I was recently at a brainstorming meeting for a new television drama series my writing partner and I will be starting. Throughout the meeting, she and I and another woman who is part of the production team on this project, but is also a scriptwriter, kept referring to TV shows we watched, saying things like, “Did you see that on The Lab?” or “Something like the episode of Rhythm City the other night”. After some time one of the men at the meeting asked, “Gosh when do you have time to watch TV? I never have time to watch TV.” My writing partner and I looked at each other and said, “It’s research!”
I’ve never met a good novelist who wasn’t a lover of novels or a film director who didn’t watch movies. Why should television scriptwriters be any different? If you want to understand television you must watch TV. The key is to watch it from a learning angle.
Here are some pointers:
1. Keep notes about what works and what doesn’t.
If it’s a comedy, where did you laugh, where did the joke fall flat? If it is a soapie, what story lines are you most interested in seeing resolved? Why? Which characters interest you most? Do they use any interesting scene linkages?
2. Watch what works and what doesn’t work
Who won the Emmy for best drama series? That’s what you should be watching. You can also learn from bad TV. Why is is so terrible? How could you improve it?
3. Watch across genres
Make sure you watch all types of television shows so that you begin to understand the convention in different genres. Also watch 30 minute shows and hour long shows.
4. Pay attention to breaks and endings
Writers often put hooks at commercial breaks. Note these down. In continuing series and soap operas the hooks will be placed at the end of the show and will be even more obvious.
The best way to learn about writing television scripts is to watch television. So shift over and give me the popcorn!
Lauri Kubuitsile is an award-winning writer living in Botswana. She blogs about the writing life as well as many other things at Thoughts from Botswana.