Script Coverage Chronicles – September 2017: TV Writing; Working With Formula

When creating a TV series, one of the things you need to decide is how “formulaic” you want the show to be.

When a show is new and still largely unformed, it can feel good to carefully delineate how each episode will play out.  

Imagine you’re doing a crime drama about the three little pigs.  If you’re a writer hooked on formula, your pitch bible might lay out each episode this way:

Each episode begins with the three little pigs having breakfast.  Ironically, the breakfast always consists of a different kind of pork product.

After breakfast, the three little pigs head to work each day seeking their fortune.  Each of the pigs works in their respective fields: a straw farmer, a carpenter and a bricklayer; and in each episode, one of the pigs has a subplot involving trouble at work.

This “trouble” always turns out to be the product of the big bad wolf’s evil schemes.

The three pigs invariably differ on how to stop the wolf.  The know-it-all brick laying pig always thinks he’s right when ironically the other two pigs have worthwhile ideas.

Ultimately the three pigs always decide to work together, and it’s together that they foil the wolf’s dark plans right outside one of their homes.

Also, the three pigs are all in love with the wolf’s sister, and in each episode this causes additional conflict.

Yes, it’s an absurd example, but I see this kind of formulaic approach all the time.

It’s so tempting.  You want execs to understand exactly how your show ticks.  And readers do often respond to this kind of thing very positively, at least at first.  It sounds like it could work.  It feels like a formula like this will make the writing easier.

The thing is: It doesn’t.

When you sit down to write the episodes, you realize that it makes the writing much harder – sometimes impossible.

You come up with a great arc for a character, but it doesn’t fit your story formula.  You have a killer opening for your three pigs pilot, but unfortunately it doesn’t involve breakfast.  You come up with ten great ideas, but they just don’t fit. Before long, you’ll find yourself abandoning the formula and wondering if you have a series at all.

Am I saying never use formulas? 


I’m saying be very carful with formulaic pitch documents.  You need to make sure you can execute.  Write the pilot and then write two more episodes.  Can you actually build stories based on this blue print?

A big problem with the three pigs example above is:  How many times can you make it work?  How many problems can crop up at the jobs these pigs have?  How many evil wolf schemes can cause these problems?  And how many ways can you prepare pork?  A formula like this isn’t likely at all to fuel season after season of a hit series.

If you want to save yourself lots of narrative headaches, keep your formulas as broad and open as possible. 

Formulas that use words like “always” and “in each episode” can really tie your hands. 

And formulas that state how and/or where each episode will begin or end can be particularly restrictive.  Openings and endings are crucial and difficult, and in most cases you want to give yourself lots of freedom.

We can all think of popular shows that did great things with formula.  House and Law and Order come immediately to mind.  Some narratives do benefit from formula.  The key is to think hard about whether your particular series would benefit from being more open.