How to Develop a TV Show

By the ever-wise – and ever-funny – Ken Levine. So you know this is true:

by Ken Levine

Got some interesting comments on a piece I posted about visiting the DMV. You can read it here if you missed it or repressed it. thimk

A number of you suggested the DMV might be a good setting for a sitcom. You talked about all the wacky people the staff could encounter, etc. There must be plenty of goofy anecdotes that a writer could draw from. It’s an arena ripe for comedy.

You’d think it was a natural.  And it might be.

But it’s also a big trap.

What you’ve developed is a setting not a series. Good shows start from characters.

So how would I develop this? I keep a file of interesting settings, funny possible characters, fragments of ideas – a lot of stuff I’ll end up never using. In that file, among the crap, will be the DMV.

Let’s say that some time later I’m developing a series about a character who feels trapped. How does a person cope while trying to escape the chains of his life? I need to give him a job. What’s an arena that’s soul sucking and suffocating? Well, there are many to choose from, but that too is a trap. You need a boring job that won’t be boring for the audience.

Probably a good start is a work environment where he has to deal with the public. That also distinguishes it from THE OFFICE. So now I’m running through situations where the public is involved.

Read it all


TVWriter™ Top Posts for the Week Ending 2/27/15


Here they are, the most viewed TVWriter™ posts during the past week:

TV Writing Master Class from HELIX Showrunner

Peggy Bechko: Writers Facing Conflict

Peggy Bechko: Writing, Solitude, and Us (Writers)

Cara Winter: The Anglo Files 12: The Honourable Woman

Looking for TV Pilot Scripts?

And our most viewed resource pages were:

Writing the Dreaded Outline



The Teleplay


Big thanks to everyone for making this such a great week, and don’t forget to read what you missed, re-read what you loved, and, most importantly, come back for more soon!

2015 People’s Pilot Early Bird Entry Discount Ends Sunday Night


A quick heads-up for everybody planning to enter TVWriter™’s 2015 People’s Pilot Competition. (Which, as we’ve said before should be all of you because getting your career started is a wonderful thing.)

The regular price for the PP is $50/entry, but our Early Bird Discount cuts that by 30% to $35 if you enter by 11:59 pm Pacific Time on March 1, 2015.

This doesn’t mean you have to upload your entry by that date. You can hold onto it or finish it or revise it up to the very last minute entries will be accepted – 11:59 pm Pacific Time, June 1, 2015.

Sign in for your 2015 PEOPLE’S PILOT Early Bird Entry HERE.

Find out more about the People’s Pilot, one of the oldest and most respected writing contests on the web – including its rules, prizes, et al – HERE

Remember – as an Entrant, Semi-Finalist, Finalist, or of course Winner you’ll be in the august company of previously unknown writers who are, or over the past few years have been, on the staffs of CHICAGO PD, CHICAGO FIRE, PERSON OF INTEREST, THE WALKING DEAD, RIZZOLI AND ISLES, GREY’S ANATOMY, ROME, NTSF:SD:SUV, KILLER WOMEN, ANIMAL PRACTICE, THE LEFTOVERS, FX’s upcoming THE BASTARD EXECUTIONER, and more.

Break a leg!

Dennis O’Neal Watches His Character’s Translation from Comics to TV


Gotham’s Doctor, Batman’s Saint
by Dennis O’Neal

You may have seen it yourself: the scene a while back in which James Gordon and Dr. Leslie Thompkins stand in front of their police department colleagues getting very well acquainted. It happened during an episode of Gotham and although the television Leslie wasn’t the Leslie Dick Giordano and I introduced in Detective Comics #457, I didn’t mind. I know that television shows are not comic books: they have different techniques, strengths, weaknesses, and that the story being told there on the tube wasn’t our story and that serialized characters have to evolve if they are to survive for decades, as Leslie has.

In the weeks since the television Leslie was introduced, we’ve seen her become her own person – witty, intelligent, feisty. Independent. I’d happily watch her if her name were Honorifica Flabdiggle, especially if Bertha, like Leslie, were played by the talented and truly lovely Morena Baccarin.

She was created – Leslie, not Honorifica- to serve the plot of the particular story we were working on, to supplement Bruce Wayne’s biography, and to add an element to the Batman mythos.

I had a real person in mind when I was writing Detective #457, someone I’d once met named Dorothy Day. Dorothy began her professional life as a journalist, wrote a novel, lived the Greenwich Village life. In 1939, she cofounded The Catholic Worker, an organization located in a section of lower Manhattan not much frequented by the white shoe crowd. The Worker had three missions: to serve the poor by providing food, shelter and clothing; to help drunks get sober; and to protest war – all war, any war, and any violence.

