So what do you do after the screenplay is written? This is a question we received on FaceBook this week. How do you get your TV script to a producer? Firstly, let’s clarify that you’re going to want to pitch to as many producers as possible to ensure that you find the right producer for your project. So how do you find a producer for your script? Having learned a bit more about how writers tend to connect with producers through my time at the PSP this year, my answer has three parts.
1) Study and practice the art of pitching yourself and your project. For most writers, this is their weakest link. Having a strong pitch puts you ahead. Look for training and feedback.
2) Have a portfolio with at least a few other TV projects ready. If a producer takes a liking to you but can’t use your project, you want to have something else to send them if they ask for it.
3) To get your script into the hands of producers you should enter it in tv writing contests because contest winners get “buzz.” You should also go to as many industry events as possible. Some festivals and conferences offer pitch sessions that you can sign up for if you hear about it before they fill up. Get on all the newsletter lists for Canadian festivals so you can take advantage of the pitching, screenwriting contests, and mentorship opportunities that come up. Have as many applications on the go as possible.
Leave us a comment and let us know what screenwriter pitching and mentorship opportunity mailing lists you’ve found useful!
Our PSP Director, Raila Gutman, introducing Showrunner Martin Gero and Interviewer, local writer and VFS prof, Kat Montagu.
“There’s no right way to [get into a room]. There’s a wrong way: ‘here’s a cool short play I’ve written.’ Various programs want one spec and one pilot. They want to see both.” -Martin Gero
“Make stuff compulsively…I shot a scene on my phone, and that scene aired. There is no excuse for anyone in this room to not be making stuff.” -Martin Gero
A disciplined writer needs a system for making the most of ideas, passing thoughts and creative connections. The difference between a working screenwriter and the person intending to write a screenplay someday is largely a difference in work habits. We can’t afford to be lazy with the care and storage of our stock and trade…ideas. Here are five tips for making the most of your ideas.
- Use the cloud.
Journaled ideas are of little use if you aren’t able to access them. Good ideas deserve to be safely stored and easily retrievable, so keep them centralized on all your devices by making use of the cloud. There’s no need to scramble through old journals or hard drives if you’ve tagged your ideas and saved them online. Evernote, Dropbox, Microsoft OneNote, and Apple Notes are all great programs for storing ideas. A water-soaked phone or stolen laptop won’t mean lost inspiration.
- Categorize your ideas.
Create subfolders and use tags as a matter of habit. In my case, I throw my ideas, (no matter how vague and undeveloped,) into folders marked Feature Ideas, Short Film Ideas, and TV Series Ideas. If I’m targeting a specific genre and medium for a contest entry or pitch opportunity, I can scan my files for ideas I would otherwise have forgotten about.
- Take photos of your scribbles.
Do you need the feeling of pen on paper to get your ideas out? Sometimes I do. I still carry a journal with me constantly. When I’ve made notes, sketches or brainstorms for a specific idea, I snap a photo with my phone, upload, and tag them. Evernote has a great scanning app and their software is able to recognize my photographed printing in a search. The other programs might have similar features. Even an iphoto folder would work in a pinch.
- Pause the show when something moves you.
Notes aren’t just for ideas. They can also be used for increasing your awareness of story architecture to help you craft your script with more skill and emotional power. Work to become aware of your own emotional temperature while watching movies and tv. If something moves you, scares you, or gives you a shudder of delight or anticipation…stop the show. Make a note. Note the show, scene, and even time code if you can. Think about how the emotion has been manipulated by the screenwriter. Pacing, stakes, subtext…how are the tools of the trade being used here? Flag it and come back to it for study. There’s no need to leave this magic completely to instinct and chance in your own work. Figure out how master craftspeople are actually crafting and try your hand at it. Practice until the tools you’re starting to notice (and note) feel natural.
- Start a “how’d they script that?” file.
Sometimes when I’m watching a show or film, I find myself wondering, “how’d they script that?” When I catch myself with one of these thoughts, I make a note on my running “script formatting” research list, then try to find the script online.
If you have any other strategies for harnessing your observations, curiosity, and ideas as a screenwriter, please share in the comments below!
Are you on the fence about whether or not to apply? Feeling unprepared or too inexperienced? With only a few days left before the cut off deadline, our selection committee will soon be narrowing down the pile of Scripted Series Lab 2020 applications to a very short list of people. It’s a bit tragic to me because I know so many of you are up to the challenge of shining in a writers’ room if just given the chance!
Any writer who goes to the trouble of writing an original spec pilot and preparing a submission package gets a nod of respect from me, whether or not they make it into the final selected group this year. As I writer myself, I know what a massive amount of work and courage it takes to be application ready, and I relate to the vulnerability you might feel when you send off your work.
