Writing The TV Drama Series (4th edition) by Pamela Douglas (book review).

October 23, 2018 | By | Reply More

Having started this book, ‘Writing The TV Drama Series (4th edition)’ by Pamela Douglas, I have to address why I didn’t read the three earlier editions. I think I mistook it to be about standard dramas rather than including our genre. As it turns out, Pamela Douglas regularly mentions many genre shows. The important point she makes is that TV dramas is invariably about relationships and the rest is what your audience is interested in that brings them in. This fourth edition now includes the likes of Netflix and how it has changed the shape of TV writing and where stories haven’t got to be built around advert breaks. Not much change for us British audiences familiar with the BBC over here.

The introduction by showrunner John Wells sums up that you don’t suddenly become a TV writer and your apprenticeship takes mostly up to a decade before you know all the ropes even after attending classes. Douglas says it takes that long to develop a CV that people will know who are which makes a lot of sense. As a TV scriptwriter, you always have some TV pilots prepared for when you’re asked but it is important to get that vital foot through the door.

If you’re any good, then it will happen, especially with so many avenues opening now. I did wonder if the American model applies in the UK and further into the book, Douglas references some UK shows and later 15 countries, including my own. In some respects, the USA is modelling their shorter seasons on something which is approaching our normal length seasons because it costs less money and packs more into 13 than 22 episodes. I wonder how long it will be before they can do a 6-parter on a regular basis.

This book is engrossing in explaining everything from getting a pilot episode made and the time elements involved and why it takes two years with no guarantee that it will succeed into a series. Douglas is honest with your expectations and from her own experiences. The important aspect now is to work as part of a team in episode development before writing the drafts.

It would hardly be surprising of me to say that in terms of building up a plot structure, there is are many similarities between writing a script and writing prose, although it’s a lot easier to change the latter if you have a better idea. For TV, you risk not telling your showrunner at the cost of your job.

I do understand why the American team writing means you keep up with what is going on in the office and with the actors but it does make me wonder how the more introverted writers can get on in such an environment.

If you want to get a combined page structure that you need to abide by and why together, see pages 77-78 and engrave them on your wall or at least keep a hardcopy there to remind you what is needed. The list of mistakes to avoid is equally useful and throws away a lot of myths.

The examples of how writers worked up from the ground to the higher ranks will show you it is possible if you live in LA. Being an assistant first looks like the best way in to understanding the office structure.

As mentioned earlier, the penultimate and largest chapter examines 15 different countries round the world and how they make TV shows is essential reading. When you bear in mind that the early editions of this book has been translated into 6 other languages, I suspect the readers there will also glean the most information and comparisons. Douglas apologises for not including Australia, Canada, Russia and several European countries but she could afford to travel everywhere.

Something I would like to correct about the UK section. The main channels, BBC and ITV, didn’t actually give up on buying American shows. When the American shows were auctioned, the pay digital channels saw them as the means to get viewers and offered more money and got them instead even as loss-leaders. The upswing of that is that we now get a lot more quality home product than we used to and a lot of foreign language films in the graveyard hours.

It was interesting seeing Douglas use the example of the British series ‘Shameless’ considering it finished a couple years ago until it came to translation into other countries and how their customs necessitated omitting certain areas. It would be interesting to see what happened to the Turkey version which would only leave a minute of script per episode.

Something I was surprised by was that Nigeria has a bigger movie industry than America, which is third and India is first.

This book is a mine full of information and I can understand why it got to a fourth edition and likely to be more after that. It does also indicate that a lot of people want to become scriptwriters, regardless of the country. If you see scriptwriting as a career opportunity then you would be stupid to ignore this book. Read and learn and understand the lines.

GF Willmetts

October 2018

(pub: Michael Wiese Productions. 275 page small enlarged paperback. Price: $ (US), £ (UK). ISBN: 978-1-61593-293-1)

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Category: Books, Movie books

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About UncleGeoff

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’
If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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