Thursday, September 13, 2012

Ten Things I've Learning from Broadcast Writing

For almost a decade (and it pains me to admit that for multiple reasons), I've worked in TV news. I started out as a writer and eventually became a TV news producer. During that time I wrote a lot of scripts.

A lot.

Some of them were good; some of them were not.

I'm currently teaching a semester of Writing News for Broadcast at my alma mater, Franklin College. It's making for a busy semester--I'm working full-time (now in the web department at my TV station), teaching, and also trying to jam in some writing. When I discussed my busy schedule with my publisher (I'm expecting to turn in a Crimsonstreak sequel in mid-October), she said I should do a blog post on what broadcast writing has taught me about writing in general.

Let's go.

Short. Broadcast copy is short. The words are smaller, the sentences are less complex, and a story has to hold the audience's attention for just a few seconds. I end up doing this in a lot of my novels, using short sentences and phrases to get ideas across. This comes in handy during action scenes.

Simple. The story is short--and the concepts have to be simple. This doesn't mean you cover stories that only a three year old can understand; it does mean you have to cover your stories so that they are simple to understand. Overly complex ideas and concepts will go right over the head of your audience.

Conversational. TV writing is designed to be conversational. Sure, it often devolves too much into "news speak," but generally, you should write like you talk. This is actually very helpful when it comes to writing dialogue. You get a sense of how people talk.

Visual. TV is a visual medium. There's an old adage of "see dog, say dog" (or "see monkey, say monkey" depending on your preference)--which means that you need to write with visuals in mind. I visualize my TV news stories by thinking about what video I have...and when I'm writing fiction, I'm thinking about what images I can work with.

Sounds tell the story. A team scores a touchdown but no one cheers. A building implodes without a "kaboom." A band plays to a silent soundtrack. The natural sound in our world (NAT sound in TV terms) is key for making a story come to life. Stories that lack this element feel hollow. In addition, a story is better when people tell it instead of a reporter. TV isn't just a visual medium; it's an auditory one as well. I try to keep this in mind when writing scenes.

Trimming the fat. TV news scripts are lean--or at least they should be. The best ones contain only critical information--you leave out things that just aren't important. I have a tendency to overwrite, jamming too much information into news copy. For the most part I've got it under control, although sometimes I do get sidetracked.

Deadline-driven. If you've ever worked in journalism, you know deadlines are king. In TV news, your day is a never-ending series of micro deadlines. I'm used to writing under pressure, which means revision deadlines are a piece of cake. Trust me, I'll take that over "we have 30 seconds till air, where's the script?" any day.

Information overload. This differs from trimming the fat--I swear. When you write science fiction and fantasy like I do, sometimes the rules of the world change. It's important to avoid "assaulting" your audience with these changes and overwhelming them with this information. Instead, as you would in a news script, you have to deliver this information in baby steps.

Destroy cliches. I'm guilty of using cliches, but I do my best to avoid them. That doesn't mean they never slip into my writing. I'm very attuned to them--and know things like "completely destroyed" and "fled on foot" are bad news. Ugh.

Just say it, baby! The real trick to writing for TV news is to read your scripts aloud. You'll hear how things hit the ear and notice when something doesn't seem right, such as an awkward phrase or alliteration that your anchor will never pull off in a million tries. I do this with my novels as well. I won't say I read the entirety of every book aloud, but I do read a lot of my prose to help smooth it out, especially in problematic sections.