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What scripts you need to break into TV writing

Updated: Mar 11

You're new to the TV writing biz, and you're looking to break in, make it into a writers' room, and maybe even sell your own show.

TV Writing

Now, a good amount of this journey, maybe half or more, will involve networking - meeting the people you need to know who can connect with the other people you need to know in order to continue your climb to the next step.

BUT once you get to that step you're going to want to have the right sample.

You can't meet everyone and network your heart out only to be at a loss when someone asks you if they can read something you've written.

So, what do you need to have written? What do your writing samples need to look like?

I'm not going to discuss how to write these samples. But I am going to give you a framework to strategize your writing.

You can learn great screenwriting skills online. But I've yet to see someone talk about how many scripts you should have, what genre they should be in, and who your audience is for these scripts.

So, here goes...

To break into TV writing, you need to have two scripts

It is very rare that somebody writes their first script, gets it to the right person, sells it, and launches their screenwriting career.

So rare that I'll dare to say it's never happened before ever.

When you're starting your career in TV writing, your script will be your sample that a manager/agent/showrunner/executive can read and decide if they like your writing or not.

Notice I did not say decide if they want to buy your project or not. It takes years to get to a place where you're going to be able to sell something. That's just the nature of the business.

You need so many people vouching for you and you need to know so many people that it takes time.

BUT before that happens, you will meet people, and they will be interested in your writing. So, they'll ask to see a sample of your TV writing prowess. Maybe they like it.

This almost never means they want to produce it. It usually means they're interested in you as a writer. But just in case this one was a fluke, they'll ask the question...

What else you got?

In order to prove that you're not a novice, you need to have something else to show them. If you only have one script, you've just proven yourself to be far too green for them to develop a relationship with.

Okay, we've established you need two scripts at least. But what should those scripts look like?

Your two TV writing samples need to be TV pilots

Everybody in the TV writing game has TV pilots under their belt. That is the writing sample that literally everybody looks to. It's your calling card.

So, to give you a quick idea of what a TV pilot is, it is season one, episode one of every TV show you've ever seen. Every TV show starts with a pilot, and that is the case for your yet-to-be made TV show as well.

Back in the day, TV writers used to be able to use spec scripts as samples. These are scripts of shows that are already on the air.

Think of it like writing Family Guy fan fiction for example.

But now, the powers that be want to know that you can create a TV show from scratch. This is far more difficult than writing a spec.

With a spec, you can study a particular show and be pretty sure you can nail the story beats, the rhythm and the voices of the characters.

But with your pilot, you need to create all that from scratch. And you need to create a compelling story for the episode, as well as an interesting arc for the season, all the while introducing every main character that's going to be a part of your series.

It's really difficult. So, when agents/execs/showrunners read a good pilot, they know you've done something really impressive.

Okay, we've established you need two TV pilots as your TV writing samples. But what the hell should you write about?

Your TV writing samples should be in the same genre

I'm already hearing the hesitation... The lines have blurred between comedy and drama! What about dramedies?!

It's true. And many established TV writers can bounce back and forth between the genres. But when you're coming up, you're one of a million faces who agents/managers/execs/showrunners are reading samples from.

And you want them to be able to classify you and think of you when a particular project comes along.

Let's say you get a meeting with a producer, and they like your first TV pilot, a historical drama - sort of a prestige piece you think would be great on HBO.

They like it and they ask you "What else you got?" You give them a zany animated comedy that would be perfect for Adult Swim.

Maybe the producer likes this one too.

It doesn't matter because when the call comes that they need a great drama writer, they don't know what you are. Are you the drama writer, or the wacky comedy writer?

They can't classify you in a pinch and therefore, you don't come to mind for anything.

That's why, at least for your first two scripts, it's best to stick to either comedy or drama or dramedy for both of them.

Then you can branch out and let your freak flag fly.


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I'm Anton, a TV writer and author of Breaking Into TV Writing, a book about the business of TV writing and how to get your foot in the door.


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