Buy Screenwriting Software Download Free Script Writing Software Trial
Free Screenwriting Tips

Television Script Format

By Diane House

Share |  

It's important to remember that there is no hard and fast standardization. Each show has its own idiosyncrasies. There are some things, however, that remain consistent in all teleplays whether drama or sitcom. The goal here is to give you an idea of what those are.

If you want to write for television, you must do your homework. Learn about the show you wish to write a spec for. Study its style, find out the common script length, and most of all, read as many scripts as you can get your hands on. Dissect them, try to figure out if anything is wrong with them and, if you find something, figure out how to fix it. In other words, know the show inside and out, be enthusiastic about it, believe in it and be a fan.

Format and story structure are precise when it comes to episodic television. A 1/2 hour story runs about 22 minutes; an hour show, about 45 minutes with commercials dispersed for the remaining time. The breaks must be in the right spot for the advertisers to put up their wares. They also need to be compelling enough to bring your viewer back to the program.

Television is like a factory. It survives on an endless stream of product; sometimes so similar in nature that it's hard to tell the shows apart. With the increase of cable, the need has increased an awful lot in the last 15 years.

Network TV is no longer king. An increasing number of channels have gone into production with their own original programming. Examples are HBO, Showtime, TNT, Sci Fi, and USA. This is great because it has expanded the marketplace in which writers can circulate.

The most important thing to remember here is that drama is conflict. Without it - no drama. You've got to take your characters to hell before you give them a happy ending or it won't mean anything. Conflict comes from inside the characters and an external influence. There are three types: Man vs. Himself, Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature.

One-Hour Drama

In addition to the above, start your scenes late and get out early. They must advance the plot and develop the character. End them on a dramatic highpoint and make sure the conflict is well developed. Most of all, show don't tell.

Types

There are a few different kinds.

  1. The procedural, which consists of shows such as the Law and Order franchise and the CSI franchise,
  2. Next are the shows that deal with lawyers and politics. These are shows like The West Wing, The Practice, etc.
  3. Police dramas, such as, The District and NYPD Blue.
  4. Hero-types which consist of shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Smallville.
  5. Fantasy/Sci-Fi - examples here are Enterprise, Twilight Zone, Dead Zone, etc.
  6. Cable - Shows such as Queer as Folk, The Sopranos, and Six Feet Under are written without the act breaks seen in commercial television.

Format

One-hour shows are formatted like features, except for the act breaks. You begin and end them as you would a sitcom, however there are no scene breaks. Each page equals about a minute of screen time and script lengths usually fall between 53-60 pages. There are some, however, such as West Wing, which can be as long as 66 pages. Again, you must know your show. The best advice is to read the teleplays and copy the format precisely,

The Cover Page should indicate the name of the show, episode title, and the writer's name.

The Title Page should contain show name, episode title, writer's name and contact information.

Typically, a one-hour drama consists of a teaser and 4 acts. There are some, like Enterprise, that have a teaser and 5 acts and still others that are only 4 acts, like Alias. Again, a good reason to study scripts for the show you wish to write for.

Acts are designated numerically, usually written out and centered at the top of the page. Placing "End Act One" or "End Act 1" creates act breaks. This is centered and double-spaced beneath the last piece of narrative or dialogue. FADE or CUT may be used to end a scene, but it isn't necessary. A simple scene slug line will do nicely instead. Begin each new act of a fresh page.

The act break is where the script reaches a strong dramatic moment. That's where the station typically inserts commercials. The big question here is whether or not the story moment is strong enough to break your audience back.

The time breakdown works like this:

Teaser:    2-4 pages
Act One:    14-15 pages
Act Two:    14-15 Pages
Act Three:    14-15 Pages
Act Four:    14-15 Pages
Tag:    1-2 Pages
Total:    59 to 66 pages

Structure

Be sure to follow the 3 Act Structure within your teleplay. In Act One, set up the goal for the character. Then your character runs into an obstacle. By the end of the act he should reach or fail to reach that immediate goal. Act One usually lasts about 10 minutes. In Act Two, you'll complicate the character's mission, then raise the stakes. Be sure to move your subplots forward as well and raise the stakes again. By this point, your character is at his lowest point. This act usually goes for about 40 minutes. By Act Three, your character, hopefully, will have reached a new level of determination. You will have made things even tougher for him, so he'll have to dig inside himself for more strength. Be sure to deal with your subplots and tie up loose ends. Finally, is the resolution or pay-off.

