Film & TV

The Differences Between Writing for TV Versus Writing for Film

Written by MasterClass

Jun 24, 2019 • 4 min read

The mechanics of writing for television and writing for film are much the same: Both television scripts and feature film scripts look the same on the page, both are typed up using screenwriting software, and both use location headings, character headings, scene descriptions, and dialogue. But the two processes have a lot of differences, too. Learn how writing for television differs from writing for film.

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What Is Television Writing?

Television writing is the art of writing a TV show. Television writers develop stories, write scripts, make edits and revisions, and help determine what an episode looks like. In the TV world, writers are able to influence everything from the stories that are told to how the sets are built. Learn how to write a TV script here.

What Is Film Writing?

Film writing is the art of writing a movie. Much like television writers, film writers develop stories, write scripts, and make edits and revisions. However, unlike television writers, film writers don’t typically help determine what the movie looks like; that’s the job of the director and cinematographer.

5 Differences Between Television Writing and Film Writing

  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.

How to Structure a Television Script

A standard one-hour television show (on network television, at least), has about five acts roughly lasting about 11 pages each. Here’s what each one should accomplish:

  • 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 of your episode. Work these out ahead of time and properly set your study up for them, rather than dumping a twist at the end of each act just for excitement’s take.

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

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

How to Structure a Feature Film Script

Films often follow a simple three-act film story arc. Here’s what each section should accomplish:

  • Act I: You chase your hero up a tree.
  • Act II: You throw rocks at them.
  • Act III: You get them down (or not).

Be sure to avoid any magical surprises in Act III by setting up and introducing everything in Act I through exposition. Exposition is the first part of drama, but it’s not easy. One way to get through exposition in your screenplay is to have at least one character early on who is a stand-in for the audience; they ask questions of the main character that the audience might have.

After you’ve set up the exposition, introduce the story’s main conflict with the inciting action. You can’t wait too long to introduce the inciting action; if you get to page 20 or 25 and you haven’t yet introduced it, you’re in trouble. Use page numbers as road signs to know if you’ve hit a certain milestone in your script or not.

When setting up your story arc, remember to make the first 15 pages the most memorable. When a producer or studio executive is deciding whether or not to produce your script, you have to hook them with the first 15 pages.

Learn more about writing for the screen with the MasterClass All-Access Pass, which provides access to video lessons taught by masters including Aaron Sorkin, Jodie Foster, Spike Lee, Shonda Rhimes, David Mamet, and more.