[spb_text_block pb_margin_bottom=”no” pb_border_bottom=”no” width=”1/1″ el_position=”first last”]

5 Differences Between TV and Screenwriting

By Jacob Krueger

[/spb_text_block] [divider type=”thin” text=”Go to top” full_width=”no” width=”1/1″ el_position=”first last”] [spb_text_block pb_margin_bottom=”no” pb_border_bottom=”no” width=”1/1″ el_position=”first last”]

A post from our vault.  If you are interested in our upcoming classes click here.

With the announcement of our long awaited TV Drama Workshop, I’ve been getting lots of questions from aspiring TV writers about what format is best for their stories. It’s no secret that some of the best writing out there right now is happening in television.  And with new networks like Netflix and Amazon hungry for quality content, there’s never been a more exciting time to get into TV Writing. But oftentimes when it comes to writing TV pilots, screenwriters fail to recognize the vast differences between these two kinds of writing, and make mistakes that end up killing their chances before they even get a chance to show their talent.

TV writing and feature film writing are inherently different because the expectations of producers are so different.  When a feature film producer reads a spec script from an emerging writer, they’re really looking for a unique voice:  a writer who can tell a great story in a way that no one else can tell it. TV producers would like that unique voice too, but for TV producers it’s about more than just telling a great story. It’s about telling a reproducible one, which can be told again and again, for years and years, in a way that fits within the current business model of a very specific network. This leaves TV writers with a challenging quandary: how do you shape your TV pilot to fit the distinct formulas required by each network, without compromising the unique voice as a writer that actually gives you a chance of selling it?

There are 5 important differences between TV and Feature Film writing that every writer needs to understand.

1. TV Writing Is All About “The Engine.”

If you’re going to break into the TV industry, you need to think about your pilot script as a blueprint for every episode will follow.  By the time a producer is finished reading your pilot, they should be able to imagine how every episode that follows it is going to work, without any additional explanation from you.  Producers call this the Engine of the series.  And without it, your series is totally unsellable.

Remember, the writing team for this series is going to have to generate another episode at a frantic pace—every single week.  So you need to create a replicable engine from the very first episode that assures a producer they can run this series for the next 8 years, without having to go back to the drawing board each week for a new source of inspiration.


2. You Need To Know What Network You’re Targeting and What Format You’re Writing

It used to be that TV pilots fell clearly into one of two categories:  30-minute sitcoms, or hour-long dramas.  But with hit series like Orange is the New Black and Louis blurring the lines between dramatic and comedic writing, deciding the right format for your script can be more complicated (and a lot more exciting) than it used to be.

Seeing all the groundbreaking work happening on TV nowadays, it’s easy to forget that each network has a unique and very deeply held model for the format of a successful series.  And they don’t stray from those models easily.   That means the more risks your pilot takes, the more targeted it needs to be for the specific expectations of the network. Study every show you can get your hands on for your favorite network, or take a class with someone experienced enough to break them down for you.  Look for patterns: exactly how long is each script?  How is it formatted?  Where do the act breaks happen?  What kinds of themes do they explore?  What kind of elements does each episode share, and what kinds of things never happen on this network? If that seems like a lot of work, it is.  But remember, a year from now, you’re hoping to be banging out a script a week for your own series.  So you can certainly take some time to make the adjustments necessary to your spec pilot that show you can play by the rules.

3. You Need To Lock In Your Engine By The End of Your Pilot.

Probably the biggest mistake aspiring TV writers make is waiting till a late episode to get to the real engine of the series.   Can you imagine if Tony Soprano waited until the fourth episode to have his panic attack, or if Piper Chapman waited until Season 2 to end up in prison.  Remember, if your pilot doesn’t grab their attention, then the other episodes are never going to happen!  So instead of saving the best for last, save the best for first. Jam that pilot chock full of all your very best stuff, and make sure the full hook, and the full structure of everything you’re building is in there from the very first page.

4. You Need To Be Prepared To Write In a Collaborative Environment

With a few notable exceptions, series aren’t written by one writer.  They’re written by a team.  That means if you want to build a career in this industry, you’ve got to be more than just a great writer.  You’ve got to be a great collaborator.  And that can be a challenging obstacle if you’re used to writing alone in your boxers.

