Who’s Going to Hollywood?
A Hollywood veteran teaches the art in the craft of television writing.
One reason television writer Dianne Messina Stanley recently returned to the University of Illinois was for the ocean—the waves of cornstalks that are more calming to her than Malibu beach at low tide. After 30 years in Los Angeles, she has a soft spot for big skies, slower lifestyles, and the down-to-earth qualities of the Midwesterners around whom she grew up and attended college.
There is a real goodness to Midwesterners, she says, somewhat embarrassed at her own generalization. “I don’t know...they’re loyal...they tend to have a strong work ethic...I think they bring a lot of heart to their storytelling.”
“Heart” is what this LAS alumna would like to see more of in Hollywood, an industry known for demanding long hours of its writers and offering no job security. Still, she truly loves her job, which she describes as endlessly interesting, and she would like to help open doors for other Midwestern writers. That’s why last fall she taught U of I’s first-ever TV scriptwriting how-to course.
“I don’t think everything in Hollywood should be written by people from the East or West coasts,” says Stanley, a former history and journalism major who has logged more than 300 hours of writing and producing prime-time TV comedies and dramas, such as Archie Bunker’s Place, The Jeffersons, Knots Landing, Judging Amy, and, currently, Army Wives. “I wanted students here to at least realize that writing for the large screen or small was an option for them.”
Craft, Not Art
Writing for TV is a group activity, Stanley says. A team of six to 10 writers gather daily in an unadorned “writers’ room” where together they spin the storylines for a year’s worth of episodes—who dies, who gets divorced, who gets a break. Smaller writing teams—usually one to two people—take turns being the scriptwriters, withdrawing from the larger group to compose the upcoming episode, while the rest of the team focuses on the storyline for the following show. Then the scriptwriter or writers rejoin the larger group for feedback.
If you are a writer/producer, like Stanley, you also make casting decisions, meet with the director and costumer, “spot” music, and even occasionally socialize with stars. “Maybe we go out to dinner. That’s about it. Mostly we work.”
For Stanley’s class, students had to familiarize themselves with all the episodes of The Closer and Friday Night Lights—the dramas they selected—and write an episode for one and comment on the work of their peers for both.
At first, TV writing feels mechanical, says Stanley: 52 to 60 pages for a one-hour show; two to three subplots; 30 to 35 scenes; and a dramatic arc before each commercial break.
But it’s not all that different, notes one student, from the constraints of poetry. Matthew Minicucci, a poet who completed his MFA in April, compared it to writing a villanelle, or a sonnet, “but a sonnet people watch on Saturday nights.”
Furthermore, the formal structure has the odd effect, at least in Stanley’s class, of enabling the students to feel less defensive if their ideas are shot down by the other writers. Suggesting that a section be cut would be akin to ripping out someone’s soul in a poetry class. Such give and take is essential in the fast-paced environment of TV. “Dianne always emphasized that it was about teamwork,” says Eric Anderson, a senior in rhetoric, who recalled Stanley’s insistence on flexibility. “We were all trying to produce the best scripts.”
Extreme Economy of Story
The most difficult concept for any budding TV writer to grasp, says Stanley, is what she calls the “one-liner.” Outlines for TV scripts begin with scenes reduced to single, descriptive sentences that convey the essence of the scene. This step forces a writer, who is tempted to jump ahead to the fun stuff, like dialogue, to focus on the structure of the story.
Here’s an example: Instead of writing the generic “she falls in love with him,” to describe a scene, Stanley would suggest the more specific: “She watches this brute of a man tenderly pick up a peach in the produce department.”
It’s all about conciseness, extreme economy of story, says Stanley.
“You cut right to the story,” says Anderson, who hopes to head to Hollywood this summer. “There is no time for your character to go off on a monologue.”
Stanley tried to keep the class practical as well as inspirational, believing as she does that TV is where some of the most creative writing is occurring today. Minicucci, who wavered between pursuing poetry or TV, admits that it’s easy to focus on the cliché television shows, ignoring the abundance of high-quality programming.
“One thing I’ve learned,” says Minicucci, “is that it doesn’t matter what the show is, if it’s funny or dramatic, if it’s received tons of Emmys or no love whatsoever—if there are people out there who really look forward to it being on, like it was written for them, that’s an art. That’s the key to the art, in some sense.”
By Holly Korab