When Donald Bellisario was first offered a job as a story editor for the TV series Baa Baa Black Sheep (later Black Sheep Squadron), he asked what the job entailed. “That’s someone I chain to a typewriter,” said then boss Stephen J. Cannell.
Twenty-seven years later, Bellisario has converted from typewriters to computers. He is the creator and executive producer of a long list of hit TV shows, including Magnum, P.I., Quantum Leap, First Monday and JAG.
“I still function, even in year eight of JAG, as the executive producer. I still dictate the direction of the show, the type of stories, the arcs of the different characters, and then I look to the head writer to keep them all going, and the writers to come up with stories.”
Five writers, including Bellisario, produce 24 hourlong episodes of JAG per season. They start writing shows after July 4 and continue production until the first week of May. But Bellisario says there is no set writing schedule from week to week.
Bellisario says his own way of writing is also free of scheduling confines. He sits down at his computer and just starts typing. He might have a general idea or place to set the story, or he may just want to do something totally different. Either way, he just writes. In fact, that’s his tip to beginning scriptwriters: “Write. That’s what I did. Eventually you’ll get a break.”
Bellisario came up with the idea for JAG after reading a news story about the introduction of women on Navy carriers. He wrote a script based on the idea, and by the end of his first act, his female character had died. That’s when he searched for the military organization that would be assigned to such a case.
He found the Naval Criminal Investigative Services and the Judge Advocate General. Since JAG lawyers are able to investigate, prosecute or defend, based on the situation, Bellisario focused on the JAG.
Bellisario says he tries to be as accurate as possible when writing episodes of JAG.
“I prefer to tell stories that cannot be told on any other television show dealing with the law or the police: stories that can only happen within the military environment or the military justice system. That’s the hardest part of bringing in new writers. They have to learn military protocol.”
JAG accepts spec scripts only from agents, and Bellisario says he does not want to read scripts about JAG because of the possibility of legal ramifications. “I want to read a spec theatrical script or some original piece of work.”
Staff writers for JAG look for interesting events that have actually happened as material for new episodes. They read papers like the Navy Times or the Marine Corps Times, and employ a researcher to dig up other interesting stories from around the globe.
The standard format for a one-hour long show is four acts, and Bellisario sticks to this. Sometimes he will weave in three or four underlying substories, but he says he usually sticks to an A and B storyline.
“The end is like a freight train rushing to a conclusion. You don’t want to slow that train down by going to a B or C story in the fourth act. One break for a B story is enough, then on to the end of the show.”
This article appeared in the March 2003 issue of Scriptwriting Secrets.