Five Tips for Television Screenwriters

Script writing can differ greatly throughout the world of entertainment, with movies, theater, and television productions all following their own guidelines. Television especially must adhere to strict rules, with obvious examples like the length of time you have to tell a story during a single episode, the need to create “beats” before a commercial break, and a set number of shows to develop a story arc across a season.

We learned more about these and other demands the medium places on its writers during “The Specialized World of TV Writing” – one of the many panels hosted during this year’s Fifth Annual Hall of Fame Celebration.

The event featured Full Sail graduate and 2010 Hall of Fame inductee Troy DeVolld, along with faculty members Elena Rogalle (Course Director, Effective Copy Writing), Garrick Dowhen (Course Director, Writing Workshop II: Television), and Mark McCain (Course Director of Storytelling and Storyboarding for Animation), who drew from their experiences working in live action, animation, and reality television.

Hosted by Anne Watters, Program Director for Film, there was a wealth of great information offered for budding writers, and here are five of our favorites.

  • There are industry standards for script formatting, which are essential for any writer looking to be taken seriously in television. As Garrick Dowhen stressed, “That’s the language we use, you must know it, you must work with it. There’s a reason for every single aspect of formatting. A script is a working document, a how-to manual to put your story on the screen. You will condemn yourself to never have a script being read if you don’t have perfect formatting.”
  • If you are hired as a staff writer for an existing show you have to be ready to create in a world that someone else has already established. You are working within a world and with characters that are already defined, and must find a way to create stories that seamlessly fit into the evolution of the series as it advances through the seasons.
  • The writer’s room is a special place on a scripted series, but operates on one major rule – you leave your ego at the door. Writing in a group is not personal, it’s about what you can do to make the story better. The whole point is to create a good story that advances the series and honors the franchise and continues the legacy of that show.
  • Writing for reality television follows the same general format that a regular show does, but differs in that the stories are constructed in post production. “The difference is that we retro-actively script it,” Troy Devolld said. “We call it writing with refrigerator magnets. So we’ll start with a very heavily outlined script most of the time, but you have to be flexible enough that when something comes up you can change it.”
  • In television writing for animation you need to call out each shot and camera angle, where in live action they don’t want writers giving input on screen composition in their scripts. “With animation you are in total control, where in live television you describe what you’re seeing, what the characters are saying, and that’s it – the director decides the rest,” Mark McCain explained.

For more video footage of the guest speakers and industry panels at the Fifth Annual Hall of Fame Celebration, visit Full Sail University’s YouTube page.

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