Television needs more good writers. Somebody’s gotta tell the little people that live in that box what to say and when to say it, and that, my friends, is where you come in!
There’s not a person writing television today who didn’t start off sitting alone at their desk, wondering who the heck they were trying to fool. What makes them special is that they started. They slogged through it. And they finished. Turns out, the best-kept secret in television is keep writing. Remember that, and you’ll be sipping lattes with Tina Fey before you can say “rural juror.” (It’s a toughie.)
If you’ve never written a TV script before, fear not—as you move through the pointers below, you’ll probably realize that most of them are already second nature. Like the Beatles song catalog or the spectrum of colors in a bag of M&Ms, there’s a good chance TV writing structure is already ingrained in the recesses of your psyche. All those Saturday nights spent indoors on the couch in front of the boob tube are no longer hours wasted. Oh, no. You were doing research, and all that hard work is about to pay off!
11 Steps to Serious TV Writing Mastery
1) Watch More TV
Before getting started, you might want to grab yourself a notebook and couple of pens. Then slip into something comfy, roll onto the couch, and get to work. Watch everything. Watch anything. This is your opportunity to catch up on that TIVO list, or upgrade to the five-a-month Netflix plan. Try to see as many episodes of your favorite shows as possible, and even sludge through a few that you hate. But don’t let yourself drift into that magical, mushy, sunken-eye dysphoria that we’ve all experienced after a couple of hours in front of the tube. If you’re seeing stars, or having trouble remembering your children’s names, then it’s time to turn it off. Remember—this is your homework, and your job number-one is to stay engaged.
As you watch, write down interesting plot points or dialogue that seems especially funny or effective. Ask yourself questions, such as: Why did I laugh at that joke? Why did I break a sweat just before that commercial break? Why did I get bored and flip the channel? Write down your thoughts. This will be an essential reference as you delve into your own material and work to create scenarios that will affect your audience in the same ways that you were affected. By logging your responses, you’ll also gain insight into your own likes and dislikes, and this will be an especially useful tool in choosing your script genre and format. So get to it! Grab that popcorn, flip open your notebook, and get ready to indulge in hours-upon-hours of guilt-free TV!
2) To Spec or Not To Spec
Ten years ago, if you wanted to be a TV scribe, there was just one way to break into the ‘biz. You had to start by writing two or more fake episodes for existing shows on ‘speculation’ of purchase, or ‘on spec.’ Then you would try to get these scripts into the hands of the show’s head writers, and hope they liked them enough to hire you on as a freelancer (or, in special cases, as a staff writer for the show). After years of proving yourself, you might break out on your own by penning a ‘pilot’ script for an original series, and if this got picked up, you stood a chance of becoming a ‘showrunner’ of your own show.
That was then. This is now. Today, literary agents and development execs are just as likely to ask an unproven writer for a pilot script as they are for a spec. Some development folk even prefer pilots to spec scripts, as pilot scripts tend to show off the unique voice of a new writer, rather than his or her ability to copy someone else’s.
The spec still has its place, however, and many new writers still use them as a way to compare their writing to that of professionals, or to show off their talents in varying genres. Writing a spec can also be easier than scripting an original show, since you don’t need to set up the characters or their world. If you were to write a spec for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for instance, you could start right out with Buffy and Angel swapping spit and lounging in a tomb without explaining that a) Angel is a vampire with a soul, b) Buffy is a slayer in love with a vampire, and c) tombs are perfectly desirable locales for these types of romances. In a spec, you can assume your readers already know the show, and can jump right in and get to the good stuff!
So, the first decision you must make is whether to write a spec or an original pilot. Each will be a useful tool in marketing yourself as a writer, so the question really comes down to you. Have you thought up the perfect offbeat scenario for How I Met Your Mother, or do you want to pitch the next great cop show to fill the vacuum left by The Wire? Hey—with a 100 pages to write, why not do both?
3) Know Your Show
If you’re thinking about writing a spec, start by focusing on the newest, freshest, mostly highly-rated shows within a genre that you love. A sitcom today is not a sitcom in 1990. No one wants to read a brand-spanking-new episode of Alf. Your spec must be of a current television show still in production, and hopefully one that will be on air three years from now, so that your script will continue to feel current. A program like The Simpsons is a popular spec because that show will be in production well after Chelsea Clinton has launched her presidential bid. And that’s what you want—a show with legs, that is tightly written and well-known to would-be readers. Some popular choices right now are 30 Rock, The Big Bang Theory, and Mad Men.
Once you’ve targeted a show, try to get your hands on a written episode. Google will serve you well here, as will websites like dailyscript.com and hollywoodbookcity.com. If you have a cousin working nights at CBS, now would also be the time to give her a call! Do whatever you can to track down an episode of your show. The formatting idiosyncrasies of your show should be reproduced in your spec, and you’re gonna need a script to know what those are. Unlike movie scripts, all TV shows are formatted differently, and you want your spec to look like a real episode as much as you want it to read like one (see HOW TO FORMAT A TV SCRIPT). Templates for many current shows are also packaged with screenwriting software such as Final Draft and Screenwriter, but you’ll still want to see a real script to get a sense of how it reads on the page.
If, on the other hand, you plan to write your very own pilot, start by watching every show within your genre currently making waves. Make note of how they’re structured, when the commercial breaks arrive in a half-hour versus one-hour show, and what types of themes and situations comprise the main storylines. Television is a lot like the fashion industry, and the writing styles and storylines of new shows may vary radically from the season before. When pitching TV, you never want to show up on the runway wearing MC Hammer pants and a hip pouch. Try to get a handle on your subject, and know how your pilot is similar and different from current shows in its genre.
4) Know Your Audience
One huge difference between writing movies and writing for TV is that when writing for the small screen, you need to constantly consider the attention span of your audience. Think about it—a movie audience has bought their $10 ticket and is essentially locked into their seats for the next two hours. They can’t switch channels. They can’t wander off into kitchen, or answer the phone. Not so in TV! As a matter of fact, many people seem to be looking for a reason to switch the channel. There are just so many other choices—surely there must be something on more entertaining than this.
To make sure you’re keeping your audience’s attention you need to first know who your audience is. And how do you do that? Watch the commercials! Marketing firms are spending millions of dollars as we speak, making sure the right ads are matched to shows delivering products to the right consumers. If you’re writing a spec, what types of actors appear in the commercials? Who are they targeting? If you’re writing a pilot, watch the commercials of your would-be competitors. Are they Doritos ads, or investment banking commercials? Are they selling detergent or Legos? You can learn a lot about a show by knowing who's watching it.
5) Get On Pitch
Alright—you’ve chosen your spec show, or figured out your angle for the next great sitcom. You’ve alienated family and neighbors staying up all night catching reruns, and now you’re ready for the fun part—writing!
Hmmm. Maybe just one more cup of Red Zinger, and THEN the writing… If you’re having trouble getting going, you may need to take a big step back, and ask yourself what your episode is really about. In fact, if you can’t summarize your entire script in just one or two sentences, then you’re probably not ready to start writing. In Hollywoodland, they call this the ‘pitch’, and it’s what creative execs will ask you for in the fifteen-second elevator ride after you’ve introduced yourself as a TV writer. “What’s the pitch,” the kind ones will say—and you better get it all out before that bell rings for the lobby!
A good pitch should tell the entire plot of your pilot or spec, including essential character traits or flaws, in less time that it takes to eat a mini scone at Starbucks. It should have a clear beginning, middle, and end, and will usually start by introducing the main character:
- An absentee father whose life is plagued by mistakes…
Then describing the character’s journey:
- Finds himself sent back in time at random intervals…
And finishes by summarizing with an unexpected outcome:
- Only to discover he’s been sent on a mission to protect the world, and along the way will be given the opportunity to correct the ills of his past.
This is not just an exercise in preparedness—sharpening your pitch will force you to boil your episode down to its core elements, and you’ll ultimately end up with a better script. Some writers even start with a great pitch, then work backwards to flesh it out into a show. Whatever your approach, make sure to get on pitch early in the process—it’ll make your own journey much more enjoyable.
6) What A Character!
Television is a lot of things, but one thing it definitely ain’t is subtle. In movies, major plot points may happen off-screen, and key characters may spend good chunks of the movie mulling over big decisions in relative silence. Not so in TV! In fact, one of the major differences between the mediums is the in-your-facedness of television—almost nothing is left open for interpretation, and major plot points always play out on-screen, in full view of their hungry audiences. Always remember your viewer’s remote control, sitting there on his coffee table, beckoning.
One of the ways television writers keep their audience’s hooked is through the creation of very strong characters. When deciding upon your cast for a new pilot, try to make each character as radically different from one another as you possibly can. A great example of this is the NBC show 30 Rock. Think about the characters that comprise Tina Fey’s group of trusted (and politically incorrect) scribes: A slobby man-child, a cocky overeducated African-American, a dorky impressionist, an effete soccer dad, and Tina Fey herself—a 42-year-old workaholic with no social life and an addiction to fast food. Just in naming the archetypes, you can see the potential for conflict and humor when these dueling personas are stuck together in a writing room. Add in a Donald Trump-styled boss, a straight-off-the bus office page, and the dueling personalities of a couple of hot-headed actors, and you have yourself one heck of a funny half-hour!
So how do you draft a taster’s choice of well-defined characters that’ll carry your show through several seasons of shifting plotlines and gripping drama? Two tricks in particular are well-used by seasoned writers. First—write who you know, but without the boring stuff. Drop your dad, or your girlfriend, or your sixth-grade math teach into the mix, and see how they fare next to your shape-shifting alien or talking dog. Second—take characters from other TV shows and interject them into your own. If you’re looking for the perfect working-dad, why not Peter from Family Guy? Or Charlie from Two and a Half Men? Borrowing characters can be a great way to define the dynamics of your cast and to sharpen your overall vision. And don’t worry—as your script develops, these kidnapees will take on their own personalities and become your own. So have fun! Pick and choose as you please—these tricks will make developing characters easier, and should expose the strengths and weaknesses in your supporting cast.
For those of you writing the next great episode of Ashes to Ashes, writing a spec demands it’s own homework. Sure—a good amount of the upfront work has been done for you, as any show worth specking should already have a well-defined menagerie of misfits. Your job now is to get to know them better the writers who birthed ‘em. Try writing a page from the point-of-view of each character that discusses their lives and their conflicts with other people on the show. Knowing your characters inside and out is foundational to good story structure and dialogue. So do the work! It will be invaluable as you charge headlong into your script.
Whether you’re piloting or specking, one final thing to keep in mind about great television characters is that they never change. If you’ve watched an HBO season finale recently you may have spotted the rare exception, but this rule holds true 99.5% of the time. This isn’t a movie—your characters can learn, but they should not be allowed to grow in any significant way. What they figure out in one episode should usually be forgot by the next. TV characters should be crystal clear and set up in obvious conflict with others from the pilot onwards. A TV writer’s job is to maintain this initial dynamic, sometimes against all odds. If you’re writing a spec, do not try to take the show in a bold new direction—stick to the characters the way they are, and find a brand-new scenario in which their personalities and attitudes will still be intact at curtains down.
7) House Of Cards
If you’ve pulled together a rough outline of your show and mapped out each of your central characters, you may be thinking “now what?” How do I make all these cool characters and super-sweet plot points fit within a half-hour script? Structuring a script can seem like a house of cards, but don’t let it! Take a deep breath, pull out that notebook, and keep reading. In short order this will all seem about as easy as finding the treat in a box of Cracker Jacks.
Whatever type of script you’re writing, it’s helpful to think about your story in terms of a numbers of acts stuck between a series of commercial breaks. Most programs also begin with a short, highly-comedic or highly-dramatic teaser which stands alone from the rest of the episode, but also sets up the main storyline or theme of the script. Many shows also end with a similarly short outtro that pays off a lingering joke or plot point, called a tag.
Half-hour sitcoms tend to unfold in the following manner:
- teaser—commercial—Act I—commercial—Act II—commercial—tag
Whereas hour-long shows usually unfold like so:
- teaser—com—Act I—com—Act II—com—Act III—com—Act IV—com—tag
The first act in a TV show tends to be longer than the final acts, and in half-hour programs there are usually 15-18 scenes in the overall show. In hour-long programs that number raises to around 25. The teaser and the tag are usually comprised of just 1-3 scenes each.
The rule of thumb is that one page of writing generally equals just under one minute of air time, so hour-long dramas tend to be about 60-70 pages long, and half-hour network shows tend to be about 40-50 pages. If that math seems crazy, check the section HOW TO FORMAT A TV SCRIPT to learn about the strange spacing rules of certain kinds of scripts.
Shows that are written for cable (and don’t need to be timed out with commercial breaks) tend to be longer, but the act-break structure is usually handled in exactly the same way, in part because many cable shows will end up in syndication on other stations.
8) Learn Your A, B, Cs
Before you figure out what story points should fit within each of your acts, it’ll be helpful to think about your script as traveling down two or three separate roads at the same time.
Your first road is called your A-plot, and it is that part of your script which fuels the actions of the main characters in the script, and generally pushes the story along, as in: Oh no, the city is under attack—thank goodness the Power Rangers are here to fight the monster and save us all! Your B-plot is that part of your script which expresses the emotional entanglements and problems of your main characters tangentially to the doomsday scenario that is unfolding, as in: Carrie Bradshaw’s life may be in ruins, but wait—who in the world is that dreamboat? Let me date him and report back to my friends! Hour-long shows will usually also have a C-plot, which focuses on the parallel lives of supporting characters, as in: Tony Soprano’s daughter Meadow rebels against her family by dating a Jewish African-American student at Columbia!
Each of your acts should contain a 60/30/10 breakdown of your A, B and C-plots, respectively. In a half hour show with no C-plot, the ratio should be closer to 60/40. These are rough estimates, however, and you should feel free to take liberties in how you organize your story. The bottom line is to keep your show moving.
