There’s always been a feel-good, easy-times nostalgia for the 80s and 90s TV shows. More so now that we sometimes feel overwhelmed by the plethora of shows we have to pick from. If you feel me then you will enjoy this conversation. Our guest today is the award-winning screen and television writer, professor, and best-selling author, Pamela Douglas.
Pamela is a member of the Board of Directors of the Writers Guild of America and a USC School of Cinematics Arts tenure professor for screenwriting. She is credited for her writing on shows/series such as Star Trek: The Next Generation and The Ghostwriter (1992) to name a few.
Aside from her awesome career as a screenwriter, she’s an international writer with multi-lingual adaptations of her books (German, Mandarin, Italian, French, Korean, and Spanish). Pamela packed her expertise in her 2018 revised fourth edition of her 2008 book ‘Writing the TV Drama Series: How to Succeed as a Professional Writer in TV‘.
The book is a complete resource for anyone who wants to write and produce for television drama series or create an original series, as well as for teachers in screenwriting classes and workshops. It leads the reader step-by-step through every stage of the development and writing process, offering practical industry information and artistic inspiration. The Fourth Edition leads readers into the future and engages provocative issues about the interface between traditional TV and emerging technologies. It’s also the single most comprehensive source on what is happening in original television drama around the world, with surveys of 15 countries.
As you will learn in this episode, Pamela’s passion for writing goes back to her childhood. Even though she’s dabbed in screenwriting for movies, she’s discovered throughout her career that television carries a bigger pull in terms of communicating ideas, stories, characters, life, and experience. Its essence allows for vertical story-telling, expansion, and continuity to reveal newer plots and characters.
Star Trek: The Next Generation is a classic sci-fi series set almost 100 years after Captain Kirk’s five-year mission, a new generation of Starfleet officers set off in the U.S.S. Enterprise-D on its own mission to go where no one has gone before – the exploration of the Milky Way galaxy.
Ghostwriter is an American children’s mystery television series that revolves around a circle of friends from Brooklyn who solve neighborhood crimes and mysteries as a team of young detectives with the help of a ghost named Ghostwriter who can only communicate through writing and words.
Chatting with a seasoned screenwriter like Pamela, there is so much wealth of knowledge packed in every word. We talked about presentation reelers, the forex structure and her approach to it, and why she thinks The Wire is the best show of all time in terms of character, layering, and sterilized storytelling.
Enjoy this conversation with Pamela Douglas.
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Alex Ferrari 0:18
I like to welcome to the show Pamela Douglas. How you doing, Pam?
Pamela Douglas 0:21
Hey, good to see you. Alex,
Alex Ferrari 0:23
thank you so much for doing the show. I really appreciate it.
Pamela Douglas 0:27
You're very welcome.
Alex Ferrari 0:28
So I wanted to bring you on the show. Because you've written a book, you wrote a book, this is the fourth edition of the book now, writing the TV drama series. And obviously, if you I mean, the first edition is perfectly fine. Nothing has changed in, in television drama at all. It's pretty much the same thing as Hill Street Blues, essentially, though. Things have definitely changed at a beatnik pace in television. And it's even as a call television anymore. It's now streaming. It's like this whole thing. So we'll get into the details of it. As we get through the through the conversation. But before we get started, how did you get into the business?
Pamela Douglas 1:11
Well, I was always a writer. And by the way, I'm also a visual artist, so I have lives. And it seemed to me long ago, that the power in terms of communicating ideas, stories, characters, life experience, was all in television. I dabbled in movies. But nothing has the reach or the impact of television, even in the era before streaming. Because it's in people's homes. It speaks to them in an intimate person to person way. And that has sway over people's viewpoint and notions of what matters and who's in the world. So I think I was partly attracted to the scale,
Alex Ferrari 2:00
the scale of what you could do. And I mean, when you were writing, I mean, you worked with you written for Star Trek The Next Generation, which was amazing show, and a lot of a lot of shows in the in the 80s and 90s. How, I mean, I mean, for the youngins listening, back then it was three channels, and there was only so many shows, you can watch where now there is just an obscene amount of content coming through the doors all the time. How do you as a writer, kind of? Well, I mean, obviously, there's more opportunity now than ever before, to be a television writer. But how do you break through as a series? How do you try to get in? I mean, you know, both as a writer and as a series creator, and I know those are two very different?
Pamela Douglas 2:49
No. no, really, they're, they're a single track. And just once ahead of the other the way up, let me address the first point. It's true that most of my credits are from the later 90s into even early 2000s. Next Generation, bless its heart was a very long time.
Alex Ferrari 3:12
Yes, it was. Yes. And I don't know how that's possible, since you look like you're 25. So I've really don't
Pamela Douglas 3:21
it, it was an important show at its time. And it's the one that people cite, because it's familiar. Most of my writing after that really was was in originals, the the TV dramas, the TV, what was that one time called TV movies? So I've done us a large spectrum of things and television even before I started teaching it. But what has happened in terms of evolvement? Is that, yeah, when I was a beginner, there were three networks, then for sure. Now, the legacy networks, the traditional networks, they're still around, but even they are going to streaming. You mentioned something about, well, whatever television is if it's even a word anymore, and I think there's a simple answer to that, which is that television is inclusive in the language. In other words, television long since stopped being a box in the living room. People gathered. Most people watch television on their computers or on other kinds of screens now. The difference in fact between small screen indie films and large screen televisions is is almost disappeared. And as Netflix in particular and HBO is has also Amazon to another extent have moved into the two hour format, what used to be called featured films that blurs the line even further. So the question is, of what is television is, is an interesting one. The writers field has a definition. And it's a strange definition. Because it says, television is everything that is not feature films in a in a closed movie house. And that is in my
Alex Ferrari 5:25
Pamela Douglas 5:26
Yeah, that was because the problem with that not problem, but what that opens up to, is to what extent are games television, they are looked at on a screen, you know, so we're, we're off on that side. And then when you get to the whole international aspect of all of this, the definition of the range of television gets even more expansive, where television is made, how it's made, who was made for all of this is new. And I think it's, I think it's encouraging, really, to people who are coming into the industry, because you mentioned is it different to create a show or to write for a show? Well, the way in, which is the question you actually asked before a ramp back. The way in is twofold. The first thing is that it's basically a ladder, that the way into doing anything, including creating original series generally starts with whatever is the lowest rung on a series Ram. That's usually staff writer, but sometimes it's writer's assistant, which is a fine job. Sometimes it's researcher, there are people who have taken any job they could get including Secretary just to get their foot there. And once they're there, and you meet people, they might be embarrassed to not read your script. So that's that's the hope that you get in somewhere. Once you do that. If you're successful in your first forays as a, as a writer of an episode for somebody else's show, you will find yourself moving up and up and up and up until somebody offers you an overall deal or says, Hey, do you have an idea for a show you like to do? Because I see now you're a good writer. And that's that's normal. That's normal. It's not the only way. There are people who have with the tremendous amount of production, just immense amount of production, who have written pilots. I have had a number of students who have written pilots and sometimes been successful in actually placing them they don't get to be the showrunner if they're a new writer, because they wouldn't know how to run the manufacturing operation. But they do. If they're smart, they stay with the show, and come on in a mid range and can grow with the show. So yeah, I have seen it happen once in a while. Not often, but once in a while. I've often known of people who've written theatrical features that became backdoor pilots. So in other words, you got to a pilot, not by writing a pilot, that you admit that as a pilot, but by writing something that shows your voice and your characters and your world and gets get someone excited to go into further development.
Alex Ferrari 8:43
So is that a backdoor pilot, I was gonna ask you what a backdoor pilot, it's like me writing the script and then sending it into there. Like really, it's really a pilot for a show. It could be turned into a show. But you're disguising it as a feature script.
Pamela Douglas 8:55
Kinda. Basically, it's something it's not unusual to have a two hour pilot anyway. These days, a lot of readers, judges, agents, managers, producers, don't want to read 100 or 120 pages. Because you can tell in 60 pages or less, whether there's a voice, whether there's a personality, whether there is whether this is a real storyteller. So they figure they could no no it from that. If you marry that with the Bible. It goes on to the answer the question of why is this series and not a movie? In other words, how come it doesn't just end right there. Where are the legs where the springboards and where are we going to be a few years out? Now? You hear of everything though? I mean, if you look at something like Netflix that's been on a mad buying spree all over the world. You know, it's that's the Netflix joke. Somebody comes in and pitches I want a story about who? And they said yes, I love it. Here's some money.
Alex Ferrari 10:07
Exactly. Like it's perfect example like, you know Jaws can't be turned into a series like that's a pretty much beginning, middle and end. Jaws the series is going to be very difficult to to pull off for seasons of that.
Pamela Douglas 10:19
You know what? No, it i don't i wouldn't personally proposed Jaws the series. But but but somebody who is clever enough, just the movie and do what theatrical features often do look at all the Batman's. But the Star Wars, Star Wars,
Alex Ferrari 10:43
those are adventures that could happen where they just basically jaws is the one you can maybe stretch it out over to it like a season. But I can't see five, six seasons of
Pamela Douglas 10:53
it would have to change.
Alex Ferrari 10:54
Yeah, it'd be a nice thing. It has to be a whole new thing.
Pamela Douglas 10:57
Actually this is a question I'm sometimes asked from somebody who writes a finite script. And, and it is possibly because the character dies at the end. So you can't go on anyway. Or, or the quest is finished, the arc is finished. And they say, gee, I'd love to do this as a as a series. And I don't know how because it finished. And my answer to that is stop looking at the ending. Look at the middle, you don't expand from the end. The difference between episodic television writing episodic television and movies is partly that up, I've speech a film script or a finite script has an art. Somebody wants something here, the complex in the, you know, the complications. They go through all the obstacles, and at the end, they win it or lose it. Television and television can still have that kind of horizontal storytelling. But it also has vertical storytelling. And what I mean by that is that while you will also while you will do your plot in a horizontal way, there's so has to be so much depth in the characters, that you could take a character from the center and tell stories outwards from that. So it's not been the question of what happens to Jaws, the shark, or in fact any of those characters, it may be the story of one of the people in it, who is affected and how their storyline goes. Give you a perfect example. Classic, great example is what happened Breaking Bad.
Alex Ferrari 12:42
You read my mind. read my mind.
