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TV Writing 101: When to Break the Rules and When to Follow Them

It's hard for new TV writers to prove themselves.

Your TV pilot script has to show everyone who reads it that you can follow the strict story structure that everyone else is following, while creating a story and characters unlike anything else they've read.

A bit of a catch-22, isn't it?

So, how do you prove that you know the form while still making your script stand out as unique?

In this post, I'm going to go through the rules you have to follow, and the ones you can bend and sometimes break.

And we'll start with the one thing you should always have in your script...

Act Structure

If you're writing an hour-long drama, you need to have a five act structure. If you're writing a thirty-minute comedy, you need to have a three act structure.

These don't necessarily need to show up in the formatting on the page (ACT ONE, END OF ACT ONE, ACT TWO...), but they do need to be embedded in your plot.

But I watch so much TV that doesn't abide by these rules.

That's true. And proven screenwriters and professional writers are able to get away with a lot more than you are.

When you're just starting out, everything you do is about proving that you're supposed to be there.

And if you haven't been vouched for, or the person reading your script can't look up your credits, they'll be looking to know that you at the very least know the fundamentals.

And this is the most basic of the fundamentals.

So, how do you write a well-structured script without it feeling formulaic?

Unique Storytelling

So, according to basic screenwriting structure, your hero has to enter encounter an inciting incident, which propels them into this new world, which then culminates with them encountering new problems, and then finally coming to a resolution that resolves in a new status in act three.

That's the very basic hero's journey.

And when it's laid out like that, it's pretty basic, right?

So, you may have to follow these general structure rules, but HOW you satisfy those rules is WIDE OPEN.

Have your protagonist get propelled into this world in a way we've never seen before. Have the antagonist be a character nobody expected. Have the climax completely subvert what your audience was expecting.

These are examples of what you can, and should, be playing with to make your story unique.

TV Writing Style/Voice

The other way to stand out is by developing your "voice." This is the writing style, dialogue, and general tone that is unique to you.

You may be following the structure, but the way you write and the story moves your characters make should feel like they could have only come from you.

In TV writing, developing your voice is hard.

It comes from practice. Only by writing a ton will you discover the style you will come to be known for.

So, within the right structure, make your pilot unique with your voice and your interesting storytelling twists.


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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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