Television format—whether for half-hour sitcoms or hour-long dramas—is often a subject of contention among writers new to the business. The biggest question seems to be: Why the hell does it matter? If your structure and characters are thought-out and the dialogue is sizzling off the page, then who cares if your margins are one-inch or two? Or if you use that sweet new font you discovered on cool-fonts.com rather than boring old Courier?
Well, the simple answer is that it DOES matter. It matters a whole lot. The long-winded answer is that the standardized formats fulfill three distinct purposes:
PURPOSE #1: Proper format is a COMMON LANGUAGE that all writers, execs, producers, directors, actors, cinematographers, etc., use to understand how a script will TRANSLATE to the screen. An action in ALL-CAPS means something different than an action in lower-case. Clear act-breaks suggest how your script will juxtapose against advertisements, and character introductions are demarcated differently because they will be SHOT differently on set. Spanglish was a great idea in theory, but it never translated to real-life because NO ONE ACTUALLY SPOKE IT. Your unformatted script is the exact same thing. It may seem fresh, cool and innovative to you, but in reality it’s just a new language that nobody else speaks.
PURPOSE #2: Television scripts are custom-fit to land at a certain number of minutes—22 minutes for half-hour network show, 44-minutes for hour-long network shows, and 30 or 60 minutes for the same shows on paid cable where time does not have to be carved out for commercials. When a script is properly formatted, it fits an approximate page-per-minute ratio that allows writers to properly guesstimate the best lengths for their scripts, and lets producers know how long a production will be once it is shot. When a script is properly formatted, a 44-page sitcom script should translate into a 22-minute TV program, and a 62-page drama script should cut down to a 60-minute show.
PURPOSE #3: The most important reason that writers must adopt proper TV writing format is because it shows that you BELONG. Any producer who will ever read your script is looking for reasons to say NO to your material, and to move on to the next project in their enormous backlog. That’s the truth. Most execs secretly dread new material, and expect much of it to be awful. You may have written the hottest thing to hit FOX since 24, but if your formatting is AMATEURISH they will assume the CONTENT of your script is amateurish, too. And they won’t read it. End of the road. That’s that. So, why give them a reason to say no? The place to be creative is with your CONCEPT, CHARACTERS and DIALOGUE—not your formatting. Fix your layout, and SHOW those producers that you are a professional before they’ve read a single word.
So—if I’ve managed to convince you that format matters, you may be now be wondering HOW to format your original television script. If that's the case, you first need to choose what TYPE of television show you want to write:
PICKING YOUR FORMAT
Unlike feature films, different styles of television shows require different formatting. If you’re writing a spec script (a pretend episode of an already existing show) then spend some time tracking down a completed script for your show before you start writing. Nearly every episodic on television is formatted just a little bit differently, and you’ll want to be sure to copy the format of your particular show as closely as possible. Templates for many new shows can also be found packaged with professional screenwriting programs, so if you’re working on Final Draft or Screenwriter, you might want to check to see what shows are already bundled with your software.
For those of you writing an ORIGINAL PILOT, however, you’ll need to begin by deciding if your show is a DRAMA, a TV MOVIE or a SITUATIONAL COMEDY (SITCOM). Click the links blow to view full-length format guides for each genre: