TV Writing

Alex and Nick invite writer/producer Hilliard Guess for an in-depth discussion about his experience in the industry, working as a writer, and his involvement in the WGA and his Screenwriter’s Rant Room podcast.

How do you build a writing career without the traditional assistant or fellowship route? What are key differences in being a producer or writer, and juggling both roles? What are aspects of the WGA people should know more about? How do you overcome adversity and get things done? What are ways of putting yourself out there and opening doors?

The Paper Team goes rogue…

NOTE: We had a bit of noise on the line, and my upstairs neighbors decided to join in on the fun towards the end of the recording. We tried to fix most of the issue, but be aware there may be some residual audio.

SHOWNOTES

Content

Starting out, becoming a writer, getting writing jobs, being a producer, curating your work environment, being involved in the WGA, dealing with adversity, and the competition (00:01:22)
Resources and Next Week On (01:10:22)

Links

Hilliard Guess on Twitter
The Screenwriter’s Rant Room on iTunes
The Screenwriter’s Rant Room on Twitter
Hilldog Productions
Palo Alto (California)
Dangerous Minds
John Truby
Robert McKee
Jack Epps Jr.
Karl Iglesias
Z Nation
28 Days Later
World War Z (Film)
Two and a Half Men
Jaws
Million Dollar Listings
Million Dollar Listing New York
Fredrik Eklund
The Lot Studios
go90
WGA’s LGBT Writers Committee
WGA’s Committee of Black Writers
Lena Waithe
Michelle Amor
Dr. Phil (TV Series)
Dope
Straight Outta Compton (Film)
Wonder Woman (Film)
A Few Good Men
Precious (Film)
Mo’Nique
3rd & Fairfax WGAW Podcast
Lisa Bolekaja
Organization of Black Screenwriters
Kramer vs. Kramer
Jay Mohr
Mark Valley
Lynelle White
Army Wives
“Writing Action and Dialogue (126)” – The Screenwriter’s Rant Room

Resources

Pilar Alessandra’s On the Page
“Coffee Break Screenwriter” – Pilar Alessandra
Jen Grisanti
“The Sequence Approach” – Paul Gulino

This episode brought to you by Tracking Board’s Launch Pad Writing Competitions

Use code PAPERTEAM to get $15 OFF when you enter a Launch Pad Competition

Special thanks to Alex Switzky for helping us edit this episode.

If you enjoyed this episode (and others), please consider leaving us an iTunes review at paperteam.co/itunes! :)

You can find Paper Team on Twitter:
Alex@TVCalling
Nick@_njwatson
If you have any questions, comments or feedback, you can e-mail us: [email protected]

You’ve probably heard a lot of people talk about the A plot, B plot, and sometimes C plot when referring to TV shows, episodes and general TV writing.
So, what does “A/B/C stories” mean in the context of scripts?

Simply put, the term refers to the different narrative and story threads in your TV episode.

The “A story” will be the primary focus of your story. Meaning it will usually be about the lead and have the most amount of scenes (i.e. screen-time).
The “B story” is generally a parallel storyline headed by more secondary characters.
The “C story” (and deeper in the alphabet), also called a “runner“, are about ongoing/macro stories that pay off long-term (or, in the case of some comedies, quick gag scenes).

In procedurals, rule of thumb is that the A story will be centered on the “case of the week”, while the B story is the personal aspect of the leads. The C story is almost always some kind of “runner” that will have a long-term impact on the season arc.
For example: a detective is investigating a crime of passion (A story) while dealing with her own messy divorce (B story) and the precinct is trying to add new blood to the team (C story).
Even serialized or “macro” procedurals (like The Missing, The Fall or Broadchurch) have their A stories dedicated to the crime of the season, and how they impact the leads.

