How to Write for Television (When You Have Never Written for Television)

If you want to concept TV commercials, you’ve got to start with premises. Do not write scripts. Let me explain…

Forever ago, I did a summer internship at GSD&M in Austin, Texas. I was in between semesters at the VCU Adcenter (before it was the Brandcenter), and I was excited not only to be at an agency that had been all over the award annuals, but to be partnered with a classmate of mine who was a fantastic art director. It was going to be a very good summer.

That first week, we were given a chance to write TV commercials for Chili’s. Yes, the Chili’s of Baby Back Rib fame. Our first year in school, we had worked on lots of print campaigns, but had never worked on TV. (This is before digital was even a thing. Web banners weren’t even a thing. Like I said, this was forever ago.)

So we sat down and spent days concepting. We came up with a story about an Amish boy. We had another one about a kung fu master and his disciples. We had one shot from the point of view of a bird. And we crafted each script in detail. We argued over dialogue for hours. I thought the Amish boy should say, “Yea, verily,” because it sounded funny and biblical. My art director thought he should say, “Even so, mother,” because it made more sense. This went on for days.

Finally, we brought five or six scripts in to our creative director. Who killed them all. Welcome to advertising.

So we came up with five or six more scripts. And we agonized over dialogue and descriptions. Again, we showed them to our creative director. Nothing.

We were feeling disappointed and a little bit of pressure because we knew that the interns VCU sent to this agency the year before had actually produced a commercial for Pennzoil. That’s insane. Summer interns producing a TV commercial? But it happened. And we wanted it to happen for us, too.

But it never did. We had a fun summer. But we produced nothing. (To be fair, the idea that interns would produce anything other than spec work is a little unrealistic. But we didn’t know that.)

On the last day of our internship, our creative director gave us an evaluation. And we were shocked to hear that it wasn’t so hot. He said we came in with five or six scripts a week. According to him, the team that had produced the Pennzoil spot last year came in with 100 ideas the day after they were briefed. Maybe 100 was an exaggeration. But it was certainly more than five.

It took me the better part of my career to learn that there is a difference between writing premises and writing scripts.

A premise is a short two to three sentence blurb about what the spot’s about.

A script is a crafted document that tells you exactly what happens in the commercial.

A premise is loose.

A script is tight.

You can write 100 premises in a day.

It might take you an entire afternoon to write a decent script.

A premise is something you jot down as a potential idea.

A script is an idea you begin to craft.

So if you have the chance to write TV scripts. Don’t just start writing TV scripts. That’s like crafting the body copy for a marker comp. Start with a premise. And then come up with another. And another. And another.

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