Lessons from this screenwriting gig

the_double_dutch_fight__animated__by_jaycasey-d5ev2soIt will surprise no one that I am learning all kinds of things from this Adaptation Lab I’ve been on with the CFC and EOne for the past six months. I think they are making me a better writer in all my writing endeavours and I want to share some of that edification here.

  1. Scenes need to do more than one thing. They need to move the case forward of course, but they should also reveal things about your characters as they progress through their arc for the episode. Also, if you can subtly share things about your ‘world’ in a scene, for example, “Portia is overwhelmed by the bread line as it wound its way around the block,” puts you in the Great Depression better than explicitly saying it.
  2. Scenes should end with a question. I would extend that to chapters in books because ending a chapter with a question gives the reader a reason to ‘turn the page.’
  3. Bring up the themes again and again in new ways. Unlike books, I find writing for TV requires more themes that parallel each other through different characters in the show. So yes, Portia is an outsider, but her clients are outsiders as well, and there are lots of reminders of her ‘outsider-ness’ throughout the episode.
  4. Minimize the number of characters and differentiate their names. Unlike books where if you forget who someone is you can go back a few pages and remind yourself, once the episode starts, you’re rolling along and your audience doesn’t want to rewind. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but I’ve received it as a note a few times.

Writing a series bible

One of the items on my list of things to deliver for this CFC/EOne Adaptation lab this summer is a bible for my TV series. I haven’t really talked about it yet because I’ve been focused on learning how to write for TV, and sharing with you, my lovely followers, the process of taking the Portia Adams Adventures and adapting it for the small screen.

But as I make decisions about characters and their respective arcs, I am adding to a document that will eventually become the series bible. 

As I do this I find that I am adding what might be described as ‘commandments’ that come from my own TV watching.

For example:

Thou shall balance victims between male and female.

This is one of my serious peeves (not a pet one at all). Most cop shows you watch these days feature a majority of victims of the female persuasion. That does not count towards the Bechdel test by the way, just including a gorgeous dead body on the floor is not an acceptable way to include women in your script.

Thou shall avoid stereotypical gender crimes.

Have you ever noticed that every accused husband featured on a program is a cheater? Or that every accused woman is revenging herself on said cheater? Or every good looking woman is too stupid to be careful in her choices? Not here. Not on this TV show. If it’s stereotypical, turn it on its head or drop it.

Thou shall include people of color in non-token rolls

This is especially hard when you’re writing a 1930s pulp fiction, but I am determined to represent the diversity that existed in London at the time. Asher Jenkins is one example of that diversity, but I want to open up the ally, victim and suspect lists to include all colors and backgrounds. I actually need to do this more in the books as well.

What do you guys think? Do you have some commandments to add to my TV bible?

Starting that pilot over

Animator_LOW-500x0Ok, so the feedback from the production company is that there were elements of my pilot outline that they really liked, but the mystery I chose (with Viscount Snowden and his wife) was not one of them.

So, back to the drawing board we go!

The ‘notes’ as they are called in TV-land are that the thing they love about Portia is her outsider status – as a Canadian in London, as a woman in a man’s field, that kind of thing. They would like the first case she takes on to be demonstrative of that lens.

What kind of cases would Portia be attracted to given her background?

What observations would she make because of her outsider lens?

What crime would seem important to her and the subjects because of their shared experiences?

I’ve also been thinking about my personal connection to Portia (thanks to my friend Kathryn for suggesting it) and the whole idea of ‘passing’ for white. Maybe I can incorporate that into the pilot as well.

So here I go again my friends, into the breach. See you on the other side.


Breaking a pilot

I’ve started the process of ‘breaking’ the pilot.  According to the multitude of books I’ve now read on writing for TV (that post is coming soon), breaking an episode is about breaking down the elements of the story. There are lots of different stages to breaking an episode, and it varies depending on your experience and the demands of the network, but I decided to start with breaking down my characters and what had to come out of them in the pilot:

Katie-McGrath-asPortiaWhat happens to Portia in this pilot?

