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December 29, 2021

How To Write for Television

With the advent of streaming, television has entered a golden age. Even ten years ago, the standard entry route was to get your show to air on one of the major television networks.

Budgets were a lot smaller than the budget you would be allocated for a film, and often the reason for cancellation or scripts not being made would be the internal politics of the network.

Netflix, Amazon, Apple TV, and Disney all have huge budgets to rival those of films and a thirst for new talent and risk-taking. Streaming is now the preferred medium for your TV scripts.

How to write for television:

Think episodically

The most crucial factor to consider when you are writing your TV pilot scripts is the structure of each episode.

Unlike a movie with a clear beginning, middle, and end that the audience will enjoy in one sitting, a television series should be enjoyed in several sittings. Each episode moves us forward but at the same time must be enjoyable on its own. You can work on this by deciding what narrative structure best suits your screenplay.

If we were to draw the narrative map of a television series, it would consist of zig-zags as we go up and down with the events of each episode. This can be hard to conceptualize and manage.

Thinking about every episode as a movie in itself is a great mindset to have. This stops you from creating filler episodes, which don't serve any real purpose and are just a bridge to the next one.

Remember, on a big production, and you might not even be the sole writer. Other writers might write some episodes.

If you don't yet have an agent or an executive involved, write a full-length script for your first episode and plan the rest of the series but don't write any more episodes just yet. For example, the BBC show Dr. Who has multiple writers and one showrunner; writing will be a collaborative experience, and you must accept that.

A great case study of how a TV show and a movie differ are the two different adaptations of Lemony Snicket's A Series Of Unfortunate Events. The 2004 movie condensed the first three books into one film and significantly changed the ending to feel more conclusive. A sequel was planned but never took off.

However, the television series created the complex storylines to evolve over several hours, which kept fans engaged and renewed for two further seasons.

Character and story arcs for TV scripts

A television show is the best for telling complex, slow-burning stories with multiple character perspectives and subplots.

Television shows reward audiences who stick with the show until the very end. Unfortunately, TV shows that do badly are ill-thought-out and don't offer their audiences any resolution or feel inauthentic.

How do you deal with this? Especially if multiple writers end up writing episodes of your show?

It would help if you created your characters and story arcs before you embark on your project. Small details can change, but you need to have the fundamentals of your series plotted out.

Only then can you start to turn this meta-plan into an episode-by-episode plan that you can translate onto the page. Excellent planning and learning to be more productive is the only way to succeed when you're embarking on a big project.

Different writers plot out their story arcs in different ways. For example, some writers like to use flashcards that they file away in a draw. Others create charts and grids on a big piece of paper.

Dealing with property

Coming up with your ideas for television shows is always great, but what if you want to adapt a novel or a comic?

The recent success of The Queen's Gambit and Bridgeton, both based on books published long before they were turned into a series, shows that a book doesn't have to be a mega-bestseller to find an audience with television.

You might have read a relatively obscure book and want to adapt it for television; however, before you do this, you should enquire about the rights.

Even if you've written the best script in the world, you will feel defeated and disheartened if you find out another company already owns them or the agent or author is not interested in optioning them to you.

Remember that authors generally don't sell their rights to writers, producers, or agents. Instead, they "option them." That means they give you the exclusive right to work on finding a producer or director and passing certain production milestones for a set fee. If you fail to do this, the requests will usually revert to the author or agent.

Once you have optioned the rights, you will need to negotiate the story into episodes.

Key questions when it comes to writing your TV pilot script are:

  • Is there enough material for this to work as a TV series?
  • If you are adapting a book series, is the author planning on writing sequels?
  • Is there anything in the novel that will require careful consideration to translate onto the screen?

Where is the TV industry heading?

Although writing is a creative process, you have to be aware of the industry and its direction so you can pitch ideas and write scripts that are likely to get greenlit.

A small word of caution: if you are writing just to the market and that's your only consideration, you are at risk of writing something that lacks creativity. Sometimes the best ideas come from the left field. You must have an idea of trends while also maintaining your sense of creativity and originality.

Foreign language TV shows

Netflix is investing heavily in original programming from overseas. The recent success of Squid Game - which became one of Netflix's most-watched shows - was a testament to Netflix's investment in the South Korean market.  

Other emerging economies worldwide, such as India and Vietnam, are all seeing a cultural renaissance.

If you speak any foreign languages or understand a non-Western culture, then it might be worth considering writing something not set in America. We live in a global culture no longer dominated by the West; bear this in mind when you pitch to Netflix.


While television is usually catered to a mass market - in other words, to everyone - streaming services have understood that market diversification can be a route to success.  

A television series doesn't have to appeal to everyone: it's better to cultivate a smaller fan base dedicated to a particular genre or niche because they are loyal. Instead, the audience will seek out new programs in that genre and watch the series through to the end. They will also spread their enthusiasm about the series through word-of-mouth, bringing in new audiences.

The recent BBC crime drama Line Of Duty is an excellent example. It was initially turned down for being too procedural and problematic for a mainstream audience. The show follows an anti-corruption unit - AC-12 - that investigates serving police officers.

It doesn't shy away from hard-to-follow jargon or the challenges of modern policing policies: one episode hinged on one character's misinterpretation of the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act.

Yet, it achieved one of the highest ratings the BBC has ever seen precisely because of its procedural nature: it added a sense of realism to the drama that most viewers weren't used to seeing. Viewers who felt lost just rewatched specific episodes so that they understood.

If you're passionate about writing a complex space opera or a gritty crime drama, don't be afraid: go for it, make it flawless.

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How To Write for Television
David Wappel

David Wappel is a feature writer. Recent work includes the screenplay for Long Gone By, now available on HBO. He was named a Top 25 Screenwriter to Watch in 2020 by the ISA and is the 2019 Stowe Story Labs Fellowship winner. He is an avid Shakespeare and Tolkien fan.

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