7 Ways to Crack the Code of TV Writing, from Writers of 'Transparent,' 'Six Feet Under,' 'Grey's Anatomy,' and More
At Sundance, acclaimed TV and feature film writers share essential tips for episodic writing.
Between unforgettable characters and underrepresented stories, we’re seeing incredible new work in episodic TV every day. Current series embrace diversity, originality, and fluidity between forms. It’s a constantly changing landscape; no longer bound by traditional formats, length or distribution models, today’s long-form storytellers are experimenting with new media tools and ways to connect with audiences.
In support of this brave new world, the Sundance Institute—in collaboration with YouTube—is ”seeking passionate, bold, risk-taking, and creatively rigorous artists” committed to episodic content. 10 indie filmmakers will be selected to develop projects with accomplished creators, showrunners, and producers at the annual New Voices Lab in LA. Designed to nurture risk-taking, experimentation, and innovation, the three-day lab intensive will take place this coming November and will be followed by customized, year-round creative and strategic support. Applications for this year’s New Voices Lab will become available in mid-February here. According to Michelle Satter, Founding Director of Sundance Institute’s Feature Film Program, Sundance wants to “support the next generation of artists who are shaping the very nature of the form.”
But how can you break into long-form if you’re not one of the 10 chosen artists? With Satter as moderator, No Film School sat down with a Sundance Film Festival panel of five episodic pioneers to explore the future of storytelling—and the best ways to crack the code.
"A successful pilot has an engine in it, a beautiful prism right at its center that you can return to over and over again, episode to episode." — Jill Soloway
Many of the panelists started out making features. All have turned to long-form TV, with groundbreaking results. Gina Prince-Bythewood, who previously wrote Beyond the Lights, is writer-director-producer on Shots Fired, which premiered at Sundance this year and was purchased by Fox. Larry Karaszewski wrote and produced The People v. O.J. Simpson and has won multiple awards, including Oscars. Marti Noxon wrote and directed To the Bone, a Sundance 2017 premiere which was purchased by Netflix; she also was a writer on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Grey's Anatomy. Issa Rae is the creator, writer, and producer of The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl; her HBO comedy series, Insecure, got rave reviews. Finally, Jill Soloway is the creator-writer-director-EP of Amazon’s Transparent, winner of a Sundance Best Director award for Afternoon Delight, was a writer-EP of HBO’s Six Feet Under, and recently co-created the new Amazon series I Love Dick.
According to the panelists, below are seven tips to achieving episodic success.
1. Don't be afraid of long-form content
Larry Karaszewski: "The People v. O.J. Simpson wouldn’t have had any depth as a movie. A two-hour version would just be telling you things you already know. You’d have the Bronco chase on page 10—which, for us, was one of the least interesting parts of the story. That’s why you want long-form: in 10 hours, we got to investigate all the interesting stuff. It became much more than a murder trial, so much more than specific events. It’s about class, sexism, celebrity culture; things that are relevant to what’s happening now. It’s both a 10-hour movie and 10 one-hour movies, with different thought-provoking ideas built into each episode."
Issa Rae: "Awkward Black Girl wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for long-form. I wanted to see black women depicted onscreen, but there was no diversity, no balance, no way to break in. So I decided to do it myself. Thanks to the internet, episodic TV seemed possible. There were more open doors. Besides, I love the immediacy of TV. You write it and it’s on the air. With film, you write and it takes two years to get made."
"Basically, the theme for any good series is your own POV." — Larry Karaszewski
Jill Soloway: "Long-form offers more freedom...if you do it right. I worshiped TV growing up. I always wanted to get on the other side of the glass. And I always dreamed of being part of a movement—my mom was very involved in civil rights. By turning to episodic TV, I was able to use that desire to create female protagonists and queer protagonists. And now I’m responsible for 100% of the sexy female rabbis on television."
Rae: "I always thought I wanted to get into features, but when this opportunity came to tell a ten-hour story with reach, well-- It turned out to be an amazing thing. Longform allows me to give arcs to my characters, a whole breadth of story. But it’s also hard, for exactly that reason, because it is long."
