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What is TV Writing?

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Television writing, often simply referred to as TV writing, is a specialized form of storytelling that brings narratives to life on the small screen. It stands as a dynamic and integral component of the entertainment industry, captivating audiences with compelling characters, intricate plots, and memorable dialogue.

TV writing is a distinct craft, although it shares common elements with other forms of storytelling such as fiction and film writing. Like its counterparts, TV writing delves deep into the art of character development, the creation of engaging story arcs, and the mastery of dialogue that resonates with viewers. However, TV writing possesses its own unique attributes and nuances, shaped by the episodic nature of television series and the need to sustain audience engagement over extended seasons.

In the world of TV writing, writers collaborate closely with producers, directors, and showrunners to craft narratives that unfold progressively, creating a sense of anticipation and suspense. Each episode contributes to a larger story arc, revealing character growth and plot twists that keep viewers hooked.

This article delves into the captivating realm of TV writing, exploring its distinct characteristics, its relationship to other storytelling mediums, and the craft that brings television series to life. Whether you’re an aspiring writer, an avid TV enthusiast, or simply curious about the magic behind your favourite shows, this journey into the world of TV writing promises to be an enlightening and entertaining exploration.

TV Writing vs. Film Writing

While both TV writing and film writing share the fundamental goal of storytelling, they diverge in several key aspects that define their respective crafts. These distinctions encompass script length, narrative structure, pacing, and even the creative freedoms granted to writers.

Script Length: One of the most apparent disparities lies in the length of the scripts. Film scripts, designed for the relatively concise duration of a movie, typically span around 90 to 120 pages. This brevity demands that every scene, line of dialogue, and character interaction contributes significantly to the overarching narrative. In contrast, TV writing encompasses multiple episodes, each with its own script. Depending on the series format, the total length of TV scripts can be substantially longer than a single film script, allowing for more extensive character development and intricate subplots.

Story Pacing: TV writing faces the unique challenge of maintaining viewer engagement across an extended series. Consequently, TV narratives often employ slower pacing and subplots that gradually unfold over multiple episodes or seasons. This approach permits a more in-depth exploration of characters and storylines. In contrast, film writing must condense the story into a limited time frame, necessitating a more rapid narrative progression and concise character development.

Narrative Constraints: Television series often adhere to specific narrative constraints, such as adhering to established continuity and character arcs. TV writers must consider the existing storyline, character history, and previous episodes when crafting new scripts to ensure consistency. In contrast, film writing allows for greater creative freedom, as most movies exist as standalone narratives with minimal ties to previous works.

Character Development: TV writing excels in character development due to the extended time available for growth and change. Viewers become deeply invested in the lives and evolutions of their favorite TV characters. In contrast, film writing must often distill character development into a shorter time frame, requiring concise yet impactful storytelling.

Creative Opportunities: While both mediums offer creative opportunities for writers, TV writing can provide a more extensive canvas for storytelling. The episodic nature of television allows for a diverse range of storylines and character arcs, catering to a broader audience. Film writing, while offering creative depth, typically confines narratives to a single, self-contained story.

So what does this all mean?

TV writing and film writing are two distinct but complementary forms of storytelling, each with its own set of challenges and opportunities. While film scripts focus on concise, self-contained narratives, TV writing offers the canvas for expansive character development and ongoing storylines that can captivate audiences over multiple seasons. The key to success in either field lies in mastering the unique techniques and conventions that define these creative endeavours.


Writing a Pilot

In the realm of TV writing, crafting a pilot episode serves as the crucial first step in bringing a television series to life. This pivotal script lays the foundation for the entire show, introducing characters, setting the tone, and captivating the audience. Writing a pilot is a creative endeavor that demands meticulous planning, storytelling finesse, and a keen understanding of the television medium’s unique dynamics.

Rough Draft

The journey of writing a TV pilot begins with the creation of a rough draft. This initial phase involves brainstorming ideas, outlining the plot, and translating the concept into a written script. Many writers opt to start with a detailed outline, breaking down the pilot episode scene by scene. Others may prefer taking copious notes, jotting down character traits, essential plot points, and memorable dialogue.

Creating a rough draft is about giving your ideas a tangible form, allowing you to explore the narrative’s flow and character dynamics. It’s a stage of experimentation and exploration, where the goal is to capture the essence of your story without being overly concerned with perfection.

Getting Feedback

One invaluable aspect of the TV writing process is seeking feedback from experienced mentors or fellow writers. Joining writing classes or workshops can provide a structured environment for obtaining constructive criticism. Feedback from mentors who have navigated the complexities of TV writing can offer valuable insights, helping you refine your pilot script.

This feedback-driven approach allows you to view your work from different perspectives and identify areas that may require improvement. It can encompass character development, plot coherence, dialogue authenticity, or pacing issues. Incorporating feedback enables you to polish your script and address any blind spots you might have missed during the initial writing process.

Second Draft

With feedback in hand, you can embark on the journey of transforming your rough draft into a refined second draft. This phase entails a meticulous review of your pilot episode, focusing on enhancing storytelling elements and addressing any issues raised during feedback sessions. It’s an opportunity to fine-tune character arcs, strengthen plot progression, and elevate the overall quality of your script.

During this revision process, consider the pacing of your narrative. Ensure that your pilot episode engages viewers from the opening scene and maintains their interest throughout. Successful TV writing often balances exposition, character development, and plot advancement, creating a seamless viewing experience.

Polishing

The final stage in writing a pilot is the polishing phase. This is where attention to detail is paramount. Review your script for grammatical errors, formatting consistency, and ensuring that the dialogue is authentic to the characters. Every line of dialogue and narrative description should contribute to the overall impact of the episode.

Polishing also involves refining the visual storytelling elements. Consider how the scenes are structured and whether they effectively convey the intended emotions and themes. Additionally, ensure that your pilot script adheres to industry standards for television writing.

Formatting Standards for TV Scripts

In the world of TV writing, adhering to industry-standard formatting conventions is paramount. These conventions ensure that your script communicates effectively with producers, directors, and other members of the production team. Here are some typical formatting standards for TV scripts:

  1. Title Page: Begin with a title page that includes the show’s title, your name, and contact information. This page sets the stage for your script and provides essential details for potential readers.
  2. Font and Margins: Utilize a legible, industry-standard font such as Courier or Courier New, and maintain consistent margins. The standard font size is 12 points. Ensure that your script is double-spaced for easy reading and note-taking.
  3. Scene Headings: Scene headings (also known as sluglines) indicate the location and time of each scene. They are written in all capital letters and include INT. (interior) or EXT. (exterior) to specify the setting, followed by the location and time of day.
  4. Action Lines: Action lines describe the actions and movements of characters within a scene. They are typically written in present tense and provide concise, visual descriptions to guide the reader’s imagination.
  5. Character Names and Dialogue: Character names are centered and capitalized above their dialogue. Dialogue is left-justified. Parentheticals, which provide additional context for how lines should be delivered, are placed in parentheses beneath character names.
  6. Transitions: Use transitions like “CUT TO:” or “FADE IN:” to indicate changes in scenes or transitions between acts. These help convey the pacing and flow of your script.
  7. Act Breaks: In TV scripts, act breaks are often signaled by a page with “END OF ACT [NUMBER]” centered in capital letters. This informs the reader and production team of the script’s structure.
  8. Page Numbers: Number your script’s pages consistently in the top right corner. Page numbers ensure that your script remains organized during production.

What to Do with Your Finished Pilot: 5 Suggestions

Once you’ve completed your TV pilot script, a world of possibilities opens up. The next steps can vary depending on your goals and circumstances. Here are some suggestions:

Pitching: If you’re looking to sell your pilot or secure a production deal, crafting a compelling pitch is crucial. Pitch your idea to production companies, networks, or streaming platforms that align with your project’s genre and style.

Networking: Building relationships in the industry can lead to opportunities. Attend industry events, join screenwriting associations, and connect with fellow writers, directors, and producers. Networking can help you find collaborators and open doors for your project.

Feedback and Revision: Consider seeking feedback from peers, mentors, or professional script consultants. Use their insights to make necessary revisions and improve your pilot script.

Competitions and Fellowships: Submit your script to reputable screenwriting competitions and fellowships. Winning or placing well in these competitions can provide recognition and exposure.

Independent Production: If you have the resources, you can explore producing your pilot independently or with a small team. This can be a way to showcase your work and generate interest from industry professionals.

Improve Your TV Writing Skills

Improvement is an ongoing journey for TV writers. By following the steps and suggestions we highlighted above, you’ll be well on your way to writing for TV. 

Becoming a proficient TV writer is a dynamic journey that combines knowledge, creativity, and perseverance. By mastering formatting standards, taking strategic steps with your finished pilot, and continually improving your skills, you can navigate the world of TV writing and bring your captivating stories to the small screen.

Oh, and one more thing — if you found this article helpful, you should consider subscribing to Toronto Film School’s industry-focused newsletter Insider Advantage. Packed with exclusive content and useful industry insights, Insider Advantage is essential reading for anyone looking to make their mark in the world of film and television.

Taegan MacLean

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