9 Questions Television Writers Must Answer When Developing A Television Show by Peter Russell

9 Questions Television Writers Must Answer When Developing A Television Show by Peter Russell

Film Courage: Questions one should ask themselves
about writing a TV show? Peter Russell, script doctor and screenwriter:
Okay, there are nine questions I always ask when I’m first talking to someone about
a TV show. First of all give us a great world, we need
a great world because we are going to be in for 150 episodes. So what is a great world? I would do an exercise where you give me a
great world and don’t tell me it’s New York City. I want to know a specific neighborhood. What the great world? Because great television is always about a
great world. If you want to talk about New York then give
me a specific world like there’s a show called BILLIONS and this show is brilliantly
written, it’s probably the best television out there right now and it’s all about billionaires
how they make their money and how they live their fascinating lives. Another fascinating one is THE ASSASSINATION
OF GIANNI VERSACE. That’s the world of Gianni Versace fashion
world in Miami and then this guy who became a his world (I’ve never seen it before). So CARBON BLACK is this really cool sci-fi
show. It’s about a cool future where people can
change bodies so they have sleeves as they call it. So your world, you want to ask yourself what’s
the world of your show? ATLANTA is probably the coolest show on television
right now and it’s all about this African American milieu of middle class (lower middle-class)
Atlanta and this sort of slacker guy in it and how he’s going to survive in this slacker
world. Never seen it before. STRANGER THINGS, that the world of the eighties
and that’s big nostalgia for kids that are 20 right now. People on their bikes without helmets, television
sets that were tubes with rabbit ears. So the world there is absolutely about nostalgia. So big question, what’s your world? That’s what we want to see. Fantasy continues to be big. I hate it but zombie is a world that just
continues to be big. Vampires romance, black comedy world (SHAMELESS),
white trash. So worlds are extraordinarily important in
your show. The next question I ask is do you have a theme
that matters. What do you want o say about the world in
your television show? For instance a show like SONS OF ANARCHY which
is a great world, a world of motorcycles show. The theme is if you have a bad mom or dad,
you’re going to be screwed. You need to have a good parent, you need to
be mentored well (he’s not). And that means the entire show fails because
he doesn’t have a good mom and dad. His dad’s dead and his mom’s horrible. And so this truth about life is probably what
hipsters ignore when they are writing, like “Ahhh! I want to write this story!” I call it the. It’s going to be full of motorcycles and
violence and razor blades and people smoking. And I’m like “Okay, great. Ten minutes, I’ll love it. Then what’s the truth about life? You’re saying Kurt Sutter (SONS OF ANARCHY)
is brilliant writer why? Because he’s got a theme that a hero that
drives a motorcycle, who is tough, who does all the things you say you want to see, the
violence, the motorcycles, all that stuff. But every episode is about this guy struggling
with the fact that he doesn’t have a dad. How do I live my life without a dad or a mom
and he never figures it out. And he’s screwed because of some theme answers
the questions. In ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK which is a brilliant
show, what’s the theme? Well you better know yourself. Piper doesn’t know if she likes girls or
boys? And the whole show is…Do I like guys? Do I like girls? Who am I? You tell me who I am. So I don’t know. So that’s a great theme too. DOWNTON ABBEY has a theme which is the lower
class is rising and we have to understand how it’s rising. That’s the theme of every episode of DOWNTON
ABBEY. So theme is important. In THE WIRE which is probably the intellectual’s
wet dream of a show (THE WIRE), David Simon in story bible and that’s something you
should also have when you are pitching a story, his message is this. His story (I’m just going to read this because
this is on the front page of the story bible), this story is about the human condition, it’s
not just a police show, it’s a show about how we have taken the urban underclass and
have jailed them and tormented them and teared them apart in our stupid. That’s his theme and it’s a social theme
and that motivates every one of those episodes. So if you don’t have that and it works even
in a sitcom, you’re not going to have a show that works. So what are you passionate about, what do
you believe in, I ask my students this sometimes, what do you believe in? They are like “I don’t know? It’s important. I’m going to write a hip story.” I’m like “No you’re not. You are going to bore us.” The next question is why do we want to watch
the show every week? Okay, every week we’ve got to watch a show,
a hundred episodes. So you need a great question. In BREAKING BAD what’s the great hook question
every week? How bad is ‘How bad is Walter going to break? What’s he going to do? Oh God, he’s going to get worse.” MAKING OF A “Hey did he do it or not? That’s a pretty good question.” Every week we get that. ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, is Piper ever going
to find out if she likes girls or boys? Maybe she’s not going to? But this question continues, it’s the hook,
it’s the great question. MR. ROBOT, can Elliot take down the big corporation? Okay, GAME OF THRONES which family is going
to win? Every episode is about that? And what’s the theme of GAME OF THRONES
by the way because it’s kind of important? The theme is Do you have to be evil to be
a great leader? That’s the whole question for every episode,
right? So that’s an important question. So the next one is genre, let’s now go into
that because I teach that and it’s a structural thing but you need to teach that but you need
to stick in your genre. What parents in your show like? In television if you’re going to write a
TV show you’ve got to know what are the parents of the show? What shows are like this that you’ve seen
before? And my hips students are like “Ahh, Peter
I don’t want to, my show is like nothing else ever on.” And it’s like well okay, then it’s not
going to get on. Even if you want it to be completely different
from everything, you’ve got to understand what you’re reacting to. What did you hate? You’ve got to have parents for the show
and it will help you build your show if you do. And the next question (and this is super important)…what
is the question that torments the hero for ever and ever that will never be resolved? What’s the unsolvable dilemma that will
never every be solved? And that is (in MAD MEN) I am unlovable and
the things I do to make myself lovable make me so uncomfortable that I run away. Don Draper seduces woman after woman after
woman but every time they fall in love with them (they always do), he runs away because
he hasn’t solved his basic dilemma which is “I’m unlovable.” Okay so that is the unsolvable dilemma. Even in BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER it’s “I
just want to be alpha bitch and be in high school and be popular.” No, you’re a vampire slayer. “I don’t want to be a vampire slayer.” A hundred and fifty episodes of that unsolvable
dilemma. BREAKING BAD, Walt’s dying, he’s got to
take care of his family, how does he do it, he becomes a drug dealer and it destroys his
family. So the thing that makes him want to take care
of his family, the way he does it, destroys his family. TRUE DETECTIVE, Russ knows the world is meaningless,
Marty believes there is a lot of meaning in the world, how do they resolve that? Well they do in the end because remember it’s
a miniseries so in the end it’s like a movie, so in the end the do both believe the world
is a great place. But that’s not classic TV, okay? So will Walt protect his family or destroy
it? How can good prevail in a world that is run
by the strongest? That’s GAME OF THRONES. How can we have a world where there is a good
leader when it’s the worst people who always win, right? Unsolvable dilemma. Maybe in the end the two people with the Ikea
rugs on the back of their cart do. But for the whole 7 to 8 years they don’t
have it. So what is the irreconcilable conflict in
your show? What is the dilemma that will never be resolved
that will keep people coming back and obviously that has to do with their core wounds. So the next question is “What’s their
big core wound in your hero? How does that work in your television show? And it’s always about that irreconcilable
dilemma. MAD MEN “I’m unlovable.” Tyrion in GAME OF THRONES “I’m unlovable.” Everything he does is because of that. Walter’s is “I’m weak.” And my father used to say “Never corner
a weak man. They’ll turn out to be really strong.” Wade in DEADPOOL by the way is “I’m ugly.” Randall in THIS IS US (which is a great serial
show), Randall is “I’m not part of this family. My skin color is different, I’m not really
part of the family.” Peter in SNEAKY PETE “I’m not part of
the family.” Jessica Jones in JESSICA JONES “I’m not
safe. This villain can get me. He’ll always get me.” So core wounds are the nuclear reactors to
your show. They really are and they have to happen. Daenerys core wound in GAME OF THRONES is
“I’m powerless.” And we see the entire first season for Daenerys
she starts out as this little slave for her brother. She’s give to this warrior as an object. By the end of the season she has walked through
fire and hatched dragon wings so her powerlessness is beginning to go away but it continued through
the entire run of GAME OF THRONES “I’m powerless.” Is she getting powerful, she’s getting to
but it’s going to take a long time. So these are just the beginnings of the questions
that I would ask. There are many others but this is a start
when you are writing television. And they are different from film but they
do start, when I would start talking to someone about their TV show, these are the questions
I would ask them at the beginning.

