Breaking into Television Writing

Posted by Lee Goldberg on

Reader Lauren Machin from Atlanta, Georgia asks:

How do I become a television writer if I don't have any contacts?

Writer/Producer Lee Goldberg responds:

I get this question a lot, but it's disingenuous, since I'm a TV writer/producer and whoever is asking me that is really asking me to either read their script or to invite them in to pitch. So, theoretically, they already know somebody in the business.

They're luckier than I was when I got started. I didn't know anybody in the TV industry. But I got in. How did I do it? Everybody's story is unique. Most of those stories, however, share one common element. You have to put yourself in the right place to get your lucky break. And it's easier than you think.

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The first thing you have to do is learn your craft. Take classes, preferably taught by people who have had some success as TV writers.

There's another reason to take a TV writing course besides learning the basics of the craft. If you're the least bit likeable, you'll make a few friends among the other classmates. This is good, because you'll have other people you can show your work to. This is also good because somebody in the class may sell his or her first script before you do, and suddenly you'll have a friend in the business. Many of my writer/producer friends today are writers I knew back when I was in college, when we were all dreaming of breaking into TV some day.

A writer we hired on staff on the first season of Missing was in a Santa Monica screenwriters group and was the first member of her class to get a paying writing gig. Now her friends in the class suddenly had a friend on a network TV show who could share her knowledge, give them practical advice and even recommend them to her new agent and the writer/producers she was working with.

Another route is to try and get a job as a writer/producer's assistant on an hour-long drama. You will only get a meager salary, but you will see how a show works from the inside. You'll read lots of scripts and revisions and, simply by observation, get a graduate course in TV writing. More important, you'll establish relationships with the writers on the show and the freelancers who come through the door. Many of today's top TV producers were writer/producer assistants once. All of the assistants I've had have gone on to become working TV writers themselves, not because I gave them a script assignment or recommended them for one. I didn't do either.

The first step towards getting in to pitch a TV producer for an episodic writing assignment is to write an episodic teleplay on spec. By that I mean pick a show and write an episode for it.

Although there are some producers who prefer to read screenplays, most showrunners, agents, and network executives want to read an episodic teleplay. Even if your spec feature script has acceptable levels of dialogue, characterization, and structure, people thinking of hiring you will still wonder "yes, but can he handle my characters? Does he understand the four-act structure?" An original piece can demonstrate that you have a strong voice, but it doesn't show whether or not you blend that voice with ours. Can you write what we need without losing whatever it is that makes you unique? That's why we need to see your talents applied to a TV episode. To someone else's characters. To someone else's voice.

How do you pick a show to spec? Easy. Pick a show you like. Odds are, if you're thinking about trying to become a TV writer, you already know what show you want to spec - you just don't know you know. It's the one you watch every week, and when it's over, you find yourself thinking, "That was pretty good, but wouldn't it be cool if -"

Don't worry about what's hot and what's not - choose a show you feel a connection to, one that you "get." With some exceptions:

a) Try to stay away from syndicated or basic cable science fiction shows like Andromeda or Stargate. Or even a basic cable drama shows like Strong Medicine or even my show, Missing. Not because they aren't good shows, but because most showrunners and network executives don't watch them. They wouldn't know whether a Farscape or Wild Card spec was any good because they've never seen the shows.
b) Also try to stay away from first-year shows, unless they are big hits. Otherwise, by the time you finish your spec, the show could be cancelled already and your script will be useless. No one is going to read a spec for a show that was cancelled after 13 episodes.

Many writers feel compelled to write a Sopranos or The Shield simply because they're "hot" shows. That's great if you have some kind of feel for the shows, but if you don't, you're not going to write a good Sopranos no matter how fine a writer you are.

What shows do you look forward to? Which world would you like to live in? Which characters would be happiest living in your brain for a few weeks? That's the show to write.

What you're going to be writing is a typical episode. It's not your job to write the show you think it should be; it's your job to write the best possible version of the show that is. You need to prove that you can mimic the style and feeling of a show while still letting your unique voice and vision shine through

Let me underscore this again. You want to write a typical episode. You don't want to write a "mythology" episode that delves into the deep backstory at the heart of the series. If it's a show that derives much of its conflict from the sexual tension between two characters, you don't write the episode where they sleep together. If it's a show about people lost in space or on an island, don't write the episode where they find their way home or get rescued. If it's a show about a fugitive on the run for a crime he didn't commit, don't write the episode where he proves his innocence. (And don't ever, ever, ever write a spec "cross-over" with characters from another series, movie, book, or animated cartoon).

What you're trying to prove with your spec is:

-You're not illiterate. You know how to write.
-You know how to write a script in the proper format.
-You know how to structure a scene.
-You know how to structure an act.
-You know how to tell a story.
-You understand the four-act structure.
-You can craft a story that serves the franchise of the show (i.e. a story that could only be told within the conceptual framework of that particular series).
-You can capture the voices of the characters.
-You can capture the story-telling style of the show.

What you aren't trying to prove is how clever you are, or how much better you'd be writing the show than the people who are already writing it. Your goal is to write an entertaining, tight, typical episode of the show that illustrates your professional skills, not your amazing style and unique voice. While TV producers are interested in your voice, what they really want to hear is how well you capture their voice. Your job as a TV writer is to channel the showrunner's vision, not your own.

And as soon as you finish writing that terrific spec, start on another for a different series, preferably one that's the opposite of what you've just written (i.e. a procedural and a melodrama). Because the first thing a TV producer will ask after reading your spec is:

"Does he have another spec I can read?"

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