Although conventional wisdom indicates that outlining your story is the first step in the screenwriting process, I want to dig into a question that too often goes unasked: What is the best medium for this story?
Perhaps the best known kind of scripts are the screenplays for feature films. These are what the stereotypical image of a screenwriter pumps out on their archaic typewriter before typing “fade out” after churning out a massive stack of pages. A feature screenplay is usually a self-contained story that runs somewhere between 80-130 pages with the intent of turning the story into a feature film that runs somewhere between 80-130 minutes (approximately 1 minute of screen time per page). A feature script will use all the basic conventional screenplay formatting rules and is a great training ground to learn the mechanics of screenwriting.
Although your mind may go to the likes of Star Wars that has a sprawling universe full of mystery and adventure, feature scripts are actually quite contained in scope. With there being a limited amount of pages the screenwriter usually clarifies and focuses in on one specific character and their journey through an exciting plot filled with internal and external conflict, with a strong inciting incident. Side characters are rarely sketched out in as much detail as the protagonist and the antagonist is specifically tailored to offer a potent opposition to the protagonist. In a general sense the plot is contained within those pages with little regard for where the story might go after “the end” (although if you’re writing a franchise movie this is different).
Perhaps the most important feature is the three-act structure that lies beneath the surface. While the three-act is far from obligatory to making a great story, it inexorably appears time and again in feature screenplays for the simple reason that it works so effectively for the format. The general page limit allows the screenwriter to figure out their beats in advance and set short-term goals along the way to hit.
So, how do you know if your story is suited for a feature screenplay?
First, make sure your story is contained. While a sprawling universe is a fun idea, we’re not going to get a lot of time to enjoy it. Even if the story is set in a sprawling universe, make sure the story itself begins in a definitive fashion and ends conclusively so that the package as a whole feels satisfying for the reader.
Second, make sure that your story idea can sustain an exciting second act. While an idea like “a man tries to stay alive in a broken down car in the arctic wilderness” may sound like fun, ask yourself if you can truly write a fully fledged second act about that idea. Of course it’s possible, but does it best serve the story as a whole? Do you feel like your best ideas are in the first and third acts? Then your story probably isn’t suited to be a feature screenplay.
If these two key features aren’t fulfilled then it may be a good idea to look elsewhere.
A TV pilot is the very first episode of a series that introduces the main characters, the setting, and a prototypical conflict that they’ll be dealing with in every episode. So, for example, if you’re writing a detective show, the pilot should introduce the main detective, introduce the setting in which they operate, and show what a typical case looks like. Traditionally they are split into five individual acts, however, with the advent of streaming this practice is becoming increasingly uncommon.
TV pilot scripts are traditionally split between two categories: 30-minute pilots and 60-minute pilots which corresponds to around 30 pages and 60 pages respectively. 30-minute TV shows tend to lean towards comedies or sitcoms that are short, snappy, and get to the point quickly. There’s nothing inherently less valuable about these kinds of pilots, just that comedy tends to operate in a shorter timeframe than drama. 60-minute shows tend to be dramas and procedurals, shows that can hold your audience’s attention for a full hour with the requisite twists and turns to keep them engaged. Prestige shows like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones also fit in this category due to the increased time span giving the characters more time to breathe.
The main difference between TV pilot scripts and feature screenplays is that the pilot script is meant to tease an entire show. While the script itself is shorter than a feature screenplay, the sum total of scripted pages for a full show far outweighs a single feature script. However, due to the way the TV business works, usually a pilot is approved before a show is “picked up” and the rest of the show is produced. Therefore, a pilot script functions as a kind of tease or advertisement for what the rest of the show will feel like.
So, what kinds of stories are best suited to the pilot script format?
First, if your story wants to investigate an entire world thoroughly it may be best suited to TV. Think about The Expanse, a sci-fi show that has a very large world to explore. It would be impossible to cram it all into a single feature script and it’d probably feel rushed if a poor screenwriter attempted to. Instead a TV show allows the writers to take their time and give the world the love and attention it deserves.
Secondly, if your script has a procedural heart, a TV pilot is best. A procedural is a show that is predominantly set in a single location that has a strong story engine. For example House M.D. takes place in a hospital with a group of characters trying to solve a new medical mystery every week. This is a textbook procedural that generates new stories every week.
Finally, if your focus is on character an entire TV show may be the best way of digging into their psychology for an extended period of time to get the most out of them. There is no way on earth that we’d have such a fascination and understanding of Walter White if we only got to see his life in a feature length film. Instead, the TV show gives the writers countless opportunities to put the character through the proverbial ringer and see what it reveals about their psychology.
First, let me immediately dispel the idea that just because a script is shorter it means that’s automatically worth any less than a feature or TV pilot script. I can speak from personal experiences that a short film can often pack a massive emotional punch precisely due to its shorter nature. And short films can be valuable “calling cards” for writers who are looking to increase the chance of seeing their script produced.
How long should a short film screenplay be?
There’s an oft-repeated joke in the entertainment industry – there are two kinds of short films: ones that are too long and ones that are way too long. This joke is a bit unfair, because of course there are some excellent examples of short films that are longer than 30 minutes, but the lesson here is to write a short film that is as short as it can be.
Generally, a short film script is going to be anywhere from 5-30 pages long. Stories explored in the short film format are usually one single idea or are wildly experimental in nature. The shorter length means that the writer needs to pack in as much character as quick as possible. As Blaise Pascal once said, “If I had more time I would have written a shorter letter.” In other words, sometimes writing something short requires far more effort and skill than writing something long. However, the good news is that short film scripts are formatted identically to a feature film script so there’s no new terminology to learn.
If a feature screenplay is like a novel, and a TV show is like a series of novels, a short film script is probably closest to poetry. Every single word needs to be perfect and make the most out of a single idea.
So, what kinds of stories are best suited to the short film script format?
Remember the idea that didn’t have enough legs in it to support an entire feature screenplay? Reuse it for a short film, maybe that’s the form it desired the entire time. Instead of padding out a story with unnecessary filler, use the brevity of the short film format to your advantage and pack every moment with killer twists and turns that’ll keep your audience hooked.
If you want to get experimental or avant garde with your story, the short film script is probably the best place to go too. Remember, the end goal of writing a script is for it to get filmed. Writing a feature length screenplay that breaks all known rules of storytelling may be interesting, but financially untenable for a feature length film. However, there’s far more leniency in the short film format. Why not get weird with it?
Arc Studio’s free screenplay software takes care of the professional Hollywood-standard formatting so you can spend less time formatting and more time writing your story.