Showing posts with label television. Show all posts
Showing posts with label television. Show all posts

Monday, March 31

6 Tips From A Legend: Lorenzo Semple Jr On How To Write

In 2008 Lorenzo Semple Jr. was hailed by the Writers Guild of America as a Living Legend.[1] 

Semple was one of the writers for the original Batman series (1966 - 1968). He also worked on the screenplay of King Kong (1976), Flash Gordon (1980), the James Bond movie Never Say Never Again (1983) as well as The Parallax View (1974) and Three Days of the Condor (1975).[2] Mr. Semple died two days ago at the age of 91. 

In 2011 Mr. Semple sat down with writer and TV producer Lee Goldberg and passed along some of his writing wisdom. (See: Lorenzo Semple, Jr.) What follows is my transcription of a small portion of that talk.[4]

Lee Goldberg Interviews Lorenzo Semple Jr

LG: What is the best piece of advice you've ever given and what's the best advice you could give someone just starting out writing for television?

Semple: With TV, it really depends on who you have involved in the project. If I wrote a two paragraph idea for a series, everything would depend on who I got enlisted for the project.

1. Be likeable.

Networking, the politics of television, is very important. That and, these days, having an original voice helps. Programs like Monk and Weeds are trying to be more original.

But, generally, here's what you want to do: improve your personality. I don't care about your writing. Making television is difficult, it's arduous. I'm talking about working with all the people involved in the process, getting notes and all that. Some of the people you'll work with will be detestable.

Anyone in their right mind wants to work with someone they like rather than someone they don't.

Be likeable but don't lick boots. They like to be insulted a bit if you do it wittily enough.

One line I always used selling pitches to movies: This movie probably will fail, most movies do, but if it succeeds, what an upside!

That's what they really want to hear. Most movies are going to fail, but if you can appeal to their greed ... They don't want to know that if it's good it'll win an award, they want to know its going to be huge!

That's a piece of advice I would give writers. 

And don't be self-pitying. Many writers say they're the only ones who face the agony of the blank page. I say you're idiotic. The blank page is the greatest moment of writing a script. It could be the greatest script in the world. Be happy that you have the privilege of having the blank page. That should be your approach to writing.

2. If you want to understand a movie then read the script. 

I'm not talking about the Syd Field's type of thing, about something having to happen on page 23 or all that. That's all very useful, and required, particularly in television, but that will come naturally as you read scripts.

I'm a great believer in reading scripts rather than watching movies to learn about them. You're distracted by the movie. 

3. The first 10 minutes of a movie should establish the characters, their basic motivations, and the genre.

My favorite thing I would do in class, I would show the first 10 minutes of any movie and at the end of 10 minutes I would stop it and say So, what has been established? What do we know now? What kind of story is this? What do we think this is going to be about?

A lot of things should have been established. The characters. Not by direct exposition, but you should have a strong idea of the movie you're going to see.

When you start a movie you're making a contract with the reader/viewer. If you go into a restaurant and order fish and they bring you a wonderful steak you're going to say Hey! I didn't order this, take it back. You're going to feel cheated. So I think it's very important to be clear about the kind of thing you're writing.

4. Do a bullet point outline of each scene.

And that's an argument in favor of outlines. Which I'm too optimistic, too hopeful, to write myself. I find it very hard to go through the thing I'm writing and outline. But I do believe strongly in outlining the scene before you. I believe they call that using bullet points. Outline what's going to be in the scene.

5. How to avoid writer's block: never quit writing for the day when you're stuck, always quit when you know what the next sentence is going to be.

Another thing. Never quit writing for the day when you're stuck. Quit when you know what the next sentence is going to be or the next little scene is going to be. Then you don't get blocked.

I've never done it, but I know a couple of people who do.

6. Stand up when you write.

I also believe in writing standing up at a lectern. That way it's more like painting. You write something, walk away from it, walk around the room, think, come back. I think its a much more flexible, a much more artistic and fluent way to write.

LG: But you don't do that.

Semple: I have trouble standing up now. In my day, I hadn't thought of it. [laughter] I've read many maxims I think are very good that I don't do.