If you’re nearing the deadline but you aren’t sure your work is at the level it needs to be, or you aren’t sure if you have the level of experience required to be considered, I would suggest you apply anyway. Self-doubt is a powerful force to be reckoned with but putting yourself out there gets easier with practice and it is part of being a professional.
“Everything you want is on the other side of fear.” – Jack Canfield
Even if you applied last year and you aren’t sure it’s worth submitting again, either with the same sample or a new one, I hope you do submit again. You never know how close you came last year or how your sample script will be received by this year’s readers.
Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up. –Thomas Edison
One of our guests to the writers’ room shared some advice given to them by showrunner Simon Barry that really stayed with me. Apparently, Mr. Barry is of the opinion that if you don’t have five projects in the works, you aren’t working hard enough to put yourself out there. In that light, consider your application to the Scripted Series Lab 2020 as just one of many opportunities you are currently reaching for.
Regardless of what happens next, stay busy! I know the work you put into your application makes you a stronger, more pitch ready writer with a fresh sample to shop around. We have such an untapped wealth of creativity and talent here in BC. Good luck, my friends! Keep writing. Keep applying. Keep going. Email the industry people you admire and ask if they’d join you for a coffee! We need you all to become industrious producers and fearless promoters of your work.
My strength lies solely in my tenacity.–Louis Pasteur
How do you get from a first draft to a finished original spec script? Before you crack open that first draft and start slashing with a red pen, it’s a good idea to put a rewrite system in place so you don’t get overwhelmed. I’ve got a little catchphrase I like to tell myself…
Getting a script from draft to done takes several rounds of rewriting like a BOSS.
B: Take BREAKS on the project so you can see your last draft with a fresh perspective.
O: Read the latest draft OUT LOUD. This medium is written to be performed and what reads well might not actually speak well.
S.S: Edit in chunks, taking multiple passes with SPECIFIC STRATEGY.
If you read through your own work you’re going to see a lot that you want to change. Add to that, if you’ve asked a trusted mentor for their notes on your work, you’ll probably end up with several suggestions from them. It can be hard to know where to start or finish. It’s a good idea to make a list and break it down. Get into the habit of going through the script multiple times with your eye on just one specific aspect of the writing each time.
Here’s a sample list of some of the big ones:
-Integration of theme in character choices and consequences
-Structure/ pacing of the main plot points
-Scene movement and purpose
-Consistency of character voice
-The specificity of place and props
-Moments of connection
-Moments of conflict
-Setup and release of tension
-Am telling when I should be showing?
I’m sure there are many more specifics you could take a pass for. Whether you make the changes with each strategic pass or let the notes add up to make more changes all at once will be a matter of individual process and circumstance. A book like Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid offers a great overview of the many moving parts in a smoothly working story.
It’s a big grind of a job to do alone, and morale can drop quickly. It’s important to break it down into manageable chunks and plod on. Try to be patient and kind to yourself and your project so you don’t get overwhelmed. And if you do start to feel overwhelmed? Your mind might try to play tricks on you, convincing you that it’s a waste of time. Keep Stephen Pressfield’s War of Art on the bedside table. Grit your teeth and do the work anyway. Chip away at your B.O.S.S rewrite list. You’ll be glad you did.
Now you really get to test your understanding of craft as you prepare to write an original spec script. This part takes discipline. You’ve got the idea and the theme. You understand your chosen conflict engines and this has helped you build and define your characters. Now you’re ready to use index cards (or spreadsheet, or stickies, or idea boards) to lay out what happens scene by scene.
Break the Episode
Keep your research, TV writing references, and theme/character notes close at hand. Take a sharpie and a thick stack of index cards (the classic) or sticky notes, or start a spreadsheet or use FInalDraft’s Index Card Summary feature, and start marking down your scenes. Your research should give you a sense of the number of scenes appropriate for your chosen genre and length of the script.
Note who is in the scene, what happens, and where it happens. Mark the function of the scene if it carries extra plot point or structural significance.
Once you have all your scenes laid out, write an outline in paragraph form or record yourself “pitching” the story card by card. Give it a few days to settle if you can afford the time and then go back to it. Does your telling of the story make sense? Does it feel right? Do you REALLY know where your story goes and what shifts need to happen in each scene? Where do you stumble a bit with the details?
How do you know for sure when you are ready to write? Here I refer you to a recent episode 413 of the Scriptnotes Podcast with John August and Craig Mazin. (They get to the topic, “ready to write,” about 30 min into the episode.)
