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TV is where it's happening. It's where the money is, where the jobs are, where product is pumped out fast, and where writers have the privilege of seeing their material produced. This isn't necessarily so in films, where the process is very slow and the writer can be a one-hit wonder.
According to Writers Guild of America statistics, TV jobs outnumber film jobs by two to one. There are about four hundred movies made a year, and about three thousand television episodes. In television, if writers can find a way in, if they have the talent and know how to play it, they can go from a freelancer to a staff position, to story editor, to producer/creator, and even rise to the pinnacle of television, the showrunner. It happens; one of my former students even managed to pick up four Emmys along the way. And there are others who have achieved success. They have wonderful stories, some of which I will share with you.
I don't take credit for their success. It doesn't validate me as a teacher: they had what it takes. But their success validates what I believe in — that achieving dreams does happen.
The business of television has changed since this book was first written, and I have changed as well. I continue to write, and I have sold movies to cable and television and sold two feature films. I'm currently attached to numerous projects, have a number of screenplays under option, and continue to teach. My screenwriting workshops have taken me to colleges and universities across the country, and farther. I've taught soap writing in Finland, where conflict is considered disrespectful (try that one!), and sitcom writing to the Chinese who don't speak a word of English (that one's even better!). My favorite workshops are the small private ones, where I work with writers in helping them develop their scripts. Getting to know my students and watching them grow as writers has made teaching a very satisfying part of my life.
Many of these writers are on their fifth and sixth screenplays. They get better with each script. If I see a project I think has market appeal, I will try with all my power to help them find access.
Two years ago I joined forces with another writer/producer, Joanne Storkan, and we formed the banner Honest Engine Films. I see the market from a different perspective now — from both the buyer's and seller's point of view. I've become one of those people who too often says, "I'm sorry, we have to pass." I hate saying those words, because I know how the writer feels on the other end. But producing has given me many new insights, which I have shared with my students and will share with you throughout this book.
I make no false promises about this business. Let's face it: deciding to make a living by writing television scripts is not often a practical or easy career choice.
Television agent Mitch Stein, whom I interview later in the book, told me that when he speaks at conferences he likes to sit at the end of the dais, so when they finally get to him and ask his advice, he can tell everybody in the room, "Go buy a bus ticket and get out of town. Someday you will thank me for it."
The Writers Guild of America, West, and Writers Guild of America, East, together represent about 11,000 members, about half of whom work in a given year. According to Chuck Slocum, Assistant Executive Director who tracks all the numbers for both Guilds, out of the working half of the membership, the median income from writing over a five-year period is $62,000 per year.
There are about 3,000 episodes of television written each year. Almost all of them are written by staff writers. On average a series has about a dozen writers. Now for the good news.
It can be done — you can break into television writing. It happened to me; it's happened to some of my students. The industry is full of writers who somehow managed to buck the odds. Not all of these writers are related to somebody, nor did they all begin with contacts. Some of them lived outside the LA area. Their stories are as diverse as their personalities and the TV shows they write for. But the writers did all have one thing in common — good ideas, well-written spec scripts, and some knowledge of marketing. The spec scripts were their calling card. They opened doors to an eventual sale.
The Story of Kevin Falls
I met Kevin in Los Altos, California, at Foothill College. It was one of my first college classes. He was a journalism major from Cal Poly. He had wonderful energy and enthusiasm and didn't miss a beat. I read his first screenplay; it was quite good, and I could tell that he had talent. The script didn't sell, but in the marketing process, Kevin found an agent. He kept writing. He completed his second screenplay — it also didn't sell — but he kept writing. One day I got a call from him. He was angry and distraught. He had three completed screenplays to his credit and still no bites. I completely understood his frustration, but I had a feeling he wouldn't give up.
About six months later I heard from him again. He called to tell me he had just signed a four-picture deal with Disney Studios. An executive there, a woman whom I came to know later, had read one of his scripts. She was not interested in buying the script, but she loved the way it was written. She called Kevin's agent and asked to read more. The agent sent down those two other scripts that had never sold. Again, for various reasons, she didn't buy the scripts, but she found the writing wonderful. It was not only consistent, but Kevin's style was perfect for the Disney genre. He was immediately placed under contract.
I saw Kevin a number of years later at a writer's conference in Hawaii where I was speaking with Kathie Fong Yoneda, a former executive at Disney Studios.
Kevin, at the time, had just signed on to write the Pretty Woman sequel, a project that later was shelved because of casting problems, and he, at the moment, was writing the movie The Temp. During the Q & A, a young hopeful asked Kevin how many spec scripts he had written before he sold one. Kevin responded, "Seven." The kid's mouth dropped open. He asked what kept him going, and I'll never forget Kevin's answer. He said he was getting on the Bayshore freeway, and asked himself the same thing, What if I never sell a screenplay? And he got the answer. It doesn't matter. I'll just leave them to my kids. I love it so much I'm going to keep on writing anyway.
I kept track of Kevin's career because his name kept popping up on the television screen, and I saw him year after year picking up Emmys.
We met for a drink when I asked to interview him for my book. At the time his new show, Journeyman, was on the air. It was a great series, intelligently written, intricately woven, and filled with whopper surprises, but the timing was bad: the writers' strike was about to hit just as the show was gaining momentum, and Journeyman, along with some other good series, would become one of its casualties.
Kevin's enthusiasm hadn't waned. It was pretty clear he still loved what he did. I asked him when he had made the turn from features to television. He said he was a big sports fan, and when he heard HBO was doing Arli$$, a show about a sports agent, he looked into it and got on staff. He stayed with the show for three years, then wanted off. His agent convinced him to hang on for one more year and he'd get him a co-executive producer credit, and that would later help him get a better network job. A year passed, and the agent asked Kevin where he wanted to go. Kevin was a huge fan of Sports Night. When he heard they were looking for somebody, he got a knot in his stomach; he'd give anything just to be in the same room with those people. He met with the staff twice and didn't think it went well. But at the third meeting, Aaron Sorkin was there and asked Kevin if he could start that day — at noon. He said it was the single most fulfilling moment of his career to be a co-executive producer with Aaron Sorkin on Sports Night! He continued working with Sorkin on The West Wing, where he served as co-executive producer for sixty-seven episodes that garnered four Emmys before going out on his own. Since then, he's been executive producer, creator, and showrunner for shows too numerous to mention. Go to imdb.com and type in his name if you'd like to see a list of his credits: it's two pages long.
My friend Pamela Wallace (Academy Award winner for Witness) believes that there's a defining moment in every character's life that subconsciously designs who they will become. I think that happens in our professional lives as well. For Kevin, I think it happened the day he was driving down the street and asked himself what he would do if he never sold a screenplay. He decided it didn't matter; he was going to keep writing anyway. I think that was the moment that defined Kevin Falls's success.
There are two ways you can learn to write for television. One is to read television scripts, and the other is to write them. "How to" books are helpful, and I certainly hope you buy this one. But when you get right down to it, there is no text better than the actual script. For this reason, I have included in this book excerpts of scripts I have collaborated on or written in half-hour, one-hour, and two-hour movie formats. I use these examples to facilitate stepping you through the development process. They make it easier, because you have actual pages of action, narrative, and dialogue in front of you.
We will begin with the basic tenets of scriptwriting, then move on to the hooks that television rests on. We'll analyze these hooks so you'll know what producers are looking for in spec scripts. My goal is that you'll never watch the tube the same way again — that every time you turn on your television set, you'll recognize what we've discussed, and your education will become much more than a one-time read.
Once we've studied the mechanics of scriptwriting and the tenets on which television rests, we will move into structure. Together, we will go through the necessary steps in developing scripts for the three formats.
