Monday, February 26, 2007

A beginner's TV writing primer

I have assigned my freshmen to write short stories. We've been working on these stories all semester and now they're finally putting pen to paper. One of my kids handed me a very well-written Charmed fanfic and told me she wants to write for television. Well, boy howdy did she come to the right place. I typed up a primer and copied it here. What would you add?


Jane Espenson
A writer for Buffy, Battlestar Galactica, Jake in Progress, the new Andy Richter show, Jane gives excellent advice to aspiring TV writers.

Alex Epstein
Alex is an American writer in Canada with several produced shows under his belt and is completely willing to give advice and answer questions.

Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio
From the writers of Pirates of the Caribbean, this website includes columns on writing that every aspiring writer should read before they even try to write a word. It also includes a forum where writers can swap ideas and ask questions.

Bill Martell
Bill writes action movies you may have seen late at night on USA and makes money doing it. He's amazingly helpful and considers it his mission to help aspiring writers tell the best stories they can, even if they star Steven Segal.

Script City produced scripts

Crafty TV Writing by Alex Epstein

Successful Television Writing
by Lee Goldberg

The Screenwriter’s Bible
by Dave Trottier
Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman

Read produced scripts. Episodes of Buffy come bound in book collections. Those are probably the best for format. But read. Read as much as you can get your hands on. Not just TV scripts, but short stories and film scripts too. Try reading stories by Tim O’Brien or Edgar Allen Poe or J.D. Salinger of Ernest Hemmingway. In order to write good stories you must master the story form, and that means reading obsessively.

Watch TV. Pay attention to the structure because television is all about structure. How many acts does the show have? Is there a teaser (the short scene before the credits)? How does each episode begin? How does each act begin and end? What are the special techniques they use in every episode? What is the show’s message?

Once you master the form, which will take years so don’t rush it, you can look for agents. You write what is called a “spec script” and example of the show written on “speculation” meaning nobody pays you for it. You will never sell this episode or see it produced, but it is the best example of what you can write. An agent looks at it, likes your writing, and takes you on as a client. Then they take your work to a showrunner, who will read it. If they like it, they’ll bring you in to pitch. They hire you to write one episode. If you do a good job they’ll bring you back to write more until you are a regular series writer. Then you work your way up the ranks to become a showrunner yourself, then the network may hire you to create your own show. This takes several years.

Until then read, watch TV and film, and write. Get feedback from people you trust. I will gladly look over any scripts and help you as much as I can. At some point you’ll want to get a screenwriting program for your computer but that’s expensive and a ways away, so don’t worry about that now. For now just learn the form.


  1. Hi Emily,
    My 14-year-old daughter wants to write for TV, as well. She spends a lot of time over at where a lot of teens post their own episodes of Degrassi. There’s also peer reviewing. It might be a good place to check out. It doesn’t really talk about format and/or structure, but it does allow them to write (practice), as well as, follow a show, and take a stab at writing episodes.

  2. It's really cool now with all the TV show DVDs, so anyone who wants to can really study a particular series easily and in depth.

  3. An Ah-ha moment for me happened in college in a film studies class. We were covering "The Sweet Hereafter" and my professor made us do a written "breakdown" of the movie scene by scene by watching the film (in this case it was as a tool to better understand it's unique structure).

    Things are so much clearer when you can see it on the page. I recommend this tool (sort of a reverse-engineered outline) for learning about TV structure in general, or any specific show's structure. also serves as a handy push toward outlining by showing how useful it can be.

  4. Anonymous12:04 AM


    that's AWFULLY nice of Emily to say she'll look at yours stuff.

    She rocks.

    And Kellee, with you on the "reverse engineering".


  5. Anonymous9:00 AM and read to your heart's content

  6. Good advice to add. I'll include it in my primer for the next kid who asks. Keep the ideas coming.

  7. Anonymous8:44 PM

    Recommend: The Complete Book of Scriptwriting by J. Michael Straczynski

    Best (and, incidentally, first) book I read on the subject. Covers film, television, the industry, the history, and a complete script for an episode of Babylon 5 among other things.

    It is 10 years old but still well worthwhile.


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