Don’t be boring. That’s it. The shortest article you’ll ever read on how to write for television.
Okay, so maybe there’s a little more to it. You want to write a TV show. Start with the right format. Find a copy of a teleplay – from a book on TV writing or look on Google – pick a show you like and you’ll probably be able to track down a sample script. Invest in a good scriptwriting program – I like Movie Magic Screenwriter, but other writers prefer Final Draft. (Yes, this sounds insanely obvious, but occasionally I see scripts in the wrong format and that screams “unprofessional.” And while we’re talking about unprofessional, double-check your grammar and spelling. If people see your/you’re used incorrectly on the first page there’s a good chance your script will get tossed straight in the loser pile.)
This guest post is by award-winning writer and producer Ann Lewis Hamilton has written for TV and film. Her TV credits include, among others, “Haven,” “The Dead Zone, “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Saved,” “Providence,” “Party of Five,” and “thirtysomething.” She was twice nominated for an Emmy award, and was the winner of a WGA Award and the Humanitas Prize. She grew up in Staunton, Virginia, in a house full of typewriters – her grandfather was the editor of the local newspaper where her father worked as a reporter and her mother wrote for the society page. Ann’s goal was to write and draw for MAD magazine, but instead she graduated with a BA from the University of Virginia and an MFA from UCLA. Expecting is her first novel. Visit her at www.AnnLewisHamilton.com.
Be original. Be fearless and take chances. Write something you’re passionate about. Don’t make the mistake many networks do – “Hey, Homeland is a big hit, let’s make another show exactly like Homeland.” If your favorite show is Walking Dead, that’s fine. But don’t write a version of Walking Dead. Write something different, something that will stand out.
I would rather be dipped in a vat of boiling Velveeta cheese than write an outline. But the sad truth – although they’re tedious to do, you need them. I usually start with a short description of the show I’m writing – “Kenna, an average high school student living in Los Angeles, wakes up to discover she has the ability to fly.” (I made up this as an example. I’m not saying it’s is Emmy-worthy, in fact it’s pretty sucky.) The structure of an hour TV episode has changed over the years – from three acts to four, to five acts with a teaser. Let’s go with a teaser and five acts. With the teaser you want to hook an audience – a high school girl can suddenly fly? Whoa. Now dive into your acts. A lot of set up in the first act – Kenna’s family, her life at home, at school, her friends. Does she keep her ability to fly a secret? Look carefully at your act outs – end each one with something that will make the audience want to come back. If you figure out your act outs and your amazing ending, the script writes itself.
No, it doesn’t. Only in a dream world. As much as we’d like it to, a script never writes itself. But having a solid outline helps.
When I was starting out, a very smart studio executive gave me a list of things to ask about each character. The list is on an index card next to my computer and I still use it. What is a character’s long-term goal, short-term goal. What is a character most afraid of. Biggest secret. Who do they love the most, hate the most. If you can answer these questions, you’ll be able to understand your characters.
Listen to people talking. Write down things you hear people say. When you’re writing, say your dialogue out loud, even if your pets and children look at you like you’re insane. “Mommy’s a writer,” remind them. If your dialogue sounds clunky and formal, rewrite it. Don’t give your characters too many words or dialogue actors can play like, “I’m sad and gloomy.” Subtext is always better than text.
Looking to write a TV script (or movie script, for that matter)?
Check out Final Draft 9, software that helps you format your script and more.
Order it from our sister shop, The Writers Store at a heavily discounted price.
Less is more. Remember Kenna, our flying high school girl? What does her bedroom look like? Messy, clean, movie posters? All pink or all black? Don’t go on and on. Aim for short and sweet.
Description of characters. Less is more. Attractive, missing one leg, too many tattoos. 20ish. Mid-30s. Some writers use actors as comparison – “A Jennifer Lawrence type.” I don’t like that. I prefer to let the reader imagine the character in their head.
Don’t forget that each scene has a beginning, middle, and an end. That sounds basic, but it will help when you write.
Write your script for an audience. Be entertaining, let the people reading your script enjoy the experience. Try to surprise them – remember the goal is to keep them turning the pages. You want them to get to the end and say, “Wow, this is awesome. It should be a TV series.”
And you never know. It can happen to you if you keep writing and rewriting. (And don’t be boring.)
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By The Scripting Guys
A long time ago, even before any of the Scripting Guys were born, people used to walk from one place to another. Not for exercise or recreation, but because they had to get somewhere. Those who were fortunate enough to have other forms of transportation could move along a little more quickly on their horses, camels, elephants, or whatever the local pack animal happened to be. (And to those of you still using any of the preceding as your primary mode of transportation—we’ll be thinking of you the next time we’re stuck in traffic.)
