Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Writing for Episodic TV

By Kimberly Johnson

Ba-ba-badaa. With those three beats, everyone in America knows that Law & Order is on the tube. Cue the fluttery flutes and wait for the get-down-with-it guitar riffs, and suddenly the men and women of law enforcement are policing the NYC streets for the next 60 minutes.

I’ll admit it—I watch Law & Order for the actors (Ice-T, Jerry Orbach, Chris Noth). I really stay tuned because of the thought-provoking storylines. Enter Rene Balcer, the Emmy-winning producer of the NBC crime drama. Balcer, a Montreal native, held several writing jobs on the set: a show runner, an executive producer and a head writer.
After watching a show featuring Robin Williams, I thought: How does journalist/freelancer/part-time wordsmith secure a gig in Hollywood?

I pulled up The Writers Guild of America’s website and clicked on the Writing for Episodic TV section. The WGA provided tips for my pursuit for fame and fortune:

Tip #1: I need a spec script. This is Hollywood talk for a work sample that has not been paid for nor commissioned. Opinions vary on whether I should write a spec for a TV show, a pilot or a screenplay or submit an original body of work. Glen Mazzara, a former executive producer of The Shield, sums up: “When I was trying to figure out how to break into the industry as a TV writer, someone explained to me that a spec TV script is your version of an episode of a show currently on TV. You pick a show that you like, that you feel you can write, and write your version to show as a writing sample. It has no connection with the actual series.”

Tip #2: I need an industry insider to read my spec script. For a fresh-off-the-bus type like me, a freelance writer must network. I found this WGA’s advice very helpful: “Resourcefulness and determination are common themes. Remember, all you have to do is impress one “right person,” a person who can hire you to write a script or who can put you in a room with a person who can hire you, and you’re on your way.”

Tip #3: I need an agent, I think. Writing a good spec script is the best way to pique the interest of an agent, according to the WGA. It provides a list of Guild approved agents and agencies for members and non-members.

Later on tonight, I’m watching another episode of Law & Order. But this time, I’m taking notes on dialogue, plot, conflict--you name it, so I can start work on my spec script. I’ll let you know if I need an agent.


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