This post was written by Brock Swinson.
It seems like everyone has an opinion on screenwriting. When you scroll through Twitter, there are people making up rules, telling you what page you should be on, and generally coming up with whacky ideas they think everyone should follow.
So how can you cut through the good advice and eliminate the bad?
Over the past decade, I have interviewed over 300 screenwriters for the podcast, Creative Principles. While everyone has their own journey and own breakthrough story, these are some of the fundamental lessons from television’s best writers.
Check them out below!
18 Lessons from TV's Best Screenwriters
1. Showcase Your View of the World
“Some will never see the light of day,” said Bisha K. Ali (Ms. Marvel) about her early spec scripts. “Some were pure sitcom. Some were weird in-between stuff, like a sitcom about a woman whose ovaries are killing her. I’ve grown up with PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome) and you cut to the ovaries talking to her and weird stuff like that.”
All of the scripts were meant to show off her “personality” and “angle through the world.”
She said, “Then there was some hard sci-fi that you would never produce with a new writer. It was more like the highest ambition of what I want to do. I’ve committed to myself that I will make that show one day. So it was a mix of all the different things I wanted to do.”
2. Shine a Light on Unanswerable Questions
“Find questions that you need answers to,” said Will Graham (A League of Their Own) about the research phase of screenwriting. “I think it’s always something I’ve done from both ends. I read a lot while writing and absorb a lot while writing. You don’t know how it’s going to come out, but you want to make something with a heartbeat—something that feels real. I make it personal while taking in a lot of knowledge.”
3. Filter Out What Doesn’t Work for You
Andy Siara (The Resort) started as an assistant to Peter Ocko, the showrunner on Lodge 49. “Watching him, I felt like I got a good front-row seat to what works and what doesn’t work in the writers' room. Throughout the whole production side of things too.”
Ocko bumped up Siara to staff writer for the second season of the series. “Everyone has a style that works for them. I feel like I learned about things I tried that didn’t work for me. The biggest thing I learned in the writers’ room is that we need to throw as much against the wall [as possible]. All ideas come out and then I watch Creator Jim [Gavin] and Peter find the nugget of certain ideas and have that filter through their brains into the show it became.”
4. Differentiate Your Niche Story
One of the most unique elements of the nine-part Squid Game is that the players have the chance to leave, but voluntarily and deliberately return to finish the deadly games. They see what life was like before and still choose to return.
“That’s the exact point where I wanted to differentiate my work,” said creator Hwang Dong-Hyuk of the characters making the free choice to play. “When you see existing survival games, people are dragged into it, so if they don’t win, they cannot survive. That’s where I started, but while I was writing, I realized those participants can’t focus on the game because they’re always looking for a chance to escape.”
This is the difference between giving the characters a choice and making them play the game against their will.
“I think that had its limitations, so I wanted to symbolically portray the world we live in, this world where we cannot escape until we’re dead—so we might think it’s our will to be here, but we are kind of captured in this capitalistic society and we can’t escape from it.”
5. Avoid the Sexy Tropes
To elaborate on the idea of “sexy clicking,”Lenny Abrahamson (Normal People) said he avoids “sexy jobs” and other tropes in screenplays.
“The other one is a marine biologist. Thrillers always have that. There’s a shorthand. It’s adjacent to real life, but it’s not [real life]. Just like everybody is way too attractive and apartments look great. I’m tough on scripts.”
He also spoke on his approach to development.
“I’ve never done something that just came through the door,” he said about scripts arriving on his desk. “Partially because I like to be involved in the conception and execution right from the beginning, but also because I’m very critical of scripts. Part of this is because a lot of scripts are designed to be read by people who might fund them. That means, for very good reason, writers fill the pages with descriptions and color, to make the read vivid. As a director, that irritates me. Shooting scripts for me are bare.“
'Normal People'Credit: Hulu
6. Take Principle-Based Risks
Similar to stand-up, Judd Apatow (Freaks and Geeks) said you do feel the validation when an audience watches your movie, in terms of using the three-act structure or Chris Vogler’s examination of the Hero’s Journey. “It’s one of the best books you can buy on storytelling,” he said of Vogler’s book.
Based on Apatow’s response, he writes his own version of the story first, then re-examines The Writer’s Journey to see “which story” he’s doing or to help with missing plot points. “Even with weird things like You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, it is ironically a reluctant hero’s journey.”
Using these methods helps Apatow take risks in his career.
“I think they’re all risks because in comedy, they’re all risks. You just never know if it’s going to work. Like, would someone watch a movie about a 40-Year-Old Virgin? Is that the worst idea you’ve ever heard in your life?” he said. “Steve [Carell] and I said, well, let’s make it totally credible. He’s a normal sweet guy and [sex] just got past him.”
'Freaks and Geeks'Credit: NBC
7. Smuggle Ideas into Intellectual Property
“Right now, IP sort of rules this town,” said Jeremy Slater (Moon Knight). “I’m currently trying to get funding for a spec script I wrote last year, for me to direct, that’s not based on IP and it’s such an uphill challenge.”
On the other side of this, the screenwriter acknowledges the many lanes there now are to get projects made. “The advantage is that there are so many new homes for content and there’s a race for content. It’s easy to take IP and use it to tell interesting, exciting stories to tell interesting stories you already wanted to tell.”
8. Nothing Is Off Limits
In the pilot episode of I Love That For You, after Vanessa Bayer’s character makes a fireable mistake on her first day of work, she lies about her cancer returning. “We wanted to have this character come of age in a way. Having her desire to not to be ‘Cancer Girl’ anymore but not get out of that felt relatable to us. On a literal level, I thought it would be fun to talk about. When I had cancer I got a lot of attention and got out of things.”
She continued, “That was the fun part and we felt that was relatable. When you go through something difficult, you get this special treatment, and then once that thing is over, you miss that special treatment. What my character does is crazy, but we felt it was relatable because you just want people to be nice and give you special treatment.”
'I Love that for You'Credit: Showtime
9. Surprise Audiences with What They Want
Joby Harold had some great TV advice. “What becomes interesting with TV, when you have more room for character and more room to breathe, [you can ask], 'What are the things in the hero’s journey that do resonate and are universal and how can you apply that to different paradigms that give you room for reversals and to be subversive within the context of an arc?' Get to the same place but in a less expected way.”
The writers behind Obi-Wan Kenobi were able to change up the rhythms within a six-part limited series.
“Each [episode] is being absorbed in a different way. You can’t really apply the hero’s journey to it, but you can look at it as a whole and still say emotionally that the dark night of the soul is there. It’s a hybrid version that still resonates. As a storyteller, it’s easy to be lazy [but] the audience wants you to tell a story in a new way. It’s subjectivity.”
Obi Wan KenobiCredit: Disney
10. Don’t Create Invisible Parameters for Yourself
“Ultimately, the best version of any story has a humanistic thread through it. It’s obvious that there’s no sci-fi that is just sci-fi. It opened up a world to me,” Courtney Lilly said of his Invader ZIM days. “Versatility was one of my calling cards and I never sat there and said, this is who I am as a comic writer.”
In some ways, Lilly thinks this versatility came from his wide view of comedy, along with coming to the art later in life. Other friends of his, who were obsessed with Monty Python or one particular path, were less likely to choose a versatile path.
“It was this hybrid thing where I knew what was funny and I knew what I liked, so as I started to gather my comedy identity and move forward, [it became clear] that a joke is a joke is a joke. It’s all set-up. If you can make the set-up line work, it works. You start seeing the commonalities of storytelling in the threads of things you like. You’re allowed to be exposed to more.”
'Invader Zim'Credit: Nickelodean
11. Show You Know More Than Form
“The tough thing with comedy writing today is that so much comedy has been done, so many jokes have been told. It’s easy to fall into the trap of telling the joke people have heard before,”Chris Sheridan (Resident Alien) said. He continued to talk about jokes and their structure, saying, “So, if I’m reading a script and I can see a joke where the structure has been done before, but it’s done in a different way, it tells me that the writer knows the form but also knows how to twist it so it feels fresh.”
The writer said rhythm and pace are also vital for comedy writing. “I think it’s all rhythm and knowing where the joke is, depending on what type of comedy you’re doing. Multicam is more presentation. You’re going to want to put the joke at the end.
“If you’re writing Resident Alien, it’s character-based comedy. People don’t talk [with jokes at the end], so it’s okay to bury the joke a little bit. It’s still funny. It may not be funny, but I’ve noticed on this show, if you put the button at the end, it takes on a sitcom tone and veers away from reality towards a TV reality, which is something different.”
'Resident Alien'Credit: Syfy
12. Find Your Career Thread Theme
“I definitely seem to write about women,” said Rachel Shukert, when asked about her collection of work in hindsight. “All of my shows—and right now I’m working on The Handmaid’s Tale which is tonally different from The Babysitters Club—they’re all about women with projects.”
Within these projects, the shows focus on interpersonal dynamics, friendships, relationships, and “women with ambition,” which she believes is the “connective tissue of her work.”
On a show like GLOW, where there are essentially 14 female leads, the show is all about character. “I think it’s less difficult to differentiate characters from each other, in terms of their points of view, because it’s important to be specific about who you are writing about.”
'The Handmaid's Tale'Credit: Hulu
13. Don’t Get Tricked by Nonsense
Chris Redd, Sam Jay, Langston Kerman, and Jak Knight are the writers behind Bust Down. “In the beginning, we were really just focused on the jokes,” said Kerman. “It was just us thinking about the funniest thing a character could do, but if you don’t have a story that grounds that character, it becomes nonsense.”
