So, you want to write for television? To write the next big thing? In an age of highly competitive television programming, there is certainly the scope for screenwriters to pursue their goals.
Television jobs indeed outnumber film jobs by two to one, as the Writers’ Guild of America tells us. If you are looking for numbers, Madeline DiMaggio estimates that around four hundred movies are made against around three thousand episodes of television per year.
Streaming sites and broadcasters are fighting 24/7 for audience attention from Netflix to Amazon Prime, Hulu, HBO Max, Paramount Plus, and Disney Plus (we could name so many more!)
But before we jump into the rest of the article, let’s do a refresher on what a TV script format even is and how they are structured.
TV script format refers to the organization and structure of a teleplay. Television scripts vary in length from 20-100 pages, with most half-hour shows spanning 25-30 pages and hour-long shows around 50-60 pages. In contrast to screenplays, teleplays adhere to strict formatting guidelines and are typically written for production purposes.
This does not mean that every single show on these platforms is of the same quality. Stephen V. Duncan is quick to remind us that series come and go, naming the key reason they fail is down to the lack of good quality writing that speaks to a wide audience.
It is crucial in any form of screenwriting, whether it be film, television, or games, that you are constantly practicing your craft and ensuring you are the best writer you can be. Plus, it is always useful to form your own opinions on what works and does not work in TV.
Now we are going to delve into how to write a script for a television show.
Also, stay tuned for our top tips at the end.
What is a TV Script?
Television scripts start life with an overarching concept, with a larger arc created for the plot and characters. Each script is an individual episode that tells a small piece of the longer story, almost like a puzzle piece. There are many types of television scripts:
- Limited Series
That is a lot of story, right? In the case of television, it is common for writers’ rooms to exist. Here, a group of writers gathers to discuss ideas for the entire season before it is divided into separate episodes assigned to one or more writers.
Each writer or small group of writers then works on their episode or episodes before coming back to the room to clarify the stories. Just like the puzzle we talked about earlier: each episode needs to contribute to the series arc. The first episode of any series is called the pilot.
You will find that within the writers’ room there will usually be a showrunner who is responsible for and oversees the entire process.
Television vs. Film Writing
At first glance, you would not see a noticeable difference between the television and film script; both are formatted in the same way and written on screenwriting software. But scratch beneath the surface, and you will find several variations.
A film will generally tell its story within 90 to 120 minutes and follows a basic three-act structure. Audiences sit down to watch the film and will have a complete story plus a conclusion to the protagonist’s journey.
What is ideal in television is an ensemble of characters that will be together for a longer period across episodes and eventually, seasons.
Especially successful shows such as NCIS are now entering 20+ seasons. Yes, the ensemble of characters may have changed in that time, but the overall premise and character development are what has kept the audience coming back. Plus, the original NCIS has multiple spin-off shows.
Television scripts are generally shorter than movie scripts and have a different structure in terms of narrative, and allow for numerous beginnings, middles, and ends that could be possible within the overall plot and character arc for the series.
But do not rush to resolve things for your characters straight away; with a television series, you need to keep your audience interested and wanting more.
Due to the longer series arc, television scripts are not bound to resolve every plot point or character story immediately. Those cliffhangers, red herrings, and slow-burning stories are all worth it in the end!
K. Thompson sums it up nicely by explaining that an audience watches television in single episodes. While each episode may not seem extraordinary, things become more apparent the more we watch and consider the bigger picture.
When we think of television, writers tend to think less cinematic, although more and more television shows are receiving bigger and bigger film budgets! Generally, television scripts are driven more by dialogue.
As you can probably tell, television has endless possibilities; from hour-long dramas, procedurals, and half-hour sitcoms to limited and mini-series, television continues to have infinite opportunities to evolve. It is an exciting time!
How to Write a TV Show Script
So, if you still think television writing is your calling, how do you go about writing a script?
Before you even consider writing a television script, ask yourself this: does the story you want to tell fit the television format? Is television the best way to tell the story? Would a film, game or short film be more suitable?
If your answer is, yes, television is the right format for my story, then it is time to get writing.
TV Show Structures
As we know, television has a different narrative structure to film, so it is crucial to sharpen your knowledge of these structures.
Structures do vary from TV show to TV show, but you must know the traditional rules:
The traditional sixty-minute television dramas are usually divided into four or five acts. Each Act break tends to be a commercial break so you can factor this in as you plan out your pilot.
Act I – Introduce the characters and the problem they are facing.
Act II – Accelerate the problem.
