Doctor Who Showrunner Steven Moffat and Script Editor Nick Lambon offer television writing wisdom that budding TV writers can learn from.
Welcome to our ongoing Learning from the Masters and Industry Insiders series where we seek out and feature excellent videos, interviews, and discussions of the art, craft, and business of screenwriting and pull the best words of wisdom, writing tips, and screenwriting advice.
Here we turn to BBC Writersroom and their Writing Doctor Who Series for nuggets of television writing wisdom and words of advice. Click on the videos to listen to more elaboration and hear the words from these creative minds.
1. Where Does the Development Start for a TV Show’s Next Season or Episode?
“We start by talking about that last [season] and what we think works. What maybe we think didn’t work. Or something that surprised us. And try to think about whether we want to do more of that or less of that.”
When you’re working on a series, you’re part of a writers room. There will be the showrunner, script editor, and many other writers there working towards the same vision. Some ideas will go nowhere. Others will resonate with everyone. The showrunner will share where they want a character to go and the writers room will be tasked with figuring out ways to get there.
2. Balancing the Episode’s Story with the Overarching Build-Up to Season’s End
“The reality of Doctor Who over time is that the story of the week (i.e. the episode) is king. You can have different levels of a story arc, but if you ever get too much in the way of the individual episode it becomes a slight problem… at the same time, you want to feel as though it’s building to a grand climax.”
Television writing can be a tricky game of balancing the importance of every single episode while also giving the audience a feeling of the broad build-up to the season’s end — that it’s all leading to somewhere.
Procedural series are easier because it’s often the case or mission of the week with little to no overarching story or character arc. The characters are generally the same in each episode. What drives the episode’s story is the conflict that the characters face.
But when you’re dealing with a serial series, each episode builds towards the final climax of the season finale. Yet you still have to honor the “story of the week” without letting the overarching themes and story/character arcs of the series as a whole get in the way of showcasing what’s going on in each episode and the conflicts within.
TV writers have to respect the episode’s story and that build-up to the season finale. It’s important to find ways to balance both of those elements.
3. Giving and Receiving Script Notes
“You will make more improvements by praising the good rather than criticizing the bad.”
In the writers room, the writers work as a team under the direction of the showrunner and script editor. Everyone, especially the latter two, will offer notes on the work that has been handed in by the writers. So you need to be able to listen to what is being said in those notes and you need to also have the ability to communicate your notes in a constructive and respectful manner.
It’s easy to just tell a writer what’s bad about their idea or writing. You’ll do far more good by praising what works and then offer suggestions on how to make the script even better.
4. Only Hand In Your Best Work and Be Prepared to Change It All
“If you want to be a successful writer, what you should hand in is something that you honestly, with all your heart, think they could go and make… you have to have two thoughts. That this is absolutely, utterly, unbearably perfect and I’m prepared to change it all.”
Whether you’re writing a feature or handing in an assigned episode of a series, you always have to be sure that what you’re offering is your best effort. The notion of, “Well, this is just a rough draft…” doesn’t fly in the professional world. It has to be your best effort and, despite that, you have to be ready and willing to change it all.
Film and television are collaborative mediums — especially within the writers room of a series. You may hand in a brilliant draft of an episode, only to later discover that it’s not the direction the showrunner wants the show or the character to go in.
5. What’s a Tone Meeting?
“A tone meeting is a meeting with all heads of departments… and we go through the script scene-by-scene and its about setting the tone and making sure that the concepts and the ideas everyone has are in line with what Steven was imagining when he wrote the script. And everyone is on the same page of how we’re going to achieve all the very technical parts of the script.”
Again, television is a collaborative medium. When you’re working in a writers room, you have to ensure that everything matches up with the big picture.
6. The Importance of the Read-through
“You can read a script a hundred times, but to hear [someone] actually do the line tells you a lot about whether the pacing is right, whether it sounds right. Some lines just don’t sound quite right. You can read it to yourself as many times as you like, but it doesn’t sound quite right until you’ve heard someone actually try to do it.”
While this is very important for television shows, this is something that all screenwriters can do well before the script is purchased or even read by anyone else.
All screenwriters should read their lines aloud. It’s one thing to read the words and a whole different experience actually saying them or hearing them read. You can do this on your own or you can gather some peers together to work through the dialogue. It will offer amazing information and insight into the dialogue you’re writing and whether or not it plays well aloud.
Watch the last part of this video series where they talk about how they’ll look back on the series they worked on.
Michael Lee has worked in development as a script reader and story analyst for a major studio, Emmy Award-winning production company, and iconic movie director.
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