We incorporated Dorothy’s pacifism into Leslie. There wasn’t much; I can’t recall any particular story in which it was a major element. But look for it and you could find it.

What the fictional Leslie did for Bruce Wayne was to serve as a surrogate for his murdered mother and to give him information; she told him that not everyone believed that violence solved problems. If Bruce had existed – these are fictions, remember – he might have been sympathized with Leslie’s convictions and regretted his own dependence on violence, while having nothing he considered to be another viable modus operandi.

I don’t expect to hear Dr. Leslie Thompkins endorsing Dorothy Day’s convictions. Gotham is a venue for action/melodrama, after all, and not a pulpit. And there are reasons why we respond to this sort of entertainment and they’re not too distant from the reasons our wonky species hasn’t gone the way of the dinosaurs. But still…what would be wrong with giving the video Leslie a pacifist leaning or two? She could maybe slip them into a subordinate clause where nobody would notice them anyway. And they would give the character Ms. Baccarin and her cohorts are so ably creating a nuance uniquely her own.

Just asking.

TV Writer Turns Novelist…

“…Looking for less interference and fewer turkeys.”

And if that doesn’t sum it all up, what does?

Will Smith was a writer and co-star of the most popular and most excellent BBC series THE THICK OF IT. Now he tells us about his life-changing decision. Not as big a deal as, say, Bruce Jenner’s, but still:

Not the U.S.'s Will Smith. So it goes.

Not the U.S.’s Will Smith. So it goes.

by Will Smith

I could never claim that I was driven to switch from television screenwriting to writing novels by the limitations of the TV storytelling palette. After all, we live in the era of the trinity of Davids – Chase, Simon and Milch – and their titanic achievements (The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood). That said, although this level of excellence is attainable, few apart from the US cable showrunners are allowed to reach for it. This wasn’t always the case, but I sadly doubt a contemporary Edge of Darkness would feature an extended dialogue-free scene where a father slowly explores the contents of his murdered daughter’s room, finds a Geiger counter and a gun, and determines from the counter’s reading of a lock of her hair that she had been exposed to high levels of radiation. Nowadays that would be INT. EMMA’S BEDROOM. NIGHT. Ronald approaches a forensic detective. RONALD: What have you found? DETECTIVE: A gun, and high levels of radiation.

The UK’s closest equivalents to the US showrunners are Steven Moffat andArmando Iannucci. Few others are allowed to go off and wrangle a team of writers, with only the lightest of touches from the higher echelons. Even Moffat had to re-pilot Sherlock, although the fact that the BBC allowed him to do this shows the respect and faith they (rightly) accord him. I’m on a far lower rung, and so for me, part of the appeal of novel writing is that the chain from author to reader is short and simple – agent, editor, proofreader, shop/website.

In TV, the script will have to be signed off by producers, executive producers, genre commissioners and channel commissioners, and that’s still only a starting point; the director and actors (once they’ve been approved) will then have their say. None of this is necessarily bad; any writer will welcome informed opinions that improve their work. But the longer the chain of opinions that have to be taken into account, the more the danger of weak links. Hence the (possibly apocryphal) tale of the executive whose main note on the script of The Manchester Passion was “more jeopardy for Jesus?”

Apocryphal or not, it’s the sort of thing that does happen. My personal low point was working on an entertainment show where the producers booked a live turkey for 4 July. Neither the host nor the guests were American, but no matter, we were asked to “write some ad libs in case the turkey clucks”. I pointed out that turkeys were associated with Thanksgiving and had nothing to do with 4 July. An exec retorted that it was America’s national bird. I responded (correctly) that this was the bald eagle, but was told testily: “I’m sorry, Will, but we’ve booked the turkey.”

Shortly after working with that turkey (who I discovered was on a higher rate than the writers), I was lucky enough to be hired by Iannucci, and have spent most of the past 10 years sheltering from interference under his umbrella on Time Trumpet, The Thick of It and Veep. These are team-written shows, the writing staff on Veep currently numbering 14.

