Sunday, July 16, 2006

Book Review: Crafty TV Writing: Thinking Inside the Box by Alex Epstein

Crafty TV Writing is, most obviously, a manual for aspiring writers wondering how the industry and the process works and how to break into the business, or for professional television writers who want to improve their scripts and advance their careers.

Author Alex Epstein is also the author of Crafty Screenwriting:Writing Movies that Get Made, and provides ongoing writing advice on his blog, Complications Ensue. The co-creator of the series Naked Josh and head writer for Charlie Jade, he outlines everything from understanding the structure and process of writing for television, coming up with ideas, writing a spec script, getting an agent, landing freelance gigs, being hired as a staff writer, working your way up the ranks, to creating your own show ("the holy grail").

While he's a graduate of Yale University and the UCLA School of Film and Television, Epstein suggests that watching television with a writer's eye is more valuable preparation than formal education. But he does provide information about schools, seminars, internships, entry-level jobs, awards and competitions, as well as lists of resources such as where to find scripts online and which screenwriting software programs are most valuable.

But besides television writers and wannabe writers, there is another audience for the book. Crafty TV Writing will also appeal to the television fan keeners who want to take a peek at the wizardry behind the curtain, to discover how television shows are put together from the writers' perspective. And that's a good thing for me, because while I am not qualified to evaluate advice on making it in the TV business, I'm something of an expert at being a nerdy fan.

Some fans might not want the process demystified, might not want to think about the tricks behind the magic of television. But armchair students of television find illuminating Epstein's discussions about the hidden template of a show - "the sum of all things that must remain consistent from episode to episode" - and the structure of a show - the teasers, tags, and act outs that are designed to get viewers to return after commercial breaks, and again next week.

And true fanatics might find the entire writing process fascinating, especially for those who might know something about how movies are put together and assume that television is similar. Television is far more of a writer's medium, with the showrunner (the writer who, well, runs the show) exerting control over all aspects of production. But "television is not a medium of personal expression" Epstein warns a few times, explaining that the staff writer's job is to write the way the showrunner would if he had time. Writing for television is also a hugely collaborative process, often with an entire writing staff, not to mention studio and network notes, contributing to what finally ends up on screen.

The book is peppered with supporting opinions from such diverse writers as Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Chris Abbott (Magnum, P.I.), Paul Guyot (Judging Amy), John Rogers (Cosby), Barbara Hall (Joan of Arcadia), Javier Grillo-Marxuach (Lost), Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing), and Lee Goldberg (Diagnosis Murder). The examples Epstein uses to illustrate his points come from a wide enough range of shows that at least some should be recognizable to anyone who's watched TV in the last 30 years (and if you haven't, I'm a little puzzled why this review or this book would interest you).

Crafty TV Writing's clarity and moments of humour make it an easy read, despite the reams of detailed information, and those who intend to use it as a writing resource will find the sections laid out for easy reference. So for anyone from armchair critic to pro writer, Crafty TV Writing is likely to prove a fascinating peek inside the box.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics)