I didn’t adhere to this step for a long time. Take it from me, do not do that. It may be the most important step in your spec writing process. I have to credit Karen, Director of the Nickelodeon writing fellowship, and Ellen Sandler’s The TV Writer’s Workbook for teaching me this part of the process.
You’ve researched your show and know everything about it. You think you have a funny idea and are chomping at the bit to start writing. Well hold up there; it’s really important that you get a map and know where you’re going.
Let’s get on that.
The first thing you want to do is come up with a premise. Ellen Sandler suggests that you write one sentence–this isn’t the log line you would see in TV guide–but rather just a sentence telling what is happening in your spec. This sentence should read something like:
“When [something happens] main character with side character tries to [do something] to accomplish goal, while [other side character] does [something else].”
I know that leaves a lot of blanks for you to fill in, but as a writer you should have no problem doing so. Once you’ve filled in those blanks, you need to expand on what you have. This is called a premise sheet. It’s about a page long, at 12 point font, and it’s going to sell your story. If you are on staff, you’ll be expected to turn in premise sheets before you can move on to the next step (the Outline). The premise sheet outlines everything that is going to happen in a effective and humorous way. You want to keep it simple.
There is no dialog here, it’s just listing the events of the show. I like to have people that read my writing also look at my premise sheets, since I don’t have a boss that is making the final decision. Once I am happy with the premise sheet and have gotten good notes from other people, I move on.
The next step is outlining. While the premise sheet tells what happens in your spec, it should be pretty bare bones. Here, we need to flesh that out. So the outline is a break down of every scene. Everything that happens. Character motivations should be clear and relatable to both the characters and your audience. Outlines will look like:
1. Scene location
A. Characcter A does something
B. Character B reacts
1. Character B decides to run for mayor.
And so on. By doing this for your entire show you have a road map when you start to write. You know exactly where you are going. Decisions should be easier to make. It’s best not to put jokes or dialog on the outline, because when you turn this in (if you are in a situation where you are turning it in), you are going to take away from the impact of these jokes and dialog being read in the actual script. Especially if you have to turn in multiple outlines and then multiple drafts, the joke will get old quickly, when they see it 4 times before they see it in the draft.
Knowing the structure of the show well, really helps with outlining. For example, I realized while researching for a Big Bang Theory spec that the structure they use sometimes follows a teaser for the A story, then the first act goes A/B/A, and the second act goes B/A/B with the tag going to the A story. Some of the scenes (like the first one in Act One of Episode 1) are split with both stories. Knowing exactly how the show is structured, allows us to know exactly how to outline. Once our outline is accepted, we are ready to write.
Which we’ll cover in our next blog: Writing. Tune in next time.