If the A, B, Cs are negotiable, this next rule is not: Each act must end in a genuine ‘cliffhanger.’ Act breaks are the scariest part of writing, ‘cause this is where you’re gonna lose your audience if they’re not constructed carefully. A cliffhanger can be an ‘A-plot cliffhanger,’ such as when a main character has just been shot or gotten themselves fired for showing up to work naked, or it can be a ‘B-plot cliffhanger,’ such as when your protagonist has just been kissed by her long-term crush, or her estranged mother has shown up unannounced. Whether your cliffhangers are plot-based or emotional, they always need to be there, right smack dab at the end of every act. Always arrange your scenes so that your big, juicy, flashing-question-mark-moments fall just before your breaks.
9) Talk The Talk
Before worrying about how to make your characters talk like they’re in a TV show, you’ll need to give them something to talk about. Honestly—this is the best advice on dialogue writing you’ll ever hear (thank you Script Frenzy!). Don’t ever find yourself in a situation where you’re trying to come up with clever lines without first being sure of what each of your characters really want. If you know your characters inside and out (see #6) and know what their individual goals are in every scene, your dialogue will begin to write itself. Seriously—you can just sit on your hands and watch it roll out on the screen!
Okay, maybe not. But if you remind yourself what each of your characters are trying to get before heading into every scene, you’ll find writing dialogue is a whole lot easier than it seems. That doesn’t mean they should come right out and say it! Oh—they should lie, and tease, flirt and manipulate just like the rest of us. But know what they really want underneath it all—even if it’s never gonna happen.
Now sprinkle in some conflict, and you’re done! The smartest drama and the wittiest comedy always come from situations of high conflict, and you need to make sure you’ve got a healthy dose of this in every single scene. The best way to bring your conflict to a boiling point is to set up each of your characters’ wants in direct conflict to every other character. Now they have a reason to talk to one another, and with their conflicting motivations, they’ll push and pull at each other as both try to have it their own way. Add in a couple jokes and a few smart-alecky references, and you’ve got television!
Almost. Like all aspects of TV writing, there is very little room for subtlety, and your dialogue should never feel, well… boring. There is a real difference between "dialogue" and "conversation," and especially when writing television, your characters should be just a little sharper, brighter, and quicker than most of us are in real life.
To illustrate, let’s take a scene from Season One of 30 Rock. Tina Fey's character, Liz Lemon, is set upon by her boss, Jack Donaghy, who is surprised to discover that Liz's boyfriend sells beepers. In real life this scene might play like:
Still a humorous situation, but without the zing of good TV dialogue. Here’s how they handled it on 30 Rock:
The same information is relayed, but in a fashion that is much punchier than what most of us might come up with in the moment.
Lastly, always be sure to read your lines out loud. You’re not writing a novel—these words are meant to be performed by actors, and you may be surprised by how differently dialogue can play outside of your head. If you’re brave, invite a friend to read your script for you, and simply listen to how your script plays out when spoken. You may love it, or you may want to throw your laptop out the window and move to another country. Either way, you’ll end up with a stronger script!
10) Big Picture
These days, most television shows are serialized, meaning they have season arcs in which several storylines carry through from one episode to the next. If you had been a staff writer on Extras, you might have been up all night worrying about how Andy’s transformation from extra to sitcom-star might affect the unique brand of outcast-humor that made the first season of this show so successful. That is not your job as a spec-writer! Your original spec should seem loosely referential to the most-recent season of your show, but don’t get bogged down in the specifics. If Brent LeRoy has decided to become a vegetarian on a recent episode of Corner Gas, he can certainly relish a plate of eggs and sausage in your script!
Pilots are a different story. Your original half-hour show featuring a gang of multi-ethnic teens poised to take over the world of professional eating must be cohesive and foundational at the same time. Your script should have a clear beginning, middle, and end, but also introduce a paradigm that will seem compelling for seasons to come. That is the real trick in pilot writing—how to create a script that introduces all of your characters within a concise episode, but also exposes a can of worms that will demand resolution in show after show after show. Sarah and John may have blown-up the terminator in the pilot for The Sarah Connor Chronicles, but it’s the enduring existence of Skynet that motivates the rest of the season!
11) The Fun Is In The…
If you can’t finish this sentence, then stop writing, grab your bathing suit, run to the beach (or bathtub) and do your best somersault into an oncoming wave! Writing should be fun! Sure, there’s the low times, the dull times, the frustrating times, and the times you want to use your script as kindling—but somewhere deep inside of you, remember why you bit this donkey in the first place. Because you get to make up a whole world of characters, problems, and good times. Because you’re funny, and you want the world to know it. Because your job sucks, and being a TV writer is way more exciting than handling HR for a mortgage bank. Whatever your reasons for starting down this path, they probably haven’t changed. Writing is awesome. And you’re awesome for wanting to be a writer. So no more procrastination! Back at it, my friend! You’re almost there—just ninety-nine and a half pages left to go…