Write Your Vomit Draft
I believe there are two keys to getting the first draft out of the way. First, convince yourself that the first draft is supposed to be a mess. It’s just a jumping-off point! No big deal. (Hense the name vomit draft.) Second, follow Stephen King’s advice on momentum from his book, On Writing. King says once he starts a project he doesn’t stop or slow down unless he has to. If he doesn’t write every day, the characters and story go stale. (p.154) I can totally relate to this and live in fear of losing momentum. It’s my project killing nemesis.
So just write! Don’t pause long enough to start doubting or disconnecting or self-sabotaging. Keep going. If you finish the first draft, no matter vile it is, you’ve really achieved something big. You can sculpt and fix and finesse and you are already well on your way.
Writing an original spec script requires a solid understanding of pilot script structure. The good news is you have an excuse to watch TV rather than write. The bad news is your thumb is will get tired from hitting the play/pause space bar so many times. Once you know what sub-genre you are writing in, you can put your researcher hat on and really geek out with the spreadsheets. The real secret to studying structure, whether for an original pilot or a non-original spec script of an existing show,) is to methodically figure out what is happening scene by scene. In this case, take three or more pilots of the shows most relevant to your own and break them down. It’s tediously slow work but it’s the best way to absorb the structure and pacing that you are aiming for. You want your script to FEEL like it belongs on TV. This is how you do that.
There are four steps to creating a script study breakdown:
- Pick the right show to analyze.
- Find a .pdf of the script.
- Design your spreadsheet.
- Study the episode scene by scene.
Pick The Right Shows
Every type of show has unspoken rules of pace and expectation. A medical procedural traditionally introduces a protagonist differently than a serialized crime thriller or a workplace sitcom. While you might be tempted to break these rules to get noticed, that’s a high-risk game. If you are trying to build a portfolio that gets you into a room, your job with writing an original spec pilot is to show that you understand the conventions of your genre and you are able to deliver the “promise of the premise” in a fresh and entertaining way.
Pick three (or more) successful shows that best represent the genre your script belongs in. Warning: If you aren’t sure what genre your script belongs it, prepare to confuse the people you most want to impress.
Get .pdf copies Of The Scripts.
Find a .pdf of the script online if you can. The TV Calling Script Library is a great place to start your search. If you dare to use up the printer paper, you might want to print the script out for easy reference. Give the script a read and pay attention to the placement of act breaks, the length of the scenes and the style and depth of descriptions and slug lines. If you can’t find a .pdf copy of the script you can skip this step. Most of the meat of this exercise comes from watching rather than reading.
Design Your Spreadsheet.
Make a chart template. Using one row per scene works well. Along the top, label your columns. I recommend the following column headings:
Scene number/ Time/ Story Line (A/B etc)/ Plot Point (What happens) / Structure and Function / Physical Action / Reveal of Character / Emotion Evoked
Study The Shows Scene by Scene
This is most easily done watching on a computer where you can have one window for video and another for the spreadsheet. It is a very slow process but the best way to absorb the structure and pacing of your chosen genre.
The first line of my breakdown of the pilot for Killing Eve looks like this:
|TC||Sc#||Story Line||Scene Description, Plot Point||Scene Structure/Function||Physical Action/Setting||Reveal of character||Audience Emotion|
|00.05||1||B||Vilanelle is jealous of a little girl’s dismissal of her and the girl’s attraction to the ice-cream seller. V tries to imitate the man’s charming smile. She tips the girl’s ice cream into her lap as she walks out. Title: Vienna||Set tone. Surprise viewer. Intro Vilanelle.||Sitting, then exit||Eve is stylish but obviously not normal. She is unpredictable and easily angered and perhaps ruthless.||Tone feels like an Int’l spy thriller. Settling in for intrigue – then surprised. Amused and unsettled.|
You might have to watch the episode a few times to fully fill in each section. You will get a little faster each time you do this, and it will train you to notice plot and structure attributes more acutely as you watch television in general. As your library of episode breakdown sheets grows, you will notice similarities and differences between shows of the same genres. These are clues that can help you to achieve the tone and pacing you are aiming for in your own work. I guarantee that if you do the work, you will have a much firmer grasp of where your own outline needs tightening and tweaking.
If we’re talking about how to write an original spec script, we need to talk about Theme. I used to assume that pinning myself down with a theme too early in the writing process would be creatively suffocating. Instead, I would clarify my theme somewhere between the first and second draft. I knew it was helpful as a guidepost when I was cleaning up a messy plotline or clarifying a character’s intention.