Depending on the series, there can be up to three storylines running concurrently. The A story is the main plot, while the B story is the major subplot. The C story is called a runner or minor subplot, usually character developing. It usually occurs three times within the hour.

Dialogue

When writing dialogue, there are a couple of things to consider:

  1. The character ages, education, and background.
  2. Any emotional changes. How do they speak when emotional or angry?
  3. Don't use boring and/or unnecessary dialogue.
  4. It must move the story forward.
  5. Characters should NEVER explain their feelings. They should be acted out.
  6. Be specific in your dialogue. Details are everything and they'll serve to enrich your characters.
  7. Beware of long speeches. The thing about dialogue vs. action is that a page of action runs a lot faster than a page of dialogue. Time expands when you talk. Break up speeches with interjections from other characters or actions pertaining to the scene.
  8. Don't let your characters talk to themselves. If it's absolutely critical, do it sparingly, and only if the scene turns out better with it than without it.
  9. ALWAYS READ DIALOGUE OUT LOUD.

Situation Comedies

Someone once said that "dying is easy, comedy is hard." You really have to understand funny in order to write funny. If a joke is told badly, no matter how good the joke, it'll fall flat. The opposite can be true as well. If a bad joke is well told, it could be funny.

Format

There are two types of sitcoms: multiple camera format and single camera format. Multiple camera format is the traditional form, and it started with shows like "I Love Lucy," and continues with "Everybody Loves Raymond," Will and Grace," "Frasier," etc. Single camera shows are shot and formatted like films. Examples of these would include "Malcolm in the Middle," The Simpsons," Curb Your Enthusiasm," etc.

No matter what type of show, it's important to find several actual scripts for the spec you're writing so that you can get really familiar with the format.

Some shows have teasers and tags, some have two acts (multiple camera format) and some have three acts (some, but not all, single camera shows), and some have page counts that differ from industry averages. A good example of that is Sex and the City. This is a single camera show in three acts that includes a key scene in every script where Carrie sits at her computer and asks the question that frames all the stories in the episode. An analysis of past scripts would indicate this happens about 7-11 minutes into the episode, but not always. Know the rules before you break them.

Typical format for multiple camera sitcoms:

  1. FADE IN: - All caps and underlined
  2. SCENES - numbered using CAPS. Ample space above and below and underlined.
  3. SLUGLINES - indicate location, time of day, and underlined.
  4. Character List - should appear directly below the slug line and indicate which characters are needed for the scene. Also enclosed in parentheses.
  5. ACTIONS/DESCRIPTIONS - listed in a capital letters
  6. CHARACTER INTROs - Capitalized and underlined.
  7. SOUND EFFECTS/SPEICAL EFFECTS/CAMERA INSTRUCTIONS - Capitalized and underlined.
  8. CHARACTER NAMES/DIALOGUE - Capitalized and double spaced.
  9. PERSONAL DIRECTION - appears within dialogue - on the same line - in all capitals and enclosed in parentheses.

The Cover Page should indicate the name of the show, episode title, and the writer's name.

The Title Page should contain show name, episode title, writer's name and contact information.

Begin most 1/2 hour scripts by writing the name of the show, centered and capped, 6 lines from the top of the page. Double space down from the name and center the episode title in quotation marks. 6 lines below that, center ACT ONE, then A below that, also centered. 8 lines below that, write FADE IN: @ the 1.4 inch mark from the margin. A list of which characters are needed appears at the beginning of each new scene. Every page should contain page numbers as well as the scene letters.

You can end each scene with a CUT TO:, DISSOLVE TO:, FADE TO:, etc., however this is seen less frequently today.

The second scene begins on a new page. 21 lines down, write B, centered. 6 lines below that, write the opening slug line. All the scenes are "numbered" with letters. The script is divided into acts and each new act begins on a new page.

Dialogue is double-spaced for legibility and stage direction is all in CAPS in order to distinguish them easily from the dialogue. There should be lots of white space for jotting down notes. Dialogue may also contain "personal direction" for the actors within it, rather than outside it; just like a stage play.

