TV Insights, Observations and Obsessions from the NYTVF
Check out our Q&A series with Fest Founder Terence Gray (and others), designed to provide submitting artists and TV fans with insight to the current development landscape. If you're thinking about submitting to the NYTVF, this is for you.
Siobhan Byrne O'Connor, writer and co-EP of Blue Bloods, talks drama writing
On Monday, March 31, the NYTVF and IFP presented a conversation aimed at filmmakers and indie creators looking to work in television, with a specific focus on drama producing and writing. NYTVF Founder Terence Gray sat down with Siobhan Byrne O'Connor, a writer and co-executive producer on CBS's Blue Bloods with almost 20 years of television experience. During the hour-long conversation, many topics were discussed and frankness was the name of the game. Here are a few things that came up:
It's Good to Be a Squeaky Wheel
Ms. O'Connor spoke again and again about persistence, especially when starting out in television and when looking for an agent:
- Call everyone you can think of, keep notes on what they say, and call again. If they ask you to call back in two weeks, call back in two weeks.
- The easiest way to get in the door in television is to be an assistant. If you're interested in production, become a PA; if you want to be a writer, get into a writers room at the bottom level. People will be more willing to listen to you if you're already in the door.
- Make relationships and ask for advice.
- Find an agent that likes your work. You may need to say 'yes' to the first agent or manager that wants to work with you, but realize that your first agent doesn't need to be your last agent. Find people that want to work with you because of who you are as a writer, actor, producer, etc.
If Your First 10 Pages are Bad, No One is Going to Keep Reading
As a writer, you should spend as much time on your script as you can, but take special care with your first 10 pages. If you grab a reader in the cold open, they will be more willing to overlook weaknesses later, but the opposite is not true. Also, when approaching someone with your work (either to get an agent or to get a job), have both spec and original scripts. A spec script (a script that you write for a television show that is currently on the air) shows that you can work within the style and form of an established series and characters. An original script shows your talent as a writer, your voice, and your ability to craft compelling characters and move them in interesting directions.
Use the Real World for Inspiration
When creating characters, try to imagine them as real people. Cast them with real actors or people in your life, so that the dialogue and action feel real. Also, don't describe your character too fully. You'll find that the character will reveal more about himself or herself as you write. Also, if you're writing about real events, talk to real people and experts. Ms. O'Connor mentioned a few times that she approached cops on the street to ask their opinions about stories she was writing. Often, experts are happy to share information (when you mention that you're a writer) and can give info and tidbits that lead a script in a new, better direction.
Know the Show You're Working On
Ms. O'Connor has worked for all different types of series, and the key to being successful in a new position on an existing show is knowing the series. If you're hired to be a writer, PA, or anything on an existing series, watch the show and try to understand the mechanics (how stories are broken out, what a typical episode looks like, where the twists and character moments work in). When she was a writer for Law and Order: Criminal Intent, she mentioned the fact that every episode only follows one story, so each script was 40 scenes that were a progression of events. With Blue Bloods, there are multiple storylines at play, so there is a different balance. Understand the world you're working in.
Don't Get Tied Down To Your First Idea
This is true of every stage of development. When writing characters, don't just write what you think of first. Often, a character that feels right to you will feel that way because it's been on television a hundred times before. Think of the opposite of your instincts and imagine how the script would change. Think about the 'what ifs', even if you don't use any of them. Simply expanding your character and plot palette can lead to a richer, more fully realized script. Also, if you're on a writing staff, don't get tied down in what you think the other writers/actors/directors want to see. Think critically, and realize that television is collaborative and you are an important part of that collaboration.
Write an Outline
The best way to cure writer's block is to never get it. When breaking a story, make an outline. That way, if you're stuck on a specific part, you can move on to a different section (which you already have mapped out) and go back to the sticky section later. Make index cards, get a whiteboard-- do what you need to do in order to add structure to the writing process.
Thank you so much to Ms. O'Connor, IFP, and everyone who attended. We look forward to seeing what you create next.
If you're looking for a destination for your next great drama project, consider submitting to the NYTVF's annual Independent Pilot Competition. Official Selections will be eligible to win any of this year's Development Deals, including a $45,000 Deal from Lionsgate Television and Channel 4 UK.
Check out previous downloads here:
NYTVF Alum Danny Abrahms - 3/21/14 | Drama Advice - 3/13/14 | Advice from Chicago - 3/10/14 | Unscripted LA Panel - 2/25/14 | Drama Development - 2/20/14 | MSN Development - 2/12/14 | Casting - 2/5/14 | The Network Development Process - 1/29/14 | History Development - 1/15/14 | Comedy Formats - 3/18/13 | A&E Pipeline - 4/3/13| Fox Script Contest - 4/10/13 | From Film to TV - 5/17/13 | Lifetime Unscripted - 9/4/13