As a teenager, I worshipped John Cleese and Stephen Fry and dreamed of being part of a writing or performing troupe. But I also revered Charlotte Brontë andGeorge Eliot, so in tandem with forging a career as a standup, occasional actor and comedy writer, I’ve also been trying to write novels. This is the first one to pass a publisher’s muster, in part I think because the setting – Jersey, where I grew up – meant that the veracity I prize in screenwriting and fiction came more easily. Working with Armando has resulted in countless blessings, chief among them learning that it’s OK to have blank patches in your canvas. He’ll know where he wants to begin, and where he wants to end, and he’ll trust himself to fill in the gaps. But he’ll never allow those gaps to be filled with padding; each scene has to move the story on, something I rigorously tried to apply to my chapters. I’m not sure whether I approached the plotting as I would the arc of a TV drama. Perhaps anyway the outstanding TV dramas of our time borrow their plotting structure from novels.

Certainly, I want the reader to be drawn in as they would be by a box set. I’ll end with a bid for Pseud’s Corner: I find Anna Karenina to be more of a page-turner than any airport thriller, and I Claudius as addictive as Breaking Bad. The trick for any writer is to absent yourself from the finished work; the plot should feel propelled by the characters rather than the writer. And the writer should never have to write fake ad-libs for possible interruptions from a recalcitrant fowl.

Will Smith’s novel Mainlander is published by 4th Estate.

Cara Winter sees The IT Crowd

The Anglo Files 13
by Cara Winter

I know how weird this is going to sound.   Nevertheless, here it is:

Some of us don’t care about football – at all.  Like, not at all.  We aren’t excited to hear your drinking stories.  We don’t see any point in watching the Grammys.  And we’re not heading out to see Fifty Shades of Grey this weekend, or any weekend (nor did we read the book).

It can get lonely, being so outside the norm.  The mainstream is just …so… main stream. There are times when it seems as though nobody understands, and that people are just a bunch of bastards, with bad taste in everything.


And then, a trusted friend comes to the rescue by recommending The IT Crowd.  And in one fell swoop, our faith in humanity is restored.

The IT Crowd is a British sitcom written by Graham Linehan, starring Chris O’Dowd (an actor most famous for playing the cop-slash-love-interest in the film Bridesmaids),  Richard Ayoade, and Katherine Parkinson.  Set in the London offices of the soulless, stereotypically straight-laced “Reynholm Industries”, the show revolves around the 3-person IT Department, whose offices are housed within the bowels of the company’s corporate headquarters.

It’s hard to say what I love most about the show.  It’s pretty much everything, I think?  The writing, the direction, the physical comedy, the laugh track.  Even the sets make me happy.

But no.  No, it really is about the people of the IT department.  First there’s Maurice Moss (Richard Ayoade).  I dunno, maybe it’s his aversion to swearing, or how poorly he lies, or his ‘sweet style’… but I think I may love him?


Yep, I love him.

Then there’s his best friend and co-worker, Roy (Chris O’Dowd), who is clearly inspired by Oscar Madison– a little slovenly, more than a little bit lazy, and thoroughly annoyed by anyone who doesn’t work in IT.

(Here he is trying to get a date with a girl who only likes bad boys…)


Clearly, internet memes were created for these people.  Or, by them. Possibly both.

In the pilot, it is clear that Moss and Roy have been happily ensconced in their underground geek-lair for some time.  Enter (*gasp*, another human being!) Jen, their new manager (Katherine Parkinson, who viewers might recognize from Sherlock) who knows a sum total of nothing about computers, and who is horrified (at first) to be associated with anyone deemed by the main stream to be terminally uncool.

As Jen discovers just how bizarre this geek underworld is… she is also figuring out that she belongs there.  For as much as she wants to hide from it, she is a misfit, an outsider, a freak — just like Moss and Roy.  And for because we love Moss and Roy, we cheer for Jen to just loosen up and learn how to let her freak flag fly… even if it is done somewhat reluctantly, and under an assumed name.

Each episode is a little gem; the one where Moss tries to report a workplace fire (references below); or the one where the gang goes to the theater (to see “Gay: The Musical!“; Roy is caught using the handicapped toilet, and Moss finds himself inexplicably working the wet bar); ah… and the one where we find out what’s behind the Red Door.  I’d tell you what’s on the other side, but… yeah, no.  You’re just going to have to embrace your inner geek, and stream it for yourself.

Trust me.

In short, I love this stupid show. It makes me so happy.  I think it’ll make you happy, too.

(By the way, have you tried Cuke? I know, it’s so good– god, I’m thirsty…)


Episodes of The IT Crowd are currently available on Netflix and Hulu.

Cara Winter is a Contributing Editor to TVWriter™. You can learn more about her HERE.