Stephen Harrigan reflects on his career writing TV movies of the week:
As a writer of what I call colon movies (such as Beyond the Prairie: The True Story of Laura Ingalls Wilder, or Take Me Home: The John Denver Story), the ’90s were my golden decade. I was an A-list writer of B-list productions.
MOWs have largely gone away, but as a profession it is very much like feature writing — only with tighter deadlines and smaller budgets.
The format does come with its own bag of tropes and clichés:
After I had been in the business for awhile, I started to grow aware of the word “turns,” and the more aware of it I grew the more determined I became to outmaneuver it. It’s the default word for the end of almost every scene: “He turns”; “She turns”; “She hesitates for a moment at the door, then turns back to face him”; “He looks away, and when he turns back to her she notices there are tears in his eyes.“ It became my personal challenge to write an entire script without anybody turning, like that guy in the 1930s who once wrote a whole novel without ever using the letter “E.” But after a while I gave up. It was too hard, maybe even impossible. People in my scripts just naturally needed to turn to each other to button up a scene, to give it a proper note of finality. Trying to write a screenplay without using “turns” was like trying to write a pop song without using “baby.”
I love Harrigan’s observation that subtlety is too much like vagueness, and in a script nothing vague can survive:
You had to search and search until you found a story’s irreducible thread: a man on the run from a killer, a young girl growing into a woman, a victim seeking revenge. If the movie was about one thing, it could be about many things. But if you started out determined to make it about many things, it would be about nothing.
It’s a long read, but thoroughly worthwhile.