Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Writing for TV - when you're NOT a telly addict...

Writing for TV is something I've always had in the back of my mind, but it's stayed there while film writing has taken up the rest of my brain - and time. In a lot of respects, this makes no sense. TV provides much more regular work than film, it can be very lucrative, it's more sociable and as we all know, some of the best screenwriting out there now is on TV. So why haven't I had a yen to write a pilot?

It comes partly down to personal taste. I watch a lot more movies than I do TV. I'm not a huge consumer of television in general. In fact I went nearly three months in the last year without having a TV at all and didn't miss it all that much. Whereas I don't think I've gone more than two weeks since I was 15 without watching a film.

Then there's the fact that TV writing in Ireland is limited to working on two shows, both soaps, apart from the occasional one-off series. I don't watch soaps and don't fancy writing for one. So your options as an Irish writer are extremely limited. If you want to get serious about writing for TV, you have to go abroad. This is true for film scripts too, but with TV it's crucial.

All that being said, no writer worth his or her salt hasn't considered TV writing and most of us have probably thought of a show we'd like to write. If I'm going to do a pilot, I'd like to write a half-hour comedy with strong characters - something like The IT Crowd or Fresh Meat, for example. If I do sit down with the remote, that's the kind of show I go for.

So what's the best place to start and what sort of stuff are the U.S. studios looking to develop? I talked to a few established TV writers while I was in L.A. and this was what they had to say:

  • If you're going down the road of writing a spec script based on an existing show, choose a top 5 show and make sure it has legs. Don't write a Walking Dead script just as it's about to wind up.

  • Ideally, write an original pilot AND a spec script. Don’t worry about what’s producible – write what you want to see on TV! What show is just not being made, but should be?

  • Do 6-10 sample scripts for follow-on episodes. Have an idea of what happens during the entire series.

  • Break down existing TV episode scripts – what is the outline? What tends to happen during an episode?

  • Having a name actor helps but is not essential – look at Friends, for example.

  • With comic scenes, ask yourself: if you took out all the jokes, would it still work as a drama or would it fall flat? One writer talked about a HBO show that was pitched about two girls who worked in an office. The writers had based the show on themselves and kept talking about how things had happened in real life - but comedy on TV is more absurd than that.

  • When pitching, keep it short and don’t add in every detail about a show – keep some stuff back. Find a way to get the TV execs involved in your pitch. The more they ask, the better it’s going.

  • They’re looking for a unique voice – write something that will get their attention!

  • Try to get into the Warners/Disney Fellowship Program - these programmes nurture new writing talent and can really open doors for you. The downside - you must have a U.S. visa to apply for them.

I hope this helps - now all I have to do is follow my own advice and crank out a spec script that will knock Lena Dunham's socks off...

Next up: the brave new world of writing content for the (terrifyingly-named) Transmedia.

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