Thursday, 8 July 2010

360° Festival 2010, Report 4: Writing for TV - Tim Loane

Day 2, part 2.

And after a Tesco’s lunch special, it’s back to the delights of Studio 1. And we were in for a cracking time. Because it was the turn of Tim Loane and his session of writing for TV. Tim has a wealth of TV writing experience. He created and wrote/storylined the first series of the excellent Teachers on C4, wrote all of the new series of Minder for Channel 5, directed an Oscar-winning short film “Dance Lexie Dance”, and has developed many other TV series for the BBC, ITV, etc. He is also an actor and director in TV, film and theatre. So, he keeps himself busy.

Tim started off with a bit of background in how he got into writing, which was basically as an actor who got sick of the scripts he was being presented with, and so decided to have a go himself. Since then he has worked in Radio, Television, Theatre and Film, and he had a LOT of interesting things to say. He was entertaining, full of energy, funny and had a real desire to answer everyone’s questions as fully and as honestly as possible.


TV is, to a large extent, about conforming to the constraints and rules that it sets. You have to think of genre (cop show, sci fi, etc) and fit your story into one of those. Television is about delivering what the audience expects (again in terms of genre, story archetypes, slots, etc). Do you think genre prevents creativity? Are you one of those writers who doesn’t want to conform? Who wants to break the mould? Ok, fine. Go and write poetry! We have to think in terms of genre, not as a straitjacket, but as a spine.


The usual formats are:

Single (90 mins) – basically a film,

2 x 90 mins – those thrillers on Sun/Mons that ITV does sometimes,

Series (Dr Who, CSI or anything with a story of the week and which can, theoretically, go on forever),

Serial (Our Friends in the North – one ongoing story over a set amount of episodes which has a beginning, middle and end),

Serial/Series hybrids (something like The Sopranos, which has lots of serial elements within a series), and I don’t know about you lot, but I think a LOT of shows now fall into this category. How many series these days are REALLY story of the week with NO arc whatsoever?

Soap – EastEnders, Coronation Street, Hollyoaks and Emmerdale are the obvious ones, but what about Casualty/Holby/The Bill/Doctors, which have story of the week and series/soapy elements like the “hybrids” about, the only difference being that they never end.

Telenovela – doesn’t really exist in this country. Very popular in South America and are basically soaps BUT with a definite ending. They go on for 9 months to a year, and then end.


Each channel and every commissioner is really, genuinely trying to find something new, despite what you might think or what you might see on television. BUT you also have to realize that the medium is inherently conservative. So, you have to take all the above (format and genre) into consideration and then study the schedule. See what each channel puts where, and see where yours fits. That’s its home. And it has to fit somewhere, so make sure it does! Otherwise, you are making life very difficult for yourself. Mind you, that did make me think that Tim is talking about a situation where he is pitching ideas as a professional produced writer to commissioners and prod cos within the intention of having them made. How much do we, as spec writers, need to try to conform to the channel/slot idea? Or do we forget about that and try to come up with something original that will stand out, even if it would never get made, so that we get noticed? I suppose we need to try to do both. Easy then….


Is it an art? Is it a craft? The answer is, it’s both. There is no point in trying to design a beautiful building if you don’t know the physics of how to build it.

As a writer you are DESCRIBING the picture, sound and the action. All three. All the time. There is little room for ambiguity. Be VERY clear.

Linear narrative – cause and effect. What happens in this scene causes this and then that in the next scene. If you don’t have ongoing cause and effect in your scene, if the scene doesn’t move the story forward, CUT IT!

Show drama through conflict – SHOW, don’t TELL. Characters, in good writing at least, don’t explain how they feel. We know that by what they DO.

Following on from these three points – sound, pictures, cause and effect, and showing conflict – you should write the dialogue last. It’s the easy part! Don’t be tempted to start writing dialogue before you have sorted out everything else first. And most of all, don’t be fooled into thinking that writing dialogue IS writing. It really does come last.

Screenplay is STRUCTURE. Tim spends weeks and weeks sorting out his structure before writing dialogue. The 3 Act Structure is central. Read Chinatown (try here, or just google it). Read screenplays and analyse them. Are you writing something for TV that is only 30 mins? It doesn’t matter. The principles are the same. You still have to follow the same story structure. If you are writing for commercial television then you also have to take into consideration that the commercial breaks need a narrative or an emotional climax. And it’s better if they have both!

Screenwriting is problem solving. If you want to get to B at minute X (cause there’s a commercial break, or it’s your mid point, or whatever), how do you get there structurally? Answering those questions, solving those problems, aren’t the constraints that TV places on your creativity as a writer, they are what make television what it is, and solving them will make your television writing better. And lead to a script that is more satisfying for the audience.


In another one of those “experience from the coalface” sessions, Tim then filled us in on how Teachers came about. Basically, he had been talking to Channel 4 about a script he had written, a “state of the nation” take on Northern Ireland in the 90s, about a group of young people. Channel 4 liked it, commissioned it, Tim wrote it, got paid, all fab, and then 7 weeks before shooting was due to begin… they got cold feet and cancelled the whole thing. So Tim went home.

Then, Channel 4 got back in touch and said they wanted to use the same type of characters from the State of the Nation piece he had written, but in a series they wanted him to create. Which they wanted to be a returning series. And it needed to be filmed in Bristol, because… because of television politics… I can’t remember if they stipulated that it should be about Teachers or whether he did. Anywayt, he wrote it, they loved it, it got made VERY quickly indeed (cause of the whole Bristol thing, for some reason).

Tim showed us the first 10 mins (which you can see here) and which I advise you to have a look at. It’s great. You get to meet all the main characters, the main plot which will arc through all of that 1st series, get a sense of… no, no… KNOW what the tone and arena of the whole series is/are, and it’s funny and entertaining too. Not bad going! Tim said that the first 10 minutes should:

· Set up tone

· Plot and sub-plots should be established

· Make sure the first 10 minutes are centered around one character, even if the series isn’t.

In terms of developing your episode/film/series, etc, Tim outlined the following, which you may want to do, or which you may be ASKED to do:

Logline: They spent a long time, while developing and writing the series, trying to work out what the core of the series was. Basically, what the logline was. When they got that (“Teachers are as immature as the children they teach”) it informed the whole series, everything fit into place, and they had something to refer back to when deciding on plots, scenes, etc.

Treatment: The story as a short story. NO dialogue.

Step Outline: Write a single line for scenes – this enhances clarity because you see the need or not for that scene.

It is usually at this stage and only at this stage ( or rather, if your idea passes this stage) that you get paid. And you get to write the script!

A little note about writing specific song titles into scripts. It’s fine to do so, to suggest tone, but that particularly song will very likely NOT be used.


They are your best friend. You NEED one, make no mistake, and the real reason you want one is not because they find you work or because they sort out your contracts, but because they know the business better than you. You have to think about the advantages of big agencies against small – big and successful and they know everyone but you are one of many, OR small and more personal approach to your career but may not have the same contacts. Finally, it obviously is a lot easier if you are approaching them, not just with a spec script, but with a contract/job offer already.

Finally, Tim saved the best till last. Three quarters of his work, and his best work, is sitting on a shelf in his office. There are SO many instances of things being commissioned and then not made, falling at various hurdles, at various stages. Still, at least you get paid!

Next time – Radio and Agents….


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