As for time breakdown, the following applies:

Teaser:    1-2 pages
Act One:    17-20 pages
Act Two:    17-20 pages
Tag:    1-3 pages
Total:    40-48 pages in length

Typical format for single camera sitcoms:

  1. Formatted like screenplays and similar to the one hour drama.
  2. May or may not have formal act breaks written on the page (this depends on whether or not the show has commercial breaks. "Curb Your Enthusiasm,: and "Sex and the City" are on HBO, therefore they have no commercial breaks and read straight through. "The Simpsons," however, has three defined acts.
  3. Dialogue and stage direction are single-spaced.
  4. The characters are described in ALL CAPS the first time they are introduced.
  5. Scripts are generally 28-32 pages in length.

Structure

The plots for these tend to be broad and simple. The show may have a major plot line (A story) and a minor plot line (B story), but may not have a runner. Each act tends to be between 3-5 scenes. The locations are fairly basic, though outside shots are more common than they used to be. The focus isn't on action, but on the wittiness of the repartee between the characters.

One page of sitcom script translates into about 30 seconds of screen time. In that time, there should be 3 to 5 solid jokes. These are jokes that are derived from the situations that the characters find themselves in. You have to know how to bring out the comedic nature of any situation.

Taped sitcoms, such as Two and a Half Men, use a specific format. It's videotaped in front of a live audience, will have a laugh track, and locations are limited.

In the half hour format, a scene break occurs when there is a major change in the location, time, and sometimes, actions. Ending one scene with a cut and beginning the next one on the following page indicates this. Scenes are designated with the alphabet, beginning with the letter A.

A Few Extra Words of Advice:

  1. Be sure to capture the tone and character voices of the show you want to write for.
  2. Executives want to read shows they know and they'll want to see if you know it, too.
  3. Don't write a pilot. You have to be firmly established to pull this off. IF you do want to write a pilot, however, write a second episode and submit that. 99.9% of newer writers spend the first episode setting up the characters and the setting, which leaves little room for conflict, interest, or comedy.
  4. Your spec script is your calling card, so make it great. There should be no punctuation or proofreading errors. A dropped comma or a missing question mark can change a meaning or indicate a lack of concern for the little things. Make it clean and professional.
  5. Read as many scripts as you can. Do your research.
  6. Remember - 12 point, Courier Font is an ABSOLUTE RULE for ALL scripts whether feature or television.
  7. Have a theme. Be sure what your story's about and be clear on exactly what you want to say.
  8. Listen to people talk. No one speaks in the same way. Listen to their choice of words; the rhythm of their speech; the cadences and pauses are all unique.
  9. Make your characters listen to each other and respond in kind. You never want them talking at each other. They must react to what is being said. Invest emotions and reactions in them; it will say a lot about who they are and make them more multidimensional.
  10. If you must use parentheticals (particularly in dramas), use them sparingly and only use them to enhance the dialogue. Sometimes body language does speak louder than the actual words. Use them to imply things the actor may use in performance. It can also serve to change the meaning of the dialogue entirely by saying one thing and doing something else.
  11. Flesh out your characters beyond what the story actually needs. Look to the people you know, your own background, etc., for the little things that will make them jump off the page.
  12. When writing narrative pieces, avoid inserting explanations or clarifications of things that aren't revealed in dialogue or action. If it hasn't been given before, there's no point to it and the forward motion of the story stops. Keep it short and sweet; this allows the action to continue on uninterrupted.
  13. Never pad your script with dialogue and scenes that are added only to fill up space. If nothing is happening in the scene, cut it out.
There are numerous books out there on screenplay format and structure. Below is a list of just a few of them:
  • The Complete Book of Scriptwriting by J. Michael Straczynski
  • Any book written by Linda Seger
  • Any book written by Syd Field
  • A Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler
  • Successful Scriptwriting by Jurgen Wolff and Kerry Cox
  • The Screenwriter's Bible by David Trottier
Good luck in your writing!

About Diane House

Diane House has over 12 years experience reading and critiquing writers. Her goal is to offer writers, old and new, a fresh eye and perspective to assist them in making their stories more compelling through the use of subtext, emotion, descriptive dialogue, and multi-dimensional characters.
Screenwriting Article by Diane House

Resources

Buy Movie Outline 3 Online

30 Day Money Back Guarantee

Buy Movie Outline In-Store

Academic Discount Available

Tag Cloud

headerbox Hover over the screenshots to learn how Movie Outline can help your writing... headerbox