When you see an episode of your favorite series, you’re not seeing the raw genius of one writer.  You’re seeing the full collaborative effort of a room full of professional writers, all with unique skills and talents, and a cast of talented actors, all working toward the same goal. It’s no wonder that the quality of most spec pilots pale in comparison.  It’s hard to compete with the efforts of a whole professional writing team, when you’re just one guy or gal. So practice your collaboration.  Invite your friends to workshop your script, collaborate with your writers group on jokes or storylines.  Or even better, join one of our TV Writing Workshops, where you can develop your work in a real writers room, under the mentorship of a professional showrunner with years of hit show experience.

game of thronesposters5. Your Characters Are Going To Arc In a Different Way

Feature film writers are used to building their structure around their character’s change, but the engine of many series, particularly in the world of comedy, depends on a structure where characters don’t change at all.  Or where those changes are limited to short story arcs or carry-overs within a few limited episodes. Even in hour dramas like Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, where characters do change profoundly over the course of the season, those changes happen much more slowly then they’d ever happen in a feature film.

There are many reasons for this, from the financial pressures of syndication, to the practical challenge of brainstorming new story ideas that also fit the arc of a character within the frantic pace of series production. But perhaps the most compelling reason is an emotional one.  The episodic nature of series means we’re not inviting these characters into our homes on a one time basis.  We’re inviting them back again and again, until they become like family.  And like our family members, for all their infuriating qualities, we love them for being consistently who they are for better or for worse.  And that’s really the biggest engine of any series.  The engine that keeps the audience coming back for more. Which means that writing a great series pilot begins not with thinking about formula, but with thinking about characters that you can fall in love with yourself.

The exciting thing about writing for television is that within the format of any given network, you have the freedom to create your own unique engine.  In the best series, rather than being a formulaic imitation of other shows, that engine grows directly out of the unique traits of your characters and the unique hook of your pilot. That’s where screenwriting and television are ultimately similar, because doing it successfully is never really just about the engine, or the formula, or the genre.  It’s about learning to connect truthfully to your characters, putting them on the page in the way that only you can, and organically building your structure, or your engine from there.


Share this...

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments


Participant Agreement

By registering for the course, you are agreeing to the following terms, which form a legal contract between you and Jacob Krueger Studio, LLC (“Company”) and govern your attendance at and/or participation in Company’s course (the “Course”). 

