Writing for Television

Discussion in 'After Hours Lounge (Off Topic)' started by Stephen Lilley, Feb 15, 2006.

  1. Stephen Lilley

    Stephen Lilley Stunt Coordinator

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    I'm really not sure if this is the best place for this, but the description of this particular forum doesn't say anything about *not* being allowed to discuss this, so here it goes.

    Also, I did a search and didn't come up with anything, but if I've overlooked an already existing thread dedicated to this, please forgive me.

    I'm interested in learning how to write a properly formatted television script. I was wondering if anybody knew of any books, along the lines of Syd Field's SCREENPLAY, that would be good reference tools for this kind of thing?

    Also, does anybody collect published teleplays? I've got a small collection of published screenplays, and was thinking of starting a collection of TV scripts to compliment it. Any recommendations?
     
  2. Paul_Stachniak

    Paul_Stachniak Screenwriter

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    The easiest and best way is to read previously published screenplays (The Sopranos has a nice book of collected screenplays from the first three season). Also buy Final Draft 7 (the industry standard for screenplay writing) and you're pretty much set. No one can TELL you how to write a screenplay - but you can get formatting down after reading a few yourself.
     
  3. Joseph DeMartino

    Joseph DeMartino Lead Actor

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    J. Michael Straczynski (writer and/or producer on shows like Murder She Wrote, The New Twilight Zone, Jeremiah and, most famously, Babylon 5) has written The Complete Book of Scriptwriting which covers dramatic story-telling generally, and format, marketing and other specifics for teleplays, screenplays, radio drama, animation and stage productions.

    He's also recently begun publishing all of the Babylon 5 scripts that he wrote himself (89 out of 110 episodes, plus TV movies and alternate or unfilmed scripts) via CafePress. Each volume contains 5 to 7 scripts plus introductory essays, anecdotes, backstage photos and contemporary production memos. Volume 4 just became available for order. (You can pre-order before February 17 and save $10 off the cover price.)

    And no, I don't get a commission for pointing this stuff out. [​IMG]

    The scripts themselves are basically facsimiles of (generally) the final draft scripts in standard courier font and with proper pagination.

    Regards,

    Joe
     
  4. Stephen Lilley

    Stephen Lilley Stunt Coordinator

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    I had no idea that Straczynski had written a book like that. He seems like the perfect person to do it, too. I just ordered it from Amazon.com, and am eagerly awaiting its arrival.

    Thanks a bunch.
     
  5. Joseph DeMartino

    Joseph DeMartino Lead Actor

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    That's another buck the bastard owes me. [​IMG]

    Joe
     
  6. Lew Crippen

    Lew Crippen Executive Producer

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    A second of Paul’s Final Draft recommendation. It will be hard to submit a teletplay in any other format.

    If you are considering writing a ‘spec’ script for an existing series, I highly recommend downloading the series and watching the episodes carefully—especially the recent (this year’s) episodes. This will help in getting down the rhythm and flow of the series and also with the character interaction (I’m not trying to tell you what you may already know, but I could not tell from your post, your level of experience).
     
  7. Joseph DeMartino

    Joseph DeMartino Lead Actor

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    1. As long as the script complies to closely to the standard margins and spacing, nobody is going to reject it out of hand even if it is in MS Word format or printed and mailed in. You don't have to use Final Draft or any other particular software package. Final Draft is good for working on production scripts and the standardization it provides makes it easy for people to collaborate. Your first scripts are not going to be things that go before the camera - they're going to be written to sell you as a writer who can handle the screenplay form, to secure you an agent and to get your foot in the door. Scripts written to be read and to sell themselves are written differently than contracted scripts written to shoot in eight weeks - or two.

    2. When it comes time to sell your script, you're probably going to want to use sample scripts to get an agent before you submit anything to the studios anyway, because the studios will not accept "over the transom" submissions and will return unsolicited scripts unopened. The only way to submit a script that is not represented by an agent is to send an inquiry letter first, get the studio's standard release form, sign it and return it to the address you're given along with the script. You're better off trying to attract an agent first.

    3. Most producers prefer not to read spec scripts written for their own shows. If you want to write for CSI, send them a script you wrote for Criminal Minds or The Shield and maybe one for Boston Legal or Lost to show your range. JMS goes into much of this in his book. Whatever existing shows you write your spec scripts for, make them about the regular characters. Freelance scripts always seem to be about the guest-star role, because that is the character the writer has created and knows best. Showing you can write the regular characters in a series is a big help. (And people in Hollywood watch each other's shows, either to see what they're friends are doing or to keep an eye on the competition, so this doesn't contradict the "don't submit specs scripts for show A to show A's producers" rule. [​IMG])

    Regards,

    Joe
     
  8. Stephen Lilley

    Stephen Lilley Stunt Coordinator

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    Thanks guys. Everyone has been a huge help so far.

    In my constant quest to understand the way screenplays and teleplays are written, I've begun to outline a season of a show of my own creation. I'm to the point where I've really outlined about as much as I can and want to sit down and write the pilot, which is where the books and everything come in.

    I knew as much not to send the producers of LOST your fan-written LOST script - but I didn't consider sending them maybe a script for THE SHIELD or something like that.
     
  9. Joseph DeMartino

    Joseph DeMartino Lead Actor

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    RE: Series. It is virtually impossible for a new writer in Hollywood without track record, staff experience or producing credits to get a new series launched. Be prepared to move to L.A. and toil in the vineyards of other people's shows for several years before you even think about that.

    Possible exception: Write your pilot as a stand-alone TV movie that would be worthwhile to make and watch if that's all there was ever going to be. Such a "back-door" pilot is about the only way a newbie could conceivably get an offer for a series deal. This reduces the odds against you from several billion to one to maybe 40 or 50 million to one. [​IMG] But, hey - that's an improvement.

    Regards,

    Joe
     
  10. Stephen Lilley

    Stephen Lilley Stunt Coordinator

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    No, I know I've got better odds of getting struck by lighting while winning the lottery than going in with no experience and getting a show on the air. I was just saying. If I'm trying to learn how to write teleplays, the easiest way theoretically would just be to write a bunch of my own. And if I'm going to be writing my own stuff, I might as well think it through. It'll help me get a handle on not only formatting, but writing story arcs, character development over long periods of time, ad breaks, etc.

    I'm not thinking "All I've got to learn to do is format and I can't lose! Huzzah!" [​IMG]

    I had seriously never considered sending out scripts from Show A to Show B, though. I am suddenly really glad I made this thread, and also that I've got that Straczynski book coming.
     
  11. Joseph DeMartino

    Joseph DeMartino Lead Actor

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    Which makes a certain amount of sense especially since, if you're lucky, you might eventually have the chance to go back and use some of them. (Although you'd probably end up rewriting them all since I'd expect you to be a much better writer in 5 or 10 years than you are now. [​IMG]) I wasn't assuming you were totally naive but, as Paul pointed out, it is hard to tell how much even film and TV fans know about this stuff and how much they've studied up on the business side of things.

    "getting struck by lighting while winning the lottery"

    I like it. I've gotta remember that one. [​IMG]

    Joe
     
  12. Stephen Lilley

    Stephen Lilley Stunt Coordinator

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    Yeah, I know what you mean. I think somewhere along the line I used to be that way... but definitely not anymore. If film school has been important for one thing, it's the revelation of just what I'm up against. [​IMG]

    The Complete Book of Scriptwriting by Straczynski arrived in the mail today. I haven't had a time to really crack into yet, but from just flipping through I'm already really impressed. The format seems to be a mix of lessons on how to write in various formations (Television, Movies, for the Stage, and even Radio and Animation), and Straczynski's personal anecdotes and tips for surviving the industry.

    I'll post more thorough reactions as I get farther into the book.
     
  13. Ravi K

    Ravi K Supporting Actor

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    Doesn't Straczynski frequent some newsgroups or web forums? I could swear I've seen posts by him somewhere...
     
  14. Carlo Medina

    Carlo Medina Executive Producer

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    Agreed that you don't have to use software like Final Draft. However, I am using Moviemagic Screenwriter (a competitor) and I find that once you get used to the keyboard shortcuts and auto-formatting of a screenwriting software program, you'll never go back. It literally takes the format-thinking out of the equation, freeing you to focus your energy and attention to the substance and not so much the formatting.

    I'd highly recommend using screenwriting software for this alone.
     
  15. Joseph DeMartino

    Joseph DeMartino Lead Actor

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    He posts to the moderated Babylon 5 newsgroup on usenet. (rec.arts.sf.tv.babylon5.moderated) In past years he used to be active on internet services from GEnie and Prodigy to Compuserve. You've probably seen stuff from his posts quoted in B5-related threads here. Over the past 15 years or so he's written tens of thousands of posts, with a total word count equal to a number of full-length novels.

    Regards,

    Joe
     
  16. Joseph DeMartino

    Joseph DeMartino Lead Actor

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    Of course you can acheive the same thing for a lot less money, especially as a beginner, by simply not worrying about formatting when you do your first draft or two and just letting the stuff flow. You're going to rewrite anyway, don't kill yourself with the formatting. Especially don't worry about things like shot numbering and angles. (Those are for shooting scripts, not scripts meant to be read, and a director would probably run a thick black magic marker through every angle and stage direction or simply do the opposite of whatever you indicated simply because he's a director and that's what they do.) [​IMG]

    Regards,

    Joe
     
  17. Carlo Medina

    Carlo Medina Executive Producer

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    No doubt there are many ways to get started, Joe. I certainly don't mean to imply that software is by any means necessary.

    But IMO, he will someday have to put it into the correct format. Whether he does it initially or later, it's going to have to be done. And no, not just shot numbering and angles (which I don't put on my screenplays). But the whole formatting: centered character names, indented dialogue lines, right anchored transitions, indented parenthesized dialogue descriptions, etc.

    If he were to just write it all down in MS Word, it would be a bitch to format later. I know. I used to do it that way.

    If he were to use software, he could "just let the stuff flow" and have the program already put it in the proper format. That has several benefits, not least of which is that he won't have to deal with that later, such as:

    1. Good screenwriting software lets you look at things in "Index Card view" which I find to be a very useful tool when trying to quickly visualize how your movie/show is going to look.

    2. Software also gives you keyboard shortcuts like using TAB to go to a character name, knowing after you input the first character name to give you a drop down list of matches (and if you have character names w/ different beginning letters it's a 1-1 match). Knowing after you hit ENTER after putting in a character name to put you in a dialogue indented format. Knowing to properly indent parenthetical directions in dialogue. Knowing to put (CONT'D) when dialogue by the same character is broken by action. Knowing when you hit enter after a dialogue format to put you back in Action.

    Also, things like CTRL I or CTRL E for a new scene INT. or EXT. prompt. Knowing after you input your scene loc to give you the accepted times (DAY, NIGHT, EVENING, etc.).

    Finally, Screenwriter auto capitalizes a lot of things properly, so when I'm typing I hardly ever hit the shift key. When working on a laptop where it can get uncomfortable typing on the road, any saved keystrokes is a godsend.

    I agree with you: software is not necessary to begin writing a screenplay. Heck, many of the greatest screenplays were written by hand or on a typewriter.

    But software will save you time and effort if you start out that way. I find that having your first draft properly formatted makes it very easy to review, edit, all while keeping things in the proper format.

