By Michael Lee · November 25, 2019
What do screenwriters need to know about breaking into television?
Welcome to our ongoing Learning from the Masters and Industry Insiders series where we seek out and feature excellent videos, interviews, and discussions of the art, craft, and business of screenwriting and pull the best words of wisdom, writing tips, and screenwriting advice.
Here we feature the Film Courage video What Writers Need To Know About Breaking Into Television by John Truby and share John Truby’s three insights into how screenwriters can break into the television industry. We then offer our own elaboration on these wise points as well.
Truby has been a story consultant for major studios and production companies worldwide and has worked on more than 1,800 movies, sitcoms and television dramas for the likes of Disney, Universal, Sony Pictures, FOX, HBO, Alliance Atlantis, Paramount, BBC, MTV and more.
“A lot of writers have an interest in television, but they see it as this castle that they have to get into that’s very difficult to get through the wall… what they think is the answer is that you come up with a spec idea for your own TV show. And unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way… unless you have a tremendous amount of experience writing for television.”
If you’re writing features, selling a script on spec is difficult enough. But there’s still a strong market for spec scripts. Television is different. The spec pilot market is next to nothing, with a few anomalies in the mix over the last decade thanks to streaming channels. But now, even with those streaming channel platforms, specs don’t sell.
It is an excellent exercise to write original pilots. And it is smart to have them in your arsenal to showcase writing talent. But it’s highly unlikely that an unknown writer will ever sell a spec pilot.
“The process that a writer needs to go through is to, first of all, write a spec script for a show that’s already on the air. What that means is that you want to focus on a particular show that you like very much, that you really know top-to-bottom. It’s a show that should be very popular so that it’s going to be running for a few years. And it should be for a show that is highly regarded.”
Writing samples on spec for popular and highly regarded shows is essential to showcase your talent as someone that can work within the perimeters of an existing show. That is what can get you into the writers’ room of a major series.
This isn’t to sell that particular spec episode you’ve written, mind you. They already have writers working on episodes for multiple seasons. This is to show your worth as a potential writing candidate.
“The primary emphasis in television [writing] is being able to crack stories really fast. In other words, to come up with a new story for a show at a really high rate of speed. Because TV has this time element that is much more intense than film. So you have to be great at story. And this is the primary skill that writers need to empathize.”
If you want to work in television, you need to be quick. You need to be able to conjure story and character moments and arcs at the drop of a dime amidst the crowded room of other writers that have proven to be able to do just that.
It’s a fast-paced environment. You won’t have time to go back home and take a couple of days to figure out a story or character problem. You’ll be expected to come up with answers in seconds or minutes.
Truby goes on to explain the difference between breaking into film and breaking into television. With film, you can write a brilliant script that is ready for further development and production — it is its own entity. With a television series, you’re basically creating a business. The show needs to be able to run for a minimum of five years with multiple episodes and seasons.
Even with the budding streaming platforms, the process of breaking into television hasn’t changed that much.
“It’s remarkably the same, over the years. This has been the way you break into television from the very beginning.”
So screenwriters should forget the notion of selling a pilot on spec and focus instead on writing samples for popular shows that are going to be around for a while. And as you do that, you can hone your skills to the point where you can crack a story quickly.
Watch the whole video below!
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