Over twenty years ago, Jen Grisanti started her career as an assistant to Aaron Spelling, who served as her mentor for 12 years. She quickly climbed the ranks and eventually ran Current Programs at Spelling Television Inc., covering all of Spelling’s shows including Beverly Hills, 90210, Melrose Place and Charmed. In 2004, Grisanti was promoted to Vice President of Current Programs at CBS/Paramount where she covered numerous shows including Medium, Numbers, NCIS, 4400 and Girlfriends.
In January 2008, Grisanti launched Jen Grisanti Consultancy, Inc., a highly successful consulting firm dedicated to helping talented writers break into the industry. Drawing on her years of experience as a studio executive where she gave daily notes to executive producers/showrunners, Grisanti personally guides writers to shape their material, hone their pitches and focus their careers.
Since launching her consulting firm, Jen Grisanti worked with over 1000 writers specializing in television, features, and novels. Due to her guidance, over ninety of her clients have staffed as writers on television shows, fifty-three have sold pilots, and six of those pilots have gone to series.
Screenwriting consultant and former studio executive Jen Grisanti discusses crafting stories that resonate, finding your voice as a writer and building a network of professional relationships.
With experience as a story consultant, TV staffer, and mentor in the CBS Diversity program, Jen Grisanti is dedicated to helping writers make it as working film & TV professionals through the Jen Grisanti Consultancy.
Learn more about her new 10-week STORYWISE TV Writing Tele-seminar and training series HERE.
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I am constantly analyzing new series to see what works with story structure. One of my favorite new shows is Atypical on Netflix. I find this show explores in-depth familial dynamics at the same level as Friday Night Lights and This is Us. Understanding how structure can influence emotion and bring your audience to tears is what great storytelling is all about.
Structurally, a story tool that I’ve drawn from watching Atypical is the recognition that all the character arcs stem from the main problem of the main character and that sets up the series. It is when we feel it all linked, that story can reach such tremendous heights of emotion. This is because we feel the concept through all of the characters and the choices that they make. It often comes from the same wound but seeing it play out through different choices and different worldviews.
The main problem in Atypical is that Sam, a young boy that has autism, expresses his to therapist his desire to date. The series/season 1 is about this choice and his family’s reaction to it. The story explores how love is hard enough for a “neuro-typical” person to experience. With Sam, this pursuit becomes a lot more complex but the gift of it all is showing that the desire is real and it is doable.
We watch Sam take actions and hit obstacles in his pursuit to find love from filling out an online profile to learning how to approach girls that might be interested. It really gives us a glimpse of how he sees the world and shows us how things that might be considered simple for us are that much more difficult for people with autism. Seeing Sam take actions towards finding love connects with all of us.
We immediately feel the father’s wound to his son’s autism when he mentions buying his son tickets to a Mets game simply because he wanted to find a way to connect with him. He wanted them to have one thing in common. So, his reaction to Sam’s choice to date is to support this. He reminds his wife that they met around Sam’s age. It is clear that he hopes this experience will bring him and Sam closer together.
With Sam’s mom, Elsa, her reaction is panic because of her worry and the codependent relationship that she shares with her son. She clearly needs him to need her. So, the idea that he wants to find love, in her mind, threatens this. We see that Sam has become her life. This has gotten in the way of the intimacy that she and her husband share. The mother remains resistant despite the therapist sharing with her that autistic people have the same desire to love and be loved. They just don’t know how to approach it in a typical manner.
We see Sam’s problem play out in his sister, Casey’s arc when she punches a student that taunts another student. Casey is the protector. This is her role because of her brother’s condition and the fact that she is his older sister. We feel her angst. The irony is that it is due to her role in Sam’s life and this action she took that her first opportunity at love and romance comes into her life with Evan, who is the brother of the girl she protected.
Sam’s pursuit of love continues. When Sam gets an online response, we see the trials and tribulations that Sam has to go through in preparation for the date. When he hears that she wants to meet at a café, he has to find a way to block out the noise by wearing headphones. Sam hits an obstacle and the date doesn’t work out. Sam tries again when a girl at his work makes eyes toward him. This leads him into a situation where she offers to have sex with him. He hits an obstacle when she touches him in a way that he doesn’t like to be touched. This opportunity takes a turn for the worst.
When the parents go to dinner, we really see the opposing viewpoints to Sam finding love and the rift that it has caused in their relationship. This leads Sam’s father to buy his mother passes to a dance class. After class, she goes to drinks. This is when Elsa meets a bartender that opens her eyes to the fact that her son will never have the choices that he does. This begins an exploration toward finding intimacy.
In Casey’s budding connection with Evan, we see that Sam comes first in her life. This could cause a problem for the possibility of her finding a true connection with Evan.
