Monica Beletsky on writing a one-hour tv drama script

I’ve turned my blogpost on writer/producer Monica Beletsky – known for Fargo and The Leftovers – writing about her process for writing TV scripts, into a page without embeds. Not in any way to take away credit from her work, but my issue with embeds is that there’s always a risk they could vanish. Also, there were a few addendums that I wanted integrated into the complete flow.

Here’s the Tweet that started it all:

There’s a visual PDF version of this, thanks to EdithD! Download it here.

Here’s Monica’s full, edited breakdown:

I didn’t go to film school. One thing that’s hard for me as a writer, is every time I write, i feel like I’m still figuring out my process. So I watched myself during this last script and took notes on what I do. The big headline for me was realizing writing is, at a basic level, answering a series of questions you ask yourself. The first four are:

  1. What is the story? This is about character and plot.
  2. How will I tell the story? This is about genre, structure and point of view

The next two:

  1. Why will we care? This is about the protagonist
  2. Why do I need to tell these stories now? This is about theme, irony, relevance

This is NOT a how-to. This is just what works for me. And, to be clear, I’m only talking about ONE HOUR, CHARACTER-driven (NOT-procedural) drama scripts. I’m not a showrunner yet. But this year marks over 100 hours/episodes of this type of TV I’ve been part of telling.

Writing on a team for a showrunner is about generating story and serving the showrunner’s writing process. I’ve learned so much about writing from other writers, especially from Jason Katims, Kerry Ehrin, Damon Lindelof & Noah Hawley.

Okay. So Shakespeare wrote drama in 5 acts and basically, we still do that except he didn’t have commercial breaks, so TV added a Teaser/Cold Open which teases out the inciting incidents out of act 1 and now we write it as a separate thing.

Here’s how I think of acts: Teaser scenes are inciting incidents. Act 1 scenes: set-up Act 2 scenes: the story develops Act 3 scenes: the hitch Act 4 scenes: emotional pay offs Act 5 scenes: gracenotes (if you want a resolved ending) or the plot thickens (suspenseful ending)

In CABLE, w/o commercial breaks I write T + 5 acts and then delete the act breaks. I write the story on 5×8 cards. A scene per card.

I recommend POST-ITS instead of cards, sometimes. With post-its, I can easily have different colors for different storylines and I can stick them on a table or a wall. Easy to rearrange the structure and look at the story beats, visually. For screenplays I like to do this, too.

Then I mess with the structure more cinematically like allowing longer sequences from a character’s POV, rather than cutting between stories. And I tone down the need for many high drama act breaks.

Next, I write a detailed OUTLINE from my cards. My outlines are usually around 18 pp. An outline is: Every scene of the story, written in prose. Who the characters are/what they want. The emotional arcs of the characters. The order of the scenes.

I build a FIRST draft. I used to try to perfect each scene, then move on, but I’m trying a new process of writing the first thing that comes to mind and doing most of the work in revision. This works better for me, but it’s a struggle not to be a perfectionist along the way.

Questions I ask when WRITING SCENES:

  • What needs to happen to tell the story?
  • Whose point of view is this?
  • How can I show this psychologically?
  • What is cool about the scene?
  • Why am I excited about writing it? (if I’m not, then there’s something that could be cooler about it)
  • What do we learn about the characters?
  • How are they changed?
  • How does this move story forward?
  • Can I write this in a way I haven’t seen before?
  • In a way I don’t expect to see it?
  • Can I skip the part we assume happened?
  • What would make this scene more memorable, visually?
  • What would make this scene funnier?
  • More moving?
  • What would REALLY happen in real life, not on TV?
  • Could I follow this scene w the sound turned off?

Scene craft: In what order does the information in the scene reveal itself? How do I get from a, b to c with exposition and conflict? What’s the most efficient way to start the scene? Where does the scene need to LAND so the viewer/reader digests what’s just happened?

Most scenes make one story point. Some two, rarely three. If a scene is trying to do too much (serve too much plot or too many storylines): I ask, is half the scene a later beat? Better saved for a later episode?

Be the critical voice who will read the draft. Get in front of what they might say: What are the stakes/danger? Where’s the tension? Why do we care? What makes me want to see more? Why do they HAVE to get what they want? What is your intent? What are the themes?

Address potential challenges and questions you can predict execs will ask you by answering them IN THE WRITING and prevent having to do it anyway in the next draft.

Revise, cut and tighten the dialogue. Push characters and story further than feels comfortable to make bolder choices that will reveal character.

Tighten action lines so verbs are more active. So lines fit on less lines. More white space, faster read.

Walk around thinking about how I can improve the work. Dance to my headphones. Splurge on good food and eat well. I read stuff that takes my mind off the story or deepens my understanding of it.

Skim the script for the main story beats. Is this the right order? I pretend I’m watching it in fast motion. Where do scenes seem out of order?
Re-structure and re-order scenes.
Voila! I have a SECOND DRAFT.

Trim and tighten the 2nd draft. I overwrite. e.g. I just wrote 99 pp that turned into a 59 page script. (Sex is good, but so is getting a script into the 60 pp range.) Next, I focus scenes on their point in the story. Less is more. I CUT my darlings, and then cut MORE darlings.

I’m not proud of over-writing. It’s inefficient. Working on that.

Another dialogue/action line pass. I check the structure and scene order again. Then, I have… a SECOND DRAFT. I get feedback from 2-3 trusted readers/friends/colleagues who share my sensibility and address their notes.

I sleep on it. I read it one sitting and I polish it.
Someone proofreads it for typos and inconsistencies. Then, I TURN IT IN!

And wait for notes… THE END.

PS I should add that throughout, there’s a TON of wanting to give up. Like I have to jog and I REALLY want to walk. A TON of feeling discouraged, frustrated, bored, distracted. Like it will NEVER work. That’s where food/music/walking/reading comes in. Time to imagine. And NAPS.