Posted by: steveonfilm | December 4, 2008

The Difference Between Writing for Film and for TV

A few months ago I had a nice e-mail exchange with an aspiring writer from Arizona. I’ll call him Mitch. Mitch and his cousin both recently graduated from film school and had been working on a TV pilot they wanted to pitch out in L.A.

We didn’t talk much about the actual pitch process, as that wasn’t the point of the original e-mails, but more about some ideas on how to approach his subject matter. While I never read any of Mitch’s stuff, one of the reoccurring complaints he had was how different writing for TV is when compared to writing for Film.

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.

Wow. Not easy answer…Hmm. I’ll try to answer it as simple as possible. In my blog I had mentioned that this was my first stab at writing TV on my own (I wrote a pilot with 3 other guys a couple years back that didn’t go so far as some of us couldn’t see eye to eye in the end) So it took me a couple years to get the format down and the character arcs. But after a lot of research I can comfortably answer this question.

First, in film 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. If that makes sense. You have a whole season to play with, 13-23 hours, instead of 2 hours in a film.

Second, There are more characters (in my pilot I introduce about 16 characters, and David Milch introduced 22 characters in Deadwood!) So as you can tell, in a 1 hour show, in order to cover so many characters, it is important to be as brief and as 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.

Third, to go with this last point, 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.

As well, 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, I have a character who is the strong protagonist in the beginning of my 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.

Finally, most television 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. Some people see this and freak out because of the strict limitation in time, but I actually like it because I know to 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.

Another thing I like about TV is 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.

It’s a whole different animal, and a lot to wrap your head around. Hope this helped differentiate.

And there you have it. From Dusty’s fingertips to your eyeballs.

Now, if you’ll excuse me I’ve got a White Russian and Final Draft to attend to.




  1. I’m also looking for books that specialize on TV writing (formula, structure and 5 acts) instead of Film writing, if you know any good ones.

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