WRITING SPEC TV SCRIPTS

Writing Spec Television Scripts

When setting out to write a television script, you should write a script for a series that has been on the air at least two seasons.  Pilots are extremely hard to sell unless you are an established writer.  If you must write a pilot, don’t spend the whole episode setting up the characters.  Write a compelling story and introduce the characters through the story.

When writing a television spec script, keep in mind that whichever show you write the script for will very rarely read your script.  Don’t expect your spec script to sell.  It most likely won’t.  But it will show your writing ability and how well you perceive established characters.  Because of legal reasons, shows will read spec scripts, but only for other shows.  So write for several shows to show your versatility.

When writing for an established series, research the show.  What is the typical script length?  How many acts?  Does it have a Teaser or Cold Opening?  Be aware of act breaks.  That’s where the commercials will go.  Take note of the typical number of pages for each act.  Be sure to end each act with a story element to entice the audience to remain through the commercial.

Study the characters.  Know how each one would handle situations given.  Be true to the characters.  Don’t think your new idea that changes that character will fly.  If the producers want to change a character they don’t need your help in doing so.

Although many shows have their own propriety format elements, there are basic format standards for all television scripts.

One Hour Drama

A one hour drama is just that… drama.  Keep that in mind as you develop your script.  Don’t write a series of scenes that, although they might be interesting, they don’t tell a story.   Time is precious.  A one hour show is around forty minutes of story time (depending on network).  So keep you scenes crisp.  Make sure each one advances your plot.  Don’t waste that valuable time on non-story elements.

Like a Feature Film, one hour dramas follow the 3 Act structure.  (Not be confused with Act Formatting).

  • Act 1 – Introduce the characters, set their relationships and their goals.  What the story is about.  What is the characters goal.  By end of Act 1 that goal should run into an obstacle.
  • Act 2 – The main character encounters obstacle after obstacle that prevents him/her from achieving the dramatic need.  At end of the act the character or story point is at its lowest point.  A twist or turn in the story is a typical tool used in many shows.
  • Act 3 – The point at which the plot tension peaks to a climactic end.  All loose ends are tied up.

Some shows have multiple storylines running concurrently.  Be sure to wrap up all of the storylines.

Format

One hour shows are formatted like feature films with the exception that they have act breaks.  Depending on the show, the normal total page count is 53-60 pages, although shows that are more “talky” might be a little longer.

The title page should include the Show Title, Episode Title, Writers Name and Contact Information.  If you include script cover, you may eliminate your contact information as long as it is on the Title Page.

Study scripts from the show you are targeting for their proprietary format.

Begin each act on a new page.  Place a heading indicating the Act Number centered at the top of that page.  Double space before your first Scene Heading.   FADE IN is not necessary, but is acceptable.

End each act indicating the end of act.  Center “End of Act  #” after the last piece of dialogue or action.  FADE OUT is not necessary by is acceptable.

Each act is typically 14-15 pages.  Teasers (Cold Openings) are 2 – 4 pages.  Tags are 1 – 2 pages.

Situation Comedies

Comedy is hard.  Don’t attempt to write comedy if you don’t fully understand comedy.  Remember that all comedies, like dramas, need a story.  Don’t think you can just tell jokes and it will hold up.  If the story doesn’t exist, there is nothing to hold the viewer through the commercial break.

Each page of a sitcom should contain 3 – 5 minutes.  Wrapping up a show with a less comedic scene may contain fewer or no jokes, but generally you have to earn the right to do that by capturing the audience and providing them with twenty minutes of humor leading up to the scene.

There are two types of situation comedies.

  • Multiple Camera Format.  Multi camera shows are shot like a stage play like “Two and a Half Men”, “Cheers”.  They generally have an audience present during the recording.
  • Single Camera Format – Shot like a Drama Show or Feature Film,  shows like “Curb Your Enthusiasm” or “The Middle” are shot in segments.  These shows tend to be a little more stylistic.  But like it’s multi camera cousin, comedy is still a key element.

The title page should include the Show Title, Episode Title, Writers Name and Contact Information.  If you include script cover, you may eliminate your contact information as long as it is on the Title Page.

Some shows have a List of Characters and Sets  on the second page.  Check scripts from the show you’re writing for to see what they do.  This is not page one.  Page One is always the first page of the script itself.  So be sure that your page numbering is correct.

Be sure to study the show.  They might have some formatting elements that are specific for that series.   Some have teasers, two acts and a tag.  Others have three acts.  Some shows like “The Wonder Years” have specific styles (voice over narration) that must be adhered to.  So know the show you are writing for.

Single Camera Format

Single Camera Sitcom Scripts are formatted like Motion Pictures and similar to the one hour drama.

Most shows will have formal act breaks, although shows that are commercial free may be continuous.

Scripts are generally 28-32 pages in length.

First Page has Title of Series Centered and in Caps at the top of Page One.

Begin each act on a new page.  Place a heading indicating the Act Number centered at the top of that page.  Double space before your first Scene Heading.   FADE IN is not necessary, but is acceptable.

End each act indicating the end of act.  Center “End of Act  #” after the last piece of dialogue or action.  FADE OUT is not necessary by is acceptable.

Generally scene numbers are added when a script goes into Pre-Production.  So it is not necessary to number your scenes.

Script Format 1

 Multiple Camera Format

Scripts are generally 38 – 45 pages long.  Teasers are generally 1-2 pages.  Tags are 1-3 pages.  Acts one and two are 17-20 pages.

Some shows will number the scenes, while others will use letters.  Some shows will list characters under the Scene Heading, others won’t.

First Page of script has Title of Series Centered and in Caps at the top of Page One six lines from the top margin.  The Episode Title is two lines below, centered in quotation marks.  Six lines below that is ACT ONE.  Scene Letter is below that centered.  Eight lines below that is FADE IN.  Double space is SCENE HEADING.  A list of characters follows on the next line (double spaced).

Each scene begins on a new page with the Scene Letter centered.  The Scene Heading is 6 lines below that.

Script Format 2