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).