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Matt Goldman on the Differences Between Writing TV and Books

Did you know that in addition to writing his Nils Shapiro series, author Matt Goldman is also an Emmy Award-winning TV writer? He’s joined us on the blog today to talk about the differences between writing for TV and writing novels. Read his insight below, and pre-order a copy of his upcoming book Dead West, the next book in the Nils Shapiro series!


By Matt Goldman

I’m often asked how I went from writing TV comedy to murder mysteries. Well, if you’re as introverted as I am and spend twenty-five years in rooms full writers pitching jokes at you all day, murder comes to mind. That is not a joke. But it’s not the whole story either. I love writing TV, and I love TV writers. I have spent tens of thousands of hours in rooms full of brilliant imaginations. They have taught me character, dialogue, story, arcing relationships, and series architecture. All those aspects of writing TV apply to writing novels. It’s a lot—let’s say seventy percent of the skills one needs to write a book. But the other thirty percent differentiates the two.

The biggest difference is working alone versus working in a group. How TV is written differs from show to show, but most shows rely on a room of writers. I experienced a room as small as four and as large as fourteen, but most were between eight and ten. As a group we would identify story ideas and choose the ones we thought would make good episodes, then one writer would leave the room to write a one-page description of the story. The room would go over that page and suggest changes, the process directed by the showrunner, also called the head writer who is often the creator of the show. It’s their vision and final say that directs the creative process.

When the showrunner approves the one-page, it goes to the studio and/or network executives for their approval. Some stories don’t survive this process. The ones that do go to the next step.

When the powers that be approve the one-page, the story goes back into the writers’ room. There, we break the story, which means work it out from beginning to end by conceiving the basics of each scene and writing it on a white board. That can take anywhere from a day to a week or more. When that’s done, usually the showrunner assigns the outline to a writer or team of writers, and they go off and write an outline. Then the process starts all over again. The outline goes to the writers’ room where it’s reworked, to the studio and/or network executives for approval, and after changes are suggested and made, the new version of the outline goes back to the writer(s) and they leave the room to write the script.

That can take anywhere from a weekend to a couple of weeks. (Larry David wrote my favorite Seinfeld episode “The Contest” over a weekend). When the writer(s) finish a first draft, it goes through the same process as the one-page and outline, but often two or three or more times.  When the writers, studio and/or network, and sometimes the stars and/or director, all sign off on the script, then it goes into production. There’s a whole other process of rewriting/rehearsing/rewriting that happens there, some for content, some for production logistics and costs, but I’ll skip that now. When the show is finally shot, it goes into editing. Editing is the same as writing, but working with shot footage instead of words.

Now for novel writing. A writer sits down and writes a book. The End.

That’s an oversimplification, but not by much. The vast majority of novelists I know, even in the plot-heavy genres of mysteries and thrillers, do not outline. That surprises most readers, but it’s true. What we do is get an idea (don’t ask from where—I don’t know), mull it around in our heads for a week or six months or ten years, then sit down and write. For me, no one sees the book or even part of it until I’m happy with it, which usually takes three or four drafts.

Then my wife reads it. She’s smart. She gives me her thoughts and I incorporate most of them. Then I send it to a few beta readers and my agent, all smart, too. I address most of their thoughts. Then it goes to my super smart editor, and her suggestions make the book better.

A huge difference between writing books and writing TV is the input I receive on a manuscript versus the input I receive on a teleplay. It’s for this reason: a script is a blueprint. It’s not a house. It’s a plan to build a house. The house you envision from the blueprint will differ from how someone else envisions the house from the same blueprint. Yes, there’s the kitchen with equal dimensions, but the cabinetry, countertops, appliances, flooring, and lighting vary greatly. When screenwriters write scripts, different people picture different things. The chasm is even greater with outlines. When executives read scripts, they often feel disappointed because they expected something different based on what they envisioned from the outline. The process is messy, and the showrunner often has to fight for their vision—also referred to as voice. Sometimes they compromise to make the conflict go away. When voice gets watered down, shows get bad. Real fast. That’s another blog post.

A book, however, is the house. The author shows the reader exactly what the kitchen looks like, if it’s important to the story. If it’s not, no one cares about the kitchen because the author communicates their voice unimpeded by external input. This can be good or bad, depending on the author. But when my agent reads my manuscript she can suggest improvements from within the voice. It’s already there. That’s why people who like a book are usually disappointed in the movie—the voice was compromised somewhere in the process.

There are other differences between writing TV and books. But the ability to communicate voice and vision through a manuscript versus a teleplay is the biggest. Oh, and no production assistants bring you snacks when you write books. Maybe book writing isn’t as great as I thought.

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