Maya Goldsmith is a television writer for the ABC Family show Pretty Little Liars, based on the book series by Sara Shepard (the latest of which you can begin reading for a limited time on Figment here). Over on the forums, we invited you to ask Maya your most burning questions about what it’s like to write for such an addictive show. Two lucky addicts, er, question askers will be receiving signed photos of the PLL cast, so keep an eye on your emails–we’ll be getting in touch to verify the winners. Did Maya answer your question? Find out below!
Piper Triggs: What’s appealing to you about screenwriting [writing for television]?
The best thing about writing for television is that it all happens so fast! No time to procrastinate or second guess yourself. And you get to enjoy the fruits of your labor very quickly. Within weeks of finishing your script you shoot it and experience the thrill of watching the actors and the director (and all the other people who contribute to making a TV show) bring your script to life. It’s a very exciting process.
Eliza Jane: What inspires you to write each episode? Personal memories of high school, the news, etc.
On PLL we have a group of writers that help shape the story for every single episode. Each time we sit down and have to come up with new ideas it’s a fun challenge. Stories and memories from high school are really valuable. Partly because high school has milestones and events that most of us participated in, but may have experienced in very different ways. For example: the prom. For some people it was a magical night, for others a miserable one. Often it isn’t even the story that really happened that ends up in the script, it’s the story that you wanted to happen. Remembering the times where your own fantasies and desires weren’t fulfilled can be great fodder for giving your characters moments where theirs are. I know a lot of writers who get story ideas from the news. As for me, I love listening to public radio. Shows like This American Life and Radiolab on NPR always introduce me to interesting and unique characters that keep me inspired.
Kaia: As a screenwriter, you work with other writers, right? Is it more difficult than writing by yourself, or do you find it easier to have people helping you?
Working with a group of writers is a wonderful experience. It makes coming up with stories so much easier. Often one of us will have the seed of an idea, but where you might normally hit a dead end on your own, your thought will have sparked the imagination of someone else in the room and they keep the ball rolling. But more importantly, I work with writers who have a lot more experience than I do and being in a room with them has given me the opportunity to learn from people who are really good at what they do.
Anna Burkhart: What is your best tip for writing a good plot twist? PLL has about 4 in every episode.
I wish I had a good answer for this! To a certain extent, plot twists are dictated by structure. Every PLL script consists of six acts. Our goal as writers is for the story to escalate by the end of each act. Often that means turning the story in a new or unexpected direction. Film noir movies are the best at this. Movies like Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, and The Big Sleep have great twists and turns. I never get sick of watching them.
Alex Knight: What’s it like to see the characters you write come to life? Do the actors ever surprise you?
On PLL we are so fortunate to have such a talented group of actors. They bring all of themselves to the parts they play and it’s a real pleasure to write for them. The first episode I wrote for PLL was the homecoming episode (“There’s No Place Like Homecoming”) and it was an amazing experience for me. The actors made the moments that were intended to be humorous even funnier than I could have hoped for, and the poignant scenes even more moving than I could have imagined. In television you have a limited amount of time to tell your story (in our case around 40 minutes), but the emotional arcs never feel short-shrifted because the actors always bring a complexity and depth to every scene they do.
Abby Swiftie: With today’s ever-changing teen lifestyle, way of speaking, etc., is it hard to write a show with up-to-date teen terms, activities, etc.? How do you keep up with the latest trends?
That’s a really good question. Strangely, it’s not something I worry about that much. I often think of the shows I loved as a teenager or the movies that bring me back to what it feels like to be that age, and none of them rely that heavily on incorporating slang or making references to pop culture. For me personally, I try to focus on communicating an experience. For instance, the experience of having a crush on someone who doesn’t even know you’re alive. It’s painful. It doesn’t matter whether you were a teen in the 1930’s, the 1990’s, or today. That being said, I love it when I get to talk to actual teenagers and ask them about their lives and what they’re into.