In May, I convinced myself I was going to write my first television spec script. Not only that, I was going to finish it in two weeks and submit it to the NBC Writers on the Verge fellowship that was due at the end of the month. Getting the fellowship would be a dream come true to me. It’s a 12-week program that meets twice a week and teaches aspiring TV writers the trade. The goal at the end of the program is to get you staffed as a writer on a TV show. How amazing would that be? As someone who has gone through the six-week Odyssey Writing Workshop, I welcome the challenge!
When it comes to my screenwriting experience, I’ve read countless books on the topic, I took one weekend course in 2012, and I had only written one full-length feature (85 pages) and one short (12 pages), but that was at least two years ago. Lately, I’ve been focused on my short stories and my few false starts on novel-length pieces. But TV? This was something new to me.
Watching TV…now, that is nothing new. I love TV. I hadn’t written anything for TV yet, but I have studied it since I was a kid. It’s like movies. If you want to write for movies, you have to watch a lot of movies. Well, I watch a lot of TV!
When it came to picking which TV show I wanted to write, I debated between a few shows. As much as I would have loved to write something for New Girl, The Mindy Project, or Hart of Dixie (I love all three shows), I knew my genre had to be dark and gritty. Anyone who knows my short stories/novels understands I enjoy writing the darker stuff. Just take a look at my blog’s tagline, haha.
I went back and forth between The Walking Dead, Arrow, and Sleepy Hollow. I’m fan of all three and I knew I would have fun writing for those shows. But the more I thought about it, the more I knew The Walking Dead would be the winner. Why? Because both Arrow and Sleepy Hollow incorporate flashbacks as one of their main storytelling devices. As a writer, I’m not a big fan of flashbacks, so I wasn’t comfortable writing them especially in that short amount of time. I wouldn’t mind writing Arrow in the present but I knew I wouldn’t have a good grasp on writing the island flashbacks. For Sleepy Hollow, the show’s flashbacks go back all the way to the American Revolution. I knew I wouldn’t have time to do any research necessary for those flashbacks. Both shows are pretty new and popular right now and I knew they would made great spec scripts, but for now, I wasn’t ready to tackle them.
Sidenote: Supernatural would have been another awesome show to write and it certainly fits my genre, but I stopped watching in season five and the show is now going on its tenth season. Yes, that proves popularity, but I wasn’t sure about what “fresh” ideas I could bring.
I have been watching The Walking Dead since it premiered. I knew I was comfortable with the characters and the premise. It’s the number one rated show on TV right now (f*ck the Emmys), and it’s going into its fifth season, which means it still has longevity (unlike Supernatural which has been around forever or a brand new show that has only been around for a season or two). Someone suggested Grimm. Again, yes, it’s my genre, but I don’t watch the show, so I would have had to play catch-up on the show to understand the characters and premise. My timeline was only two weeks!
The Walking Dead won out in the end.
I knew I probably had some fierce competition: not only with the other 100+ screenwriters sending in their materials, but also with the dozen of screenwriters who were probably sending in their own Walking Dead spec scripts.
Another thing I was worried about was formatting. Was I doing it correctly? I used the free version of Celtx, which is great. I studied Walking Dead scripts online in addition to few other TV shows (Breaking Bad, True Blood, Burn Notice, Justified).
I just knew I had to rely on my strengths: tell a good story and tell it well.
Immediately, I knew what I wanted to write for my script. The fourth season had just ended, so I had enough backstory to use. I decided to set my story in between season three and season four, after Rick brings the Woodbury people back to the prison. I wanted to focus on the changes, not only with the environment, but also with the characters, thus my script’s title: “The More Things Change.” You know, “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” which ultimately became my theme.
The first 10 pages to any story are the most important pages. You need to grab the reader’s attention and keep the pages turning until they reach the ending. My opening scene came to me clearly—Daryl Dixon, bleeding and injured, surrounded by walkers.
I knew Daryl was a fan favorite, so opening the script (essentially the TV episode) with the all-mighty Daryl Dixon helpess would elicit some kind of response, plus he’s one of the strongest characters in terms of killing zombies, so I poised several questions to readers/viewers: “How did Daryl get hurt? Who hurt Daryl? Will Daryl make it out alive?”
Before I go on, I have to say I did outline the script before I sat down to write it. I normally don’t outline, but for a script, I felt it was necessary. In my outline, I wrote a teaser and four acts. Did I stick to that outline? No, but it was nice to have it there.
Are these the notes of an aspiring TV writer or a madwoman? 🙂
Unlike the opener, the last image I wanted the reader to see changed a few times. I knew I wanted to show Rick’s change as he went from gun-toting protector to the farmer we meet in the beginning of season four. The final image I wrote was Rick putting away his gun (for good, for now). I thought that was enough. Boom, you get the message.
Sidenote: Yes, I did include a montage at the end because hello, this is the Walking Dead (the last show to do that many montages was probably Lost, haha)! And I’m sure their awesome music department would have probably found an awesome song to play over it 🙂
One of the things I loved about writing the script was getting to know the rest of the characters. As a viewer, I latch on to certain characters, others they’re okay. So for me, it was fun to write in Carol’s voice or Tyreese’s voice or Hershel’s voice. Another thing I loved was writing dialogue. My short story readers can probably attest to that. Of course, Daryl was the most fun for me to write in terms of dialogue. This was my favorite (and all three of my readers noted they liked this part too):
EXT. ABANDONED FARM – CONTINUOUS
Rick and Daryl approach the pig’s pen. Inside are four healthy PIGS.
Where are we? Old MacDonald’s?
I wonder if the Walking Dead writers fight over who gets to write Daryl. I know I would!
I also learned that it was hard! Yes, after all these years, writing is still hard! Haha. I think because scripts need to be at a certain page count, I had to make sure the story was organic enough, but at the same time, still meet the required page count for an hour long TV show. No wonder writers team up and co-write episodes.
I completed my first draft in three days. I sent it to two members of my writing group (one was a fan of the show, the other didn’t watch the show) and I printed out a copy for a co-worker, who watched the show, but didn’t have a writing background. So, I was able to get feedback from different perspectives. I got feedback on style, storytelling, but also on characterization and action. The fans said it flowed like an actual episode and the writers said overall, it was a good, strong story. Score on both sides!
After I revised the script, I also had to work on two essays for the application: an autobiography and an answer to “Why do you want to write for television?” Each one had a 250 maximum word count. And I thought writing the script was hard, haha.
I ended up submitting my application one day before the deadline. Did I mention I was working on my application and edits over my birthday too? That’s determination!
Sidenote: When I uploaded a photo of my title page to Facebook, I was surprised to see a lot of people comment asking if I wrote for the show. Ha! Not yet, people, not yet 😉
Finalists hear back if they made it to the second round in September. Now, I just wait. It’s okay; I’m used to it. Any submitting writer would understand that process…it all pays off when you check your email one day, then bam! There’s an email waiting for you filled with good news! At least that’s what I hope! In the meantime, I’m keeping myself busy with what else–writing!
That being said, I did learn a lot of about writing during those two weeks. I learned to appreciate outlining. I learned to appreciate the work of TV writers. I learned it’s hard work, but damn it, it can be a lot of fun! I learned that despite the ups and downs, yes, I do want to write for television. Most of all, I’m proud that I set my mind on a goal and I accomplished it!