WRITERS’ ROOM 101: TV Writing in the Internet Age

Eric Haywood has spent over a decade writing for network and premium cable television series including ABC’s Private Practice, Showtime’s Soul Food, NBC’s Hawaii, and the Fox drama Empire. Follow Eric on Twitter at @EricHaywood.

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WRITERS' ROOM 101: TV Writing in the Internet Age by Eric Haywood | Script MagazineFor screenwriters, the internet can be a real headache sometimes.

Sure, it has an amazing upside: you can Google almost anything you want almost anytime you want, making research a breeze. Need to find the perfect Hamlet quote for your screenplay, or the atomic weight of hydrogen, or the birthplace of the 22nd President of the United States? (Spoiler alert: it’s Caldwell, New Jersey.) The answers are right at your fingertips. You can even find interviews with your favorite professional screenwriters, and download actual produced scripts to use as reference material.

All things considered, the internet’s good probably outweighs its bad. But let’s not kid ourselves: the bad does exist. And like the good stuff, it’s constantly lurking just a few keyboard-clicks away.

We all know that Hollywood is built upon a foundation of illusion, mystery, and suspension of disbelief. Giving audiences less information, not more, about how movies and TV shows are made builds curiosity and triggers a deeper level of emotional investment than pulling back the curtain and revealing every step of the process – at least, that’s the theory.

But Hollywood’s preference for withholding information brings it into opposition with the internet, which, like nature, abhors a vacuum. So the more studios, networks, producers, and writers attempt to conceal things, the more curious people become – and the more determined they are to find out everything they can. Whether or not this actually detracts from or enhances the viewing experience is up for debate. But the fact remains: people want to know stuff.

So how does all this affect you, the up-and-coming television writer? Well, it becomes yet another thing you’ll need to learn that you probably won’t find in a how-to screenwriting book.

In Des Doyle’s excellent documentary Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show (which I previously reviewed for this blog), and Tara Bennett’s companion book of the same name, the point is made that prior to the debut of ABC’s Lost in 2004, the general public was mostly unaware of the existence of showrunners and writing staffs. TV shows just sort of materialized out of thin air, and people watched them or didn’t watch them, and that was that.

Suddenly (again, thanks to the internet), everyone had access to more behind-the-scenes information than ever before. Lost’s status as a cool, buzz-worthy show with a brain-teaser of a mystery woven into its concept ignited the curiosity of millions of people, who wanted to know anything and everything they could about it. And so, not only did we frantically piece together details about Oceanic Flight 815 and Hugo’s lottery numbers and the polar bear (wait…what?), a sudden interest in the people who made this amazing show happen also emerged.

Next thing you know, Lost’s showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse became household names. Many of their peers (Shonda Rhimes, Shawn Ryan, and Ryan Murphy, to name but a few) began moving into the spotlight as well. And then audiences dug a little deeper and learned that these folks didn’t just sit and write every episode of their respective TV shows on their own; they had teams of writers working for them. We were now living in a new era, one in which direct interaction between fans and a show’s creators, actors, and writers was allowed and even encouraged.

And here’s where it gets tricky, because now you’ve got an ongoing tug-of-war between audiences who want as much information as they can get (and they’d like it right now, thank you very much) and TV’s behind-the-scenes creators, who have a vested interest in not divulging too much.

If you have an internet presence of your own, it’s likely that both fans and critics of the show you’re writing for will land on your digital doorstep. Some will offer kind words (“Great job on last week’s episode!”) while others will be a bit less polite (“You guys are ruining what used to be my favorite show!”). Occasionally someone will pitch you story and/or casting ideas (“You know who’d be GREAT playing the main character’s long-lost evil twin?”). And there will be no shortage of people who’ve diagnosed your shows perceived faults and will tell you how to get things back on track (“Here’s what you need to do to win me back as a viewer…”).

My advice? Steer clear of all of this. Ignore as much of it as you possibly can. Nothing good can come from getting into an internet pissing contest with a disgruntled viewer. Conversely, while we all love having our work praised, letting yourself believe the hype of too much positive feedback can be an equally dangerous game.

How you deal with social media is ultimately up to you. Some writers are more comfortable with it than others, and some prefer no social media presence at all. But it’s become an aspect of working in television that you’ll most likely have to contend with in one way or another.

No show can exist without a fanbase, so on some level, you’ve got to be thankful for any degree of viewer feedback. On the other hand, always keep in mind that the show you’re working on isn’t your show. It ultimately belongs to the showrunner, the network, and the studio. And one wrongly-worded tweet or Facebook post from you can give the impression that you’re the show’s de facto spokesperson, which could then invite more unsolicited commentary. Worst case scenario, it could land you in hot water with your bosses and impact your employment.

So before you hit “Send,” ask yourself if it’s worth it.

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