The Screenwriter's Simple Guide to TV Writing
So, you've written your fair share of feature film scripts and now you're ready to transition into TV writing? Excellent choice!
Film and TV are very similar forms of storytelling, but there are certainly some differences you'll need to be aware of if you're interested in TV writing or even turning your feature spec into a TV pilot.
In this guide, we'll show you what those differences are, as well as how to become a pro at formatting, structuring, and preparing yourself for a career in the TV industry.
Film Writing vs. TV Writing
No, we're not talking about whether if writing films is better or worse than writing for TV.
With film, you're generally telling a story that is contained within the time frame of 90 minutes to over two hours. Such a story usually follows a basic three-act structure — or a variation of it (i.e. Memento) — where we see a character thrust into a conflict, struggle through it, and then eventually succumb to it or work their way out of it. There's immediate closure unless you're writing for a major studio franchise that can leave some story elements open to sequels.
With television, you're creating a world with a cast of characters that will hopefully continue on for upwards of 10-24 episodes (give or take) for multiple seasons, thus the main story will not be resolved by the end of each teleplay or television script. You have the options of hour-long dramas or serials, hour-long procedurals, half-hour sitcoms, and in some cases, either limited series (American Horror Story) or miniseries. While each episode may showcase a certain story that is resolved by the end, the characters, their main stories, and their arcs continue on throughout each season.
In short, a television series is an ever-evolving medium for the story and characters while a film stands alone on its own with complete closure by the end.
How to Format a Teleplay
There's little difference between the format of writing a feature screenplay and writing a TV script. The scene description, dialogue, character headings, and location headings are pretty much the same. This of course can change per show, per production company, per studio, and per network, but overall, the format itself is interchangeable.
The real difference between feature writing and television writing is how the story is structured and how that structure is presented aesthetically through the format.
To start with, it's a good idea to use professional screenwriting software so that your formatting, pagination, font, and margins are all industry-standard. There are a number of great programs out there, from the industry-standard Final Draft to John August's free option Highland 2.
The Structure of a Television Series Script
With an hour-long television series episode, you write a Teaser scene, followed by Act One, Act Two, Act Three, Act Four, and sometimes Act Five, depending upon the show. If you need a visual cue, just watch an hour-long show like Grey's Anatomy, or whatever else, and pay keen attention to the commercial breaks. They are usually broken up in those above acts.
Learn the best way to structure your screenplay with this free guide.
First, you'll have a TEASER heading centered and then start to write. This TEASER will usually be a short opening, maybe one location. Sometimes more. The page number can be upwards of 5 pages, although it's best as a newcomer to stay around 2-3 pages.
If you're writing a TV pilot script, the teaser is an introduction to the characters and to the world. It will also tease the conflict in the story. For shows like Lost, Breaking Bad, Grey's Anatomy, The Walking Dead, or any other hour-long episode, you'll often see the character either in peril by the end of it, or the conflict of the story will be teased.
After the TEASER, you'll then start a new page with the ACT ONE heading.
This is where you introduce the current story at hand. You've teased the peril, struggle, conflict, or situation that the episode will tackle, but now you're getting things really started by setting the stage as far as where the characters are and what is leading up to the point of the next act where they will be confronted by the situation at hand.
The end of the first act also offers a chance to leave a solid first cliffhanger or hook as well, which is what you really want to do at the end of each act.
Keep in mind that whenever you start a new act, you ALWAYS open on a new page. So if your TEASER or ACT ONE ends halfway through a page, you tab ahead to the next page, leaving that white space, and then insert the heading at the top. It's often helpful and customary — but not always necessary — to include END OF ACT ONE (or whatever applies) before you tab ahead for the next act. This helps the reader further distinguish where the break is.
This is where the characters are dealing with the conflict in full swing. They're struggling with it. They're figuring out how to get through it. Much like the beginning of the second act of a feature film script, the characters often still have some hope or chance. By the end of this act, the audience feels like the characters may figure things out — until, that is, another hook is introduced that flips that hope or chance on its head, forcing the characters to face the fact that they may not succeed.
This is where the characters are at their lowest point and the bad guys or conflict is winning. Where the second act gave the audience hope that they'd figure it out, all too often the third act is where that hope was proven to be false. By the end hook of this act, audiences will want to tune in to see how the characters will prevail despite such odds against them.
This is where the characters, against all odds, begin to prevail again. They start to triumph and win. They've likely learned from their missteps in the first and second acts and now they're applying that to the conflict at hand.
This is the closure. Some shows actually end with the fourth act while others end the fourth act with a significant cliffhanger or hook and then use the fifth act to close things up with a finale of sorts.
Page Breakdowns for Each Act
While there's no exact formula to follow, there are some basic guidelines that will help you steer each act. Generally speaking, hour-long episode scripts can be anywhere from 45-63 pages, although a majority of the time you want to stick with 50-55 pages. The basic sense of it is that one page equals one minute, and with a 60-minute show, you obviously need to account for commercial breaks. Thus if you go above 60 pages, you're already over an hour. So use that as a gauge. It's not an exact science by any means, but as a novice television writer, it's a good place to start.
With five-act television scripts, you generally want to keep each act between 9-12 pages, give or take a page. The old benchmark was 15 pages per act for four-act television scripts, but with additional commercial time these days — not to mention more story — it can now often break down differently.
Here are the page breakdowns for some of the best pilot scripts of now iconic television series:
The Grey's Anatomy pilot:
- Teaser - 3 pages
- Act One - 11 pages
- Act Two - 11.5 pages
- Act Three - 8 pages
- Act Four - 9 pages
- Act Five - 8 pages
The Breaking Bad pilot:
- Teaser - 3 pages
- Act One - 14 pages
- Act Two - 13.5 pages
- Act Three - 11.5 pages
- Act Four - 14 pages
There will surely be differences throughout each and every show, but Grey's Anatomy is one of the better examples of a tight pilot script, which is what novice screenwriters want to shoot for.
You'll also notice that some pilot scripts like the 70-page The Sopranos, the 55-page Mad Men, and the 61-page Game of Thrones don't have act breakdowns at all. In the case of The Sopranos and Games of Thrones, both written for HBO, there are obviously no commercial breaks, which may be a factor. That's not to say that those scripts don't accomplish the same type of structure explained above — minus the aesthetics of act breaks. In the case of the Mad Men pilot, it was written on spec by the writer to use as a sample to attain assignments on other shows. It was eventually rejected by HBO, Showtime, and others, but was embraced by AMC, a basic cable network. The Lost pilot script is unique because it was written as a 97-page pilot script. Essentially debuting as a feature-length pilot. It does have act breaks, but due to the feature-length script, the page number for those breaks is different.
Take all that you've learned above and adapt it to a half-hour situation comedy series.
Because sitcoms are usually just half-hour episodes, the structure and page counts are obviously condensed. Four to Five acts becomes a more simple Two — the standard beginning, middle, and end. Although in this case, the beginning is the TEASER. TEASERS are either referred to as such or writers use the more contemporary COLD OPEN. In the end, they're the same and are thus portrayed in the same manner.
The page counts for sitcoms vary. From established writers and showrunners, a half-hour sitcom script can be as long as 44 pages. Keep in mind that sitcoms are more often than not dialogue-heavy, which would account for the increased page counts. For novice writers, it's best to shoot for 22-25 pages to get you under that 30-minute gauge.
Here are the page breakdowns for some of the best pilot scripts of now iconic sitcoms:
The Office pilot:
- Cold Open - 1.5 pages
- First Act - 19 pages
- Second Act - 20 pages
30 Rock pilot:
- Cold Open - 2.5 pages
- First Act - 18 pages
- Second Act - 13.5 pages
In sitcoms, you'll also see the use of the TAG. This is a bookend scene usually included after the episode's story has played out. This is where one last gag or character moment is offered.
Overall, that's all you need to know from a structuring and formatting perspective, in order to start TV writing.
Learn the difference between single-camera and multi-camera sitcom script format here.
TV Writing Tools to Use
The best tools you can utilize to learn about and start TV writing are:
- Screenwriting Software - Whether it be Final Draft, WriterDuet, or one of the other equivalents, the software will do most of the work for you, from a formatting standpoint.
- Reading Television Scripts - Find a series that is close to what you are writing, find the pilot script for it, and emulate it as much as possible. Perhaps the best place to go is The Script Lab because it offers you a free library of pilot and episode scripts for many, many shows - and also feature films.
- Binge Watch TV Series - With all of the streaming available now, the best possible resource is watching episodes. For network and cable shows, you'll see where the act breaks are as far as where they would normally cut to commercial. For premium channel shows (HBO, Showtime, etc.), you'll have to simply time code it — one minute equals one page — and pay attention to the various changes in the story.
Things to Remember About TV Writing
You have to ask yourself what kind of show you'd like to create and where you see that type of show debuting.
You can't write a violent, edgy, and sexually explicit pilot and expect any of the major networks to pick it up. You'd have to go to either basic cable or premium channels. And if you're including harsh language and nudity, you need to know which of those channels will allow that. Basic cable shows can say "shit" a certain number of times and can show bare buttocks and side views of breasts, but that's it. Anything more, as far as F-bombs and full frontal nudity, you'll have to market the pilots to premium channels and production companies that are making such shows.
Beyond that, make sure to still embrace the Less is More mantra, don't include camera angles or scene numbers (the above examples were taken from shooting scripts), and above all else, give the powers that be a hybrid of something they've seen and something they've never seen.
What Are Your Chances of Becoming a Television Writer?
Despite its growth in the last decade, television is still a difficult medium to break into. There are only a certain number of channels and time slots — beyond other platforms like Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu — and the powers that be don't take on spec pilots that often unless they are delivered by proven film or television industry names.
That's not to say that you can't sell a spec pilot, but more often than not it's utilized as a sample to break into the television industry. And that industry is perhaps more of a fraternity or sorority than the film industry. You often need to work your way up the ladder and into a writing room as an assistant, waiting for your opportunity to shine.
And yes, chances are you'll need to live in Los Angeles or New York where the shows are shooting because no series has a single writer at one time as you'll see in features. They have a writers room full of talented and seasoned (pun intended) writers. So be sure to write some amazing pilots to get noticed and be ready to make the move if you don't live there already.
In the end, it's best to be a hot writer in both television and film platforms. Writing feature screenplays can lead to key assignments that can lead to proven hits. When you have a proven hit film with your name on it, it's much easier to pitch pilots to the powers that be.
And you can always utilize ScreenCraft's TV Pilot Competition to break through those walls as well.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies