TV Treatments – What to Write About (Part 2 of 2) by Caren Kennedy | Resources | Essential Guides | Write for Stage & Screen

Caren Kennedy

One from the archives: this second part of Caren Kennedy’s articles on TV Treatments is visited again and again by our readers.

When thinking about possible ideas for a television series, human interest stories are best, particularly if you are new to screenwriting. They’re easier to handle and have a much broader appeal when approaching programme makers than subjects such as the supernatural, sci-fi or anything involving gritty realism.

When thinking about possible ideas for a television series, human interest stories are best, particularly if you are new to screenwriting. They’re easier to handle and have a much broader appeal when approaching programme makers than subjects such as the supernatural, sci-fi or anything involving gritty realism.

The same goes for situation comedy where seeing the funny side of life always has, and always will, be a winner. They reveal truths about our relationships, the way we live and about society in general, albeit in an exaggerated fashion, and give us permission to laugh at ourselves. Moreover, comedies about the everyday are also much easier to write than say parody or satire. It requires immense skill to convince an audience to buy into shows such as BBC’s World War II spoof ‘Allo ‘Allo of the 1980’s and are best left to the more experienced writer.

It also helps to remain realistic and not make your first project too ambitions in terms of location, character numbers, and special effects. Shaun MacLoughlin, who has commissioned numerous television and radio plays for the BBC, has this advice in his book Writing for Radiowhich applies equally to television:

“In talking to aspiring radio playwrights, who ask me what I am looking for, I often say: ‘Please, surprise me. Please give me something I have never encountered before.’ But I also say, ‘If you can start a play with ordinary people in an ordinary setting, with whom many listeners will identify, then if you can make that really entertaining and different, I shall be delighted.”

While you might strike lucky and sell an idea for television series first time out, in truth that’s unlikely to happen. However, if your writing shows potential and your submission proves you understand the economics of the production process, what’s more likely to happen is that it might secure you some regular work on an ongoing show or a place on a television writing workshop.

That said, although rare, it does happen. The multi-award winning comedy drama series Cold Feet was created and principally written by Mike Bullen, a former radio producer and history of art graduate, who took a course in screenwriting in his mid-30’s having become increasingly unhappy with the quality of British television targeted at people his own age. During this course he developed his first one-off comedy drama which ultimately led to Cold Feet’s commissioning by Granada Television for the ITV network in 1997. The show was a huge critical and ratings success for ITV, who have struggled to recapture Cold Feet’s kind of audience (30 plus age bracket) since the series ended in 2003.

Where do you get your ideas from?

Every writer has been asked this question a hundred times over and the standard answer is that ideas are everywhere. But the trick is to recognise a good one when it hits, hold tight and then run with it.

Your starting point may be something that happened to you, or someone you know, a letter, a news item, or a fascinating person you met. Alternatively it could be something you saw or overheard. Our heads are crammed full of facts, figures, images and experience which we’ve accumulated through years of living, reading, watching films, jobs we’ve done, friends we’ve made, and family members we’re stuck with.

For example, John Sullivan grew up in Balham, South London, and it is there he observed the sort of market trader who would later appear in Only Fools and Horses and where he accumulated much of his material for scripts – his father’s all-night poker sessions, his grandfather falling down holes to claim money, and later on his niece joining the police force. Inspiration for his series Just Good Friends came from a letter in a magazine read to him by his wife and written by a woman who had been jilted by her fiancé on the day of her wedding.

Equally, Mark Bullen, based Cold Feet’s main characters on himself and people he knew, and many of the storylines came directly from the situations they were facing at the time. In a 2007 feature for The Guardian newspaper, screenwriter Danny Brocklehurst discussed the impact Cold Feet had on British television:

“Cold Feet proved that you didn’t have to have a high concept to make compelling, heart warming, sometimes profound drama. And, while the show dealt with issues such as adoption, alcoholism and testicular cancer, it was always at its most successful when bouncing playfully between the three couples, neatly exposing the differences between men and women.”

Watching these constantly shifting allegiances is the staple diet of most television, whether in soaps, series dramas and situation comedies.

More famous, however, is the origins of Fawlty Towers. While filming on location John Cleese, along with the rest of the Monty Python Flying Circus team, were staying at the Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay. Cleese became fascinated with the outrageous behaviour of the hotel’s owner, Donald Sinclair, later described by Cleese as: “The most marvellously rude man I’ve ever met.”

This rudeness included throwing a timetable at a guest enquiring about bus schedules; deriding American-born Terry Gilliam’s table manners for not being sufficiently ‘British’ when he noticed him swopping his knife and fork between hands while eating; and chucking Eric Idle’s bag behind a garden wall having mistakenly believed it to contain a bomb. (Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?)

