Okay, so you know you like writing, and you know you like watching TV, and you especially know you like watching TV when you’re supposed to be writing. But do you know how to write for TV? Since most schools don’t teach this specific art form (and it really is its own beast), you’re going to have to impose some extracurricular homework upon yourself. Let’s face it: you’re going to write a bunch of bad scripts before you write your good ones, so why not get the embarrassing ones out of the way now?
Write a Spec Script
Every TV writer needs sample scripts. These should include specs of existing shows and original pilots.
As an entry-level writer, you want to have a couple solid specs to demonstrate that you can write in someone else’s voice, as you’d be doing on the staff of a show.
- Select one of your favorite shows (that’s currently on the air and looks like it will continue to be for a while), and watch every episode available.
- Comb the internet for scripts of that show so you can familiarize yourself with plot structure, character/location spelling, and formatting of the scripts.
- Write your own episode. The main goal is to make it seem like it could fit within the existing world of the show — you don’t want to rock the boat with major series changes (Alex kills Haley?!) or introduce new characters (Haley’s ghost?!).
- I loved Ellen Sandler’s book, The TV Writer’s Workbook, a step-by-step guide to writing spec scripts.
- Many studios have fellowship contests for ready-to-break writers, and they almost all require spec scripts. Check out what Warner Brothers says it’s looking for in a submission.
Write an Original Pilot
An original pilot, or the first episode of a show you create from scratch, is also useful to have in your portfolio. Pilots help the reader figure out who you are as a person and what sort of writing sensibility you’ll bring to the table.
- Write what you know, or be prepared to research the heck out of what you don’t know. Your work will sparkle from the real-life details and honest perspective.
- Go slow. Start by writing out character descriptions before you even begin to think about plot. When a reader finishes your script, they’ll ideally remember concrete original character traits and want to see more from these unique individuals.
- Think about theme — what point are you trying to make in telling these characters’ stories? What’s something you believe and have always wanted to share with others? The answers to these questions will be what drive you back to your computer when you’re stuck.
- Figure out your logline (a plot summary in two sentences), break down the plot points into a beat sheet, outline your different scenes, and get ready to make multiple revisions thereof. It’s going to be so tempting to launch into your opus, but you’re going to start hating it come page 4 if you don’t have a roadmap to guide you.
- Everyone loves Save the Cat! as a screenwriting/television writing book. You might want to see what all the fuss is about.
Get Feedback From People Who Are Not Your Mom
It is so important to put your writing out there and truly listen to the feedback. Receiving notes is a skill — it’s not easy to sit there while your baby is being ripped to pieces (it’s also not easy to stop high praise from making you lazy). You need to show you’re grateful for your friend/teacher/bus driver’s attention while taking it with a grain of salt — sometimes people say stuff just to, uh, say stuff. Once you have an idea of what you need to do to (actually) improve the work, (actually) implement the changes! There are only so many abandoned documents your computer can handle before it starts getting jaded.
Hope this helps! You may now resume watching TV… er… researching.
Want more wisdom on the art of TV writing? Check out Jessica’s last post on the topic: “What Does a Sitcom Writer Do?“
Jessica Poter has worked in various sitcom writers’ room positions since 2008. Previous shows include ABC’s Better Off Ted and Man Up! and several pilots for ABC, NBC, and FOX. She currently assists a showrunner with an overall deal at Universal Television. In addition to her TV writing pursuits, Jessica is the co-founder of Half Day Today!, a new media sketch group that won Syfy’s Viral Video Showdown. Check out her website, or follow her on Twitter at @jessicapoter.