Writing an original spec script requires a solid understanding of pilot script structure. The good news is you have an excuse to watch TV rather than write. The bad news is your thumb is will get tired from hitting the play/pause space bar so many times. Once you know what sub-genre you are writing in, you can put your researcher hat on and really geek out with the spreadsheets. The real secret to studying structure, whether for an original pilot or a non-original spec script of an existing show,) is to methodically figure out what is happening scene by scene. In this case, take three or more pilots of the shows most relevant to your own and break them down. It’s tediously slow work but it’s the best way to absorb the structure and pacing that you are aiming for. You want your script to FEEL like it belongs on TV. This is how you do that.
There are four steps to creating a script study breakdown:
- Pick the right show to analyze.
- Find a .pdf of the script.
- Design your spreadsheet.
- Study the episode scene by scene.
Pick The Right Shows
Every type of show has unspoken rules of pace and expectation. A medical procedural traditionally introduces a protagonist differently than a serialized crime thriller or a workplace sitcom. While you might be tempted to break these rules to get noticed, that’s a high-risk game. If you are trying to build a portfolio that gets you into a room, your job with writing an original spec pilot is to show that you understand the conventions of your genre and you are able to deliver the “promise of the premise” in a fresh and entertaining way.
Pick three (or more) successful shows that best represent the genre your script belongs in. Warning: If you aren’t sure what genre your script belongs it, prepare to confuse the people you most want to impress.
Get .pdf copies Of The Scripts.
Find a .pdf of the script online if you can. The TV Calling Script Library is a great place to start your search. If you dare to use up the printer paper, you might want to print the script out for easy reference. Give the script a read and pay attention to the placement of act breaks, the length of the scenes and the style and depth of descriptions and slug lines. If you can’t find a .pdf copy of the script you can skip this step. Most of the meat of this exercise comes from watching rather than reading.
Design Your Spreadsheet.
Make a chart template. Using one row per scene works well. Along the top, label your columns. I recommend the following column headings:
Scene number/ Time/ Story Line (A/B etc)/ Plot Point (What happens) / Structure and Function / Physical Action / Reveal of Character / Emotion Evoked
Study The Shows Scene by Scene
This is most easily done watching on a computer where you can have one window for video and another for the spreadsheet. It is a very slow process but the best way to absorb the structure and pacing of your chosen genre.
The first line of my breakdown of the pilot for Killing Eve looks like this:
|TC||Sc#||Story Line||Scene Description, Plot Point||Scene Structure/Function||Physical Action/Setting||Reveal of character||Audience Emotion|
|00.05||1||B||Vilanelle is jealous of a little girl’s dismissal of her and the girl’s attraction to the ice-cream seller. V tries to imitate the man’s charming smile. She tips the girl’s ice cream into her lap as she walks out. Title: Vienna||Set tone. Surprise viewer. Intro Vilanelle.||Sitting, then exit||Eve is stylish but obviously not normal. She is unpredictable and easily angered and perhaps ruthless.||Tone feels like an Int’l spy thriller. Settling in for intrigue – then surprised. Amused and unsettled.|
You might have to watch the episode a few times to fully fill in each section. You will get a little faster each time you do this, and it will train you to notice plot and structure attributes more acutely as you watch television in general. As your library of episode breakdown sheets grows, you will notice similarities and differences between shows of the same genres. These are clues that can help you to achieve the tone and pacing you are aiming for in your own work. I guarantee that if you do the work, you will have a much firmer grasp of where your own outline needs tightening and tweaking.
If we’re talking about how to write an original spec script, we need to talk about Theme. I used to assume that pinning myself down with a theme too early in the writing process would be creatively suffocating. Instead, I would clarify my theme somewhere between the first and second draft. I knew it was helpful as a guidepost when I was cleaning up a messy plotline or clarifying a character’s intention.
Now I’m a convert to working out my story’s theme in the very earliest stages of story planning thanks to William Rabkin’s book, Writing the Pilot. Rabkin explains, “you can’t start writing your TV show until you can answer that simplest of questions: What is my show about?” He writes that theme is the thread holding all the episodes together. It’s a unifying idea that is always “expressed through the series’ central conflict.”
For example, a central theme for Schitt’s Creek is identity. What happens to your identity when you lose all your money and you’re forced to reinvent yourself in a world with different values and expectations? How are you seen by other people when your circumstances change? How do you see yourself? Likewise, a central theme for Working Moms is also identity, but the conflicts and humour play out through an exploration of how a group of female friends mold their individual identities through the forging fire of balancing careers, relationships and motherhood.
