Wednesday, July 9, 2008

On the books

Melisa writes: I'm wondering if you've come across any great books about TV writing?

Most of the books out there seem to be geared toward film rather than TV, though they might be helpful in their discussion of dialogue, character, conflict, etc., since these topics are universal in all writing. Also, a problem with books on TV and screenwriting is that they become outdated quickly; I would want to be reading about Friday Night Lights and House, not Roseanne and Hangin with Mr. Cooper, you know? Books from the 90s also won't be equipped to instruct you on ABC's recent and somewhat overhwhelming six-acts-plus-a-teaser structure. Still, I am of the opinion that it's good to read a variety of books, blogs, scripts, etc. (ALWAYS be reading professional scripts), and take whatever bits of knowledge you find helpful. Here are some books I've enjoyed:

Billion Dollar Kiss focuses not on craft but on the career of TV writing, which makes it a very interesting memoir and a window into what to many of us is a secret world. There are also a lot of fun anecdotes like how Stepakoff initially paid the bills by stuffing envelopes with his pal Kevin Reilly.

Save the Cat is based on the concept that your character has to do something akin to saving a cat so that we like him/her. It's a fun, very specific guide about what should go on every page of your feature. If you're kind of lost in lofty ideas about the Hero's Journey, this is much more practical.

Lofty ideas about the Hero's Journey! Okay, I admit that I never finished Story. I mean, it's frickin thick. (Exactly why it was so helpful in propping open my old rotting window when I lived in Ithaca last summer.) It is pretty classic, though. Maybe just watch Adaptation and take the bits from when Nic Cage goes to McKee's seminar.

I admit I didn't discover this book until I decided I need to stop reading books and start writing scripts...but I love Alex's blog, and I've talked to a number of people who like the book.

The Hollywood Standard is THE book for format. If you're ever thinking, hmm, how do I format an intercut inside a dream sequence that takes place both inside and outside - this is your book! (And PLEASE learn how to do intercuts - I can't tell you how many scripts I've read in which writers put down new slug lines everytime a new person talks in a phone conversation.) Anyway, THS is a good reference guide to have on on your shelf...though I still maintain that you need to read as many professional scripts as possible to really get a handle on format.

I have Desperate Networks at home and I really am going to read it. Our TV Lit Dept head strongly recommends it - so I do too. It's about the modern landscape of television (something you should probably read up on if you're going to work in it).

Feel free to comment with your favorites. (Especially Jamie. How's that?)

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Arlo said...
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Lee said...

Pamela Douglas' Writing the TV Drama Series just came out in a new edition, updated with section on six and seven act episodes, and is a useful read.

The TV Writer's Workbook by Ellen Sandler has lots of great advice for creating storylines and breaking an episode.

Also well worth a read are Alex Epstein's Crafty TV Writing, and Successful Television Writing by Lee Goldberg and William Rabkin. Both are full of insights into the structure of TV episodes and the nuts and bolts of television production.

aldentre said...

"Created by: Inside the Minds of TV's Top Show Creators" Interviews with :

J.J. Abrams (Alias, Lost)
Alan Ball (Six Feet Under)
Yvette Lee Bowser (Living Single, Half & Half)
Mark Brazill (That '70s Show)
Ilene Chaiken (The L Word)
Larry David (Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm)
Tom Fontana (Oz)
Tracy Gamble (8 Simple Rules)
Dave Hackel (Becker)
Barbara Hall (Joan of Arcadia)
Brenda Hampton (7th Heaven, Fat Actress)
Bill Lawrence (Scrubs)
Dennis Leoni (Resurrection Blvd.)
Max Mutchnick and David Kohan (Will & Grace)
Tracy Newman and Jonathan Stark (According to Jim)
Josh Schwartz (The O.C.)
Shawn Ryan (The Shield)
Amy Sherman-Palladino (Gilmore Girls)
Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel)

That's a pretty damn good pedigree. I've always been a strong opponent of buying advice from people you've never heard of, and this book certainly doesn't suffer in that regard.

If you live in the LA area, I'd be happy to loan it to you, though it might be a worthy investment.

samuel.x.killer said...

I know a studio executive who teaches a UCLA extension course on drama development and she uses the WRITING THE TV DRAMA SERIES book mentioned above.

Sitcom books seem to be the most quickly to get outdated, but WRITING TELEVISION SITCOMS by Evan Smith is good (and gets mentioned in the Disney Fellowship FAQ).

While books and their examples get outdated, their lessons on structure do not. For examples involving current shows, the blogs (like this one!) and screenwriting magazines are an essential supplements to any reading.

J. Alan Shelton said...

I'm a little surprised no one has mentioned Larry Brody's Television Writing from the Inside Out. I've yet to find another book on the subject as indispensable.

m said...

"write to tv" is a good book, but i don't remember who wrote it

Allison said...

I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on Desperate Networks when you read it. I got about halfway through before I had to stop reading. There was far too much unexamined sexism, and maybe it all comes together in the end, but I felt like there wasn't any organization to the book. There were no thematic links and it's not like it was chronological (in fact, it was quite Slaughterhouse-Five-like in its time-jumping). Plus, I remember being annoyed by the writing style, though I don't quite recall any specifics. It's an overrated book, in my opinion.

On the other hand, I loved Billion Dollar Kiss. There was a really good mix of memoir stuff and general TV stuff.

odocoileus said...

The above mentioned books are great. Can't go wrong, provided, of course, that you write at least one script for every book you read. Otherwise, you're an advice manual expert, not a writing expert.

I just started reading Sheldon Bull's Elephant Bucks. Rich, tasty sitcom goodness. Salty, sweet, and crunch all at the same time.

Dan Williams said...

"Desperate Networks" is a great behind-the-scenes account of how the network CEO's fit into the TV equation.

"Jump In" by Mark Burnett is a fascinating memoir of how he built his reality show company from scratch.

"Inside Story: The Power of the Transformation Arc" by Dara Marks is a MUST READ. In my opinion, she does not get everything right, but she does show how to approach a story when the writer is just beginning it. So she gets the Big Picture correst. If you don't read this book, it could take you ten years to learn this stuff on your own if, indeed, you ever learn it.

Joshua James said...

HELLO, LIED THE AGENT by Ian Gurvitz is a fine and enlightening read on writing for network television, I highly recommend it.

Carolyn said...

Billion Dollar Kiss was a great read.

I’ve yet to read Save the Cat! but I just received a Barnes & Noble coupon in my email this morning…maybe it’s time to make the purchase.

Pamela Douglas' Writing the TV Drama Series (recommended above by lee) has been a good investment for me, too. I’ve used a few of her suggestions.

Aldentre – I second your recommendation of "Created by: Inside the Minds of TV's Top Show Creators". I still go back to it and read a few pages for inspiration.

I also found this one helpful:
Starting Your Television Writing Career: The Warner Bros. Television Writers Workshop Guide by Deborah Pearlman and Abby Finer

Manda said...

Hey Amanda,

I'm an Australian hoping to break into television writing. Do you know any writers that have moved to LA from OS. I have no idea how one would go about it.

Kim Moffat said...

I read a ton of screenwriting books and I'd have to say Billion Dollar Kiss is up there as one of the best. It's just such an accurate picture, as well as dropping names at the best parts (but not name-dropping in a totally cocky way) and it's pretty inspirational too. I love the mention of Greg Burlanti at the beginning of his career as well. Now there's a guy who should write a book!

I'd also suggest "The Mind of the Modern Moviemaker" which includes essays by Jon Favreau, Kevin Smith, and Brett Ratner, among others.

I want someone to write about what went on, in the public and behind the scenes, of the writer's strike. I think that would be a great book.

Gib said...

I've been reading your blog for a bit and enjoying it a lot.

Pam Douglas' book is the definitive one for TV drama writers.

On Amazon:

And thoughts on seeing her speak in person on my blog: