7 Things Screenwriters NEED to Know About Writing for Television
To explore what screenwriters need to know about writing for television, we turn to John Truby — once called “the best script doctor in the movie industry" — who has served as a story consultant for major studios and production companies worldwide, and has been a script doctor on more than 1,800 movies, sitcoms and television dramas for the likes of Disney, Universal, Sony Pictures, FOX, HBO, Alliance Atlantis, Paramount, BBC, MTV and more.
We have pulled nine pieces of vital information from Truby's Film Courage interviews The Life Of A Television Writer Working On A TV Writing Staff and What Writers Need To Know About Breaking Into Television and use his wise words and our own elaboration to offer aspiring television writers the best collection of knowledge and experience that will prepare them for their go at a possible career in television writing.
Have a TV Pilot written and ready for the world? Enter the ScreenCraft TV Pilot Competition here.
1. Selling on Spec Isn't the Way to Break Through
Feature scripts are a one-off while television pilots are a possible multi-episode, multi-season entity that goes far and beyond what a single feature film calls for. Thus, original spec pilots from unknown writers are never bought, developed, and produced — with the small exception of a few anomalies every few years.
This hard truth has the ability to evolve with the ever-growing platforms for television and streaming series, but old habits die hard — most networks and streaming channels want to develop original ideas only from those that have proven themselves in that medium or through at least a couple of feature hits.
That is not to say that screenwriters shouldn't be developing their own original pilot scripts. They do offer the benefit of being writing samples that showrunners can look to when trying to fill a writers room for an already produced or in-development network or streaming channel series.
But screenwriters need to know that selling their series pilot is not the definitive way to break into the television industry as a writer in hopes of getting a television writing job.
Instead, you should be relying on writing samples that you create for existing shows. You need to find a show that has proven to be a success — one that is still in production and that is still going strong and hopefully will be in the foreseeable future. When you've found a show that you know and have a passion for, go write an episode that takes the characters and their stories forward while embracing the past mythos of the show.
These types of writing samples are what will get you into those writers rooms — as opposed to an original pilot series that will likely never see the light of day.
Yes, again, anomalies do happen, but you never want to put all or most of your eggs in that one basket, hoping for the miracle turn of events. Have those original pilots in your pocket, but use writing samples from current hit shows to showcase that you can get into that room with those other writers and do your part.
2. Be Able to Crack New Stories Quickly
With television, you're in a room of writers with varying levels of hierarchy, all doing their best to outshine the rest and get their own ideas into each and every episode. So you have to be quick. You have to be able to show your worth by being able to crack storylines within minutes. Yes, minutes.
And while these rooms can be competitive, there is the comfort that yes, some writers room are more collaborative than others. So in those cases, you also want to show your worth as a writer that can keep up with the crowd.
To be a television writer, you need to have a masterful grasp of concept, story, and character. You have to be capable of scratching a pre-determined character or story arc and pitch new and improved ones within, again, minutes.
Being in a writers room will offer a true masterclass of character and story. But you're not there for an education. You're there to contribute. And you need to always be on your toes. Not just every minute, but every second.
3. Writing Features vs. Writing in a Series Writers Room
When you're writing features, spec scripts are those that screenwriters write from their own original ideas without being under the employment of the film industry. Screenwriters can use these original ideas to draw attention to their work in order to be assigned for other features. Feature spec scripts can also be purchased and developed for possible production.
This isn't the case with television a majority of the time.
As we mentioned before, feature scripts are a one-off while television pilots are a possible multi-episode, multi-season entity that goes far and beyond what a single feature film calls for.
It's a different dynamic. With a single feature assignment, the contracted screenwriter is generally attached to the project for just a few months at a time, working on their own accord with set deadlines for each draft. On the rare occasion, once well-established, they may be asked to come to the set if the film goes into production.
When you're staffed on a television series, you're there for the long haul — writing with others for maybe nine months or more. Then you go on hiatus for a month or so and then you're back on that same series. If you haven't been replaced.
The structure is vastly different from features to series episodic scripts as well. Again, features are a one-off. You're showing a defined beginning, middle, and end in one script. With a series, you're spreading those character and story arcs over multiple episodes and possibly multiple seasons.
It's a vast difference between the two in both what you write, how you write it, and where you write it.
4. What You Write Will Change Dramatically
Feature writers under assignment often have to work from studio and executive notes while adapting a preconceived concept, but the executives and producers expect you to inject your own concepts, characters, and storylines.
With television, you have less input into the overall big picture. Depending upon what level you're at in the writers room hierarchy, you may go multiple episodes before seeing any of your pitched concepts and story points utilized.
You may have your name in the credits as the writer of an episode, only to watch it and realize that little to none of the content was actually written by you. In turn, you may be uncredited for an episode, but see that a majority of your input is actually present.
Being part of a writers room means that the group within that room is considered to be one single writing machine — no matter who gets the final onscreen credit.
5. Be Able to Write Other Writer's Characters
With features, screenwriters are used to conveying their own original stories and characters. That freedom is gone the moment you step into that writers room. You're writing the stories and characters conceived by that series creator and showrunner. You're taking other writer's ideas and story directives, as well as the compiled series bible and outlines, and melding them with your own additions to create a hybrid that is always less yours and more theirs — until you work your way up the ladder to become a series creator or showrunner.
Writing other people's ideas is difficult to do. Not every writer can accomplish that. The ingrained drive of wanting to write your own ideas is very difficult to separate yourself from.
6. TV Writing is a 24/7 Job
The writers room is one of the most high-pressure positions to be in as a writer. A single episode is written in under a week. And that single episode has to be well-balanced with those episodes that came before it, as well as those being written by other writers in the room. And this goes on and on for upwards of nine months or more per year.
Many shows require fourteen hour days or more, almost seven days a week.
Some showrunners may like to offer their writers a better work/life balance, but you can expect to work more hours than you ever would have to, especially compared to writing for features. The amount of time needed on your end is a hundred times more than would be required within the feature market.
You also need to live in Los Angeles, or whatever city the writers room is located in. You can't write virtually for them and you certainly can't just fly in every now and then. It's a fast-paced environment with short turnaround deadlines.
7. The Psychological Shock Is the Biggest Hurdle to Overcome
When you're a college level football player, making the change into the NFL can be a considerable psychological — and physical — shock to your life and your system. You have to learn the thick team playbook and understand the new and expansive terminology. You have to battle it out with competitors that are technically your teammates, in order to win that coveted roster position.
The same can be said for television writing.
You're not writing your own original work, you have to conjure concepts/characters/stories at lightning fast speed, you have to differentiate what you learned from writing features because it's a different beast, you have to be able to write other people's stories and characters, and you may find that what you are able to write may change dramatically — and it's a 24/7 job, even if you do manage to go home at a reasonable time or manage to get a single day off. You'll always have to be prepared for those writers room sessions, thus you'll always need to be working, even on your own time.
You should go into that job knowing that you'll have to make some big sacrifices.
While these seven vital truths may seem like dissuasion, they are actually the details you need to know to demystify the craft and business of television writing.
As mentioned before, it's vastly different than writing features.
If you're still keen on being a television writer and pursuing that specific branch of writing after reading those seven truths, then you're already seven steps ahead of most novice screenwriters currently pursuing that career.
Television is tough. It's difficult to get into. But if you're destined to be there and you do the necessary work that gets you into that writers room, it's one of the best educations in story and character, and also one of the most consistent and fruitful writing careers out there.
Now go write.
Ready to break in with your TV Pilot? Enter the ScreenCraft TV Pilot Competition here.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies