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How to Write a Screenplay for Television

By Brentyn, published on 24/10/2019 Blog > Arts and Hobbies > Acting > Tips for Writing a Teleplay

“In an episodic treatment, such as a teleplay is, you have the ability to do what you can do in a novel, which is flash back and flash forward in the same instant, in the same scene, in the same voice.” -John Irving

We are currently living in a revived golden age of television; although it’s not the 1950s, various media outlets and viewers all over the world have readily and openly admitted this fact.

Never before have there been so many TV series, streaming services, and developers creating new ideas. However, it is important to state that the viewing experience has dramatically changed in the past few years. With the arrival of streaming services such as Netflix, Prime Video, Hulu, YouTube TV, Apple TV+, etc., the entertainment industry has drastically shifted making video rental shops a thing of the past and watching television series in the comfort of your bed the new big thing.

In the 2010s, the term “Netflix and chill” has replaced the invitation to go and grab a cup of coffee. 

Therefore, with an increasing demand for new television shows to appear on streaming services, television writers and producers are working harder than ever before. The goal to dethrone “Game of Thrones” as televisions best has pushed the limits of teleplay writers to create outstanding stories.

Without further ado, we will analyse how a screenplay for television can be written to entertain binge-watchers all over the world.

What is a screenplay?

What is Teleplay?

the best writers Teleplays are different from play scripts and screenplays since they follow their own structure. (Source: Unsplash)

Is a teleplay the same as a screenplay? 

In the simplest terms, a teleplay is a script or format used for television programs or series that have dialogue and action description. Television writers work hard to consistently provide engaging stories episode after episode; this is why a group of writers are used to write episodic dramas or comedies.

It is important to state that when mentioning a screenplay it primarily refers to a feature film or documentary. 

In the television industry, every type of script, whether short or long, is referred to as teleplay. The teleplay or television screenwriter receives acknowledgement usually in the opening credits where it states, “written by…”

Many people do not realise that the term “teleplay” came about in the 1950s to distinguish teleplays from stage plays and feature films. It’s essential to mention that teleplays, play scripts, and screenplays are all different and boast distinct formats, conventions, and constraints.

Various trustworthy outlets such as The Writer’s Guild of America have highlighted the defining facts that distinguish a screenplay from a teleplay.

The Writer’s Guild of America has headquarters in two United States cities, New York City and Los Angeles, and is a labour union that protects TV and film writers. 

For instance, according to the WGA, a television script has two distinct parts: the story and the teleplay. The story includes basic narrative ideas, themes, and outlines discussing character development. While, on the other hand, teleplay involves full individuals scenes of “dialogue and monologue” also “camera set-ups” and additional information if required.

The difference between both can be understood this way: the “story” is a rough copy of what is to be included and the “teleplay” is the final draft or finished product. 

Essentially a TV script, teleplays are frequently written by experienced writers to create television series that keep audiences coming back for more week after week.

Step-by-Step: How to Write a Teleplay

the best screenplays The basics of teleplay can be learnt by following the examples of older drafts. (Source: StudioBinder)

Ever wonder how some of television’s most brilliant minds write and develop characters and stories that inspire or entertain millions? If so, you’re not the only one. Television screenwriting is an art-form that has created some of the best entertainment in recent memory.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, House of Cards, Homecoming, Ozark, Fleabag, Broadchurch, Chernobyl, Game of Thrones, Barry, need I say more?

To become a roaring success a teleplay needs to be well structured, researched, and investigated; it’s no easy task for beginners! 

Therefore, without further ado, to aid beginners to chase their dreams, the following are necessary steps on how to write a teleplay for the first time:

  • Structuring the Television Script: while you may already be doing this, it is highly recommended to sit-down, relax, and take notes of your favourite television series before starting to write your own. Some things that should be paid attention to include the moments when scenes or commercials break. Also, to be well-structured in the beginning, an outline or a “teaser” should be briefly written to describe the acts and scenes. When starting to write teleplays, the writer should bear in mind that a “three-act structure” is strongly suggested when beginning.
  • Developing the Story: after an intriguing “teaser” has been structured, the story needs to be developed to take shape and actually become a thing. For example, a one-hour episode of television drama requires approximately 58-65 pages to actually be edited and aired. In a half-hour or hour-long episodic drama or comedy, there are between three to four acts that need to be developed to create a credible story. Therefore, the teleplay writer must work-hard to write acts one, two, three, and four. There is much information on the internet available to learn how to write the acts of a teleplay. Consider consulting with more experienced television writers to successfully write a script.
  • Formatting All Your Essential Information: after the structure of your general idea has been established and the development of your distinct acts has been written, it is now the time to format all your information. There are specific formatting rules that should be followed to write a teleplay that will be taken seriously by studio executives. Like what? For instance, a title page needs to be featured displaying the name and contact information of at least one of the writers. All acts need to begin with an all capitalised FADE IN. Each scene’s action should be no longer than five lines. Character’s names and dialogue needs to be indented to the centre of the page. The dialogue has to be split and the word “CONT’D” needs to be featured after the character’s name if the information said is split. Also, last but most definitely not least, the words FADE OUT must be included in the correct format to conclude the act.

It’s important to mention that by following the previously mentioned information about how to write your first teleplay and by consulting the expertise of others, a successful career in television screenwriting can be established.

But who are the most experienced TV screenplay writers of all time? 

Click this link to learn more about helpful screenwriting resources.

The Best TV Screenplay Writers

watching TV The work of some of the 21st century’s best television writers can be watched on streaming services. (Source: Unsplash)

“We’re in the second golden age of television, and to me, one of the most profound things that’s happening in TV is just that by default that opened the door to more women, more people of colour, more outliers. It’s one of the greatest side effects of the digital revolution.” -Marti Noxon

Writing a screenplay for television is a lot of work. It requires much effort and dedication to the television series. Characters are developed week after week and original ideas are constantly needed. It can be said that television writing is a lot more taxing than feature film writing.

Many brilliant minds of the 20th and 21st century have created and written layered television programs that have entertained millions of viewers. For example, 30 Rock, SNL, The West Wing, Roseanne, Community, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Seinfeld has made television absolutely fantastic.

Therefore, without further ado, we will analyse some of the best TV screenplay writers and some of their best work:

  • Larry David: known for writing some of the best teleplays of all time, Larry David is the creator of the beloved shows Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. David has been credited for creating a world where people can say whatever is on their mind and it’s simply alright to reject practical wisdom and never learn anything that will help personally help you. Whether you’re a fan or not, the popularity and overall appeal of Larry David cannot be disputed.
  • Tina Fey: recognising her ability to make people laugh, Tina Fey became a comedic talent from very early on in her life. Known for being the first female head writer in SNL’s history, Fey started a regime on the show that changed its entire appeal. Also, who can forget 30 Rock? One of the most beloved television programs of the 21st century, 30 Rock made people laugh and remember that all humans make silly mistakes.
  • Vince Gilligan: one of television’s most in-depth and studied character of all time has to be Walter White. The manner in which White changed from good to evil in Breaking Bad is an example for all television writers. Who is responsible for creating one of TV’s best characters? Vince Gilligan. After writing for the X-Files for seven years, Gilligan created Breaking Bad which would become the highest-rated television series of all time.
  • Aaron Sorkin: widely regarded in the film industry for his screenplays The Social Network and Moneyball, Sorkin has also developed and written some of the most critically acclaimed television programs of all time. The West Wing and The Newsroom have been awarded various Emmys for its writing, producing, directing, and acting. Also, credited for “Sorkinism” and fast-talking characters, Sorkin is one of the best writers of all time.

By following the example of any of the previously mentioned teleplay writers, beginners who are learning the basics of television screenplay writing will become pros in no time!

Do you want some tips on how to write every screenplay successfully?

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