Writing TV Drama

By | June 4, 2020

Have you ever scoffed at an Aussie television drama? Have you complained that our dramas are aimed at the lowest common denominator; that anyone could write the senseless drivel that clogs the ducts of primetime TV?

Here is your chance to prove your theories. Below is a step-by-step guide to devising your own Aussie TV drama.

To begin, find a quiet table in a trendy cafe. Get a coffee and settle in. This won’t take long. Pen ready?

Before you run, prove you can walk. Warm up by writing some “moronic waffle for the masses”. Piece of cake.

Let’s create a typical Aussie TV drama comprised of 22 one-hour episodes. We’ll call it Farmers and Nurses.

The show can be about a bunch of cow cockies cracking on to the horny (yet demure) nurses from the local country hospital. They must all deal with crises on the land, affairs of the heart and remedies for groin injuries. The key themes are high romance, life and death struggles and down-in-the-dirt yakka. Sound dumb enough?

Every producer knows that even mind-numbing garbage requires careful planning. Here are the guidelines.

The cast should have six major characters. Typically, there are eight or more secondary characters. These can all be devised on the back of a napkin between macchiatos and chapters of Anna Karenina.

To keep things interesting, no character should be entirely saintly or utterly devilish. They must reflect humanity in its complexity. We love “good guys” more if we can see their flaws. And Darth Vader’s wickedness was made more compelling because he was a nice bloke deep down, remember?

Devise each major character’s fears, hopes, strengths and weaknesses. Don’t repeat these qualities. Everyone must be different. The qualities may be familiar (greed, insecurity, open-heartedness) but they must be balanced in original ways that create inner tension. For example, the first farmer hopes to build a Big Cow outside the town but is sensitive to criticism; the second loves solitude but fears dying alone; the third is horny but demure.

Discover where these qualities overlap or conflict. Repeat the process for the secondary characters. Repeat again for the entire cast. Order another macchiato. And more napkins.

To construct your first episode, whatever you do, don’t start with the first episode! The introduction of the characters and establishment of the setting add troublesome layers of complexity to the act of compelling story-telling.

Begin with episode three so your romances, rivalries and underlying sexual tensions are up and running (see napkin #1).

But not yet. First devise the “character arcs”. Like Noah, everyone in the series has to begin somewhere (wet) and end up somewhere else (dry). Things work best when each character goes from one general psychological and emotional state to another, deal with one and a set of stakes and then another higher set of stakes. Because you have time before the cake arrives, alter or threaten the status of each character.

Each character will require a “series arc” – a journey of discovery, loss or reward that begins in episode one and ends in episode 22. They’ll each need 22 “episode arcs”, one for each week. For an entire series, that will mean 132 major character episode arcs. Some secondary characters won’t require series arcs. The “bloke who runs the pub” doesn’t change much. He’s there as a bouncing board for our stars. But let’s be clever and devise 176 secondary character episode arcs anyway. (Remember, every character in every scene and sequence of scenes needs their own arc for each scene and sequence.)

At this stage, it may be simpler to begin scribbling on the tablecloth.

Now you can begin writing your script. The first step is not to write the script. A storyline and storyline-outline are needed. Storylines are typically or two tablecloths long. They briefly detail each scene and the overall events, arcs and themes of the episode.

Your six characters should all have stories.

Each episode should comprise one major story (the A-story) and two to four minor stories (B-stories). Ideally, each story should help resolve the stories of other characters. For example, episode three’s A-story is about John’s need to get rid of his un-milkable cow. The B-story is about Janette’s desire for a pet to love. After various unsuccessful attempts, John finally gives Janette his cow. Janette is initially grateful but then realises it is not a pet she wants – she wants John.

For cohesiveness, the other four major characters should be in the mix. Maybe Bazza wants a non-milking cow to guard his chickens but is too proud to ask. When Janette declines the cow in favour of John, Bazza overcomes his pride and asks for the cow. Whereupon, Janette decides to accept the cow for the sake of endearing herself to John. And so on.

(It’s better if the cow does not become a major character. Cows don’t respond to direction and tend to stare at the camera. Besides, if the series has big name actors, there will be enough cows in the cast already.)

