Solving The Mystery of TV: An Interview with William Rabkin

By Alana Saltz
If you want to learn how to break into TV writing, William Rabkin is definitely the man to talk to. He’s written and/or produced hundreds of hours of dramatic television for hit shows like “Monk,” “Psych,” “Spenser: For Hire,” and “The Glades.” He served as show runner on the long-running Dick Van Dyke mystery series “Diagnosis Murder” and on the action-adventure spectacle “Martial Law.” He’s also written and sold a dozen network pilots.If you want to hear more of William’s advice about TV writing, he’ll be at our TV Drama panel this Friday night along with Mad Men writers Jason Grote and Michael Saltzman. It’s only $5 and includes sangria and snacks. Also, William will be teaching a Writing a Pilot That Can Fly weekend intensive at the Pad starting June 21st! He’ll teach you everything you need to know about writing an irresistible series and give you feedback on your idea, outline and pilot to help you bring it to the screen. It is not to be missed.

We recently caught up with him to ask him a few questions about his career and get his insights on the screenwriting life.

You’ve written for several hit TV series including “Monk” and “Psych.” When did you start your screenwriting career and how did you break in?

Really short version: My then-partner and I wrote a spec for “Spenser: For Hire,” which the producers bought and shot.

Of course there’s a longer version, which includes the usual disappointments and frustrations. (Like, for instance, the year that script sat on the “Spenser” Executive Producer’s desk before he opened it.) But really, just about all breaking in stories are the same – you spend what feels like a lifetime writing and fighting to get someone to pay attention to you and it looks like it will never happen, and then some freakish thing works out in exactly the right way and you’re through the door.

I understand why people looking to get in tend to focus on the “how did you break in?” question – I know I did – but that’s really the wrong part of the equation. Everyone has a different, unique break in moment. . . what we all have in common is the years of writing and the piles of scripts through which we learned our craft. The moment can come at any time and you can’t force it, so focus on making sure that when it does, you’re ready.

Can you talk about your process for coming up with the intricate cases that the main characters have to solve on “Monk” and “Psych”? Do you use real crimes/cases as inspiration?
Almost never, because any real crime that’s interesting was immediately strip-mined by other shows. During the peak days of procedural-mania, you could see a newspaper headline and know that three months later it would be on at least two “Law and Order” episodes and several other shows, quite possibly in the same week.

My process is different every time. Sometimes it’s a cool puzzle. “Mr. Monk Goes to Mexico” was like that – I’d had the idea for a while of a teaser for something where a skydiver’s chute doesn’t open, but when they scrape his body off the ground they discover he died from drowning in salt water. It took a while to come up with a solution. In the “Psych” books, I usually started with a situation I wanted to put Shawn and Gus in, and designed a murder around that, whether it was stranding them in the mountains or framing them for murder.

You’ve been a show runner on “Diagnosis Murder” and “Marital Law.” What qualities did you look for when hiring staff writers?

The first thing is the writing, of course. You look for a script that is alive. You feel the energy jumping off the page. And you want to keep reading, even if you don’t care about the subject matter. One big part of that is precision. Everything is there for a reason. For example, go check out a British TV movie called “Page Eight” written and directed by playwright David Hare with Bill Nighy and Rachel Weisz. Every word in every line of dialogue is perfect. Every word that wasn’t perfect was removed. I watched this thing with tears in my eyes simply from the beauty of the craft.

The writing gets the writer through the door. Then we meet and sometimes you don’t click with someone and you know familiarity is not going to improve things. You’re looking at spending eight or 10 hours a day in a room with this person for the next few months, and you just can’t do it. Then there are times when you like the writer, but know he won’t be a good fit on your show. I remember when we were staffing “Martial Law,” we met a female writer who was brilliant and were eager to hire her. But when she came in she was so shy and quiet, we could barely hear a word she said. I like a noisy room. I like writers shouting out ideas and fighting (nicely!) for what they believe in. But not getting hired on “Martial Law” wasn’t a death blow to her career. Last time I saw her credit she was an executive producer on “House.”

Your book “Writing The Pilot” takes you through the process of creating a TV series idea that produces an infinite number of episodes, and then writing a pilot. What are some of the key elements that you think a pilot needs to have to entice TV execs today?

It’s a sad fact that there are very few elements that will entice TV execs today. The biggest is that your script is based on a pre-existing property, ideally a Danish or Israeli series. Another is that you already have shows on three other networks. The TV biz is in flux, and the big networks are running scared. Shows are failing all the time. But if an exec picks up a pilot based on a format that’s already worked somewhere else, or from an EP who has current hits, when the show fails he’s got deniability. It’s not his fault. He made all the right decisions.

How does that help a new writer? Obviously, it only makes it harder to get someone interested in your work. Which means more than ever that your pilot needs a voice, a concept, and an execution so fresh and so unique they can’t say no even if logic demands they do. You can’t write another procedural, another lawyer show, another young doctors screwing everything in sight as they save lives show and hope you’ll get picked out of the pile. Look at what’s working: “Sons of Anarchy,” “Walking Dead,” “Game of Thrones,” “Mad Men,” “Boardwalk Empire.” And then don’t do another one of any of them – do something as revolutionary in its own way as they were in theirs.

You’ve written five novels. How does fiction writing influence your screenwriting and vice versa?

They’re so different, it’s hard to say. I think it’s like cross training when you’re preparing for a marathon – all your training runs build up the muscles you use to run. The cross training builds up muscles that don’t get used in running, but make you stronger and fitter and ultimately a better runner.

What advice do you have for aspiring TV writers hoping to break into the biz?

There are very few places right now for someone who’s “every bit as good as the people on staff.” There are a lot of professional – and very talented and experienced – writers who are out of work and who want the same jobs you do. If I’m a showrunner choosing between a talented newbie and a talented pro, I’m immediately leaning towards the one I know can deliver on time every time. So you’ve got to be better. You’ve got to have a voice that’s so compelling EP’s want to add it to their own. Go look at “Page Eight.” You’ve got to be that.

Thank you so much, William, for taking the time to share this helpful advice!