One person said that in every scene every character should think he's the main character in that scene. That's a wonderful idea but I don't know how you do it. That's one of those things that sound great when you're giving sage advice.

But, anyway, that's how I sum up my view of writing and my career.
That was the end of the interview. I'd encourage you to watch the YouTube video since so much was communicated through tone of voice and gesture. 

My favorite bit of advice was the part about letting your readers know right away the genre your story is in. That's two points, really:

a. Be clear about the genre from the first paragraphs and 
b. market the book accordingly. 

Even if one writes the best romance this world has ever seen, if it's marketed as a murder mystery readers are going to be disappointed and (militantly) upset. Which means the number of one star reviews will skyrocket even though the book was well written and tells a compelling story.

That's it for today! 

I'll publish another post on Wednesday as usual (my regular posting schedule is Monday, Wednesday, Friday) but I'm also attempting to blog chapters of my upcoming book, Parts of Story. I'll put those out Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. 

At least, that's the plan. I'm not sure if I'll put those posts through Twitter; if you're interested in seeing them then you will as long as you've subscribed to my blog feed. Also, if you're not interesting in reading these 'blogging my book' posts, they'll be clearly marked with the prefix "Parts of Story." (For example, Parts of Story: The Structure of Genre or Parts of Story: Choosing a Theme and so on.)

Thanks to everyone for your patience as I try this out.


1. Lorenzo Semple, Jr., Wikipedia.
3. Lorenzo Semple, Jr,
4. This is not a word-for-word transcription. Certain points are, but, overall, it is more of a paraphrase. Anything that reads well is due to Mr. Semple, anything that is awkward or incorrect is my fault. Thanks to Lee Goldberg who mentioned Mr. Semple's death on his Google+ feed and gave the link to his previous interview with the writer.

Photo credit: "Capdepera" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Saturday, January 26

Six Things Writers Can Learn From Television

Six Things Writers Can Learn From Television

Today I'm going to talk about 6 things fiction writers can learn from television, but before we get to that I'd like to talk about a fantastic site I just discovered.

Nerdist Writers Panel

I've always wondered what it would be like to be a TV writer so I was ecstatic to learn about the Nerdist Writers Panel podcast. TV writers for shows like Modern Family, Family Guy, The Office, Big Bang Theory talk about their experiences. It's fascinating. Many thanks to Matt Debenham for recommending the site.

6 Things Fiction Writers Can Learn From Television

1. 'You can’t just tell the story of Some Guy. You have to tell the story of THE Guy Who….'

TV is all about the characters, even premise-heavy shows like Burn Notice. Matt Debenham writes:
There have been a dozen shows that tried to replicate the mix of sci-fi and mystery that seemingly made LOST a hit, but the secret to LOST was this: People came for the crazy premise, they stayed for the characters. The writers took time to show us exactly who Jack, Kate, Sawyer, Sayid, Hurley, Charlie, and Claire were. In fact, the flashback structure LOST used from the start was there explicitly to deepen the characters, which the creators knew would then keep us invested in the mystery. People watch because they love to become invested in characters. They love to know them, they love to worry about them, they love to be surprised by them. 6 Things Prose Writers Can Learn From Television)

2. Good Characters are Obsessed and Broken

Great characters are the most DRIVEN and the most DAMAGED. They are active.

An active character is one who:
- wants something
- does something related to those wants
- have what they do in (2) be bad for them.

Rule of thumb: Bad for the character? Great for everyone else!

Example: Walter White from Breaking Bad. Matt writes:
Walter is obsessed with becoming a bigger and bigger player in the meth business. Which is probably a fairly normal trait for someone in the meth business. But Walter is broken because his attachment to meth stems not from money, which was his original version of things (he was dying of cancer and wanted to leave his family with some security after he was gone), but from a desperate need for respect. Family doesn’t really enter into it. Walter White is driven by pride — to the degree that he continues on despite the bodies and ruined lives and broken relationships piling up around him. Walter’s obsession is what helps him, a former high-school chemistry teacher, quickly become the biggest meth player in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Walter’s brokenness is what keeps him from getting out despite the fact that his work constantly endangers his life and the lives of those he supposedly loves. (4 Steps (And a Bonus!) To Making Character Everything)

3. Be Entertaining To Others

Some folks write to please themselves and that's great, but if you want an audience, write for the audience.

4. Don't explain everything.

Leave key information up to the audience to figure out. Leave room for revelation.

5. Plot, Narrative Structure, Is Everything

Structure matters because without it there's no story. Structure isn't formula. Structure, plot, simply provides framework for content, it doesn't dictate content. For example, Michael Hague, from Story Mastery, talks about the five key turning points of all successful scripts.

6. You Have To Go On To The Next Project

In the movie Bossy Pants Tina Fey said, "The show doesn’t go on when it’s finished; it goes on because it’s 11:30" (Kris Rusch: The Value of Imperfection).  Nina Munteanu writes that

Robert J. Sawyer’s response to the question of “when do you stop revising?” was “When you’ve taken out all the boring bits.” That may seem on the face of it either too simple or too abstract. But, in fact, he is right on the mark. (When Do You Know Your Story Is Finished?)
How can you tell when the boring bits are out? Nina gives these tips:

1. Objectivity: Distance yourself

If you think your manuscript might be done set it aside for a few weeks, or as long as you can afford then read it again with fresh eyes.

2. Is each scene essential and well developed?

- Does your character have clearly defined goals in each scene?
- Is there conflict? Something keeping the character from achieving his or her goal?
- Is the point of view character's goal tied into the story goal?
 You need to know when to step back and pronounce your work done. If you don't have an editor and are making this call on your own it can be difficult.

What is your favorite TV character? Why?

Other articles you might like:

- How To Succeed As A Writer: The Value Of Failure
- The Magic Of Stephen King: A Sympathetic Character Is Dealt A Crushing Blow They Eventually Overcome
- Ray Bradbury On How To Keep And Feed A Muse

Photo credit: "bee zzzzzzz Sunday" by linh.ngan under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, May 17

The CW Making The Hollows Series (Kim Harrison) Into A TV Show

I am a huge, enormous, fan of Kim Harrison's The Hollow's series. I'm one of those people who rolls out of bed and thinks, 'Only X days till her next Hollows book!" and then I do a little happy dance. Well, in my imagination I do. No dancing before morning coffee; it's a rule.

Last October I heard stirrings there might be a Hollow's TV series, but didn't want to get too excited in case it didn't pan out.

Well, looks like I needn't have worried. Here's an excerpt of an article I just read on
What can you tell us about the CW's TV series adaptation of The Hollows?

I don't have a whole lot of information on that yet. I'll know a lot more in June. But what I can tell you is that CW has picked it up. Jordan Hawley, he's the guy who worked on Smallville, he is writing the pilot right now, and they're aiming for the 2012-2013 season. Like I said, by June I should know about cast members and filming and all sorts of things. But it's Hollywood – they get easily distracted. [Laughs.] It seems like they feel very strongly about it, and I feel pretty good about the progress that's being made.

It seems like the perfect story for the current television climate, which has been so receptive to TV shows like The Vampire Diaries and True Blood.

And yet it's completely different. It's got a different feel to it, and I think that CW can pull that out and put it on the small screen. I really think it can rock and roll.

Have you thought once or twice about who you might like to see portray Rachel or her partner Ivy?

Oh people ask me that all the time! I actually watch movies more than TV, so I don't know what the current crop of available people are to tell you the honest truth. But my readers have very strong opinions, and they will drop suggestions at my blog. I've got a special section, and they go and dump all sorts of suggestions. I try not to look too much because I know I probably won't have a whole lot of say in it. And I feel comfortable trusting them in this. They know the talent a lot better than I do.

Since the TV announcement, as you said, will come in June, is there any chance we'll see you at Comic-Con in July?

That's a good question. I wasn't planning on it. But I have a very small ship that can turn very quickly if I feel like it. So I wouldn't discount it, but I am not planning on it at this time. I've got a lot of writing I need to get done between now and then. We'll see. If it works out I will be there, but I'm not counting on it.
- Exclusive: Kim Harrison on ‘The Hollows' TV Show
I'll pass along more information as I get it.

- Kim Harrison's Books