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Writing for TV
When you want to make the show instead of bingewatching to avoid writing
I am not sure if this is the correct forum for this but I am currently writing a historical drama TV show and it just feels so overwhelming. I would really love to find a checklist to organize my thoughts.
What should I produce? In what order? How do I go from idea to pitch? I don't know, I was just hoping you might be able to help!
History is Cool
Dear History is Cool,
I have good news and bad news for you. We’re going to start with the bad news for dramatic effect, which is that as much as I may seem all-knowing about writing, writing for TV is probably the thing I know the least about. I mean, I could Google some stuff and have a lot of opinions—and don’t worry, I’ll still give you a bunch of my opinions—but this is an area where I am a little lost on the basics.
The good news is that I have friends who know a lot about writing for TV, and in the spirit of making my therapist proud, I asked one of them for help. Allow me to introduce Kat Montagu.
Kat was one of the first people I met (in fact, she was the second) in my MFA program, and I liked her instantly. She is sharp, witty, warm and a heck of a good writer and teacher. Those of you out there who have heard me teach structure might recognize the metaphor I learned from her, “Writing a story without an outline is like trying to stuff a skeleton into a corpse.”
(I tend to stuff skeletons into corpses when I write, but this is partly why I don’t write screenplay.)
Because Kat is awesome, History is Cool, she has sent me a spreadsheet for one hour drama that should help you organize what you need to do, plus a TV budget handout—please reach out to me and I’ll send it to you. I also asked her a few questions about writing for TV.
First, some official bio-type stuff
Writer and Story Editor Kat Montagu is the Head of Department for the Vancouver Film School Writing for Film, Television & Games program. Kat has taught screenwriting for over twenty years. Her Career Launch class has prepared countless VFS graduates to work on feature films, in the writers' rooms of TV series, and in video game studios. Her students rave about her enthusiasm, wealth of knowledge, and the high standards she inspires. It’s no surprise that she’s been named a VFS Instructor of the Year three times.
Kat is also the author of the bestselling book The Dreaded Curse: Screenplay Formatting for Film & Television. This twist on the how-to guide demonstrates best practices through a riotous story of two witches (loosely) inspired by her own family history. It is used to teach screenwriting at film schools and universities globally. She’s also the senior story editor for Crazy8s, and co-produced the indie feature film The Prodigal Dad as well as many short films.
Kat loves The Apartment, Ted Lasso, and Legend of Zelda, but she currently writes noir one-hour drama series pilots.
Here’s our brief Q&A.
Sonal: What does a would-be TV writer need to create to be ready to pitch a show? I’ve heard other screenwriters talk about treatments, show bibles, log lines—what are these?
Kat: A logline is a sentence or two about 2.5 lines long that tells the basic story/set up. They include the main character and the central conflict.
Most pitch documents (aka pitch decks) also include a synopsis. These are often called a one sheet or one pager if they also include images, and they tell the story of the A and B plots.
The only pitch document that doesn't include text is a look book.
A treatment is a document designed to start planning the script or series itself, or to demonstrate how you plan to write the script or series. Most of the time, producers pay writers to write treatments. If it is a spec (or speculative) project, the writer will often but not always write a treatment while they are planning their project. Television writers used to plan the season (aka break the season or break an episode) on white boards around the writers' room. Post-Covid, some television writers are now using software apps like Writers Room Pro for this.
Writer/producers heading to big TV markets (like Banff World Media Fest or Content London or SeriesMania) now sometimes create video pitch decks or sizzles to pitch their projects. These can be as detailed as proof of concept short films or as general as footage edited together from other films/shows with a voice over synopsis/verbal pitch. If you were to hire an editor to help you create a video pitch deck, it might cost $1,000 or more.
Show bibles can either be 12 page pitch bibles - a slightly more detailed pitch deck like the one readily available for Stranger Things. Or they can be hundred page long reference documents for the writers' room. The Star Trek series bible contained the vocabulary of the Klingon language, for example.
Sonal: What tools or resources would you recommend for someone who wants to write a TV show?
Kat: Final Draft or Movie Magic Screenwriter. Best to read lots of existing TV pilots. This website is the best one https://sites.google.com/site/tvwriting/
(Side note: I took a look at this website and it is an awesome way to avoid writing. There’s so much there. The Stranger Things TV Bible is particularly cool, at least to this non-TV writer, in how it uses other media to demonstrate the look and feel they were going for—the show itself really nailed it.)
Sonal: I’ve heard that it is very difficult to break into writing for TV, especially if you are trying to get your own show. Is that true? How does a writer get an opportunity to pitch a show? What advice do you have for writers who want to create their own TV show?
