THE BASICS OF TV WRITING: Overview

TVWriter™ has been on the web for about 15 years now in one form or another. (The TV Writer Home Page, TV Writer.Com, TVWriter.Com.) And only last week did I realize that something’s been missing all this time.

An overview of television writing. As in a presentation of the process itself and the elements that go into it.

I immediately went into the grand funk of grand funks. How could I have missed that? How could I have a website devoted to the subject more near and dear to my heart except for a handful of beloved human beings – hi, Gwen! hi, Jenny and Jeb and Sabrina and Wes and Amber and Isabel and Anna and Sky and Franny and Lulu!) and pets (who have asked me not to slow this down any further by including their names – and leave out the basics? Why didn’t I notice? Why didn’t anyone tell me?

Fortunately, my time in the TV trenches has made it relatively easy for me to slough off humiliation and despair, so instead of dwelling on the situation I’ve started doing something about it. So while you’ve been sitting and writing or reading or standing and exercising or playing or lying (or sitting or standing, who knows?) and making love or simply enjoying your lust, I’ve been hard at work adding a new section to TVWriter™ called, conveniently, The Basics of TV Writing.

The purpose of this section, which is now staring you in the face from the screen of the computational device of your choice, is to present the various steps that go into the writing of a script for episodic TV and give you as much insight as possible into how to handle them. (These are pretty much the same steps as writing for non-episodic TV AKA television movies and feature film screenplays so I think that if that’s your interest you probably should keep reading.)

The elements I’m talking about are these:

If you spend any time on screen and/or TV writing sites on the web or have been to TVWriter™ before, you’re pretty much guaranteed to have seen these terms before, possibly presented as The One and Only Way to Write for screen/TV. You know, as though they’re set in stone. Maybe you welcome them. Maybe you resent them. I probably would’ve been in the resentful category because I’m mostly a “Don’t You Fucking Tell Me What To Do” kind of guy.

Being that kind of guy worked much better back when I was starting out, in the late ’60s, than it does now, primarily because most of the writers in that era were like me, rebellious introverts who wrote because we had no choice. Real life was overwhelming, but writing, ah, it was a way of giving if not order, then some kind of meaning, to everything that kept threatening and challenging us. We were driven by demons to do two things, write and break rules. And the only reason we didn’t break all the TV writing rules at the time was because there weren’t any.

The term “logline” didn’t exist then except to describe an item in the old TV Guide Magazine. Back in the day we had “ideas” that we pitched to ourselves, each other, and potential buyers. We learned by experience to make our pitches as short and sweet as possible because to do otherwise meant watching the eyes of the people we were talking to glaze over as his or her head turned so they could look out the window (if we were lucky) or slumped to their chests as we bored them to sleep.

“Leavebehinds” didn’t exist either. They came into being because we learned to be ready for that not-quite-successful-enough-but-oh-so-promising moment when the person we were pitching said, “That’s really interesting. Do you have anything in writing that I can show my boss?” If we didn’t, we were dead in the water because Writers Guild of America, West rules forbade producers and executives from asking us to sit down and write anything for them unless a deal already was in place, and they forbade us from doing said writing if we were requested. But if we had a couple of pages already written synopsizing our dream child, it was fitting and proper to leave it with the interested party so s/he could get even more fired up. And also because there was a very good chance that our pages would tell our basic story to whomever had approval power much better than the underling with whom we were meeting.

On the other hand, “stories” were alive and well, as were “teleplays.” The story could be in the form of an outline or a narrative (said narrative sometimes being referred to as a “treatment”), and with as much detail as possible or as little as we could get away with, depending on the circumstances of the project…i.e., on how much information/verbiage the buyer wanted. That’s because unless we were writing a total spec script, in which case we didn’t have to worry about anyone but ourselves, the story step of the process was as much about pleasing the entity that had agreed to pay for it as about pleasing the writer. It was the first officially required and guaranteed paid-for step in every WGAw deal, and in most cases we couldn’t go on to the teleplay step until the story was officially approved. Which is still the case today. Story money was about 1/3 of the total script fee, and for the most part it arrived in our agents’ mailboxes right before we started writing the teleplay.

Back when I began, which probably was before you were born (Oh, God, why did I have to think of that?! Yikes!), teleplays were divided into three different stages. The first draft, for which we were paid about 1/2 the total script fee. The revised draft, for which we were paid the rest of the fee. And the polish, for which we were paid bupkis (that’s nada for those who don’t know showbiz Yiddish). We very seldom were asked to do a polish, however, because that usually was left to the writer-producer or a story editor who could tailor the piece to the precise needs of the production.

Yes, gang, that’s right. Until the mid-’90s, TV writing was mostly a freelance business as opposed to the staff job situation it has become. If, as writers, we were unhappy with what we were being asked to write, or the way we were being asked to write it, we could tell our bosses to fuck off. Because they were only our bosses for that one assignment, and we had plenty of places to offer our services to…until/unless too many “Fuck off!”s wiped them out.

Because TV writing now is done almost exclusively by salaried staffers the interpretation of the the WGAw deal has changed so that as a successful staff writer you’ll probably be involved in not just polishing your script but polishing the polish, and making very specific production changes – daily. That’s part of what your staff salary is for. It certainly was part of mine when I became a producer/showrunner.

Between us, though, I would’ve done that kind of work for free because as far as I was concerned nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, could beat the experience of being on-set and on-call and fixing/perfecting everything I could not just up to the time the director yelled, “Action!” but during and afterward as well.

But enough about me. Time now to talk about “shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax– Of cabbages–and kings–” and, not just incidentally:

The Logline
The Leavebehind
The Outline/Story
The Teleplay

The Writer

Lest we forget: If you need more detailed info on the above topics plus many, many more, this is the best source I know:

2 thoughts on “THE BASICS OF TV WRITING: Overview

  1. geraldsanford says:

    You bring back many memories, my fellow writer. Damn, I see you sitting in front of my desk this very moment. Phil Saltzman off a bit to your right side. How many years ago? Too many, and yet not enough. No ‘FADE OUTS’ for us. Nor ‘THE ENDS’ Not yet. gs

  2. geraldsanford says:

    But there are only 2 basics to TV WRITING. ‘FADE IN & FADE OUT’. Oh, yes, don’t forget…

    THE END

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