Since central conflict is absolutely critical to decisions of plot and character, it follows that you’re going to write a much tighter and more engaging script if you’ve done the leg work of thinking through what your show is really about.
In an interview at the Toronto Screenwriting Conference earlier this year, Showrunner Ayanna Floyd Davis (The Chi, Empire) explained that her rooms focus heavily on theme for their season, episode storylines, and their character arcs. Theme informs what each character wants at the start of the season. Those ‘wants’ needs to be touched on in each episode, with characters making both good and bad decisions based on those deep desires. It colours everything they do. “Then you get ready to blend them together based on the theme of each episode,” as Ayanna Floyd Davis puts it, “to get the stories to talk to each other.”
If you’re going to write an original spec script, it’s worth exploring what’s at the heart of the story you are trying to tell in the earliest stages of your development process.
The PSP is accepting applications for our next scripted series lab until September 1st, 2019. Six writers will be given the opportunity to create a new tv series with an experienced showrunner. Interested? We want to read your original tv script! If you’re wondering how to write an original spec script, the first step is coming up with an idea. The whole prospect can be a bit daunting when the options are endless. Sometimes it helps to remember that this is something you’ve been doing since you were little.
Play Like A Little Kid
Okay, let’s imagine you are a five-year-old kid looking into a box of toys in the corner of a waiting room. You’re digging around to see what you want to play with. Then you find three green plastic army guys, a red plastic bendy monkey, and a small wooden horse with one leg broken off. So those are your characters.
Next, you look around to find a spot to set them up. Under your mom’s chair will do nicely. You’ll have some privacy and, even better, you can use her big brown leather purse as a mountain for your characters. This will be your world.
It turns out that Purse Mountain is full of treasure. The army guys have it and are guarding from above. Bendy Monkey promises Horse that she will find a way into the treasure cave in Purse Mountain to get the elixir that can restore Horse’s missing leg. Horse is grateful but very weak. Bendy Monkey is scared but determined. You realize that Horse is suffering from a curse made by an evil wizard back when he rescued Bendy Monkey from a cage in the wizard’s library. If Bendy Monkey can’t get the elixir quickly, then Horse’s other legs are going to break off. That’s your conflict and those are the stakes. You could say that it’s really a story about friendship solidifying courage in. That’s your theme.
Test Your Idea Like A Kid Looking For Someone To Play With
You are going to feel an urge to just start, but hold on! You need to test the idea on other people first, so experiment until you have a logline you can actually say smoothly out loud to real people. (I mean it! REAL people! Not just to yourself out loud. Be brave.) But back to Purse Mountain, as a kid, you would have said, “Want to play? Bendy Monkey has to get past the guards to save Horse.” That’s your log line and your pitch.
In other words, narrow it down to writing the kind of show you yourself would want to watch. Imagine your world and get as specific as you can. Then figure out the conflict. What mess will the characters get themselves into? Is this mess powerful enough to be your story engine through multiple episodes? What personalities and character attributes would create the best web of complications and conflicting views? Doodle, brainstorm, make an imageboard or tape up creepy webs of photos connected by yarn. Do whatever helps you to really understand what adventure you want to play.
That’s where you always start. Don’t worry, you’ve been doing it since you were small!
In television, every genre and every series has a different formatting style. So, when you’re writing an original TV pilot script, how do you know which rules apply? There are some guidelines that apply to all TV scripts.
If you don’t have screenwriting software yet: Set margins 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) from the left page edge. Write the character names in caps 3.5 inches (9 cm) from the left margin. Set dialogue 2.5 inches (6.3 cm) on each side from the margins. But you’ll need screenwriting software eventually. TV writers in LA tend to use Final Draft. TV writers in Vancouver tend to use Movie Magic Screenwriter.
Next, write your act breaks into the script (centred, capped and underlined). Remember to write END OF ACT ONE before you write ACT TWO. Streaming video on demand (SVOD) shows (like Netflix’s Stranger Things) and some cable shows don’t need written act breaks, but they still have inherent act turning points and you’ll need END EPISODE (capped, underlined and centred) at the end.
Where should you place your ACT BREAKS?
Pick a show in your genre and analyze its specific formatting and structure. Here are some typical examples of act break structure.
TEASER or COLD OPEN – 2-4 pages
ACT ONE – 6-11 pages
ACT TWO – 6-11 pages
ACT THREE – 6-11 pages
TAG or STING or ACT FOUR – 1-4 pages
Total 21-41 pages (Multi-camera sitcom scripts tend to be longer. Single-camera half-hour comedy scripts tend to be shorter.)
