Thursday, July 9, 2009

How TV Writing Helps My Novel Writing

My writing partner and I recently finished our second 13 part television drama series. The first one was written for PSI Botswana and focuses on issues around HIV/AIDS, while the second one is the second series of a very popular local show called Re Bina Mmogo. In both, large groups of people had input in everything we wrote. In the PSI drama, we had the PSI staff but also the umbrella body for HIV/AIDS organisations which were funding the project. With Re Bina Mmogo we did not write the first series, so had to interact extensively with those scripts and their writer as well as the two companies that are producing and directing the series.

Of course in addition to that, writing collaboratively with my partner adds another dimension. The point I'm trying to make is that television writing is a team effort. Everyone from the writers at the beginning until the actor at the end will have input in the final words that are spoken and the final images that are seen. The end product is a result of every one's vision.

In some ways this is frustrating. When you have a clear idea of what you want, it is hard to see that tampered with. But at the same time, sometimes that collaboration brings out something much better than what you originally had in mind, it opens your eyes to new ways to approach the material.

In novel writing, you are the god, except of course for that editor buzzing in your ear a bit further down the line, but for the most part it is the work of one person. This can be good but it also has its downside. Before I wrote for television, it was very difficult for me to accept changes to my work.

There is an interesting discussion on the blog Three Guys One Book about television writing versus novel writing, in particular the literary novel. One of the guys, Jason Chambers has this to say:

Let's talk about TV and TV writing some more, because I think there is a completely different dynamic to novel writing, in that it is much more intensely collaborative, in contrast to the more solitary novel writer. On a writing staff, you might have the experience of 4 or 6 or however many very good writers bouncing ideas off each other, one-upping each other, improving each scene. Take a musical perspective, Lennon's ok, McCartney's ok, but together they are great, because they have someone to say - that's crap Paul, start over, or try it this way. And don't let Yoko sing, John, please. A few people are Dylan, but even those need an editor

This group way of working improves the product but also taught this writer to not be so precious with what she writes, to accept that there are other ways of doing things and of seeing things. This was an important step for me. I think it has allowed me to improve my novel writing.

Another important thing I have learned while writing for television has been how to create and maintain tension and drama, how to leave viewers hanging for a minute or two (or longer sometimes) so as to up the anty a bit. This carries over well to novel writing. In the end, they both are ways to use words to entertain people.

I'm happy I've had a chance to write for television. Though I often shout and scream at the collaborative process, I know in the majority of cases it makes the scripts better and in the end improves all of my writing.


Elizabeth Bradley said...

You put this so well. I have written scripts for commercial purposes, and it's always a group process. I learned what you learned, changes can be GOOD. But then, sometimes the group process can be so frustrating, when you have to fight to keep the script in tact, when you know that it was written correctly the first time. But, that said, when what you're writing is pushing a product the client is King. I can imagine that writing scripts involving such a sensitive and medical subject as Aids and HIV would be trickier than anything I've had to deal with. Great post, very informative.

bonitadelrey said...

Yes, some changes can be good, even great. Some lead to an entirely unexpected, and wonderful, final product. After decades of writing for large publishers of educational materials—paper and electronic media—I've seen final manuscript totally scrapped more times than I'd care to count. I've become somewhat philosophical about client-directed changes, after all, that's where the checks come from!
Some writers describe clients as 'dress shopping.' They can't describe what they want, they'll only know it when they see it! The only aggravation is the client who huffs and puffs, demanding changes to a manuscript that follows original guidelines to the letter. If only they would say, "Why yes, this is exactly what we asked for, but now that we see it, it's not what we want! Rewriting would be so much easier.