Writing For Television

January 7, 2010 by  

imageA 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.


script format

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 generations@webmail.co.za

Rhythm City: 011 7194553, Rhythmcity @etv.co.za or curious @curious.co.za

Muvhango: 011 714 6452, daina@muvhango.co.za

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 ©

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46 Comments on "Writing For Television"

  1. Brown Shuga on Thu, 7th Jan 2010 7:29 am 

    Wow! This is a great piece Phathu, thank u!

    Guess people must stop blaming Mvundla when the Generations storyline sucks! Lol!

    Thanx for sharing

  2. carino on Thu, 7th Jan 2010 8:17 am 

    wow…. thanks phathu… for the info…

  3. Sncura on Thu, 7th Jan 2010 8:22 am 

    thannx phathu, just called Generations..

  4. Tshego on Thu, 7th Jan 2010 8:46 am 

    It’s like you read my mind!!! I have been working on an idea for a tv game show for the past year. Being that I have an engineering background its very difficult knowing what to do – as we speak I am working on the budget and finding out about the crew is proving to be difficut. It will be done though…

    Does anyone know where I can go for sources related to what crew a tv game show generally needs :)

    b.t.w – I lurrrrv this site, cant believe i just discovered it this week!!!

  5. Phathu Makwarela on Thu, 7th Jan 2010 9:05 am 

    Tshego..visit this site http://www.hotshots.co.za, it has all the rates of crew members and how much to pay them.

  6. Enkosi on Thu, 7th Jan 2010 9:47 am 

    Phathu I have not read the article yet but I just saw on Muvhango the writer is ‘Phathu… Makwrarela’ sorry I did not get the first name in full. Is it you? If u don’t mind me asking of course :) .

  7. Dladla on Thu, 7th Jan 2010 9:47 am 

    I swear… I swear, I am dreaming. Phathu, DO YOU KNOW HOW LONG/MUCH I HAVE BEEN LOOKING FOR SUCH CONTACTS??? My goodness, I am soooo excited. Thank you. Thank you. And, thank you some more.

    Excitement aside, I am looking at the script format you posted, it’s totally different from the one we used or taught at school. I did journalism, a very diverse course. So, does that mean there are other forms of scripts that I should know about? I mean, I know Radio scripts differ from news scripts and from Soape scripts. Is that all there is, maybe?

    Before ndilibale, could you please hook up with contacts for Home Affairs writers…

    Otherwise, enkosi chap for this piece.

  8. Phathu Makwarela on Thu, 7th Jan 2010 9:51 am 

    @ Enkosi – yes, its me…LOL

  9. Tebeu on Thu, 7th Jan 2010 9:51 am 

    Great one! Insightful. Bare! Provocing.

  10. Phathu Makwarela on Thu, 7th Jan 2010 9:54 am 

    Dladla….try and download scripts online for TV shows. As for the contacts of Home Affairs ladies, try Brown Shuga…i think she has them. All the best.

  11. Tebeu on Thu, 7th Jan 2010 9:55 am 

    Make that provoking! Even I get it twisted every now and then. Once again, AMAZINGS!!

  12. segs on Thu, 7th Jan 2010 10:55 am 

    this is my new years res, Phathu! am going on that course very soon, my love… watch this space…


  13. sponono on Thu, 7th Jan 2010 11:04 am 

    WOW Phathu You’ve made my day…I’ve just finished a script for a tv drama.I got someone to read it and she found the story captivating, but in terms of the format I know its embarrasing..LOL but the links you’ve provided will help a great deal, coz I was supposed to submit it to some production company and I didnt have enough info about costs, format ect…so I’ll rework it a bit…must say I’m proud of it..LOl

    thanks again..very useful article (i think we need such article to TURN our lives around in 20Turn

  14. Tshego on Thu, 7th Jan 2010 11:07 am 

    Phathu, thanx a million!!!! :) and like Dladla said, thanx some more!!!

  15. Phathu Makwarela on Thu, 7th Jan 2010 11:09 am 

    @ Sponono…all the best dear

  16. Lela on Thu, 7th Jan 2010 11:10 am 

    Wow Phathu my friend(every1 here is my friend) this is amazing!

  17. Nonku on Thu, 7th Jan 2010 11:20 am 

    Hi Phatu i wanted to find out what does it take to start yr own production house who can i speak to just to find out the in’s and out…..great read

  18. Cheesa on Thu, 7th Jan 2010 11:27 am 

    Thankks Phathu for the info we get to learn everyday. Tjo I get the point were you have to be no friends with actors. I’m gonna look for your name in Muvhango…lol

  19. Phathu Makwarela on Thu, 7th Jan 2010 11:34 am 

    Ure welcome my friend Lela….LOL
    Cheesa..is that not stalking, not that i mind..LOL
    Nonku…send me an email instead

  20. Nonku on Thu, 7th Jan 2010 11:45 am 

    Phatu here is my email nonkulekom@yahoo.com….and ppl its 4 Phatu qa nhe next thing u know u guys r sending me yr pics and asking me to marry ya’ll no thanx try Chomee is she still looking 4 some1 anyways

  21. Cheesa on Thu, 7th Jan 2010 12:11 pm 

    Wakakaka Phathu whatever you call it but I’m gonna look for you name there…lol

  22. Cheesa on Thu, 7th Jan 2010 12:13 pm 

    Wazi fonela bo Nonku lol.

  23. Nonku on Thu, 7th Jan 2010 12:32 pm 

    Usile yazi Cheesa ‘was just saying’

  24. Dladla on Thu, 7th Jan 2010 12:49 pm 

    Nonku, that’s a very interesting idea you have. I am currently looking for a job as a writer/journalist. Now, because, umsebenzi unqabile (or, maybe I suck at the interviews I go to), I did think of starting my own business. However, I believe, experience in vital when doing so (which, in my case is less than a year). Wena ke Nonku, what kind of experience do you have/How experienced are you in terms of the media industry?

  25. Nonku on Thu, 7th Jan 2010 1:02 pm 

    I’m a sound engineer been exposed in the music industry so wanna try another field as its wide maybe in tv or film have a passion in doccie making can start small then go on into film making

  26. mama ka Gundi on Thu, 7th Jan 2010 3:58 pm 

    *clapping * *whislting * Chomie ur an inspiration…with deepest emotion *kiss on the forehead*
    Now sum1 pls write about being an advocate/lawyer & them contact details …..not cheap lawyers laba baka Zuma

  27. Lela on Thu, 7th Jan 2010 4:16 pm 

    I do have d xperience u looking 4 Dladla n am currently in between jobs or jobless n was also thinkn of startin some thim,maybe we cn do it,gv me ur email lets chat.

  28. Nonku on Thu, 7th Jan 2010 4:33 pm 

    Enkosi mam ka Gundi got my kiss on my sphongo…LMWO on the cheap lawyers laba baka Zuma

  29. Dladla on Thu, 7th Jan 2010 4:44 pm 

    Lela, here:mfunalwazi@yahoo.com

    Stalkers are welcome, just as long as we play by my rules (LOL’).

    Anyways, I’ll wait to hear from you Lela.

  30. Lela on Thu, 7th Jan 2010 4:48 pm 

    Ok will holla,hayke Phathu businesses r starting on ds blog thanks 2 u,we wl invite u 2 our launches,lol.

  31. Nonku on Thu, 7th Jan 2010 5:04 pm 

    @Lela say that again

  32. Bee on Thu, 7th Jan 2010 5:12 pm 

    Ok i myt b a bit late/behind coz jst got home. Big up to u Phatu i must say i don like muvhango bt Phato jo u jst added ratings for them as i wil start watchn it frm now on. Oh ja by da way me um writting a Xhosa book bt um taking my tym as its bin 2yrs workn on it already. Mayb its bcz i take it as a xtra gift hence um takin my tym.

