With new streaming platforms emerging every year and binge watching becoming an art form, the television industry needs more writers than ever. Unfortunately, there is also more competition than ever. Breaking into the TV industry can be tough, but here are the fundamentals you need to know about becoming a television show writer as well as some actionable tips that will help you get that much closer to writing for television.
Television script writing
Writing for Television vs. Film
Although feature film screenplays and television screenplays have many similarities such as scene headings, formatting techniques, dialogue, and character descriptions there are many differences between writing for television and writing for film. To understand the differences, it's first important to understand how a TV show gets made. This Vox video conveniently breaks down the TV making process.
1. Script Length: Most obviously, writing for television involves much shorter scripts than writing for features. The run time of a television show ranges from 30 minutes to 60 minutes while a feature film is at least 90 minutes long resulting in the difference in script length.
2. Story Engine: Feature films are meant to be resolved by the end of the film. Television shows, on the other hand, are meant to last multiple seasons. This means that writing for television is dependent on creating different driving forces than a film.
Films that last a whopping six to nine seasons are often very character driven, relying more on the audience's investment in the characters rather than the plot points themself.
TV shows often have multiple central characters that move the show forward unlike features that typically have a single central protagonist. TV shows utilize multiple story lines otherwise known as A, B, and C story lines.
3. Structure: Because both the length and engine of a television show both differ from that of a film, the structure of a television show also differs. Writing for television aims to retain the audience's attention and set up following episodes.
4. Lack of immediate resolution: The episodic format of a television show means that each central narrative lasts over the course of multiple episodes or even seasons. For that reason, TV shows do not need to tie a neat bow on every episode with a resolution unlike a film.
How to write for tv
Television Script Structure
In the past, writing for television has been formulaic across the board to fit the form of weekly episode releases. With the advent of streaming services and the phenomenon of binge watching, nearly every story structure is possible to achieve through television.
Some TV series have even been described as ten-hour movies broken into episodes. Other TV series still follow the traditional sitcom format. No matter what, understanding the story structure that best serves your story is important.
Among the best television series in history is Breaking Bad whose pilot uses a common four act structure. Check out this breakdown of the structure of Breaking Bad in this video from Lessons from the Screenplay.
Next time you watch a great TV pilot, take note of how this structure applies. This will help you structure your TV show in similar ways that best serve the story. Once you understand the mechanisms of your show’s structure, you will need to create the necessary materials to pitch your TV show.
TV show writing format
TV Script Format
Structure also entails understanding how to format a script. Before you send out any script whether it is a spec or a pilot, you must make sure it follows standard script format. This will make it easier to read, more engaging, and more professional.
To better understand TV script format and writing for television professionally, check out our formatting video below. We dive into everything from scene headers to slug lines to dialogue. Of course, when you use dedicated screenwriting software like StudioBinder, the formatting is done automatically.
Learning how to write for TV means understanding both story and TV script format. Understanding various formatting techniques such as parentheticals and slug lines will add to your repertoire of TV screenwriting tools. This will effectively make you a better television writer.
TV Writing and Pitching
Components of a TV Show Pitch
There is fundamental advice when it comes to learning how to pitch a TV show, but the quintessential tip is to be prepared. This means that you know your TV show inside and out and have materials that prove it and communicate it clearly.
A story treatment helps get your concept or show in front of more readers. Television show concepts can be large and complex. Distilling your idea into a simpler, more condensed treatment will increase your chances that someone will read about your show.
Treatments will help get your foot in the door. But when someone bites onto a treatment, it’s important to be prepared to have a full pilot script ready.
2. Pilot Script
Your pilot script is a huge determining factor to the success of your TV show idea. It conveys the story, your TV screenwriting style, and should prove the potential for future episodes. The pilot is the foundational building block for the entire show. So how do you write a great one? Check out our video breakdown that analyzes the Breaking Bad pilot and what made it successful.
Finally, you need to be able to clearly and effectively pitch the concept of your show to TV executives when you’re not even in the room. This is where the show bible comes in.
3. Show Bible
Show bibles are used to present to TV and digital executives in order to get a show commissioned or picked-up for distribution. They should break down the entire concept of a show in a clear way. Learning how to make a TV show bible is a lot easier than you might think as long as you have fleshed out the idea of your show well enough.
TV show bibles should allow executives, writers, and readers to understand the concept of a show without you having to explain everything to them.
If you do get into a room to pitch your show, there are a few other tips that will help you beyond the materials you bring. Your presence and how you pitch are incredibly important to your pitch’s success. Here are a few do’s and don’ts when it comes to pitching a TV show idea.
Now that you understand the necessary information of TV screenwriting, it's time to learn about the actionable steps you can take to get you that much closer to a career in TV writing.
How to write for TV
Tips to Break into the TV Industry
Screenwriting for television and preparing a pitch does not happen overnight. In fact, it might take a lot of nights. But there are things you can do that will move your forward in your TV writing career outside of writing your own show.
1. Do your TV homework
Being well versed on television is the best way to learn about your craft. Keeping up to date with trending television series as well as watching classic television shows and dissecting how and why they work will help you better understand the mechanisms of a television show.
2. Write everyday
To get better at screenwriting for television, the only way to get better at your craft is to write. Whether it's writing your pilot, writing a treatment, or writing in a journal. Writing everyday will exercise the creative muscles you will need in the television industry where turn around times are fast and bright ideas need to appear out of thin air.
3. Write a spec
A spec script is written independent of any production entity with the intention to showcase your ability as a writer. Spec scripts can lead to the purchase of the script or even future assignments as a writer. Learning how to write a spec script is useful for anyone trying to break into the TV industry. It will also educate you on how to write for TV based on a pre-existing show.
4. Move to Los Angeles
This may not be news, but it is worth reiterating. A majority of production companies for both film and television as well as the writing jobs. Getting out there will give you a better chance at our next tip. Screenwriting for television involves a lot of our next tip — networking. And being in the hub of television is a great way to network.
Of course it's not all about who you know, but it certainly has a big impact. Rubbing shoulders with those already in the television industry as well as those in your shoes trying to break in will help open up doors to present and future opportunities.
6. Get a writer’s assistant job
Getting a job as an assistant to a television writer will help you get your foot in the door of the industry while also learning from those already working in it. It will also help you build relationships that will work in your favor.
7. Enter writing contests
There are plenty of writing contests out there with some heavy competition. While the odds may not work in your favor, someone does win. At the very worst writing for these competitions is great practice for any aspiring screenwriter to learn how to write for TV.
8. Have a positive attitude
In the world of film, people often work with each other for long hours and even longer months or even years. Being someone with a genuinely positive attitude will make you someone people want to work with which helps your odds at finding TV writing work.
How to Write a TV Treatment
Do you already have an idea for a television show, but have yet to flesh it out or put it on paper? Get started by creating a treatment. A treatment is a great way to determine whether your idea has legs to be a full blown television series.