Diana Black: Want to Capture & Hold TV Viewers? Write a Mystery!

by Diana Black

Have you played the ‘mystery’ board game “Clue” or the code breaking “Master Mind? What of the ‘super sleuth’ created by the novelist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Sherlock Holmes – now a franchise with movies, TV shows and video games. What about the plethora of other computer games and television programs all associated with… you guessed it – solving mysteries?

Focusing on ‘the little screen’ – television and more broadly, the web, which now ‘delivers’ across a diverse array of media platforms, writing in this genre ensures you’ll always have an audience eager for more IF your writing delivers an excruciatingly intense mystery and the screenplay itself, being a ‘page-turner’.

In this the mystery genre more than any other, the viewer must pay close attention if they’re to unravel the mystery and solve the puzzle. So what are we to consider if we’re to write mysteries? Well, apart from leading with a very strong ‘hook’, which is a given, there’s the following…

The ‘Physical Setting’ can be pleasant, ambivalent or malevolent – the environment is a character. A drama set in this landscape can be either ‘contained’ such as the British mini-series adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel by Sarah Phelps, And Then There Were None, or ‘labyrinthine’ – in space, such as Sliders, or across time, such as Labyrinth.

Many characters are suspect, and all are unpredictable. Their modus operandi, singular or in combination,may include:

Lying
Cheating
Manipulating
Being naive
Murdering
Thieving
Tricking
Helping
And, of course, more.

There’s one character you would be wise to include, although they’re never really “in the frame,” the Viewer.

You want the Viewer paying attention and trying to solve the mystery just as if she or he were a character in the story. For viewers to invest their time and effort, either watching weekly or binging, they must be enticed to figure things out along with the other characters.

If you give the Viewer some special, privileged info, well, that’s gold designed to involve them so much that they will want to jump into the screen screaming, “No, you idiot, it’s…!”

The Plot – twisted, spiraling, or linear – must contain blind alleys and surprises. Clues can be real ‘breadcrumbs’ leading the way ‘out’, or ‘red herrings’ that lead nowhere or into dark places – not necessarily a physical place. ‘Dark places’ can include the mindset of the characters.

The stakes must be high so we’re forced to solve the mystery with challenges that on the surface seem inextricable but the real problem lies underneath. We can have multiple ‘solutions’ all of which except one of them ultimately fail…

For dialogue to be suspenseful, lace it with: innuendo, lies, truths, predictions, SUBTEXT, the withholding of information, and contradictions between characters.

Scene structure should have the Viewer coming in late, and forced to leave early. For a Pilot, the tension needs to escalate and end with a cliffhanger but within the series episodes… deliver on the set-ups you created in the Pilot, by paying- them off throughout the episodes.


Diana Black is an Australian actress and writer who frequently contributes to TVWriter™. (She used to contribute more frequently, but then she moved to Hawaii. Go figure.)

Charlie Kaufman’s Writing Advice

If you could follow the path and pick the brain of just one writer, who would it be? This TVWriter™ minion would go with Charlie Kaufman, writer of Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Adaptation over anybody else I can think of.

Here’s why:

Big gracias to BAFTA Guru for putting this on YouTube.

Did You Know that ‘Smilf’ Started as a Short Film?

Believe it or not, not only was an earlier version of this season’s latest breakthrough TV series a short film, it is far from the only show that started that way. Who says your short script has to be an end in itself?

ALTERNATE ROUTES: Using Short Films to Develop Your Stories
by Marty Lang

Every now and then, I’m lucky enough to find a movie or television show with a new storytelling voice that blows me away. I had a moment like that last week when I watched the pilot of the new Showtime series SMILF. The half-hour dramedy, written, directed and produced by lead actress Frankie Shaw (MR. ROBOT), is a hilarious, fearless story about a single mother in South Boston, and her struggles to balance motherhood, family, career and a fulfilling sex life. It really hit me as something with a singular vision.

After digging online, I was surprised to learn that SMILF started as a short film. Shaw also wrote, directed and starred in the short, which tells the story of a single mom trying to have sex with her boyfriend – while her baby sleeps next to them in the same bed. The film won the 2015 Short Film Jury Award at Sundance, which got Showtime’s attention, leading to the show. And it all came from Shaw taking matters into her own hands.

“I think make opportunity for yourself, if that’s something you’re inclined to do, for sure,” Shaw said to Variety. “I discovered that my biggest passion was for directing, so in making opportunity for myself, I found what I like doing the best.”

This is just the latest example of the possibilities writers and filmmakers can create for themselves by making short films. You can use a small, single story to explore a world you’d like to tackle in a bigger format, and with a little luck, get the opportunity to create in that format….

Read it all at Scriptmag

9 Series Bosses on the Challenges of Rebooting Beloved Properties

This is worthwhile reading, even if you’re one of those (erm, kind of like this TVWriter™ minion), who’s anti-reboot. Because in this business you just might encounter a situation where you can make a shit ton of $$$ by doing something you don’t like. (Gasp!?)

by Craig Tomashoff

There’s no clear consensus about the origins of the phrase ‘Everything old is new again.’ But whoever coined it must surely have been working as a television programming executive at the time. This season’s schedule — filled with a wide variety of reboots, sequels, and spinoffs that have taken previously popular shows and updated them for a 2017 audience — is all the proof you need. Producers, showrunners, and stars share the challenges and changes they faced when it came to getting these born-again series on the air.

DYNASTY

THE BEGINNING Dynasty (1981-89, ABC)

There are plenty of obvious differences. The new Krystle is actually Cristal and Latina. The new Sammy Jo is Sam and a gay man. The new Carringtons and Colbys battle it out in Atlanta, not Denver. However, according to executive producer Esther Shapiro, who has been a part of both Dynastys, “The show still appeals to females of all ages who want fantasy in their lives. We had to shop and cook and clean, but we didn’t participate in Wall Street or wars or the big stuff men do. We have been left to [our] own fantasies, so women enjoy seeing females who are strong and powerful.”

THINGS CHANGE You’d think that living in an era far more liberated than when Dynasty first premiered might be an advantage for a sexy series. Not so, believes Shapiro. “The sexual mores are a little different now, and I’d just as soon have all that be a little bit more off-camera. I like it when people yearn, when relationships are allowed to build more.”

THE GOOD FIGHT

THE BEGINNING: The Good Wife (2009-2016, CBS)

The main character – Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) – is the same although her circumstances –devastated by a Madoff-like scandal – are different. According to executive producer Robert King, this shift has helped Good Fight find its own voice despite a title that seems like a knock-off of the original’s. “It might seem cynically devised because it sounds like The Good Wife and we’re sticking with the brand. But the original series was always about what was happening in the world right now and took us through the Obama administration so when Trump got elected, the passion was there for The Good Fight to show how that has changed the world,”

THINGS CHANGE: It’s only been eight years since The Good Wife debuted but there’s been one innovation in that time that, says executive producer Michelle King, has altered a go-to writing gimmick for the better. “Uber and Lyft have made it easier for storytelling. In the past, we were loathe to have a character take a drink because you had to then explain how they got home. Now, there are no worries about drinking and driving so you can write scenes with people having great conversations in bars.”

Read it all at HollywoodReporter.Com

S.W.A.T. Creator Shawn Ryan got started as a radio station ad man

Most of us here at TVWriter™ are beginning or aspiring writers, which means that we’re insatiably curious about how more established and successful writers got their start. This article from Adweek gives us the skinny on the not-so-secret origin of writer-producer Shawn Ryan. We hope it inspires you as much as it has us.

Is this what you thought Shawn Ryan (left) looked like?

by Jason Lynch

The Shield was one of the most groundbreaking series of the past two decades, putting FX on the map while proving that envelope-pushing dramas about antiheroes could thrive on cable outside of HBO. However, creator Shawn Ryan says the show, along with his many others, may have never existed without the skills he learned during his first job as a copywriter for a Vermont radio station.

