As I move through this guide, you'll notice that dramatic television format is nearly identical to feature screenplay writing format—but there are a few important differences. For starters, hour-long dramas usually run about 62 pages long, and are structured as follows:
commercial—Act III—commercial—Act IV—commercial—tag
Pretending for a minute that you have NEVER written a television script in your entire life, here’s how your original one-hour drama should be formatted:
1) ALL of the text in your drama should be typed in 12-point Courier font.
2) Justified LEFT or CENTER, start you script by stating which PART OF THE SCRIPT IT IS—the TEASER, particular ACT, or TAG. This should be underlined and in ALL-CAPS, like so:
2) Next, move down two spaces, and add a TRANSITION, such as “FADE IN,” “FROM BLACK,” or “COLD OPEN.” This should be justified to the left margin of your page, underlined and in ALL-CAPS, like this:
3) Two spaces below your transition should be the SLUG LINE for your TEASER, also known as a SCENE HEADING. Now your page should look something like this:
Slug lines are made up of these three elements:
a. INT. or EXT. Short for interior and exterior. If it’s both, such as when a runaway bulldozer slams through the wall of a crowded diner, you can write INT./EXT.
b. LOCATION. Where the scene takes place. These should be short, and avoid emotive description. It’s not INT. SUPER COOL 1970s SPORTSBAR, just INT. BAR. Don’t worry—they’ll be room for the fun stuff later.
c. TIME. Usually just DAY or NIGHT, but can also be a specific time, like 3:00 PM, if it’s an important detail to the plot. Avoid overusing demarcations like DUSK, MORNING, MIDNIGHT, or LATER.
Slug lines are always in CAPS and underlined. There are usually two spaces between INT./EXT. and LOCATION, then space, hyphen, space between LOCATION and TIME.
Occasionally, you’ll need a SUBLOCATION to clarify the location. These look like:
INT. HIGH SCHOOL/JANITOR’S OFFICE – DAY
INT. HIGH SCHOOL – JANITOR’S OFFICE – DAY
Some writers also use PERIODS to separate the parts of a slug line, like:
INT. HIGH SCHOOL. JANITOR’S OFFICE. DAY.
A new slug line is needed every time you change locations, so you’ll be writing a lot of these!
4) Next comes the ACTION BLOCK. This is where you can fill in details for your location, and explain what your characters are doing RIGHT NOW. Action is always written in the present tense, and in most cases follows standard rules of capitalization and punctuation. It’s always justified left, and looks like this:
Anytime a CHARACTER is introduced in your script for the first time, the character’s name must be in BOLD, and generally, the character’s AGE or AGE RANGE should be placed in parenthesis to the right of it. For example:
Notice the description of the character that precedes his introduction. Your character descriptions can be as detailed as you’d like, but avoid making them so long that they interrupt the momentum of your script.
5) When you’re ready for a character to start speaking, move two spaces down, and indent 2.2 inches from the left margin. This is the same margin used in film screenplay structure, so feel free to use the pre-set formats in any scriptwriting computer program.
Type your character’s name in ALL-CAPS, like this:
Sometimes you’ll have minor characters that you may not want to name, or a “secret” character who hasn’t revealed his or her identity. In these cases, it’s okay to call them WAITER, THUG or POP IDOL. If there are several of the same types of characters, add a number: WAITER #1 or THUG #2.
6) Now that you’re all set up, it’s time to give your character a voice! Dialogue is sandwiched in a window one inch from the left margin to two inches before the right margin. It looks like this:
Notice that in the action blocks before after the dialogue the words BLUE PICKUP TRUCK, DRIVER, HOLLERS and VANISHES have all been capitalized. Any word that describes one or more people, such CROWD, PEOPLE, KIDS or ZOMBIES should always be placed in caps, as should any key props, and words that describe sounds, such as THUMP, BOING, ZING, or WHOOSH.
At certain times, it is also appropriate to capitalize ACTIONS for special emphasis, such as:
His entire truck VANISHES.
The panda bear RACES around the corner.
If you want dialogue to be spoken with a special emphasis, you may indent by an additional .6 inches (or one tab) on the line directly beneath a character’s name, and add your direction in PARENTHETICAL:
A parenthetical can also be used to clarify who a person is talking to, or who they are talking about. For example:
If the description within a parenthetical runs longer than a few words, try to move it out of the parenthetical and into the action block preceding the dialogue.
The last thing you need to know about dialogue is how to handle a VOICE OVER, or a situation in which a character can’t be seen on camera but is heard speaking OFF SCREEN. This is easy. Simply add the initials (V.O.) or (O.S.) directly to the right of a character’s name, as in:
7) If you need to cut to a new scene, simply drop down two lines and add a NEW SLUG LINE for the next scene:
8) At the END OF YOUR TEASER, move down two spaces from your last action block or line of dialogue, and add the line “END TEASER” underlined and in ALL-CAPS. You may also decide to include a TRANSITION before the END TEASER line, but this is purely optional. The end of your teaser, then, should look like this:
Now, tab down to the START OF THE NEXT PAGE. On the next clean sheet, center the words set up your next act, or since you’ve just finished your teaser, set up ACT ONE:
After your ACT ONE title, move down TWO SPACES and write your first SLUGLINE for this act. It’s uncommon to use a transition after page-one of your script, but you certainly can if you feel like you need it.
After that, simply progress through your act using all of the formatting norms discussed above. And that’s basically all you need to know!
Incidentally, have you ever noticed when watching your favorite TV show that as the program progressed, the commercial breaks got longer and the good stuff in between got shorter? Well—that was planned.
In television, Act One is usually the longest, and each act that follows tends to get progressively shorter. It’s all about getting your audience hooked into your story up front, so that they’ll put with the commercials at the end.
After you’ve written through to your first cliffhanger at the end of ACT ONE are ready to wrap up your act, finish your act just like you did your TEASER:
After that, tab down to the top of your next page, and center the words ACT TWO. Move down two more spaces, and begin your next act!
You’ve got it! And if you run into the odd situation where you’re unsure how to format something, post a question in the comments section of this article, or check a commonly used reference book such as David Trottier’s The Screenwriter’s Bible. There may also be times when you notice that certain writers or writing instructors suggest slightly different formatting guides. As long as you choose one of them, and are consistent throughout your script, no one will ultimately care whether you go with one small style peculiarity or another.
Now that you know all the tricks of the trade, the final step is to WRITE! There may be a correct format, but there’s no correct creative process for pulling off your first TV script. Just keep your butt in your chair, and you’ll be amazed how quickly those pages start to fill up!
NOTE: Portions of this article first appeared in the article "How to Format a TV Script," penned by this author for the website www.scriptfrenzy.org.