Books

How Novelist Megan Abbott Learned to Write for Television

And how she translated a first-person, present-tense novel to the screen.

White woman in front of a microphone on a stage.
Megan Abbott at the Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit on Oct. 10, 2018.
Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

On this week’s episode of Working, Isaac Butler spoke with Megan Abbott, the author of nine novels, including Dare Me, which she later adapted for television. They spoke about Abbott’s writing process, how screenplays demand different skills than novels, the process of “breaking beats” in TV scripts, and how she learned to be a TV showrunner. This partial transcript of their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Isaac Butler: Do you have any writing rituals?

Megan Abbott: I have what I call my household saints, a shelf of totems and various good luck things, above my computer. They help center me. Also music, which changes with each project, sometimes with vocals, sometimes not. It’s almost like getting into a trancelike state, like the old automatic writers of the 19th century. Without the morphine or the opium.

You’ve written nine novels at this point. Beyond getting the right music and household saints and maybe swearing off morphine, do you have a process for how you write a book?

It changes a little with every book, but I have to go in with a very loose three-act plan. I don’t outline, but I do have three acts. Then for the first draft I put everything on the table. I don’t stop myself, I don’t over-worry. And then I revise multiple times a day. The first 50 pages of every book has probably been revised a hundred times. I’m not fast. People think I am because I have a lot of books, but I just don’t do anything else.

What does your outline look like? Is it a three-page slab of prose? Is it bullet points?

It becomes bullet points, and then it becomes really elaborate bullet points. But early on it’s usually very simple. All my books tend to have the same structure, in that there’s temptation, or some kind of being drawn into something; and then reckoning; and then paying for it, or redemption if you’d like to think of it more positively. So I imagine what my version of those three stages are. In Dare Me, it would be: Addy has a crush on the new coach who comes to town, and she becomes overly involved in her life. There is a death, and she has to do some covering up. Meanwhile her best friend is trying to expose her.

So how did you get from the first, basic idea to “this is going to be first-person present tense.” How did you work those point-of-view choices out?

In stages. It never comes all at once for me, but I’ve always been interested in the “Gatsby structure,” which is when you don’t tell the story from the point of view of the most interesting character, though they can become the most interesting character, of course. You let Nick Carraway tell it.

A TV script is entirely different from prose writing. It has a specific formatting, your tool set is limited to dialogue and descriptions of what the viewer sees. How did you learn how to write for that medium?

I’m still learning. I admit, I wasn’t the kind of person who read hundreds of scripts when I was writing a pilot. I read a few, but not that many. The one thing that I would recommend to anybody, even though it’s quite a specific recommendation, is the screenplay for Michael Clayton, which to me is one of the greatest screenplays of this new century. The writer, Tony Gilroy, is great about how every word that you put in the script must count in a very different way than in a novel. You’re directing the reading experience in a much more specific way. You need to find a way to do the things you can do in a novel.

In a book, you have five pages to conjure the atmosphere in a nightclub. If you just put “Setting: Interior, nightclub,” it’s not going to conjure that for anybody. How in one sentence will you talk about the low lights, and the red vinyl booths, and the few details you can put in to conjure that? He has all kinds of tricks. Pilots are about selling the world of the show. Once you have a show that’s on the air, the scripts don’t look like that anymore, because you’re writing them so quickly, but the pilot has to be perfect. No wasted words, by which I don’t mean the dialogue. Dialogue should never be wasted in any script. I mean everything else.

When you read Dare Me, you’re trapped in Addy’s head. We see all the characters filtered through how she sees them as she tries to figure out what she thinks of them. Of course, as soon as you’re filming it, you’re outside of her head, you’re a camera looking at her. So it’s not just about cutting the words, it’s also about taking this interiority and making it exterior. How did you figure out how to do that?

That also involved several stages. They always tell you, don’t use voice-overs, voice-overs are cheap. It’s one of those clichés of the whole industry that is how to write a screenplay. For me, it was framing things with a voice-over and then slowly stripping it out until it’s barely there. But it was also about starting the pilot only seeing what Addy sees. Most of the pilot is with her. One of the things that is very hard when you’re giving someone your script is that they’re often going to be confused about who they’re following. Tracking is what they call it in scripts. You need to be tracking someone. So, in some ways, the intense, close POV of the book helped.

But you have to start to think of what the camera can do—not that you would write that into the script, because you don’t ever want to do directions like that. But the camera can do so much, showing what the character is seeing, guiding them. Even in a small space, even in a small moment, we’re seeing everything through her eyes. That was definitely the thing we worked the hardest on.

To listen to the full episode of Working, click the player below or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.