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.


How to Write a TV Script

If you need to write a TV script, do not start by writing a TV script. Start by writing a premise.
Here’s a short story to tell you what I mean:
The very first time to I sat down to write a TV script, I was an intern at GSD&M. My partner and I had no experience at all writing thirty-second scripts.
The assignment was for a restaurant, which the brief assured us was the place to go for celebrations. So we came up with one idea where a kung fu master takes his two 10-year-old students to lunch after a tournament. Realizing there’s only one jalapeno popper appetizer left on the plate, one student tries to grab it. His fellow kung fu student blocks the reach with a wax-on-wax-off move. Then he tries to take it, and the other kid uses some kung fu move to block the reach. This results in a flurry of blocks, jabs, reaching, wax-on-wax-off fist movement over the plate as their master sagely looks on. Then the two kids realize the popper is no longer on the plate, and their teacher smiles and says something like, “He who is not distracted gets the popper!”
Kind of a funny spot, we thought. Might not have been super p.c., but I would have enjoyed seeing that on TV. So my partner and I scripted it up.
And that was one of the most agonizing experiences of my internship.
We debated on whether we should open outside the restaurant, or open on one of the booths. Should the jalapeno poppers be freshly delivered to the table, or should they already be eating them? Should there be a waiter or waitress? At the end, should the teacher say, “He who is not distracted…” or “Lesson #8…” or “You have much to learn…” It took us hours to figure out that script.
But the thing is, we’d already figured out the premise. The creative director didn’t need a finished script. He wanted an idea. We gave him five scripts. But in the time it took us to script up five fully-formed scripts we could both agreed on, we could have concepted and written a hundred premises.
A premise is a five- or six-sentence description of what the spot is about, and what happens in it. Keep it loose. But keep it interesting. If it doesn’t work well as a premise, it’s probably not going to work as a script.

Chipping Away to Find Your Voice With Moshe Kasher

All creative people know the importance of generating lots of ideas to get to the good stuff. I think the same is true with writing, whether it’s a script or a setup or some copy. I’ve always found it easier to write the first draft long, then edit it down.

I was listening to the podcast Bullseye with Jesse Thorn today, and he was interviewing comedian Moshe Kasher. This is what Kasher had to say as he was describing how he honed his voice:

“There’s this story of Michelangelo, that somebody came up to Michelangelo and said, ‘How do you make something as beautiful as David?’ and he goes ‘Well, I took this piece of marble and I chipped away everything that wasn’t David, and that’s what was left.’ I sort of feel like that’s what you do on stage, to find your voice on stage. That’s what you do as a writer, to find your voice as a writer. And that’s what you do as a human being to find your voice as a person. You start chipping away things that aren’t useful and aren’t you.”

The next time you sit down to write a script, think of it as a block of marble. It doesn’t have to be perfect. The shape doesn’t have to be defined yet. Just give yourself enough to work with. Get it all out there on the page. Don’t chip until you have a big, nice block. Then take out your chisel and go to work.

How to Start Writing Scripts

As a junior with very little script writing experience, I found it challenging to get into the spot. I’d have an idea for a spot. But getting to that idea always seemed clunky.

Recently, I was invited to speak to a class at the Temerlin Advertising Institute at SMU, and we talked about writing scripts for radio and TV. Here’s an exercise we did together.

First, watch this classic SNL clip.

Okay. Now, take out a piece of paper and write the first sixty seconds of this skit. It’s not a memory game; you don’t need to remember the kids names. But how did the skit begin? Go ahead, try it.

When you come up with a great idea for a TV spot, it’s a lot like saying, “What if Chris Farley were a crazy motivational speaker who really lives in a van down by the river?” It’s a funny concept. But that’s not the first line of the script. You have to begin with “Open on a living room.” And you have to write some dialogue that’s not all that funny, or even memorable. But it gets you to the funny and memorable part.

As you watch TV – sitcoms, dramas, commercials – pay attention to how they begin. What are the first lines spoken? What is the first image you see? Figure out how how those elements serve as a base, and how they lead to the parts you really remember.

The Importance of Seconds PART 2

15 seconds is half of 30 seconds.

30 seconds isn’t very long to begin with, but it seems like an eternity after you’ve tried cramming an idea into 15 seconds.

Clients love 15-second spots because they can buy a lot more of them for the money. In media impressions, they’re not that different.

But in creative terms, they are very different. In a :30, you can set a scene. You can have some dialogue. Tell a little story.

A :15 is the equivalent of a billboard. You get one idea. A simple one.

DO NOT try to cram a :30 idea into :15. The results will not be good. I say this, and yet I’ve tried it many many times. I’ve had ideas that I just knew were so great that I wouldn’t let them go, even though they were too complicated for 15 seconds. I’ve had :30 scripts that a creative director promised to a client could become :15s. Most often, I’ve had :30s that had to also be cut down to :15s because they had the in the plan. Whatever the reason, the results have not been good.

Know going in if you have to do a :15. Then concept for a :15. KEEP IT SIMPLE.

One of my favorite :15 campaigns of all time had a very straightforward, single-minded idea.

The Importance of Seconds PART 1

Here’s an idea for the media folks (feel free to take this and run with it): The 33-second spot. And as a corollary, you can do the :17. I’m serious. Copywriters across the country would be pitching in their own coin to help the client buy them.

But odds are, as brilliant an idea as that is, nobody’s going to take me up on it anytime soon. So here’s my advice, something I’ve learned through painful experience: TIME YOUR DAMN SPOTS!

Aside from a pen and paper, a stopwatch might be your most valuable tool. Get one. When you write copy, BEFORE you present it, read it out loud and use that stopwatch. If it’s over :30 cut it. Actually, if it’s over :25, cut it. Allowing for a decent pace and pauses will give it character in the end. And when you read it, don’t read it with the goal of hitting :30. Read it like you want it to be read by your announcer or actors.

I can’t tell you how many times a writer comes into my office with a half page of copy for a :30.

“How long is this?”
“30 seconds.”
“You timed it?”
“Out loud?”
“Well, kind of.”
I pull out my stopwatch.
“Read it. Out loud.”
They do. They read fast. As they get close to the end, they get faster and faster. They stop breathing and the last couple sentences come out like they’re speaking in tongues, “andforminationvisitourwesiteatredna dot com!”
“34 seconds.”

This is so simple to do, but it happens all the time. Or, maybe more often, they write a nice script that clocks in under :30, and when the client makes them add stuff, they’re so enamored with their original copy that they don’t cut any of it.

Cut it. It will be painful at first, but suck it up and get over it. Learn to love that pain. Half of good writing is good editing.

Believe me, there is nothing more embarrassing than being on a set, ready to roll, with actors and crew and client and a director all standing by, and having the script supervisor tell you that she keeps clocking your script at :32, and you having to edit your script right then and there. That’s pressure you don’t need.

Stopwatch, my friend. Stopwatch.