By Alex Bloom | Contributing Writer
Take a moment to imagine your dream TV writing assignment… Is it being staffed on a network like NBC or ABC writing scripts? Or do you see yourself working in cable, like FX or HBO? One of the biggest mistakes aspiring TV writers make is not first thinking about where they’d like their script to end up and consequently making sure it’s formatted accordingly. Rather than think about format in terms of network vs. cable, it’s better to think of it in terms of the type of show you’re writing and the industry standards surrounding it. Broadly speaking, there are three types of TV script you will be writing: ½ Hour Sitcom (Single-Camera), ½ Hour Sitcom (Multi-Camera) and 1 Hour Drama.
½ Hour Sitcom (Single-Camera)
In a half hour comedy — whether it’s for network or cable — you’ll generally want to write in the main transitions directly onto the page:
Cold Open (same as a Teaser)
While some single-camera TV comedies (think 30 Rock, Californication) are sometimes shot using more than one camera, the important point to remember is that you need to write the teaser, act breaks and tag directly onto the page. These are all centered and underlined.
The teaser is the two to five minute sequence at the beginning of the show designed to hook the audience, and it’s centered on the page and underlined. Same with the tag at the end: a short scene usually unrelated to the main plot that neatly ties everything up.
Here’s an example of a half-hour single-camera comedy script:
Half hour shows on networks are often multi-camera — that is shot quickly, in front of a live studio audience using an array of cameras. Think Frasier or Friends. This means they have a very specific, technical style of formatting.
Here are a few quirks that put multi-camera formatting into a space all on its own:
- All description is written in ALL CAPS
- More stage directions
- Sluglines are underlined
- Dialogue is double-spaced
Here’s an example from Frasier:
This type of show may or may not contain commercial breaks depending if they’re on network or cable, but if they do they’ll land in-between the act breaks. Again, all act breaks are centered and underlined.
Here’s an example from Breaking Bad:
Overall, writing for a network means to some extent being restricted by convention. Shows made by networks don’t often stray too far from a fairly rigid format. Think of a show like The Big Bang Theory. If you break down an individual episode into its individual beats, you’ll see that they stick to the exact same story format in almost every show. And this is true of the formatting on the page too.
It’s worth pointing out that cable shows often leave out transitions directly on the page. They often look very much the same as regular feature film screenplays. The Game of Thrones scripts for example don’t contain any transitions at all on the page, just regular sluglines and traditional screenplay formatting.
Writing for a network such as ABC, NBC, Fox, etc. to a large extent means being restricted by the simple fact your stories will be aimed at prime time family viewing. This means basic genres such as police/doctor procedurals and not much sex or violence.
If you don’t much like the idea of being restricted by network bosses and having your creativity limited, then you may feel more at home writing for cable or a streaming service like Netflix.
On either premium cable (Sundance, HBO) or
basic cable (FX, AMC) you’ll have much more scope to
let your imagination run wild and have more
flexibility in terms of profanity, violence, and
sexuality on screen. Shows like True Detective
or Twin Peaks are built on defying
convention because their creators are
given free reign to express their
unique voice on cable.
Especially premium cable channels like HBO.
A good way to learn how to write a TV script is find and download some produced scripts similar to the style you want to write. There are many script download sites out there, such as Drew’s Script-o-Rama or Simply Scripts, where you can get copies of scripts for free and start breaking them down and studying their format.
Remember that, aside from the structure,
different networks, cable and streaming services
also have their own individual
formatting rules. One
may want scene headings underlined while another
prefers they’re not, and so the best advice we can
give is find produced scripts from your chosen
network or cable channel and then study them to
It may sound rudimentary but if you’re looking to break into writing for TV, you need to make sure you’re using the correct writing software. Many aspiring TV writers seem to think they can get away with using strange programs that leave the formatting looking completely off, but this is a guaranteed ticket to an immediate “Pass”. It just gives the impression that you’re unprofessional and that you don’t really care about your work, and so a reader at a company will think “why should I”?
Spend a few bucks on a professional screenwriting program like Movie Magic or Final Draft and automatically your script’s formatting will be that much closer to industry standard because these programs have built-in templates that take most of the heavy-lifting off your hands.
All in all it comes down to making sure that the outlet you plan to pitch your TV script to has the proper format and structure. You also have the option of having two completely differently formatted scripts, one for network and one for cable. That can always be a smart option for an aspiring TV writer as well.
Alex Bloom is the founder of Script Reader Pro — a screenplay consultancy who offer a set of hands-on tools for screenwriters, including script coverage and an actionable screenwriting course.