“Don’t just keep taking writing courses.” Learn. Apply. See what works.
Takeaways from London Writers Salon’s interview with TV writer, showrunner and producer, Cynthia Knight.
This week Matt and Parul from London Writers Salon interviewed Cynthia Knight, screenwriter, showrunner and executive producer. Knight is best known for her work as the co-creator and show runner of the comedy-drama series, Mohawk Girls, which was nominated for several awards including best comedy writing. She also wrote for the CBS show, Sophie. In addition to her work writing and producing, Knight runs a workshop: The Secrets of Writing Hit TV Series where she coaches numerous up-and-coming screenwriters.
In this interview, Knight gives us practical advice for how to make a screenplay stand out. From crafting a logline, to honing an idea, Knight shares with us the tips and tricks she’s learned over her twenty years in the industry. She goes into great detail and gives us a taste of what her writing workshop is like. If you’re interested in screenwriting, it’s worth watching the whole interview or signing up for one of her classes!
Here are my favorite takeaways.
Don’t rush into writing. Figure out the story first.
Writing is the most exciting part. However, it’s important to have the building blocks in place first. Once you have a logline, a clear idea of the conflict of the story, Knight encourages writers to explore the concept of the series before writing the pilot episode.
“Once I figure out the story engine and have a really clear main theme, [I begin with] a great log line because the logline is basically your engine, your central conflict. You can’t fudge that or none of the rest will work. Once I have my great logline and theme, I don’t even have to know everything about my characters, but I write it out like a half to one page series concept…You need to know what your show looks like. What these characters are trying to do every episode. What’s coming their way. If there’s an arc story in future seasons. So I really recommend holding off on the fun of writing a script for another minute and writing a half a page or page as if you were telling someone in two minutes about your show.”
Writing is an opportunity to say something to an audience.
Writing is powerful, so figure out exactly what it is you want to say. This ties into the theme of the story, and having a deeper understanding of your story’s theme will make your story stronger.
“Figure out what about this idea is exciting to you and what you think will resonate with other people. That’s the key, that’s the crystallized idea. Then you can choose how to populate it. The best stuff that I watch, the best stuff that I write comes from theme…I find people get it a little wrong. They’re like, “My show is about class and poverty.’ What are you saying about those things? What is your statement. What are you saying to your audience. We have an opportunity when we’re writing to say something, to have a message. It’s like a call to action to your viewers.”
Your pilot needs to not only showcase your work, but also showcase your story’s potential.
It’s not just about your writing skills. It’s not just about your great story. When selling yourself as a screenwriter, it’s about both.
“Your job as a writer with a pilot or pitch document is to show your voice and your unique take — what you’re bringing to the material. But it is also to enable the person reading to picture not only the pilot, but the series.”
Apply what you are learning.
Learning is important, especially for new writers who are figuring out a new medium. However, it can become rather easy to take course after course and not actually put pen to paper. Knight received great advice from a teacher who pushed her out of her safe zone.
“I took a weekend long course…and I remember [the teacher] saying, ‘Take a course, or read a book, or read a website. Then apply what you learn to a script. Write. Don’t just keep doing courses. Learn something. Apply it. See what works. See what doesn’t and then read another book or take a course to improve on [your work].”
Building relationships is an integral part of the process.
According to Knight, there are many ways to meet people in the industry. The important thing is to build that network as you go. It helps with getting recommended for work or finding new projects, so make connections!
“Networking and relationship building are so key…If you [made a connection] once a month or once every two months, that means you’re developing relationships with writers and show runners little by little by little. How many people would you know over the course of a few year? And those people are going to be the people who can help you with advice and connections and ultimately get you into a room.”
Be prepared before approaching an agent.
Knight talked about how screenwriters sometimes approach agents before they’re ready. One great way to be prepared is to understand yourself as a writer and to have a strong portfolio that showcases your work.
“I would say you should have a portfolio of at least three scripts that are amazing… At least three scripts that really demonstrate your really unique, distinct voice. I think that’s the minimum you should have before you go to an agent. Also know it’s very hard to get into a room, but forging relationships [is important].”
Loglines aren’t about having the perfect length.
There is no Goldilocks solution for the perfect logline. As Knight puts it, it’s not about the perfect length, just the perfect content.
“People say 25–50 words [is the perfect logline length]. I’ve seen ones that are a little bit longer. Ones that are little big shorter. I don’t think the wordcount that is so integral. It’s hitting everything you need to hit and making us see that there is a very clear, concise central conflict…I think a big that that people do is they have log lines that are too long. But the length isn’t the problem. It’s that they’re two ideas. You want your log line to be the main central conflict of your show. A character, a descriptor that drives story.”
Perseverance is key.
Knight had a wealth of knowledge to share, and I’m sure her writing workshop will go into even more detail about how to make a stand-out pilot script. However, her most comforting piece of advice for aspiring screenwriters is to keep going.
“Perseverance is really 90% of it all…Keep honing your craft. Remember it’s a craft. Like anything else, it takes a lot of hours, a lot of attempts, and a lot of bad scripts to get really good at it, so be patient with yourself. And know that perseverance is really the key, so keep writing. Keep learning. Keep communing with your community here because that’s a real lifeline when we all just feel alone in our bubbles.”
Don’t have a community and want to join one? Write with us every weekday at Writer’s Hour, and meet a great group of fellow writers.