Portia Adams discovers her connection to 221 Baker Street, and takes on her first case trying to find prostitutes that are going missing in the Whitechapel district of London.

What is the first thing to know about Portia? She is alone.

What do we need to reveal about Portia in the pilot?

  • She is alone and without options
  • She is highly intelligent
  • She has trust issues
Irene JonesWhat happens to Adler in this pilot?

Adler is finally able to reveal herself to Portia, her granddaughter, she begins her campaign of making Portia a social darling.

What is the first thing to know about Adler?  That she is a tough old broad.

What do we need to reveal about Adler in the pilot?

  • Demonstrate her extreme loyalty to Portia (above all else)
  • Demonstrate her disregard for legality
  • Demonstrate her intelligence
 BrianWhat happens to Brian in this pilot?

Brian is confronted with the corruption at Scotland Yard, and meets Portia Adams, and starts helping her with her case.

What is the first thing to know about Brian?  That he is a smart rookie detective with high morals.

What do we need to reveal about Brian in the pilot?

  • His lifelong admiration of Holmes and Watson
  • His love for his family
  • His instant attraction to Portia
MichaelsWhat happens to Michaels in this pilot?

Michaels is also dealing with the corruption at Scotland Yard, and will have a fight with a lawyer over missing evidence.

What is the first thing to know about Michaels?  That his job is everything. He has nothing else, so it’s the most important thing in his life.

What do we need to reveal about Michaels in the pilot?

  • Demonstrate that his job is the most important thing in his life
  • Reveal his hatred for Holmes
  • Demonstrate his distrust of Portia
'Bruiser' Jenkins

What happens to Jenkins in this pilot?

Jenkins and Adler are working on a minor blackmail scheme.

What is the first thing to know about Jenkins?  His loyalty to Adler and their friendship is tantamount.

What do we need to reveal about Jenkins in the pilot?

  • He loves Adler (maybe as more than a friend)
  • He’s a criminal with a past
  • He’s someone Portia can trust
Picture shows: RICHARD ARMITAGE as ThorntonWhat happens to Gavin in this pilot?

He is paid off to corrupt a key piece of evidence in a case against a local politician.

What is the first thing to know about Gavin? He is brilliant and corrupt.

What do we need to reveal about Gavin in the pilot?

  • His intelligence
  • His disdain for everyone else’s intelligence or contribution
  • His attraction to Portia

Workshop at the Canadian Film Centre

Last week I had the opportunity to workshop my TV pilot with the teams at EOne and the Canadian Film Centre (CFC) at their North York campus location. First of all, it’s a gorgeous place to spend a week, just take a look:

E.P. Taylor’s historic Windfields Estate in Toronto, otherwise known as CFC’s campus

Secondly, we (Kat Sandler, Michael Stewart and I) met with a fantastic range of writers and producers who took us through the stages of adapting our work for television.

Al MacGee, Lynn Coady, Martin Gero, David Shore, Morwyn Brebner and Michael MacLennan all gave us so much to think about and were incredibly open about their own journeys.

Now all we have to do is write! Next post will be about the pilot shows I’ve been watching to break them down into their act structure (thanks to Al and his day of deconstructing).

Announcement: I’m Writing a TV Pilot!

I’ve recently been given the opportunity to write a pilot for a Portia Adams Adventure TV Series, and I’ve decided to add this process to my website as well, in the hopes that fans find the development of interest.

The journey begins at the Toronto Screenwriting Conference, where I attended several fascinating sessions.

whiteboardStephen Falk gave a great demonstration of how to break down a season into acts that I’m excited to put into action. I got a chance to speak to him after his talk about pilots, and he had some specific tips and tricks for me.
The session with Nicole Clemens of F/X was a little less useful to me specifically, but interesting.
Glen Mazzara’s breakdown of Damien was fascinating. He played the first episode for us but paused every few beats to explain how each scene developed.
The session that really made it hard to sleep that night, though, was Corey Mandell’s TV Series Engine. His By Association concept is one I’d like to try, in conjunction with the 3-act process Falk demonstrated.