Margaret Rose Lester on Writing For High-Concept TV Series ‘Manifest’
The current crop of TV shows has seen something of a renaissance in the world of network TV. The mystery lost plane mystery drama surrounding Montego Air Flight 828 in NBC’s Manifest is one of them. Creative Screenwriting Magazine sat down with TV staff writer (one of nine) Margaret Rose Lester to discuss how she landed a spot on Manifest, as well as the nuts and bolts of writing for a show that has become a hit for NBC.
When asked why she chose Manifest as a potential show to write on, Lester replied, “when staffing season arrived, I read all the pilot scripts of the shows I wanted to work on. Then I met with Jeff Rake, the showrunner.” After Jeff read my sample pilot script, he invited the TV writer for a face to face meeting. It was an original pilot she wrote called Losing Race which dealt with themes of race, identity and the clash of how people of opposing beliefs can work together.
Her personal background attracted her to Manifest. “My dad is an astrophysicist and my mom is a theologian. Growing up, we always had interesting conversations about the intersection of science and faith. Manifest explores some this subject matter in certain storylines of the show. The brother in the show Ben Stone (Josh Dallas) is a mathematician who is “is very logical and fact-based” and his sister Michaela (Melissa Roxburgh) is more of a faith-based believer. These characters “represent two sides of the coin as they figure out what happened to them and how they came back home five years later. We pitted spirituality and faith against science and logic.” This forms part of the underlying conflict that drives the show.
The fact that Manifest was grounded in science was a key attraction to Lester to flex her TV writing muscles. She also welcomed the opportunity to explore the subtleties of spirituality vs religion in the show. “We didn’t delve into religion too much, but we want to explore atypical, non-Western beliefs.”
During staffing season, Lester “went on a bunch of meetings over two weeks. It was a lot like general meetings writers take. It is a conversation about who you are as a person and whether they would enjoy spending all day in the writers’ room with you. The conversation also extends into your personal tastes and whether you are aligned creatively with the showrunners. You talk about what sort of material is inspiring to you and your writing process. You become aligned with how the writers’ room work.” So writing skill is only part of the staffing equation.
Getting staffed on a TV show is more than simply applying for a job. You need to connect with the material and the show’s vision. Margaret especially gravitated toward Michaela’s character. “I’m mindful of her relationship with her mom because when Michaela lands she learns that her mother has passed away.” The screenwriter’s mother is still very much alive, but she vicariously experienced the death of a parent through close friends. “Death and grief is something I’m always aware of both in terms of my mother and Michaela’s journey of coming to terms with her mother no longer being there for her.”
In a crowded TV lineup, each show must have its own nuances to stand out from the pack. It needs to be “different but relatable. The viewer wants to see an element of their own lives reflected in the show’s characters. There needs to be a balance between escape from their daily lives and reflection and relation,” added Lester.
The screenwriter was asked about the dynamics in the Manifest TV writers’ room and how she expresses her writing flair while maintaining the creative vision of the show. The co-executive producers Amanda Green (Lethal Weapon, Mysteries Of Laura), Matthew Lau (Criminal Minds, Covert Affairs) Gregory Nelson (Orphan Black, Frontier) and Paul Holahan (The Last Ship, Blacklist) are also senior writers on the show. They set the genre, tone, pace, and style of the show and Margaret writes to that template.
A Personal Brand
Lester knows the uncertainty and adaptability required to maintain working writer status. She cemented her TV writing muscles on shows like Snowfall and Reverie before being staffed on Manifest. Lester was a journalist in a previous life which shaped her approach to storytelling. “I find a voice in a story that we might not otherwise hear. For me, I found that voice through crime drama. A lot my writing is in that genre. I want to tell stories of crime and mystery in a way that’s character-driven.” This approach got the TV writer a spot on Snowfall.
Lester captured the attention of studio executives in 2014 when she was selected for the highly-competitive Universal Writers Program. She was attracted to this program because it concentrates on writing features, her primary love. I guess she’ll have to settle for network TV. Regarding the program, “It was a pretty intensive interview process. There were four stages to it including an in-person interview with five studio executives. We had a luncheon with Donna Langley, the Chairwoman Of Universal Pictures. No pressure.”
“I was chosen as one of the five writers to participate in the program. It was a turning point because it helped to validate my confidence as a professional writer. in the sense that we each got an office on the Universal lot and we each wrote a movie during the program.”
Lester states that the most useful part of the program was learning the business side of the industry by moving and interacting with the decision makers. She learned how a TV show might be positioned in the network’s TV slate.
Combining her writing craft with her newly-minted business smarts. the screenwriter believes that Manifest positions itself in the grounded sci-fi realm in the current TV landscape. Other TV shows also explore “themes of fate and destiny and how much we’re actually able to control our lives versus going along with what’s presented to us.”
There is no algorithm to decide the sustainability and longevity of a show. “For the first couple of episodes, we’re trying to work out the rhythm of the show. Somewhere around episodes 4 or 5, it starts to click a little for us in the writers’ room as we are breaking stories,” she said. At this point, we really “gel as a team” as the show finds its stride.
On entering the Manifest TV writers’ room for the first time, Lester recalls, “the writers’ room wasn’t as mysterious as I thought. I thought it was going to be more structured. It’s like a think tank. We share personal stories. That was a surprise at how deep we got into them. It’s challenging if you’re a private person. Ultimately, we’re concerned about writing the best show.”
Making An Engaging TV Pilot
There are a number of approaches to structuring a TV pilot. Some producers want them to set up the series, while other drop the audience into a typical episode. Lester asserts “a pilot is really a sales tool to get people on board and show people there’s a viable TV show. It gets people asking what does this season look like. how many stories can you generate from these characters and this scenario, is this an interesting world that sparks my imagination, do I want to spend time with these characters and get to know them?”
Margaret Rose Lester gives her thoughts to TV writers looking to write for television. “Watch and read what you want to write. For me, The Wire really spoke to me. I watched the whole series. I would watch episodes and study the structure and pacing of it. I analyzed how the writers structured their storylines to make the show work. Then you marry that with your own voice to write your own show. Don’t copy it because that will never work.”
She also reminds us “to read things other than scripts. Read novels, plays, anything.” She also recommends writers consult the source material of various TV shows to see how the story and characters were adapted across formats. What stays and what goes?
In conclusion, Lester was asked what her autobiography would be titled. After a pensive beat, she finally added “Hmm.” Perfect title. Full of mystery and intrigue, just like the TV shows she likes to write.
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