Kat: It is very difficult indeed to pitch your own show and get it into development, let alone onto the air. After you write a couple of excellent sample pilot scripts (perhaps in a reputable Writing Program like VFS Writing for Film, Television & Games - personal bias alert!), next you apply to a fellowship program like ABC/Disney, Nickelodeon, CFC Prime Time or Pacific Screenwriting Program. Most of these programs have a simulated writing room or internal pitching opportunities, and they introduce their grads to agents who rep TV writers.
(Kat also noted that historical drama is tricky to sell because it is expensive to produce.)
Getting a job as an Office PA (OPA) on a TV series is a good way in. Most writers work their way up from there to Writers' Assistant to Script Coordinator to Story Editor or Junior Writer. Junior television jobs tend to be word-of-mouth, so start making friends and connections in the TV world. By the time writers officially become Staff Writers (with writing credits and script fees on an existing show) they have joined the Writers Guild and have agents.
Some experienced staff writers then seek mentorship to learn to produce and to rep the writers' room on set. Producer is the next credit, then Co-Exec Producer, then Supervising Producer. Finally there is the top job: Showrunner (aka Executive Producer). Many first-time showrunners are paired with experienced showrunners at first.
Once you are an experienced showrunner, you will probably have a relationship with an established production company (or your own production company). You may also have a development deal with a network or streamer.
History is Cool, I hope this gives you some practical guidance into writing for TV, or at least the vocabulary to sound like you know what you’re doing.
I hope you’re inspired to work on your show, but in case this feels overwhelming or impossible (and also because this is my newsletter) here are some other thoughts from me.
There’s no sugarcoating the fact that TV is not easy to break into. It’s not a matter of being a good enough writer, or having a cool enough idea, but it’s also a matter of connections, timing, and a whole ton of other stuff that is entirely out of your control. There are far more people and a lot more money required to turn a script into a show, there are more people involved in the decision-making, there are more steps in the process to get to a yes or a no, it is a wonder that anyone gets an opportunity at all.
This of course ignores all the structural stuff, which may also be working against you, but that is simply an annoying constant in the world. Blech.
We’ve all seen that amazing show that never got the final season it deserved, while that show that started well but then went on endlessly and grew increasingly terrible kept getting season after season. Or that show that never should have existed in the first place, and yet somehow someone thought this was a good idea and kept throwing money at it.
Imagine what kind of fantastic shows never got made at all?
Imagine the shows that came close but for reasons outside of the writer’s hands, never got greenlit. Imagine the shows that never got the chance to get close.
Starting to sound a little depressing? Okay, maybe. But it’s why, History Is Cool, you have to believe in yourself more than anyone else. You have to believe in your show, and also your next show, and your next one.
I do not know how practical it is for you to network and find internships and connections as Kat suggested. But I do know, you have to love writing your show, and spending time with your characters, and enjoy the process of writing it.
Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to find your way into TV. (Personally, I love historical drama, so here’s hoping you do because I need more things to watch instead of writing.) Maybe you’ll find a way to turn these stories and ideas into another form—a book, a self-produced webseries—that you can put out into the world.
But maybe all you get is the immense joy of writing the series, of creating an entire world and living in it for a while, which as consolation prizes go, isn’t so bad. I mean, woe is me, I spent hours and hours of my life imagining things and enjoying it, how awful.
Okay, the rejection part of it is less than fun, and the people who know little about TV asking you “So when can I see this on the air?” when there are still a million steps to go are very irritating, and in some ways the whole getting somewhere with it only to be rejected once more can be kind of soul crushing. You have to take extra care of your heart and soul through all of this, and surround yourself with people who get it, and feed your soul by giving it lots of time to create and play. But the process being difficult is out of our hands.
And that the process is difficult is no reason not to embark on it.
(Funny how people don’t usually say that about having children—by contrast, the pressure to have progeny is high—but go off and do a little art and they’re all “are you sure about this?’)
If creating this show is in your soul, then create it. Say yes to every opportunity you can, within your own practical limits for your life. Happiness is for the brave. It’s okay to take some risks in pursuit of a dream; that’s the only way they come true.
And if it doesn’t happen, so what? You took some chances, you worked on your dreams, you experienced the joys of creating something from nothing. You did a lot more in pursuit of your dreams than many people do. It is not your fault that the world does not make this easier for you.
Go off and create your show, and my very best to you in the journey of getting it produced and on the air.
But in the meantime, since TV writers always have the best ideas about this, please feel free to drop some TV recommendations into the comments.