Monday, January 19, 2004

writing for television

check your ego at the door

So someone approaches you and asks you to pitch for a TV series.

Before anything else, slap your ego and lock it in a dark windowless place. Yes, there must be a reason they approached you. Perhaps it was the strength of your previous work. Maybe you talked a good talk. Perhaps you were just in the right place at the right time.

Cease reflecting on your worth as a creative and start working to actually win the pitch.

the brief

The first thing you need to do is to find out if A) the producers already have something in mind, or B) you present something you create yourself.

In the case of the former, it is best to ask for some sort of creative brief. This document contains details on what sort of property the producers are interested in developing. Among several things, it also contains their target audience or age group as well as an idea of how they intend to position the property. Normally, they have a very definite idea of what they want: a drama, a comedy, a full season of of 26 episodes of animation. You need to know if you're going to develop something for an hour, a half-hour (44-45 minutes and 22-23 minutes actual time, respectively, to give room for opening credits, end credits and ads) or something like a 2-hour special.

The case of scenario B is more challenging, especially if the producers tell you that they're simply looking for something interesting - and just to see if what you come up with is worth risking their millions - because developing a series for TV is not cheap.

Sometimes, after an initial meeting, you walk away with a sense of the producers wanting a mix of the two scenarios - they have something definite in mind but want to see what you would pitch anyway, given the opportunity. For a writer and creative, this is a great challenge. Nothing to take lightly, but certainly nothing be quail in fear at either.

the treatment

Block off a decent amount of time away from anything that can distract you. You need space to think and write (and normally, you do not have much time).

Come up with a list of ideas for the series, based on your understanding of the brief. While it is fine to blue-sky and impose no limits on your imagination, you need to somehow keep in mind that there are budgetary constraints to work with. When you develop a live-action series, for example, you cannot have explosions galore unless your client has bottomless pockets. In the case of 3D animation, be aware that modelling and animating a thousand unique models is expensive and most likely impractical.

Review at your list with eyes void of love and ego. Select two or three that have potential and also interest you. Forget about the others and never engage in the silly exercise of trying to graft on all 46 ideas you had into one miraculous thing. It won't work. It is always better to focus and narrow down. Always.

Write a treatment for your two or three Master Concepts. A treatment contains the series title, rationale, series tone and goals, characters, story arcs and plots, and usually some loglines. Loglines are episode summaries, written in one brief paragraph, that shows important points in the series. Some people write a few, some write none, I write all 26 episodes. Remember that you can always revise loglines during pre-prod - so write as many as you can to give the producers a better understanding of where the entire thing is going.

the scriptment

Sometimes, I write a scriptment. A scriptment is a treatment with a full script for the pilot episode included. A full script means a full script. No shortcuts, written in a clear formatted manner, that introduces some of the series' characters and the establishes both milleau and main story.

Remember the 3-act structure, start strong, have a good middle, end strong. Make your characters breathe and maintain the narrative flow. End what needs to be ended but keep your subplots going.

I need to stress that you must not be lazy. Write effectively, intelligently, quickly. And stay within the prescribed parameters you outlined in your treatment and within the time framework.

the pitch

Familiarize yourself with your work. It should go without saying that the producers know next to nothing about you and your mad ideas. You are your greatest champion. Don't be the one thing that kills the opportunity for you.

Present your property with intelligence and polish up on your communication skills. Be the kind of writer that breaks the stereotype of the introvert. Wow them. There are times when you need to sell yourself, as a creative, as the right writer.

Go through your material in a logical sequence. Take time to explain your overall vision. You need to sell the idea and get them to buy it. Quick thinking, a sense of humor and good pacing are critical skills you must employ.

Defend your vision within reason but listen to what they say. Keep in mind that artistic integrity and work-for-hire are two different things. Stick to your guns where it matters and select what you will fight for. Remember that a TV series is a collaborative effort and the writer is NOT king. If your ego needs that kind of massaging, then fund it yourself.

Accept the fact that there will be changes. The producers (the people with the money) will want something. The director will want something. You definitely want something. Work from there and create a win-win situation rather than a silly and ungratifying win-lose scenario.


If you are awarded the project (kudos to you!) then the hard work begins. Coordinate with the other writers (unless you're operating alone, in which case make sure to get someone you respect and who's not afraid of you to read your material as it develops).

Immerse yourself in the new world. Keep track of all your characters and their development. Know where the story is going and maintain the logic of all subplots. Write the best dialogue you can. Keep true to the treatment. Keep your deadlines. Accept revisions with grace.

Work hard to bring to the small screen something you will be proud of - but again, keep in mind that you are not being paid to develop high art. If your soul screams to create high art, do it somewhere else in some other way.

Above all, discipline yourself.


In the case where your treatments are trashed, don't despair. Before you file them somewhere and move on with life, try to understand why you lost. Were your concepts trite and mundane? Were your characters boring and cardboard cut-outs? Did your treatment lack an integrated vision? Was it a bad script? Did you fail during the presentation and become an unspeaking sweaty rock?

It is vital to have an understanding of your weaknesses to be able to improve upon them. Sometimes, the way to learn is to fall flat on your face.

When opportunity comes again, do better and win.


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