One from the archives: this is by far one of the most popular articles on Writing.ie.
You don’t need me to tell you television is a vast and growing market. The number of channels and variety of programmes available is mindboggling. Aside from established broadcasters such as the BBC, RTÉ, Channel 4 and the ITV group, numerous independent production companies have sprung up in recent years, alongside cable and satellite channels. All of them commission writers for new and existing programmes.
However, this does not mean to imply that there is a desperate need for new writers. The rewards are high which means competition is stiff and because writers rarely make programmes, they must sell their ideas to the people that do. A one-off dynamite script might squeeze a new writer’s foot in the door, but unless he can keep coming up with new ideas for storylines, sooner or later this door will slam shut in his face.
Academy Award nominated screenwriter and journalist, Norah Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally), refers to the insatiable demand for ideas for the screen in Telling True Stories,A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide published by Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation:
“There is more justice in the print world than there is in the movie business. If you write something for print and it’s any good, it will probably get printed somewhere. That’s not true with movie scripts. People ask writers, “Do you have anything in your trunk?” I used to think, “Of course I have nothing in my trunk. I’m a writer. What I write gets published.” But by the time I started writing screenplays, I had a big trunk.”
But that is not to say openings do not exist. They do. The turnover in existing writers is high. Apart from normal loss due to retirement or mortality, writers often move on to other forms of writing, become producers themselves, or are sadly let go. If production companies are to attract and retain audiences, producers and script editors require a constant supply of fresh ideas for both new and existing programmes.
What to write about
In its online resource for writers at www.bbc.co.uk/writersroom, the BBC advise new writers to write the sort of play they would like to see on the screen and choose subjects from their own experience. Ephron concurs and has spent a long and successful career reminding writers everything that happens to them is potential copy.
As you may know, Ephron’s second marriage was to journalist Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame. While pregnant with their second son, she discovered Bernstein was having an affair with a mutual friend, Margaret Jay, the wife of a British politician. Ephron was inspired by the events to write the thinly disguised 1983 novel Heartburn, which was made into a film starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep.
In a 2004 reprint of Heartburn, Ephron refers to ‘personal experience supplying copy’ in the introduction and explains that while much of the story is based on the demise of her marriage to Bernstein and the people involved, many of the things that happen in the book didn’t happen at all. Rather, she made them up or stole them from other people:
“My therapy group, for instance, was never robbed at gunpoint, but I had a friend whose group was, and the minute she told me the story I stashed it in my ‘Use This Someday’ file and hoped I would be the first person to take advantage of what seemed to me just the sort of comic, slightly public episode that was destined to be used by someone, sooner rather than later. The world I live in is filled with ravenous writers looking for material, and you have to move quickly if you want to write about even your own life, much less someone else’s.”
At the other end of the success scale, a few years ago various shenanigans engaged in by my ex-husband-in-waiting resulted in my being stranded between continents and penniless while juggling the needs of an infant daughter and teenage son. My only regret now is that I didn’t take notes at the time. The experience, although a nightmare, provided the background I needed to pad out an idea for a television series originally inspired by a news item. This material was then developed into a Treatment and sold to Warner Bros TV.
What is a Treatment?
The word ‘Treatment’ is used interchangeably and doesn’t always mean the same thing. Some Treatments, like the one I sold to Warner Bros TV, are designed to help sell an idea and are sometimes accompanied by a script, while others are part of the production process. The main difference between the two is size. Treatments for production purposes are much longer and include a detailed scene-by-scene breakdown; whereas Treatments designed to sell ideas can be little more than a one page summary.
There are no hard and fast rules as to what a Treatment for a television series should contain and its length depends on the complexity of the story being proposed and the production company it is being sent to. However, anyone reading it should come away with a clear understanding of the basic storyline, setting and the main characters involved.
To do this, a Treatment will normally contain a:
- Title: A dynamic one. It seems obvious but a good title is often a sign of a solid central idea.
- Logline: A powerful one or two-sentence statement of the idea being proposed (circa 25 words).
- Synopsis: A three paragraph synopsis outlining the idea in more detail (circa 300 – 500 words).
- Episodes: A three or four page episode storyline summary (circa 500 – 1200 words).
- Characters: Short descriptive outlines for each of the main characters (circa100 words each).
- Script(s): One or two episode scripts. However, submitting a script is not always necessary. I didn’t.
Be warned though. What you must never do is get side-tracked into thinking your aim is to be creative and hope this somehow fits in a production company’s requirements. The time to break the ‘rules’ is when your feet are growing roots under the table, not when you’re kicking at the front door.
Equally, do not submit scripts to an existing show. Not only do such submissions date very quickly, script editors are not interested in your ability to imitate other writers – they are only interested in your own original writing talent and creativity.
While a Treatment forms the basis of a submission, the full pitch is dependent on what each organisation requests in their guidelines. Full contact details for most production companies and television channels are listed in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. The hard copy doesn’t come cheap but the listings are free to search online after registering at www.writersandartists.co.uk. Many companies have their submission guidelines available on their websites, so hunt them down and read them carefully. And keep on reading them until you understand exactly what it is they are asking for. In the guidelines provided by The Comedy Unit in Glasgow, they state:
“If you wish to submit a project, we’re happy to accept it in the form of a short synopsis, a character breakdown, one episode outline and three representative scenes.”
The only difference between the above and what I submitted to Warner Bros TV was an additional 5,000 word narrative briefing on series’ premise, an analysis of the potential audience, and additional for storylines episodes. For more examples of submission requirements, take a look at RTÉ’s Independent Productions commissioning website www.rte.ie/commissioning/index.htmland the BBC’s commissioning website:http://bbc.co.uk/commissioning/tv/pitching-ideas/
In the initial stages, you won’t go far wrong if you think of the Treatment as a statement setting out an idea for a televisions series in the most exciting way possible. But above all, it must be clear and succinct. For although you may have a clear picture in your head about what your story is all about, unless you can communicate it quickly to the people who matter, then that is exactly where this idea will remain … in your head.
However, if a Treatment looks interesting, suggests depth, and seems like a practical proposition and leaves the reader or listener wanting to know more, then a producer or script editor might be enticed into taking your idea further. If it can happen to me, it can happen to you.
(c) Caren Kennedy
The keywords in all of this are: ‘ideas’ and ‘summaries’. But to summarise anything, you first need to find something to write about, which I cover in Part 2.