How to Write for TV: Virtual Collaboration and the Blank Page

Writing for television is certainly one of the more collaborative forms of writing, as TV stories get made in The Writers Room—granted, a virtual rather than literal room during these times of necessary social distancing. But collaboration is only the first step of the process, since the goal of The Writers Room is for writers to come away with an episodic assignment to complete. That’s right, just like in school—homework! Each writer will have the task of turning their story pitch into a beat-by-beat story outline (also known as a treatment); and, upon approval by the showrunner and/or network, turn that outline into a script.

So, the actual writing part of the process remains a solo endeavor. On the plus side, writers can flourish in our current stay-at-home climate, since much of the work is typically performed in isolation anyway. But the task now becomes committing your ideas to the written page in a way that your readers, such as your network executive and the director of your episode, can visualize what you and your fellow writers have dreamed up in your story-break session.

This is the stage of the process that writers tend to find the most intimidating—yes, even “pros” like me. This is the juncture where idea meets execution, where imagination meets craft. This is the part where, like some sort of Interstellar Explorer, you reach the edge of an alien precipice and stare into the vast void of endless space.

Yup, I am referring to … THE BLANK PAGE.

Be afraid: the challenge that lies before you is real. You have an infinite number of words to choose from. Which will be the first? And the one after that? And another blank page lies just after the first, and another after that. When will it end??

Now, before I provide tips for beginning the writing process, I would like to suggest that a little bit of fear is actually a good thing. It’s reasonable and healthy to fear not doing your best writing—your clearest, smartest, funniest, most compelling or provocative—whatever it might be that you are trying to achieve in your essay, story, or script. (And it might be all of the above!) Allow me to illustrate why, with a personal anecdote …

I was thrilled to be studying 20th Century Theatre of the Absurd in one of my earliest college courses as an English Literature major. I was passionate about the subject matter and engaged in the classroom; I was certain to ace my first paper in that class! Brimming with ideas, I fearlessly began typing away with wild abandon … and stopped typing when I reached the end of my essay. Boom, done!

A few days later, I was mortified to learn that I’d received a D+ on my paper. What!? I had such cool ideas! Where could I possibly have gone wrong?? My professor acknowledged my enthusiasm and what seemed like compelling ideas, but it was difficult for him to assess because those ideas weren’t expressed clearly enough on the written page. As such, it was nearly impossible for him to decipher what I was trying to impart, because I hadn’t done any self-editing. I hadn’t crafted my prose.

That incident was my most definitive early wakeup call regarding the craft of writing. I stumbled across a phrase online not too long ago—“Write Now, Fix Later”—which perfectly sums up what I’m trying to impart. Whether writing a script for work, an essay for class, or a creative writing project for fun, don’t worry if your rough draft is imperfect or even sloppy; consider that raw material as your quick pencil sketch. Like a sketch which becomes a completed illustration as light, shadow and texture are added, so a written document will come to life as its details are embellished. My own rough drafts tend to be VERY “sketchy”; but, with the most intimidating part behind me, I find it easier to see the shape of what I’m attempting to craft—because I’ve done the equivalent of laying out a road map or constructing an edifice. Now I can turn my attention to the enjoyable work of filling in details like finding special moments and devising entertaining dialogue.

The most important thing I hope for you to take away from the above is that the fun and creativity don’t stop when The Writers Room ends, despite losing the camaraderie and having to confront the blank page. Quite the contrary: As you craft/edit/rewrite/polish your draft, you’ll be surprised at the potential for whole NEW layers of fun and creativity to be had. Dreaming up your idea is only the beginning. As you continue to hone and refine your document, new possibilities will present themselves. I like to tell my writing staff that there is always room for a better idea, until it’s time to put down the pencil (which in our case can be all the way up to the moment it’s time for our actors to give voice the words we’ve written in the recording studio).

To illustrate, I’ll conclude with an anecdote regarding the writing of the Carmen Sandiego episode “The Duke of Vermeer.” It’s a complicated script with a LOT of moving parts; it took a fair amount of that “crafting” I’ve been prattling on about. We were preparing to stamp the script final but had one nagging sticking point: The writers and I acknowledged that, being a V.I.L.E. mastermind, Countess Cleo would have security guarding her chateau, especially if she were hosting a dinner party. We discussed adding a scene of Carmen “taking down” some guards in a brief skirmish. But A., the script was already bursting at the seams with incident and running long – and I couldn’t find anything I was willing to cut in favor off adding the scene; and B., the idea of a “fight” didn’t feel right for the cool caper vibe of this story, where Carmen rarely breaks a sweat and her crew member Zack is the one in the proverbial hot seat. Yet, not addressing Cleo’s security seemed a cop-out. So, how to solve?

It was one of those things that proverbially “wrote itself.” (I love when that happens!) Reviewing the existing script, we came across a line of dialogue where Carmen underlined the stakes: If Zack didn’t convincingly pass himself off as a real Duke, Countess Cleo would feed him “to her dogs” (to which Zack replies: “Just don’t let her feed me any fish”). The line was primarily there to set up Zack’s worst fear of being served his least favorite food during the dinner (which pays off in a spectacular way, if you recall). And there was our answer, hiding in plain sight: Cleo didn’t have security guards, she had guard dogs. And Carmen wouldn’t need to fight Cleo’s dogs, she would feed them treats. Not only did it solve our logic problem and take less screen time than a fight sequence would have taken, but it provided one of the cutest bits in the episode – not to mention a series highlight for Ivy (as she playfully rubs a Rottweiler’s belly)!

Hopefully this anecdote illustrates that the process of crafting one’s writing heeds endless possibilities as your document evolves. As demonstrated with my earlier anecdote about my college paper, my advice doesn’t need to apply only to professional writing. Whatever the assignment or project, if you find yourself stuck for ideas, get something—anything—onto the blank page so that it’s no longer blank. You’ll find that giving yourself something to build upon is less intimidating than trying to achieve perfection from scratch.

* * *

Duane Capizzi is one of the hosts for our Literacy at Work video series, where he gets a classroom of middle schoolers to try their hand at TV writing. Watch the video and try our free lesson plan, adaptable to remote learning.