2. Perfect your pitch
Gina Prince-Bythewood: "I'm very shy. I suck at pitching. I’d much rather write than pitch. So I write spec scripts and that’s my pitch. By doing that, I’m so clear about the story that I can see it onscreen—and as a result, I can believe in myself. That makes it a lot easier to sell."
Rae: "I don’t mind pitching, but it’s hard to get people to listen. Awkward Black Girl was my third web series. It was about navigating life as an uncomfortable black female who didn’t fit mainstream definitions of blackness. I was determined to make it happen at all costs, so I took my best friends and one of the actors to coffee and pitched it. The meeting cost me $25, and that led to everything else: I raised money on Kickstarter, I got an agent and manager, Pharrell Williams funded us through his YouTube platform, we completed our first season… and then the New York Times and Rolling Stone reviewed the first episode of our second season. Finally. It took two and a half years, but it was worth it."
Soloway: "A lot of writers come in with a huge character bible, but as a producer, a showrunner, I don’t want that stuff. I just want you to pitch me the pilot moment-to-moment: protagonist, beat change, need, need, need, so when you get to the end of the pilot pitch, everybody in the room is like 'Holy shit, I need to see what happens next.' That’s what will get you the chance to write what you want."
3. Embrace the misery of writing
Soloway: "As a procrastinator, I can tell you: writing is hard. And it doesn’t get easier."
Karaszewski: "The blank page is always staring at you. There are always 1,000 reasons not to write. It’s work."
Rae: "And it’s lonely. Just you and that computer. Makes you question everything. I’m a miserable person when I’m writing. I literally have to go back to my old scripts just to remind myself I can do it. But I write to direct and be on set—so it’s tough, but worth it."
"Here’s my secret: pick your four clearest hours of the day and protect them as your writing hours." — Jill Soloway
Soloway: "Here’s my secret: pick your four clearest hours of the day and protect them as your writing hours. For me it’s 6AM-10AM. Three 55-minute chunks with breaks and no internet. Jumping out of bed and writing is a big thing for me, but even bigger is stopping after four straight hours. I create a little crucible of material in my mind, so I can get lost in that world, and then I walk away at 10AM and have a day, a life. Go places, talk to people, have relationships. By the time I get to that screen again the next day at 6AM, it’s like a lover I can’t wait to see."
Rae: "She’s right. Designate a day, a couple hours, for procrastination. Then you’ll be ready to get back to work. I’m the kind of person who will diet just to look forward to that cheat day."
Soloway: "Be good to yourself about when you’re writing. People who stay on their computer all day usually hate themselves for not writing—while people who take breaks, whether it’s showering, driving, whatever, usually find that the ideas keep coming, and that the good ones stay with them. So decide what your hours are and protect your process. Be kind to yourself and create pleasure around that writing time. Don’t be hard on yourself all day long."
Marti Noxon: "And stick with it. My key to success is persistence: I just stuck with it past all reason."
4. Have a clear and compelling central question in your pilot
Soloway: "In long-form TV, it’s the pilot that counts. Pilots are proof of concept. A successful pilot has an engine in it, a beautiful prism right at its center that you can return to over and over again, episode to episode. That’s what will keep it going for five years. That has to be present in every scene, sometimes in every line of dialogue. It’s like a puzzle: in our pilot for Transparent, the engine is Mort/Maura asking the question. ‘Will you still love me if?’"
Karaszewski: "For OJ, there were a thousand different ways to tell the story. So one of the first questions we asked ourselves was, ‘Who is most invested in this?’ We came up with three people who had an emotional investment in what happened, three characters where the personal motivation was also political: Johnny, Marsha, and Chris. We knew that they would be our engine. We used them to tell the story the way we wanted to tell it."
"Everything has to happen at once: writing, producing, directing, editing. It's not like a film, where you do stuff in consecutive stages." — Issa Rae
Noxon: "I call it the nugget: you have to find that recurring theme, the ‘Will you still love me if’ through-line. You have to ask yourself, ‘What’s the idea that you most want to explore?’ The nugget in Girlfriends, the project I’m working on now, is that women have bad qualities as well as good qualities. It’s about true gender equality, about finding room for emotions not necessarily thought of as acceptable for women to have—anger, violence. To me, the theme is, ‘We have that, too.’ And that has to be clear in the pilot. It’s not something you can just slap on after."
5. Make it personal
Karaszewski: "It’s all about personal voice. Don’t write what you think they want. You have to write something that you want to see. I learned that when Ed Wood came out. When I saw the ad for it in the paper I thought that if I hadn’t written the movie, I’d actually be excited to go see it! I’d be the first guy in line! You have to trust yourself: if you believe in your idea and are entertained by it, someone else will be, too."
Prince-Bythewood: "I originally set out to write something that I thought would be commercial. A really bad romantic comedy. I was struggling with it, and that was because I didn’t care. I just wanted to get that thing out there. But then I had this other story, and my mind just kept going to that, as opposed to this blank paper staring at me. So I threw away my pages and wrote Love & Basketball, the film that absolutely started my career. Having that lesson early on was essential."
"If you don’t identify heavily with your material, you’re in trouble." — Issa Rae
Karaszewski: "You have to have a reason why are you telling the story—a personal reason. Basically, the theme for any good series is your own POV. What’s your point of view on these people, these characters? They become containers for all the things you want to say."
Noxon: "When I worked with Joss Whedon on Buffy, he called that the 'Trojan Horse': using characters to tell your point of view, your personal truth, in creative ways. Use them as containers for a larger message."
Rae: "If you don’t identify heavily with your material, you’re in trouble."
Prince-Bythewood: "Everyone has a story they need to tell—something they’re passionate about. But you have to make sure that it’s heard, that it comes through loud and clear. That’s imperative, especially in TV, where there are so many collaborators, so many voices in the mix. When you get notes, [you have to know] what to change and what to fight for. When it comes to your vision, there’s no choosing battles. If you want your voice to come through, you have to win every fight."
6. Make your characters complex and messy
Noxon: "The easy way to write TV is to see it as binary: one person does something bad, the other does something good, etc. But that’s just not life. Life isn’t clean; it’s messy. And tone is tricky: your characters have stay true to themselves over the arc of the story, but you don’t want them to be predictable. They have to feel real."
Soloway: "In long-form narrative, arcs are crucial. You have to see the arc of each character as each episode progresses, the arc of each season in the context of the entire series. Think about it: you’re following someone, getting to know them intimately for hours. Without a truly deep, fully fleshed-out character, it’s simply not sustainable."
Karaszewski: "All of our work mixes tones, especially in long-form. Episodic TV can have more tones than movies. A lot of studios get really uptight when you’re writing a drama with jokes in the middle. But to me, that’s what real life is: funny and sad. It’s a weird thing to balance, but it’s necessary."
Rae: "You have to keep asking yourself: What’s true? What’s true for you, what’s true for the character? How does that manifest? For a show to work, it has to feel true, real."
7. It's a marathon, not a sprint—so don't burn out
Rae: "You have to have stamina. Long-form can be grueling. A lot of the time, everything has to happen at once: writing, producing, directing, editing. It's not like a film, where you do stuff in consecutive stages. With Awkward Black Girl, it got so hard, we had to push back a little bit. But props to Fox—they acquiesced, and we found a way to slow down, to put editing aside 'till we were done with the writing and shooting. In the future, I want to do the cable model: to write all the episodes first so I can see the whole arc of the season, then focus on everything else."
Soloway: "And you have to keep on creating. Don’t wait around for someone to signal approval. Write one script, write another. Make them as good as you can. Enter them into contests, show them to people. When I was starting out, I sent my script to Ben Stiller, even though I didn’t know him. And when I never heard back, I assumed it was bad. That’s typical for beginners—especially for women, for people of color, for queer people who are used to feeling other-ized by the white male patriarchal gaze. Unfortunately, that’s part of the process. You’re always going to think that you’re not good enough.
But you just have to keep doing your thing. You won’t get a job from pushing your script onto random people or sending it blind to Ben Stiller. You’ll get it from a great review in the Times, or from getting your short into Sundance, or from posting a film on social media and getting a bunch of views. You have to be willing to share your work with people, to get feedback. You have to keep growing. Keep making things all the time."