TEASER or COLD OPEN – 2-4 pages
ACT ONE – 11-13 pages
ACT TWO – 11-13 pages
ACT THREE – 11-13 pages
ACT FOUR – 11-13 pages
ACT FIVE – 11-13 pages
TAG or STING – 1-2 pages
Total 58-65 pages
Formatting the TITLE PAGE, CAST LIST, and SET LIST:
Now set up your title page. TV writers use Courier 12 for the script, but sometimes Times New Roman for elements of the title page.
Most TV series have logo titles.
For the pilot script:
On the bottom left of the title page, list contact information. The bottom right in bold is revision information:
WHITE PAGES month/day/year
Some TV scripts also have a REVISION HISTORYon the next page to keep track of changes (White, Blue, Pink, Yellow, Green, Goldenrod, Buff, etc.).
Eg. DATE COLOR PAGES PUBLISHED
08/29/19 (FULL PINK) FULL SCRIPT
Next page: CAST LIST. Roles on the left, actors on the right. ALL CAPS.
Next page: SET LIST. Interiors on the left. Exteriors on the right. Establish the house, then indent rooms below it. All caps.
VENICE BEACH BUNGALOW
Multi-camera sitcoms (like Big Bang Theory) film on standing sets, using stock footage for exteriors, limiting locations and characters. Single-camera comedies (like Brooklyn 99) shoot exteriors too. A typical one-hour drama might have 60% interior sets and 40% exteriors. I mention this because TV writers are also producers (partly responsible for budgets).
After writing the set list, close the title page and save your document.
Create a Header to start on p2.
These vary, but usually contain some, if not all, of this information:
SERIES “Episode” #101 10/03/19 (COLOR) Page number
Now, finally, you’re ready to start your script.
This is where half-hour and one-hour formatting diverge…
Unless the scene ends exactly at the bottom of the page, use CONTINUED: top left and (CONTINUED) bottom right. The second continued page says CONTINUED: (2).
Add scene numbers on either side of bolded scene headings.
Establish DAY or NIGHT in scene headings, then use CONTINUOUS or LATER. Many writers add (D1) or (N2) to mean Day One or Night Two in the fictional timeline.
No more than four lines of action-description. Use italics, underlining, caps and bolding for emphasis. (Check out the Lost or Stranger Thingsscripts.) Fragment sentences with double-dashes for a new shot —
— even in the middle of a sentence.
TV writers refer to the camera (sometimes as “we”).
WE PAN across the room.
Single-space dialogue, like a feature script.
Use parentheticals not just for tone and action but also to direct a line. “re” stands for “regarding.”
What’s wrong with you?
Use scene numbers on either side of CAPITALIZED AND UNDERLINED scene headings then write the characters appearing in those scenes below in brackets.
INT. DINING ROOM – NIGHT
Once you establish DAY or NIGHT, use CONTINUOUS or LATER instead.
The first time a character appears, cap and underline their name with a brief description.
Intense HAZEL (24) and hipster ROSETTA (22) drink wine.
Only NEW characters get caps in subsequent episodes.
Some comedy series – like Friends, Two and a Half Men and Big Bang Theory– CAPITALIZE action-description and double-space dialogue, but others – like The Good Place and 30 Rock– lower-case action description and single-space dialogue. Double-spacing dialogue changes the 1:1 ratio, so a 22-minute episode may be 44 pages long. Confusing? Sure. Just make your decision and stick to it.
Underline and bold dialogue for emphasis.
(CAPITALIZE PARENTHETICALS IN BRACKETS) on the same line as dialogue with no indent.
(TO ROSETTA) What?
The best way to get good at formatting TV scripts is to read a lot of TV scripts. My favourite source is Lee Thomson’s amazing TV Writing collection https://sites.google.com/site/tvwriting/. Check out his TV Bible collection too.
Kat Montagu is an award-winning screenwriting instructor at Vancouver Film School and the author of The Dreaded Curse of Screenplay Formatting (available as a bestselling eBook on Amazon).
Thank you to everyone who attended last night’s Scripted Series Lab 2020 info session! We are excited to see so much interest. We’d like to send a special shout out to last year’s participants who generously answered questions and entertained us with their anecdotes.
We hope you will email us with your questions if you weren’t able to attend last night’s event! Also, be sure to sign up to our mailing list if you haven’t already. We plan to hold an online info session later in the summer. (Details still to come.) The application window for our 15 week 2020 Scripted Series Lab closes September 1, 2019. Please have a look through our SSL FAQ and send in your original TV pilot scripts!