Now I’m a convert to working out my story’s theme in the very earliest stages of story planning thanks to William Rabkin’s book, Writing the Pilot. Rabkin explains, “you can’t start writing your TV show until you can answer that simplest of questions: What is my show about?” He writes that theme is the thread holding all the episodes together. It’s a unifying idea that is always “expressed through the series’ central conflict.”
For example, a central theme for Schitt’s Creek is identity. What happens to your identity when you lose all your money and you’re forced to reinvent yourself in a world with different values and expectations? How are you seen by other people when your circumstances change? How do you see yourself? Likewise, a central theme for Working Moms is also identity, but the conflicts and humour play out through an exploration of how a group of female friends mold their individual identities through the forging fire of balancing careers, relationships and motherhood.
Since central conflict is absolutely critical to decisions of plot and character, it follows that you’re going to write a much tighter and more engaging script if you’ve done the leg work of thinking through what your show is really about.
In an interview at the Toronto Screenwriting Conference earlier this year, Showrunner Ayanna Floyd Davis (The Chi, Empire) explained that her rooms focus heavily on theme for their season, episode storylines, and their character arcs. Theme informs what each character wants at the start of the season. Those ‘wants’ needs to be touched on in each episode, with characters making both good and bad decisions based on those deep desires. It colours everything they do. “Then you get ready to blend them together based on the theme of each episode,” as Ayanna Floyd Davis puts it, “to get the stories to talk to each other.”
If you’re going to write an original spec script, it’s worth exploring what’s at the heart of the story you are trying to tell in the earliest stages of your development process.
The PSP is accepting applications for our next scripted series lab until September 1st, 2019. Six writers will be given the opportunity to create a new tv series with an experienced showrunner. Interested? We want to read your original tv script! If you’re wondering how to write an original spec script, the first step is coming up with an idea. The whole prospect can be a bit daunting when the options are endless. Sometimes it helps to remember that this is something you’ve been doing since you were little.
Play Like A Little Kid
Okay, let’s imagine you are a five-year-old kid looking into a box of toys in the corner of a waiting room. You’re digging around to see what you want to play with. Then you find three green plastic army guys, a red plastic bendy monkey, and a small wooden horse with one leg broken off. So those are your characters.
Next, you look around to find a spot to set them up. Under your mom’s chair will do nicely. You’ll have some privacy and, even better, you can use her big brown leather purse as a mountain for your characters. This will be your world.
It turns out that Purse Mountain is full of treasure. The army guys have it and are guarding from above. Bendy Monkey promises Horse that she will find a way into the treasure cave in Purse Mountain to get the elixir that can restore Horse’s missing leg. Horse is grateful but very weak. Bendy Monkey is scared but determined. You realize that Horse is suffering from a curse made by an evil wizard back when he rescued Bendy Monkey from a cage in the wizard’s library. If Bendy Monkey can’t get the elixir quickly, then Horse’s other legs are going to break off. That’s your conflict and those are the stakes. You could say that it’s really a story about friendship solidifying courage in. That’s your theme.
Test Your Idea Like A Kid Looking For Someone To Play With
You are going to feel an urge to just start, but hold on! You need to test the idea on other people first, so experiment until you have a logline you can actually say smoothly out loud to real people. (I mean it! REAL people! Not just to yourself out loud. Be brave.) But back to Purse Mountain, as a kid, you would have said, “Want to play? Bendy Monkey has to get past the guards to save Horse.” That’s your log line and your pitch.
In other words, narrow it down to writing the kind of show you yourself would want to watch. Imagine your world and get as specific as you can. Then figure out the conflict. What mess will the characters get themselves into? Is this mess powerful enough to be your story engine through multiple episodes? What personalities and character attributes would create the best web of complications and conflicting views? Doodle, brainstorm, make an imageboard or tape up creepy webs of photos connected by yarn. Do whatever helps you to really understand what adventure you want to play.
That’s where you always start. Don’t worry, you’ve been doing it since you were small!
In television, every genre and every series has a different formatting style. So, when you’re writing an original TV pilot script, how do you know which rules apply? There are some guidelines that apply to all TV scripts.
If you don’t have screenwriting software yet: Set margins 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) from the left page edge. Write the character names in caps 3.5 inches (9 cm) from the left margin. Set dialogue 2.5 inches (6.3 cm) on each side from the margins. But you’ll need screenwriting software eventually. TV writers in LA tend to use Final Draft. TV writers in Vancouver tend to use Movie Magic Screenwriter.
Next, write your act breaks into the script (centred, capped and underlined). Remember to write END OF ACT ONE before you write ACT TWO. Streaming video on demand (SVOD) shows (like Netflix’s Stranger Things) and some cable shows don’t need written act breaks, but they still have inherent act turning points and you’ll need END EPISODE (capped, underlined and centred) at the end.
