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Structure: TV vs Film

Updated: Mar 22, 2023

Know the difference to ensure your screenplay is ready to be sent out.


If you've already read our article on Script Structure then you'll be familiar with how much of a difference structure can make to a script. However we didn't go into detail about how the structure of TV screenplays differs significantly from that of film screenplays. So let's get into it. Here are some of the key differences between the two formats, focussing today on TV.


Episode structure



TV screenplays are typically structured in terms of individual episodes, whereas film screenplays are structured as a standalone story. Each episode of a TV show has its own storyline that contributes to the overall narrative arc of the series. The structure of a TV episode typically consists of an act one, act two, act three, and sometimes a teaser before the opening credits. This means the plot, pacing and story needs to be approached vastly different than that of a film.


Length



TV episodes are typically shorter than film scripts, with most falling between 22-60 minutes. Film scripts, on the other hand, can range from 90-150 pages. The shorter length of TV episodes means that writers must be more concise and efficient with their storytelling.


Character development



TV series allow for a deeper exploration of characters over time, whereas film scripts tend to focus more on a single narrative arc. TV writers have the opportunity to develop characters through multiple episodes, often revealing their backstory and motivations in a more gradual manner. As well as the opportunity to introduce new characters as the show develops, introducing new drama elements and potential secrets about the other characters we think we know so well.


Story Arcs



TV shows often have ongoing story arcs that span multiple episodes or even multiple seasons, whereas film scripts need to have a more self-contained story. TV writers must carefully manage the pacing of the overall story arc, making sure to keep viewers engaged while also allowing for cliffhangers that keep them coming back for more. Each episode needs to end on a hook, especially when writing drama. For great examples of this, watch Breaking Bad and/or Ozark.


Dialogue



TV scripts tend to have more dialogue than film scripts, as the medium allows for a deeper exploration of characters and relationships. Screenwriters must be skilled in crafting dialogue that is both natural and compelling, allowing the characters to drive the story forward.


Page Count



Running times are the most diverse they've ever been due to streaming services on online/bingeable content. But there are still time frames to stick to:


UK Sitcoms run at 30 mins.

US Sitcoms run at 20-30 mins.

TV Pilots run from 30-60 mins.


TV Pilots typically run from 30-60 mins. Many are longer now but some are shorter (helpful info!).


Some 60 minute pilots aren't actually an hour. For instance, if you're going to a broadcaster like Channel 4, they have ads. So their 60 min episodes need to actually run at 45 mins to include advert breaks.


[Rule of thumb: 1 page = 1 minute]


The UK and US also vary a lot on the number of episodes and the process of writing:


UK Sitcom = Six Episodes per series (typically one writer)

US Sitcom = 20+ Episodes per season (Team of staff writers develop before a head writer takes the lead on various episodes)


This is something to consider when developing your next project for TV but we'll go into more detail about that when we discuss Pitching in another article.


These are just a few of the key differences between TV and film screenplays. Both formats have their own unique challenges, but both can also be incredibly rewarding for writers who have a passion for storytelling. Whether you're a seasoned writer or just starting out, it's important to understand the unique structure and requirements of each format in order to succeed.


 

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