|Writing For Television - What It Is, How It's Done, and How To Get Started
by David Jimerson
with very helpful guidance from Jane Espenson, writer of Battlestar Galactica and Buffy the Vampire Slayer
PART 1: WRITING TV SCRIPTS
Let’s start with a couple of terms – shooting script and spec script.
A shooting script is a script written to be shot. This is almost always handled in-house on a television production.
A spec script is speculative. It is written by an aspiring writer attempting to show that he or she has the skill to write a script appropriate for that show. A spec script is almost never actually shot. Its sole purpose is to be a demonstration of skill.
Until you’re actually hired to write a shooting script, as an aspiring writer, you will be writing spec scripts. While they will ultimately take the form of a script written by a show’s staff writer, you will be writing them to be read, not produced. It’s your writing sample, your proof you know what you’re doing, so it’s up to you to get it right!
If you want to get into writing for television, the spec script is your key. Learning to write a spec script is learning to write a TV script. In this Part 1, we’re going to explore what’s involved. We’ll concentrate on writing a spec script for an existing show rather than an original pilot, because learning to write a show which already exists will illustrate well how established TV writers do their jobs. Once you’re able to write scripts for existing shows, you’ll be more able to apply what you’ve learned to an original work.
The Goal: What You’re Trying to Do
The goal of writing a TV script, what you’re tasked to do as the writer, is twofold. You need to write a compelling story with gripping character moments; that much is obvious. But less understood is that as a TV writer, you need to accomplish that within a very specific technical and creative format. It’s not enough to tell a great story; the exact way you structure your story and how you put it down on the page is what makes it a TV script.
But because the goal, the task, of writing a TV script is often misunderstood by aspiring writers, first we should point out some of the most common mistakes made by beginners new to writing scripts, or to writing for TV, specifically.
Writing the program, and not a script. This is a tricky concept. What it means is that a beginning writer will often approach writing from the point of view of copying what’s seen on the screen, as if writing a script is the same as writing a transcript of a story. That’s not what writing a script is. A script is a very specific type of document, and a writer’s task is to create that document. You’re not writing a story; you’re writing a script. A story is part of the script, of course. But even though a story may be incredible, if the specific needs of the document type aren’t met, you haven’t done your job. This is a very important distinction, because many of the decisions you make as a writer will stem from the specific needs of the document form, and this includes the very way you tell your story.
You might think of it as the difference between painting a picture of a building that’s been built and drawing a blueprint for one. The painting may be great and may show you exactly what it looks like, but the blueprint tells you how to build it.
Getting the script format wrong. Naturally following the first point above, you as a writer have to think in terms of the script format. But there are many variations of script formats, and you have to be sure you’re using the correct one. Different types of shows have different script formats – one-hour dramas which use one camera and shoot every day have a different format from sitcoms which use multiple cameras and shoot only once per week. These formats are specific to the needs to the type of production, and you have to be sure you’re serving those needs. Also, shows in the same vein will have script formats and styles which vary from production to the production; you have to be sure that you’re getting it right for the specific program you’re writing.
Thinking you’re writing a script to be produced. You aren’t. That’s what writing staffs are paid to do. Your spec script will not be produced. You’re writing your script to be read. It’s a demonstration that you have the skills necessary to do the job of a staff writer. But that’s all it is for. Television productions handle nearly all of their production writing in-house and generally do not accept outside scripts for production. Until you’re actually on the staff, or handed a specific script assignment as a freelancer, your spec script will almost definitely not be produced.
As a spec writer, you’re not generally going to be submitting your script to productions; instead, you’re going to be submitting to readers. These readers may be many different types of people – at contests, at fellowships, at agencies, or even simply people within the business whom you’ll have opportunity or reason to have read your script – for feedback, for advice, for forwarding on to someone else.
Building stories around “cool” moments, plot moves, or lines. Your story should never be built from some single moment you really like. You want to write a story which cuts to the core of what the show is about, what makes the characters tick. Plot moves, cool moments, and great lines should all stem from that, not the other way around.
Creating guest characters around whom the story turns. The show is about its characters; they’re the ones whose stories are being told. They direct the action – they don’t react to the driving force of the guest. They are the reason the scripts are written, not the guest characters. You can demonstrate that you know, and can write, those characters far more ably by focusing on them and not on a guest.
So, now that we know what our basic goal is, and some of the important things we’re trying to avoid, let’s look at how to get the job done. First we’ll explore what exactly this document we call a “script” is, and then we’ll talk about the creative process behind writing a story which will serve the needs of the script and the show you’re writing for. Then, we’ll look at recommendations for aspiring writers to learn as much as they can about scriptwriting.
Writing for Television - Part 1: Writing TV Scripts
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