Monday, May 25, 2009

How To Write Good

The question I get asked more than any other is: "How can I write a script for my favorite TV show?" So I thought I'd reprint something I wrote some time ago to address this:

Writing a script for your favorite TV show is easy. Just sit down at your word processor or typewriter or clay tablet and do it. Selling a script to your favorite TV show, however, is nearly impossible. But it can be done. Here's how:

First, research the show you're aiming for. Know it backwards and forwards, inside and out; be prepared to quote every single memorable moment from every single episode since it first went on the air. (Don't be silly; of course you can. We live in a world in which the Bible has been translated into Klingon. You don't have to go that far.) Know those characters as well or better than you know your own family. When you feel you've done that, come up with a story that illuminates them in a way you've never seen on the show. Important tip: Do not bring in a new character and tell his/her story, unless by doing it you bring to light a side or aspect of the main character(s) that we haven't seen before.

Now write the script. If you don't know how to write in production format, there are lots of books out there that will tell you, or you can download script examples from many places on the Web. But beware falling into the quagmire of obsessing over shot headings, transitions -- in short, the mechanics of it. It's the story that's important. There's really only one technical detail to remember: film is a visual medium. Therefore a script with more action description than dialogue is to be preferred over the other way round. Actors might love to declaim, but directors and producers hate it. If you can write something in which the characters have enormous depth and resonance, yet never say more than four lines at a time, they'll not only hire you, they'll canonize you.

When you've finished the script, polish it. Go over it and over it until it shines, until every comma, parenthetical, line of dialogue, etc., is absolutely the best you can do. That doesn't necessarily mean be a lapidary with every word. You're writing the blueprint here, not the finished product. Your script is only going to be read by a few dozen people, tops, and deathless prose isn't their primary concern. Strive for a balance between functional and evocative. Active voice ("he runs") is better than passive ("he's running"). Like that.

Take your time. You've only got one shot at that show with this script, so you have to make sure it's your best possible effort. I mean this. You're lucky if you get the staff to read it once -- they won't read it twice.

Next, get it to someone on the show who will read it and who can (ideally) buy it. If he's one of the many who can say "No" but can't say "Yes," find a way to get it to the showrunner, or one of the producers. This is the hard part. If you know someone on the show, ask them to read it. If you don't, use every means within the law to put yourself in the same room with one of those someones and get to know them. Yes, this probably means moving to LA -- you can't network long-distance, even in the Internet Age. How badly do you want this?

Most shows will not look at a script that's been sent in "over the transom" (i.e., not by an agent), for legal reasons. To find a reputable agent, call or write to the Writers Guild and ask them for a list of agents. Start calling them or writing to them, and keep doing it until you find one who will send your script to the show. In short, get the script to the people on the show and get them to read it, by any means short of stalking or otherwise alienating them. Remember: a producer's job is to get episodes produced and on the air. It's not to find new writers and guide them along, unless he/she is convinced that by doing so his/her job (getting episodes produced) will be made easier. If a producer does read it, and feels that there's potential in the script but that it's not quite there, he will do one of two things: Buy it for the story and assign it to be rewritten by one of the production staff, or ask you to do a rewrite. (Don't worry about having your idea ripped off -- it doesn't happen. Well, hardly ever ...) Obviously, you want the rewrite. Again, try by every means possible to convince them that you should be allowed to shepherd your work through to the end. If they're adamant that, due to time restraints or other contingencies, they want the rewrite done in-house, smile and take the cut-off money. Be nice about it, and in all probability they'll ask you to pitch (come up with more story ideas) again.

Yes, it does sound a lot like the old Steve Martin routine about how to be a tax-free millionaire ("First: get a million dollars ..."). But it can be done. It is done, by lots of people all the time. I did it. You can do it. The information on how to do it is out there. (In fact, what with webpages full of downloadable scripts and DVDs of damn near every show from The Honeymooners on, it's a helluva lot easier than it was when I was coming up.)

Speaking for myself, when I was a writer-producer, the thing I looked for in a writer boiled down to one thing: Could I use him/her more than once? A lot has changed in the business since then, but that hasn't. Nor is it likely to.

If the talent and the drive is in you, you can make it happen.

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