Ryan, who is now the showrunner on CBS’ new reboot of S.W.A.T., graduated from Vermont’s Middlebury College before landing his first postschool gig, writing ads for a Top 40 radio station in Burlington, filling in for someone on maternity leave.

“There are a lot of things where it was simply, ‘We’re having a mattress sale this weekend, everything is 30 percent off, sleep better, come in.’ Just-the-facts-ma’am ads. But every now and then, you’d get a chance where the client would be like, ‘Write something! Present it!’” recalled Ryan.

Ryan explained that Burlington was a “small enough market” that there weren’t many advertising agencies.

“The radio station sales people would come back and say, ‘We’ve sold 20 spots for this company. Call the owner, Joe, at this number, and see what they want to sell,’” Ryan said. “Sometimes Joe would be very specific about what Joe wanted, and sometimes Joe would be like, ‘We know we want ads, but what do you have in mind?’ And they’d let me go off and write something. That’s when the job was fun, when you could write something.”

The job required Ryan to do a lot more than just write the ad copy—he also had to produce ads. “I’d grab DJs and say, ‘Here’s the copy. We’ve got to do this,’” he said. “And, ‘What music are we going to use?’ I had to make sure it was actually hitting the air.”

But how did advertising experience help in the television world? Ryan said all of that juggling, prepared him to call the shots on The Shield, which debuted on FX in 2002, as well as his current shows, S.WA.T., which he created with Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, and NBC’s Timeless, which will return next year for its second season.

“In a strange way, it was the beginning of being a showrunner,” said Ryan, whose previous series include CBS’ The Unit, FX’s Terriers and Fox’s The Chicago Code.  “There’s different aspects to the job, and it’s working with talent, and writing….”

Read it all at Adweek

Diana Black: Compelling Characters Make a ‘Real’ World

by Diana Black

Lulu: “Honey, so sorry, can’t make it tonight… no, it’s not my, ‘I’m washing my hair’ night …I’m just busy… No, you’re wonderful but.…”

A great story idea, well-written script, skillful cast and crew with an intelligent director and showrunner at the helm – surely the recipe for a winning TV Series, but what ‘essential ingredient’ compels us to ‘tune in’ religiously?

Is it the hooks and plot twists, the lighting, sound, mis-en-scene? What makes the fantasy drama, Game of Thrones, now going into its 7th Season SOOO interesting and compelling to watch? And not only by adolescent nerds but by, for all practical purpose, everyone?

According to A.G. Walton – a contributor to Forbes, who in turn is commenting on the findings of Josue’ Cardona of “GeekTherapy.com”, it’s a range of elements that include the following attributes: intellectually challenging and multiple plots; unpredictable twists; an intricate and elaborate story world, and dramatic events that border on the visceral.

But what of character?

In this epic panoply of political manipulation; one which would be right up there with Rome under Caesar, it is according to Walton, the creation, destruction, and resurrection of archetypes. So what is an archetype and why, having been ‘done to death’ long before Shakespeare took up a quill, are they still so useful?

Aspiring TV and screenwriters may think long and hard before referencing them – the Queen, the Trickster, disgruntled Prince, foul-mouthed Washerwoman etc. But they work, precisely because they’re ‘character’ in a neat package.

We instantly ‘get’ them. They come into ‘our space’ with their over-night bag stuffed with accouterments that we instantly recognize – greedy, debauched, vile, manipulative, pure, sweet etc.

But is that all there is to the Game of Thrones characters? Are they merely just a bunch of one-dimensional archetypes? No – in our jaded world of hardened, cynical ‘little box watchers’– it requires more than that; as the revolving door of short-lived TV shows attest.

The secret to these guys is that they not only shamelessly embrace their archetypal nature, to the hilt, everyone one of them has a level of complexity that makes them seem real and as a result hated, feared, loved, reviled etc.

We’re left seriously wondering what word or deed they’re going to express next. ‘Warts and all’ they reflect us mere mortals – who will no doubt have to deal with the same, albeit modern-day equivalent conundrums, issues, and angst, tomorrow or next week, come Tuesday.

And the moral of my story here is….drum roll…invest like hell in your character/s if you expect your actors to lift them off the page.

The quickest, surest path to having those words and deeds appear perfectly natural and justified is for the writer, as well as the actor, to get under the skin of the character; to become that character, for better or worse.

The old adage still and will forever apply, “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”


Diana Black is an Australian actress and writer who frequently contributes to TVWriter™. (She used to contribute more frequently, but then she moved to Hawaii. Go figure.)

Peggy Bechko: Overcoming Brain Fatigue, Stress & Overdoing It – For Writers

by Peggy Bechko

Alrighty folks, time to put it on the table. Writing takes a lot of brain work, and brain work takes focus.

Consider this: There’s research to squeeze the brain, plotting to squeeze it harder, and just plain thinking about everything else related to your writing project. And that doesn’t include the acttual writing.

So, today I’m going to talk a bit about brain fatigue, stress, and just plain over-doing it.

Now immediately there are lots of folks who’ll think the younger the brain the better because the younger brain can stand long periods of demanding work much better than the older…but know what? It ain’t necessarily so.

And working for very long stretches doesn’t cut it either. I’ve known folks who put forth their insanely long hours at the keyboard like they’ve gone to war and somehow won something. Like it’s some kind of badge of honor.

Just because you’re twenty-something, work all night, then crash, doesn’t mean you’re putting out a better product or that you get more done or that you’re super cool.

Seriously.

While it is true that while in our twenties our brains can process information more efficiently, that doesn’t mean it works more effectively. The folks who do best with inductive reasoning, verbal memory and vocabulary are somewhere between forty and sixty-five according to research. (Take that twenty-somethings!)

What’s the key to overcoming brain fatigue? Turns out that it’s taking breaks. Yep, you overdoers probably don’t want to hear it, but people perform at their best, with middle-agers out-performing younger folks when breaks are planned.

Again, research tells us our minds and bodies have natural rhythms. If you’ve come this far and haven’t figured that out in life what rock have you been living under?

Dream cycles flow in ninety-minute cycles so it’s not too far a stretch to presume (correctly) that waking cycles and rhythms are pretty close to the same as those sleeping cycles, about ninety minutes to two hours.

What to do? Take a break. Yes, it’s time we all realize life is not a race. You’ll produce much better material at a more efficient and quicker pace if you take breaks. This applies to writing, creating, pretty much any kind of work one pursues.

How long should these breaks be?

Twenty minutes seems to be ideal (again, according to our friendly neighborhood researchers). And, stepping completely away from the work environment is best. What that means for  writer is that you – and I – should step away from the desk. Avert our eyes from the computer screen. Go outside for a few minutes if we can. Grab a cup of tea or coffee.

If you can take a short brisk walk, all the better. If you can take a moment to watch the interplay of sun and shadow on a sunny day (or enjoy some flowers, or watch the ducks fly, whatever) great!

We may want to think we’re superhuman and we can do this writing thing straight through, powered by caffeine or whatever, but it’s not true. To sustain your level of production give yourself a twenty-minute break. Now.

Get in tune with your natural rhythms and you’ll outstrip those driving all-nighters who believe they’re really punching it.

Writing is brain work. And the brain wants to rest. And to play. Surely you’ve noticed that when you step away from a story sometimes that’s when the best ideas hit for its continuation or revision.

Set a timer if you have to. Give yourself a break…and take a break. You want to give your brain a chance to forge new neurons no matter your age.

Your writing will improve and so will your mood.

Which reminds me. Time to stand up and walk around the house. I’m starting to feel grumpy.


Peggy Bechko is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor. Learn more about her sensational career HERE. Peggy’s new comic series, Planet of the Eggs, written and illustrated with Charlene Brash-Sorensen is available on Kindle. And, while you’re at it, visit the Planet of the Eggs Facebook page and her terrific blog.