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Film vs. TV Screenwriting: Navigating the Differences

Every great show, movie, pilot, or series came to life from an idea that resulted in jotting down a script. Although most people know what a script is, each has many critical differences, especially when comparing film and television screenwriting.


These differences usually revolve around structure, dialogue, resolution, narrative choices, style, writing length, etc. Whatever avenue you take, navigating the distinctions between film and television screenwriting is vital to getting the most out of your writing.


Stills from Fargo (1996) and Fargo TV Series (2016). Photo credit: Indiewire


Film Writing


Though cinema isn’t what it used to be box-office-wise, there’s still something magical about seeing a film on the big screen. As writers, it’s mindblowing to witness a great film of any magnitude and think back on how it began and ended up where it is. Everything begins with writing.


Film writers create storylines, draft scripts, and make revisions. However, unlike television writers, film writers usually don't shape the visual aspects of the movie; this responsibility falls on the director and cinematographer.


Structure


Structure is imperative to film writing, especially early in a writer’s career. Though many writers may disagree, they all follow structure to a certain extent. While many non-traditional movies don’t follow structure, most follow a straightforward three-act structure.


●     Act I: Introduce a challenge that propels the protagonist into action.

●     Act II: Present obstacles and complications that intensify the struggle.

●     Act III: Resolve the conflict, whether successfully or not.


It’s challenging to balance confusing your audience without overexplaining what writers call exposition. One effective method is to introduce a character early on who serves as a surrogate for the audience, asking questions that viewers may also have.


After setting up the exposition, introduce the central conflict with an inciting action. However, delaying this introduction beyond 20 to 25 pages can weaken the script's impact. Utilize page markers as checkpoints to maintain suitable pacing and development.


Make the first 10 to 15 pages compelling in constructing your story arc. These initial pages are pivotal in seizing the interest of producers or studio executives deliberating on whether to proceed with your project.


Television Writing


The medium of television couldn’t be any stronger in a contemporary setting, mainly because of the influx of streaming. Though there are more avenues for getting a show made more than ever before, that doesn’t mean television writing is any easier.


Television writers develop storylines, write scripts, edit and revise episodes, and contribute to their visual aspects. They can also influence various aspects, including the narratives and set designs, meaning they have more control in this sense than a film writer would.


Structure


Structure is challenging in the television writing world since it’s a long process compared to cinema since you never know how long your show may go on. Regardless, a typical one-hour television episode is structured into five acts, each approximately 10 to 11 pages long, serving distinct purposes:


●     Act I: Introduction of characters and presentation of the central problem.

●     Act II: Escalation of the problem.

●     Act III: Presentation of the worst-case scenario.

●     Act IV: Introduction of a ticking clock element.

●     Act V: Resolution leading to the characters' triumph.


Consider the desired endings for each act while planning the episode's structure. Rather than relying on last-minute reveals or twists for excitement, establish these endings in advance and build the narrative accordingly.


Some key television storylines can focus on the main character, serving as the episode's core, usually referred to as an A storyline. There are also B storylines that feature secondary narratives supporting the main plot's progression or a C storyline with a subplot with the most minor importance.


Knowing The Differences


As great as it is to know the general idea of film writing and television writing, it’s more valuable to know about the differences. The differences can help outline the structure and grant you a more robust script in the long run. Here are a few key bullet points regarding the differences between the two:


●     Television scripts rely heavily on dialogue. Unlike movies, where visuals drive the story, TV shows prioritize strong writing to convey narrative and character development. Cinematography plays a lesser role in most TV productions.


●     TV scripts don't always resolve every story immediately. While each episode concludes its narrative, it may not neatly tie up all loose ends. Characters and storylines evolve, allowing for gradual development and cliffhangers to engage viewers.


●     Television scripts are typically shorter than movie scripts, resulting in fewer pages and a quicker writing process. TV episodes are either 30 or 60 minutes long, including commercial breaks, whereas feature films typically span at least 90 minutes.


●     TV shows follow distinct narrative structures compared to movies. While movies have a linear beginning, middle, and end, TV shows are episodic, allowing multiple storylines and resolutions.


●     TV shows demand continuous writing effort in the long term. Although individual episodes are shorter than movies, TV series require extensive writing across seasons or entire series, sustaining ongoing storylines and character arcs.


Film Writing vs. TV Writing


Two significant distinctions between film and television writing revolve around duration and narrative structure. Films typically have a longer runtime and are expected to build up to a climax that concludes the movie's premise. On the other hand, TV shows aim to end each episode with a cliffhanger or resolution that entices viewers to tune in for the next installment.


Expanding on this, the events depicted in a movie often represent the most crucial moments in the story. Attempting to replicate this intensity in a TV show could lead to a continuous escalation of stakes, which may become unsustainable over multiple episodes. Most agree that movies are singular experiences, while TV shows are designed for long-term storytelling.


There’s plenty to learn about each. Thus, it’s best to focus on one to start since it’s overwhelming to attempt both as a novice writer. Numerous books dive into this topic extensively, so do your best to craft a script and do whatever you can to make it a reality. Whether shooting it yourself or getting a small budget, all that matters is that you’re creating.

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