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The difference between TV writing and screenwriting

Updated: Feb 20

And the mistakes new TV writers often make...

TV writing vs. Screenwriting

There are some big differences between TV writing and screenwriting. Some are obvious, some, not so much. If you're thinking about a career in screenwriting, there are some differences in careers to consider, and there are some differences in how you write your samples that you should be aware of.

Look, a good story is a good story, and a well-written script is a well-written script. But there are some very clear things that execs, showrunners, and reps look for in TV scripts that they don't look for in feature scripts, and vice versa. So, I'm going to take a look at these differences starting from a non-writing perspective. Let's look at what a screenwriter's life looks like compared to a TV writer.

Screenwriting vs. TV writing careers

I always loved movies, even more than I loved TV. So, when I was beginning my career in entertainment, why did I steer towards TV rather than movies? Well, one reason was that TV was really stepping its game up when I was coming onto the scene. It was no longer some silly sitcoms and a handful of procedurals. These were the years we were getting start character studies like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad and Mad Men. But the real reason was that there were jobs I could get in TV.

See, TV shows have a whole host of needs. They need writers, sure, but they also need a production crew, and production offices filled with coordinators, UPMs and line producers. Then there's the non-writing staff of the TV writers' offices, which had PAs and writers' assistants and script coordinators. I could see these jobs would get me closer to the writers making the show. There was a career trajectory I could understand.

With feature film screenwriting... this is not the case. Sure, there are production offices and plenty of jobs on set. But the writing has been done. The only career trajectory I could see was just to write a lot, maybe get lucky and win a competition, maybe hope that an agent or producer gives a shit that I won a competition, and then maybe sell a screenplay eventually before I saunter off this mortal coil... too dramatic? Yes, probably. My point is, when it comes to feature film screenwriting, there are no jobs that get you close to the action where you can learn the art form while progressing your career. That only exists in TV writing.

Which brings me to my next point, in TV writing, there are jobs. Working in feature screenwriting means selling your screenplay, or maybe getting a job for a rewrite. But that's about it. And those jobs exist in TV as well. You can create and sell a TV show. But in feature screenwriting there are not all those other jobs, the main way most TV writers make a living, which is staffing on a TV show. This means anybody who is not the showrunner/creator of the show. Around 8-12 writers are hired as the writing staff. This is far greater job security than you could ever hope to achieve as a screenwriter. And that's not saying much. Because these TV staff writing jobs are hard to get. But at least they exist!

Serialized TV Writing vs. Feature Writing

Now that the career stuff is out of the way, let's look at the actual writing you'll be doing, which is subtly different between TV and features. First of all, features tell the whole story. Obviously. You start at the beginning of the movie and finish at the end. You have a confined approximately 100 pages to do this and you don't need to pretend the story goes on from there. Writing a TV pilot, which will be your sample as a TV writer, is a lot more complicated.

In your TV pilot sample, you need to set up every storyline that's going to happen in the series, you need to set up every story that's going to happen in that episode, and you need to set up every major character within your series. And you need to do this pretty much within the first act. That's a ton of extra setup and one that a lot of up-and-coming TV writers don't realize they need to do.

Many first timers' scripts read as if they have room to play with. In other words, major storylines are left for an eventual episode two. It's assumed that it's okay that they haven't answered many big questions because they will obviously be answered in future episodes. And while a bit of mystery is fine, this pilot script is the only thing execs will have to read from you. So you need to make it count. That's why, by the end of your pilot, you need to conclude your smaller episodic story, while beginning your larger series story.

This is a difficult proposition, as you only have 35-65 pages to do this depending on if you're writing a drama or a comedy.

It's also important to ask yourself, are you okay with the fact that you'll probably never get to see the end of most of the stories you'll create as a TV writer. Most TV pilots are just that... TV pilots. They never see the light of day and they never move on from there. Which means that's all they'll ever be. For somebody with mild OCD, like me, this can be maddening. You're a storyteller. You want to finish the story. With feature screenwriting, you get to. With TV writing, you don't. I mean, you can write episode 2-10, but nobody's going to want to see it and it's kind of a waste of time unless you just enjoy it.

Luckily, you don't have to choose

There are so many writers that bounce back and forth from features to TV and vice versa now. However, when you're first starting out, the reps who you want to rep you and the execs that you want meetings with are going to want to classify you. And you need to have the samples to back up whatever you tell them. So, to start out, choose your path and choose it wisely, and keep in mind that in the future, you'll be able to branch out.


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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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