What Makes An Amazing Television Writer?

In a city full of entertainment wannabes, Greg Elliot knows what makes for top-notch TV. His resume includes stints as executive story editor on the WB series “Charmed” and writer for “Star Trek: Voyager,” for which he received a Sci-Fi Universe Award nomination. 

As part of the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension, Elliot teaches “Writing the 1-Hour Spec/Drama Script.” He’s also an Arts Distinguished Instructor.

Here, Elliot shares five key lessons for hitting your stride as a television writer.

Be a storyteller. Elliot stresses story as a ubiquitous part of the human experience. “It doesn’t matter what kind of writing you’re doing — television, movies, novels, short stories, telling your kids bedtime stories, sitting around the campfire,” he said. “You have to be good at the story part. Practice. Turn off the radio when you’re driving. Make up a story about the teens, old folks or police officers in the car next to you. Or have your kids give you a prompt at bedtime, and keep them up for the next hour. Live to be a storyteller.”

Write great dialogue. Listen to people and study the pace and flow of effective conversation. “Note that the best dialogue is almost always short back-and-forth volleys, like a tennis match,” Elliot said. “You can’t know who’s going to win the point, because both players are hitting such great shots. When you write dialogue, keep us guessing. But there’s a trick: Write the way people talk, only better. Cut all the boring parts.”

Show, don’t tell. Because TV is visual, you need to show, not tell. “Don’t explain what your characters feel, or fear, or hope for. Show us. Have us understand what your characters are going through by what we see them do — and what we hear them say.” He added: “See each scene in your mind before you write it, as though you were watching it on the screen already. See everything that’s important. Then write that scene so we see what you see.”

Know your market. The creative won’t see daylight without the practical. “Television is a vast ocean, getting wider all the time,” Elliot said. “Tell your significant others you’re sorry, but you need to watch more TV. Note what moves you and why. Read the trades, newspapers and Internet posts on what’s doing well. Then watch those shows. Understand the market you’re writing for, so you can explain with confidence to the showrunner sitting across from you why you’re the writer for them.”

Stick to it. TV writing may be your dream. Hard work is the reality. “Most production scripts of any TV show have gone through a dozen drafts, all of which are listed on the script’s front page,” Elliot said. “You can do no less. So first, do your homework. Make sure you understand the format of television and can apply it correctly. Then write your draft. Get some feedback and write it again. Put it in a drawer, write something else, come back to your earlier script with fresh eyes, and write it again. Make absolutely sure every draft is the best you know how to make it.”

Once you’re fully satisfied with the script, it’s time to give it one last polish. “Find fellow writers who will give you honest, constructive feedback and endeavor to do the same for them. Then write your draft again. And keep at it. Those who succeed are those who don’t give up.”

–Lou Carlozo for UCLA Extension

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