When Sam learns that 49% of marriages end in divorce, Sam goes with his father to look at a place with penguins. Sam says that penguins mate for life. So, penguins aren’t like people. They’re better.
The structure in Atypical all stems from the main wound. This really works for connecting the audience to this concept and the characters in this world. This is a very strong story tool that all writers can learn to utilize for the concepts that they write.
Writing the TV pilot is one of the most challenging scripts to write,
and to write well. I’ve helped in the development of thousands of scripts over the past 20 years. I was a Studio Executive at two major studios for 12 years, I am currently a Writing Instructor
at NBC, and I’ve been a Story/Career Consultant for 10 years.
From the 48 pilots sold from the writers I’ve worked with since starting my business 10 years ago,
there are the five questions that I believe every writer should ask themselves when they are writing
their TV pilot:
Does my series trigger push my central character into a powerful enough dilemma to set up season one?
Is there a personal component that sets up the personal dilemma of my central character?
Does my central character actively make a choice in the pilot trigger and dilemma that leads to a pursuit?
Is my pilot goal clear?
How do I setup the series?
Trigger & Dilema
With your series trigger and dilemma, you want to think about something that happens to your central character
that knocks their life out of balance. At this point in the story, your central character is often reactive versus active.
The dilemma should make us feel empathy for your character.
With the personal component, you are setting up the personal dilemma of your central character that leads to the
professional pursuit. This sets up the void. The pursuit is one step towards filling this void. With the personal part,
you want to think about the arc of the wound. The best pilots have a childhood wound that the series trigger and
dilemma splits open. The personal component in your story is the emotional part of your story.
With the pilot arc, your central character goes from being reactive to active. With the setup of the series arc, they react to what happens to them. Then, they make an active choice that leads to the setup of the pilot arc. In the pilot arc, we should be clear about what your central character wants and why they want it by the end of Act One.
If the pilot goal is not clear, the story doesn’t work. In each act, the central character should take an action, hit an obstacle, and the stakes should be raised to the pilot goal. If the goal is not clear, you cannot link these points. We should feel what your character wants and what is in the way for every scene.
Series Set Up
After the resolution of the pilot arc, you need to set up the series. When I see this done well, it bookends
what happened in the series trigger and dilemma setup and helps to build the next level of the concept. The
point of this is to make your audience so enthralled that they can’t wait to see what happens next.
Mastering a story by utilizing the right tools is what will lead you to a sale.
Start your pitch off with passion. Tell them what inspired your story. If there is a link with a personal story that you have that connects to the concept and establishes that you are the perfect writer for this pitch, use it here.
What is the world of your concept? What is the time period? Is there a wish fulfillment element? Bring it all to life here.
SERIES LOG LINE
Use the formula set up of who (create empathy) dilemma, action, goal with a twist of irony.
*The purpose of sharing your series log line is to give your audience a general idea of what your show is.
PILOT LOG LINE
Give a log line for the A story. This tells your audience how you are going to enter the world through the central character in your A story.
Give a few lines about your central character. Tell us about your character through showing his/her personality in a situation.
TEASER OR CLIMAX
Tell your story in a way that your audience can visualize your powerful opening or a compelling climax. If you pitch your Teaser, give a strong sense of your opening dilemma. What is the thematic question going out of your opening? How is your series an answer to this question?
SUPPORTING CHARACATERS/CHARACTER DYNAMICS
If there are 2-3 other central characters, give one or two lines about them. You just want to define their characters. Do not give a paragraph/paragraphs on each of your characters; you will lose your audience. Give a strong sense of your character dynamics.
Think about my exercise Log Line For Your Life and write one for each of your characters. Remember to think, what is the wound that is driving my central character? What is the flaw that gets in the way? How does the pursuit heal the wound?
What are some of the themes that you plan to use in your pilot and your series?
In this section, you want to give your audience a universal sense of your concept.
What we will see week to week in your series? Make it clear that you have a strong engine for story.
Loop back around to what inspired your show, why you think now is a good time for it and any last tidbits that will excite them about your concept and make them feel your passion
When story gives true service, it takes us to a new level of consciousness and enlightenment and makes us feel very deeply. I have a hunger for this type of story. I am always on a quest for it. Take me inside a world from an angle that I haven’t experienced and make me feel like I am living in the worldview of the character/characters. This is what I discovered while watching the new Netflix show, The Crown.
Many of us in the entertainment community have recently gone through a shift or what many believe to be an “all is lost” moment. The best way to move through this type of experience is to express, heal and feel. Story is the place to do this. When story serves, it’s as if it understands what we are going through and it delivers it to us in a way that helps us to forget our own problems and buy into the world of imagination of another time and place. Oddly, this world has very strong parallels with what we just experienced with one meteoric rise to power.
