(Apologies for the punny title. Jessica Fletcher would probably politely roll her eyes at me, but I just couldn’t resist.)
Let’s take a look back in the industry to a few years ago, around 2008. Chances are, your favorite shows suddenly went into reruns, ended their seasons suddenly, or were cancelled entirely (R.I.P. Pushing Daisies). That’s because during the 2007-2008 TV season, the Writers Guild of America went on strike. The result was that scripted shows all over the networks and cable were halted, and reality shows exploded all over the TV schedule. What the writers’ strike taught us is that writers are crucial to the things we love to watch—and we definitely can’t take them for granted. So to further understand what these great people do, let’s peek into the writing process. The first thing to know about writing in film, TV, and video is that every project is different. I realize that’s not very helpful, but it’s true. As a general rule, though, films are written by one or two people, while TV shows have writing teams. Video can go either way, depending on what the project is.
On a TV show’s writing team, there will be one head writer in charge, and often a different person will take charge of each episode, which is why you’ll see the “written by” credit change episode by episode. Think of the writing team on 30 Rock: Liz Lemon is the head writer, in charge of Lutz, Toofer, Frank, and the rest of the writing team. Throughout the writing process, the team will collectively decide the overall story arc of the season and the series as a whole and work together to decide how each episode will fit into that arc. In a show like TGS on 30 Rock—or for a real-life example, Saturday Night Live—one person, or maybe two, will be in charge of each individual sketch, and the head writer decides which sketches make the cut. Scriptwriting in film is a much more solitary process, with very, very few films being written by more than two people. There are some famous writing duos, like Joel and Ethan Coen, but many screenwriters prefer to write alone.
So what happens once the script is written? Well, it gets rewritten. And then rewritten again. There’s not really an editor in scriptwriting like there is in book publishing, so it’s really up to the writer and the people around him or her to get through a few drafts. Once the script gets bought, the producers and directors will give their input and suggest (read: require) certain changes, particularly for budgeting purposes if there’s something a little too extravagant written in. This may cause some tension between writers and producers, but it’s a part of the business that’s pretty much to be expected. Of course, the process gets cut down in television, because there just isn’t time for a script to be rewritten and edited again and again. TV writers are usually writing a script a week, most of the time while the show is already in production. That’s why having a team is helpful: more people to look over each script, and more people to move storytelling along.
On another note, you may be somewhat familiar with the specific look of a script. Courier font, character names in all caps, scene headers with things like “INT. JOHN’S BEDROOM,” and so on. Scripts all look the same because there’s a specific format that must be used for every script. Not just because this is an industry steeped in tradition (although it is), but because everyone relies on that particular format to quickly and easily see all the information they need for their department. Scripts are written in size 12 Courier font (set as the standard because it’s a typewriter’s font), with 1-inch margins. This is because, with this setup, one page of script equals one minute of screen time, allowing everyone to know roughly how long the finished project will be just by looking at the script. There are far too many other specifics to go into here, but every word, every line is standardized. If you want to sell a script, never—NEVER—try to sell it without using the correct format. It doesn’t matter how good your script is, it will never get bought if it’s not in 12pt Courier with 1-inch margins and every line of text exactly in its place. It may sound ridiculous, but consistency (and following directions) is important in production. Lucky for all of us, there is software, like Celtx and Final Draft, that will format your script for you.
While it’s hard to generalize about writing in production, nothing happens without writers (unless you work in reality TV—and even then somebody’s in charge of story). And while it may take a long time to really get into the scriptwriting business, the greatest thing about writing is that anyone can try it!