In this article we break down advice from celebrated television screenwriter, showrunner and producer Damon Lindelof (WATCHMEN, THE LEFTOVERS, LOST). Variety recently featured a series of videos on Twitter and we’re going to break it down for you in one easy-to-read blog post. Feel free to jump directly to the videos at the bottom of this post.
1. What’s the episode about?
This question is broad – and can encompass the emotional core of the episode. What do we want to feel? What is the central theme that our story wants to convey?
Related blog post: Make Readers Fall in Love with Theme
2. Whose episode is this?
Who’s leading the story of this episode? “The audience needs a surrogate” Lindelof says. We need a character that we can imagine is us. The character needs to be relatable in some way. We need to see them and smile wryly because we recognize ourselves in them. And we need to stay with a character throughout the episode.
3. What does the lead character want?
Are they trying to fill an emotional void? Are they trying to reclaim something they’ve lost? Are they running from something they fear? The important thing is to have an external goal/desire as well as an internal goal/desire that the character may not recognize in themselves yet, and that will be revealed.
4. What are your story beats?
Create a list of story beats – things we want to see in the episode. This could be a 30-page document describing every story beat, and event some dialog and “buttons.”
What’s a “button?” In TV writing a “button” is particularly succinct and memorable bit of dialogue (a single line or a couplet) that concludes a scene surprisingly or sharply. It can also be used as a verb: “That buttons this scene very nicely, doesn’t it?”
Related blog post: 5 Ways to “Break Story” for Your Movie or TV Show Idea
5. Make it feel real.
“Our job as storytellers is to make the pretend feel real,” Lindelof said. “That’s the spirit of what ‘write what you know’ is supposed to protect.” But he goes on to explain that you don’t need to write about things that you have literally experienced. He goes on to explain: “The challenge should be write what you know, but we should be able to answer the question, Why do you care? Why this? Why now? And if you can find that thing and articulate it to others, then you are writing what you know.”
Related blog post: 7 Ways Writers Can Create Better Character Empathy
6. Empathy is paramount.
Lindelof’s inspiration for “Watchmen” came when he read about the Tulsa 1921 massacre in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” piece for The Atlantic, and was incredulous that he had never heard about it before. The only way he could learn was to ask questions and listen. “As I began to express my emotional experience with learning about Tulsa to people of color who were sort of like, ‘Yeah, I’ve known about this my entire life,’” Lindelof said, “that was my way of saying, ‘I don’t know what I’m talking about, but I want to talk about this. Can we talk about this?’”
Without carefully listening to another person’s experience, a writer can’t authentically portray it.
As Robert Frost famously said:
“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”
Here’s a clip from the Variety interview with Lindelof:
— Variety (@Variety) May 5, 2020
You can read the piece in Variety here.