19 Expert tips on writing great stories for Film & TV

The below is a compilation of screenwriting advice from all the sessions I attended at the 2012 Toronto Screenwriting Conference. Since my screenwriting education thus far consists of Syd Field’s Screenplay and Save the Cat I found a lot of tidbits useful – I hope you learn at least 1 new thing about the art of storytelling.

On Story Creation

1. What question are you answering? For example, Flashpoint answers “what is the human cost of heroism?”

  • Man vs. Man B) Man vs. Himself C) Man vs. Animal D) Man vs. Nature E) Man vs. Tech F) Man vs. Society

2.  Ground your story in reality, to make it universal and therefore able to connect with viewers on an emotional level

3.  It’s all about the passion. You have to feel it, as does your producer and everyone else involved in the process

On Structure

4.  Every Scene is a microcosm of the overall story; never repeat yourself scene to scene (Patricia Rozema, Screenplay Adaptation for Grey Gardens)

5.  Narration is a crutch to be used only with caution (Graham Yost, Creator of Justified)

On Character Development

6.  Your character’s introduction scene should tell you everything you need to know about them (Graham Yost)

7.  Get to know your character, specifically who and how do they love? (Patricia Rozema)

Graham Yost at Justified Premiere on FX

After a stint in kids TV, Graham Yost shot to fame with "Speed"

On pilot writing

8.   You should know which character is delivering a line, even when the name is blanked out. The personalities should be that different, which is key for conflict and drama (Brian Roberts, sitcom director)

9.  You shouldn’t vilify your main characters or introduce too many flaws too quickly, since your audience needs to empathize and root for them in order to tune in week to week (Stephanie Morgenstern and Mark Ellis, creators of Flashpoint)

On Series writing

10.  Your first 13 episodes should be written as a pilot. Assume new viewers will tune in each week who need to be blown away, while still understanding what is going on

11.  You need to be consistent week to week in order to make it easy for viewers to choose your show based on their mood (i.e. if your show is funny, viewers who want to laugh will watch). If your show is a mixed bag (sometimes dark, deep, scary, sometimes light and fun), it may not get chosen because the payoff to the viewer is uncertain.

12.  Don’t break the pact you’ve made with your audience by discarding key characters or show elements that made your series a hit to begin with (Jana Sinyor, Creator of Being Erica – on all of the above)

On Comedy writing

13.  Be mindful of your ideal set design and ensure it allows for multiple entries, exits and flow from room to room. What are your characters doing in a long scene with many players, some of which are not talking for quite some time?

14.  Try to “bury the pipe” in a pilot, which means to deliver character and back story in a way that gets laughs and isn’t just obvious exposition and fact sharing.

15.  In multi-camera comedies the rule is 3 jokes per page. Get to the punch line quick.

16.  Avoid reference jokes (i.e. pop culture, political jokes) because if the audience isn’t aware of who/what you are referring to, they won’t get the joke (Brian Roberts, Sitcom Director – all of the above)

On getting noticed

17. Write a great pilot; it will circulate and get read plus your agent can call producers with a potentially sellable product (Robyn Gurney, producer at Imagine Television)

18.  You’ll rarely get hired for the show that you write a spec script for (Linwood Boomer, Creator Malcolm in the Middle)

19.  As a new writer in an established writing room, have the confidence to listen and keep quiet so you get a feel for the existing dynamics, needs and etiquette of the room (Lee Aronsohn, co-creator Two and a Half Men)

Please share your storytelling tips in the comments!

Page Count: 52 pages (working on a borrowed MAC)

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