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Writing the TV Spec and Pilot Scripts

By Jen Grisanti

How can you write a memorable spec script that helps get you staffed? Why is it so hard to write a TV pilot script that not only gets you noticed, but could sell?

I believe that strong writing will rise. In helping to launch countless careers, I’ve noticed some commonalities in the writers who make it. The strongest trait is belief in self and a burning desire to make it happen.

If a writer starts her career with purpose, puts the work into writing the strongest scripts possible, learns the craft of storytelling and envisions success, it will happen. Learning the craft is the part that takes time and dedication. A large part of what I teach is getting a writer to draw from her truth and fictionalize it into her writing.

I like to have writers begin by writing what I refer to as a “Log Line for your Life.” This is a way to start identifying universal life moments and themes in your own life. I believe that your well of experience is where the gold for your writing lives. When crafting a log line, you want to think “who – set-up, dilemma, action and goal.”

Log Line for your Life

To help you understand how to write log lines for your life, let’s dissect a log line from the movie, Pretty Woman: “A cutthroat businessman who wants to remain detached needs a date for some social engagements, and hires a beautiful prostitute he meets... only to fall in love.”

This log line sets up the dilemma while making us feel empathy for the central character with the words, “A cutthroat businessman who wants to remain detached needs a date for some social engagements.” Then, it gives us the action that he takes, “and hires a beautiful prostitute he meets.” The irony is the goal: “fall in love” is completely the opposite of what he set out to do.

One log line for my life is, “When a work-obsessed corporate executive experiences a perceived fall from grace when told her contract is not being renewed, she is forced to turn her plan B into plan A and discovers that her plan B was plan A all along.” The set up of the central character is, “When a work obsessed corporate executive.” The dilemma is, “experiences a perceived fall from grace when told her contract is not being renewed.” This is becoming a life experience for millions. The dilemma is prevalent. What do we do when our “moment,” which we’ve worked for all of our life, ends? The action is represented with “She is forced to turn her plan B into her plan A.” Many of us can connect with the idea that life takes a turn and we are forced to design a new plan. After this happens, many of us discover that the universe nudged us because it was our time. The goal is, “and discovers that her plan B was her plan A all along.” This is utilizing irony as well. This is very universal. We can go back to our core and figure out what made us happy about doing our jobs in the first place. Then, we can design a new plan.

By writing these types of log lines, you can find your truth. By finding your truth, you can write story from an authentic place. This will help you to identify your voice.

Next, I believe that writing a strong log line for your script, creating a powerful dilemma and having it stem into a clear goal will make your story work in the best way possible.

Writing a Log Line for your Script

Writing a log line is something that most writers do after they’ve written their script, but I encourage writers to write their log line before writing their script. Your log line is your story. It is your roadmap. It tells you where you are going and how you plan to get there. It also tells you if you are taking a wrong turn. If your log line doesn’t work, more often than not, something about your story is not working. As discussed earlier, when you’re thinking of your log line, you want to think, “who, dilemma, action, and goal.” When describing your dilemma, draw a picture that makes us feel empathy for your central character. Next, include the action that he or she takes as a result of the dilemma and, finally, include your character’s goal. Very often, your central character’s goal at the end of the story winds up being the opposite of what it was at the start. This is where irony comes into play. Irony is a key part of a successful log line and, therefore, a key part of a successful story.

Goals and Dilemmas

What is a dilemma? Wikipedia offers this definition, “A dilemma is a problem offering at least two solutions or possibilities, of which none are practically acceptable; one in this position has been traditionally described as ‘being on the horns of a dilemma,’ neither horn being comfortable; or ‘being between a rock and a hard place,’ since both objects or metaphorical choices are rough.” Dilemmas provide tremendous opportunity for drama. If you add dilemma to your stories or strengthen your existing dilemmas, it will elevate your writing. We’ve all been through dilemmas. Start to be conscious of the dilemmas you have faced and are facing in your life.

When you’re thinking about your goal, think, “What does your character want to achieve?”

In my experience, I have come to view the set up of the central character’s goal stemming from or leading to a dilemma as the most important component of story. I believe that it is the key to the success or failure of your story. When a goal and dilemma are clear, your story has a much stronger chance of working because your obstacle, your escalating obstacle, your mid-point and your “all is lost” moment will all need to reflect back to your goal. If your goal and dilemma are unclear, then you will be unable to structure your story in the best way possible. When I see TV shows and films that slightly miss the mark, I can almost always pinpoint a lack of clarity in the set up of the goal and strength of the dilemma of the central character as the major offending factor. If the goal and dilemma are not properly established, your audience won’t know what they’re rooting for.

I believe that if you learn to fictionalize your truth by writing “Log Lines for Your Life” and you create powerful dilemmas that lead to clear goals, you will elevate the chance of your story working in the best way possible.

Meet the Author: Jen Grisanti

International speaker Jen Grisanti is an acclaimed Story/Career Consultant at Jen Grisanti Consultancy Inc., Writing Instructor for Writers on the Verge at NBC, former 12-year studio executive, including VP of Current Programming at CBS/Paramount, blogger for The Huffington Post and author of the books, Story Line: Finding Gold In Your Life Story and TV Writing Tool Kit: How To Write a Script That Sells and the upcoming book, Change Your Story, Change Your Life: A Path To Your Succ...