This week’s guest blogger is Paula Yoo, whose first novel, Good Enough, is something of a must-read and available now. Paula is also the author of a picture book and writes for television. In this fascinating blog post, Paula talks about writing for television and writing novels, and how the two compare. For those of you who haven’t yet read it, Paula is also giving away a signed copy of Good Enough to one commenter below! You have until next Wednesday to enter. Last week’s guest blogger, Tara Altebrando, gave away a copy of her book What Happens Here to a random commenter as well! The winner of that contest, chosen by a random number generator, is Steph (Reviewer X). Steph, please email me your mailing address at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll forward it to Tara! Without further ado, now, Paula’s post. Enjoy!
By night, I’m a children’s book writer of YA novels and picture books.
By day, I’m a TV screenwriter.
So? you ask. What’s the difference?
Good question. Sometimes, there’s no difference at all. In both genres, you are simply trying to tell an original story with interesting characters. Other times, the difference between screenwriting versus novel writing is so wide that I have trouble bridging the gap when I’m working simultaneously on a novel and screenplay deadline.
Like right now. Tonight, I’m preparing to embark on a ten-day book tour through Seattle, WA, Cinncinati and Dayton, OH, and Ft. Thomas, KY. Aside from packing dilemmas (yes, yours truly INSISTS on bringing five, FIVE pairs of shoes for 9 1/2 days!)… I’ve also had to juggle a book project and a script deadline.
My book project is a new YA Novel that I’ve been doing a ton of research on. I finally started writing it and have been pleased with the 30 pages I’ve produced so far. But I’m also frustrated because I know I have at least another 200 pages to fill…
But as I work on this novel, I also have a script deadline looming in the near future. This script requires me to switch gears and think about how to cram several characters and storylines into a mere 50 pages.
So that’s one difference between novels and screenplays: LENGTH.
I’d say that’s the biggest difference, and the most important one. See, in a novel, you can meander and go off course for a bit. You can take more time in letting a character reveal himself or herself to the reader. The story unfolds gradually, revealing layer upon layer, like peeling an onion, until you reach its core.
Of course you can’t meander too much – you have to make sure the reader never loses track of who the main character is, what he/she wants, and what obstacles they have to overcome in order to get what they want in the end.
With a screenplay, specifically hour-long TV dramas, you have a fixed amount of pages – between 45 and 60 pages, tops – to tell a story that has compelling and interesting characters and an interesting plot where the stakes keep increasing.
Story in TV form is often told and shown through dialogue and characters’ reactions. Everything else – wardrobe, scenery, etc. – is often decided upon by committee. TV Screenwriting is a very collaborative format where the props and art department and director and a whole CREW of people interpret your words. For example, you could write that a character lives in a “rundown bungalow in a tough neighborhood.” In a novel, I’d expand upon that description and show what it’s like to live there. But on a TV show, the location director and art department interpret your basic description and bring that setting to life. As a TV writer, your job is to concentrate on what the characters are saying and doing.
The best part about being a TV writer is that it teaches you the economy of language because you don’t have a lot of time to tell a story. It also teaches you how to structure a plot so there is not one wasted scene – everything happens for a reason – one action causes a reaction which causes another action which in turn causes a reaction… before you even write a script, you MUST write an outline which lists the main “story beats” for each scene of each act.
That skill has helped me immensely when I get stuck writing a novel. For example, this new YA novel I’m writing has been difficult because it has a more complicated storyline with more characters than my first novel, Good Enough. I found myself using TV writing techniques to plot out the new novel, figuring out what the basic story beats were for each act.
That, in turn, helped me finally write those first 30 pages. Only 200 or so left to go! :)
I’ve also been asked what it’s like to write for TV versus writing a novel.
For novel writing, in a nutshell, it’s a lonely life. You’re mostly by yourself, sitting in front of your computer, writing. Sometimes you socialize with writers’ groups and have friends read and critique your work, but for the most part, being a novelist is lonely, lonely work.
For TV writing, you are in what they call a “Writer’s Room.” It consists of anywhere between three to 12 people. The hierarchy is Staff Writer, Story Editor, Executive Story Editor, Co Producer, Producer, Supervising Producer, Consulting Producer, Co-Executive Producer, and Executive Producer. The person who created the show is known as the “Showrunner.”
No two shows are alike but most shows tend to follow this general pattern:
1. The writers sit in a big room and eat a lot of junk food and gossip and eventually figure out what’s going to happen to the characters every week. This includes funny minor storylines, often called “runners,” to the big main plot of the week, to figuring out what serialized elements need to be updated every week (for example, if two characters are dating, you have to figure out the natural progression of their love story for the entire season etc.).
2. Once ideas are pitched and accepted or rejected, the writers summarize these ideas on a dry erase board.
3. These ideas are pitched to the Showrunner who either approves or rejects or revises these general ideas.
4. Once the ideas are given the greenlight, the writers then “beat” out the story by listing the order of events for each act. Most TV dramas have a teaser and four acts (that’s the traditional format). The latest trend has been anywhere from five to six acts! But basically, a TV show is divided up into several act breaks. Each act break has to have some sort of cliffhanger, and each cliffhanger gets more “dangerous” as you get closer to the final act.
5. Once the story beats are figured out, then the producers pitch this to the network. The network execs give their opinions, the writers tweak/revise their pitch, and then finally the writer of this episode is given permission to write a detailed outline explaining each scene of the show.
6. Once the outline is written, it goes through another lengthy revision process with approval or rejection from the network. Once the outline is finally approved, the writer has a certain amount of time to write a full script.
7. When the script is written, it goes through many more revisions until the episode is scheduled to shoot. There are still more revisions throughout filming, and even in the editing room after everything has been filmed! (I haven’t even described all the pre-production work that goes into preparing a script for the shoot – from the props and art department figuring out the look of the episode to the casting of the actors in the minor roles etc.)
8. And then the show airs! But the writers are huddled back in the writers’ room, eating more junk food and figuring out next week’s episode.
Please note, this is a very, very simplified and rough version of what happens in TV. Not all shows work this way, and I’ve left out a ton of details. But at least you have a basic idea of how much work and revision goes into the writing of a TV show… and how collaborative it is!
I love doing both jobs. I started out as a novelist and I still think of myself primarily as a novelist. But I can’t imagine not working in TV – it’s a fun and exciting world and I’m a very social person, so I appreciate the escape from my lonely novel writing batcave. I feel very lucky and honored to have the privilege of working in both worlds, and even though it’s twice as much work, it’s worth it. I’ve learned and grown so much as a writer, thanks to my experiences in both worlds.
Now, time to see if I can actually shut my suitcase with all those shoes inside it! :)