By Nicole Erb
Breaking into the writers’ room can feel impossible. But persistence, flexibility, and talent pay off. Enter: Michael. Starting with a Daytime Emmy nomination (GENERAL HOSPITAL), Michael has written for sitcom (AWKWARD), family drama (BROTHERS AND SISTERS), and dramedy (JANE THE VIRGIN). Now he’s working on interactive mobile storytelling. In this interview with TV Writer Michael Cinquemani, he discusses his incredibly versatile path.
Michael will be teaching a live online class “TV Pilot Writing” at Writing Pad starting Tuesday, 5/23 where you will learn everything you need to know about TV fundamentals and crafting a great TV series. Until then, here’s a bit about Michael.
1. How did you land your first TV writing position and start your journey to writing on so many amazing TV shows?
Let’s see… my father’s-boss’-friend’s-cousin’s-former roommate had a production job on a soap opera and got me an interview as an intern on a show in New York. I didn’t go to a school with a screenwriting program like USC or UCLA so I just dug deep (obviously– that’s like almost six degrees of separation) and asked everyone I knew if they knew anyone who could help me break in. I got that internship and within weeks I was the writers’ assistant at the soap and soaking up everything I could learn about the process of writing for TV. From there I just kept generating new specs and taking any gig that kept me in and around the writing room.
Eventually I started writing scripts for soaps while doing a full time job as a script continuity editor, then I got my first full time writing contract. After a few years I wanted to try my hand at primetime, but no one would even consider me. It was frustrating, because here I’d written hours and hours of TV and been in writing rooms but I couldn’t get in the door. So I kept writing new traditional show specs and pilots and after a few tries landed the Disney Fellowship which opened doors to so many other shows. And I pretty much kept staffing after that.
2. You began your career working for successful soaps like General Hospital and All My Children and then made the transition to working for amazing shows like The Vampire Diaries, Revenge, Awkward, and Jane the Virgin. Is there a difference in the writers’ room between a daily soap and a weekly series?
Every show I’ve been on has a different system but the net result is the same. You’re trying to put out great TV. Soaps are much more of a factory. You have to produce so much long story, outlines, scripts and episodes per week to keep the show on the air. The jobs are a little more discreet and sometimes the writers aren’t even in the same state! The headwriters are mostly responsible for the thrust of the long arc, the outline writers help shape individual days and then someone else writes the actual script.
In primetime there is sometimes more collaboration and all the writers are present. The room might all work on the break. Even share the outline or divvy up scenes. And even that process varies from show to show and sometimes genre to genre. But at the heart of any room are the people you’re working with. Your team. You have to all work together to make something great. You all have to care and you all have to be passionate about the story, the writing and the final product.
3. What separates a good script from a great script?
Voice. Point of view. Heart. Dialogue. I’m obsessed with all of these. People talk a lot about the rules of the craft. I think you can break any of those rules if you have a strong voice. A strong point of view. If you pour your heart into it and even if you can just write aspirational dialogue that makes people wish they could talk like that in real life. That’s the Sorkin thing. Or the “Gilmore Girls” thing. The Buffy thing.
But at the end of the day the story needs to move people. It needs to be focused. That’s a lot of things that separate a good script from a great script, huh? The truth might be that when a script is great all of the above just comes together seamlessly and we’re entertained.
4. Selling a pilot is hard, especially to prestigious networks like MTV. You’ve sold them two. What’s the key ingredient to a successful pitch?
Know your story inside and out. Love, live, and die by it. There are a bunch of tricks you can employ to land a pitch. But nothing beats preparation. You can be insanely charismatic but if there are holes and they get called out you’re not gonna make a sale. They might like the idea but they’re not going to be convinced you can execute it. So practice, be passionate, and the audience will be compelled!
5. What is the #1 mistake that beginning writers make in their scripts?
Not hooking the reader in the first few pages. I want to give someone a script that they can’t put down. And honestly, people in the business are reading SO much, it’s hard to keep their attention. So do whatever you can to make the first five pages, ten, fifteen completely original and engaging. Make the reader HAVE TO keep turning them to the end. Engage, engage, engage. You can do that but surprising the reader, with an unexpected scenario out of the gate, with a really original character or a brutally honest voice. Don’t give them one single line that allows them to bail.
6. You have worked on some of the greatest comedies and dramas. How do you make yourself versatile as a writer who can seamlessly switch between genres?
That was totally by design. When I first started in TV I heard, “you can’t write primetime, you write soap.” Or “you can’t do half hour if you’re in hour.” “You want to work in comedy now– you’re a drama writer!” It pissed me off. I loved teen dramedy. I loved classy family drama. Basically I was all about character. If I wanted to spend time with a character week-to-week I didn’t care what format their show was in– I wanted to watch. I felt the same way about my writing.
