What’s the difference between a feature film script and a television script?
Film vs. Television
With film, you’re generally telling a story that is contained within the time frame of ninety minutes to two hours plus. 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.
There’s little difference between the format of writing a feature screenplay and writing a teleplay. 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 a professional screenwriting software so that your formatting, pagination, font and margins are all industry-standard. We recommend the free online software WriterDuet. If you don’t have a screenwriting software yet, click here to get the free WriterDuet ScreenCraft Edition.
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.
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 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 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 act 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 sixty 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 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 thirty 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 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 write a television script.
Learn the difference between single-camera and multi-camera sitcom script format HERE.
Tools to Use
The best tools you can utilize to learn about and write great television scripts are:
- Screenwriting Software – Whether it be 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 Script City because it offers you a library of pilot and episode scripts for many, many shows.
- 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
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 sexual 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 it’s 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 is moreso 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, like 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 Pilot Launch Contest to break through those walls as well.
These are just the basic and simple fundamentals of writing television scripts. You can easily read much more about juggling A, B, and C stories within an episode, writing television series bibles, and what not. However, when it comes down to it, it’s really about the script at hand.
Play the field under these general guidelines and expectations, but utilize the characters, worlds, and stories to really push the envelope and show the powers that be — and hopefully one day an audience — places, people, and situations that they’ve never seen on television or beyond.
The television medium is currently in an amazing golden age where storytelling has never been stronger. What can you do to be a part of that and help this golden age continue on?
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
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How to Write a TV Pilot, pt. 4: Pre-writing & Outlining
Writing the script is the most enjoyable part of the process for me. One, because I’m actually doing the work that I set out to do when I started all this. And two, since I’ve worked out all of the script’s problems in the outlining stage, most of the difficult work is done and I can focus on the fun stuff.
I’d recommend outlining your script with as much detail as you feel is necessary. Since this is your pilot, your outline is only for you. So how detailed you are and how you organize the information should be entirely dependent on what will make your script stronger, as well as easier to write. If you want to be very detailed, be very detailed. You can plot out every beat of your script, every line of dialogue, every minute detail. But if you just want the bare skeleton of the structure down on paper, that works, too.
Outlining is especially important so when you’re writing your script, you know where you’re going. If you don’t know how your story is going to end, you run into the trouble of maybe not starting off with the right beginning to properly fulfill the ending you come out with. You may find out halfway through of a critical flaw in your story that makes the whole thing not work that you probably would have caught if you did an outline.
With a well-considered and detailed outline, you have the opportunity to iron out most of your story problems ahead of time so there’s less of a chance of having to go back to do a page one rewrite because you’ve screwed yourself.
Before You Outline
Even before you start outlining your story, consider what I wrote in the first part of this series. Know as much as you can about your protagonist and everyone populating your world before you begin. Know what your show is tonally. Know what themes, if any, that you want to convey. If you want to write something big and dumb and raucous, know that. Know things about every facet of your story — stuff that won’t even make it to the page.
The more information you arm yourself with, the fuller and more real your world seems — even if your world isn’t real at all. Small touches that inform the characters will give them depth and help them connect to the audience. Characters might come naturally to you, but the more work you put in ahead of time, the more you will get out of it in the end.
And Now You Can Outline
So once you feel like you know enough about your world, your characters, and the show you want to create, you can begin the outlining process. Personally, the way I do it is by creating a Word document, splitting up the story into three acts with headings and writing a short paragraph describing each scene. This is what works for me.
What also is helpful for me is mapping out the major story beats ahead of time. You start with your first and second act breaks, your midpoint, and your third act’s climax so you know what you’re working towards and then fill in the rest. Once you have it all down, you can examine the story and see if it all hangs together and makes sense.
When you’re in too deep with a story and you don’t give yourself a break, you can become blind to otherwise glaring problems and plot holes.
For me, I find that if I step back from it for a couple days, it’s a big help to come back and look at it with fresh eyes. When you’re in too deep with a story and you don’t give yourself a break, you can become blind to otherwise glaring problems and plot holes. Unless you’ve got an unbelievable deadline, take your time. Write your outline and then examine it thoroughly.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park have a system for storytelling and structure based on the words “therefore” and “but” that is worth checking out in that link. Like I said in previous parts, you want to make sure there are clear stakes, that your protagonist is driving the action, that there is something in between him or her and what they want to achieve, and that there is some satisfying conclusion to the story.
In a writers room when you break a story, you “put it on the board.” It’s literal in its meaning — the room will have probably one or several whiteboards and together the writers will split the story into acts and write down the story scene by scene to serve as a skeleton for a fuller outline. Here’s what something like that would look like for Haunted Bakery:
I put the major story beats in blue — the opening sequence, the first act break, the midpoint, the second act break, and the climax. This is certainly a story with its share of problem areas (and also crucial chunks of story missing), but I just wanted to get it down to give something resembling a complete story as an example.
But for all its faults, it meets all the criteria I laid out in previous parts of this series. It’s a three act story with a character arc that fully sets up the situations and conflicts of what this show would be. And if I were to write a full outline and a script after that, this could certainly serve as a solid foundation to build upon.
Going from a skeletal board break like this, a writing staff would use it as a basis to write an outline to give to the network executives. Areas would be filled in and expanded as needed. At my Netflix job, we would go straight to script on approval of a two page out. But at my current job, the next step would be to complete a full outline, with each scene getting a full paragraph, similar to what I described above. An outline like this would be something like a five-to-ten page Word document for a half hour of television.
Once you’ve completed your outline and feel like you’re comfortable moving ahead, it’s time for the script stage — the fun part!
Next time in Part 5: Writing the Script