Writing TV Show Treatments

In March, I’ll be heading back to StoryExpo, a screenwriting conference in New York. These past few weeks I’ve been getting my scripts together, to pitch to production companies at the conference. As such, I figured it would be a good topic of discussion for my Monday blogs! Today, I’ll share my secrets for writing TV show treatments.

A TV treatment, also known as a show bible, is a breakdown of a TV show’s first season. It’s something you hand to interested parties (like agents or producers) that details the show. It lets them know that you’ve thought past the pilot episode, and have conceptualized what this show could be in the long run. Basically, it’s a way to let people see that this isn’t merely a hobby, but rather something that could be monetized.

Now, the most important part of any TV show is the logline. It’s a two-sentence (maximum) overview of the show. It should tell you the main conflict, who the characters are, and what the point it. You’ll have a longline for the show itself, and for each of the episodes in the season. The best way to think of this are the descriptions of shows on Netflix or Amazon. They’re a couple sentences that tell you what’s up. Loglines are the exact same thing, if not a bit more polished. It should give whoever is reading the longline all the information they need about the show. Think of it as a hook to get people interested.

Once you’ve got the logline down, the rest of the treatment is a piece of cake. You’ll have a one-paragraph synopsis of the pilot episode, which is self-explanatory.

Next, you’ll breakdown the entire season in a detailed synopsis. I’d keep this down to a page, maximum. While you do need to show everything that happens in the first season, don’t make it too detailed. The best way to think of this is to check out a movie plot on Wikipedia. Iron Man is a fantastic example. Follow that format and you should have a great synopsis.

After, you get to my favorite section: character breakdowns. This is where you describe your main cast. A good character description should tell you the essence of a character in three-to-four sentences. What are they struggling with? What’s their character like? Why are they essential to this show? Once you’ve got that, you get to find a well-known actor that best resembles your characters. This is necessary for producers to get an idea of what you see in your head, seeing as you can’t provide in-depth character descriptions in the script itself. This has to be my favorite part. I love going through my favorite TV shows and movies and finding the perfect actor or actress to portray my characters. It’s a lot of fun!

Lastly, you need to include titles and loglines for eight to ten episodes in the season. And you can have fun naming the episodes! Be creative, show them your imagination!

I recommend doing this section after you’ve written the first season, so it’s a little easier to summarize. And it is important to note that you should have a complete season written if you’re looking to pitch it to anyone. Producers like to buy complete projects. It doesn’t even have to be well-written, so long as it’s complete. So, put your fingers to the keys and get it done!

Now, you’ve got a complete treatment! Make sure you have other people read over it. It’s always better to have feedback, and make sure what you’ve put down on paper makes sense outside of your head. Once it’s complete, make sure you register it with the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA). Then, you can share it to your heart’s content, and you don’t have to worry about anyone taking your idea. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.

I actually find the process of writing a treatment to be pretty cathartic. It keeps me organized, and allows me to better understand the story I’m trying to tell. 

As far as advice goes, however cliché, all I can say is to enjoy it. This treatment is the entire first season of your TV show in a few sheets of paper. It’s everything your story could be; it’s a culmination of your hard work. So relax and just have a good time.

World Building

I recently drafted a blog post about world building. As I was putting my thoughts down on paper, I realized it was a bit difficult to put everything down about world building that I knew. It’s such a person-specific topic that it’s hard to give general advice. So, rather than post that jumbled mess, I figured I’d break down how I do world building and try to give some advice along the way.

First, I want to preface this by saying I got a minor in history when I was in school. I focused on holocaust studies and histories pre-American Civil War. All of this plays into my novels.

Most of my books have historical settings, likely as a result of my love for history. But also, because it’s much easier to modify a setting/time period that already exists. Let me explain.

When you write an alien civilization or create a world that doesn’t currently exist, you MUST ground your new world in something human. If your world, your characters, even your names are too alien, your readers cannot connect and will therefore lose interest. Think of it like you’re a scientist trying to explain your new discovery to a room full of high schoolers. Some will understand the complexities you’re talking about, but the majority wont.

It’s great to have things that are otherworldly, and alien, and manifestations of your incredible imagination. But at the same time, there must be something recognizable embedded in there. Which is why I like to use historical settings in my novels.

You can take something that already exists and change it to suit your needs. For example, in my standalone novel I’m working on, I have an alien civilization that lives on a watery moon in a made-up solar system, but their town is inspired by Colonial Williamsburg. That way, the world isn’t too overwhelming to understand for my readers. (Plus, I really LOVE Colonial Williamsburg.)

Another thing to remember when building a world is to let your imagination run wild. The best example I have of this is the short-run TV show Defiance. It took three humanoid races (the grounding aspect for watchers) and added incredible intricacies. Sometimes, the best world building is rooted in culture.

I do this in my Anastasia Series. There are 10 races, each one with their own dimensional world. And each race is based on a culture that exists/once existed. There’s Hinduism, Victorian England, ancient Scottish and Irish, Native American, Renaissance… They form the basis for my characters, upon which I can build and create and give them all intricacies. That way, they’re just recognizable enough for my readers, and yet different enough to cause intrigue.

The best thing to take away from this is to simply have fun. World building might seem overwhelming, but it’s most often the best part of novel writing. Do what you love and the rest will follow.

Writer’s Block

Writer’s block. That sneaky, depraved demon that wraps its claws around your brain and turns you into an unimaginative robot. You know what I’m talking about. When you sit there staring a blank screen, trying (and ultimately deleting) anything to progress on your latest work. It impacts all writers, but I’ve discovered some things to cure, or at least treat the symptoms of, writer’s block.

