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The Basics of Writing for TV (for Playwrights)

Take a quick scroll through your Facebook or Twitter feed. Doesn’t it seem like everyone is working on a pilot right now? Television is seriously where it’s at right now, and more writers are making the jump to television than ever before given the pandemic and live theater shut down. Now, this doesn’t mean live theater is dead, but here are some things to keep in mind if you are thinking of making the jump:

Basics of TV Development

A writer will typically pitch a pilot to various studios and buyers. If your script is purchased, it’s usually developed with the buyer, and a pilot will be produced. After the pilot, the show will undergo another round of review, before potentially being picked up for a half or full season. If a show is picked up, the writer may become the showrunner (the person who oversees the show’s daily operations), or, if they are less experienced, will be an executive producer/creator, and a showrunner will be hired. Once a show is up and running, a writer’s room will likely be established. This group will work together to plot out an entire season, and then individual writers may be assigned certain episodes, that will then come back to the writer’s room for feedback and edits. This is a very simplified version of the process, and of course things can vary depending on the experience, but this is the basic structure of the process!

How TV and Film Writing Differs from Stage Writing

For those of you making the jump from stage writing to screenwriting, there are some specific differences between the mediums that it’s important to understand.

First of all, writing for the stage often emphasizes dialogue and words, while writing for the screen emphasizes visuals. Setting and visuals are important on the stage, of course, but the logistics of the medium create certain limitations when it comes to visual storytelling. Subtlety and visual special effects are both a big part of television writing. Additionally, in screenwriting, there is a lot more control over the frame – what gets to be in it, and what is out of it, which tells its own story.

Film and television also tends to have many more scenes than theater. Though both stage and screen follow the three-act model, which you are likely familiar with, a play will usually be under a dozen scenes, and a film will likely have over 50 – television episodes which follow the same three-act model may have somewhere in between depending on the length, but will likely have proportionately more than a play of the same length. 

Another obvious distinction is that a play, like a film, is one-and-done. A television series has several different plot and character structures to concern itself with. For example, television writers have to keep in mind the structure of the episode, the season, and the series as a whole. This will impact pacing of the show and plot developments. Because of this, however, writers get to develop characters and arcs more than they could in a play or movie. Audiences can watch characters grow in more detail and over longer periods of time.

P.S. Want to learn more about transitioning your script from theater to TV ? Join the TheaterMakers Studio community to meet with other Theater Makers who have made the leap and have seen success in both industries.

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