Writing For Television
A new year brings a lot of change in people’s lives, whether be it changing jobs, having kids, getting married or even worse – getting divorced. People tend to look for change in their lives around this time of the year. I have realized that most people have interest in writing for television. Most people want to know how to get their idea on TV or how one can join a particular soapie as a writer. Many readers out there are blessed with the talent of writing and are dying to become scriptwriters.
Here is my advice.
Being a scriptwriter takes years of training, Tshwane University of Technology, AFDA and Wits are some of the institutions that offer courses related to scriptwriting. I believe that education is key, if you can be able to do it, go to university and study filmmaking. The reality is that such courses do not come cheap and some of you have responsibilities – this is where script workshops come in handy. There are various script workshops that are held by esteemed writers within the industry, try to attend one, it will open your eyes on how to best write the script idea you have, and it’s good to build a network, TV is all about connections. Visit this site for information on upcoming writing workshops http://www.creativeindustry.co.za/ or www.gautengfilm.co.za. You can also Google others that will suite your wallet. The other thing is to read as much about script writing as you can, there are good books out there about scriptwriting; Exclusive Books is full of them.
The internet is also a great place to learn more about scriptwriting, www.simplyscripts.com is a site full of scripts of popular shows. You can download the scripts, nothing is as scary as an over ambitious wanna-be scriptwriter who has never seen what a script looks like! I do not care how good you think you are in terms of writing, what you need is some basic training in writing for television. Get one first and then pursue you dream, a good script training will separate you from the wanna-be writers. Find a way that is best for you to learn about scriptwriting, oh – and write scripts!
Armed with enough knowledge and the ambition to see your name roll on the credits, it is now time to take action. My advice is that you must identify the shows you would like to write for, spend at least a month watching every episode of that soapie, know the characters like the back of your hand, know the storyline and try to get the characters’ history. Think like a writer – how you can tweak, shift and move the story, what changes can you bring to the show.
The next thing to do is to get in touch with the show’s headwriter, the person in charge of the writing department of that particular soapie. I doubt you will ever speak to the headwriter; you are more likely to get hold of the script-coordinator. Tell the script-coordinator that you would like to do a script-test for the show. If there is an opening for a scriptwriter, they will forward you a test script via email and some guidelines on how to write the episode. Some shows are always on the lookout for new writers to put on the bank so that they can have a large pool of writers. On average, a soapie has between 8 – 12 writers! (Script test: this is a summary of an actual episode that they will send you and ask you to write a full script based on the summary. The headwriter uses this to see whether you are a good writer or not and if ever you can write for their show)
When you get a script test, sigh with joy – that means the chances of you getting on that soapie are very high. You have to pour your heart and soul into that script; write it as if your life depends on it, because it does. Sharp dialogue will score you points, do not use the same tired dialogue you heard last night on the show, be innovative – but not too innovative. Spelling and grammar must be polished or else your script will end in the recycle bin. Re-read it as much as you can before sending it back to the headwriter. Once the script is sent, all you will do is wait and wait! If you are as good as you always thought you were the headwriter or script coordinator would get in touch with you in a couple of days. This means that you are in, but you need to know something fine things before join any soapie. How the writing of a soapie works.
Story meetings: Most writers write from home but they are required to attend story meetings from time to time. These meetings usually consist of the producer, headwriter and the entire writing team. It is here where story ideas are generated, debated and analyzed. This is where Barker, Mashaba and Thandaza’s fates are decided. These meetings usually happen once a week or every second week, depending on the kind of show you work for, attending meetings is the best way to learn about the show, as they are probably six months ahead of what you are watching on screen, in terms of writing.
Storyliners: These are the people who brainstorm ideas of what happens next, who is dumping who and who is dying, or even worse – which character is becoming gay! They do not necessary write episodes but plot an entire arc of three to four months of story idea. They sit in the story meetings with the producers and the headwriter to decide which actor to fire and which character to create. They work with the headwriter to develop stories and episode summaries, which are sent out to scriptwriters. Most shows have between three to four storyliners , an A storyliner is usually the most experienced and will be tasked with writing the big stories, B- storyliner will also be someone with more experience and history with the show, C and D storylines are usually allocated to junior or new storyliners, that is where you must expect to start. Hold on – you are not paid for brainstorming, it is your job to go home and write a summary of each scene relating to your storyline. These scenes that you will have to submit to the headwriter, who compiles them with other scene summaries from other storyliners to create a full episode summary that I ready to be sent out to scriptwriters. Wages: a storyliner can expect to earn between R20 000 – R40 000 pm, talent and experience count here!
Scriptwriters: These are the people who write the words, yes – whatever Kenneth Mashaba utters in a scene was written by some writer who is more smarter than the actor himself. A scriptwriter will get a summary of a particular episode, which is anything between 5 to 8 pages and their job is to turn that into a full 22 pages script, with dialogue and action. It all depends on how good you are as a writer; the better your scripts are, the more episodes are allocated to you. Scriptwriters do not necessary have to attend story meetings, they write from home. I know a writer who has been writing for a particular show for four years and she has never met other co-writers, not even once. A solid writer will write a script each week, which sums up to 4-5 scripts per month. Wages: between R4000 – R8000 pm per script!
See, it is a job after all. However, here is some free advice:
- Do not arrive at a show with a hunger to change the show, you will only be disappointed and will not last. There are people who have been writing that show since episode one and they know what is best for the show, even if they do not – they think they do. If you want to be fired within a day, criticize everything about the show’s storylines. TV is full of people with big egos.
- Do not make friends with actors, you might have to write them out or worse – they start phoning you on weekends asking you to write them more stories.
- The last thing, forget about being famous, nobody cares about writers, its actors that people want to meet, not you – sorry to dash your hopes. The only peck you get are some invites to fancy TV parties, if that is your thing.
Here are some of the contacts, always ask to speak to the headwriter, script coordinator or the production assistant:
Isidingo: 011 714 6237
Generations: 011 7261190, generations @postmasters.co.za or firstname.lastname@example.org
Muvhango: 011 714 6452, email@example.com
Scandal: scandal @etv.co.za, I think this is more of a fan mail than a production site though.
Wishing all aspirant scriptwriters all the best, who knows – maybe 2010 is your year.
By Phathu Makwarela ©