On Becoming A Television Writer
The way television shows are telling stories has been evolving over the last couple of decades because of the freedom writers have been given on premium channel cable shows, and more recently because of a trend toward “binge-watching” shows streaming sites like Netflix. Series television is now telling stories that extend way beyond the single episode, and span a full season, or even the entire life of the series.
What are producers are looking for in “spec scripts” (scripts written on speculation)? It seems they are now looking at a writer’s ability to spin a storyline out two or three seasons. They are looking at spec TV pilots that demonstrate that the writer can create three dimensional characters, and that those characters are driven enough to fuel the desired goal of every show – getting to “100 episodes.”
Why the magic number? That’s the number of shows, representing 5 years of 22 episode seasons that networks like to see before syndicating the shows in reruns. Dick Wolf, Universal and NBC are still in court fighting over the billions of dollars the three Law and Order series have earned in syndication.
As a result of thinking about storylines that take place over the life of a series, writers on today’s shows are crafting more surprising (or even shocking) twists occurring several seasons in. A series can almost scrub its original series premise and reboot.
For example, Nicholas Brody, Carrie Mathison’s love interest and suspected enemy spy on Homeland was publicly hung as a traitor at the end of season three. A lot of viewers, including myself were stunned. That dynamic is what got me interested in the show. The next season saw Carrie attempting in vain to love their baby, while requesting reassignment in Istanbul.
The idea that central characters can die mid-series was always considered risky. Networks know that viewers become invested in the dynamics set up in the pilot. There’s been a question about whether the audience would stick with a show after major premise shift.
On the FX series Rescue Me, it seemed as though characters were dying off all the time. Tommy Gavin, Denis Leary’s character endured the horrendous deaths of his son Connor (at the hand of a drunk driver) and his boss, Chief Reilly who shot himself in the head after attending his gay son’s commitment ceremony.
When writers pitch TV series now, networks want them to prepare a “series bible,” or at least present one verbally in the pitch. This is basically, an outline of story shifts, and twists five years out. They want to know about all the character arcs and season ending twists and cliffhangers.
Writers who want to write for current TV shows need to understand these shifts, in order to write samples that will get them noticed by producers. For a many, may years, the best sample script you could write was a “spec script” — a script for an episode that demonstrated a writer’s familiarity with the voice and storytelling of an existing show.
When choosing the show to write your spec for, I recommend writing for a current Emmy nominated or hit show, in its second or third year. If you write a first year show, you run the risk of that show getting cancelled and your sample script no longer being current. If you write for a show in its later years, producers will have likely read so many, they’ve gotten burnt out.
Because of the big money to be made in syndication, agents especially – and studios, want writers that not only can get staffed, but who can create their own shows – hence the interest on delivering great spec pilots. Also, a writer who can create his own characters is more valuable to a staff which may introduce new ones as the show changes direction.
An interesting example of a writer getting his first job on a TV staff is the case of Matthew Weiner. As the story goes, he submitted a spec pilot to David Chase who was impressed and hired him as a staff writer on The Sopranos. That pilot was the original pilot for Mad Men. Years after his time on the Sopranos, Weiner’s pilot got him his own show.
I’ve been advising writers to write a couple (or even several) great spec pilots, of different styles. For example, you might want a sample that would appeal to a producer on Chicago PD, or The Blacklist and another that would appeal to a producer on Better Call Saul or Fargo. The more samples you have the more ways you have to get staffed.
Even though the spec pilot is the preferred writing sample in today’s TV landscape, I recommend writers still write spec episodes of current shows. One reason — if a producer is on the fence between hiring you and another writer, a second sample might get you the job. Another reason — to get admitted to one of the TV writing workshops that the networks and studios have created.
These workshops are one of the best ways for rookie writers to hone their skills and make contacts, and some require a current spec for admission. All the networks have workshops to help promising writers find mentors, gain access to showrunners, learn from studio executives, and get feedback on their scripts from professionals.
Some of them have writer’s rooms where newbies can practice breaking stories on a “writing staff.’ The ABC workshop offers a significant perk — a $50,000 Fellowship. The CBS program pairs you up with your own personal mentor. Some workshops (the NBC Diversity Initiative for Writers, and the National Hispanic Media Coalition) offer slots based on diversity –including age, race, ethnicity and gender.
One of the best moves a beginning writer can make is to find a job as a writer’s assistant on a current series. In that position, you’ll be working in the writer’s room virtually twelve hours a day and you’ll get to know the show better than any outside writer. With an impressive spec (pilot preferred), producers have been known to assign freelance episodes to assistants. If that turns out well enough, they might be offered a staff job.
As Executive Producers, my partner and I were in a position to offer two writing assistants a freelance episode. In one case, that writer was able to find representation, and wrote a CSI spec script that got him staffed on Dexter, where he rose to Executive Producer. The other assistant used his writing credit to get into TV animation and recently won an Emmy for the show Wordgirl.
All the best to the writers out there looking to break into TV. You’ll need to stay current — keep updating your writing samples, pay attention to trends in TV, network with other writers, take classes in TV writing –and –if at all possible get a job as a writer’s assistant on a show (or even a personal assistant). A little luck and a lot of persistence wouldn’t hurt your chances either.
Image credit: Creative Commons, Quando L’italia imita male le serie TV di successo americane, 2015,by Televisione Streaming , licensed by creative commons CC BY 2.0
Quando l’italia imita male le serie TV di successo americane
Silverman, D. (2016). On Becoming A Television Writer. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 26, 2017, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/hollywood-therapy/2016/12/on-becoming-a-television-writer/