Writers for TV spend most of their early careers working a lot by themselves in an empty room supervising no one. As soon as they gain success in TV, they are immediately expected to supervise and Produce. Hard to get the time to train for it, but when you do get the chance here are 7 strategies to guide you through the world of TV writing.
1. Write for your world, but be prepared to accept what you find on location. A sense of place rarely trumps a good rebate. Use what can be shot. It will always look better. The Studio will be pushing you to go where they are comfortable. Not necessarily what you’ve written.
2. A good pilot is not the best episode of a good series. A good pilot is the promise of a series. Viewers need to see where they are going. Producers need to see it too. And how to shoot it…
3. How are you going to spend your money? You can have a few cops in modern day do a lot of stuff in many scenes and locations. Or, you can have The Roman Legion stomp around Egypt for a few scenes. Put the money up on the screen is not just a saying. Understand what you are asking for.
4. Use the whole buffalo. Be smart and economical. Don’t write a two page ballroom scene with 1000 people in formal dress and never go back. Don’t put short scenes on piers next to ships. Don’t write a half a page scene outside a racetrack. Unless these things are so key, so important that you can talk the network creatives into it.
5. Whatever you talked them into–the budget will be served. In the modern world of money and TV, it makes no sense for a studio to pay to shoot a huge pilot and sustain an expensive series without major success. Unless you’re “Game of Thrones,” you won’t survive long. Yet Studio and Network Creatives want to be wowed. They’ll believe you, hire you and support you right up until they fire you because they don’t like the dailies. You will be expected to deliver what you have just sold. You will need to know how to do that when you pitch it. You will be living within a budget, but you must know that you can create that world you’ve written.
6. Know that casting will be getting away from you, so don’t overwrite character descriptions even if they read great. You can’t put all the exposition in there anyway, so strip it down to one of those great enigmatic descriptions they teach in screenwriting class. The Studio/Network will have many concerns about casting. Unless you’re Dick Wolf or Mark Gordon, you will have to just be happy about participating in casting, not running it. So don’t get wedded to who plays what when you write it. The black guy in his fifties part is now played by a Latina in her thirties. Just be ready for it at the script writing. Know who the few parts are that you’ll fight for. You can win some battles in the casting ring, but only a few. And that can be mostly just using your veto on the weirder choices.
7. The notes. You can get endless notes and never get the green light. But, be prepared that if your project is getting traction and does get sold, there will come that first big serious note session. It does seem that the old adage is right—All Network notes are about makeup and hair and wardrobe. Well, that is mostly true for shows that get to production.
However, I have found there are very smart people who work at studios and networks who work on pilots and series and they know good stories. Often, in that first big session, they throw a curveball note that is really great. This usually only happens early, but be prepared to deal with such notes. How you accept it and write it could determine whether you go forward or not. Many times this note session is the best one the series ever has.
John L. Roman has over 37 years of experience in Film and TV. Among his major achievements are working alongside one of TV’s most prolific creators–Dick Wolf –where they produced “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” “Chicago Fire,” “Deadline,” and “Exiled.” You can reach John @johnlroman and JohnLRoman.com