  • Start outlining your work. A lot of writer’s block can stem from a lack of direction. It helps to look up plot summaries of movies or books that are similar to your manuscript, and then follow their flow and structure.
  • Already have an outline? Work on one for another book. Or work on fine-tuning the one you have. If that fails, character development is always fun. Look up some in-depth character-building sites and go nuts!
  • Reread what you already have. There’s a quote from Once Upon A Time that says, “You know, when I get struck by a block, I usually reread what I’ve done, rather than plow ahead blindly. Sometimes, I find there’ll be a little nugget of inspiration left behind.” You’re in a different head space when you first start writing. Sometimes, a flash of that previous intention can help spur you on.
  • Read other things you’re working on, read a book, or watch TV/a movie. Sometimes, we see things and wish we could’ve written them differently. Often, that’s all it takes.
  • Take time off! Yes, we all have deadlines. However, writer’s block could just be your mind’s way of saying you need a break. So, step away from your writing for a week. Usually, I only last a couple of days before my manuscript’s sweet siren song calls me back.

Do you have another way you work around or treat writer’s block?

Traditional Publishing vs Self-Publishing

I’ve been asked numerous times about the self-publishing vs. traditional publishing debate. Here’s what I’ve learned from my own work, as well as from my mentors.

Traditional Publishing:

So, you’ve finished your novel. Now, you have two options: 1) find an agent, or 2) try to go directly to a publisher. You’ll find a lot of lingo you might not be familiar with. The first to consider yourself with is unsolicited vs solicited manuscripts.

Many publishers won’t take unsolicited manuscripts, which really means a manuscript that isn’t attached to an agent. Smaller presses accept unsolicited manuscripts, but larger publishers will only accept solicited, meaning you’ll need an agent to get your foot in the door.

The way you’ll find an agent or publisher will be through the Literary Marketplace. Yes, Google is a viable source, but the Literary Marketplace houses everything you’ll need. It’ll tell you whether you need an agent, what genres these agents or publishers are looking for, and it’ll give you a correct way to contact them. The Marketplace is a rather large book. I got mine back in 2013 for about $13. I’m not sure what they go for nowadays, but I found it an irreplaceable source.

Once you comb through the Marketplace and make your list of agents and/or publishers, you’ll need to craft a query letter or cover letter. These are basic letters that will haunt you—I mean, be a part of your life as an author. (You can find great templates to follow on Google. Pick the one that feels right for you!)

The other thing to consider is that when you reach out to an agent or publisher, there’s something called simultaneous submissions. Most, if not all, agents and publishers say they don’t accept simultaneous submissions, which really means you can only send your query to one agent or publisher at a time. Then, you’ll have to wait three months before you can send your info to the next person on your list. This can seem tedious, but it’s because the agent/editor/publisher wants the exclusive right to offer you a contract if they like your work.

A thing to remember is that your manuscript MUST be complete before you query anyone. Otherwise, you’ll get shut down. You’ll need a complete wordcount, which shouldn’t be 10,000 words above or below the average wordcount for your specific genre. Even if you’ve got the next Harry Potter, agents and publishers won’t want to take that kind of risk with a baby writer.

The best thing about traditional publishing—outside of not spending your own money to bring it to life—is their marketing team. However, my old English professor explained to me that just because you’ve got a crackpot marketing team doesn’t equate success.

For example, if your novel comes out the same time as a Stephen King novel, you could have the best marketing team in the world, and you book would still be put on the back shelves and forgotten.

Another thing to consider is the content itself. You may have heard horror stories about the editing department deciding at the last minute that they want to change the name of your main character. And they have every right to do so. A basic publishing contract gives the company the right to make changes that will make the book better for marketing. You could end up with a story similar to, but not exactly the same as, when you entered.

Self-Publishing:

You have to worry about none of the above with self-publishing. That being said, this is not the easier option. Yes, you have complete creative control. But, you have complete creative control.

You’re the cover designer, the editor, the formatter, the marketer, the distributer, etc. Sure, you can hire most of these people, but that means you’re paying out-of-pocket for services that are readily available for free with a traditional publisher.

That being said, there is nothing that compares to seeing the cover you’ve envisioned come to life. To putting your blood, sweat, and tears into your manuscript and seeing it become a physical book you hold in your hands. The only changes you make are the ones you want, and, in the end, you get the book you wanted.

However, you’re responsible for marketing. You have to be extroverted enough to sell yourself to friends and strangers. You need to believe in your product enough to put yourself out there. You have to be ready to work hard at earning sales. Just because you put it up on Amazon doesn’t mean you’ll immediately make money. You have to beg people for reviews, climb your way to success. But that doesn’t mean self-publishing is the harder path to choose.

I spoke with an author at Florida SuperCon who had been self-published and traditionally published. She said that she preferred self-publishing because of the creative control, the control over marketing, and the higher royalty percentage. Turns out, she made more money through self-publishing.

There are also a number of self-publishing options out there. Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (formerly CreateSpace) is the most popular, given its user-friendly formatting and Amazon platform. There’s sure to be one to fit your budget and computer skills. However, it isn’t always cheap. If you want to self-publish right, things will add up.

On average, it costs $350 (for a cover) + $125 (for an ISBN—unless you use one KDP provides, which is free) + $875 (for editing, depending on your editor’s rates and work needed) + your time and sanity = $1,350. Which isn’t counting formatting (if you need to pay for help), marketing, and little things that could pop up along the way.

Self-publishing is a lot of work. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. But I feel that it’s worth it in the long run, when you get to look the people you love in the eye and share your dream with them. Because, as Capital One used to say, that’s priceless.