Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Three ways to tell a story

The other day Leif asked about different approaches to different lengths of script. I can't speak for everybody, of course, but I have my own view of the subject so I will address it now.

I like television, short and feature length scripts. At the moment my shorts are probably stronger than the other two, but every day I work a little harder to pull features up to par. One day I'll concentrate on TV again. Unless somebody pays me to write features, then I'll pretend I didn't even know television.

All three genres require a different approach. With short films you have to focus. You have one story, one major theme, a limited amount of space and time and you need to move quickly. That film better go as soon as you hit play and not quit until the credits. No time for side trips or pondering, and it's always better if you have some kind of surprise twist at the end.

That's why I'm good at shorts. I'm the champion of the fast-paced opening. My stories always begin with a fight or a rescue or some kind of urgent situation, and that's really what makes a good short film: urgency.

Television is all about structure. You have to study the show you're speccing carefully, analyse the act outs and how many act breaks there are. Is there a B plot? Is there a C plot? Do those plots connect or are they separate entities? What is this show truly about? What is the common thread between every episode?

You have to study. Hard. You have to make the episode sound original while copying someone else - not an easy task. For advice from a much more knowledgeable head than mine, read Alex Epstein's Crafty TV Writing, linked over in the sidebar.

If you're writing a pilot you get to be the one to set the rules, but that's not any easier. You have to know where you're going in episode two, episode four, season two. How will you sustain your story? My biggest problem in television these days has been my frustrating inability to use cuss words.

If you've read any of my work you may have noticed my overwhelming desire to use the word "fuck" as often as possible.

Actually that's not accurate anyway. My current stumbling block with television has been my overwhelming desire to write features.

Features require logic, patience, a well-developed backstory. Sure, there's structure, but your acts are loose. The pace may start out fast, but you have to learn to back it off or you'll lose the impact of big events. You have to make sure you have enough story to easily take up 110 pages without so much that you're fudging fonts to make the script look smaller.

When I write a short I take an idea, I write it in a day, I revise it a few times and I move on. Honestly I think shorts are more fun than anything in the world.

When I write a TV episode I research the hell out of the show and rewrite over and over until it feels perfect. When I write a feature project I spend ages planning and contemplating and note carding and rethinking before I jump in. And halfway through I change my mind about all kinds of things I thought I had all figured out.

So yes, I think you have to approach each style of writing differently. Maybe that's why people are so adamant that you pick one and stick to it.

However, no matter which type of script you write, the same approach to character development and story still apply.


  1. And the commercial-less shows on premium cable now are a completely different beast altogether. They follow some of the rules of TV, but the lack of act breaks make them feel more filmic. It's all very weird and fun.

  2. Ice Cream Jihad?


    -danny boy

  3. "All three genres require a different approach."

    The differences between TV, film, and shorts are differences in medium, not genre.

    I dig stuff like this. I completely agree with your take on shorts.

    Personally, shorts are the toughest for me. I like being able to delve into character and shorts provide no time for that. They are really more about a very unique creative take, hook, or twist.

    In terms of TV vs film... I think the biggest difference is that a film story is going to be the most significant story in these characters lives. TV, on the other hand has to create a premise that promises further complications with every episode.

    I look at it as: film attempts to answer a major pleading issue in your main characters life, where TV attempts to raise questions about the characters lives.


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