Writing For Television – My first TV script from 1996!

Yesterday whilst looking for something else on the internet, I came across a 20 year-old website that I had created.  It’s no longer live but had been archived away somewhere and I was amazed to find my very first television manuscript on the site.  This was rather fortuitous as the original files are on computers 2 or 3 generations removed from my current machine (which says a lot considering my previous PC lasted so long).  Of course I have the original paper print-outs archived away at home somewhere but to find a digital copy in a file that I could open was a big surprise.  In fact coming across an old treasure trove of my own files nearly 20 years old on an archived website and then finding a way to open it was probably the closest I’ll get to following in the footsteps of my sic-fi heroes of the 23rd century.

This script was actually the reason I got into writing at all, it was my very first effort and it was for Star Trek Voyager.  I wrote several others and they all just about got to the final selection process which is saying something when you remember that they would receive thousands of submissions for each episode shown on TV, all the way from first timers to established television and literary writers.

At least one of mine got rejected as unknown to me at the time of writing it, someone else had submitted an almost identical story just 3 months earlier and as the production schedule takes so long, it took almost a year to find out.  I do remember though watching an episode where the crew land on a planet that is populated by rather confused children and as soon as I saw this, I screamed out to the TV, they’re old people!   Yes like myself, someone else had written about a planet where people age backwards. In the all the years of sci-fi and all the years of Star Trek, who’d have thought someone would beat me to the concept by such a short period of time.  AArrrghhhh!

They might look like kids but these are really old people on a moon where people age in reverse.

They might look like kids but these are really old people on a moon where people age in reverse.

The fact that my first effort was such a relative success despite the fact that I was a student who had never written much of anything aside from essays and papers before made me set my mind towards writing.    Before I knew it, I was writing these scripts for Star Trek, X Files and was also approached to write  a children’s TV cartoon that aired for ITV (the makers of Downton Abbey) when really I should have been doing my Masters essays and thesis.  I got to like doing them as they seemed easy to write and I could write one up from scratch in just a day or two compared to the much longer time it took to research, translate, theorise and write-up for African and Asian history.

I was fortunate that I attended a Television writers class a year or so earlier.  It was ran by 2 or 3 established writers including Brannon Braga, Lolita Fatjo who was the script co-ordinator of the modern Star Trek shows and third person possibly the most famous of them all, Ronald Moore, who not only write for various Star Trek series but also the recent and acclaimed BattleStar Galatica remake.  They were all great people and I got to know Lolita a bit more over the next 15 years or so.

Writing a television manuscript is so much different from writing any other form of fiction so it was quite bizarre for me to have written so much of it before writing more traditional story formats.  There is a specific format to be used and a terminology to.  The people who receive the scripts don’t really want to do too much work with them so you need to have it laid out correctly if you want to be taken seriously.

There is only a brief description in most TV scripts and a lot more dialogue.  This being Star Trek there were the added complications of special effects, interior and exterior scenes and costing too.  Knowing how much things costs to produce on-screen is something of a fine art especially to newcomers so it can often be wise to write it with a conservative view towards costs.  Don’t have too many extras, be careful of your locations and in a show like Trek, check your special effects or planetary locations!   There are several famous anecdotes of established sci-fi writers who wrote or attempted to write for Star Trek but couldn’t get their head around the idea that whereas in a book there are no limitations and you can have a crowd of 10,000 chasing the hero down a fantastical city street, television and television budget can’t handle 10,000, 1,000 or even 100.  Maybe you can have 10 people and not in a street but in between two warehouses.

If you really want to get on the right side of the decision makers for the show then if you can come up with a great idea that involves just using some of the main characters on pre-built sets.  In Star Trek they were called Bottle Shows and you can tell them as the show deals in depth with one or two characters, maybe trapped in a pre-existing set like a Turbolift or shuttle.  These stories are vital as they allow the money saved to be splurged on big budget episodes or similarly help recoup overspend from earlier episodes.  Often though the lack of budget would force the writers and team in general to come up with a great character show.  Two people stuck in a room together who hate each other, or in peril force the writer to delve deep into the characterisation and relationships which are rewarding for viewers and may have long lasting impact on the show in future years.   Often such shows are selected because the show-runners simply want a change of pace, the audience can only handle so many action/comedy/drama/horror episodes in each part of the TV season.

Famously the original Star Trek was run on such a strict budget that they would find ingenious ways of saving money be recycling props, uniforms, existing filmed footage and music.  Some of the most iconic moments and ideas came from them trying to live within their budget.  Transporters for example were invented because they couldn’t envision a way of the Enterprise landing on a planet in a quick and affordable way.  Happily they also proved a way to keep the stories moving at a fast pace or even becoming a plot device.

The story also has to be tight, with minimum slack moments or dead air.  Television is expensive to produce and broadcast and there can’t normally slack moments to pad the story out.  Having said that, it was often it was said of Star Trek The Next Generation that you could judge the quality of the show because there were several scenes where for several sections, nothing happened.  The characters and setting were so strong, viewers didn’t have to be actively entertained throughout.  Watch any TV show tonight and see if there is any silence involved.  It’s a safe bet that there won’t be unless it is an expense and quality show maybe such as Game of Thrones.

Familiarity with the show and characters is also important.  If Vulcans are vegetarian then you can’t have Spock just eating meat.  If Commander Chakotay has a bad history with the Borg then you have to remember that if you have them meet the Borg again though perhaps writing a story of redemption might be an idea here.   It is a fine line deciding on what level of continuity you have in a show as by the time the producers read your script, lots of things will have changed making you intricate plotting way out of date.  It was for that reason the Star Trek creators liked to receive High Concept scripts meaning the equivalent of a Sci-Fi brainwave.  What if the crew meets people who age backwards?   or whatever.

Another unique constraint to bear in mind about writing for television is that of the structure of the episode with advertising breaks.  If you’re writing a short film or indeed something for the BBC where there are no commercials then this makes it easy.  However for all American shows and almost everyone else you have to create these mini-areas of intrigue or threat, each greater than the previous to co-incide with each set of television adverts.  Depending on the country there can be anything from 3-6 of these in an hour of television plus in some places a prologue before the titles roll.  It can be difficult creating so many multiple points where the stakes are raised to keep viewers hooked while the adverts are on and in an ideal world some of these would be removed to make the story grow more organically.

I really enjoyed writing scripts and I’m pleased that this experience helped a short screenplay I wrote in November be selected for filming and even a TV broadcast later in the year.  The producers said they didn’t just like the idea and story but by using the correct layout it instantly showed them what was required to produce it and that I had some idea of how to write something they can use.

Anyway, I thought I would make this script available to everyone in case it helps any writers who want to know the formats for writing screenplays or for those who want to read a sci-fi story in about 15-20 minutes. Please note that Star Trek and Star Trek remain copyright of CBS and Paramount and the Home Sickness script is still copyright to me, Stephen Liddell.

I’ve also put a copy in my Freelance Writing page so if anyone wants to collaborate or hire me there, be my guest.  I am still working on my Star Trek book but a more urgent project has come up which has to be written first.

I hope you like the insight into script writing and the constraints of television.  Maybe you will like the story.  Bear in mind it was my first creative story and first TV script and it was written way back in 1996 and I had only ever watched one or two episodes of Voyager (as I recall) before I wrote it.

So without further a do, somewhere in the 24th Century in a distant part of the Galaxy known as the Delta Quadrant, the crew of a Federation Starship are trapped 70,000 light years from home in Home Sickness.  (Please click on the link to the left to download and read the script)

Star Trek Voyager

Star Trek Voyager

 

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About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including a #1 seller, I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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