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Formatting Your TV Pilot -- 5 Unwritten Rules

It's easy to look online and find scripts of your favorite TV shows. This will passively teach you nearly everything you need to know about formatting.

But there are little things that differ from script to script. Some of them are in the writing style, but some of them are there because of the specific draft that's been posted online.

It's difficult to know what rules are steadfast, what rules can be broken, and when to use what.

In this post, I'm going to go through specific formatting issues I see in the scripts of new writers.

These are not the major rules that are tackled in any screenwriting course you might have taken, like "start with a scene header, then go to scene description, then dialogue..."

These are the unwritten rules of TV pilot formatting.

So, let's start with how to begin and end your screenplay...

Beginning and ending your TV pilot

The industry is done with the "FADE IN:" -- this applies to both feature film screenwriting and TV writing.

Unless you literally see your TV show fading in to begin the first scene, you do not need this.

Instead, simply begin with your first scene header.

On the other hand, to end your script, a FADE OUT. is still somewhat common.

The correct formatting to use, in addition, is a center-aligned END OF PILOT at the very end of the script. It should be bolded and underlined.

However, this rule is not stringent, and if you feel it doesn't fit the tone of your script, it's not something that needs to be there.

Act Breaks

This may be the most confusing thing for new TV writers: whether or not you should be including act breaks in your script.

And I'm not talking about your story. There should always be inherent act breaks in your script.

But in terms of actually putting END OF ACT ONE and then ACT TWO between acts, it gets a little complicated.

These were traditionally used in the network days when every script was working around strict commercial breaks.

Every TV pilot that was written professionally or not had these act breaks. However, that is not the case anymore for most of TV.

In fact, the only time to keep act break formatting in your script these days is if you feel your script is right for network TV. Otherwise you can remove them altogether.

Comedy vs. Drama

There is also a huge difference between the act breaks you need in a comedy or a drama.

A comedy has a three-act structure and a drama has a five-act structure.

A five-act structure is an elongated version of the three-act structure, but it requires more story development and turns for the main character.

Make sure your story follows the proper one for the script you're writing.

Directorial language

All the screenwriting message boards advise you against using directorial language, as in specific shots we're supposed to see, or language like "we see..."

But then you look at professional TV pilot scripts and they're rife with that language.

So, what are you supposed to do?

To answer that, it's important to know the context. TV pilots are written for a studio and, unlike your TV pilot (for now), they are written for the express purposes of being shot.

There is more leeway because they are basically speaking to the director and all departments to convey their idea.

However, you are just providing a writing sample. You're not speaking directly to a director.

Therefore, your writing, unfortunately, has to be cleaner and avoid any major directorial language.

It's unfair, sure, but that's the way it goes.

Scene Numbers

Don't include them!

Scene numbers are only added to a script when it is about to be shot. The Shooting Draft of any episode of TV is the only one with scene numbers.

Many of the scripts you find online are shooting drafts, and that skews peoples' perspectives of what they should and should not include.

Never include scene numbers for your TV pilot. It immediately calls you out as a newbie.

How strictly should you stick to the rules?

There are a lot of screenwriting formatting rules. And some of them really get in the way of the flow of your script.

For example, if you have an intercut in a scene, it's pretty important to include a BEGIN INTERCUT at the beginning so we know what we're seeing.

But stopping a screenplay entirely for a MUSIC: cue isn't as important. If it can be said in scene description without stopping your action line dead for a cue, then it's fine to lose the formatting.

In addition, I wouldn't include any SFX in your script. Just describe the action and sound. These, again, are cues for the editor or sound department when your pilot is shooting, not for now when it's just a writing sample.

For now, just focus on it being a clean, good read.


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I'm Anton, a TV writer and author of Breaking Into TV Writing, a book about the business of TV writing and how to get your foot in the door.


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