Hot Tips on Writing a TV Script by Jennifer Arzt

From 2008 to 2010, I was the Program Director of Script Frenzy (hello again!) and while I was in that position I asked, nudged, encouraged, and gently elbowed you to write a script–even when I knew that you didn't have any experience in scriptwriting.

I said that you could do it. I said to forget the formatting and just write, you'll learn the formatting as you go. I said don't let it stop you from getting started. I said all this because I honestly believed it.

As it turns out, I may have been wrong.

Ahem, I wasn't wrong in saying you can do it. This I know. Everyone starts at the beginning. Everyone. (Promise me you'll never forget that.)

But I was wrong in my assumption that getting the formatting and cadence of scriptwriting down overnight was a piece of cake.

I know this now because I'm currently working on my first TV script (in the past I'd worked on feature screenplays). And I have no idea what I'm doing. So to anyone who was insulted or put-off by my blind ″what’s the problem here?″ attitude, I apologize.

I was so surprised to find that this new type of writing (which seemed to closely related to what I knew) could be difficult and, at times, frustrating.

So, if you find yourself in this boat with me, grab an oar, cause we’re going to keep on going. And we're not giving up!

As a first timer, I'm finding that TV is just plain different from film. I knew some of their differences before getting started, but since beginning the script, I'm finding out how much different they really are and how that should influence the story.

A few things I've learned so far...

Don't be afraid to course correct.

The first difference that I had to adjust to and consider were the commercials. I tried to include them as part of the story-telling process and really take advantage of the mini cliff hangers within each episode. It was an interesting exercise in dealing with plot.

In the outline, I made sure the beats fit within the structure. I shoved a bit here and there and then took a step back and looked at what I had done. It was horrible.

The structure wasn't serving the story, the story was serving the structure and it was just plain ugly.

I knew that this draft was always going to be a first draft that I'd edit next month, but wow. Horrible.

What wound up working for me was looking at each act as a course in a meal. They all were part of the same whole and I worked to look harder at how they thread together rather than how to cleave them apart.

The second half of my script is not going to fit in with the first half right now. But, that's okay. It'll be better and I will go back later and edit the first half.

Read scripts. Watch them. Repeat.

If you are trying this scriptwriting thing for the first time, keep reading while you're writing.

In the past, I would read the type of script that I was writing before getting into April and would only revisit other's work during Script Frenzy for reference or for clarification on how to handle the syntax of something. Even then, it was a quick glance--not a full read.

But this round, while I'm writing a new type of script, I've found it immensely helpful to read something everyday. I prefer to read the actual script (not the transcript which is an estimate of what ends up being the final product as performed by the actors) but I'll take a look at anything I can get my hands on.

After all, this isn't an exam where we are being tested on what we've learned in the past. It is a process... Or more like an open-book exam. Keep right on learning as you write.

Know your characters.

You know this already. I know this already. But somehow I got so caught up in the format of writing a TV show that I failed to do the most basic thing: character development.

After a week of Script Frenzy, I realized that my characters were lacking depth. The plot, which I thought was interesting, wasn't witty because the characters weren't. They were more like shadows of what they should have been. So, I went back and started working on them. Though I know these scenes will be cut, I went back and wrote a mini intro for each of the six main characters. I had questions about who these people were and this was how I answered them.

I needed to know what their house looked like. Did they wake up early or sleep late? Did they have a partner and a new puppy or did they wake up next to someone who's name they couldn't remember? (As it turns out my main character has fish. I didn't know she had them until I wrote her racing back in to feed them.)

Each episode will have a storyline wrap up. But what people are going to come back for week after week are the characters, so pay close attention to their development.

People spend years and years working on, developing, and perfecting their craft. And, though the rules are rather straightforward and there are many great resources out there outlining them, writing is an art form and takes practice. Lots and lots of practice. Remember to be kind to yourself as you learn it.

So whether this is your first script or hundredth, I wish you good luck and happy writing!

Jennifer Arzt holds a MFA in Film, Television, and Recording Arts where she pursued writing, directing, and producing. Her films have appeared in festivals around the country. She made her parents proud when she won the Directors Guild of America Student Film Award.

Now, she is happily working to get the writer/director hat on her head for her first feature film.