So if I was on a teen half hour– when it came time to look for new work– I asked my agents to submit me for hour. I figured being versatile in an ever growing and changing marketplace would be make me more employable. And also, I watched these kinds of shows and considered myself a good mimic. So I got to have fun, face new challenges and work on a lot of shows I loved. It was win-win.
7. What is your advice for aspiring TV writers about how to break into the business and have a healthy career?
Try everything. The fellowships and writing workshops and classes and programs. Be knowledgeable about the business. Watch A LOT of TV. Read A LOT of books. Consume, consume, consume entertainment and know how to talk about it. Be educated and voracious about information. You never know who you’ll be talking to and how it could help. Never look down on a job. Whether it be a PA or working on an exec’s desk. If you want to be in the business, be around it, too. And of course write, write, write. It’s a struggle. But the worst thing is getting a break and then not being prepared for it. That means you’ve squandered a possibly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and that’s a tragedy.
8. You are currently working as a showrunner at the interactive mobile storytelling platform, EPISODE. How is the process of writing stories for mobile different than TV?
Turns out it’s not. EPISODE is a cool place that is fostering an online community of writers to tell stories visually. For any of the branded product (like MEAN GIRLS or PRETTY LITTLE LIARS) or Episode Originals (like JUVIE or THE ROYAL BABY) I run the room the same way it’s done in TV. We take an idea, we flesh it out, we come up with a long story, arc that over the designated number of chapters we’ll have in a season and make sure that the cliffhanger on the story makes the reader feel like they MUST continue reading or die. We laugh, we tell personal stories, we argue about plot points and character motivation. We work together collaboratively to make the story fun and entertaining
The biggest variation in mobile at this point is that the reader gets to make choices along the way in the story that will take them in different directions– something we’re not seeing on TV yet. And that leads to variation in the narrative and the character’s journey. Sure you can’t do everything that they can on a big budget TV show yet but this is a different medium and it’s growing and evolving and in the future we’ll definitely get there. At the end of the day story is story and writing is about communicating that story in the best, most clear and entertaining way possible. You can’t do that without writers!
9. How do you keep shows gripping for multiple episodes and seasons?
I’ve always felt that in serialized fiction that the character is key to keeping people coming back. A great plot isn’t going to resonate if you don’t care about the characters. Soaps and comic books have proved that for decades. Movies are doing that now with all the legacy franchises like STAR WARS. People want to keep going back to those narratives because of great characters. TV is the same– in fact it’s the BEST medium for constantly getting to feed the audience character story.
A character doesn’t have to be shocking to be compelling either. That’s an idea that seems to have been popular in the last ten years. You don’t have to be an anti-hero to be a compelling character. I think you just have to be true. Honest characterization is the best. If we trust that the character is being true to themselves and their struggle I think we come back season after season. We want to believe people can change and evolve. TV let’s us follow that journey. If it works, we’re hooked.
10. Where do find stories? Can you give me an example of something that happened to you that you adapted to storylines that were used on a show that you worked on?
There’s a popular adage: write what you know. And boy have I found that’s true. That doesn’t mean if you’re a kid from Long Island who moved to Hollywood to be a writer EVERY story you write is about that. It’s all about how you take the experiences of your life, your unique point-of-view and apply it to any given scenario that you’re writing.
I used to say that people always mocked soaps because of the “back from the dead” storylines. But then I’d ask them to imagine that they had a relationship that ended tragically. And that they had to deal with that grief and eventually move on with their lives. And then one day, that person, who maybe moved away or cut you out of their life abruptly showed up again wanting to get back in. How would you react? How would that feel? It’s probably happened to everyone at some point in their lives. Well that’s how you approach a back from the dead scenario in your writing. Sure, it’s more extreme but the emotional core is there.
Specifically I can say that I had a personal story in my youth– about how I had a crush on a girl and tried to woo her in the fourth grade by giving her a really special birthday present– and how CRUSHED I was when she liked another boy’s gift more– that I used in my storytelling that got me several jobs. What made the story kind of unique was that I turned out to be gay– but at the time– I had no idea. I just wanted this girl to like me! And I think the adults around me were thinking– this is kind of weird. I used that story as a C story in a spec for “Ugly Betty.” Her nephew Justin was gay but didn’t know it. People just really reacted to how personal and unusual the story was. I think they thought it was funny and sweet and human. It got me my first two jobs in primetime.
11. Can you give us a preview of what writers will learn from your online TV Pilot Class and your one day class in San Francisco?
They’ll learn everything I know from twenty years in the business. I tend to over share. And I’ll do that here, too. I think they can expect honesty, passion, practical advice and more than a few colorful anecdotes to help them either not make the mistakes I did or hopefully inspire a direction in their own work. I’ll talk about (in no specific order here) everything from pace, rhythm, voice and point of view to long story, triangles and cliffhangers. Nothing they want to know is off limits. And I think we’ll have fun!
Thank you, Michael! We’re all one step closer to writing our buzz-inducing pilot. We can’t wait for your TV Pilot Online class. Sign up before it’s sold out!