Books on television, for the most part, don't cover writing the two-hour movie. I feel it's extremely important from a marketing standpoint for new writers to have a spec feature, cable, or TV movie in their arsenal to market. I've spoken to agents and producers to get a consensus, and they agree. There are two reasons for this. The spec movie is a great sample of the writer's original voice, and it also can be marketed to cable companies by producers before the writer has credits, and even before he or she has an agent. In fact, sometimes it's the way to an agent. Writing a small movie and getting a producer attached is a great way for new writers to get access and get read.
Finally, we will cover marketing. What is the point of crafting something sensational unless you know how to get it out there and get it read?
In my lecturing and various workshops, I have found my best instruction comes through my personal experiences in the industry. These include the horror stories as well as the victories. I've made mistakes, and I am bluntly honest about them. I point out these errors to educate you. I don't have all the answers. For everything I tell you there will be exceptions. Everything in this business is subjective.
This book is intended to be a how-to, as well as a what-not-to-do for the industry. My intention is to instruct and to entertain. What's the point of all this work unless we can have a little fun along the way? Copyright © 1990, 2008 by Madeline DiMaggio
1 Introduction 1
The Story of Kevin Falls
2 The Tools of Scriptwriting 9
3 Restrictions of the Medium and How You Can Make Them Work for You 33
Characters Are Set
Locales Are Set
4 The Hooks That Sell 45
Hook 'em Fast
The Quick Setup
The Star Is Pivotal
Personal Involvement for the Star
Twists and Turns in the Plot
Powerful Act Ends
A Good Runner
The Teaser and the Tag
5 Thoughts to Consider Before Writing Your Spec 72
6 Writing the Half-Hour Sitcom 79
Comedy and Collaboration
Writing Funny: Can It Be Taught?
Structure: The Most Essential Element
7 Writing the Hour Episode 104
The One-Hour Structure
The Hour Setup
Build to the Act Ends
8 Developing an Episode Step by Step 116
Serials and Parallel Storylines
9 How to Create Riveting Characters 122
A Character's Back Life/Present Life
The Compelling Characteristic
10 The Television Pilot 138
The Pilot Concept
Filling in the Concept
11 Movies for Television and Cable 149
The Two-Hour Movie: The Basic Three-Act Structure
The Movie of the Week: The Seven-Act Structure
What Is Meant by High Concept?
12 Developing the Two-Hour Movie 230
Step 1 Defining the Spine
Step 2 Establishing the Time Frame
Step 3 Breaking Down the Turning Points
Step 4 Broadstroking the Beats
Step 5 Developing Character
Step 6 Scenes/Sequences
Step 7 Interior Voice
Step 8 First Draft
Step 9 Rewrites
Step 10 Polish
13 Adaptations, Collaborations, and My Biggest Mistakes241
My Biggest Mistakes
A Word from Animation Writer Stan Berkowitz
A Word from Reality Writer Gardner Linn
14 So It's Written. What do I do Now? 263
A Word from Agent Mitchel Stein
15 The Most Frequently Asked Questions About Marketing 275
16 A Final Note from the Author 287
Appendix A Resources 297
To Find Scripts
To Buy Scripts
For Links and Information
Appendix B Fellowships and Writing Competitions 301
Posted November 2, 2011
As a novice trying to figure out how tv writing works, I'm disappointed with this book. The quality of paper that's used for printing is great but the content is disorganized and seems to be geared toward someone with some tv writing experience.
The author does a good job in defining types of shows, their approximate script length, restrictions of the medium, and basic industry terms.
But after that, there are big holes that have left me seeking another book to explain the basics that were skipped in how many scenes make up an act? How to differentiate between story A, B, C, etc? How to break down a scene? How to write a treatment?
A lot of the examples that are used are old show that aren't running any more or script ideas that were never sold even though this version is supposedly "updated."
The advice for pitching is good but when we're not given a solid grasp of how to begin working on a basic script and the details of the format, the guidance is too far ahead of the process.