Film & TV

How to Write a TV Script: A Guide to Starting Your Career in Television Writing

Written by MasterClass

Apr 27, 2019 • 7 min read

When it comes to television, it’s a writer’s world. In film, the director is king. But in television, what the writer envisions is what makes it on screen. If you’ve ever wanted to break into the exciting world of TV writing, here is what you need to know.

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What Is Television Writing?

Television writing is the art of writing a TV show. Television is an exciting medium for writers because they get to control everything from the stories that are told to how the sets are built. TV writers develop stories, write scripts, make edits and revisions, and help determine what an episode looks like.

5 Ways TV Writing Is Different From Film Writing

The mechanics of writing a feature film script and writing a television script are the same: Both look the same on the page, both are typed up with screenwriting software like Final Draft, and both use location headings, character headings, scene descriptions, and dialogue. But the two script writing processes have a number of differences. Here’s why writing for TV is different:

  1. TV scripts are shorter than movie scripts. Writing an episode of television takes less time and results in fewer pages. TV episodes are either 30 minutes or 60 minutes long with commercial breaks, while feature films are at least 90 minutes long.
  2. TV shows have different narrative structures. A movie has a clear beginning, middle, and end, while TV shows are episodic and allow for multiple beginnings, middles, and ends. Each TV script is part of a larger narrative, with multiple character and story arcs divided across a number of episodes and seasons.
  3. TV scripts don’t have to resolve every story right away. Every episode will come to its own conclusion, but they don’t have to be wrapped up neatly; the stories and characters will continue to grow into the next episode. TV writers can take things slow, play with cliffhangers, and allow plots to develop over time.
  4. TV scripts are dialogue-driven. TV shows typically focus on the writing rather than the visuals to drive the story. Movies are more cinematic than most TV shows and involve more considered cinematography.
  5. TV shows require more writing in the long-run. Individual episodes are shorter than movies, but require more writing over the course of a season or entire series.

A Guide to Formatting TV Scripts

There used to be a lot of rules for writing television, particularly around established formats, such as procedural drama. But today, with the vast amount of platforms your show can live on, any storytelling format is possible. It’s beneficial to know the traditional rules so you know which ones you’re breaking.

Before you begin writing your script, it’s important to understand how to structure an episode of TV. Let’s examine how a standard one-hour television show is structured. Typically on network television, there are about five acts roughly lasting about 11 pages each. Here’s how Rhimes views the structure of each of the acts:

  • Act I: Introduce your characters and present the problem.
  • Act II: Escalate the problem.
  • Act III: Have the worst-case scenario happen.
  • Act IV: Begin the ticking clock.
  • Act V: Have the characters reach their moment of victory.

It’s helpful to think about how you want each of your acts to end as you begin to lay out the structure for your episode. Work these out ahead of time and properly set your story up for them, rather than dumping a twist at the end of each act just for excitement’s sake.

The other essential components of your episodes are your A, B, and C storylines:

  • A storyline: The A storyline involves your main character and is the core of your show.
  • B storyline: The B storyline is secondary and helps the narrative keep moving forward.
  • C storyline: The c storyline, sometimes referred to as “the runner,” is the smallest storyline and holds the least weight.

The Differences Between a Writing Sitcom and Writing a Drama

Writing a TV comedy, or sitcom, is a different process from writing a TV drama. Here’s what makes them different:

  • Tone. TV sitcoms are funny, tackle lighthearted topics, and intend to make viewers laugh. Dramas are more serious and take time to develop a story rather than telling jokes.
  • Story Arc and Pace. Sitcoms have a quick narrative pace, they focus on the build to the climax, have less act breaks, and introduce the conflict before the end of act one. The more time the characters spend solving a problem, the less room there is in the script for humor. Dramas are paced slower, have more act breaks, and spend more time developing the story, building to a climax, and arriving at a conclusion.
  • Run Time. Sitcoms run for approximately 21 minutes without commercials, while dramas run for about 43 minutes without commercials. One page of a script in Final Draft equals about one minute on air, so a 21-minute sitcom script should be around 20 pages long, and a script for a 43-minute long drama should be about 40 pages long.

How to Pitch a TV Show

Once you have a great concept for a show, there are three things you’ll need in order to pitch it to network executives:

  • A treatment. A treatment is a document that provides an explanation of your TV show’s setting, main characters, and storyline. Every treatment should include a title, logline, synopsis, summary of episodes, and character bios.
  • A pilot script. A pilot is the first episode of a TV series. Your TV pilot needs an opening that is going to grab your viewers and says something important to your audience about the show they are going to watch. Without a compelling pilot, you don’t have a TV show. Pilots are crucial for hooking an audience and setting up your characters and storyline for an entire season.
  • A show bible. A show bible, also called a story bible or a series bible, is a document that contains the history of your characters, an outline of every episode in the first season, and how you see the show expanding into future seasons. Writing a show bible forces you to think beyond the pilot episode and can help you see the bigger picture of your show idea.

Learn more about how to pitch a TV show in our complete guide here.

9 Tips for Breaking Into TV Writing

There’s no rulebook for what it takes to make it in Hollywood. However, there are things you can do to increase your chances and place yourself in a position for success, including:

  1. Know your television history. Knowing your television history is key to being a great television writer. For example, if you’re writing a medical drama like Grey’s Anatomy, then you better know the other medical dramas that have been created and why they either succeeded or failed.
  2. Move to Los Angeles. The vast majority of production companies are based in LA, and as a result, most TV writing jobs are based there.
  3. Write a spec script. A spec script is a TV script written speculatively, meaning it was not commissioned by a network. Writers use spec scripts to demonstrate talent and creativity. An easy way to write a spec script is to choose a current TV show you’re familiar with and write a sample episode. Your manager can use your spec scripts when being considered for various writing jobs.
  4. Get a job as a writer’s assistant. Working as an assistant is a rite of passage for many new to the industry. Rather than looking down on the position as entry-level work, consider it an opportunity to observe and learn from the brilliant minds around you.
  5. Network. You should be making an effort to not only build relationships with executives, but also with your peers. As they rise, they are likely to offer you opportunities to help you grow as well.
  6. Enter TV writing contests, apply for TV writing fellowships, and attend TV writing workshops. The competition is tough, but somebody has to win or get selected to attend. To enter, you usually have to submit unique writing samples, which is great practice for aspiring TV writers.
  7. Work hard. Breaking into the world of television writing isn’t easy. There are many more hopeful writers than there are positions available within the industry’s writers’ rooms, so bringing your dream to life requires a lot of hard work and dedication.
  8. Have a positive attitude. Be conscious of the vibe and attitude you give off to your superiors, especially as you take on some of the more mundane tasks the job entails. Nobody wants to work with someone who is grouchy or entitled.
  9. Write every day. As you make your way through the industry, don’t forget that your most valuable assets are your writing skills and portfolio work. Writing is one of the few jobs you don’t need to be hired to do. Write every day, put in the time to hone your craft, and focus on writing original content.