Writing Television Drama
Chic, classic and classy.
From A Game of Thrones to Dexter and Better Call Saul to Mad Men television dramas are some of our most valued and popular entertainment franchises.
In this article we’ll look at:
Writing for television
Developing a television drama
Writing for established shows
The television script
Commercial breaks and cliffhangers
Writing for television
Nearly every word spoken on television is written by someone, but much of this work is done in-house. As an outsider your creative writing options will normally be limited to:
Writing a new drama series/serial.
Contributing to an existing drama serial.
Writing comedy material.
Developing a television drama
If you have an idea for a television drama first ask yourself if it has a unique selling point (USP). What makes it different from other similar shows? The trick is to come up with an idea that fits into an established genre, but has a twist to make it new and interesting. The Mentalist is a good example of a new twist on an old theme. In many respects this was a standard detective series, but its USP was its main character Patrick Jane, an ex con-artist who helped solve crimes using his unconventional psychological skills. The twist of the classic Columbo was that the detective show was a ‘howdunnit?’ rather than a ‘whodunnit?’. Law & Order was a novel combination of police procedural and courtroom drama.
Is your show a series or a serial?
Which do you want to write: a series or a serial? Drama series are shows like The Mentalist, Morse and CSI where each episode features the same characters in a new story. In contrast, in a drama serial the story continues from episode to episode. In most serials the main cast will stay broadly the same throughout, such as in Mad Men, but in other cases it might change significantly over the length of the show, for example The Walking Dead and A Game of Thrones.
In recent years the distinction between series and serials has become blurred. The classic series (such as Colombo) comprised a string of stand-alone episodes, and you needn’t have watched the previous episode, or indeed any other episode, to understand and enjoy the current story. However, in the 1990s a number of series started to include longer story-lines that stretched across all the shows in the season and even between seasons. For example, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer each season was dedicated to the defeat of a new villain (referred to in the show as the ‘Big Bad’). Within the season any episode could be enjoyed on its own, but in most episodes information was delivered that helped progress the plot of the overarching season story. In The Mentalist there was a long-term story that extended across multiple seasons and detailed Patrick Jane’s quest to track down the serial killer Red John, the murderer of his wife and child.
The advantage of these longer story arcs is that they help to establish a loyal following by rewarding the regular viewer with a deeper level of storytelling. Their disadvantage is that a new or less regular viewer is likely to be confused by lots of references they don’t understand. This is less important than it used to be as anyone with an internet connection can now quickly get up to speed with an unfamiliar story arc.
Writing a series
If you have an idea for a new series, flesh it out with a detailed proposal that does the following:
Introduces the location.
Introduces the characters (describes them and their relationship to one another).
Describes, in detail, the plot of your first episode (the pilot).
Briefly outlines the plots of at least five further episodes.
Your proposal should also describe the long-term story arc for your show. These arcs have become so commonplace that it’s rare to see a new series commissioned without one.
In a drama serial one story is spread over a whole season (for example Prime Suspect, 24 or Rome). If you write a proposal for a serial your outline will follow the pattern for a series proposal (described above) but it must also include a broad description of the action in every episode so it’s clear how the main story will play out.
Although the introduction of long-term story arcs in series writing has blurred the difference between series and serials, there’s still a valid distinction to be made between the two formats. Decide early on which type of show you want to create, you can’t do half-and-half. Either the season storyline dominates, in which case it’s a serial, or the individual episode storylines do, in which case you have a series.
Writing for established shows
Your first step is to write to the producer, script editor or showrunner of the show you’re interested in and ask if they’d like to see your material. Some shows are keen on encouraging fresh talent and will have submissions guidelines they can send you, others will only consider material submitted via an agent.
The only way to find out is to get in touch. The shows most likely to be interested in fresh talent are long-running series such as Dr Who (see below) and the long running serials, otherwise known as the ‘soap operas’.
Writing for soap operas
Soap operas such as EastEnders and The Young and the Restless are long-running serials with multiple parallel plots running alongside each other. If you’d like to write for a soap your first step is to prepare some sample material to show what you can do. However, there’s little point in contributing to a current storyline as these are often worked out months in advance and anything you come up with will be out of date the moment it’s written. Better alternatives are to write:
A stand-alone episode.