Then this thing came along known as the horseless carriage. Many people laughed. They said things like “It’s just a fad,” “Why would I ever want one of those?” and even “That looks too dangerous.” Then there were the very few visionaries who said, “Wow, cool, I want to try one of those.” These last people were the ones who recognized not only how much fun a car could be, but how it could someday save them hours, even days, of travel time in getting from place to place.
People today have experienced some of the same reactions to scripting as those people had to cars all those years ago. “Why would I want to script?”; “Scripting is just for those fanatics who don’t want to run their systems like everyone else does”; and even, “Scripts are dangerous.” But actually, you don’t need to be visionary or adventurous to try scripting. You just need to be the type of person who wants to save some time. (It’s still only the fanatics who think it’s fun though.) Scripts not only make your work go faster, they can make your job easier. And once you learn the basic rules of the road, they’re not all that difficult to operate. (And there are very few traffic jams.)
This is the very first thing you need to know to start using scripts to manage your Microsoft Windows systems. Well, okay, technically it’s the second thing you need to know. The first thing you need to know is how to find the Script Center, but since you’ve obviously done that, we decided to leave out that step.
On the Script Center (and possibly elsewhere on the Internet, but we can’t vouch for anyone else), you’ll find a lot of pre-made, ready-to-go scripts. A script will look something like this:
Wscript.echo "My very first script."
Yes, that one line is a script. It’s a very simple script, most are longer than this, but it’s still a script. Now you might be wondering what to do with that one line. It’s very simple:
- Open Notepad.
- Copy the script from your browser and paste it into Notepad.
- Save the script with a .vbs extension, such as test.vbs.
Now just open a command window, navigate to the folder where you saved your file, and type this:
If you did this with the script above, you’ll have output that looks like this:
My very first script.
There are probably some of you out there saying, “Hey, this didn’t work! What’s the deal?” Don’t worry, you’re not alone. A common misstep in following the instructions we just gave you has to do with the Save As functionality. If you select Save As in Notepad and type a filename in the File Name box, Notepad will helpfully append a .txt file extension to whatever name you give it. So, if you type in test.vbs, you’ll end up with a file named test.vbs.txt. There are two easy ways to prevent this, it’s your choice as to which way is easiest for you:
- Surround the filename with double quotes. Instead of typing test.vbs in the File Name box, type “test.vbs”.
- Select All Files from the Save As Type list box before clicking Save.
Perform these same steps and you can run just about any script you’ll find in the Script Center. Have fun!
What is all this scripting stuff anyway?
Oh, you want to know more? Okay, let’s step back a moment (yes, all the way back to step zero) and talk about what scripting is and why you might want to use scripts.
Scripting is just a way to automate getting information to and from your computer (and other computers). Our first script did this: we gave a sentence to the computer and got the same sentence back from the computer. This may not seem like an especially useful feature, but this was just a first step, and one step doesn’t even get you all the way across the room, let alone out the door. (Okay, one of the Scripting Guys did once live in an apartment where one step could get you across the room. But, for various reasons we won’t go into [something about ice and giant spiders], that apartment wasn’t much more useful than our first script.) There are a number of scenarios where scripts start to get really useful. Here are just a few:
- You have to perform a series of system administration tasks on a regular basis
- You have to perform a series of system administration tasks on several computers
- You want to consolidate and organize the output you get from the computer
- You want to run tasks when you’re not there to interact with the GUI
- You need to ensure the exact same actions are repeated each time a task is run
If you think about some of the work you have to do as a system administrator, you might already be imagining tasks you want to script.
But this stuff looks like code
So maybe you’ve already been looking around the Script Center, possibly even read some of the daily Hey, Scripting Guy! articles, and you’ve seen scripts that look similar to this:
strComputer = "."
Set objWMIService = GetObject("winmgmts:\\" & strComputer & "\root\cimv2")
Set colProcesses = objWMIService.ExecQuery _
("Select * from Win32_Process Where Name = 'Dfrgntfs.exe'")
If colProcesses.Count = 0 Then
Wscript.Echo " Dfrgntfs.exe is not running."
Wscript.Echo " Dfrgntfs.exe is running."
You might be thinking, “This scripting stuff looks pretty complicated.” Believe it or not, scripting isn’t just for professional computer programmers. There are much more powerful and complicated tools for programmers to use. Don’t get us wrong, a script can be powerful and complicated, but you can also write some fairly simple scripts that can be very helpful. So don’t let the thought of this stuff being “code” scare you off. There are a lot of things you can do pretty easily with no programming experience at all.
One of the advantages of scripting over other types of programming is that for scripting, everything you need is built into the operating system. We’ll briefly discuss some acronyms such as VBScript, WSH, and WMI a little later, but we’ll tell you right now that all of those things are part of scripting, and they’re all built into Windows. You also don’t need fancy, expensive software to write a script. As you saw already, all you really need is Notepad, which, once again, is built-in.
In addition, scripting is specifically designed to help you administer your operating system. Even the most talented programmer would never attempt to create a full-blown software application, such as Word or Excel, using scripts. Scripts allow you to automate system administration tasks.
Keep in mind that the type of scripting we’re talking about here—and that we deal with almost exclusively on the Script Center—is system administration scripting. There are other types of scripting (such as web scripting), but you’ll have to learn about that somewhere else.
There are other scripting languages besides VBScript, and there are tools you can use to write scripts other than Notepad. But you can investigate all that on your own after you get a little scripting experience. Most of the scripts and examples on the Script Center use VBScript.
IMPORTANT: One last thing about system administration scripting, and it’s a really important thing to know. For most scripts to run, at least scripts that do anything very interesting, you must have local administrator rights to the machine the script is running against. Many of the scripts available on the Script Center will fail if you’re not running them as a local administrator.
Enough of the background stuff, let’s get back to running some scripts. We already showed you how to run a script from the command line with Cscript. (If you got excited when you saw “Running Scripts” and came right here, you need to calm down, take a deep breath, and go back to the top and read Step 1.) You can also run scripts just by double-clicking on them from My Computer or Windows Explorer. The difference will be that the output from the script won’t be printed out nicely in the command window, instead it will pop up in a message box. Try this with the script we already created. Just double-click on the test.vbs file. You should see a message box that looks like this:
Well that was easy. Why didn’t we just do that in the first place? What do we need the command window for? Before we answer that, try this: Paste the following script into Notepad, save it with a .vbs extension, and double-click on the file.
For i = 1 to 5
What happened? You had to click OK in five different message boxes. Just imagine if your script were returning all the processes running on a computer, or all the computer names in a domain. You could be clicking for quite a while. Running your script with Cscript sends all this output straight to the command window, and you don’t have to deal with all those message boxes.
For more on running scripts, take a look at Running WSH Scripts in the Windows 2000 Scripting Guide.
What about those acronyms?
Because we said earlier we’d mention them, and the Scripting Guys never lie (well, maybe the occasional “Yes, your new haircut looks great”), here’s a very brief definition of some scripting-related technologies, along with the sections of the Windows 2000 Scripting Guide that explain them more fully:
- VBScript – Visual Basic, Scripting Edition. A scripting language available by default with Microsoft Windows. See VBScript Primer.
- WSH – Windows Script Host. The environment in which your scripts run. See WSH Primer.
- WMI – Windows Management Instrumentation. A technology that provides you with the resources to manage Windows operating systems through scripting. See WMI Scripting Primer.
- ADSI – Active Directory Service Interfaces. A technology that provides you with the resources to manage Active Directory and other directory services through scripting. See ADSI Scripting Primer.
Navigating the Script Center
The Script Center provides a number of resources to help you out as you begin scripting and as you become more skilled.
- Learn to Script. The best place to start is on the Learn to Script page. Here you’ll find links to the Windows 2000 Scripting Guide (a full 1200 page book online), various articles, virtual labs, and on-demand webcasts. In the beginning, you’ll probably find viewing the webcasts from Scripting Week 1 to be very helpful.
- Script Repository. Another place you’ll probably find yourself spending a lot of time is the Script Center Script Repository. Here you’ll find thousands of scripts already created for you. Why spend a lot of time working on writing a new script when there might be one out there you can just copy for free? If you don’t see exactly what you’re looking for, you might find something close enough that you can make a simple modification to get what you need. (Keep in mind that the scripts on the Script Center typically don’t do any error checking, so once you get a little more comfortable and your scripts start to get more complex you’ll want to take a look at Error Handling in the Windows 2000 Scripting Guide.)
- Scripting Tools. The Script Center also has links to numerous tools you can download—for free even—that will help you write scripts.
- Scripting For…. If you’re trying to solve a problem in a specific area of system administration, such as Desktop Deployment or Windows Server 2003, take a look at the technology-specific areas of the Script Center.
You’re on your own…mostly
We want to share one helpful tip with you before we send you out on your own: scripts are not case sensitive. There are one or two exceptions that we always point out to you, but for the most part mixing case in a script is purely for readability. So this script (which generates random numbers):
intHighNumber = 100
intLowNumber = 1
For i = 1 to 5
intNumber = Int((intHighNumber - intLowNumber + 1) * Rnd + intLowNumber)
will run exactly the same as this script:
inthighnumber = 100
intlownumber = 1
for i = 1 to 5
intnumber = int((inthighnumber - intlownumber + 1) * rnd + intlownumber)
You should now be ready to head into the rest of the Script Center and get to work. If you really get stuck, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org (in English, if possible) and we’ll try to see what we can do to help. Have fun, and good luck!
More fun for beginners
We hope you enjoyed this introduction to scripting, and more importantly, that it was helpful to you. For more on beginning scripting, check out the Sesame Script series!