Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Writing for TV

by John McFetridge

Okay, a while ago I said it was a bad idea to write a screenplay because after all that work you’re left with a document that has little value on its own. Very few movies are made from original screenplays and once the screenplay has made the rounds there’s nothing left. Even if it’s a low budget indie, it’ll still take a lot of people to turn into a movie whereas a manuscript can keep going to smaller and smaller publishers or you can even publish it yourself or just put it on a blog for almost no money.

Now I’m going to tell you why writing a TV spec script is a good idea even though there isn’t any market for it at all.

I love writing for television. I’ve only done it once and I may very well never do it again, but it was a great experience and I’m very grateful to have had it. I’m a social guy, I like collaborating. The one thing about novels that I don’t like is how solitary the whole process is. TV writing is teamwork.

Plus, a lot of the best writing being done these days is for TV. I can’t find many novels as satisfying as The Sopranos or The Wire or even Mad Men (actually that’s less true these days as more and more really good novels are published. There aren’t very many private eyes on TV and very few TV shows feature the bad guys as the main character the way I like. But still...)

So, you may want to write for TV. And, if you’re going to try and do that, you’re going to have to write a spec script. That is, a script for a show that’s already on the air. You do this to show you can write other people’s characters and use an already established structure (I like to say structure rather than formula – one of my co-writers on The Bridge said that writing for TV was like writing Haiku – very structured. You could also say it’s like writing dirty limericks, but that’s not as classy).

But you can’t write a spec script for the show you want to write for. They can’t read it. Who knows, they may have a similar storyline in the pipeline already. On The Bridge we had dozens of stories we didn’t get to in the first season. We did get spec scripts submitted. They were for Law and Order:SVU or Flashpoint, things like that.

Back when I applied to the Prime Time TV Writing Program at the Canadian Film Centre my spec script was for NYPD Blue. It was challenging and I didn’t get it right, but it did give me a much better understanding of the show and started me on the road to learning to write TV (I still have a lot of road to cover).

Once you get on a TV show the process is also highly structured and this guy recently wrote terrific series of blog entries explaining it all. No need to reinvent the wheel, this is the internet afterall, so I’ll just link to it.

TV writing part one: Setting the Table.

Part Two: The Outline.

Part Three: The First Draft.

Part Four: The Second Draft.

Part Five: Production White and Beyond.


Scott D. Parker said...

Your post and the linked posts are extremely informative. I've already seen how I can apply some of the lessons into my own writing. Wonderful stuff today, John. Thanks.

Steve Weddle said...

Thanks for clarifying all of that. I'm sure most folks aren't aware of how TV writing works.

Seems weird that so much time is spent watching tv, but so much ink is spilled and monitors filled with ideas about writing books.

And I think you're right about such clever stuff heading to TV. We'll never repeat the heyday of TV writing (Laff-A-Lympics, Battle of the Planets, Hong Kong Phooey, SWAT), but some of the shows on now are pretty darned good.

Looking forward to THE BRIDGE on CBS.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Also waiting for THE BRIDGE. Will I recognize a McFetridge line when I hear it?

John McFetridge said...


Patti, like I say, TV writing is teamwork. The goal is to get the showrunner's voice throughout, so I don't think you'll hear a line you can identify as mine - at least I hope not.

I don't know what this says about me, but as we were going through the storylines we'd come up with in the writer's room - cops dealing steroids, a hitman cop, SWAT robbing drug dealers - everyone agreed that the cops running hookers should be my episode.

Also, because this is the first season of the show, the showrunner was working extra hard to get his voice on it, so we were rewritten quite a bit. Of course, if the show's a hit we'll all claim we weren't rewritten at all. If it's not, well....