    I didn't want to spend the bucks on it either. I'm a grinch, trust me. But if he is a college student (or knows one) and can get academic pricing, Moviemagic goes for $99 and Final Draft $179. IMO, well worth the price (being affiliated with a university I got mine for $99). I will say if I had to pay the full $249 for Screenwriter (you can save $25 if you download only) maybe I'd be singing a different tune. But after having used it for several months now, I can't honestly ever go back. My productivity has increased in an order of magnitude, especially after the initial learning curve of about 1-2 days (learning all of the shortcuts is key).

    As always, YMMV, but this is my anecdotal experience.
     
  18. Joseph DeMartino

    Joseph DeMartino Lead Actor

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    I'm by no means putting down screenwriting software and know many people, including a few with sold or produced scripts, who absolutely swear by it as a productivity tool and even - as you indicate - an writing and organzing tool. (David Gerrold, who used to write his screenplays on an IBM selectric typewriter, and was taught the index card method of organizing scenes using real index cards in college, has commented on the analogous function that has been carried over into today's software in published articles and on-line. Gerrold's first professional sale of any kind wasn't a magazine article, short story or novel, but an unsolicted script for the original Star Trek - "The Trouble with Tribbles".)

    But I don't want anyone who is perusing this thread to get the impression that they really had to buy such a program before even getting their toe in the scriptwriting waters, or that it would be impossible to sumbit a script without such software. People did, after all, manage to write - and sell - screenplays before there were computers. (And today's standard script formats are largely the progeny of all those battered Remingtons and Smith-Coronas that the wordsmiths of yesteryear pounded their scripts out on.) Some people distract themselves with getting all the gear for a new endeavor before the start and will wait until they've save enough for whatever it is they think they need before they start having fun and stretching their writing muscles or real muscles or imaginations (whichever the case might be.)

    I just wanted to remind folks that you can have fun fishing, and maybe even catch a few, with just a stick and some string while you're saving for that rod and reel. [​IMG]

    Regards,

    Joe
     
  19. Carlo Medina

    Carlo Medina Executive Producer

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    I fully get where you are coming from, and again, I don't disagree with your points. BTW, I've personally used the index card feature on Screenwriter and I love it!

    The benefit of the software is, as I see it, as a timesaver for those of us who are pursuing this interest while holding down other jobs. I'm certainly not a screenwriter by trade, and I'm going to take it that neither is Stephen.

    Given that we don't have our full time to focus on screenwriting, I cannot overemphasize what a timesaving tool the screenwriting software is, at least if you're seriously going to try your hand at this. If he's just doing it for kicks, then by all means write it by Word, by typewriter or by hand. If he's trying to get things together to eventually pursue a road down that career path, then I think it's worth the $99 if you can take advantage of academic pricing, and now that I think about it, yes I'd pay even the full $249 if I had to.

    Speaking of, I actually wrote a few rough starts freehand and it really isn't that bad--I actually think writing on a word processing program is the worst because of the pain-in-the-butt formatting and reformatting. If I had to rank them in order of how I'd like to work, it'd probably be:

    1. Screenwriting software
    2. Freehand, with index cards
    3. Word processor

    But we all work differently. I'm sure there are others who prefer a different method(s).

    Actually, I think Moviemagic and Final Draft offer free trial downloads (with restrictions). Why not try that and see if they're your cup of tea? Do take time to at least learn how to fully utilize the software. I'll freely admit the first couple of days I used it I was a shade underwhelmed. Then I actually cracked open the manual, and then practiced by transcribing a few free scripts you can find on the net in txt format...and wow, now I'm really cooking!

    I guess I'm a bit passionate about the software because of all of the difficulties I had before using it. I would spare as many people that travail if I could.
     
  20. Steve Felix

    Steve Felix Supporting Actor

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    From what I understand, Movie Magic Screenwriter is gaining favor among pros. It's as acceptable as Final Draft at this point. Its name makes it sound like a toy, though.

    This screenwriting blog, The Artful Writer, is great in general, and this entry made me purchase MMS.
     

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