How to write a successful TV series

That got your attention.

The ‘how’ is easy : With your fingers and yours toes all crossed and an air of total resignation, shot through with passion and determination, overwhelming humility and boundless arrogance plus really brusque impatience, the detachment of a Trappist monk and great warmth.

Occasionally wine helps.

I’m writing a treatment for a new series, and because my granddaughter is living with the me, for the first time ever someone is seeing me as I hum and haw and stare at the blank screen before – eventually – shouting “Yes!” victoriously, or “Sod it all!” bitterly. And for the first time I’m explaining to someone outside the business what a treatment is, and why it’s valuable, and how the great huge behemoth of a continuing series can lumber into life from 9 or 10 pages.

Because we’re self-isolating (bleugh) we’re trying to maintain a routine and give a shape to the otherwise flabby grey days, so today we set the table and sat down to lunch together and I mentioned that on Monday I have a Zoom meeting with the producers. That’s when Frankie said “I thought a writer just sat down and wrote the script. I didn’t know you had to talk to people about it.”

Well, some writers, yes. I’ve just had my first book published and that experience was exactly how Frankie described it. I wrote it, handed it over, and apart from a few desultory exchanges about the cover, that was it. Simple and satisfying, if a bit lonely. It didn’t matter if the story jumped from 1958 to 1978, from a terraced house in Lancashire to the moon…. the reader’s mind would paint every scene, no expense involved, no logistics, travel plans, hotels bookings, politics, no need to ask “how will we feed a crew of 70 on the moon?” The petty god of the written word declares it exists and so it does.

Script writing is so very different. It’s a total paradox from beginning to end. In everything I say about the life of the TV dramatist there’s a smidgeon of dissonance if you look hard enough.To give you (and Frankie) some idea of why I need a Zoom with my lovely prods on Monday, here are ten points:

  1. The original idea has to fire me, and excite me, or I can’t write it. But I’m slogging away at it because, like everyone else, I have bills to pay. The sticky problem arises when one threatens the other – when my passion isn’t shared by the producers and commissioners, and when their passions are not mine. Stalemate. No script. So the Zoom will allow us to share passions, to fire each other up with new ideas, to encourage enthusiasm and give a few heads-up on problems or areas of misalignment.
  2. The writer is the origin of the project and everything depends on her work. The corollary is that her work depends on everyone else in the team. However good a script is, however insightful and revealing, it’s no good to man nor beast until other creatives come in – producers, camera crews, designers, wardrobe, locations… the list goes on. This treatment stage is the first step in that process of team building.
  3. No one mind can come up with all the drama and story that’s needed for an entire TV series. For a film, yes. The writer’s mind is enough when there is just one driving story and theme and maybe two hours of screen time. But series? Ahhh, series just gobble up story. But there has to be a discipline, a footprint to the drama, or it flops all over the place like a drowning fish and early meetings establish that discipline.
  4. The treatment, the document I’m working on right now, is the first step into a new world. Without a treatment from which to launch, it’s impossible to be sure that we are all talking about the same beast. We could waste weeks just slightly off-key with each other and not know it until the first draft script is handed over. Every draft of this treatment will differ radically from the last… or could… and that shows how important this first step is. Without careful stewarding it can go wildly off-course.
  5. It’s just as important for the producers to be passionate about the project as the writer is. It’s going to consume at least two years of their lives, their enthusiasm and vision must carry the whole team through all the difficulties and practicalities of production, so they have to be just as crazy about the series as I am and theirs is the financial risk, the grown-up stuff. I cannot drag them along, and they cannot drag me along. We have to be equally yoked (to quote the Bible) and have complete respect for each other at all times… but the writer must always fight for his or her vision. “Fight nicely” as our grannies used to say.
  6. Quite apart from the big decisions like the theme and the “Why are we making it?” question, right at the beginning of any series there are small – some tiny – decisions to be made which will have huge ramifications later on – exactly when is it set (yesterday? a year ago? when the programme airs?) , where will it be set (a real location, or telly-land?), where will it be made (finances decide this, above my pay-grade) what is the tone, the pace, the emotional palette? For these decisions there has to be discussion and agreement, and for most of them – maybe all of them – the producer is the boss. The trick of a good producer is to make the writer feel that they’ve had their way in most things.
  7. When you write a book and send it to a publisher, all he has to do is value the writing and believe there is a market for it. If you were to write a whole TV series , or even one script, and send it to the producer, he would read with a jaundiced eye, knowing it had to meet a dozen criteria and I promise you that – without team input from day one – it would not meet any of them. For example, the writer doesn’t know what the broadcasters and distributors are looking for right now. I might know what they wanted last week, but my producers can ring up any channel commissioner and find out what they want right now, what has just been green-lit, what is about to be, and what has just been dumped. The writer doesn’t always know where the good deals are in the world – is Ireland still the great place for filming? Is there a good welcome in the hillsides in Wales? How about Portugal? And these decisions of course affect the script, the story, the characters, everything.
  8. And finally, on Monday, in our Zoom meeting, we will be talking about story. Story, story, story. I already have the world and the characters and we’re excited about the theme, but you know what? I am crap at story. I am really crap at story. Oh, I have 5 lovely interesting little strands, and it’s a jolly good read , and everyone’s raring to go but it need a big thumping meaty driving lusty story. STORY! I’ve never been good at story.

That’s why we’re having Zoom meeting on Monday. Because I need the team, and they need me. They know I’m rubbish at finding the story, that my work is parochial and personal, small stories, warm laughter, sad moments… not a great big thundering dramatic sweeping adventures. But because we’re a team, I know for certain sure that we will find the story. Together.

Zoom. Zooooooom!!!!!!!!!

And I see now that it’s only 8 points. Numbers are another thing I’m no good at.

How to write a successful TV series? Like I said, with your fingers and yours toes all crossed and an air of total resignation, shot through with passion and determination, overwhelming humility and boundless arrogance plus really brusque impatience, the detachment of a Trappist monk and great warmth. Occasionally wine helps.

May the favour of the Lord our God rest on us; establish the work of our hands for us– yes, establish the work of our hands. Psalm 90:17

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