Jay added, “The more we learned our voice and how to do it, being at SNL I learned how to put my comedic voice in another box, so the more we got proficient at that, the easier it was to form story and think about the arcs of these characters and how to bring them to a series.”
The combined writing process led to the new tone. “I think going to these different edges of comedy, we learned every side of where comedy is currently and came back with different superpowers. If we had made the show earlier, we probably would have made four similar characters.”
'Bust Down'Credit: Peacock
14. Always Work to Expand Your Toolkit
Diallo Riddle and Bashir Salahuddin are the minds behind HBO Max’s South Side. Today, it would appear that comedy performers should know stand-up, improv, sketch comedy, and be able to write, edit, shoot, and market themselves online. “Everyone is different,” said Riddle about today’s comedian.
“Some people are great at one thing, like they’re an amazing actor and someone sees them and they advance. But there’s a new crop of people who are convincing on camera, capable of writing the story they want to make, and have a producer head on their shoulders. It is much harder to write a script and ask people to read it. It might be great and you might get terrible notes, but we’ve been most successful when we’ve written a script and then gone out and shot a sizzle reel.”
'South Side'Credit: HBO Max
15. Tangents Are Welcome in Television
Some critics have called this a return to television for the actor. Joseph Gordon Levitt has other ideas about Mr. Corman. “This is not a conventional TV show. Certainly not a sitcom. It’s more cinematic in how we shot it, but it is a series and it’s episodic. Features generally have one thing to say. They have one central idea and all the other ideas ladder up to this one idea. In a television series, I enjoy tangents. The show isn’t about masculinity, but in Episode 5, we talk about masculinity.”
Another major theme in the series is anxiety. In one of the early episodes, Mr. Corman’s chalkboard reads August 2019 so modern audiences are aware we may be headed towards the pandemic, and how this character is going to deal with anxiety during quarantine, which we do see in the last three episodes of the first season.
'Mr. Corman'Credit: Apple
16. Characters Should Be Similar Yet Different
Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky all put in work on Hacks, one of the funniest TV shows in memory. The two leads are similar, yet different, which naturally attracts them to one another. “While [Deborah and Ava] are diametrically opposed in their points of view, and their life experiences, they also are so similar. That’s what makes the show a little more nuanced and complicated as opposed to simply having different points of view,” said Aniello.
“They’re both women that have been cast aside by society and who had put their careers first for a long time. But they’re also really funny, take no shit, and will actually bite back. They do have generational misunderstandings, but what makes the show tick is how they are similar in so many ways.”
Within these character traits, the show also works to integrate interesting themes in each episode. “We approached it in terms of character arc and theme in equal measure,” said Downs. “There are things we wanted to investigate. In Episode 8, we learned that Deborah was assaulted by a predatory club owner. For her, that was sort of par for the course. For someone like Ava, that wasn’t okay. She thought Deborah should have been more affected by it.”
'Hacks'Credit: HBO Max
17. Create a Pitch Tsunami for Specs
In terms of pitching advice, Chris Brancato (Godfather of Harlem) said he never goes in with a pitch longer than seven pages. “Anything longer takes you over 18 minutes and it starts to get boring. Say in 18 minutes or less, but don’t make it too short.”
Practice your storytelling.
“You don’t have to be off-book, but I take that pitch, highlight key phrases, practice a bunch with my assistant or say it out loud so I’m conformable. Then, and a pitch is this, nobody wants to hear a laundry list of characters. They want to meet characters in action.”
Like a script, the scenes introduce characters.
“I introduce characters by pitching scenes. Those scenes might not exist in the pilot. They might not exist in the show, but don’t just tell stats. Also, in the first two to three minutes, executives are either leaning forward or leaning back. You want to have them leaning forward. So the first minute or two, I try to make it a cinematic experience.
'Godfather of Harlem'Credit: Hulu
18. Create Characters That Exist on Two Levels
“He’s driven by this compulsion to make everybody know he’s the smartest guy in the room,” says Neil Cross about characters in The Mosquito Coast. “The truth is, he existed first on the page of the novel, and like all great literary collections, he exists on two levels.
“On one level, Allie Fox is an exemplar of an American archetype, the great American contrarian, the rejectionist. He’s Yossarian. He’s Randle McMurphy. He’s any number of Americans whose basic philosophy is an extended middle finger.”
'The Mosquito Coast'Credit: Apple
On the page, however, Allie belongs to very specific cultural and economic circumstances.
“He’s late 70s, early 80s, post-Watergate, post-oil shocks, post-Vietnam, so the Allie in the book is really a disappointed middle-aged libertarian hippie. Ironically, given the home we have for our show, he belongs psychologically and culturally to Steve Jobs’ generation.”
Let us know what you think in the comments.
Brock Swinson is the host of the Creative Principles Podcast along with a writer for Creative Screenwriting Magazine. You can check out Brock's filmmaking work on the Creative Principles YouTube channel.