TV Drama Structure: Why TV Is the Future, and How to Write for It

Screenwriting teacher and story coach John Truby explains why Television is the best game in town for writers and what special story requirement the medium requires.

Mad Men

Every writer who dreams of working professionally in the worldwide entertainment business should be interested in writing for television. Why? The best writing in America is done on TV. Writers control the medium, so your talent is more likely to be recognized and rewarded. And with the proliferation of cable channels, and now the Internet (Netflix), creating scripted shows, television is where the jobs are.

To master story as it is practiced in television, and have the best chance of breaking into this medium, you have to study the top TV dramas and tease out the story problems that writers of these shows solve day in and day out. Ability to solve story problems quickly, and with originality, is the single most important quality of a professional television writer.

In this era when the serial drama is king, what a showrunner is looking for in hiring a staff writer is: can this person not only break the story of an individual episode, but also help sequence the stories of all the episodes to build an incredible dramatic season? Let’s take a look at some of this year’s Emmy nominees for Best Drama.

Mad Men has been the best-written show on television since its debut (with four Emmy wins for Best Drama in the last five years). Mad Men is an epic historical drama, with multiple characters and story lines, all focused around an emblematic main character, ad man Don Draper. The central story challenge for the writers turns on the desire line of the show, or lack thereof. The reason the vast majority of shows in the history of television involve cops, lawyers and doctors is that these characters all have a clean, quantifiable desire line – solve the crime, win the case, save the patient. But Mad Men is set in a business. So what’s the desire for the episode, or, for that matter, the season? The goals in the ad business are ever-changing, and all the major characters have their own personal, often hidden, agendas.

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