Quantum’s Eric blogs frequently about incorporating lessons learned from television writing into his novel work. When he recently asked if we’d consider interviewing a television writer, we took that seriously and contacted our friend Michael Hauge, screenwriting consultant and Hollywood coach. He heartily recommended writer Ellen Sandler and asked if we’d like him to contact her on our behalf to gauge her interest. Of course we took him up on it. We were thrilled to hear back from Michael that Ellen was indeed up for an interview.
ELLEN SANDLER is the author of The TV Writer’s Workbook, (Bantam/Dell, 2007) and received an Emmy nomination for her work as Co-Executive Producer for the CBS hit series, Everybody Loves Raymond. She has worked as a writer/producer for more than 20 network television comedies including ABC’s long running series, Coach and has created original pilots for ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox Family, Oxygen, The Disney Channel and the Australian Children’s Television Foundation. A prominent script consultant, she works with both professionals and emerging writers and can be contacted through her website HERE.
I wanted to know a little about the strike, of course, and a lot more about how to write for television. But because I knew little about how TV writing worked before this interview, I asked Eric for his two cents–and he provided many of these questions. I thank him, Michael and Ellen for making this interview both interesting and educational.
Interview with Ellen Sandler
Q: What basic things do the strikers want? And why do you think there’s such resistance to giving them those rights?
ES: From the WGA website:
Industry experts agree that in the next 2-5 years most American televisions will be connected to the Internet and the shows and movies you watch will be transmitted via an Internet connection. Corporate revenue from video downloading is estimated to be $1 billion for the next three years; proceeds from video streaming will be $3 billion
during the next two years.
Writers are asking for Guild coverage of writing for the Internet, basic residuals for Internet content reuse, and the tools to enforce this agreement. These residuals are not a bonus for writers; they are a critical part of compensation.
It should be noted that residuals are not royalties. Television writers do not hold the copyright to their work, the studios do. Residuals are the legitimate compensation that writers are paid if the shows do well and studios make more money by putting shows into reruns. If the shows do not do well enough to warrant reruns, then writers forgo the residual payments.
The media conglomerates are refusing to grant the Writers Guild jurisdiction over original writing for the Internet, though nearly ALL writing will likely be transmitted this way in the future and will in the future be the source of studio profits. Without a contract, a fair contract, that addresses new media writers won’t be compensated.
Q: How do you think this time away from script writing might affect the episodes of various shows still to be written?
ES: Time lost is time lost. If and when the Writer’s Guild reaches an agreement with the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers) it is highly likely that the TV season will be significantly shortened. If the strike continues this year’s television season could be severly limited. The strike will also effect next year’s television season. New shows (pilots) would normally be written right now in order to be in the production pipe line for next fall. One possible result of this strike could be that television networks will abandon the season approach that they have traditionally used and begin putting shows on the air at any time, whenever something is ready to go. That could actually turn out to be a benefit in the long run.
Q: Let’s talk about how television writing works. Do most shows have a “bible?” How detailed are they? Are they in-depth encyclopedias or just general outlines of the main characters and themes of the series?
ES: The “bible” for a TV show is a general term for the development work that goes into creating a set of new characters and the world they exist in for any new show on television. The content and format of that development material is determined by the writer(s) who create the show. There is not an industry standard on how much detail or in what form such material exists. Each writer creates the characters and background in their own way. The specific details that end up in the material referred to as the show’s bible depends largely on that show’s creator and the network executives that are “working” with that writer.
Q: What about a show’s template? In your experience has this been well identified before the start of a series, and communicated to the writing team? Is a template more a blessing or a curse?
ES: The pilot of any good television show is the show’s template. However it is not written in stone and as more stories are written the show finds its footing and some things may change and evolve. For example, on Sex in the City, Carrie stopped talking directly into the camera, and on Lost, the flashbacks became flash-forwards.
The nature of series television is repeatability. Familiar characters and familiar story structure is what keeps audiences coming back week after week. In that sense the template or format is a blessing. If a writer sees the show’s template as a curse, I would suggest finding another career, because working with the show’s template is the job.
Q: How do you go about writing an episode? Is it plotted first? Do you break the story down with the writing team before one writer assembles all the thoughts and ideas?
ES: Each head writer has his or her own way of running their writing room. There will usually be pitches from the writers – sometimes formal and sometimes just talking about what’s going on in their lives. My pitches will usually come from experiences from my own life translated into a character on the show. The head writer, aka show runner, decides which pitches will be further explored – sometimes a writer will do that work on their own and sometimes it will be worked out with the entire room. Breaking the story is a big job and all writers need to get feedback and help from the rest of the writing staff. But the head writer is the one who has the final say, so that is the approval you need. (I do know of shows where writers have spent all day in the room breaking a story, just to have the head writer return from editing last week’s show, and throw out the entire story.) After the story is broken, one writer will often take the story to script, but sometimes more than one writer will work on the script. In a time crunch, the script could be assigned to several different writers. It is even possible that the writer who originally pitched the idea isn’t assigned to write any part of it. And of course, even if one writer writes the entire script, it will be rewritten, perhaps beyond recognition once it goes into production.
Q: In what ways does the writing process work well with such a large group? Where do you think it could use improvement? If it breaks down, where?