Act III – The worst possible outcome.
Act IV – Characters scramble to overcome this worst-case scenario.
Act V – The characters succeed.
Alongside these five acts, you will have up to three storylines running alongside each other. These are known as the A, B, and C stories.
A, B and C Stories
A Story – The protagonist’s story.
B Story – Secondary storyline to the protagonist’s story and drives the narrative
C Story – The smallest storyline, sometimes called the runner
Of course, once you are confident with these traditional rules, there is no reason why you can break them, and break them well!
Want to know more about formatting? Check out our post here on how to format your screenplay.
But before you can start breaking rules, you will need to practice your writing and come up with unique ideas. You will need a speculative script.
The Speculative Script
If you want to write for television, it is important to have a speculative script of your own. This showcases your talent and can be used as your calling card when putting yourself out there within the industry. It is the traditional way writers use to break into the TV industry.
There are two types of spec script you can write: a spec TV episode for an existing show, or a spec TV pilot for an original show.
In the past, it was common for writers to focus on a spec script for an existing show, showing how they would develop characters and interpret current storylines. But this has become a lot less popular with the industry focusing on individual writers’ unique voices and views of the world.
In essence, executives are looking for writers who can stand out from a large pile of scripts. And with screenwriting becoming more accessible, more and more people are writing screenplays. Showrunners will only read spec scripts for original television shows.
Despite this, it is recommended to have both an original spec and an existing spec; it has become increasingly more difficult for writers to have an original television script purchased, let alone produced. So have as many well-developed ideas and scripts as you can, both original and pre-existing to showcase your talents.
Be clever with what you select for your portfolio; if you have written an original spec, find a pre-existing show with a similar theme and tone, and write a script for that show. The more the works in your portfolio complement each other, the better.
Bear in mind that you should keep up to date with what is happening in the industry, including what shows each streaming service is buying. Madeline DiMaggio uses HBO as an example, a television network that searches for innovative, bold, adult entertainment.
HBO loves shows like The Sopranos, Sex and the City, The Wire, and Six Feet Under, shows which all fit with their branding: “It’s not TV. It’s HBO”. Similarly, if you look at the network, Showtime, they tend to gravitate towards shows with ‘edge’ like Weeds and Dexter.
You must know where your project will fit from the start. Not sure on your idea just yet? Check out our post for some top tips to kickstart your creativity.
One Hour Drama
A one-hour drama is just that: sixty minutes. This does not always include commercial breaks. A lot of the time, procedurals follow this time frame. Shows like Hawaii Five-0, Monk, and Law and Order fit nicely into this category.
The plot line develops across each episode, with a smaller story or case of the week. Each week would start with a teaser or hook (first 2-5 pages), followed by four or five acts.
Thirty Minute Single Camera Comedy
Single-camera comedies can use handheld cameras, meaning they can seem like feature films in the way they are structured. 30 Rock, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Entourage are great examples.
Like a teaser, a single-camera comedy would begin with a cold open, followed by three acts. A final joke for the audience to take away, rounds off the show, is called a Tag.
Thirty Minute Multi-Camera Comedy
Multi-camera comedies are traditionally filmed in front of a live audience. An audience that needs to be kept engaged and entertained constantly.
There is not a ‘one size fits all’ with these types of comedies as the formatting tends to be fast-paced and specific. If there is not a live audience, a laughter track is sometimes used instead.
With multi-camera comedies, think Friends, The Big Bang Theory, and How I Met Your Mother.
When writing sitcoms, especially, the characters should not change. Whilst they can learn, at the end of every episode, they essentially should be back where they started.
Your spec script is your calling card and a conduit to showcase your talent. Spend as much time as you can, perfecting it.
I’ve Written My TV Script, What Now?
You have written and edited your script, rewritten, re-edited, and then rewritten again; it is time to show your original pilot script off to the world!
But before you do, you need to put together your pitch document. This is a collection of resources to support your script idea including a treatment, pilot script, and show bible. All of these can also be used separately depending on what a producer or potential buyer asks for.
A logline sums your series up in one or two sentences. It is brief, engaging, and draws the audience in. You can find examples of loglines on the descriptions for films and television shows across all the streaming services.
All loglines must state:
- The setting
- The protagonist
- The protagonist’s problem
- The antagonist
- The protagonist’s goal
When creating your logline, you do not need to use this exact order. Experiment and play around with the order of each element and see which works best for your project.
Check out our post on creating killer loglines to find out more.