The Crown took me into a world and made me feel like I was living it through the eyes of Queen Elizabeth and Winston Churchill. This is such a significant relationship in our history. To see it brought to life and delved into in a major way is absolutely spellbinding. Peter Morgan wrote this. He is a pure genius. He takes us into several different angles of relationship dynamics that ground and enthrall the viewer with this moment in time.
It starts with the King’s illness and the building of a beautiful relationship between him and his daughter, Elizabeth. We see how Elizabeth is being groomed but there is no warning at how quickly it will all happen. We feel what the King is going through. There is a moment when Elizabeth’s daughter gives him a King’s crown for a gift at the Christmas party at a time when he knows he’s sick. He reaches down for her hand as he gets choked up. I love these little moments that have so much emotion and meaning.
With Winston and Queen Elizabeth, we see how they need one another in their monumental roles. We feel their friendship and their loyalty. We feel the depth of the betrayal when Winston fails to tell Queen Elizabeth about his health and thus causes significant danger to her part in leading the nation. We feel the pain of letting go of a time that once was. We connect with what it is to have to let the younger generation take the reigns.
When I started working for Aaron Spelling, he was 69 and I was 24. He was bigger than life in my eyes. So, I could completely connect with this relationship dynamic and the understanding and admiration of an icon.
One of the many, many things that I love about this series is Morton’s exploration into the title versus the person. This was one of the major conflicts that Queen Elizabeth faced. It is very relevant today with career versus home life. However, in this time, the title had to take precedence over everything. The role of wife, mother, sister and daughter had to be secondary. Watching Queen Elizabeth have to embrace and transform into this at such a young age is astounding.
With Philip, we feel her struggle with her deep love for her new husband and her responsibility for the nation. We feel what he has to sacrifice in order to be a part of this relationship. We see how their marital bond is constantly tested by the title versus the person. It was also fascinating to know that this marriage was not supported from the beginning. Yet, there is such a poignant moment between The King and Philip when they go hunting in the pilot. The King helps Philip to see that there is no lesser role and nothing more patriotic than what he has to do with loving and protecting her.
Another relationship dynamic that moved me was the bond between the Queen and her two daughters. I never considered that when the King died, she was stripped of everything and her daughters took over. To have to see her face the death of her spouse and then go through so much loss really made us feel her pain.
I also loved the story arc where there was a promise made between the two sisters and their father. This promise is later put to the test when it is discovered that there is no way that the promise can be honored in light of the position and the responsibility. This is when we see and feel the true conflict for Queen Elizabeth and what she had to go through to maintain the role while not letting the intimate relationships in her family unravel.
For me, this is definitely one of the best first seasons that I’ve seen of any series in my 24 years of story. It filled my spirit because the writer, the director, the cast and the crew fulfilled their service to story at the highest level at a time when we need it the most.
As a story consultant, one of the things that I do is I study the season arcs of shows. Two shows that I’ve watch recently that had very noteworthy season arcs were THE NIGHT MANAGER and HAPPY VALLEY. The noteworthy strengths in both shows are the arc of the wound for the central character and how the powerful and compelling villain keeps the protagonist in a constant state of conflict. I’ve always known that the arc of the wound makes us feel the story. When you combine this with an adversary that is a true threat, it takes story to a whole new level. When the audience feels the story at this level, it creates a desire to return to the show.
In HAPPY VALLEY, Catherine’s wound has to do with her daughter’s suicide after giving birth. In the series arc, Catherine discovers from her ex-husband that Tommy Lee Royce, the guy who she believes raped her daughter which lead to her daughter’s pregnancy and suicide, is being released from prison. In this series, the villain caused the wound that is fueling the protagonist. This is a very powerful series dilemma. The question being debated throughout the season is will Catherine take the law into her own hands and find the justice that she seeks? The series arc with Tommy Lee Royce involves a kidnapping. This is the case that the series is about. What we learn is that the wound could be experienced all over again in a different scenario by the time that the finale happens. The character of Tommy Lee Royce is a very strong character. We view his brokenness and evil ways through the girl that they kidnap. We see a human side of his darkness when he communicates with the son that he didn’t know that he had until he was released. He creates so many internal and external obstacles for Catherine to face throughout the season 1 arc. The season worked so well because in the finale we really felt it all coming to a head. The answer to the season question is revealed.
In THE NIGHT MANAGER, there is a very powerful wound that we experience in the first episode with Jonathan Pine. The trauma of his loss is what fuels his season pursuit. The villain is an international arms dealer named Richard Roper. The initial trauma that Jonathan suffers is caused by a choice he makes after the revelation of the news that the arms deal is about to take place. After Pine’s loss in the series arc, a British Intelligence officer recruits him to infiltrate Roper’s inner circle. Jonathan must become a criminal himself to achieve his goal. The wound of the loss is magnified in the pilot arc with the dynamic that Jonathan has with Roper’s girlfriend, Jed. Jonathan’s desire for love gets in the way of the mission and creates tremendous obstacles with Roper. The dynamic between Pine and Roper with the knowledge of the wound is what really brings us emotionally into this incredibly gripping series.
I believe that the key to a successful series is the combination of these two components. When done well, the series trigger and dilemma sets up the wound. With doing this, you set up the internal story and create an internal stakes arc. When you have a strong villain, we get a sense of what the worst that can happen is throughout the series. This adds to the momentum of the show. It is the combination of the internal wound with the external force of the villain that leads to undeniable drama. This is what brings the audience back.
We are all storytellers. We begin telling stories as small children and continue throughout our lives. Story is a constant. I’ve worked with story for 25 years now. As a former studio executive, a current writing instructor for a network and independent story/career consultant, I’m on a constant quest to understand how to best guide writers to write their stories in a way that leads to a sale in TV or film. What I’ve discovered with the writers that I’ve had the most success helping to launch their careers is that it comes down to three components – System, Illustration and Application.
My system communicates my worldview of story to student. I see story from a studio executive perspective. When I was a studio executive I analyzed story all day every day on up to 5 shows a week at every stage from concept to production draft. I saw my notes executed. I saw what worked and didn’t work to create strong story. As I prepared to write my book, Story Line: Finding Gold In Your Life Story, I developed a system to teach story. I did this by gathering years worth of Oscar, Emmy, and Golden Globe nominated scripts. I studied them closely and extracted a formula that became the foundation of my system of teaching story. My system starts here: Strong story for TV and Film starts with what I call a powerful trigger incident. A trigger incident is something that happens at the beginning of the story that pushes the central character into a dilemma. The strength of the dilemma is key. A dilemma that forces the central character to make a difficult choice creates a powerful set up for story. It helps build empathy and a strong rooting factor in the audience. The central character’s choice in the dilemma defines her external goal. This goal should be totally clear by the end of Act One. Then, every action the central character takes and every obstacle she hits should link back to the goal. If the goal isn’t clear, the story won’t work. There should be internal and external stakes for the central character. We should always know what she wants externally, and what is the worst that can happen if she doesn’t get it. The internal story should also follow this logic and be in alignment with the external goal. This is the basics of the system that I designed to teach and analyze story.
The second critical component of teaching story is illustration. I use examples from current TV shows and films to illustrate my system to writers. When a writer clearly understands the system, examples help expand their view of story and allow them to hit some “aha” moments in their own learning process. Live events allow me to illustrate the lesson in real time by showing writers clips from TV and film. In my other avenues of teaching, I advise writers what specific things to watch and what to look for in the set up of those stories.
The third component of how I teach story is application. In one-on-one consults with writers I’m able to provide direct feedback on their stories. I use my story system to analyze whether the writer’s story is working or not. There is a tremendous value in this step because my system provides us a common language that allows me to communicate clearly the specific feedback the writer needs to understand in order to take their story to the next level. I use the system and illustration to teach writers how to apply the notes. My system, illustration and application go hand in hand to improve the writer’s outcome.
As a Story/Career consultant for writers, I’ve had the strongest success with writers who have read my books, taken advantage of my instruction at live events or online and utilized one-on-one consultations. Engaging in the complete process allows writers to soak in my system, see the illustrations and have a better understanding of how to apply the system, one that has led 40 of my clients to sell pilots, to their own work.
Series log line and a brief paragraph describing your Pilot.
Pilot Log Line – Write a log line for your pilot (summary of the A story).
The Show – Describe your Pilot. This gives a sense of how you see your show.
The Format -Describe what your show will be week to week. Is it an action/adventure show? Is it a character drama? Is it a police procedural? Is it a medical or legal show? Is there humor? What will the balance of story be in each episode? For example, if you’re writing a legal show, will it be more about the case or more about the personal?
The Philosophy -Go into a deeper explanation of your concept and what your audience can expect from it.
The Characters -Write a paragraph or up to a page on each character.
Supporting Characters – Write a brief paragraph for each supporting/recurring role.
Character Dynamics – Give a paragraph about the primary relationships that are part of the inside story.
Formula – Give an idea of the story formula with regards to the A and B story arcs.
Themes – Go into the overarching themes.
The On-Going Sets – Write down what your regular sets/locations will be.
Where will the majority of story take place?
The Pilot Story – Write a longer description/overview of the Pilot story.
Future Story Arcs – Write a line about the “A” and the “B” story for your first 13 episodes. If it’s a cable show, write log lines for your first 8-10 episodes.
Overview – Give an overview of your series arcs for seasons 1, 2 and 3.