The TSC Fellowship recipients are back after a whirlwind conference weekend in Toronto. Here are seven pieces of advice from conference speakers, on topics ranging from mental health to writing, pitching, and receiving notes.
On looking after your mental health:
“You don’t need to be sick or in pain to create something.”
-Christopher Cantwell. Showrunner, Halt and Catch Fire @ifyoucantwell
On creativity and discipline:
“The most important thing is to write every day. Your two most common enemies are procrastination and perfectionism, two sides of the same coin. Your mind tricks you into not doing the work. Push through and write the words regardless. Find a path to your subconscious. Some days are harder than others. Creativity is elusive – capture it by work ethic. Just keep working. Writing every day on a schedule is like training for a sport.”
-Carlton Cuse. Showrunner, Locke & Key, Lost, Bates Motel @CarltonCuse
“Know what each character wants at the start of each season. That want needs to be in each episode with characters making both good and bad decisions based on that. It colours everything they do. Then you get ready to blend them together based on episode theme to get the stories to talk to each other. That makes it cohesive.”
– Ayanna Floyd Davis. Showrunner, the Chi @qu33nofdrama
On writing your pilot:
“Anyone who is reading your pilot has probably read a thousand pilots, minimum…meaning you probably can’t surprise them. But they still want to be surprised. Subvert their expectations and focus on twists of character rather than plot. Let the characters feel familiar, then have them do surprising things.”
-Ben Watkins. Showrunner, Hand of God @_Benipedia_
On cutting through the marketplace noise:
Always be saying something. Be innovative and provocative. You have to be able to cut through in this market. People are hungry to see things subverted and see themselves reflected.
– Heather Brewster. VP, Scripted, Global Content Div, Keshet Int’l @HtoTheBrewster
“If you’re pitching as a team, practice as a team. MULTIPLE TIMES. Assign specific roles. “Before I let Kevin answer that, I’ll give you some context…” Prepare your answers to all anticipated talking points.
– Kevin White. Speaker and Pitching Coach @TheOptimalPitch
On receiving studio notes:
Listen to what is being said and try not to interrupt even if you disagree. Ask them specifically, “what’s driving the note?” Then you can figure out if it’s a matter of opinion vs truly constructive. It’s okay to say “let me think about that.” Be willing to at least consider or even try what’s being suggested. Fight for what you truly believe in. Let go of things that don’t affect the integrity of your project.
-Phil Breman, VP Scripted Programming, NBC @PhillingYourDay
We’d like to thank the organizers of the Toronto Screenwriting Conference for their dedication to bringing in such wonderful speakers. We’re already looking forward to next year!
Were you there too? What speakers stood out for you? Are you planning to go next year? We’d love to hear about it.
We’re back at the office on the heels of last week’s pitching event and wrap party. It’s official: You party goers came with good ideas and you weren’t shy to pitch them! Feedback from the many decision-makers in attendance has been overwhelmingly positive.
“I want to thank you for organizing what was a great event and for making it such a great experience for me.” -John Orlando, Senior VP Programming and Development, Sony Crackle
“You folks put on a heck of a show. It was welcoming and fun and everyone from the conference steering committee was so lovely.” -Chris Kelley, Production Executive – Comedy, Bell Media
“It was such a nice experience and you and the team put together a fantastic event! Bravo!” Melanie Nepinak Hadley, -CBC Scripted Content.
We want to send a huge thank you to the folks at Netflix, the CW, Sony, CBC, Bell, Corus, Sony Crackle, SyFy, and Lionsgate who took the time to celebrate with us.
Thanks, also, to our Scripted Series Lab participants, Petie Chalifoux, Kat Sieniuc, Todd Ireland, Corey Liu, and Mike Orlando for all their hard work. We couldn’t have done it without the support of the CMPA, the WGC, and Creative BC.
Thank you to all the local producers, showrunners, filmmakers and screenwriters who brought your energy, your ideas, and your enthusiasm. If you weren’t able to attend this year, we hope you’ll join us next year. We’re already thinking of ways to make year two bigger and better.
Karen Lam, (Ghost Wars, Van Helsing, Evangeline), offers some fresh advice on the importance of doing real world research.
Do you think TV writers need to do research outside the writers’ room? If so, what type of research?
You can google stuff about serial killers, but I’ve spent months actually talking to FBI agents and inmates, doing first hand research interviewing people. I can tell you it’s not the same as looking something up on Psychology Today. You can’t make these people up! Real cops sound different than they do on tv. Victims of horrible crimes aren’t just dark and mopey. They act differently than on tv.
To me the more first-hand non-tv experience you have, the better. It’s important to go out and deal with real humans.
What influence has your documentary work had on your writing for film and television?
My documentary work balances my fiction writing because these people’s stories change me. They change how I view the world. It’s important that I’m not going in with an agenda. I’m not trying to direct them into saying anything. When I’m doing my documentary research, I just stay in the moment and trust that if it’s going to be important to my other projects it will percolate and stay with me.
When you go out there you have to understand that people are complex, and you may not get the answers you were expecting. The questions that you ask should be open ended and you have to be there to listen to them. I give people space. It’s a conversation, not a set of questions, and I never know where the conversation will go.
As writers I think it’s really important that your reality gets reflected with specificity. It’s the details that make it real. When we’re not using our own backgrounds or our own real-world research, characters can just seem like copies of copies of characters.
Our whole job is to be a vessel, and to give some sort of voice to what needs to be spoken. I say have as little ego as you can so you can have compassion for your characters and be open to what comes. Go talk with real people. Do primary research. Get yourself into a situation where you get access to real stories and real situations. Otherwise what are you doing but regurgitating?
We received a question this week from someone who loved to write but wasn’t sure how to turn their writing into a career. I thought I would share my thoughts on the blog in case there were others reading with the same question.
First let me say I wouldn’t have felt qualified to answer this query except that I’ve now had the pleasure of interviewing several television writers and showrunners with our scripted series lab. Although each writer seems to have found his or her own unique career track, one consistent thread between them is that they all managed to make circuitous but ultimately important connections in the film industry. They also share the traits of being humbly dedicated to working on their craft and working hard. I’m sure I won’t be the first to come up with this conclusion but I now believe aiming for a career in tv and film writing requires a two-front strategy:
- Make connections in the film industry…in every and any department.
- Be a professional – meaning always be writing and working on your craft.
Get in anywhere you can. Whether you are a PA on set, working in the accounting department of a production company, building sets in the carpentry department, or logging footage for documentaries, you never know how your connections and understanding of the wider industry will help you get a script to the right person who can help you get your next opportunity and so on. Be invaluable at your job, be someone people want to extend themselves for, and let people know that you are also a writer. Volunteering at film festivals can also be a useful way to meet people and learn more about how writers fit into the industry.
While you build your network, you have to continue to work on your craft. Pump out that material, draft after draft, and you’ll get better with each one. Try different genres. Write original material and non-original specs to show you can write in your own voice or adapt to someone else’s. Create an ironclad routine for your writing. There are many great books that a quick internet search will reveal.
There are some great teachers in our local screenwriting programs. Check out the full and part-time options at UBC, SFU, Capilano University and Langara. Also, check out Raindance, InFocus and Vancouver Film School. Here at the PSP we accept applications for our highly competitive scripted series lab, (running January-April) beginning in August.
When you feel your work is ready, you can start entering your scripts in screenwriting contests. Making it to the finalist round of any of the major competitions is a great way to get the attention of industry decision makers. Making your own short films or web series’ can also be a great way to showcase your work and your ability to make things happen.
Beyond craft, there are some great websites and podcasts to help you understand the business of screenwriting. Some of my favourites podcasts include: Script Notes by John August, Write On by Final Draft, On the Page with Pilar Alessandra, and Storywise with Jen Grisanti. Both the Writers Guild of Canada’s Writers Talking TV, and John Ward’s 49 Degrees North focus specifically on writing in Canada.
I would to hear from working writers out there. Do you have any tips for turning a love of writing into a screenwriting career?
Given Showrunner Sarah Dodd’s CSA winning talent for binge worthy police drama, we are pretty excited to reveal that the scripted series lab is working on a new crime series. I asked our writers if they had any advice for nailing the obligatory scenes and conventions of this beloved genre and here are some of their notes:
You’ve got to have the bullpen recap to summarize what’s known so far in the investigative line and to clarify the direction of the investigation.
Your cops have to talk about the case while driving in the car!
The protagonists need to drive their scenes. They are acting out their own strategies, and we find deliciousness in the surprises that befall them.
Treat every suspect as a potential killer. Keep their motives and opportunities in mind.
You need to really humanize the victim.
Have a red herring switch that’s going to flip the investigation on its head.
As one of my favorite experts on story, Shawn Coyne, explains, “Conventions are elements in the story that must be there or the reader will be confused, unsettled, or bored out of their skull.” Coyne has three steps for finding your obligatory scenes and conventions in his “the Story Grid” podcast:
- Decide which kind of story you want to tell.
- Find other stories like the one you want to tell.
- List all the things they have in common.
We barely scratched the surface with our crime drama tropes, so what did we miss?