How to Make It: Rules for Success from TV Writers

Cheo Hodari Coker

Experience: Writer and co-producer, Southland (TNT); writer and supervising producer, NCIS: Los Angeles (CBS)

Advice: "It's better to write a pilot rather than write a spec show. In some cases, you have to do both, but more often writing a pilot and having an original voice is more important. Say, for example, you want to get a job on Mad Men—it'd be better for you to write an original show set in a world like Mad Men than it would be to write a sample episode of Mad Men. Somebody from Mad Men would read your spec script and say, 'Oh, we don't do shit like that. We'd never do it like this.' They're always going to have that kind of bias.

"If you can, get your hands on actual television scripts, because the stuff you'll get from screenwriting magazines and screenwriting books is sometimes counterintuitive. It often sounds completely different from what the reality of writing a script is. The rule you always hear is that one minute of screen time is equal to one script page, and that's bullshit. The reason it's bullshit is because you can't predict how long a camera is going to hold a shot and how long a director is going to fill the screen with visual information that's going to eat up time. And you have to be careful about getting stuff off the web.

"Occasionally people will publish scripts, but when you read a published script, you want to be careful that it has the actual script layout, as opposed to some of these British editions that just have the dialogue and you don't get to see how the screen descriptions are written. If you like a specific show, try to find at least one copy of a real script to find out how they went about making it from the script."

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