To break into television writing, you will need at least two spec scripts to use as your writing samples.
Choosing which show to spec is important and is covered in this article: http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/5642532/breaking_into_television_writing_a.html?cat=2
Once you have chosen which show to spec, the actual work of putting the script together begins.
This article will focus on the steps to take to lay the ground work for the eventual writing of the script.
First, study the medium. There are several very good books about television writing, including “Writing the TV Drama Series: How to Succeed as a Professional Writer in TV” by Pamela Douglas and “The TV Writer’s Workbook: A Creative Approach to Television Scripts” by Ellen Sandler. Both are excellent sources for information about the television industry.
There are also classes offered that specifically break down the elements of creating an effective spec script. Plus, an added advantage to taking classes is that there are built- in deadlines to help you reach your goals and complete a finished script.
One resource to check out is the University of California’s Extension program. This program offers several classes in television and film writing, many of which can be taken online. For more information, please go to: https://www.uclaextension.edu/r/default.aspx
Check your local colleges and universities for classes as well.
Beyond taking classes, you’ll need to study your specific show. Tape or Tivo several episodes. Watch each episode in its entirety to study tone and flow. Then it’s time to break down each episode. You should do a break down on at least three episodes. These breakdowns will help you learn about the show’s methods. Patterns will emerge.
Each episode has several acts and within those acts are numerous scenes. Each scene moves the story along.
To break down a show, you will write down each act and each scene within that act, describing what happens in each scene. Who is involved? How does it move the story along?
In most shows, there are several storylines happening at the same time within the episode. The main story is referred to as the ‘A’ story, with the lesser involved stories as the ‘B’ and ‘C’ stories.
After you’ve written down what happens in each scene, you’ll be able to tell which scenes deal with the ‘A’ story, which ones cover the ‘B’ story and so on.
Next you’ll need to analyze each act as a whole. How many acts are there? How many scenes are in each act? How does each act end?
Once you’ve broken down several episodes you’ll have a great foundation for how your script should be laid out.
Get all of your ideas together and pick the storylines that you think will work best for your script.
Now, I’m going to give you some hints about what stories NOT to pick.
Here are some storylines that you should never use:
Stuck in an Elevator
Do not introduce a long lost brother/sister/parent
Do not bring in a guest star for a major storyline
Do not do a ‘crossover’ episode between two shows
This is not a full list, but it gives you some idea of things you should stay away from.
Your challenge is to find storylines that are unique and that stay within the framework of the show that you’ve chosen.
If you can take something that seems ordinary and turn it into a great story, then you’ve hit the jackpot.
For example, a classic “Everybody Loves Raymond” episode is about Ray and Debra’s stand-off when it comes to carrying a suitcase from the first floor to the second floor. The episode, entitled, “Baggage”, won an Emmy award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series. It shows that an everyday chore can be mined for comic gold. You don’t need to have an outrageous idea, just a properly executed one.
While comedy is mined for laughs, in creating a spec drama script, the writer’s job is to wring as much emotion from the reader as possible.
An outstanding example of a truly gripping episode of television comes from the show “ER”. Another Emmy award winner, this episode shows how something that happens every day, childbirth, can go horribly wrong. The episode entitled “Love’s Labor Lost” is an incredible example of human drama, complete with ticking clock escalation of a problem.
I encourage you to view these episodes to see how a seemingly small idea, handled properly, can become an award winning script.
Once you have all of your storylines in place, you can begin to outline your spec script.
The outline is a key tool to help keep you on track and help you to create the best script possible.
In the writer’s room of most television shows, the writers work together doing what’s called ‘breaking’ the story. This is the process they use to lay out every scene for the episode. Most use a large white board on the wall, like in a classroom. They put up headings for each act and number each scene within each act. One of the key things that is focused on in breaking the story is the act break. This is the last scene that will air just before the commercial break. This scene has to be big and very engaging so that the viewer will come back after the commercial break.
You don’t have to use a large whiteboard, but you really do need to create an outline.
If you think you can just write from the ideas you have in your mind, you are welcome to try that, but you may find you have a big mess. And, if by chance you do get to work as a writer on a show, the Executive Producer of the show will most likely ask you for an outline of your episode to make sure you’re on track with his/her vision of the show. So, if you’re serious about being a television writer, you may as well get used to preparing outlines right now.
For many writers, breaking the story and preparing the outline is the most difficult part of organizing the script. It’s often hard to make a story flow properly and create big act breaks. The outline is where the writer works out all of the kinks in telling the story.
Once the outline is complete and strong, you’re ready to write the first draft of your script.
In the next article in this series, information will be given on how to complete that first draft of your script and how to edit, revise, and polish the script to make it the best it can be.