Differences Between Writing Movies and TV

Writing for television means following a prescribed format, whether it’s a sitcom, a one-hour drama, or a reality show. There are true act breaks to allow for commercials, a limited number of recurring characters and sets, and an overall mandate about what kinds of stories can happen. TV writing is generally collaborative, with a group of writers contributing to that week’s script, under the supervision of a producer called the “showrunner.” The pace of television writing is much, much faster than film writing, because there’s a continuous need to keep up with production. Being a TV writer is like having a real job, because you’re working office hours (quite long!)

Writing movies have far fewer limits on structure, storyline, characters and tone. It’s also a much more solitary endeavor, because aside from occasional producer note, you’re off doing the work by yourself on your own timetable. Some writers thrive in that freedom, while others become paralyzed by indecision. Usually, a film writer is paid per draft, rather than per week as a TV writer is, so dawdling can be costly.

In television, you see your work on screen every week. In film, you’re lucky if you see it on screen once a year.

On film, you get to use your characters for two hours. On TV, you get to use them for a hundred hours or more over the lifetime of the show.

In film, the writer has very little say in the final execution of the work. In television, the writer supercedes the director.

While any project, film or TV, is going to involve some compromises, television is nothing but compromises: not enough time, not enough money, not enough energy to fight the same battle. For example, if you’re writing a show about cops, then by default you’re not getting to write that space epic you’ve always dreamed about. So you’re compromising your own aspirations as well.

Some people are better off doing one, some do both.

A TV screenplay is called a teleplay. You can write movies anywhere and you have to live in Los Angeles for TV writing.

With TV (and by TV I mean standard network and cable TV, not HBO, Showtime, etc.) there are commercials, and a lot of the pacing of the show is based around the commercial breaks. He was having a hard time breaking down his story into the beats he needed so he could turn it into a TV spec script.

I kept telling him that it sounded like he was trying to take an idea for a movie and retro fit it into a TV pilot, but he INSISTED he wasn’t. I gave him the benefit of the doubt, and after a few more e-mails we stopped talking.

I don’t know what ever happened with Mitch’s pitch, but considering I haven’t read about anything even close to what he was talking about in the trades, I assume he still hasn’t gotten anywhere with it. At least not yet.

But I think what Mitch was experiencing is probably something that other writers out there have encountered. All the screenwriting books I have are based around writing spec scripts for feature films, not TV. So I can’t offer much to the debate if anyone has questions. But that’s where Dusty McCloud comes into play.

Not only does he have a good recipe for a White Russian, he can break down the main difference between writing for film and writing for TV. I’m going to repost something he put in the comments, with his permission natch, and hope that maybe it answers some questions a few of you might have.

In films, a character has a definite arc. It starts medium, drops below the medium, shoots back up to the climax, then plateaus back out. We get an idea for who this character is, and they are expected to do certain things. Even antagonists have expected arcs. However in Television, characters can be more flatline. Do things that are more “human” or even unexpected because we have a whole season to explain these “swings”. Heroes in film have a specific route their arcs are supposed to take, but television arcs have a slower, more defined rise or decline. You have a whole season to play with, 13-23 hours, instead of 2 hours in a film.

There are more characters in TV than in movies. In order to cover so many characters, be as brief and defining as possible in your scenes. It’s not uncommon to spend anywhere from 1-2 pages on a scene and move on, a little longer for others that deserve more importance. Whereas in film, a scene normally lasts about 2-3 pages, and could go on as long as 5.

In a movie script, there is usually Story A (protagonist), Story B (Mission), Story C (sidekick, Antagonist, elements, environment, etc.). However, in television there are 4, 5, or even 6 storylines. So because of this, the pacing is different. Whoever gets the strongest storyline for one show gets Storyline A and we spend more time on them, whereas storyline E gets less time because their plot is miniscule in comparison, or the information provided for storyline E could be glossed over quickly. Then, the next episode the character who was storyline E in the episode last week could now become storyline A, or even B, in the new episode.

Some characters who are barely introduced at the beginning of a series might become an incredibly important person at the end of the season or series. So their character arc might be minimal in the beginning and gain more momentum by the end. For example, a character who is the strong protagonist in the beginning of a pilot who is actually killed by the end of the first season. So as you can imagine you have to start thinking about what episode you’re going to introduce certain things to the audience.

Most TV shows are broken down into 5-7 Acts with 3-4 scenes a piece, whereas in film there are 3 Acts with sub-acts in each. So if you can learn to watch for when the commercial breaks come in a TV show, each Act varies, but lasts about 8-12 minutes. And within those 8-12 pages you have to get through 3-4 scenes/plot points. You leave cliff hangers at the end of scenes or acts in order to leave your audience hungry for what’s gonna happen after the commercial…slightly different from film.

Moreover, in television, you can introduce a problem the first episode, and not solve it until the 6th, stringing the audience along. In a film, this can’t be done. If a problem is introduced in the script, it will guaranteed to be solved by the end of the script or the audience will leave feeling cheated.


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