So you have the perfect idea for a sitcom. Or you have the perfect lead character just waiting for the right plot. Maybe you’ve already written the pilot script but it’s been sitting on your computer because you aren’t sure if it’s any good. Or maybe you haven’t even started writing it yet.
You’re not alone. Many of us have watched a bad TV show thinking, “I could write a better script than that!” or feel like we know a series or character so well we could write a script for the series. Is writing for television one of your career dreams? If you’re ready to transform your dream into reality, there’s a book that can help you every step of the way: Write to TV: Out of Your Head and Onto the Screen (2nd Edition) by Martie Cook (Focal Press, 2014). If I were advising someone who wanted a career in television writing, I would hand them this book.
As a career counselor, my favorite moment in the book is in the introduction where Ms. Cook prepares readers for the realities of television writing. She describes her first trip to Los Angeles when she was 15 where she vowed she would become a television writer. And she did: 13 years later she sold her first script for a show, “Charles in Charge.” But before you think that it was an easy process, Cook explains how during those 13 years she acquired a college degree and worked in entry-level production jobs, fetching coffee and lunch, taking phone messages, making copies, and typing. Do you notice something missing there? She wasn’t writing. Not on the job at least. Instead she got up at 5 a.m. every day and wrote for two hours before work. She turned down parties and invitations to write and rewrite scripts every weekend. And—just when you think, “I could do that. I have as much drive as she did”— she hits the reader with this: “If it was hard to find work as a television writer then, it is perhaps 1000 times more difficult now.” (p. xxiv)
Still reading? Good, then maybe you do have the tenacity to succeed.
The first section of her book explains how the Hollywood industry works. It isn’t all about the art of writing. Prospective writers need to consider and respect the business element of show business such as ratings and sponsors. She’s also very clear that you need to live in Los Angeles if you’re serious about television writing. She recommends you create a spec script for a current television show, keeping in mind that the writing staff knows the characters inside and out, and you will need to as well if you want to write for a show. She then provides guidance on how to get your spec script noticed and, one hopes, sold.
The next several sections of the book focus on the specific elements of television writing for different genres.
Want to write the next “Big Bang Theory or @Midnight?” Part II of the book focuses on writing for comedy, including sitcoms, late night shows, stand-up and improvisation. This section is a goldmine for the writer with lots of helpful information about how sitcom writing staffs work, how to freelance for a sitcom, the importance of original and good stories, creating conflict, sight gags, etc. She describes the modern three-act structure of sitcoms, how to create running gags, how to outline your story, and how to set up a script. In addition she covers the differences between writing a script for a single camera versus a multi-camera set.
Have a great idea for the next spin-off of “CSI”? Part III covers writing for television dramas. She makes a distinction between plot-driven versus character-driven dramas and how to write for each. As an example of the detail she provides for writers, she includes such helpful tips as a “Checklist for character-driven drama” which identifies 11 key elements, including, “Have I added twists throughout my story” and “If my story is based on personal experience, is the story big enough to carry an entire episode?” (p. 141)
Cook provides a sample script of the first few scenes of a television drama to demonstrate how to outline, structure, and format a script.
Maybe you’re considering writing a great Christmas Hallmark Special? In Part IV of the book, Cook focuses on writing for the made-for-TV market. She covers how to write for the target audience (women), what stories work and what stories don’t, how to get the rights to a novel, and even whether to turn your movie into a mini-series.
Your story needs to have strong characters, and Part VI of the book delves into how to create compelling and complex characters. Later sections include writing strong dialogue, writing for the tween market, the importance of rewriting, how to pitch your script, and how to write for the reality TV market.
The later sections of the book, starting with Part XIII, focus on the career elements of screenwriting. She stresses the importance of getting an agent, and provides suggestions for obtaining one, including getting references, and how to write a query for agents and managers. She strongly recommends that you check the website regularly for the Writer’s Guild of America.
In terms of developing your career, she recommends internships and entry-level jobs that connect you in any way to the industry. Just as she started in jobs that didn’t involve writing, but where she did learn more about the business, she recommends a similar approach to her readers. Some job titles she recommends you consider are "writer’s assistant", "producer’s assistant", and "production assistant." She provides great guidance on creative ways to get into the industry including through networking, attending conferences and seminars, and entering writing contests.
This is truly a comprehensive guide to the field and a must-have for anyone considering entering the profession. Like any good career counselor, she is honest, thorough and factual, and ultimately encouraging and supportive. Happy reading and happy writing!