In the first part of our guide for screenwriters, the team here at TomCruise.com gathered screenwriting resources on and off the web for writers looking to create big screen magic. However, there exists an entirely separate world for screenwriters outside of the confines of feature films: writing for the world of television. Television has always been a writers’ medium. Most of the series people love to watch were created and produced by screenwriters. For example, Tom Cruise collaborator J.J. Abrams (in the photo above right), found fame prior to his work on the Mission Impossible films as the creator and writer for the hit shows LOST and Alias. Folks Like Abrams have the imagination and persistence to keep the stories coming!
Emerging screenwriters and television fans, you can break into the industry with your imaginative script or teleplay. Below are a listing of some of the resources available to the promising television writer, including contests to enter, books on writing teleplays, fellowships from television networks specifically for writers, and some colleges that have produced writing training for the small screen. Combine these resources with the original post on writing screenplays for feature length cinema, and you’ll be on your way to telling your story for television watchers throughout the world!
With all the great feedback we’ve gotten from our aspiring fans on both the cinema writing post and the filmmakers guide, we believe the next great television writer and producer has to be out there too. If anyone can make it happen, it’s the television and movie fans coming to the site.
Take a look below at the info the team at TomCruise.com has rounded up aimed specifically to getting television writers scripts ready to be produced and put on the air!
As with filmmaking and writing for the big screen, entering a speculative (spec) script in a contest is a quick way to get feedback from script readers – and possibly win acclaim or money for your hard work! Often times these contests are judged by industry professionals who may take your winning writing from obscurity to fame as a produced network television show. The only way to find out is in the writing and placement of a script to some of these competitions.
We’ve gathered some of the more well-known competitions here, typically in conjunction with film festivals throughout the country. While some of these festivals revolve around feature-length cinema, they also have impressive competitions for teleplays which have led to production deals for many writers.
The New York Television Festival provides one of the most high-profile opportunities for undiscovered writers looking to break into television production. The festival hosts the FOX Comedy Script Contest, which not only awards the winning entry with a $25,000 cash prize, but also a development deal with the FOX Broadcasting Company! That’s a pretty sweet deal for any writer moving forward with just a spec script in hand. While money is great, the real winners are those able to get their foot in the door and have their stories produced.
Just as it’s a premiere competition for unsigned feature-length screenplays, the Slamdance Film Festival offers a opportunity for television writers to gain notice of industry professionals, along with the opportunity for $7,000 in prizes! The television writing portion of the contest is broken down into either one-hour dramatic scripts (about 60 pages) in a five or six-act structure, or a half-hour comedy script in three acts. Competitors have the opportunity to take $2,000 for winning the teleplay category, with another $5,000 for the grand prize (competing against the winners for the feature and horror/thriller categories).
Again, while famed for introducing talent into the world of feature filmmaking with the Young Filmmakers Program, the Austin Film Festival Screenplay Contest also caters the competition to include television writers submitting spec scripts based on current television programs. Like Slamdance, the television writing portion is divided into comedy and drama categories, with $1,000 prizes awarded to both. Like the above contests, the cash is only a small consideration in comparison to the network contacts made at the festival – which is populated with judges like Matthew Weiner, creator and head writer of the multiple Emmy-winning series, Mad Men.
Heading to the Internet for inspiration or instruction can be a great resource, but can quickly devolve into a frustrating search for worthwhile advice. Below are a couple blogs the team at TomCruise.com found that may provide some insight on the art and mechanics of writing for television from industry veterans. Through these free outlets, you can take in some of the lessons writers and producers have learned from years in the writers rooms at various shows and series.
One such blog that gives aspiring writers the insider’s look at television writing is seasoned writer/executive producer Jane Espenson’s blog, Jane in Progress. Most recently an executive producer and writer for the SiFy Channel series, Caprica, Espenson brings over 15 years of pro experience to her writing from work on series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the critically-lauded remake of Battlestar Galactica, along with popular teen dramas like The O.C. and Gilmore Girls. Espenson breaks down everything from politics in the writers room to the actual path an idea makes to becoming a produced script under the pressures of a production schedule on a real television series. Writer get the unvarnished truth about the business to prepare for these exciting challenges!
Television and screenwriter Alex Epstein also provides canny insight to the realities of crafting compelling television through his blog, Complications Ensue. A creator and head writer of the USA Network series, Naked Josh, Epstein also brings years of writing credibility to his blog. Even more interesting, Epstein worked as a development executive in Los Angeles prior to setting out as a writer; bringing the perspective of the business side of the business to his advice.
BOOKS & ONLINE TEXT
As with screenwriting for features in cinema, there are a number of great resources on television writing to be found either in a local bookstore, library or online. These texts can offer a primer on the structure of teleplays for both dramatic and comedic scripts, breaking down plots and how storylines are woven throughout the life of a television season or – in some cases – through the very end of a series. Understanding these fundamentals helps emerging writers craft spec scripts polished enough to be taken seriously in meetings with potential agents, network executives and producers.
One such book to give aspiring television screenwriters a start is The TV Writers Workbook: A Creative Approach to Television Scripts by Ellen Sandler. Sandler, an Emmy-nominated writer from hit comedy shows like Everybody Loves Raymond, offers a hand-on guide to navigating the business of writing for television. The book moves from the basics of television scripting to writing a polished spec script, to pitching that script to agents and showrunners to finding a position as a staff writer.
In his book, Inside the TV Writer’s Room: Practical Advice for Succeeding in Television, Lawrence Meyers interviews some of the top writers on episodic television series like Law and Order: Special Victim’s Unit, CSI: New York and Heroes. Through this inside look with some of the industry’s top talent, aspiring writers can see the kind of decision making that goes into writing a produced script. Furthermore, writers can get insight into the philosophy of these writers to find out how they create stories that consistently resonate with viewers.
Possibly the easiest source for free information, the Writers Guild of America hands out valuable texts on the business and structure of writing for television. While not necessarily a manual for the artistic concerns of teleplay writing, the WGA Writing for Episodic TV Outline gives the beginning scribe information on the hierarchy of the writer’s room, along with the steps one needs to make to become a head writer/executive producer/showrunner on their very own television series! That’s the kind of information most starting off in the business are looking to get, and it’s available free of charge.
TELEVISION WRITING FELLOWSHIPS
Once a starting writer has made it to the point of writing a polished script, they may find further help in the way of a fellowship with a television network en route to a job as a staff writer on a network series. Essentially on-the-job training or a nicely appointed internship, these fellowships pair writers with writing veterans and pay a stipend, salary or cash award. During the fellowship, writers work on actual scripts and are able to pitch ideas for production.
One of the most highly-sought fellowships in the industry, the Disney/ABC Writing Program gives writers access to the key executives and producers at both networks. Developed with the Writers Guild of America, West, this Los Angeles-based fellowship pays $50,000 for that year with medical benefits! Basically, the selected writer comes on board with the company. In order to enter, applicants provide the network with spec scripts for review, routed through a nine-month application process ending with finalists interviewing a panel of network executives. No sweat, right!
Another highly-sought fellowship and training program comes from the Nickelodeon children’s television network through their Nickelodeon Writing Fellowship. Available to writers seeking to work on both animated and live-action series, this fellowship trains the next generation of scribblers the essentials of creating fantastic, responsible entertainment for children. Applications for the program are based on a half-hour comedy spec script for a network television program currently on the air.
As with writing for the big screen, writers come from a variety of educational backgrounds and from a range of different colleges or university. However, there is one school that has a very strong presence in the world of comedy writing through a connection to a student humor magazine. That school’s name rhymes with Shmarvard.
Regardless of the school, what most writers have in common is a serious love of stories, a well-rounded education in the humanities and, typically, a literary bend to their lives. That’s not saying you need all those things to write a killer teleplay, but it doesn’t hurt.
- Harvard – Conan O’Brien (Emmy – Outstanding Writing in a Variety or Music Program: Saturday Night Live, Late Night With Conan O’Brien), Greg Daniels (Emmy – Outstanding Writing in a Variety or Music Program, Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons, Creator, King of the Hill, Park & Recreation, Executive Producer, The Office), B. J. Novak (Writer/Executive Producer – The Office), Bill Oakley (Writer/Executive Producer – The Simpsons), Steve O’Donnell (Late Night with David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel Live)
- USC – Judd Apatow (Creator/Executive Producer – Freaks & Geeks, Undeclared), Josh Schwartz (Creator/Executive Producer – The O.C.)
And that’s a wrap for our television writing guide! All your aspiring writers, we’re looking to see great things from you in the months and years to come as you make headway with your stories.
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