|ANATOMY OF A TV SCRIPT
To further emphasize the point, as a TV writer, your job is to write scripts. But in order to do this, you have to know what a script is.
A script is a blueprint of an episode of a television series. It is written to tell a story in visual form, and it describes everything relevant to the story as it will appear on screen.
As a blueprint, it will be used by every part of the television production to create the finished episode the audience will watch. Because of this, it’s as much a technical document as it is a creative one, and the format which is used has been developed to fit the specific needs of the particular production for which it’s written, both technically and stylistically. Different departments of the production will expect to see specific elements in specific ways, and the showrunner, the creative director of the show, will expect it to serve the narrative needs and style established for the show.
While scripts of various shows will share common elements, a particular production’s scripts will have been developed in a way unique to that show. Different productions have different ways of handling description – some have more, some have less, some are more technical, some are more poetic. Different shows handle their characters differently. Some naturally highlight one or a few main characters; some are more ensemble-oriented and give ample time to more characters. Some are fast-paced, dialog-intensive; some are more visual and slower-moving. Some end each act and go to commercial with a quip from a character; some end each act on a mind-bending twist and a wordless reaction from the characters.
There are many possibilities, and there are as many styles as there are shows. But being tasked with writing a script for a particular show, the only way to know what a script for that show looks like is to read as many of them as you can. A study of many scripts from a show, particularly the ones which made it to the air, will tell you everything you need to know in order to write a script for that show – in terms of content, and in terms of form.
Don’t forget what you’re trying to do in a spec script – you’re trying to produce a document which looks and reads as closely as possible to an actual script of a show. Many beginning writers spend a great deal of time trying to “figure out” how to do that. The very best way possible is to study the work of the people who have already done just that – the people who write the show! It would be foolish not to study as much of their work as you possibly can. Your job is to craft a script which is part of a long series of scripts. See exactly how that was done. Don’t try to reverse engineer it just from watching the show, and from what you’ve learned separately about script formatting.
A spec script is your example, your demonstration that you’ve done your homework and know how to do the job of a staff writer for the show. If you’re submitting a spec script to a reader, if they’re familiar with the show, they’ll know how the writers of that show handle their scripts. They’ll know, for example, if the slugline for a character is the character’s first name or last name. They’ll know how the writers handle stage directions, and all the other little things which go into writing a script for that particular show. Get those right. Read how it’s done and do it that way.
Typical TV Script Structure
But you also have to know what you’re looking at when you’re studying a script. Sure, most of us know some of the basics – the location line telling us where we are, the block of description describing what’s happening in the scene and who’s doing it, the sluglines for character dialogue, the parentheticals, and the dialogue. Any script has all of that. When studying a script, you want to look for the things which make a TV script, and the scripts for a specific show, unique.
One of the most important things to understand about writing for commercial television is that it revolves around the commercial break. The scripts will be divided into sections – acts – each representing the portion of the program shown between commercial breaks. Each act will have an act break, for when the show goes to commercial. These are the points at which the acts culminate into a “gasp” moment, a mini-cliffhanger designed to get the audience to stay with the program through the commercial.
What happens at the act breaks is the backbone of the story, the pegs upon which the story hangs, the outposts along the road. When a story is plotted out, the first things plotted are those act breaks. Getting those exactly right is one of the most important things you’re doing.
This structure is common to most narrative commercial TV. An hour-long drama, such as Battlestar Galactica, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or House, will usually start with a “teaser” – an attention-grabbing short sequence just before the opening credits, meant to hook the viewer into watching the show. Then, there will be a series of acts. Four acts was once more the norm, but six acts, allowing for more commercial breaks, is becoming more and more prevalent.
However many acts there are, the first act will normally be the longest, and it will set up the story – the main conflict, the main problem the main characters have to overcome or find a solution for. By the end of the act, the audience knows the problem the characters must solve and the conditions they’ll be moving under. The second act will be a little shorter, but almost as long, and the following acts will be shorter still, each ending with some kind of twist or plot move which will leave the audience wanting more. (We’ll get into that more in a little while when we discuss the creative process of writing a script.)
As an example, a 50-page one-hour drama script, in four acts, could break down like this:
|Teaser, 2-3 pages||A taste of the story, a grabber|
|Act One, 16-17 pages||Establishes the particulars of the story|
|Act Two, 13-15 pages||Gives us our first major twist|
|Act Three, 8-9 pages||Gives us an unexpected turn|
|Act Four, 6-7 pages||Gives us our rewarding ending|
|A six-act structure may be even more pronounced in its front-heavy format; it’s possible that the later acts could be as few as 5-6 pages.
This is the general structure which will govern how you will construct your story, how you will plot out its twists and turns. Your story must be of a type which lends itself to it. Certainly, we can point to examples of an exceptional story which broke the rules, but that’s why it’s exceptional – it doesn’t often happen. As a spec writer, you’re attempting to show what you can do with the structure established by the show. You should be concentrating on shining within that structure, not breaking it.
Other types of shows will follow generally the same rules. Any narrative commercial TV show follows a story, a plot line, and is broken into acts, so the same general structure most often applies, though it will be different according to the show. A half-hour sitcom may run 25 pages with two acts. A “light hour” program, an hour-long program which isn’t heavy drama, like Pushing Daisies or Gilmore Girls, might be 65 pages. But the act structure, with act breaks plotted in, will usually be common among all.
Many aspiring writers are familiar with the typical film script format and its conventions for description, dialogue, parentheticals, etc. These conventions are generally applicable to dramatic TV scripts which are shot similarly to film, with a single camera and no studio audience.
Other types of programs which use different shooting formats have developed their own styles. For example, half-hour sitcoms are often multi-camera shoots shot live in front of a studio audience. Actions are written in all caps. Dialogue is double-spaced instead of single-spaced.
The difference between formats may lie in how different types of shows are shot. A sitcom generally shoots one night per week, on Friday nights, in front of a live audience. A one-hour drama is typically shot more film-style, with a single camera, every day of the week. Double-spaced dialogue, for example, may allow for more space to make notes during script run-throughs during the week, when you have only one shot during the week to get the script right.
Whatever the reasons for it, differences exist, and you need to be aware of them.
Script-writing software such as Final Draft has built-in provisions for different types of programs. When creating a new document, it will ask you what you’re writing, and it will take care of the formatting for you. Also, some software will have built-in templates for specific shows.
|Genre styles available in Final Draft.||Specific program templates in Final Draft.|
|Final Draft templates for Friends. Note double-spaced dialogue, action descriptions in all caps, parentheticals, and special instructions. Scenes are lettered and not numbered.|