45 thoughts on “9 Questions Television Writers Must Answer When Developing A Television Show by Peter Russell

  1. I just started my spec script for a TV show, and the one question I got stuck on was the core wound that my hero faces. I went through certains shows such as "Legion," "Sons of Anarchy," "The Assassination of Gianni Versace," "Ozark," and countless others to study what makes those key characters hurt, and once I got it, I found something for my protagonist. Any time Peter Russell speaks, my ears are wide open.

  2. i was thinking that he possibly combined orphan black with altered carbon and misspoke. both are current (and successful ish) running series.

  3. Prospective student hands Peter Russell a pilot spec script that absolutely delights him. Conversation the next day would probably go like this:

    P. Student: I know it needs quite a bit of polishing up. I —
    Peter: shhh. You've got a great nucleus here. A lot to build on.
    P. Student: Sooo… your class, eh, how much?
    Peter: For you. It's free.

    Lol. I've never seen anyone so passionate about TV shows, it's almost contagious. I actually have a pilot 1st draft for a show. Once I touch it up a few drafts, Peter's the script doc I really wanna work with on it.

  4. Q 1: What is the Great World your show is set in?
    Q 2: What is the Theme of your show?
    Q 3: What are you passionate about?
    Q 4: What do you believe in?
    Q 5: Why Watch Every Week?
    Q 6: Genre?
    Q 7: What are the Parents of your show?
    Q 8: What's the Unsolvable Question for the Hero?
    Q 9: What's the Core Wound of the Hero?

    These are the 9 questions Peter Russell states in the video. Q 3, Q 4 & Q 6 were quickly overlooked compared to the rest in the video.

  5. Thank you for brilliantly sharing about the core of what makes shows draw an audience!Magnificently stated-you are AWESOME in your field of knowledge,and in all other aspects of the arts!!!!!

  6. I love the way he verbalizes "Themes", "Premise" and "Hooks". "The great question". All of that. Perfect. More with Peter, please.

  7. I'm just curious… a show like friends is set in New York City. what is the world? and what is the theme? is it just that friends will always be there for you. clap clap clap. 🙂 but i'm seriously asking. I sort of wish there were more sitcom examples.

  8. What about the world of say The Office (the original series), which is only 12 episodes long (plus the christmas special)? It's made to be unsexy, uninspiring and down right boring. Is that wrong?

  9. An avalanche of sickening violence and prolifically-debased values already massively floods television.

    I would never trust this man’s taste, in terms of what he labels as “brilliant”.

    There is absolutely nothing transcendently virtuous about any of the various projects that he is mentioning. His capacious use of Niagara enthusiasm—albeit generously creating exciting distracting froth—lacks genuine capacity to ever catapult lower realm decadence out from under any of these projects, in terms of actual brilliance.

    Fixation upon violence, misogyny, horrifying harm, etc.—is a base lower latitude entity, which ends up only ever ultimately tethered to base lower realms of suffering. Nonvirtue inherently lacks directional longitude.

    The true role of a writer and creator is to be able to genuinely, transcendently and creatively, guide suffering beings out of their suffering. The public is already mired in various ranges of hell realm suffering. What they do not need is more darkness and debauchery which endangers them to even worse suffering influences. The writer and creator have inordinate responsibility to avoid, at all costs, being purveyors of copycat violence regarding visual content created. And yes, you are highly responsible for that if and when it’s copied in real life. There is nothing brilliant about non-virtue.

  10. Top level briefing on how to create addictive television. I guess being toxic is also a craft. But really we're just re-inventing the soap opera in more grandiose fashion. Still, all due props to Peter Russel who is clearly a master in the game.

  11. Is it just me or has he misunderstood the "theme" of a bunch of shows? Son's of anarchy is about how people need good parents? Maybe, in an overly reductive stretched out sense. Orange is the new black is about piper not knowing if she likes girls or boys? Ummmm. No. No, I don't think that it is?

  12. What happens if you have successfully answered all of these questions, your pilot is almost done and you feel you have something worth looking at? Then what? Write more episodes? Or pitch it to someone?

  13. Let us know what you think of our show idea called The Sheriff of Topanga Canyon starring Dr. Brown https://youtu.be/fkditMoqQhg

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