  1. Course Participation.
    1. Admittance.  Your registration entitles you to admittance to the Course.  Any and all other costs associated with your attendance (including, without limitation, any travel or accommodation expenses) shall be borne solely by you and Company shall not be liable for any such costs.
    2. Media.  For good and valuable consideration, the receipt and sufficiency of which are hereby acknowledged, you grant Company the right to record, film, photograph or capture your likeness in connection with the Course, in any media now available and hereafter developed (“Course Footage”).  You further grant to Company in perpetuity the rights to use, license, edit, copy, distribute, publicly display and make derivative works of the Course Footage, including exploitation for marketing, advertising or merchandising related to the Course, throughout the universe.  You hereby waive any and all approval rights you may have over Company’s use of the Course Footage and acknowledge these rights are granted without any payment, including royalties or residuals, to you.
    3. Conduct.  You acknowledge that Company reserves the right to request your removal from the Course if Company, in its sole discretion, considers your presence or behavior to create a disruption or to hinder the Course or the enjoyment of the Course by other attendees or speakers.
  2. Fee(s).
    • Payment.  The payment of the applicable fee(s) for the Course is due upon registration or per your payment plan.  If such payment is insufficient or declined for any reason, you acknowledge that Company has the right and sole discretion to refuse your admission to the Course.
    • Taxes. The fee(s) may be subject sales tax, value added tax, or any other taxes and duties which, if applicable, will be charged to you in addition to the fee(s).
  3. Intellectual Property. All intellectual property rights, including trademarks, copyrights, trade secrets and patents, in and to the Course, the Course content and all materials distributed at or in connection with the Course (the “Course Materials”) are owned by Company. You may not use, license, copy, display, or make derivative works of the Course Materials without the prior written permission of Company.  For the avoidance of doubt, nothing in this agreement shall be deemed to vest in you any legal or beneficial right in or to any trademarks or other intellectual property rights owned or used under license by Company or grant to you any right or license to any other intellectual property rights of Company, all of which shall at all times remain the exclusive property of Company.
  4. Warranties; Limitation of Liability.
    • Other than to the extent required as a matter of law: (i) neither Company nor its employees, agents or affiliates (“Company Parties”) shall be liable for any direct, indirect, special, incidental, or consequential costs, damages or losses arising directly or indirectly from the Course or other aspect related thereto or in connection with this agreement.  The maximum aggregate liability of Company Parties for any claim in any way connected with therewith or this agreement whether in contract, tort or otherwise (including any negligent act or omission) shall be limited to the amount paid by you to Company under this agreement to attend the Course.
    • You represent and warrant that you have the full right and authority to grant Company the rights provided in this agreement and that you have made no commitments which conflict with this agreement or the rights granted herein.  You agree that your participation in the Course is entirely at your own risk and accept full responsibility for your decision to participate in the Course.  In no event shall you have the right to enjoin the development, production, exploitation or use of the Course and/or your Contributions to it. 
  5. Governing Law and Venue.  This agreement shall be governed by the laws of the State of New York without regard to its conflict of laws provisions.  The parties hereto agree to submit to personal and subject matter jurisdiction in the federal or state courts located in the City and State of New York, United States of America.
  6. Dispute Resolution.  All claims and disputes arising under or relating to this agreement are to be settled by binding arbitration in the state of New York or another location mutually agreeable to the parties.  The arbitration shall be conducted on a confidential basis pursuant to the Commercial Arbitration Rules of the American Arbitration Association.  Any decision or award as a result of any such arbitration proceeding shall be in writing and shall provide an explanation for all conclusions of law and fact and shall include the assessment of costs, expenses, and reasonable attorneys’ fees by the winner against the loser.  Any such arbitration shall include a written record of the arbitration hearing.  An award of arbitration may be confirmed in a court of competent jurisdiction.
  7. Miscellaneous.  Company may transfer and assign this agreement or all or any of its rights or privileges hereunder to any entity or individual without restriction.  This agreement shall be binding on all of your successors-in-interest, heirs and assigns.  This agreement sets forth the entire agreement between you and the Company in relation to the Course, and you acknowledge that in entering into it, you are not relying upon any promises or statements made by anyone about the nature of the Course or your Contributions or the identity of any other participants or persons involved with the Course.  This agreement may not be altered or amended except in writing signed by both parties.
  8. Prevention of “Zoom-Bomber” Disruptions; Unauthorized Publication of Class Videos. Company will record each class session, including your participation in the session, entitled “The Videos”. To prevent disruptions by “zoom-bombers” and provide Company and

    participants the legal standing to remove unauthorized content from platforms such as YouTube and social media sites, you agree that

    (1) you are prohibited from recording any portion of the Course;

    (2) in exchange for the opportunity to participate in the Course, you assign to Company your verbal contributions to the session discussions.

    To be clear, you assign to Company only your oral statements during recorded Course sessions. You retain all copyright to any and all written materials you submit to the class and the right to use them in any way you choose without permission from or compensation to the Company.

Welcom Back!

Log in to access your account

We will see you this Thursday!

7pm ET / 4pm PT

Check Your Email For The Link

(Don’t see it? Check your spam folder)

Donate To Our Scholarship Fund

We match every donation we receive dollar for dollar, and use the funds to offset the cost of our programs for students who otherwise could not afford to attend.

We have given away over 140,000 of scholarships in the past year.

Thank you for your support!

Other Amount? CONTACT US

Get Your Video Seminar


Where should we send it?

"*" indicates required fields

Would You Like More Information About Our Classes?
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Need A Payment Plan?

We like working with artists and strive not to leave writers behind over money.

If you need a payment plan or another arrangement to participate in our programs, we are happy to help.

Chat us or give us a call at 917-464-3594 and we will figure out a plan that fits your budget.

Join the waitlist!

Fill in the form below to be placed on the waitlist. We'll let you know once a slot opens up!