How To Write Stronger, More Dramatic TV Shows
The Golden Age of Television shows no signs of abating. We are spoiled for choice on which TV show to watch or which iconic character to invest our time with. Television allows writers to create a limited series comprising a few episodes or a long-running show which spans many seasons. TV writers may have a sense of the longevity of their stories.
Where do stories come from?
Many creators of the best TV shows had a personal connection to the material which drew them in and inspired them to write a TV series. A personal connection to a story isn’t always a personal experience. Screenwriters can create a popular TV series from a vicarious event that resonated with them. It may represent an ideal or a significant period in their lives.
Extracting an idea directly from our diaries may not be the best way to tell a compelling story. Perhaps we are too close to the material to be able to elevate it to its best iteration? Since film and television are forms of mass communication, a personal story might not always be large enough to connect with enough audiences.
The bigger question is one of emotional resonance. Film and TV writers need to understand their own feelings toward a story and write a TV show which invites audiences to feel a certain way across a spectrum of emotions. This is a true emotional connection.
Creating Emmy Award-winning TV shows rarely starts with a fully fleshed-out concept. However, screenwriters must have some idea of how their concepts may play out and allow for discovery during development.
Successful writers are cognizant that the best TV shows rely on rich, multi-dimensional characters rather than events or plot points.
Story ideas come from anywhere in life. Sometimes they start from character, a line of dialogue, an event, or a compulsion.
They are written by iteration – fragments that eventually coalesce into a coherent and meaningful beginning, middle, and an end. When you have a sense of what a satisfying story could be and you’re ready to write an engaging screenplay or TV script, all roads lead to writing layered, often contradictory characters.
Matthew Weiner, creator of the multi Emmy Award-winning Mad Men which spanned seven seasons said that he got the original idea for his TV series from a character similar to, but not a blueprint of, Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm).
Although he was enamored with the aesthetic and joie de vivre of the era, the concept of Mad Men began by questioning the romanticized perception of the sixties – a time of great opportunity, creativity, and prosperity.
Mad Men challenged baby boomers for thinking they were superior to subsequent generations. “It was often misrepresented as an ideal time,” Weiner said. “The decades after the sixties were about erasing many attitudes of the time such as sexism and racism.”
This served as the backdrop to mining Donald Draper’s inner workings. Matthew Weiner confessed to basing a large part of Draper’s character on himself. “I was thirty-five and unfulfilled. I hadn’t achieved what I had planned.”
David Chase, creator of immensely-popular The Sopranos which ran for six seasons on HBO claimed that the idea behind his TV series began with his mother who was very funny. This was a far cry from what the final TV show looked like.
A TV series about a TV producer and his mother didn’t seem like a hit, so Chase reworked the idea of Tony Soprano (played by James Gandolfini) into a tougher version of himself. The updated idea was rejected outright until years later his management wanted to remake The Godfather which he wasn’t interested in doing. This inspired David Chase to merge these two ideas and reimagine Tony Soprano as a ruthless mobster and his life as a family man. The Sopranos was originally pitched to HBO as a family drama set in New Jersey. When Chase casually mentioned that Tony Soprano was a mobster, the deal was signed.
Write what you know
Write what you feel
As mentioned earlier, it is easier to create a world if you have some involvement in it, even a tangential one. Having an anchor to create a satisfying world and the characters that populate it is a good starting point. It’s noteworthy that Matthew Weiner didn’t come from the world of advertising and David Chase wasn’t a gangster.
The manifestation of their thoughts and emotions were vastly different from the source material. Matt Weiner came from a world of suburban privilege. “I didn’t know anything about advertising, but I did understand the human dynamics of being humiliated, dominated, or owing to somebody.” This is how he filled out the characters in Mad Men.
Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire) has a slightly different take on this adage. He prefers to stay closer to home. “It makes writing easier and helps you develop a unique voice,” he said. “It can be distracting when writers try to write about a world and relationships they don’t know anything about. ”
Similarly, Winter wasn’t born in the 1920s, nor was he involved in organized crime. However, he understood the nature of corrupt politicians who later turned to organized crime to shape the character of Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (played by Steve Buscemi). The challenge was to make the show feel like an authentic portrayal of the 1920s rather than a clichéd or idealized version of it.
Many screenwriters don’t appreciate the knowledge and experience of human behavior they have. Take stock of this sentiment and write a respected version of your life no matter how much it deviates from actual events.
This is drama, not the news.
Finding the Voice Of Iconic Characters
Voice relates to a number of elements beyond how a character speaks. A character’s voice also relates to non-verbal components including their style, demeanor, dress, and composure. David Chase said, “I don’t know you if you can create a voice. You have attitudes, thoughts, and information.”
Matt Weiner was also reticent to confirm the absolute value of a voice.”The writers I admire most don’t have a voice or style. They may have a subject matter they steer near,” he added.
Despite their musings, dialogue is a key component of rounding out a character. David Chase referenced his father to create words for Tony Soprano. He added a sprinkling of dialogue from other movies and his own imagination. “The way Tony got angry at A.J. Soprano [played by Robert Iler] was the voice of my father.” He cited an example of A.J. accidentally dropping a lasagne and Tony retorts with, ‘This is my male heir?“
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