A typical cud-chewing episode of Aussie drama will have between 20 and 40 scenes. Unfortunately, that means another 20 to 240 scene arcs, depending on the number of people in each scene. Scene arcs are essential but, as you’re only creating a mindless piece of crap for the lowest commoners out there, you can keep the arcs simple. (Just be sure they overlap neatly, contain unexpected twists that conform with the characters’ natures and build to a satisfying resolution or cliffhanger.)

At this stage, you’d better order something to eat or the waiters will start throwing you daggers.

With the storyline as a guide, the actual script is the easy bit. Dialogue is a piece of cake. Keep it minimal. If it doesn’t serve the story, cut it. Where possible, characters should express their thoughts and emotions with action, not words, show not tell. (This technique is probably employed for the shallow masses who can’t grasp conversations of any depth or length, particularly about cows. Though, oddly, Stanley Kubrik and Francois Truffaut also believed in the principle.)

Keep each scene to two pages or less to keep things snappy. Give all the A- and B- stories three acts (Problem, Complications, Resolution) and resolve them in original and surprising ways. Above all, keep it simple.

Make the script accessible. Make the characters lovable, or at least understandable and endurable. Leave no loose ends. Evoke emotions in the viewer. Where possible, provoke thoughts (even if they are obvious, cheesy, Epsilon thoughts). Create characters and stories that resonate with viewers’ own experience. Delight, disturb, titillate, sadden, amuse. The show must appeal to your mum, your spouse and your teenage niece.

You have six segments and 42 minutes of airtime to tie it all off in a neat little bow. Things are more flexible on cable or streaming, but you’re travelling the easy path first, yes?

Bottom line: the viewers must enjoy it enough to watch again next week.

That is the “formula”. If you complete a script before lunch, grab the tablecloth and run straight to the nearest drama executive.

If not, shut up, go home, switch on the telly and enjoy the show.

Hopefully, those who moan at Aussie TV dramas may now have an inkling of the complexities involved in creating simple, appealing stories.

Even the blandest drama episode is the result of months of work by clever people. Australian drama writers strive hard to create stories and characters that do all of the above. They have hits and misses. They should be forgiven for both.

That is, unless you can do better.

How To Write Your Memoir

By | May 15, 2020

If you plan to write a memoir, STOP!

You may think detailing your life will be a cinch. After all, you know the main character well and the major scenes have already been structured by Fate.

A memoir is more than a string of anecdotes, polemic and flimsy justifications for misbehaviour.

A memoir is a story. One story about one life.

Begin by asking big narrative questions.

1. How do I capture my life story?

Be clear.

Murky ambiguity is favoured by some writers, critics and hipster/waiters, but it never makes a bestseller. Let’s assume you want to write a memoir that’s more than a diary with the dates erased. You want a readable book that sells. Clarity and purposeful narrative will keep a reader turning pages.

Write your life-story as a classic story, with three Acts and a clear protagonist. Why? So it will appeal to a wider readership than those already familiar with you.

Yes, it’s appealing to play with anti-structure, but this isn’t Year 5 free-poetry slackers’ class. Master your life in the 3-Act Missionary Position and the buzzing toys will follow.

This story structure will help you filter the events of your life. Look at the development process as you would for writing any classic story. Any line, scene, character, insight or witticism that doesn’t advance the story or relate to theme must be cut. (There goes Smuffy the kitten’s antics.)

2: What’s the purpose of my life?

As you can already see, this memoir stuff is not for wimps. Answering that simple question is the first step to explaining your life to a reader. Even nihilists must answer it (usually with a petulant ‘Nothing’, followed by a yearning cry, ‘Why doesn’t anyone like me?’) but if that’s what they believe, they must stick to their guns.

You were created for something, if not by God, then by the secular rationale you’ve worked out to explain the unknowable (see: ‘God’). You are guided by values you’ve imposed on yourself. Your story must demonstrate them.

Decide why you are alive. Deciding this may take months. Tough.

3. What is the theme of my life?

Theme is everything in any story. Everything must relate, no matter how distantly, to the single main theme. (Sorry for the Writing 101, but it never hurts to be reminded of what we know.)

Your theme is universal, not personal. (Imagine a world of writers. Who would pay for lunch?) Themes can be as broad as you like: ‘Go boldly’, ‘Love conquers all’ or ‘Skip lunch’.

What does your life teach others? What message does it express? Don’t squirm. If your life doesn’t have an apparent theme, why write about it?

Deciding the theme of your life is a killer. You can tiptoe around it, and a less-experienced publisher (or you as self-publisher) may let you get away with it. But will the reader?

4. What is my single-most active and clear characteristic, and how has it changed, if at all?

Any protagonist of quality can be boiled down to a single characteristic.

A story shows how that quality informs the decisions of the hero as she reacts to challenges. The hero eventually recognises her most active quality. She embraces, rejects or buckles under it. The End.

Tina Fey (Bossypants) began as the outsider and grew to be the cynosure. So decide how your life has driven you to address your essential nature. That is almost your story.

Your publishing marketers will need a logline, 27 words that sum up your story. They won’t be so keen to describe your book as ‘a multi-layered person’s meandering and haphazard journey through an interesting series of unrelated events, professions, relationships and roles in life, full of laughs, tears and intermittent sex’. A description that vague may as well include highlights from the 30 per cent of your life spent sleeping. And that story’s already been developed by every screenwriting student I’ve encountered.

5. What did I Unconsciously Emotionally Need all along?

If you had trouble deciding the theme of your life, you’ll find it here. Your answer may take a lifetime.

6. What if I can’t exactly remember what happened?

Personal truth is subjective, so it’s inevitable the facts in a memoir will be skewed in proportion or perspective. There is a gap between what you saw and what happened, what your conscious motivations were and what they really were. As a memoir writer, you are allowed to continue your lifelong habit of having an evolving perspective on things. Others can write their own memoirs. Accuracy thrives on more than one witness.

When it comes to dialogue, you won’t recall every single word said. So go with the gist of conversations. The other people involved won’t recall chats word-for-word unless you were married to them at the time.

7. Do I have to be funny, even if I’m bleak?

Yes, most comics are bleak but they write comically.

Humour is vital in any story, no matter how dark it may be. Humour reveals maturity, an ability to see things from various perspectives. A joke at your own expense goes a long way to proving your self-awareness. And a touch of comic cheek increases the emotional movement in any narrative. If you want your reader to cry, make ‘em laugh first. Only by lightness can we reveal the dark.

Don’t be afraid. Humour is a craft. You can learn its principles and practice them. Two masks signify Drama — one laughs, one weeps. They are of equal size and import. To avoid either is lazy. Apply them to your memoir or it’ll be as slap-face boring as hanging out with a humorless writer.

You already know comic principles in your DNA: compress tragedies, shift perspectives, change contexts, expose flaws, heighten stakes, exaggerate, distil, add a twist of lemon …

Practice saying: ‘It was hell at the time but I can laugh at it now.’

8. What if I seem conceited?

You needn’t wonder if your endeavour may seem egotistical. It will. But why does a creative mind speak if not to say ‘Listen at me!’ and to bend the world to its will? Besides, if someone buys your book, it’s a fair bet they think you’re worth reading about.

To avoid criticism for your pride in writing a memoir, avoid chest-beating. You’ve done great things — big deal, they’re already on public record. The reader is seeking secrets, your weaknesses, the moments you erred, the underbelly you’ve never revealed. Write honestly and fearlessly about your flaws and only the churlish will criticise your egomania. If you are an egomaniac, the announcement of your flaws won’t concern you.

9. Why write a memoir?

Writing is a journey of discovery, even if it’s you providing all the terrain. Only a beginner writes what they know at the start of the writing process. Write to discover who you really are. Anything else would be a dull exercise.

Be bold, be scared of every word you write. Your memoir is your epitaph, your epistle, your story. Your last word.

So don’t screw it up.

Tim Ferguson is author of the bestselling memoir Carry A Big Stick (Hachette).