One-Page Synopsis for the Pilot
A one-page synopsis is an overview of your television idea. It gives a potential producer or buyer a snapshot of your characters and plot before delving into your series bible fully.
Your one-pager should include:
- The project title.
- Your name and contact details.
- The logline.
- The genre.
- A short writer’s statement on why you have decided to write this project.
- A short story summary.
Yes, we know it sounds a lot to cram onto one page, but screenwriters need to be able to summarize the absolute core of their story and vision.
This is usually a descriptive three-to-five-page document to bring your characters and story to life. When we write scripts, it is important to be economical with our storytelling. This is also true for the treatment, but make sure to expand on the visuals, theme, and tone of your script.
Think of it like the blurbs you find on the back of books, except for your television show.
Of course, you must not forget the script itself, the best possible version it can be. Before you begin sending out and pitching your script, seek feedback from your peers.
Also, try and put the script away for a while before revisiting it for rewrites. We promise you it is worth it; you will spot things that need editing you never thought you would!
Remember to double-check your script’s formatting and that it meets industry standards. Spelling, grammar, and punctuation checks are always worth it to tighten the script up.
The pilot episode is not the end of your television show. You must think beyond that and where you see your show going. It is not standard practice to write the scripts for the entire season; this puts potential buyers and producers off; remember, television is a collaborative process.
Whilst you may not be writing the scripts for the whole season, you will know the overarching character and plot arcs. Your show bible is there for you to plan out the main series plot points as well as to explain the history of your characters and the world they are in.
You will need to include character biographies for your principal characters, which give a brief overview of them and their lives before the series begins. You need potential buyers and producers to see possible reasons for character motivation and personality.
The Stranger Things show bible is renowned within the industry for both its content and visuals.
An example of a show bible with pure content, and content that jumps off the page we might add. In the hit HBO show, The Wire, writer David Simon goes into detail about the setting and the concept. (Link to Full Script here)
He pays close attention to the overarching story arc, with the team’s first case solved by the end of episode 9 (the season finale).
Simon wrote longer synopses for the episodes following the pilot; however, these only need to be half a page long per episode, following the three-to-five-page treatment for the pilot. Check out the awesome show bible here.
Ideally, you will work through the elements of your pitch document first, even before writing the script itself. Establish your characters, plot, and structure, and then write the script. It makes writing the script itself a lot easier if you have everything plotted, and ready to go.
Ten Top Tips for Writing a TV Script
Here are ten things you should be bearing in mind when developing your television idea:
- We have already talked about how important it is to do your research on television and where any of your scripts could potentially fit tonally and thematically. But you should also make sure that you know your TV history, what has worked and what has not.
- You should be fully aware of which audience you have in mind for your show. Where do you see your show airing? Which television channel or streaming network? Is your show’s content suitable for your chosen service and its target audience?
- As you watch television shows, write out the outline. Write up what happens in each scene in one to two sentences. From there you can work out the Act breakdown etc.
- Related Article by Celtx: 6 Clever Tips to Help You Breakdown a Script
- Binge-watching is also totally fine if you are looking to be a television writer! Do not forget to also read as many scripts as you can to see how current television writers work and structure shows.
- Consider how many cast members you will have. Whilst many shows have the main protagonist, they will usually be supported by three to five other key characters. Check shows in a similar vein to yours and see how they do things.
- Conflict is king. When creating your characters, consider how their personalities and individual goals can create conflict themselves.
- When it comes to other writers, it is important to build a network with your peers and executives as you are developing your scripts. Collaboration, feedback, and networking are key elements in the television industry in addition to the writing itself.
- Writing assistant roles are also great if you are looking to get a firsthand look into a writers’ room. It is a great opportunity to observe and learn as much as you can.
- Keep writing! It does not need to be every single day but build yourself a routine that you can stick to.
- Use professional screenwriting software like Celtx. Not sure which one to use? Check out our ultimate list of the best screenwriting software!
In short, we recommend not limiting yourself to just television scripts. Even though the television industry has grown massively over the past decade, it is still tricky to break into.
Writing a television pilot and devising long character and plot arcs can be extremely rewarding, so you should pursue writing your script.
But also have as many strings to your bow as you possibly can. Build a portfolio of not just television, but feature and short film scripts and ideas. Write a pilot for a drama, a sitcom, or a limited series. Be diverse with your work.
Any script, whether film, television, or even games, could be your path into the industry, so do not be so quick to disregard anything.
Using your unique voice, keep coming up with new ideas, and most importantly, keep writing!