  33. Lela on Thu, 7th Jan 2010 6:13 pm 

    Nawe Nonku i will email u maybe we cn team up n do smtn big.

  34. Bee on Thu, 7th Jan 2010 8:11 pm 

    Speaking of Scripts and Storylines. Whats up with uGenerations and Rythm C? Their storyline is alwayz the same(well most of the time). E.g. Both had gay bashing going on,married women cheatin on their husbands (Ntombi&Naomi), New-found dads(Sbusiso&Jacob) , brothers messin up with eachother’s wife (Kenneth-Paul&Jacob-Kop). Jst to mention few. I looove the both soaps bt bayakopelana.

  35. Bonga on Thu, 7th Jan 2010 10:41 pm 

    Nice one, Phathu.

  36. Bonga on Thu, 7th Jan 2010 10:44 pm 

    Oh, and now we’ll know who to blame when our phones ring endlessly! :) I need to warn everyone!

  37. Phathu Makwarela on Fri, 8th Jan 2010 2:43 am 

    Wena Bonga..be nice, why should people we close the door to those who want to get in….?

  38. Makgotso on Fri, 8th Jan 2010 6:37 am 

    Wow Phathu, you are an angel people are selfish with information out there. Good luck to all wanna-be scriptwriter seniyongibiza uma seninezinkampani ukuba ngibe iproduction accountant yenu,lol

  39. Dladla on Fri, 8th Jan 2010 8:46 am 

    Wow… It’s amazing what I am seeing here. First it was Nonku (whom I’m currently stalking), then Lela followed and now Bee is writing a book…

    SA’s got talent (for a lack of an unknown line)and ambition. I don’t know why, but, I just got a strong feeling of patriotism and Mediatism (love for local media, LOL’).

  40. J-Girl on Fri, 8th Jan 2010 12:39 pm 

    I saw the name on Muvhango when the names go up and I wondered… lol kante
    @ mamakagundi, ask sncura about legals and things, she is key… sirias! :)

  41. The networks of Television Production | Just Curious on Wed, 20th Jan 2010 11:42 pm 

    [...] of our readers were very much interested in the article I did 2 weeks ago, Writing for Television and I was inundated with questions relating to television production and how to get that idea on [...]

  42. PNI-girlz on Thu, 21st Jan 2010 12:22 pm 

    Iyhooo..I have neva seen anything like this…tnx Phathu this article is so useful especialy to people like us, who have the dream to one day see our names on the credits of a sopie but have no idea where to start..you have just opened my eyes, keep up the good work..so so helpful!

  43. Phathu Makwarela on Thu, 21st Jan 2010 12:27 pm 


  44. PNI-girlz on Thu, 21st Jan 2010 12:37 pm 

    hey Phathu…I’ve always loved writting, but i thought it was impossible, bcz I could nt afford to pay university fees, I decided to do a creative writting course @ intec..& now i’m working as a production assistant..I have no excperience in script writting at all, and my main weakness is that I lack selfconfidence big tym..what are the chances of me writting for Generations, Isidingo or even 7de laan? where do I start? tnx again

  45. Phathu Makwarela on Thu, 21st Jan 2010 12:44 pm 

    PNI-GIRLZ…u cant be a writer and lack self-confidence. Writting for TV is personal, yet brutal..people will tell u ure idea sucks, u need to take it and move on…if ure self-confidence is weak, then u will quit. If ure a production assistant, that means u know the ins and outs of it. I dont know the chances of u making at Generations or 7de laan..only God knows, so take that chance and do it

  46. mama ka Gundi on Thu, 21st Jan 2010 1:36 pm 

    Thanks Phathu pity that does not apply to some of the blogs layikhaya maar ke sidlulile lapho

    DITTO UR WORDS *loud speaker*

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