An original drama in a soap format.
Write a stand-alone sample episode
Take some of the regular characters from the soap you want to write for and put them in a stand-alone story that's unrelated to any current plots. Use central characters who are unlikely to be written out anytime soon (your story will look dated if a lead character in your script is killed off the week you send it in) and be sure to time your script so it’s the length of a regular episode. If you’re writing for a commercial channel indicate where the advertising breaks will be (more on this below).
Writing a stand-alone episode allows you to demonstrate your understanding of the soap’s themes, characters and back-stories and your ability to produce a script that would not look out of place within regular programming.
However, be warned that some staff writers don’t particularly enjoy seeing ‘copycat’ scripts that attempt to mimic their show. The writers, editors and producers on long-running shows have often worked on them for many years and will have developed a finely-tuned ear for the kind of dialogue they expect to hear from the the mouths of their characters. If you don’t have what it takes to produce something that’s very close to the mark in terms of dialogue content, style and tone, your attempts to produce a sample episode might come across as a parody rather than a homage.
Write an original drama
Bearing the above in mind it can be a better idea to create an original 30 or 45 minute drama tailored for a soap audience. This is harder to do but shows off your ability to create interesting characters from scratch and put them in a dramatic story. Producers and script-editors need writers with imagination who’ll be able to develop a show by conjuring up new plots and characters, and an original script will help demonstrate these talents better than a sample episode. There’s also a significant advantage to yourself in that your sample script could be used to approach any number of shows. In contrast, a stand-alone sample script based on characters in, say, General Hospital would be of limited interest to the producers of Days of our Lives.
Writing for an established series
Long running drama series such as Dr Who, Supernatural or Law & Order will always be on the lookout for fresh writing talent. However, because there’s so much invested in the continued success of these programmes any creative opportunities are generally limited to writers who have a proven track record. As a first step, contact the production company of the show you’re interested in and be ready to follow up quickly if they want to see what you can do. The very least they’ll want is a synopsis of the story you have in mind to make sure it’s not similar to a past episode or something already in the pipeline. Prepare your synopsis in advance (see the advice in Tips on submissions) so you can strike while the iron is hot. If the synopsis is well received you might get some notes on improvements and be asked to submit a script.
The television script
The following sample is a standard format for television scripts.
Some elements of the television script are the same as those for movies (see Writing a screenplay). Both use scene headers, and the abbreviation ‘EXT.’ for exterior and ‘INT.’ for interior. Names, directions and dialogue are written from different left-hand margins and important details are put in small caps (note that none of the text is centred automatically). As with movie scripts avoid using camera directions where possible, too many will spoil the flow of your story. In the above the abbreviation ‘OS’ means ‘Out of Shot’.
Many creative writing software packages include templates for US and UK television scripts and will handle this formatting for you (see Tools of the trade).
To see examples of television scripts in a range of formats go to the BBC Writers Room.
In a movie script it’s assumed that each page equals one minute of screen time, but for a television script this measure is not precise enough. Within reason a movie can be as long as it needs to be, but the dialogue and action in your television script will have to fill a defined slot with little margin for error. The best way to estimate the length of your script is to read each scene aloud and time yourself. Generally it’s easier to prune down a long script than pad out a short script, so overwrite rather than underwrite. Rules on length are a little looser on streaming services such as Netflix, but you will still be expected to a aim for a target.
Tips for writing television drama
Much of the advice that applies to movies and plays (see Writing a screenplay and Writing a stage play) applies equally well to television drama. However, in addition to that advice, make sure you do the following:
Have a script that’s ready to send out
If you’ve approached someone with a proposal for a new project, make sure you can follow up quickly if it attracts any interest. If a producer, editor or showrunner likes your idea and wants to see more, be sure you can deliver. If they have to wait for a week or more before you can show them a script, they’re likely to have forgotten about you by the time it arrives.
