Film & TV

What Is a Teleplay? A Guide to Understanding the TV Script Format

Written by MasterClass

Apr 29, 2019 • 4 min read

We’re in a golden age of television, and there’s never been more variation or more excitement around TV. If you aspire to become a writers’ rooms veteran, read on to learn what a teleplay is, what the two main types of teleplays look like, and how to write one.

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What Is a Teleplay?

A teleplay is the written blueprint for one episode of a television show. The word “teleplay” is often used interchangeably with “television script” or “tv script.”

What Is the Difference Between a Teleplay and a Script, Screenplay, or Stage Play?

Teleplays are a type of script; but they are different than screenplays or stage plays.

  • Script: A script is the umbrella term under which screenplays, stage plays, and teleplays all live. It refers simply to any written blueprint of a movie, TV show, or play, which is then used as a guideline during filming or performance. This means that a teleplay is a specific type of script written for an episode of TV. All teleplays are scripts but all scripts are not teleplays.
  • Screenplay: A screenplay is the written blueprint for a film, not a television show. A screenplay includes all of the dialogue and acting directions, as well as the camera, sound, and other production directions.
  • Stage Play: A stage play is the written blueprint for an on-stage production, not a film or TV show. A stage play’s primary focus is on dialogue, acting direction, and stage direction, but it can also include lighting and sound cues.

The Story Structure of a Teleplay

Television provides a unique opportunity for writers compared to feature films. While films begin and resolve their stories on a (roughly) two-hour timeframe, a television series will tell a story in half-hour or hour-long installments over 10–24 episodes, and often over many seasons. Thus, each episode can have its own arc that is resolved at the end, but the characters and overarching plot will continue through the season.

Most teleplays have a similar overall structure. Just like screenplays, the story will have a beginning, middle, and end. For an hour-long TV episode, this usually translates to a teaser (often called a “cold open” in comedic teleplays) followed by a maximum of five acts:

  • Teaser: Introduces the conflict, characters, or world
  • Act One: Introduces the episode’s specific storyline
  • Act Two: Follows the characters grappling with the conflict
  • Act Three: Puts the characters at their most hopeless point
  • Act Four: Shows the characters beginning to solve the conflict and feel hope again
  • Act Five: Presents closure

Half-hour-long episodes often condense this structure to a teaser followed by two acts.

How Long Should a Teleplay Be?

On average, one page of a teleplay equates to about one minute of air time. Most TV dramas are written in hour-long episode and should therefore be between 45 and 65 pages long. Most comedies are a half-hour and should be between 22 and 35 pages long.

You should also consider whether or not you’ll be working with commercial breaks, which used to be industry standard in all television programs until the rise of paid streaming services like Netflix and HBO. If you already know your show will be airing with commercial breaks, try to write your act breaks to coincide with the commercials—this will avoid awkward breaks in the middle of the action and will help keep your story moving.

How to Format a Teleplay

Sitcoms and single camera shows each have a specific style and format of teleplay, but there are some similarities across teleplay the two styles:

  • A title page including the title of the episode and show and the writer’s name and contact information.
  • Page numbers in the top-right-hand side.
  • Typed in 12-point Courier font.
  • One-inch margins on the top, bottom, and right, and a one-and-a-half-inch margin on the left (to make room for hole punches).
  • Scene headings in all caps.

How to Format a Multi-Camera or Sitcom Teleplay

Multi-camera or sitcom shows are one of the oldest forms of television. Each episode is filmed on a stage in front of a live audience, and the action is captured with multiple cameras set up at different angles on the stage. Examples of multi-camera TV shows are The Dick Van Dyke Show, Seinfeld, and Two and a Half Men.

Sitcom scripts follow specific guidelines to make sure every piece of information is clear, which helps actors keep up during the live performance:

  • All dialogue is double-spaced.
  • All stage directions (or descriptions of the set) are printed in all-caps.
  • Every scene is numbered, and that number is included at the top of each page.
  • Each new scene starts on a new page.
  • Each new scene includes a list of all character names who appear in that scene.

How to Format a Single-Camera Teleplay

Single-camera shows are shot in a cinematic style, like a film. Rather than being filmed on a stage with a live audience, single-camera shows are shot on-location or on a built stage, and the crew uses one camera to film each scene. They’re much more flexible in what they can film and often feature many locations. Examples of single-camera shows are Arrested Development, Modern Family, and Parks and Recreation.

These teleplays look much more like screenplays:

  • Dialogue is single-spaced.
  • Stage directions are lowercase.
  • Act breaks are included. (This is the major difference between a single-camera teleplay and screenplay format—screenplays usually omit act breaks.)

Tools to Help You Format Your Teleplay

Columns, stage directions, double spacing—teleplay specifications can get pretty tricky. There is plenty of software to help you format your teleplay, like StudioBinder, Celtx, WriterDuet, or Final Draft.