Film Courage: Questions one should ask themselves about writing a TV show?
Peter Russell, script doctor and screenwriter: Okay, there are nine questions I always ask when I’m first talking to someone about a TV show.
First of all give us a great world, we need a great world because we are going to be in for 150 episodes. So what is a great world? I would do an exercise where you give me a great world and don’t tell me it’s New York City. I want to know a specific neighborhood. What is the great world? Because great television is always about a great world. If you want to talk about New York then give me a specific world like there’s a show called BILLIONS and this show is brilliantly written, it’s probably the best television out there right now and it’s all about billionaires how they make their money and how they live their fascinating lives. Another fascinating one is THE ASSASSINATION OF GIANNI VERSACE. That’s the Gianni Versace fashion world in Miami and then this guy who became a serial killer his world (I’ve never seen it before).
So CARBON BLACK is this really cool sci-fi show. It’s about a cool future where people can change bodies so they have sleeves as they call it. So your world, you want to ask yourself what’s the world of your show? ATLANTA is probably the coolest show on television right now and it’s all about this African American milieu of middle class (lower middle-class) Atlanta and this sort of slacker guy in it and how he’s going to survive in this slacker world. Never seen it before.
STRANGER THINGS, that the world of the eighties and that’s big nostalgia for kids that are 20 right now. People on their bikes without helmets, television sets that have tubes with rabbit ears. The world there is absolutely about nostalgia. So big question, what’s your world? That’s what we want to see.
Fantasy continues to be big. I hate it but zombie is a world that just continues to be big. Vampires romance, black comedy world (SHAMELESS), white trash. So worlds are extraordinarily important in your show.
The next question I ask is do you have a theme that matters. What do you want o say about the world in your television show? For instance a show like SONS OF ANARCHY which is a great world, a world of motorcycles show. The theme is if you have a bad mom or dad, you’re going to be screwed. You need to have a good parent, you need to be mentored well (he’s not).
“What is the irreconcilable conflict in your show? What is the dilemma that will never be resolved that will keep people coming back and obviously that has to do with their core wounds?”
And that means the entire show fails because he doesn’t have a good mom and dad. His dad’s dead and his mom’s horrible. And so this truth about life is probably what hipsters ignore when they are writing, like “Ahhh! I want to write this story!” I call it the weed and speed. It’s going to be full of motorcycles and violence and razor blades and people smoking crack. And I’m like “Okay, great. Ten minutes, I’ll love it. Then what’s the truth about life? You’re saying Kurt Sutter (SONS OF ANARCHY) is brilliant writer why? Because he’s got a theme that a hero that drives a motorcycle, who is tough, who does all the things you say you want to see, the violence, sex, the motorcycles, all that stuff. But every episode is about this guy struggling with the fact that he doesn’t have a dad. How do I live my life without a dad or a mom and he never figures it out.
In ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK which is a brilliant show, what’s the theme? Well you better know yourself. Piper doesn’t know if she likes girls or boys? And the whole show is…Do I like guys? Do I like girls? Who am I? You tell me who I am. So I don’t know. So that’s a great theme too.
DOWNTON ABBEY has a theme which is the lower class is rising and we have to understand how it’s rising. That’s the theme of every episode of DOWNTON ABBEY. So theme is important.
In THE WIRE which is probably the intellectual’s wet dream of a show (THE WIRE). David Simon’s story (I’m just going to read this because this is on the front page of the story bible), this story is about the human condition, it’s not just a police show, it’s a show about how we have taken the urban underclass and have jailed them and tormented them and teared them apart in our stupid drug war. That’s his theme and it’s a social theme and that motivates every one of those episodes. So if you don’t have that and it works even in a sitcom, you’re not going to have a show that works. So what are you passionate about, what do you believe in, I ask my students this sometimes, what do you believe in? They are like “I don’t know? It’s important. I’m going to write a hip story.” I’m like “No you’re not. You are going to bore us.”
The next question is why do we want to watch the show every week? Okay, every week we’ve got to watch a show, a hundred episodes. So you need a great question. In BREAKING BAD what’s the great hook question every week? How bad is ‘How bad is Walter going to break? What’s he going to do? Oh God, he’s going to get worse.” MAKING OF A MURDER “Hey did he do it or not? That’s a pretty good question.” Every week we get that.
ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, is Piper ever going to find out if she likes girls or boys? Maybe she’s not going to? But this question continues, it’s the hook, it’s the great question.
MR. ROBOT, can Elliot take down the big corporation?
Okay, GAME OF THRONES which family is going to win? Every episode is about that? And what’s the theme of GAME OF THRONES by the way because it’s kind of important? The theme is Do you have to be evil to be a great leader? That’s the whole question for every episode, right? So that’s an important question.
So the next one is genre, let’s now go into that because I teach that and it’s a structural thing but you need to teach that but you need to stick in your genre.
What are the parents in your show like? In television if you’re going to write a TV show you’ve got to know what are the parents of the show? What shows are like this that you’ve seen before? And my hips students are like “Ahh, Peter I don’t want to, my show is like nothing else ever on.” And it’s like well okay, then it’s not going to get on. Even if you want it to be completely different from everything, you’ve got to understand what you’re reacting to. What did you hate? You’ve got to have parents for the show and it will help you build your show if you do.
And the next question (and this is super important)…what is the question that torments the hero for ever and ever that will never be resolved? What’s the unsolvable dilemma that will never every be solved?
And that is (in MAD MEN) I am unlovable and the things I do to make myself lovable make me so uncomfortable that I run away. Don Draper seduces woman after woman after woman. But every time they fall in love with them (they always do), he runs away because he hasn’t solved his basic dilemma which is “I’m unlovable.”
Okay so that is the unsolvable dilemma. Even in BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER it’s “I just want to be alpha bitch and be in high school and be popular.” “No, you’re a vampire slayer.” “I don’t want to be a vampire slayer.” A hundred and fifty episodes of that unsolvable dilemma.
BREAKING BAD, Walt’s dying, he’s got to take care of his family, how does he do it, he becomes a drug dealer and it destroys his family. So the thing that makes him want to take care of his family, the way he does it, destroys his family.
TRUE DETECTIVE, Russ knows the world is meaningless, Marty believes there is a lot of meaning in the world, how do they resolve that? Well they do in the end because remember it’s a miniseries so in the end it’s like a movie, so in the end the do both believe the world is a great place. But that’s not classic TV, okay? So will Walt protect his family or destroy it? How can good prevail in a world that is run by the strongest? That’s GAME OF THRONES. How can we have a world where there is a good leader when it’s the worst people who always win, right? Unsolvable dilemma. Maybe in the end the two people with the Ikea rugs on the back of their cart do. But for the whole 7 to 8 years they don’t have it. So what is the irreconcilable conflict in your show? What is the dilemma that will never be resolved that will keep people coming back and obviously that has to do with their core wounds? So the next question is “What’s their big core wound in your hero? How does that work in your television show? And it’s always about that irreconcilable dilemma. MAD MEN “I’m unlovable.”
Tyrion in GAME OF THRONES “I’m unlovable.” Everything he does is because of that. Walter’s is “I’m weak.” And my father used to say “Never corner a weak man. They’ll turn out to be really strong.”
Wade in DEADPOOL by the way is “I’m ugly.”
Randall in THIS IS US (which is a great serial show), Randall is “I’m not part of this family. My skin color is different, I’m not really part of the family.”
Peter in SNEAKY PETE “I’m not part of the family.”
Jessica Jones in JESSICA JONES “I’m not safe. This villain can get me. He’ll always get me.”
So core wounds are the nuclear reactors to your show. They really are and they have to happen.
Daenerys core wound in GAME OF THRONES is “I’m powerless.” And we see the entire first season for Daenerys she starts out as this little slave for her brother. She’s given to this warrior as an object. By the end of the season she has walked through fire and hatched dragon wings so her powerlessness is beginning to go away but it continued through the entire run of GAME OF THRONES “I’m powerless.” Is she getting powerful, she’s getting to but it’s going to take a long time.
So these are just the beginnings of the questions that I would ask. There are many others but this is a start when you are writing television. And they are different from film but they do start, when I would start talking to someone about their TV show, these are the questions I would ask them at the beginning.
Questions For The Viewers: Which of these questions do you struggle with the most?
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