Start your story quickly
This advice has been repeated a number of times elsewhere, but it’s particularly important in television. In a theatre or cinema you have a captive audience — if a play or movie is slow to start the audience aren’t going to bolt for the door (you hope). Not so with the home audience, if you don’t grab their attention quickly there’s a risk they’ll switch to another channel. For this reason many television dramas give the audience a taste of the action before the main titles start.
Let’s say we’re watching the start of a new detective series called ‘Inspector Ruff’. The first scene is set in a wood at twilight where we see two women standing by a freshly dug hole. The women struggle to pick up an object wrapped in a tarpaulin. The tarpaulin parts to reveal…a human leg! Nearby we see a small boy watching them from behind a bush. The titles roll…
This opening will raise questions in the minds of the viewers and keep them glued to the screen (you hope). Who’s been killed? Is the corpse a murder victim? Did the women do it? Who is the boy? Is he alone? Is he in danger?
Write short scenes
Television audiences can be easily bored, so keep your scenes short. Every new scene in a new location brings the promise of new information to be revealed and draws the story a little closer to its climax. Writing your story as a string of short, punchy scenes maintains interest, excitement and tension.
Give your scenes visual interest
Let’s say one of your scenes involves Mum and Aunt Millie having a conversation in the kitchen. There might be a good reason for this (it might be the scene where Aunt Millie finds Grandpa — an escaped convict — hiding in the pantry) but if it’s not important consider putting them somewhere more interesting. Interesting doesn’t have to mean exotic, it could involve Mum and Millie walking to the shops or strolling down a canal towpath. Exterior scenes that involve action hold more interest than static interior scenes and offer more creative opportunities for the writer. For example, if Millie happened to deliver a horrifying revelation at the edge of the canal, Mum could express her outrage by pushing her in the water. As well as adding scripted interest these active exterior scenes also provide more improvisational opportunities for the director and cast.
Remember that images are as important as dialogue
Pictures should play an important part in the telling of your story. This doesn’t mean you should plan your script as a series of individual camera shots (that’s the job of the director) but you should think of ways to tell your story visually. Look at each of your scenes and ask yourself how much of the information you want to convey to the viewer could be passed on through images. You might be surprised at just how little dialogue you really need.
As an exercise imagine you’re a character in a television drama. The audience haven’t seen you yet and don’t know anything about you. Now imagine that you’re being introduced to the audience via your bedroom. The drama starts with a long panning shot that travels around your room showing us the pictures on your walls, the things on your shelves, clothes hanging on a chair… By looking at your bedroom and the things you keep around you what sort of mental image will the audience have of you? Will they be able to guess your age, your income, your sex, your interests, your personality, where you live, the age you live in? What could you add or take away from your bedroom to make that image clearer?
Commercial breaks and cliff-hangers
In the UK advertisements on commercial television account for around 12% of screen time (an average of 7 minutes per hour, or 8 minutes after 6pm). In the USA it’s longer, with each hour of television including around 15 minutes of advertising.
If you intend to write for a commercial channel plan for commercial breaks from the start. In the UK a half-hour show will be divided it into two roughly equal parts separated by a break. A one-hour show is divided into three roughly equal parts with two breaks dividing them. In the US breaks are shorter and more frequent.
When planning your script make sure your scene structure can accommodate all the breaks required at the right times. You should also aim to enter commercial breaks on a cliffhanger that will encourage the viewers stay tuned. Cliffhangers are usually important questions (“Are you Tiffany’s real father!?”) or potentially dangerous events. For example, our convict Granddad creeps out of the pantry, turns on the stove to boil a kettle, but slips and falls unconscious before he lights the gas. Cliffhangers are similar to the curtain-lines described in Writing a stage play.
Where do I send my television script?
Scan the credits of shows you’d like to write for and get the names of producers, showrunners and script editors who might be interested in seeing your material. Contact these individuals through the relevant production company. The websites of most production companies will include advice on submissions.
For contacts in the USA try the VisualNet Directory.
Wikipedia often includes production company details on pages devoted to television shows.
For general advice, the BBC Writers Room is a online resource that provides valuable information on writing for television and radio.
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