Pamela Douglas 12:45
brilliant, brilliant. That's Vince Gilligan, who is a great writer and expert in this whole thing. Walter Wade is dead at the end of Breaking Bad shows vastly popular. Where are you gonna go? And they brilliantly saw when the lawyer Saul Goodman, and did a prequel, which is absolutely a wonderful piece very often a spin off of any kind is not, you know, they just trading on. This is brilliant. It stands on its own feet as its own show with its own style, its own tone, its own cast. And that's a perfect example of expanding up from the middle from one of the characters and the richness rather than going from the end
Alex Ferrari 13:33
Right. And that and also with Saul is at first you're just like looking for the Easter eggs from breaking bad. But after a while, you just watching it because it's a good show. Not just like, oh, there's that thing from that episode of Breaking Bad. Oh, there's that one character is back. And yeah, that's all great, but at a certain point. Wow. It's just solved. And I was just like, its own thing, too. And it took them a little bit to find those legs. But yeah, they found out
Pamela Douglas 13:57
Well they had character richness. Oh, all right from its him also character, Mike. I mean, there's a whole episode co five. Oh, it's in the first season. I think it's the third episode or something. Where? Where Mike? I forgot his last name. You know?
Alex Ferrari 14:16
Of course, Mike. Yeah. Mike, I know he talked about Yes.
Pamela Douglas 14:19
Yeah. Where it's his life with his grandchild and his dad. You know? You can do that. If your characters are rich enough. You can't do that if all you've got is a plot. I mean, if all you've got is a scary shark, not that that's all Joe's had. But if that's all you've got, you really don't have anywhere to go. But great television. You can spin off vertically as long as characters have secrets.
Alex Ferrari 14:49
Right and or people are interested in like, I'm like what was saw like before breaking bad you like wow, like he's such a great character. He's a runaway in a show with 1000 great powers. Characters he was he stoled the scene anytime it was in it. I mean, literally,
Pamela Douglas 15:03
Yeah. Oh, well, that. And also, it posed questions like, how did this attorney get into this situation?
Alex Ferrari 15:13
What got him into the strip mall? How did he get into the strip mall?
Pamela Douglas 15:16
All of it? Yeah. And so what do you want a pilot to do is not answer questions but to ask them.
Alex Ferrari 15:22
Right, exactly. Now, one thing you said earlier, which I wanted to really emphasize, emphasize this to the listeners was a lot of writers out there who really don't understand the machine that is television, writing and television creation. You said the manufacturing process. And I've never heard television used in that, but it is so apropos because it's exactly it's it's in our industry, the closest thing we have to a product, because our industry is insane. I mean, the entertainment business is pretty crazy, because we create a product. And then if the products hit, we can't create it again. So if we have one big hit, that's why they're sequels and prequels and they're trying to reach, you know, one star was a hit that Like we need the sequel to Star Wars, but television is like, but if you have a like a bag of a bottle of Coca Cola, you can make 1000 million Coca Cola cans and keep making money. But you can't do that with entertainment. But television is the closest thing we have to that where you can recreate that product. And it's a manufacturing. Is that fair?
Pamela Douglas 16:27
I, I would depart from the analogy to Coca Cola. Yes, no, because every episode, if you again, look at something like Breaking Bad shirt from any of the great shows. Each one is a work of art in and of itself. Correct. However, you're right. The end, what I meant by the manufacturing process was actually the the act of what it takes from your first idea to things getting on television, or things getting on any screen. With a movie, there's also a manufacturing process, there are people who do the camera and the sound and the editing. So you are still manufacturing a product. With television, especially traditional television, you really had to say spill out a product every week raw, which means that you have to have a writing staff, you have to have a structure with a showrunner with executive layers, and with people who have jobs that you can depend on to deliver their many stories. Before streaming, which is structured a little differently. Of what happened when the script falls out. When you think you've got it, you've got a tight schedule, you have to shoot for seven days, you have to edit this number of days, you have these days, before it actually airs and it's already advertised. And the thing falls out and he ended up we end up with a repeat episode. It rarely happens doesn't happen really anymore. But it's a marathon. If you look at something like The Good Wife, which was probably the last of the great written series that tried to do 24 episodes a year my god was Nobody. Nobody does that anymore. Nobody does it anymore. And they did it. Well, they did wonderfully it's been compared to the Ginger Rogers who has to dance as well as, as Fred Astaire but backwards in heels. You know, that's what happens with trying to do something like The Good Wife with all those episodes. Nobody does that anymore series are now maybe Netflix might do 13. The number of episodes in a season has pretty much settled in at eight, eight to 10, eight. So there are shorter seasons. And because with streaming especially, they're all in the can in advance or almost all in the candidate, that intense weekly pressure to get that script done and out there is not what it used to be. And then it also makes other changes happen. But what I'm talking about with the manufacturing is when I see somebody who has a pilot, and a good idea, but as a beginner has really not worked on a show, or even if they've worked on the show a little bit far be it for them to have a clue about the budget for the rice, set construction or casting a million of the things and that's where and they say I'm going to be the showrunner it's my Shall I agree? Well, no, you're not. And you don't want to because you, you don't know what to do with the, with the various craft unions, you really don't know what to do in terms of directors, actors, even staffing your show. So that's why it takes some time actually being in the business to move up to that. And that's, there's nothing wrong with that. There's nothing wrong with learning your craft. I must say, that's how I learned everything. I mean, now I'm a professor at USC. So my students all come out of school, you know, with some education in all of this and experience and they have a portfolio. When I was starting, I really hadn't gone to school for it. I'd been a creative writer, done other things. But I learned I learned because the showrunners took the time on a staff say, you know, no, they were not three acts and television
Alex Ferrari 21:07
Pamela Douglas 21:08
now. Or even this is how a page looks.
Alex Ferrari 21:14
basic stuff like that.
Pamela Douglas 21:15
Alex Ferrari 21:17
Now, what are some myths about writing television dramas that you would like to debunk here?
Pamela Douglas 21:25
Let me the book has a chapter on some of my favorite, terrible myths. I'm going to open the book to the myths. Let's see, where are my favorite myths? By the way, book, everybody. Everything you would ever want to know is in this book? Where the myths?Okay. All right. It is. Okay, here we go. It is in the very first chapter. And the first myth is that TV is small movies. TV is not small movies. TV is very, very, very, very big movies. Because if you've got something that's going to end in 90 minutes or two hours, you're off the hook pretty quick. If you've got something that's going to go on for 100 hours at some do, or even 36 hours, with the three series of 13. Or even if you've got a limited series of something that's going to be six or eight hours old together, it's much larger. Also, even the size of the screen sizes are changing. Yeah. Well, they're watching people watch everything on phones that drives me crazy. Somebody has taken the trouble to beautifully light and go
Alex Ferrari 22:49
go through color and everything. I think
Pamela Douglas 22:52
the size. But no TV is not small movies. Here's another one. TV is cheap. Well, it depends. Yeah, there is some cheap television, YouTube is cheap. There are some off of network platforms, especially those for a very young audience that pay lower salaries, and don't have much budget. But in general, he looked at HBO, Game of Thrones, please, you telling me that's cheaper than some feature films? No, it's much more expensive. There's more of it. There are cost savings in various areas, because you may have sets that you can reuse over time. So you amortize some costs. But no, unless you're getting a movie budget that's completely bloated because of a star salary or something like that. Movies, even very expensive ones are not more expensive than television and television costs cost plenty. So I wouldn't, I wouldn't even think about that. Now I do warn students to be realistic that if you're going to decide to create your own series, you're a beginner, you know, use common sense. I mean, if you're going to have people flying all over the world for you know, international locations, and you're a beginner, the answer is going to be no. If you're Game of Thrones, the answer is yes. But you're not game of thrones so. So common sense.
Alex Ferrari 24:34
Now what, um, you in your book, you talk about a presentation reel, can you can you explain what a presentation reel is?
Pamela Douglas 24:41
Alex Ferrari 24:41
And why writers need to do it if they do.
Pamela Douglas 24:44
No, I don't do it.
Alex Ferrari 24:46
Okay, so what is so what is it so we don't we avoid it?
Pamela Douglas 24:49
I'll tell you what it is and then I don't think it's worth the time. Okay. I'm advising you not to do it with the caution. That there is nothing that you can't do sometimes and won't work sometimes somewhere. Sure. So there's nothing hard about this. But a presentation Reelers is basically clips from other work you've done. Or it might be scenes from what you were hoping to do, that you were going to present to a network or studio as an example of, of your plans, that it's really not the way things work anymore. Generally, it's pretty straightforward in terms of brand new shows, they want to see your pilot script, the pilot script, accompanied by a Bible. Now there's a there's a story from long ago, and this story I don't think happens anymore. But this was way back in my beginning baby days, there was a movie called Star man,
Alex Ferrari 26:02
there was the John carpenter,
Pamela Douglas 26:05
it was a movie. And because it was a successful movies, for some reason, Michael Douglas, and I don't know Michael Douglas, the actor. For some reason, I have no idea what his connection to that movie was. Maybe he had an ownership in it, I don't know. But he decided this should be a television series. Well, there was really no way for that to be a television series. That was a classic cases, something that actually pretty much ended. And it was at a time before streaming, serialization was different, it wasn't a good idea. But because he is an important person, he decided that the way he was going to present this was no pilot with no nothing was to get some of his friends who are also professional actors, to ballpark some scenes that might be in the future. So this guy goes to top brass at the network, because he truly is, and says, here's some clips from how this is going to show if I take this franchise and make it into a series. And because he is who he is. They said, okay, pretty like that. realize what, there was nothing there. And he wasn't interested in staying with the project, he had other jobs to do. None of the people in those clips were in the show. I left with a commitment for a show on the air. I think this was like spring, and it had it be on the air in September or something with zip. So they brought in some very, very experienced producers, television producers who had just done a lot of work. And they put out a call to the agencies, please send us some writers who can tell us how to the show. And I was one of the people brought in, which is how I came to know about this. And they gave us a Bible, which was mainly their hopes for who would be in it and how it would work but no stories because they didn't know. It didn't last, I think they did get something on the air. I wasn't part of it. So I don't know the rest of the story that that story doesn't happen anymore. Really, I wouldn't bother making a presentation reel for anything I would just write well. Now, there are cases where people have done web series that are in effect presentation reels. In other words, you're showing something on screen that gives the look and feel of it. But it's not the way it mostly works. Honestly, the way most shows get on television right now is that they are they have underlying books,
Alex Ferrari 29:01
IP or IP of some sort
Pamela Douglas 29:03
of some sort. It could be a graphic novel, good example, or another movie could be played. But mostly novels, mostly novels. And so sometimes people who are struggling to get into the business because they have a deep sense of story, and character and really something to tell someone. And if they don't have an MFA, in screenwriting, and are not in one of the fellowship programs, they might actually be better off doing a graphic novel or a novel and taking that in to see if they can adapt that. The reason that is so attractive, is that it gives a buyer the sense that the project has a future. You see, because one of the questions you ask in television is besides is this well written do I like the characters? Is the story moving and all those things they're asking? Is there enough here? For many, many episodes, and a novel will answer that again back to the Lord of the Rings, and no or other other great examples like that.
Alex Ferrari 30:11
So then how the hell did Vince Gilligan ever get Breaking Bad made? That's arguably one of the worst pitches. He said he's like, was the worst pitch ever?
Pamela Douglas 30:20
Yeah. Well, Vince Gilligan didn't come out of the woods. He had a track record. Yeah. Andy wrote the script, he wrote the script of the pilot was not awfully different. The names changed, location changed. But it's not awfully different from what was finally shot. If you look at the original original script, that show benefited from a an oddity, which is the writer strike at the time. Yeah. Because they had time to do development that he hadn't done in advance. They were going to kill off Jesse. And fortunately, the show got suspended during the strike, during which time they said, Oh, wait a minute, that is the show.
Alex Ferrari 31:12
Right? Yeah, cuz that's exactly it. Yeah. Because it was only eight episodes. I think that the first season or something like that was a short run. And then they picked up afterwards. Yeah, I've, I've studied. I've studied that show. It's one of my favorite Shows of All Time. Great. It's a there's there's basically I think, two episodes that I wanted to kill somebody afterwards. But other than that, every other episode, the fly the fly episode, fly the fly episode. Please stop. I mean, I was watching the
Pamela Douglas 31:38
Hawks word course.
Alex Ferrari 31:40
I don't know what that was. But I'm just sitting there going. Why are we What is going on? Like?
Pamela Douglas 31:45
Mostly only two characters in the whole hour? A little bit of males, but not much.
Alex Ferrari 31:50
And there was a fly, fly two characters,
Pamela Douglas 31:53
just because it was a metaphor. It wasn't
Alex Ferrari 31:55
what I mean. Yeah, I know. I know. I know. But like, yeah,
Pamela Douglas 31:59
there. There were some other examples of things that once were what was called mini series, which is a word you don't really hear anymore. Like Battlestar Galactica, was started as a very tiny group of shows was so popular that it took off and ran for five years. But it was another case we were on more great show runner, an experienced writer, who, by the way, had his training on Star Trek, you know, knew how to draw out stories that come from character going forward, because it did have legs.
Alex Ferrari 32:36
Yeah. Yeah. And I think they're talking now about I mean, Queens Gambit was one of the limited limited minister and other ministers with a limited series on Netflix, which was it just exploded. And who knew it's the show about chess. And it's brilliant. And it's so popular that they're actually talking about doing another season of it. And I'm like, it ended like how, yeah,
Pamela Douglas 33:02
I don't hit I saw it. I thought it was successful. I really don't know where it's gonna go from there. I'm but in the right hands. Who knows? Maybe they'll develop one of the other characters in the depth, I forgot his name the boyfriend?
Alex Ferrari 33:17
Yeah. Or her as older? I don't know. Like, I don't really like is she gonna become the Mrs. Miyagi? And teach somebody else? Like, I don't, I don't know where you go with it. But it was so well done. It was
Pamela Douglas 33:30
that but those are the kinds of puzzles that are given to writers coming in who are new. And then somebody says, Look, I've got a quandary. I've got this product here. I don't know what to do with it. And then they hear pitches, and somebody comes up with a way to do it.
Alex Ferrari 33:46
Now you in your book, you also spoke about the four act grid? Can you can you tell us a little bit about that?
Pamela Douglas 33:52
Yeah. Again, people really need to see the book. Not because I get 10 cents for it. But because if
Alex Ferrari 34:04
you get 10 cents, you're you're good most only get
Pamela Douglas 34:09
no, because it really goes into depth in this. The forex structure goes back to traditional television where an act occurred, the act breaks occurred, because commercials had to be fit in roughly every 13 minutes or so 13 to 15 minutes, and you take the hour and you divide it and that's what you get. The template became teaser plus four. And then after that, sometimes teaser plus five. It was originally created partly because of commercial television, which doesn't make sense anymore on any of the streaming places. And we're setting aside Hulu that just interrupts things bizarrely, but that's their problem. You can Without the commercials
Alex Ferrari 35:01
I as I do as I do, I don't I don't have a title that could cause the peacock to I did with peacock, I just got peacock to watch Yellowstone. And I'm like, What is I don't know, how much is it a month? I just need to I can't do the commercials. This is ridiculous.
Pamela Douglas 35:13
Yeah. exactly, exactly. So that's how the structure emerged. But if you really look at it structurally, without being concerned about the commercial breaks, you discover that things that don't have commercials anymore, are still largely relying on something like that, in order to have some sort of basis for telling your story. And if you think about it, the three, the so called three act structure, the old Sinfield model is the first act is one quarter, the second act is half. And the third act is one quarter. But if you do a midpoint in the middle of that second half, which you need any way to turn it, you've got a forex structure. So it's it's a, it's a kind of a normal breathing structure. So I, I recommend that to students and people who are just struggling with laying out this plot. At an early time, it gets more complicated when you have a, b and c stories, when you have parallel storytelling, and it's not a single story that's broken up that way. But you might have this many beats of the beast story and this act and this many another act. And it's it's not quite as linear. And then you come over to something like Netflix and HBO. And they don't want to hear about that. They want to hear you break the story based on character on character arcs. But the truth is, even if you break the story on character arcs, the writer has to go home and organize the scenes somehow. And that's why I recommend that writers try filling in the grid just to get an overview of the layout of the story. You can be flexible with it to some degree. There are some template things that tend to work. So for example, at one is usually longest, in a classic script, it might end somewhere around page 18 to 20 at four is shortest, or if you've got a five act at five is very short. It's almost a tag. So there, there are ways to make adjustments, but you need something to hang on to. And that's why I put a grid in the book, just before you're even writing, just so you can see it laid out. In effect, you talked about chess, sort of like a chess board, where all the moves are going to be aware that things are going to be in where you can move stuff around in the earliest stage before you start writing.
Alex Ferrari 37:54
Now, how are you talking about a, b and c kind of stories? When you're structuring a four Act, or grid, let's say a four act grid or four acts to structure with these parallel stories? How do you allot the time in let's say, the first act, establishing the characters if you have big if you have ABC characters? And well, let's talk about the pilot because once the show is off and running, it's a different conversation. But But let's say the pilot, how do you how do you adjust or allocate time to these other plot points in the infrastructure in general?
Pamela Douglas 38:35
Usually, the a story is the dominant character of the series, or certainly the dominant character of this episode, for a pilot is probably the dominant character, the whole series. And you will probably want to tell that story throughout first. So if you have, let's say a scene is roughly two minutes. That's not always true. There was a time when we there was a lot of vignette storytelling and people were pushing the scenes to be one page long. There was also a kickback on that and something like mad men, which is very slow, we would have really, really long scenes. Which by long, I only really need three or four minutes. I mean, we're not back to Casablanca with a seven minute scene because people wants it for it. That is the audience is ahead of you now. But let's just use as a ballpark number. Let's say a scene is in two minutes. And let's say you've got 60 minutes, which nobody's got 60 minutes, but let's just imagine that two minutes into 60 is 30 scenes, you're not going to get 30 students let's let's go for 28 and then you say okay, so we the whole hour is going to be something like 20 Five to 28 seems as though you got people sometimes mistaken and they're up and 5060 scenes and they're doing, you know, some large movie it's not. It's shorter than that. So let's say, if you were to have 4x divided into 28 scenes, that would give you roughly seven scenes per act doesn't actually work out that way. Usually, at one is a little longer and more is less, as I said, but what you would want to look at is, okay, out of these 28 scenes, you're probably going to have many of them be your a story, is it going to be 1214? You know, maybe it's 14, maybe it's half of the whole show? Well, now you've only got 14 scenes left over to divide between B and C stories, probably a B story is going to be pretty important to also. And so you might have 10 scenes on the B. So now you up to 24. That leaves you only four scenes for the C story, which is fine, because the C story sometimes a runner, those are ballpark numbers, nobody should try to do that. Exactly. I'm just giving a sense of the rhythm. There are many shows with a and the b story, meaning the story for one character and the story for another character are almost balanced are almost the same size. There are also shows when they're when the pilot in particular will not have a B and C stories will really follow the central main character who's got a quest throughout the show. And that that is where you are going with your storytelling. That's what you want to hook the people on. So you may have only in a stories show. And that's okay.
Alex Ferrari 41:51
It which is which is fine. I mean, I mean, are you like something like Sherlock that was done over at the BBC. Sherlock is obviously the main driving force. And that's almost also procedural. But Holmes gets a little bit of a little bit of action every once in a while. But generally, what drives the show is Sherlock. And that happens with all you know, you could go down the line with all these kind of major shows. But yeah, I was just curious on how you felt to kind of like, we're really starting to break it down into the nuts and bolts of an episode, and of story and things like that. And obviously, we could talk for hundreds of hours about this. But this is just, this is a touch. That's why you want to go buy a go out and buy the book. Now you did talk about something, you refer to something called the staff ladder. Can you break down what the staff ladder is like in general? And so people that aren't understanding of what the pecking order? If it's, if you will, yeah,
Pamela Douglas 42:45
yeah, well, the lowest level, they used to be a job and a lot of shows called staff writer, a lot of shows don't do that anymore. And that entry level is now very often, the writer's assistant is actually not technically a writing job. But it's a lot. It's a way into a writing job. And it's a good job, you get to be in the room, where the stories are broken, you get to see all the scripts, it's a it's a wonderful postgraduate learning experience, then the first step after that is is staff writer, the staff writer may or may not get to write an episode, they might just talk in the room, or they may get assigned one or two. The problem with the staff not the problem. The situation with that beginning level is that you've got your salary, but you may not be paid in addition for the script. So it's a financial difference. The next step of that is story editor. And then executive story editor for in some shows a story editor is a high level position. And other shows it really just means a staff writer in their second year. So yeah, shows don't use these titles always in exactly the same way. So the story editor is going to probably be assigned one or two scripts, they will be paid for the script in addition to the weekly salary, and they may have some little bit of rewriting jobs. They're also continuing to learn. Again, it depends on your show, sometimes it's higher level. After that the next step up is producer, producer in this sense does not mean producer like you think of a movie producer. It's a writing title. And it's simply one more step up. You're getting a larger salary, you're getting paid for your scripts, you may be rewriting scripts for the lower level staff people and somebody a little more experience. After that you're supervising producer. All these get all these promotions. If you if the show goes on for a while you make get promoted up the ranks or you may go to another show and make a lateral move or you may be hired up depends how good your writing is and other things. supervising producer very likely is doing rewriting of other people's scripts or holding the hand of the beginners. Sometimes it's a complete rewrite that gets put on in the supervising producers lab, in addition to writing their own scripts. From producer on up, you're also probably sitting in on casting section sessions, and you're going to dailies. So you're seeing actually the process of it, you seeing how it changes, and you're learning you show, you're learning the strengths of the actors, you're learning all of this from supervising producer. Next Level up is executive producer, to very wiggly title. There are some shows where everybody on the show is called executive producers with meaningless it just means that the agents got them a bump up. And they're just still writing and rewriting. But on some shows, the executive producer, many shows is also the showrunner and showrunner is, is the person whose vision is guiding this whole, as I said, manufacturing operation, but it's also the visionary and has the look tone field style. And in some shows, depending on who's doing it, some some executive producers and showrunners will run every single script through their computer, even if it doesn't make changes, because they want to feel ownership of it. Or they want their own voice in it. So all scripts, in that sense, are written by those people. David Kelly is an example of somebody who runs a shop like that, where generally they do let the lower level writers keep credit on screen. But actually, it's a very much rewritten script.
Alex Ferrari 47:02
Interesting. Yeah. And so basically, the buck stops at the executive producer slash showrunner.
Pamela Douglas 47:07
The show writer. Yeah, you might have five executive producer.
Alex Ferrari 47:10
Yeah. So but the showrunner is that is the guy there and like, and like you said, it's such a different it's just such a different skill set than just being a writer. And a lot of a lot of writers like I wrote the pilot, I'm going to be the showrunner. I'm like, you have no idea what Yeah, and experience in the you could be inexperienced writer with a lot of credits and still not have the skill set or the personality to be a showrunner?
Pamela Douglas 47:36
Well, you know, it is a matter of personality. This is an executive job for him. He wants to be an executive, some people want to, you know, have more of their own time to really create. It depends what you want to do there are if you think of a great showrunner is john wells, one of the masterful show runners, john Mills is essentially a manager. When he graduated from USC, he had written some of his first jobs was where as a writer, but he graduated from the Peter Start Program, which is a producing business program. And that was always why he did such a wonderful job on whether it was West Wing, or er, or late, more lately, shameless. And you know, all his other credits, he's got a million credits. Because he was an outstanding manager, he is not just what he could write, but that would he could enable other people to write, which is what makes a great manager.
Alex Ferrari 48:45
Right, exactly. And I just wanted to make sure everyone listening, if they if they have any illusions of writing their first pilot, and then show running, it's just a different, it's a really different skill set. That's why a lot of writers who jump into the director's chair, get a stark, stark reality. And, and and vice versa, when a director wants to start writing. It's a different it's just a different skill set. It's a different skill set. And some people are that that wonderful combination, like a Vince Gilligan who could just bring it all together. Really. Yeah. But it's it's hard. It's that's why I've had a lot of show runners on the show. And I hear it, I hear the stories I hear what they've gone through and, and also, one thing we've never even discussed in this episode is the politics. There's an obscene amount of politics that go on behind the scenes of just dealing with the politics of person, like any office, but then when you're talking with studio execs, and, and execs,
Pamela Douglas 49:43
I can give you, your listeners a tip if you are beginners, and you get a first job on the show. And this was told to me by one of my graduates. Yes, Yasmin, Yilmaz. Google her very first job her very first show after graduating. And she said, she made a policy to be the first one there in the morning. And the last one there at night, regardless of what her assignment was, and after a while, the boss noticed that here is somebody who is really giving all she can, and never asked for an assignment and then got one, because she was helpful in the writers room, she made other writers look good. It was the generosity of spirit, not competing with them. But making other writers look good being available to do whatever job there was, and being there. And I'm sure she will do very well. And anybody else who's got that attitude, there's an arrogance that you want to set aside. It's it's not that it really is. I mean, there are people who really should just go, you know, to a private room in the attic and write their movies and produce them in the Bentley. And that's the kind of art they do. And that's the life they do. It's nothing to do that's really very different from from actually being in the industry, if you want to shape your work.
Alex Ferrari 51:16
And I look, when I first started out, I was I was driving an hour commute every day to work for free. I worked for free for like four months. And I just showed up every day as an intern at to this production company until they say, hey, you want to work? Hey, you want to do this? And then my boss quit. My boss quit. And they're like, well, how are we going to get this job to where he's been here every day? Let's give it to him.
Pamela Douglas 51:38
Yeah, and I was, that's life.
Alex Ferrari 51:41
But it was that you're right. That kind of work ethic is something that is really should be taught in school people.
Pamela Douglas 51:49
Yeah, I wouldn't call it politics so much as I would call it. A sense of participation and cooperation and making good relationships.
Alex Ferrari 52:00
And it's all and that is the one other big tip. I've heard from all the hundreds of interviews I've had. It's all about relationships. It's all about building authentic good relationships. I had a producer on the other day, who the craft service intern 20 years later, got him a job animating a huge studio movie that went on to make a half a billion dollars. And it was his. And it was his Emmy, they stayed friends all that time. But imagine if they would have never built that relationship, he would have lost out on that job. 20 years later.
Pamela Douglas 52:35
Well, it's another reason to either go to school or join a workshop because you hear about openings from your friends. You know, buddy gets it becomes an intern or finds out there's a possible job somewhere. And yes, when you're further along, and you have an agent, that's their job to do that for you. But you're not gonna probably have that starting out. So you know, for everybody out there who's just all alone in you know, Nebraska, wherever, you really got to get yourself to some kind of film school or workshop. You got to get in the mix.
Alex Ferrari 53:13
it does build the relationships. Yeah.
Pamela Douglas 53:16
Probably should be in Los Angeles. But But there are some other places too,
Alex Ferrari 53:19
for television, television. Like it used to be the case that you had to be in LA for everything. And that from what I'm understanding now, is not the case anymore. In the feature world. There are things of television is still very difficult. You need to be here, it helps a lot to be here.
Pamela Douglas 53:37
They were writers rooms. Yeah. You meet in person with people, right. So you pretty much have to be here. There are a few other places to be there are some shows that are based in New York,
Alex Ferrari 53:52
Pamela Douglas 53:53
Vancouver. Canadian work is another whole issue of a certain number of Canadians have to be on staff.
Alex Ferrari 54:01
Pamela Douglas 54:02
Georgia, Atlanta, for sure. Yeah. You know, so there are a few other hubs. But basically, it's, I see the people who do really well. They probably, you know, got an MFA at a film school or were part of some Writers Workshop, wrote a lot didn't write one script and say they're saying I'm done. Now I know I get it.
Alex Ferrari 54:27
I'm on ... where's my money, guys? Where's you? You could just back up the truck here. Yeah, so I'm going to ask you a few questions. I ask all my guests. What is the biggest mistake you see young screenwriters make or young writers make?
Pamela Douglas 54:53
I can let me enter the two ways I paused because I wanted us think about whether it's about right The pilot or the industry? This one, let me do a micro first students who want to write not students, but new writers who want to write pilots make certain key mistakes in the pilots. And the first one is to stuff that pilot too much. They say to those Oh, I know television is a big ensemble cast. Some they're put all 100 of them in the pilot. Yeah,
Alex Ferrari 55:27
no, just like Lost, just like Lost
Pamela Douglas 55:29
Yeah. Right, exactly. But last, the series began close on Jack's eyeball, it follows one character right in. And so you need to hone in on the quest of a single character in your pilot to draw the story forward and to draw the reader in. So if there was one single mistake that pilot writers, that would be the one I've noticed in beginnings, students I teach. From the industry point of view, I think, misjudging the level that you are going to enter in that this is a, this is a process that's not one minute long, then you really want to try to get a fellowship, you want to try to get experiences in turn, start on whatever job is there. Join organizations, learn your way. Put aside that arrogance that you were the one and only most brilliant person, and your first draft is going to make you a star. Because you want a substantial portfolio, you want to have written a lot, believe me, every script you write will be better than the one you wrote before.
Alex Ferrari 56:48
Very much. So. Now, we're three pilots that every writer should read.
Pamela Douglas 56:54
Um, oddly, some of the best shows are not the best pilots. So let me just take a departure to recommend some of the best shows that people should see from beginning to end. And the top of my list, which is not a good pilot, actually, we're not they're not a useful pilot, most people is Thed Wire. imitate the pilot, do not imitate the pilot. That's an example of 100 people on screen in the pilot, don't do that. But if you can look at all 60 hours, you will learn so much about writing depth of character, layered, serialized storytelling, it is truly the great American novel, as it's been called. So you must watch that you should see all of Breaking Bad, the Breaking Bad pilot is one you should read so good. So that, you know I have to tell you that the actual pilot has produced doesn't exist. There's an early draft, but it's close enough. Enough that you could just watch it actually just. So that's it. That's another one pilots. Another good sample for learning is Orange is the Black. Because although it's going to spread and have many, many layers of depth in the many characters who don't even meet in the pilot, it gives you a wedge in to a single characters issue. And it has the example that all pilot writers should know that opposed to movies, it doesn't close at the end, it opens at the end. And so that's a perfect example of a structure. There are other fine pilots. I'm sure. There are many good pilots out there. Yeah,
Alex Ferrari 58:46
that's excellent. Now where can people find you? Where can people find the new fourth edition of the book and so on.
Pamela Douglas 58:55
There are two ways to buy the book and I I plead with everybody to please buy the fourth edition plush in 2018. A lot of people have that third edition, but that was 2011. And the world has changed since then
Alex Ferrari 59:08
a little bit a little bit, a little bit.
Pamela Douglas 59:11
So even if you have a third edition, go get the fourth. And there are two ways to get it. One is Amazon is inexpensive, and they will bring it to you in a day. So that's but also my publisher, Michael Wheezy MWP calm. You can buy it direct from the publisher and they also have some discounts going. bookstores unfortunately don't don't exist much anymore. You could probably get it at Barnes and Noble or something. If you order it, they would have to go get it for you. But you can get it immediately at either Amazon or MWP.
Alex Ferrari 59:49
Britain. Is there a way for people to reach out to you Do you have a website?
Pamela Douglas 59:53
I'm not used. I have a book website. I don't really use it. So just I'll tell you what, I'll give you my email.
Alex Ferrari 59:59
Well I'll put it we'll put it The show notes, so don't worry about it. Okay. All right, Bobby, because I don't want, because you put your email out, you're gonna get inundated.
Pamela Douglas 1:00:08
Yeah, the best way to get to me is, is through the book, honestly. And you'll see the book also, by the way, has referrals to people who do consulting. Not, not me, other people who do this professionally. And if you can't go to school, go to something. And so there are some of the services here,
Alex Ferrari 1:00:34
Pam, it's been a pleasure talking to you and getting deep into the weeds of writing TV dramas. So thank you so much for the fourth edition of the book. It's been going strong for quite some time. And it's ever-changing. And I'm sure the fifth edition will be coming down any minute now. Thank you so much.
Pamela Douglas 1:00:54
You're very welcome, Alex. Nice talking to you.
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