“I’ve always been drawn to dramatic writing; to the immediacy of it.”
Scott O’Connor, author of Untouchable and Half World, has written for FOX, Universal Television, 20th Century Fox Television, and Parkes + MacDonald Productions. His stories have been shortlisted for the Sunday Times/EFG Story Prize and cited as Distinguished in Best American Short Stories, and his novel Untouchable was awarded the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award. Scott’s new online course for Catapult, a workshop that focuses on creating a series treatment for television, begins on January 25th (sign up here). On Monday, Scott chatted with me about writing for television, the challenges of doing so while also writing fiction, and why a series treatment is so important when trying to develop and pitch a TV project.
How did you get your start in writing for television?
A couple of years ago, my film and TV agent had suggested I write an original script. I wrote a spec pilot script for a show called The Work. I was so new I didn’t even know that writing a treatment was something you’d want do; I just went ahead and wrote the whole 60-page script. I had a lot of good luck, in that it was picked up by a production company, then picked up by a studio, and then eventually by FOX. Along the way, as I got more experience working and talking with different studio executives and producers and writers, I realized how fundamentally important a treatment is if you’re trying to get someone to pay attention to your show.
A treatment is the most common way a show draws interest. It explains what the show is, who the main characters are and how they relate to one another, what the primary storylines are going to be. It articulates the tone, setting and major themes. And the treatment usually goes hand-in-hand with a pitch, an in-person version of the treatment, where you get twenty to thirty minutes with TV executives to explain and pitch them your show. Hopefully they will have either read the treatment before meeting with you, or will read it after you leave. It’s how you explain your show to people and try to generate interest in it.
Did you always want to write for television projects?
I went to college to study acting, and then lived in Chicago for years working as an actor, so I was always drawn to dramatic writing. I made short films in Chicago with some actor friends, and while writing these short scripts I fell in love with writing; with that whole process and that way of storytelling. Writing screenplays was a great way to learn about structure and storytelling and character. Then I started writing longer scripts, and the scope of the stories kept growing, until there was no way I could ever make them, financially—and that’s where I hit a wall and realized that it was one thing to write these scripts; it was another to actually get someone to look at them. I wasn’t living in Los Angeles at the time and had no knowledge of that world.
About ten years ago, I stopped writing screenplays for a while, and began writing novels. But in the last few years, I’ve returned to screen- and teleplays. The time away really helped, I think; I just became a much better writer thanks to those other projects,.
What do you enjoy most about writing for television? What appeals to you about this form of storytelling?
I’ve always been drawn to dramatic writing; to the immediacy of it. I also enjoy the structural challenges it presents. When you write a novel, there aren’t so many rules about length or how you write it—a novel can be many things, can look many different ways. But a script has rules: In TV especially, you’ve got a certain number of minutes in which to tell a story. If you’re writing for commercial television, you have commercial breaks you have to write to and around. How do you craft the most compelling story possible within a set amount of time, knowing that this is only one of what might be eight, twelve, fifteen episodes in a season—and that the season might be one of two or three or five?
To get back to the treatment, which is what my class for Catapult is all about, writing a treatment for a show helps me think about it on the page and consider some of these structural questions before I even start writing the script. Then I can write with a much better understanding of the kind of story I want to tell, the characters involved, the conflicts they will face.
Do you think watching good dramatic stories on television can make us better readers of stories, too?
I think engaging with any kind of good story can make you a better storyteller and a better reader. A lot of talk we’ve heard lately, about how TV is becoming more novelistic—I don’t necessarily see that; I see them as very different mediums. They might trade techniques or have certain similarities, but they have very different demands and structures and expectations.
That said, I think storytelling in general is universal. Most of the writers I know are really engaged with at least some television; there are usually at least a few shows they watch that really speak to them as writers. I’ve met a lot of screenwriters who are also avid readers.
Do you ever find it challenging to work on a script and a work of fiction at the same time? How do you manage your schedule and the differing demands of each medium?
I’m working on a novel right now, and have a story collection coming out this year, while also working on scripts. It definitely has its challenges, and I find I need to switch gears—I might work on the novel in the morning, take a walk or find some other kind of mental break, then work on the script next. They are such different forms. Screenwriting depends so much on concision, distillation—how can I describe this character in a single line? In a novel, depending on pace, you can stretch and take your time with things like backstory and interiority. That’s very hard to convey in dramatic writing—it’s not very interesting to watch characters think onscreen.
But I find the different types of writing have positive influences on one another. Screenwriting has helped me to become a better editor of my own work. Screenwriting can be so ruthless depending on the space you have to tell a story—you cut to the chase much faster. I think for many novelists, especially in our early drafts, it can take us forever to get to the chase. The screenwriting side can help me say, Okay, let’s get to it, you’ve stalled enough.
On the other side, writing novels does slow you down; at its best, writing fiction forces you to concentrate deeply on a character or a situation, and I think some of that depth can be brought over to screenwriting. And I think this is what people really mean when they talk about television becoming more like novels—they mean it seems more complex, and is more character-driven and doesn’t just leap from car chase to car chase. I think that development in TV writing does owe something to novels.
You wrote a full script first and sold it. How did you learn to write a treatment? And when you write for television now, what comes first, script or treatment?
After I sold my script, the producers I was working with taught me how to write a treatment. They would say, It would be great if you wrote a treatment for this show even though we’re already working on the script. It will help you focus your ideas for the show and talk about it.
Like a lot of writers, I’m not really comfortable just going into a room and selling something. But it’s a huge part of the job—convincing people you don’t know to keep listening to you, because this show could be something special. It’s easier to do that if you’ve done a treatment; if you’ve already figured out the major themes and the tone of the show and what the bigger picture is. I feel a lot more confident going into those meetings with my treatment in my head.
As for what comes first, it depends on the writer and the project. Since that first script, I’ve worked on projects where I wrote the treatment first, but sometimes I find it helpful to write part of the script first. Then a treatment helps me clarify the ideas that are still vague, figure out where some of my problems are, and I can go back and sharpen or rewrite the script.
Can you tell us what are you are working on now?
Right now I’m working on an adaptation of one of my novels, Half World, about the CIA in the 1950s and 1970s. I wrote the treatment a while ago, and now I’m working on the script. It took me a couple of years after publication to think of my novel as anything but a novel.
Writing treatments and writing for television has really helped me to learn that you can tell a story in any number of ways. Adapting your own novel for television means trying to tell it in another way; it’s like taking a new road, a different highway into the city, when you’ve always taken the same road in the past.
I told the story in my novel in a very particular way, and I’m happy with that, but if I want to tell the story for television then I have to tell it differently. It helps that I’m able to work with very thoughtful people who are willing to say, You’re going too far and cutting too much, or You’re sticking too closely to the novel! I’ve had to ask myself the same question I ask when writing any other treatment: How can I best tell this story for television? There is more than one way, hopefully, to tell a good story.
Nicole Chung is the author of All You Can Ever Know, a national bestseller and finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the forthcoming memoir A Living Remedy. Find her on Twitter: @nicolesjchung