Michael Berlin is a writer and producer, known for The Exile (1991), Robo Warriors (1996) and Hunter (1984).
"The stories we love are born from the characters we love, where would Breaking Bad be without Walter White, or The Walking Dead without The Governor?
An intriguing antagonist is what separates a good story from a bad one said Michael Berlin, a 25-year television writing veteran who has written for crime dramas from Miami Vice to Missing Persons.
Berlin gave a seminar on his body of work and the insight he has gained from it at the Ruby Gerontology Center on Tuesday morning.
To break into television writing, Berlin suggests writing a spec script for a well-liked show–essentially making it a calling card to TV production studios.
Berlin’s spec scripts got his food in the door, and eventually he was writing episodes for Cagney & Lacey, Hunter, Diagnosis: Murder and other shows.
Using an episode of Diagnosis: Murder, Berlin discussed a compelling character he had created where the main antagonist was a murderous therapist.
Under the law, if a patient admits imminent intention to murder another individual, the therapist is obligated by law to report this information to the authorities. The therapist in Berlin’s script used this law to murder his wife and blame the murder on his patient.
“If you have bad guys who you just hate, thats a Rambo movie,” Berlin said. “Its not interesting.”
As Berlin notes, a writer cannot simply create a purely evil character who lacks any sort of humanity.
The murderous therapist is introduced as a welcoming and understanding individual who is willing to help patients relieve their mental woes, thus making him likeable.
It is a natural inclination for a writer to make the hero of the story an exemplary individual driven to impact the story by any positive means, but this makes for a flat, unexciting hero.
Heroes need to have fatal flaws in their characters, and the antagonist emerges as the ideal individual to exploit these weaknesses.
These flaws cannot simply be attributes that make the character to who they are, these flaws must take a role in the story later on, Berlin said.
“I lay out every story beginning, middle and end. I know every beat, so when I come to the end, before I even write ‘fade in,’ I’m going to back to that story and I’m going to put things in that are going to pay off an hour later,” Berlin said.
Berlin notes the way the Coen Brothers approach a story: the trick is to write the story into a corner, then write a way out of it. The best stories are the ones where both the audience, and initially the writer, cannot figure out a way to paint themselves out of the corner.
“Good writing is the art of misdirection,” Berlin said.
For example, if two individuals were having a conversation on the Cal State Fullerton campus, they would not include the name of the campus in their conversation, because the individuals know they are speaking on the campus.
However, if a woman walks by wearing a CSUF sweatshirt, the audience knows where the conversation is being held, Berlin said.
Yet even with flawed characters, subtle misdirection and a self-referential story, a script for a TV episode can fall flat if it fails to capture the audience attention in time.
The opening two minutes are the most important part of a TV episode, because if the show cannot capture the audience in those two minutes, it’s unlikely the audience will stick around.
For crime dramas, the cold open can be an effective tool to capture an audience.
“We learn to write in a way where the cold opening is right in the middle of the case, and in the middle of the most exciting moment in that,” Berlin said.
Berlin has made a career by writing individual episodes for a variety of shows, without needing to be part of the actual staff.
Using the critical elements of a strong hook, flawed characters and a self-referential story can bring would be writers one step closer to writing a TV episode and getting a foot in the door."