ES: Television is definitely a collaborative process – which I happen to find stimulating and sometimes even fun. It can also be frustrating when you see some part of your work changed but with the amount of work that has to get done and the tight deadlines we are always under, I’ll take all the help I can get.
Q: By the time a new season begins, how many episodes have been written? How many are generated in the off-season?
ES: Writers will usually start their season about two months before production starts filming. When the first episode of the new season actually airs can vary greatly from about a month after filming starts to maybe six months (if it is a mid-season show). Consequently, there will probably be at least 6 episodes written before the first one airs, and there may be 16 or more. That’s the way the vast majority of commercial network shows work. It creates a difficult workload and usually a frantic pace. Many cable shows will have the entire season of episodes completed before they begin airing. That’s how David Chase and HBO handled The Sopranos and in my opinion that’s a ringing testament to effectiveness of a calmer work schedule.
Q: Is there a general outline for the arc of the season, or does the writing team make it up as they go along?
ES: This may depend, at least in part, on how serialized the show is. On a show with a storyline that spans the entire season, the writers may have a detailed outline for that story’s arc. On a show that has stand-alone episodes, the writers may just know that they want two of the characters to be in a romantic relationship by the end.
Q: Please tell us about your book, The TV Writer’s Workbook: A Creative Approach to Television Scripts. What topics do you cover, and what does it offer would-be television writers?
ES: I wrote the book as a companion workbook to augment my speaking engagements and writing workshops. The book takes the reader through a step by step process of creating story structure, which is useful for any kind of narrative writing. Television scripts are all about story structure, they are also short and simple, therefore they make a great examples for writers to learn structure. My book also provides exercises for finding original story ideas and giving unique voice to characters with fresh dialogue. I also discuss many practical professional matters such as how to work with agents and managers, dos and don’ts of cover letters, protocols for pitch meetings, what to include and what not to leave out of any pitch – and I illustrate all these topics with many examples from my professional and personal life.
Q: Let’s talk about how writing for television contrasts with other kinds of writing. What’s the most challenging part of writing for television, say, in contrast to other mediums?
ES: Meeting deadlines and other people’s standards, which can be very different than your own.
Q: Do you think the processes used in writing for television can be applied to other mediums? How?
ES: I think that basic story structure is the same for all mediums with story. If you know how to break down story structure for television, it will be an advantage for writing film and plays. I found my story structure instincts invaluable when writing The TV Writer’s Workbook and that was non-fiction.
I also have found the rewriting process and the routine discipline that I’ve learned from my television writing to serve me in anything I write, be it a script or an email letter.
Q: How can other writers learn from television writers when it comes to dialogue? Would you say dialog is the most important factor in writing for television?
ES: Fresh and funny dialogue is a big plus, but I would say story structure and clarity of character motivation are the most important factors in writing for television. When there is a problem with a script, it almost always in the story structure.
Q: Can you describe an instance when this happened and how you solved it? I’d like to better understand how you can identify and fix faulty structure.
ES: Structure is not something that you fix. Structure is the spine of the story, it is something you create from the beginning. Structure is based on character goals, oppositional forces, character choices and consequences. It’s a series of many development steps and my book takes you through the entire process.
Q: Tell me a little about how television writers pitch their ideas. What do you think other writers can learn form their process?
ES: The key to pitching is to keep it short and simple. It shows confidence in your idea and respect for the person you’re pitching to. Pitching is often a terrifying experience for a writer and yet it is an essential skill for anyone who wants to work in television and film. It’s a basic part of the business. You are pitching story ideas and suggestions for rewrites all the time. It’s so important that I have a whole section in my book about pitching.
Q: Do you think it would be beneficial for writers outside television to set up a writing room, or take on several writing partners, as television writers do?
ES: I think participating in a writers group is a very good idea. Getting feedback from colleagues you respect is valuable.
Q: What’s the most rewarding thing about writing for television?
ES: This is the only question I don’t have to think about – It’s the $$$.
Q: When you watch a show, which elements do you look for? Which can you learn from?
ES: Like most people, when I watch television I’m usually looking to be entertained. Of course, what I find most entertaining is really great writing.
Q: Which shows have been your favorites?
ES: I love The Sopranos. I’ve watched every episode, many of them more than once, and I always find it an exhilarating experience. A new show I like is Mad Men, and I got completely mesmerized by Damages. I loved the character development and the constantly surprising discoveries. I love Curb Your Enthusiasm and I think the Daily Show and The Colbert Report are ground-breaking and hilarious shows. On network TV I get a big kick out of The Office, again I love the character work. I often watch Two and a Half Men and I always find myself laughing out loud. 30 Rock is a big favorite of mine; I think it’s fresh and I love the satiric humor, which I think is hard to get right—they do. I like Without a Trace and I confess to binging on Law and Order once in a while. There’s always one playing on some channel and I can sit for six hours and watch one after another. It doesn’t matter which version, I’ll watch any of them. It’s a brilliant format; it’s indestructible, it works every time and it’s completely addicting. Wow, stopping to think about it, I realize there really is a lot of good stuff on TV.
Thanks so much, Ellen Sandler, for a great interview…and some good tips re: what we should watch tonight, too!
If you’d like to learn more about television writers–and specifically how the strike has affected them–check out the personal stories published at the Adopt-A-Writer blog. Write on, all!