When discussing TV specs, we are always told how important it is to break the show down, but in my experience, there’s not a lot of guidance about what that means. For the most part, I’ve developed my own procedures, which I am happy to share with you today.
I spend a lot of time breaking down a series before I begin to write the spec. When I was doing the Vampire Diaries last summer, I only gave myself three weeks to break down the show and write the first draft. That basically meant two weeks of breakdown and one week of outlining and drafting. As soon as I finished the first draft, I went back to the breakdown, which continued throughout the writing. I had no way of acquiring Vampire Diaries scripts, except for the pilot. Not having them was a handicap, but I’m so glad I went through the process of writing it anyway. It was the first script I finished, and I learned a lot.
For one thing, VD is serialized, and the episode I wrote picked up where Season Two ended. It was meant to be the beginning of Season Three. In my study of the series, I discovered that each show has three to four story lines. I wrote four. It’s a bit long for an episode, and I am sure the formatting doesn’t perfectly match the show. That’s where not having scripts was a problem. The other problem was that I put the finishing touches on it at the end of August, and the Season Three premiere was a week or two later. That made it outdated almost immediately.
As an episode, it encompasses much more story than a normal episode would, but it also set up the next few episodes for the season. It was exciting to watch the real episode on TV! I was gratified to find out that several of the things I had written in my script came to pass. Other things were different, of course, but in subsequent episodes my scenes kept popping up. I take that as a sign that I did a good job of getting into the workings of the show. To me, that says I’m hirable as a staff writer. That’s very good news, since staffed on a TV drama is exactly where I want to be. On the other hand, taking on so much story in one episode would not work in real life. There is several episodes worth of storytelling in that one spec.
Having learned what I learned, I chose an episodic show for my next spec: White Collar. I also made sure I was able to acquire scripts. Ellen Sandler, writer of many TV comedies, suggests you have three. I was able to get my hands on five. I won’t give away my source, but I will say it was a product of a networking opportunity. Using Sandler’s book, the TV Writer’s Workbook, I made a spreadsheet of everything I could think of to count. That told me a lot about how the show was structured and how the story lines intersect. Of course I am also studying every show in the series.
After I practically memorize every episode and dissect the scripts I have, I start outlining. If done correctly, this takes quite a bit longer than actually writing the first draft. This is where I get into the protagonist’s goals and relationships, and the other major components. By the time I’ve worked that all out for all the story lines, I have a pretty extensive outline. I also have a list of things that need to be part of the episode, such as traits that show up, or tics a certain character uses, how many jokes are there (even in drama), and what story points are integral to most, if not all, episodes. I have a range of formatting options, as well as non-changing structure, such as number of acts, if there’s a teaser, etc.
Laid out this way, it sounds exhausting, but it’s really fun. It’s doing all things I love! I’m watching TV, reading scripts, writing and defining characters. By the time I start the first draft, it practically writes itself. Then I take a rest while I send it off to a trusted advisor. That’s a lie. I usually start on something else so my good habits aren’t interrupted. It comes from terror that if I let them go I’ll never get them back.
If this article helps anyone, I’d really love to hear about it in a comment below. As a new writer, who has worked very hard to acquire what skills I have, it’s important for me to share what I can and help others. I have gotten a lot of help already and I will continue to need it to get this career off the ground. In a way, I’m paying it forward. Conversely, if you know of any steps for breakdown that I haven’t touched on, I’d love to hear them. In the meantime, happy writing!