In more serialized shows, the A/B/C stories will often be divided based on characters and themes.
The Game of Thrones pilot has an A story all about Ned Stark and his family, while the B and C stories are split between Jaime/Cersei and Daenerys/Viserys.
Breaking Bad‘s pilot is almost a complete through-line A story about Walt, with some looser threads with Jesse and Skyler.

How much weight do you give each thread?

The real focus of your episode should be the A story. That’s the meat of the episode since it’s about your main character — and therefore requires many story beats to achieve a compelling character’s journey. Once you’ve figured that out, you can work from your other characters and fill in other narrative needs.

Some B and C stories directly come from the A story. Maybe the main character generates a problem in her A story, which snowballs into a secondary character having to deal in the B story with something related to that A problem.
Watch 24 and its pilot for an excellent illustration of the A story spiraling out into more threads.

The pacing of a TV show is often dictated by the A/B/C stories, and how quickly you alternate (or “cut”) between them. The shorter the scenes and faster the cuts, the more fast-paced it will seem. This is a trick used in “montages” (think of any show with a pop music montage at the end).
On the flip side, you can stay with a singular scene or storyline for a long time, and build up the tension.

Ideally, those A/B/C threads will echo one another, and connect with each other at some point in the episode.
If you do cut back-and-forth at a furious speed, then there needs to be some kind of correlation between the threads — otherwise you’ll leave your audience and reader completely lost.

Should you limit yourself to three threads?

Well, once again, it depends on the show you’re writing.

For half-hours/comedies, you’ll find an A and B story, with at most a C “runner” of one or two scenes. There just isn’t enough real-estate to have more.
The A story will already have, say, three beats an act (meaning upwards of nine for an entire episode), while the B story will have two (so six scenes total). There’s only going to have room for a couple of C scenes if need be.

For one-hours/dramas, the amount of threads varies greatly based on the genre and format of that series or episode.
You can take a look at How to Get Away with Murder for an extreme example of a serialized show that runs the gamut of the alphabet. It’s juggling with so many side-storylines (since it’s a primetime soap) to burn through story and keep its narrative momentum going. Whether or not it’s successful at pulling off this pacing is up to your preferences.
Better Call Saul is a good counter-example of a show very focused on its A (and occasionally B) storylines, which rarely deviate into other threads. That’s because Saul (or whoever the episode’s focused on) is truly the driving lead of the story. Look at Dexter for another idea of A stories filling almost all the episode.

Very few dramas (perhaps only single-episode anthologies) just have an A story for that hour. That’s because, to maintain dramatic tension, you’ll want to cut away to something else.
The fewer the stories, the more important it is to have a compelling narrative and characters that propel you through the script. You don’t have the luxury to “cut away” to something else, which can be a double-edged sword.
The first half of Breaking Bad‘s “Ozymandias” episode makes the best case for an A-only episode, but it has the benefit of being the payoff to a 5-year-long journey. In other words, not something you’d want to bank on in every episode.

You may think that TV structure seems very rigorous and pragmatic — and in some way it is.
It’s a bit like musical composition. There are rules to creating a music sheet, but it’s up to you to fill that abstract document with a fun and unique melody.

Write on.

Update: PT46 transcript available here

Alex and Nick discuss one of the most important parts of television writing: creating compelling characters.

Why are characters so vital to television shows? What are some key elements to watch out for when writing characters in a TV script? Why are character introductions so important in screenwriting? How can you create interesting people that fit your TV show?

The Paper Team explores their existence…

SHOWNOTES

Content

A special announcement (00:46)
1 – Television is a character’s medium (01:41)
2 – Describing characters: introductions, archetypes, and traits (02:42)
3 – Character voices, filler characters, and empathy (17:38)
4 – Characters in the story: goals and arcs (23:43)
Takeaways and Resources (28:25)

Links

House, M.D.
Hugh Laurie
“The Hero’s Journey” – Joseph Campbell
“The Writer’s Journey” – Christopher Vogler
Michael Clayton (Film)
Sam Seaborn
“Pilot” (1×01 – The West Wing)
“Pilot” (1×01-02 – Lost)
“Pilot” (1×01 – Community)
Legion (TV Series)
Anton Chigurh
“Assisting TV Comedy Writers ft. Gary Sundt” (PT43)
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Resources

“The Art Of Dramatic Writing” – Lajos Egri
“The Emotion Thesaurus” – Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi

This episode brought to you by Tracking Board’s Launch Pad Writing Competitions

Use code PAPERTEAM to get $15 OFF when you enter a Launch Pad Competition

Special thanks to Alex Switzky for helping us edit this episode.

If you enjoyed this episode (and others), please consider leaving us an iTunes review at paperteam.co/itunes! :)

You can find Paper Team on Twitter:
Alex@TVCalling
Nick@_njwatson
If you have any questions, comments or feedback, you can e-mail us: [email protected]

Alex and Nick invite Billy Domineau, writer of the popular Seinfeld 9/11 spec script and staff writer on Family Guy, to talk about the pros and cons of writing a TV stunt spec.

When should you write a stunt script? What is the process of making and distributing one? How can a TV spec get shared around town? How do you use that popularity to get represented and staffed on a TV show?

The Paper Team goes viral…

SHOWNOTES

Content

1 – Brainstorming, writing, distributing and having the stunt spec script go viral (00:54)
2 – Getting representation, being staffed on Family Guy, lessons from the writers’ room, and using social media as a TV writer (31:01)
Resources and Next Week On (53:23)

Links

Billy Domineau on Twitter
Seinfeld
Billy Domineau’s Seinfeld 9/11 stunt spec (“The Twin Towers”) (PDF)
Family Guy
Upright Citizens Brigade
Nicole Conlan’s The People v. O.J. Simpson stunt spec (“The Briefcase Switcheroo”) (PDF)
The Bechdel test
Jerry Seinfeld (character)
Elaine Benes
Cosmo Kramer
George Costonza
Julia Louis-Dreyfus
“The Conversion” (5×11 – Seinfeld)
“The Secret Code” (7×07 – Seinfeld)
Rachel Bloom
“The 9/11 Seinfeld spec script you absolutely have to read today” – The Comic’s Comic
“What Happens When Your 9/11 ‘Seinfeld’ Spec Script Blows Up the Internet” – Splitsider
“This Seinfeld Episode about 9/11 Is a Model of Comedy Writing and Monumentally Bad Taste” – Slate
Jon Lovett
James Adomian
Chris Kelly
Brandon McCarthy
“Billy Domineau talks September 11 spec script” – Entertainment Weekly
Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee
Rachel Bloom’s “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury” (Video)
3 Arts Entertainment
United Talent Agency
Alec Sulkin
BET (Black Entertainment Television)
“The Wedding Squanchers” (2×10 – Rick & Morty)
Bowen Yang on Twitter

Resources

Writers’ Guild Foundation Library

This episode brought to you by Tracking Board’s Launch Pad Writing Competitions

Use code PAPERTEAM to get $15 OFF when you enter a Launch Pad Competition

Special thanks to Evan Schmitt for helping us edit this episode.

If you enjoyed this episode (and others), please consider leaving us an iTunes review at paperteam.co/itunes! :)

You can find Paper Team on Twitter:
Alex@TVCalling
Nick@_njwatson
If you have any questions, comments or feedback, you can e-mail us: [email protected]

Hi there!

Alex Freedman

I'm Alex Freedman, the writer behind TV Calling.


I started this site in 2008 to chronicle my own journey in television writing.

687 posts and 9 years later, TV Calling has also become a comprehensive resource dedicated to the full TV writing industry — from spec to success.


Everything here is written by yours truly (unless otherwise credited), so feel free to blame me for any missed deadlines.


I hope you'll answer your television calling, and join me in this creative journey.


Write on.


P.S.: New around? You should start here.

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