Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Shhhh! I’m doing research!

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.

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  1. Good morning, Lauri. Thanks for this post. This is a great thing to remember. Even if you're not a screenwriter, you can watch TV and movies and learn. (Much better than watching it as a vegetable, which tends to be my position.)Instead of watching mindlessly (aka vegetable), I should be taking notes and paying attention to the mechanics of the show.

    Very good reminder.

  2. Glad it was helpful, Helen!

  3. Good post with SEVERAL great points!

  4. Not only have I been paying close attention to the way my favorite TV shows play out the story arc, I've been increasingly aware of the soundtrack, thinking, "self-revelatory moment coming up on House - cue poignant music." Too bad our books can't have music scores!

    Gayle Carline

  5. Excellent points, Lauri. Thanks so much. But at some point it gets so I can't watch a TV show or a movie without being a critic. Kinda takes the fun out of it. :-)

  6. I do that when I watch TV, but not for the same reason you do. I'm not a scriptwriter. I don't think I am anyway. Still, I can get a lot from TV watching how characters interact with each other, how the plot develops, and figuring out twists placed in the storyline. I tend to writer better when I have a balance of TV and novels in my system.

    Lynnette Labelle


  7. Writers often put hooks at commercial breaks.

    It's always worth watching shows you know if other countries, or shows made in other countries. You can tell, watching something like The Simpsons, that US TV has many more ad breaks than UK. In a well written show the hooks hold up even with just a fade-out-fade-in, but in a badly written show it leaves the whole thing feeling jerky and clunky. Equally, shows written for channels without ads (like the BBC) often suffer when they're put in, because there's no could break.

  8. I find that when I am reading a good book, watching a good movie, or viewing a good TV program, I get involved when the writing works. If the writing, (or acting, or both) are flawed, it won't happen.

  9. Great post. TV shows have been great in my development as a writer, including as a novelist. How TV writers pace their shows and how their beats and character development and snappy dialogue comes across have infiltrated my writer's psyche.

  10. Gayle- Since I write for radio too I also really listen to the soundtrack in movies and shows. Yes, could be handy having music in our books. Perhaps they could design books like those musical cards, each page with a new song. (YIKES- that might get annoying)

    Lynette- Actually in my own blog when I was referring people to this post I mentioned that, that writers in general can benefit from paying attention to how stories on TV are put together.

    NKKingston- Very interesting point. It's true even here in Botswana you can notice the American shows have many more ad breaks.

    Chick Lit Gurrl- I think those of us who were raised on TV can't help but have it become infused in our other writing.

    Maryann- Sorry all of this research is ruining your fun!

  11. Great advice, Lauri. Now I feel I can justify the amount of TV I watch. It's purely for research purposes!


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