|Jen knows her stuff|
For more info, check out her website, jengrisanticonsultancy.com or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her bio is at the end of this post.
WHEN WRITING SCRIPTS, MANY YOUNG WRITERS HAVE GOOD IDEAS BUT DON'T KNOW HOW TO BEGIN. WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR THEM?
I like writers to start with an exercise called Log Line For Your Life and then move on to writing a log line for their story. The purpose of the exercise is to get writers to learn to draw from their emotional well. Once you identify some universal life moments, you add some fiction to the story while coming from a place of emotional truth. This is where the gold is.
Your log line is your road map and it tells you if your story will or won't work. It's important that your log line involve an emotional hook and a twist of irony. I like to tell writers to set it up as 'who, dilemma, action and goal.' This is a way of organizing their story lines in the briefest form possible to have the strongest emotional effect.
WHAT MISTAKES DO YOUNG WRITERS MOST OFTEN MAKE? WHAT CAN BE DONE TO FIX THEM?
One of the biggest mistakes young writers make is their writing portfolio doesn't support their goal. When writing a spec or a pilot script, the first thing to consider is where would you would like to be staffed. So pick the shows you want to work for and write to support this goal.
With spec scripts, the biggest mistake is they write scripts that reflect how they wish the show was versus how it actually is. To avoid this, I recommend writers first do a show breakdown, where you write a sentence describing each scene and what happens at the act breaks. This will give you a strong idea of that show's formula. At that point, start your story establishing a powerful dilemma and stem it into a strong goal. Act outs should reflect back to your goal with an obstacle, escalating obstacle, an "all is lost" moment and resolution. Most importantly, we should always see the external goal being accomplished.
With pilots, the biggest mistake is a lack of balance between character and plot. Even the most experienced writers still have trouble getting this balance. Many writers also wait too long to set up their series or forget to set it up entirely.
WHAT SHOWS BEST EXEMPLIFY WHAT YOU TEACH ABOUT WRITING?
I love this show because the writing is absolutely brilliant. The characters are all complex, flawed and very interesting. It allows people in their 30s and 40s to see what life was like for their parents. It transports us to a period we can connect with and presents us with the emotional journey of a relatable family. The story-telling stands out because of its incredible use of theme and symbolism.
FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS
This show pushes the envelope of what it's like to grow up in a small town, including scandals and traumas we can connect with emotionally. The backdrop of football is a reflection of how we play the game on the field versus how we play the game of life. Each episode gives us something to root for on many levels. The writing for this show is impeccable.
I love this show because the family dynamics, the characters and the issues explored are something we can all relate to. It also represents the reality that there is no one definition of a "normal" nuclear family. Family is who shows up and is there for one another. It explores strong universal themes and has a great brand of humor.
[Ed Note: Due to space, I've limited descriptions to three shows. But Grisanti also recommends Glee, Blue Bloods, Parenthood and The Good Wife.]
IS IT WORTH WRITING A SPEC? OR IS IT BEST TO ONLY WRITE PILOTS?
A writer should always have one current spec script in their portfolio. While most showrunners prefer originals, some showrunners only read spec scripts. A writer should also have 2-3 original pieces in their portfolio. This can include both pilots and/or features that reflect a strong, original voice.
WHAT ARE SOME THINGS YOU RECOMMEND PEOPLE DO TO BREAK THROUGH AND GET SOME RECOGNITION?
I definitely recommend writing programs. Writing programs are very well structured and a tremendous way to break in. I also recommend writing competitions because it's a great thing to add to your bio if you place in them. As far as things like YouTube, it's all about being creative and going after it. You create your destiny.
OBVIOUS PLUG TIME. TELL US ABOUT YOUR BOOK STORYWISE WORKBOOK: STORY STRUCTURE FOR THE TV SPEC AND PILOT SCRIPT.
This book is full of hands on information where I break down several current shows that make strong specs including The C Word, Detroit 187, Glee and Modern Family. The book will help you break down story structure for each of these shows and will show you how you can learn from them to improve your writing. I give my formula of how to structure TV spec and pilots scripts in a way that will make your script stand out.
I also have a book coming out in March 2011 called Story Line: Finding Gold In Your Life Story. It's about adding fiction to your truth in your writing. It goes deeply into my philosophy on how to tell a strong story on all platforms. It is available for pre-sale now on Amazon.
WHAT ARE NETWORKS AND STUDIOS LOOKING FOR THESE DAYS?
There has definitely been a trend of shows with complex/flawed leads who have a secret (eg., Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Big Love) as well as edgy, character-driven stories like The C Word. At the networks, family shows have made a tremendous comeback with the success of Modern Family, Parenthood and Friday Night Lights. Procedurals are also getting in on the family action with the success of The Good Wife and Blue Bloods.
The best way to get an idea of what is being bought is to go to the trades, IMDBPro or TVTracker. This will help to give the writer knowledge on what the brand of each network is and what they're buying that year.
ANYTHING ELSE? FOR EXAMPLE, "REALITY PROGRAMMING SUCKS AND IT KEEPS MANY QUALITY WRITERS OUT OF WORK."
I think that the trend for reality is beginning to fade. Scripted programs are better now than they've ever been. I don't have anything against reality shows. I think that scripted writers can learn a lot character wise. If you study the back story of some popular reality shows characters, it could give the scripted writers ideas.
Jen Grisanti is a Story Consultant, Independent Producer, Writing Instructor for NBC's Writers on the Verge, Blogger for The Huffington Post and author of the upcoming book, Story Line: Finding the Gold In Your Life Story.
Jen Grisanti started her career as an assistant to Aaron Spelling 15 years ago. Aaron was her mentor for the next 12 years as she climbed the ranks and eventually ran Current Programs at Spelling Television Inc., covering all of Spelling’ s shows including Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place and Charmed. In 2004, Jen was promoted to Vice President of Current Programs at CBS/Paramount where she covered shows including Medium, Numbers, NCIS, 4400 and Girlfriends.
In January 2008, Jen launched Jen Grisanti Consultancy Inc., a consulting firm dedicated to helping talented writers break into the industry. Her website is http://jengrisanticonsultancy.com and can be reached at email@example.com