cliché, or a dull plodding soul that your viewers will find difficult to identify with, then you might need to look again.  That’s not to say they must be zany or bizarre, although these characters can and do work too.  Characters that are complex and layered work best; they’re likely to react differently in different situations, to have love/hate relationships with other characters, and basically provide you with plenty of fodder as you go along.

–       Beware of the remote control.  Readers of books tend to be forgiving about lengthy, scene-setting expositions; television viewers will probably just zap across to the X-Factor.  Construct your opening scenes to make them as punchy as possible.  For series and soaps, it’s best to start with short, pacy scenes, and save the lengthier stuff for later on.

–       Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.  This one is probably the most painful.  After the exhilaration and rush of getting that first draft down on paper, the hard work of editing begins.  Be your own worst critic; if a word, a look or a scene isn’t working then go at it again until it does – or else cut it out entirely.  It’s amazing how much a script slims down once all the extraneous stuff has gone, and is usually the better for it.  Then, when it’s finished, leave the poor thing alone, as it is possible to worry a script to death.

–       Dialogue isn’t everything.  While it certainly helps to have cracking dialogue, it’s only one element of storytelling; you need to write visually too.  It’s the old rule of Show Don’t Tell.  When scenes regularly run to five or six pages of dense dialogue, you might want to decide whether it’s better suited to the stage than the screen.

–       Write other things.  It can be difficult to break into the television market.  Many television writers are very experienced in other areas of writing; few land a TV gig without having written anything before.  Writing for other genres requires different writing skills, but common to all are the basics of character and plot development, and the construction of a story arc.  No writing is ever wasted; all of it is good practice, even if nobody sees it but yourself.

–       Try to be original.  This doesn’t necessarily mean coming up with the next highly original hit TV series (although that would certainly help).  It’s about finding new ways of telling old stories; of discovering and developing your own screen voice. Everybody has a distinct style, whether writing original television or as part of a writing team.  If you’re good at comedy, then that’s pretty bankable; if it’s high drama that rocks your boat, then mine it for all it’s worth.

–       Buy some screenwriting books or do a course.  If you’ve never tackled a television script before, it can be quite different from other genres.  There are technicalities, such how to format the script correctly (different television companies will have different rules), what to do about commercial breaks, and how to write for the camera without acting like a director on the page.  It can be easy to get bogged down in it, so it’s a good idea to get some training, in the form of a good television writing course (the Irish Playwright and Screenwriters Guild run several such courses a year) or pick up one of the many books on the subject.  Also, maybe join a writers group and get some feedback from others on your projects.

And Good Luck!

About the author

(c) Clare Dowling, November 2011

Clare Dowling is a best-selling author and scriptwriter for RTE’s Fair City. Her new book, ‘Would I Lie to You’, is out in February. Her previous books are ‘Too Close for Comfort’, ‘Going it Alone’, ‘No Strings Attached’, ‘My Fabulous Divorce’, ‘Amazing Grace’, ‘Expecting Emily’ and ‘Just the Three of Us’.  You can learn more about Clare and her books by visiting her website.  

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