By Lee Hamilton.
Scripted half-hour TV shows are no longer limited to being either a sitcom, soap, children’s show, or comedy. Thanks to the rise of the many available streaming services 30-minute slots can now be filled with anything from crime dramas, adult animation, thrillers, or even horrors. But while this has opened the gates in terms of creativity, there are still some major points that you’ll need to know when deciding to write your own half-hour pilot, so let’s take a quick look at the top things to consider…
Not only do you need a strong core concept that has immediate appeal, but your idea also needs to be big enough to carry the series for as many seasons as possible, so the first thing you need to consider is whether your premise has enough conflict. While it’s possible to sell a limited series or a miniseries, the longer a producer can envisage your series lasting, the more revenue it can create, giving it much more appeal. One way to determine whether your idea has enough legs is to ask yourself if you can easily picture the ending or conclusion. If you can, your idea may be more suited to a movie, but if your concept contains lots of potential outcomes, avenues, and creates new questions, then your idea could become a great match for a tv series.
Your pilot episode must also firmly establish the premise of the show – what is this story all about. This should be done during the first act, not the last, and arguably, every episode after it must do the same too. Many shows contain an ongoing central storyline that runs throughout the series. Consider intertwining this with some strong themes. Often a show will explore one or two central themes from many different angles. If you can’t condense your premise into a compelling and memorable logline that encapsulates what your show is about AND hooks us at the same time, you may need to go back and develop your ideas a bit more.
Conflict is also key when creating your characters as the audience is going to be spending a lot more time with them than they would do when watching a movie. In a TV show characters need to be engaging enough to keep the viewers coming back each week. We’ve got to meet your protagonist during the first act, and you’ve got to make sure that we either want to root for them or that they’re intriguing enough to make us want to keep following their journey.
There’s scope for characters to have multiple arcs throughout a series, but sitcom characters tend not to change very much from one episode to the next. With only half an hour to fill, you should keep your cast small and manageable. Design your supporting cast to complement and conflict with your protagonist who they will either help or hinder along the way.
Whether you’ve got a great idea for a new sitcom or want to develop a cutting-edge drama, you’ll need to do your homework in order to understand what’s expected from the format you’ve decided to use. There are lots of different types of half-hour shows, and they use different structures and are shot in different manners.
Single-camera shows, such as Fargo, Sex and the City, or 30 Rock, are shot from the perspective of a single camera, making them look and read more like movies, whereas the more common multi-camera shows, such ah as Malcolm in the Middle, Friends, and The Big Bang Theory, are more likely to be shot in front of a live audience or use the same studio set location over and over again.
Importantly, there are differences in the way each of them looks on the page. It’s recommended that novice writers stick to using the single-camera format even though these types of shows are usually more expensive to make (and therefore harder to sell.) However, if you’re serious about becoming a television writer, learning, and mastering how to craft multi-camera scripts is another great string to add to your bow.
To see how different formats work for free, check out our downloadable Screenplay Collections.
This might seem obvious, but it’s an important element to get to grips with. The ideal length of a half-hour script is between 25-35 pages (if you’re entering your script into a contest, make sure to double-check their rules regarding page count first!). Demonstrating that you can write to broadcast schedules that may contain commercial breaks is a key skill to have as it shows you have the discipline to condense a story into a limited time period.
Scene length should also be a lot shorter, coming in at an average of 1.77 pages, unless the scene features a central plot point. So, get used to moving your story along a lot faster than you might normally do when writing a feature. Everything has to be leaner and more effective. Use strong imagery instead of long-winded setups, keep dialogue short and punchy whenever possible, keeping the chunky dialogue for pivotal story beats, and try not to let scene description go on any longer than two lines on the page.
It can sometimes feel like a lot of ground-breaking new shows are defying traditional structure, but if you’re trying to break into television, showing that you can master the basics is a must. Half-hour shows will often stick to the same 3-Act structure that features use, but it’s not uncommon to see shows containing only 2, depending on the pace of the story. There’s also room to include teasers, tags, and cold opens to bookend your script too. So, there’s a lot more flexibility when it comes to deciding on an effective structure to use.
As your audience can simply change the channel at the touch of a button, television shows need to work that little bit harder than feature movies to ensure that the audience stays with the show for the duration. That means it’s all about creating great hooks when it comes to writing great TV. Hooks can be anything from putting a character into peril, forcing them to make a difficult decision, or creating a mystery to be solved. Whatever you use, hooks are also used to entice the audience back after a commercial break. Even though some streaming services don’t show adverts during a show, inserting regular hooks into your story is still a good practice as you definitely want to make sure that a reader wants to keep turning the page too!
Hopefully, the list above gives you some food for thought. As you begin to write your series there are lots of other considerations that come into play, like putting together a pitch, writing a TV Series Bible, or treatment, etc. Don’t let the specifics put you off. They’re all part of a larger, but manageable, process.
Now go watch some tv. It’s research!
Lee Hamilton is a script reader, developer, and author. Lee was one of the original readers to join Shore Scripts and has since moved into education and development, penning numerous articles, workbooks, and writing courses.