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5 Differences Between TV and Screenwriting
By Jacob Krueger
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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.
5. 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.