Home of Jane's blog on writing for television
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    Hello again, Gentle Readers! I’m fascinated by all the parts of the television writing world that don’t generally communicate with each other. Even sitcoms and dramas often seem to live in very different worlds. Get farther out and it’s a different galaxy: game shows, daytime dramas, late-night comedy… it’s all TV writing, but it can follow totally different procedures. I recently corresponded with Friend-of-the-Blog Syndi, a writers’ assistant at Sesame Street. Here’s her account of their process.


    The Sesame Street writing process seems so simple compared to what you’re used to. We have a team of 10 writers, which includes our head writer. The entire group meets a couple of times for some general brainstorming. Then, the producers decide how many of the 26 episodes will be assigned to each writer. Then, to each writer, I assign a show number (we use show numbers instead of titles), a letter of the day, a number of the day, and an assortment of muppet and human cast (per script).

    Each writer takes their assignments and brainstorms on ideas for their episodes, then meets individually with the head writer to talk it out. From there, the writer goes off and writes their first draft. The head writer reviews the first draft and speaks with the writer about any changes he would like to see made. A second draft might be turned in, a third, etc.

    Eventually, the head writer signs off on it, and the script gets typed up into our script template by our script coordinator. Then I proofread it, and clean copies are distributed to our Research department. The folks in Research all have Master’s degrees and PhD’s in education, child psychology, etc. Research will review each script and give their comments to our head writer, who has the ultimate power to veto anything (of course, if Research feels very strongly, they’ll push hard.) I’ll put those research comments that were approved into the script and then the producers will meet on the script.

    Any changes that the producers would like to see are communicated to our head writer via our Executive Producer. (The Exec. Producer has ultimate say.) Once those changes are put into the script, it’s pretty much ready to be met on in a production meeting. Any changes that come out of the production meeting would constitute a revision, or at the very least, revised pages.

    How cool is that? Can you imagine getting your assigned letter of the day? It’s easy to get very near-sighted about TV writing, and to think that the whole world is primetime drama and comedy, but there are many fine streets in the world, and one of them is called Sesame.

    Look around and make sure you’re aiming at the job that really interests you, because there’s more than one way to do this.

    Lunch: a Caesar salad with garbanzo beans — nonstandard but delicious

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    November 1st, 2008Jane EspensonFrom the Mailbag, On Writing, Pilots, Spec Scripts

    Gentle Reader Sharla in Boulder has a great question. She’s been writing spec scripts for existing shows, so that she’ll have some really great samples to submit for fellowships. With those finished, she’s moved on to writing spec pilots, so that she’ll have those ready for when she actually needs to get an agent and a job. Don’t you love it when someone works their plan? It’s inspiring. But she’s hitting an interesting obstacle.

    “While writing my fellowship spec, I was working with characters that had so much background. Based on what they’d done and said in the past, I was able to craft their dialogue to fit the voices I knew and loved. And even when I did write an off line, when I read back over it, I could usually tell, oh, this doesn’t sound like so and so. Now when I’m writing my own characters, I seem to have lost that intuition. Since I’ve just created them, I don’t know what they sound like! […] In a way, I feel like it should be freeing to write for my own characters, but it’s like it’s too much freedom. I just can’t get their dialogue to focus.”

    Yes! I know exactly what you mean, Sharla. I faced the same thing when I started writing pilot scripts, and that was after I’d had years of professional experience of writing for other people’s characters. This is a great question.

    I’ve found two different approaches that can be helpful:

    1. Borrow and combine. There’s nothing wrong with continuing to write for characters you know and love, just grafting them into your script. Got a tough, interestingly flawed character? Try using Starbuck’s voice. Got a blowhard character? Ted Baxter’s voice isn’t busy. It’s like dream casting only with characters instead of actors. Since the circumstances of your story will make new and unique demands on the characters, the voices will naturally have to be adapted, which will prevent your script from sounding like a series of clips from other shows. You can also combine traits — give House’s way of speaking to a female character or combine two characters to make someone new. It’s not stealing, it’s adapting. There’s nothing wrong with using someone else’s springboard to dive into your pool.

    The second option is harder, but much better:

    2. Identify a type and use it to create your own breakout character. Sometimes, when you meet someone, you realize they remind you of someone else you know. And it’s not a physical resemblance, but something else — a way of dealing with others and a way of interpreting the world. When that happens, you are identifying a type. It’s most obvious with crazy people. If you’ve had encounters with crazy people, you’ve probably found that some of them remind you of other crazy people you’ve encountered before, and you’ve probably developed your own way of dealing with them based on what’s worked before. You’re predicting their behavior. You do it with less extreme personalities, too. Your cab driver suddenly reminds you of your father-in-law, or your new boss reminds you of your college roommate, and you form certain expectations about how they’re going to act, what they’re going to find funny, what they’re likely to say in a situation. It’s the meticulous observation of types that can allow comedic actors to create instantly successful and memorable characters, and it always works best when a type is familiar to us from interactions, but hasn’t yet been presented to us as an archetype. The “aging Brit rocker” type is now growing familiar, but not long ago, he was running wild in the world, not yet pinned to the collection board. The “cougar” hadn’t been captured regularly since Mrs. Robinson and now she’s everywhere. The “teen girl cynic” — new-ish and ubiquitous! What’s the next type to be observed and captured? Find it, pin it down, write the heck out of it! You’ll have Barney from How I Met Your Mother or Tracy from 30 Rock and your script will sparkle.

    ADDENDUM: Please note that these aren’t the only options. They’re just two that I have found helpful. You can also, of course, come up with a unique character unlike anyone you’ve seen or met, or you can pattern a character after one person you know — there are many ways to go about it. I just happen to like the two I listed.

    Lunch: the 2 cheeseburger meal from McDonalds in the car on the way to Norwalk to vote early. VOTE EARLY!

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    October 14th, 2008Jane EspensonComedy, From the Mailbag, On Writing, Pilots

    Now you know, Gentle Readers, that I much prefer to talk about writing tricks — I mean “techniques”– than to give advice about how to get into the business, since I really don’t consider myself an expert on that. However, I just found out about a writers’ program at NBC called Writers On The Verge. The official link to the program can be found

    My understanding is that this program is specifically intended for writers who are inches away from breaking into the business. Here’s what one of the program organizers told me about what they’re offering:

    Basically, it’s our crack at a fellowship. It’s more like the WB or CBS Fellowship than ABC in the sense that it’s only 10 weeks and I can’t afford to pay them for their troubles. Another difference between ours and theirs is that WOTV is two nights a week. Tuesday night is solely dedicated to a writing workshop and Thursday [to a] speaker series and personal development exercises. They [the participants] write a spec to get in, and in the program write a new spec and start an original. It’s really fast paced because we want them ready for staffing.

    We are currently in the 3rd year of the program, and will start accepting applications for next year’s program in May of ’09. To apply, writers must write a spec of a current series, primetime or cable, answer some essays and send in a resume. The link [see above] will be where new info is posted next year.

    Though we’re the newest fellowship, we’ve had a good amount of success so far with 5 of the 8 fellows from last year staffed and all 8 represented. The other three writers have moved up the food chain in some way as well (script coordinator with a freelance, etc…). In fact, NBC just bought a comedy pilot from a team that was in the program last year — so that’s our most exciting news to date.

    Wow. I’ll say — that’s a pretty amazing track record for a fairly new program. And it’s also another good place to use those specs for existing shows, which are otherwise increasingly devalued.

    May might seem like it’s a long way off, but this program clearly sets a high standard and you’re going to want all of that time to get a spec into the kind of shape it’s going to require. If I were you, I’d start working. So let’s hear some typing noises! Good luck!

    Lunch: BBQ chicken and those amazing spicy fries at Ribs USA.

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    Friend-of-the-Blog Jeff Greenstein comments on the last entry. He says: I always pick out a special font for each show and put it (fairly) big on the title page. I’m looking at his most recent pilot script and it’s true. However, his own name appears below the title in 12-point Courier. This seems to me to be a fine compromise — the script looks unique without looking over-puffed.

    Jeff also points out the importance of making it clear that a script is, in fact, a pilot (as opposed to a spec feature or a spec episode of an existing show). He does this with the simple subtitle (without quotation marks) “a pilot,” while I do it by listing the name of the episode (with quotation marks) as “Pilot.” They’re both perfectly fine options.


    I had just completed this post when I got another email from an experienced writer. Friend-of-the-blog Mark Verheiden checks in on the other side! …the first studio script I submitted, I did a title page where I put the title (that’s it) in 16 pt type. The executive practically hurled it in my face. […] I don’t do that anymore.

    Fascinating, no? I’m not sure what to advocate anymore! I suggest that this choice should probably be dictated by your own personality and values, and perhaps even the tenor of the script — free-wheeling comedy might allow for looser rules than a restrained drama. If anyone else weighs in, I’ll let you know!

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    ADDENDUM: I found the letter that prompted this entry. Thank you, Eddie in Van Nuys! Eddie is a Friend of the Blog. He adds this helpful tip: Fortunately, it’s an easy mistake to fix. In Final Draft all one has to do is open the “Document” tab and hit “Title Page.” That brings up the script’s title page and it can be formatted from there. Problem solved.” Got that? Thanks!

    Original Post:

    I’m back in Los Angeles again, gentle readers. And I’m awfully glad to be home. I’m hoping that I’ll have more time to blog with you than I’ve had in recent weeks. Production is fun and exciting, but it is all-consuming.

    Now, as I’ve mentioned before, my blog-mail has been tossed like a salad as a result all the moving around. So while today’s entry was inspired by a letter, I can’t quite put my hands on the letter. One of you wrote in a while back with an excellent point that I’ve never seen before and I’ve decided it’s worth mentioning even with a shameful lack of attribution. When the original letter emerges from the chaos, I’ll let you know!

    Sometimes you convert your script to PDF format for emailing, right? At least I do. Well, when a Final Draft script is converted to PDF, a generic title page is generated. Be aware of it, because when the recipient prints out the file, that generic page is going to be on top. Apparently, some operations around town literally have stacks of these indistinguishable-from-the-top scripts. Don’t let yours be one of them! You want your title — and more importantly your name — visible, front-and-center.

    But, and here I go off-road to make an unrelated point, in my opinion you don’t want that name to be too big. I’ve been organizing my script files here at home, and I’ve realized that one of the ways I can instantly distinguish a script from a working colleague from a script by an aspiring writer is that the aspiring writer uses a big font on their title page. Now, others may disagree with me here, but I would advocate an all twelve-point title page. I think it looks more professional.

    This is a classic battle, actually — professionalism vs. self-promotion. Aspiring writers have to do a lot of things that professionals don’t have to — introducing themselves to working writers without a name to drop to ease the intro, and writing self-puffing essays about their qualifications and dreams, for example. It can be very hard to balance aggression and grace. The art of humble self-promotion can be as important in the early stages of career-exploration as writing skill, and I’ve seen it misplayed in both directions. You’ll have to find the tone that’s right for you. But on title pages, I recommend a soft and steady voice.

    Lunch: the “studio plate” from Poquito Mas. Do you have Poquito Mas? It’s a chain, but they make their own tortillas right there — mmm.

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