Book Review: The TV Writer’s Workbook

The thing about studying screenwriting is that you don’t always get taught as much as you expect, despite the tonne of money you shelled out for your seat in class.

by Ingrid Elkner

A passionate, knowledgeable teacher will help take you from amateur to pro, and a hack teacher will take you nowhere and leave you running to outside sources to fill the gaping holes in your education. And from what I’ve heard from peopleellen sandler portrait who studied at USC and UCLA, even the best of courses have a mix of both.

In my frustration I have turned to podcasts, interviews, articles, and sometimes a good book leaves me wondering why I bother going to uni at all. In fact, I’ve skipped mediocre classes to stay home and read.

One such book I’ve devoured in my truancy is Emmy-nominated Ellen Sandler’s THE TV WRITER’S WORKBOOK. Ellen has a warm style, and invites you into her world of being a staff writer for Coach and Everybody Loves Raymond. Even if you don’t remotely like Raymond, this book is a little goldmine. The scripted introduction is twee, but once you get past that, you’re in for some tasty learning that will help you in all areas of your writing.

Dubbed as a TV comedy and drama book, I found it was really more a sitcom-writing book, as the examples were comedy focused, though it won’t teach you how to be funny. And it’s not even so much a book for creating original material, though that’s what I used it for.

Ellen has a warm style, and invites you into her world.

The real strengths of Ellen’s book are the sections showing you how to analyse scripts of a series in order to set forth writing a spec for it, as well as her insights into the-tv-writers-workbook-ellen-sandler_mediumdrawing story concepts from inside yourself (using the 7 Deadly Sins) – to write with authenticity and emotion rather than from amusing but impersonal plot concepts.

She explains the importance of premise lines, and shares her format of story structure (based on an original concept by Mark Ganzel), which is essentially the traditional Inciting Incident, First Turning Point, Mid-Point, Second Turning Point, Climax, Resolution structure, but not as clearly laid out or easy to use. I adapted her format and employed it to structure stories, and even used it to help me pitch in L.A.

The difference between plot and theme is nicely explained, and Ellen encourages writers to know their theme early so they may draw plot from it. She also drives home that all steps along the path of your screenplay must focus on your protagonist, which can often be an easy thing to forget while writing.

She explains the importance of premise lines.

After she’s taught you the process for moving between concept, to synopsis, to treatment, to outline, to script, Ellen shares invaluable tips on getting your foot in the door and paints in broad strokes a portrait of the industry.

There are books more in-depth on the workings of the American television system (like Chad Gervich’s Small Screen, Big Picture), and books better at explaining structure (Sheldon Bull’s Elephant Bucks for sitcom writing), but if you’re serious about working intelevision, The TV Writer’s Workbook will show you your craft from a different angle, clue you in on how to make your scenes as dynamic as possible, and most certainly shorten (and de-stress) your writing process.

And at a RRP of US $16, it’s a university course you can hold in your hands without making your wallet violently weep.

You can learn from Ellen Sandler in person! She’ll be in Melbourne (Feb 23-25) and Sydney (Feb 28-March 2) as a part of the 2013 Television Writers Studio, along with other U.S. television-writing experts like Steve Kaplan, and Walking Dead showrunner Glen Mazzara. Book your ticket at Epiphany.

-Ingrid Elkner


Ingrid Elkner Story Department bio photoIngrid Elkner exists in human form and as a finger-puppet.

She’s had fiction printed in anthologies, articles published on comedy sites, creates sketches and comics for her own comedy blog 10 Minutes Later, and is the writer of new short film, THE PROWLER, starring Colette O’Neil.

Ingrid studies screenwriting in Melbourne and shakes her fist at offensively-shaped clouds.

Photo Credits: Ingrid Elkner

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