For people who want to know how to write a TV show, it’s helpful to know one thing: At its core, every story is about a boy wanting to become a man. (Or a girl becoming a woman.)
That is to say, it’s about the hero’s quest to fix a flaw to become complete. Does it matter if the hero actually achieves that goal? In children’s literature it might be. That’s how children learn lessons, like lying is bad. But as we get older, we realize that life isn’t so black and white and it’s okay for art to reflect that.
When I was writing for network TV shows, the executives generally wanted our stories to be wrapped up in a bow. They wanted a lesson to be learned, or for a character to arrive at a new place. That’s why sitcoms are often criticized for being neat and simplistic. But when I started writing scripts for cable televisions shows and streaming platforms, the executives gave us the exact opposite note. They wanted the endings to feel messier… more like real life. The characters still went on the same emotional journey, but they didn’t necessarily become a “man” at the end. If Jack and the Beanstalk were an episode of cable TV, the story wouldn’t end with him killing the giant and living happily ever after. Instead, he’d probably be carted off in handcuffs while his mother watched from afar, heartbroken.
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For students interesting in learning how to write for TV shows, it’s helpful to understand exactly what a story is. A story is defined as a hero fighting an obstacle to achieve a goal. So who’s the hero of your story? You are. What do you want? To become a professional screenwriter. What’s the obstacle? You don’t really know how to write a TV show yet. Maybe you took a screenwriting course somewhere, but it wasn’t all that helpful and you realize that you still have a lot more to learn. Is your goal rootable? No. The audience doesn’t really care if you ever become a TV writer. You do, of course, and maybe your mother does. But the audience doesn’t. So we need to reframe your story in a way that makes the audience care.
To do that, we give you a little bit of a backstory and add an emotional component. Maybe you have a boring desk job that’s sucking the life out of you. Or maybe you work in a cubicle that feels more like a prison cell. We know what you want. You want to become a television writer or a feature writer. But what do you really want? You want to live a life that is creatively fulfilling — one where you’re excited to wake up every morning and leave your mark on the world. Now, that’s a rootable goal. We all want that. That’s the emotional component that you need to bring to everything you write. It doesn’t matter if it’s a screenplay, a novel, a short story, a stage play, or a TV show.
In my next article, I’m going to tie it all together. It’s going to change the way you look at television shows and movies. And more importantly, it’s going to change the way you approach your screenwriting. Want to learn more about script writing online? Click here.