by Holly Trenaman
09 June 2023
So, you’ve got a dream to write for TV?
Becoming a TV writer is the holy grail for many – and it’s in the news right now for all the wrong reasons. The Writers’ Strike in America highlights the effects of streaming services and that it’s so important to give our TV writers and creators the credit they deserve. There are many ways to work your way up to scriptwriting – with roles including note taking and script coordinating. However, I’m always curious to see how people get into an industry that has no traditional, linear pathway.
Everybody’s story is different, so we’ve gone behind the scenes, right to where it all begins, and asked four very different writers, who have contributed to the culture of Australia as we know it today – from drama, to soaps, to unscripted TV – how they got their in.
Holly is a screenwriter with experience in Australia and the UK – she has over 500 hours of broadcast credits as a TV writer or script editor.
‘I remember one day my head started in Summer Bay, by lunch I had to switch to Ramsay Street and after the school pick up, I was crafting dialogue for B1 and B2.’
As Associate Script Producer at Home and Away, I am part of the team that creates the plot for five episodes each week. On Monday and Tuesday, we generate 100 scenes. Next, we flesh out the plot notes and deliver them to our freelance team. It’s essential to have a head for story: to problem solve on the spot and creatively compromise. Crafting a structural story with impact is a rare skill, so nailing the story before you start writing is the hardest part and is 80% of the work. Collaboration is essential. You’re not writing a secret journal that you keep under your pillow – you’re writing content for the whole world to see, so you need to be prepared to share ideas and be open… even if the story draws on your own personal experiences.
The life of a freelance TV writer can be unpredictable and challenging but the joy is you’re creatively alive, because you get to write on many different shows with a variety of writing teams. You also need to be across local content, if you want to work for Australian drama, first step is to watch it. I love all the shows I’ve worked on, but the show I co created in 2019 for the ABC – Rocky & Me – will always be close to my heart. Rocky & Me is about a girl with cerebral palsy who gets her first wheelchair, and with it comes her independence. My co-creator and I formed a mission statement from the outset that our show would be focused on putting disability on screen and behind the screen, and our production crew also included several people with disability.
‘I had an unusual non-conventional path: from journalism, to video art, to acting, then directing and then finding my true love – writing.’
Each step on the way helps me a bit in my current job – I’m always looking at a script first how an actor would look at it and kind of directing it in my mind as I’m writing it. When I was growing up in rural Australia, I didn’t know you could be a screenwriter, let alone a filmmaker, so I was amazed that people would pay me for something I was obsessed with doing. I don’t think it’s ‘who you know’ when starting. Create your own opportunities, write what you want to be writing, make your own work, and let people know who you are. Don’t be shy! If you are a raging feminist and interested in writing about that – shout it into every space (I do!) and then that’s what people will know you as and invite you to write.
Screenwriting is a numbers game – for every eight scripts you write, one might get made. And that’s good odds. I have a drawer full of things that haven’t been made… yet! So, you need to have a lot of projects in the air. Regarding AI, I think the WGA Writers Strike is so important, and it’s great seeing how the industry is supporting writers in the US. Full solidarity to them. I liked the sign about spoiling succession – “Pay your writers or we’ll spoil Succession”!
Gia Frino is a freelance screen content writer and producer for various film and TV projects.
‘When starting out, I always say to people: ask yourself, what are the stories you want to tell?’
Unscripted TV is scripted, like all television shows, and it is the role of the producer to develop various storylines based on the content and contributors in the show. When you start, you have particular directives of the show you want, so tone and storylines are already set up, then edits are put together to accomplish that storyline. There is a conscious duty of care around what we use, though you need to keep pushing for the story. As a writer, having the flexibility to change as the project might change, especially in unscripted television, is one of the top skills to have, as well as great research skills, being curious and passionate about the subject, networking skills, and communication skills.
In terms of how the industry works, it depends on who you are and who you know because it works differently for different people. As much as production companies, networks, and broadcasters, want to say they are inclusive, it isn’t always the case, and I do feel that it is more of an unconscious bias than a conscious bias. I found as a single parent, it was difficult to work in the film sector of the screen industry, it just didn’t work for me and my family. Through a colleague, I was introduced to the head of factual at a production company, and I gained my first job in television as a researcher for a documentary TV series. I love the work, the tasks and skills needed to tell stories. I go show to show, contract to contract, and producers earn anything from $2000 per week upwards. I have continued to work in TV because it is easier (for me, anyway) as a single parent, and I will hopefully work my way back to films in the future.
I started note-taking on ABC shows, Total Control and Preppers, and this gave me an opportunity to pitch my own capabilities within the story room. It also teaches writers room etiquette: when to listen, when to pitch, and how to support your fellow writers
I started note-taking on ABC shows, Total Control and Preppers, and this gave me an opportunity to pitch my own capabilities within the story room. It also teaches writers room etiquette: when to listen, when to pitch, and how to support your fellow writers. Writers are selected by the creator / showrunner and producers to search for the overall hook or central theme of the season, what each character’s seasonal arc looks like, and a general shape of each episode. I’ve sometimes been involved from the first development day, but I’ve also come in later when plot has begun. In Australia, we work on a freelance basis, and it is possible to work across multiple shows but it’s very stressful. I recommend having an agent that can help measure this for you and that will back your mental health.
As for AI, I didn’t realise there was a concern until the writers’ strike occurred in the states. It’s infuriating that it’s become something to even fight against; though I do think the strike is well overdue. People tend to forget the majority of the industry’s foundation is writing. It’s the first entry into a huge collaborative creative force, and without it, that force struggles to find any shape. My advice to emerging writers is to just keep writing. Keep journals, write how you feel, and do a daily wrap of your week. You never know how that could become the trigger for a brilliant story idea later.
So! As we’ve heard, it’s a tough one to crack, but it’s not impossible. It’s who you know, what you know, and what makes you different, and the key take away is to never give up. Here are some great extra resources, training services, and networking opportunities to get you keep you going!
Are you keen to become a TV writer – or do you already work in TV? We’d love to hear your experiences in the comments.