Writing requires practice. And if you want to write TV, you can only learn so much from practising writing features. The two forms are very different beasts, and what works for one doesn’t necessarily work for the other. At the micro level it might. in terms of writing style, but when it comes to plotting, pacing and characterisation, it’s a different ball game entirely. Not only that, but writing a pilot, a midseason episode, a season finale, a series finale are all distinct skill sets – ones that are particularly hard to develop on your own out in the wild.
What this means is that, when you’re given your first assignment for a scripted TV series, you’ll only have learned so much from writing original pilots and spec scripts. You’ll know how to write an episode of TV, sure, but both of those things are islands and your script will be more like the middle part of a track keeping a speeding train from careening out of control. It’s a muscle, and unlike feature writers, it’s one you’ll have a hard time strengthening.
Which is why I think Script Series are a tremendous training tool for writers in scripted television, particularly dramatic (which is where my focus lies). But what exactly are ‘Script Series’?
Script Series is a bit of a waffle term, as they’ve lived under plenty of names. The most prominent player in this space, MZPtv (where I trained) goes for ‘virtual series’, but that goes back to it’s long-ago roots in fanfiction. where these were ‘virtual’ versions of the types of shows you’d fall in love with on TV. How does MZP describe them in their FAQ?
An online series of screenplays that work as a “real” TV show would, just not filmed or put on TV. Each series is written by talented writers from all over the world, sometimes solo, sometimes in a team. A Virtual Series will typically have anywhere between 8 and 24 episode seasons, each episode being a script that represents a 22 minute comedy (around 30 pages) or 42 minute drama (around 55 pages) episode of the show itself.
Thus, they are the script-only equivalent to the kinds of thrilling dramas and gut-busting comedies you’d find on television. Their script-only status, of course, is key because it lowers the budgetary requirement to zero. Anyone willing to invest the time and work can create a series like this, and share it with others, without spending millions of dollars on actors, directors, crew and, yum, craft services.
Which makes for a rather interesting situation. Suddenly, anyone can practice writing episode four of season two, or the season finale of season three, or the series finale of a seven-season run. Amateurs can practice how to pace out a character arc, layer exposition, build to a seasonal climax, or return from a thrilling cliffhanger in a season premiere. And with the wealth of information about screenwriting available on the internet, including a wealth of wisdom from experienced writers, these series could easily be the next step in training for someone sharpening their skills.
It’s a lot of work to do alone, though, and it’s hard to tell if you’re succeeding without an audience to react. That’s why communities like MZPtv, TEN, and theVPN exist, at varying levels of professionalism. Each of these communities offers their writers the chance to tell stories in a way previously reserved for big budget productions. Now, it’s an intimate connection between writer and reader that develops. These communities are a unique result of the rise of the internet and the amateur creator running parallel to the golden age of television and the form of writing for TV gaining respect and renown. Now, twenty year olds can see what the masters do in Mad Men and Breaking Bad; they can rewatch the series over and over to study their brilliance; and they can practice using those techniques on their own without putting an entire series on the line. And if they can get a handful of other writers to help out, they can even emulate (roughly, of course) the process of the television writers room, another key experience that’s now available.
I call them script series (or script-only series) because ‘scripted’ is already used to denote the difference for produced series from their reality counterpart. And unlike the days of yore, I don’t think these shows need to be considered ‘virtual’ versions of the ones on television, especially as we’re seeing webseries with TV-level production values on the same Internet as our script-only series. I’m still looking for a perfect phrase that will crystallise what this concept is and what it means in a couple of words. Regardless of the name, I believe this form of training is a tremendous opportunity for unproven writers out there. And, to be honest, for writers who’ve made a name for themselves: wouldn’t it be great to tell a story separate from production pressures, if there were an audience for it? There’s a small one now, and I see definite growth potential. Scripts can be vivid, sharply realised and with fantastic dialogue, regardless of the form, and the concise prose makes them more readable than many novels.
How They Work
Sometimes, the writers you want to work with are all over the world. For an example, a script series I was involved with where the staff was composed of one Canadian, one Brit, and one Australian. Because of the nature of the Internet, you can bridge the spatial gaps and even compensate for the wild differences in timezones. Using a little technology called the private message board.
Allowing for different threads to encompass different topics, with child boards for focused discussions (say, on Character Arcs or Episode Outlines), the staff can work on the series together and discuss topics from afar without worry. While this holds its own challenges that staffs must compensate for (long conversations while others are offline, for example), it functions very well.
Alternately, everyone you want might be in town, for example fellow students at a university. Wanting to test this format out, I drafted a number of fellow students to attempt this format last summer with weekly meetings. While the pilot project has had a few kinks, largely involving writersroom commitments clashing with final-year project deadlines, I’d say what we’ve done so far has been a rousing success in helping writers practice skills they normally wouldn’t have the opportunity to.
The staff is composed of a showrunner, who fulfils the role of head writer (and typically creator), as well as the final say on any creative decision. It can be a boon to enlist a story editor, who liaisons with any outside ‘freelance’ writers you might engage for the project (learning to freelance can offer its own benefits to a writer). A story editor can also help to keep the showrunner organised and deal with administrative details that, on a television series, a producer might handle. My number two in the writersroom, Karolyn Carnie, has shone in this particular position. Then, the staff; while TV staffs often have a mix of writers with different levels of experience and seniority, your staff would likely include unproven writers with few credits in either established media or script-only series, so it would be a pretty level playing field and offer lots of opportunities for each writers to get involved.
With the showrunner’s steady hand guiding development, giving notes and approving outlines and scripts, etc., the staff proceed to bang out a season of television-style scripts, complete with character arcs, plot arcs, mythology. They can argue over what episodes a crucial recurring character should appear in, and puzzle over the intricacies of the supporting cast’s character development. Collaborative storytelling, and a whole lot of fun too.
Over the next few weeks I’ll be blogging more about this topic and why I think it builds valuable skills in emerging writers, with plenty of war stories from my eight years writing @ MZPtv, TEN, etc. Keep an eye out; I’ve already started a list of topics with relevent anecdotes…