Where should you place your ACT BREAKS?
Pick a show in your genre and analyze its specific formatting and structure. Here are some typical examples of act break structure.
TEASER or COLD OPEN – 2-4 pages
ACT ONE – 6-11 pages
ACT TWO – 6-11 pages
ACT THREE – 6-11 pages
TAG or STING or ACT FOUR – 1-4 pages
Total 21-41 pages (Multi-camera sitcom scripts tend to be longer. Single-camera half-hour comedy scripts tend to be shorter.)
TEASER or COLD OPEN – 2-4 pages
ACT ONE – 11-13 pages
ACT TWO – 11-13 pages
ACT THREE – 11-13 pages
ACT FOUR – 11-13 pages
ACT FIVE – 11-13 pages
TAG or STING – 1-2 pages
Total 58-65 pages
Formatting the TITLE PAGE, CAST LIST, and SET LIST:
Now set up your title page. TV writers use Courier 12 for the script, but sometimes Times New Roman for elements of the title page.
Most TV series have logo titles.
For the pilot script:
On the bottom left of the title page, list contact information. The bottom right in bold is revision information:
WHITE PAGES month/day/year
Some TV scripts also have a REVISION HISTORYon the next page to keep track of changes (White, Blue, Pink, Yellow, Green, Goldenrod, Buff, etc.).
Eg. DATE COLOR PAGES PUBLISHED
08/29/19 (FULL PINK) FULL SCRIPT
Next page: CAST LIST. Roles on the left, actors on the right. ALL CAPS.
Next page: SET LIST. Interiors on the left. Exteriors on the right. Establish the house, then indent rooms below it. All caps.
VENICE BEACH BUNGALOW
Multi-camera sitcoms (like Big Bang Theory) film on standing sets, using stock footage for exteriors, limiting locations and characters. Single-camera comedies (like Brooklyn 99) shoot exteriors too. A typical one-hour drama might have 60% interior sets and 40% exteriors. I mention this because TV writers are also producers (partly responsible for budgets).
After writing the set list, close the title page and save your document.
Create a Header to start on p2.
These vary, but usually contain some, if not all, of this information:
SERIES “Episode” #101 10/03/19 (COLOR) Page number
Now, finally, you’re ready to start your script.
This is where half-hour and one-hour formatting diverge…
Unless the scene ends exactly at the bottom of the page, use CONTINUED: top left and (CONTINUED) bottom right. The second continued page says CONTINUED: (2).
Add scene numbers on either side of bolded scene headings.
Establish DAY or NIGHT in scene headings, then use CONTINUOUS or LATER. Many writers add (D1) or (N2) to mean Day One or Night Two in the fictional timeline.
No more than four lines of action-description. Use italics, underlining, caps and bolding for emphasis. (Check out the Lost or Stranger Thingsscripts.) Fragment sentences with double-dashes for a new shot —
— even in the middle of a sentence.
TV writers refer to the camera (sometimes as “we”).
WE PAN across the room.
Single-space dialogue, like a feature script.
Use parentheticals not just for tone and action but also to direct a line. “re” stands for “regarding.”
What’s wrong with you?
Use scene numbers on either side of CAPITALIZED AND UNDERLINED scene headings then write the characters appearing in those scenes below in brackets.
INT. DINING ROOM – NIGHT
Once you establish DAY or NIGHT, use CONTINUOUS or LATER instead.
The first time a character appears, cap and underline their name with a brief description.
Intense HAZEL (24) and hipster ROSETTA (22) drink wine.
Only NEW characters get caps in subsequent episodes.
Some comedy series – like Friends, Two and a Half Men and Big Bang Theory– CAPITALIZE action-description and double-space dialogue, but others – like The Good Place and 30 Rock– lower-case action description and single-space dialogue. Double-spacing dialogue changes the 1:1 ratio, so a 22-minute episode may be 44 pages long. Confusing? Sure. Just make your decision and stick to it.
Underline and bold dialogue for emphasis.
(CAPITALIZE PARENTHETICALS IN BRACKETS) on the same line as dialogue with no indent.
(TO ROSETTA) What?
The best way to get good at formatting TV scripts is to read a lot of TV scripts. My favourite source is Lee Thomson’s amazing TV Writing collection https://sites.google.com/site/tvwriting/. Check out his TV Bible collection too.
Kat Montagu is an award-winning screenwriting instructor at Vancouver Film School and the author of The Dreaded Curse of Screenplay Formatting (available as a bestselling eBook on Amazon).