Rather than transferring to a different hotel as all the other Pythons did, Cleese chose to remain and continue observing Sinclair’s bizarre behaviour. Later Cleese was joined by his then wife Connie Booth who also recognised Sinclair’s comedy potential. And the rest, as they say, is history.

What can you learn from this?

To ignore any niggling doubts when an idea grabs holds and while you are working it through in your head and then putting down on paper. Here’s a truth in any form of writing: No one can teach what will sell, what won’t, what will be a smash hit or a flop, because no one knows until it’s out there.

Sourcing Ideas

Many writers get their ideas from spending an hour or so a day looking over news stories and headlines and cutting out anything of interest. Drawing on real-life situations, people and events can help make plots credible, characters believable, and turn a chosen subject into compulsive audience viewing. Like John Sullivan’s idea for Just Good Friends, a single item in a problem page could be the catalyst.

A word of caution though. Cuttings are for inspirational use only. If you use reality exclusively as a basis for your writing, then you will have to obtain the permission of the people involved, as Tim Firth had to do when he wrote Calendar Girls. Even if your subject is deceased, in all likelihood there are descendants who control the image rights. The 2004 film The Life and Death of Peter Sellers was fraught with such issues.

A great way to start generating ideas is to complete the following exercise:

1.   Collect newspapers. The Sunday version is best. Go to your local newsagents or a bookshop like Eason’s for a wider selection than you would normally buy. Start with your local newspapers – including the monthly freebies. To search for publications online, including small press and university newspapers, go to: Media Live: a resource for Irish media; and Newspapers for newspapers everywhere.

2.   Scan, read, cut (print or take notes) and file interesting stories. By this I mean anything that intrigues or excites you. Crime stories can inspire ideas for a suspense series, as can health scares for a medical drama. Problem pages, obituaries, wedding and anniversary announcements will tell you something about how people lived, what they accomplished and, more importantly, what they experienced during their lifetimes. Save anything that tickles your fancy.

Select the three that still inspire or interest you. Do some further thinking on each one by playing the: “What happens next …?” game. At the end of each paragraph, ask yourself: “What happens next …?” and “What if …?” and “Where’s the conflict …?”

3.  Write anywhere from three to five double-spaced pages on each of your chosen three subjects. Don’t plan anything … rather grab the idea and run with it by writing chronologically, without any thought as to where you’re going or where you’ll end up. In this way you will avoid contriving events by letting your characters lead you through any twists and turns which can surprise them as much as they do you. When drafting ideas for stories, Billy Mernit, screenwriter and author of Writing the Romantic Comedy, advises:

“The ultimate object is to realise your story from start to finish – without stopping to re-write or edit as you go. Get it all out first. Go with every impulse no matter how absurd it may seem. I can’t have them say, do, think, that is a wonderful thought. You can and should make your characters do whatever occurs to you in the chaos of creation. First drafts are good testing grounds for all ideas. Have the courage to be bad. Something awful in a first draft can lead to an idea that’s truly brilliant. Take the risk!”

4.   Then stop. Sit on your three ideas for a few days. Resist the impulse to keep editing. Rather,encourage them to marinade gently and gather strength in your subconscious. Visualise the stories and characters playing out in your head. Think back on programmes you’ve watched and those we’ve examined so far in this course. Spend time thinking about the main characters and make notes for using later on.

5.   Come back and re-read the three mini-stories you have developed. Which one are you most excited about? More than likely, it will be the one that kept playing out in your head over the past few days. Eureka! This story could be the basis for your own television series.

But what happens if you like all three? Or none of them? If you like all three, pick one to work with for now, telling yourself you can go back and do the other two later. If you don’t like any of them, go back and write some more samples. Eventually, you’ll hit on the right one. The one that turns you on and makes your fingers itch to keep on writing.

(c) Caren Kennedy

See here for Part 1 of Caren’s article on TV Treatments.

About the author

Caren Kennedy is the co-creator of a TV drama series optioned by JJ Abrams and Warner Bros TV (2007 – 2014) and co-author of ‘Fake Alibis’ (BenBella Books, 2009). She is currently studying for an MA in Screenwriting at the IADT’s National Film School. In 2015, she won a place on the Red Rock Writers’ Academy where she underwent intensive training in writing for television drama with John Yorke, founder of the BBC Writers Academy. Following this, Caren was commissioned to write for Red Rock (TV3 / BBC / Amazon) in Season 3 / 2016. She is currently completing ‘Tough Love’, her first screenplay, an extract of which came second in the Linen Press 2015 ‘New Beginnings’ Competition for its “multiple layers, depth, political backdrop, vibrant and rich dialogue”. Caren is a full member of Writers Guild of Ireland and is represented in the U.S. by Vamnation Entertainment.

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