Is it a TV show, is it a movie, or is it a play? If you’re about to write a dramatised script, you’ll need to decide which medium you are writing for before you start tapping away at the keyboard. While there are many similarities across all three, there are some important differences to be aware of that will determine how well your script can be adapted to the appropriate form.
If you haven’t decided yet whether your idea fits best on stage, at the movies or on TV, working through these factors may help to crystallise your vision.
Writing for TV
If you plan to write a TV series, there are some features that are unique to TV. A TV series does not have to capture an audience for a mere two hours, but over an entire series, or multiple series. There are two key elements to writing a successful TV series – first having a killer pilot episode to hook your prospective producer, and second, having characters that your audience will want to invite into their homes every week.
Having a strong set of characters, each with their own set of unique characteristics, such as the Friends characters, will open up opportunities storylines for each episode. With recognisable characters who consistently make the same mistakes, each episode does not have to be jam packed with drama (again, think of the Friends convention, e.g The one where Monica gets a roommate). Characters change gradually because, just like family members, we love or loathe them for who they are.
Another unique characteristic of TV writing, is that once the series is being filmed, each new episode will be written by a team of writers. This means that your vision for your characters, plot and episodes must be easily picked up and interpreted by other writers.
TV descended from TV plays, so dialogue is important, but you also need to think about visuals and other audio such as music. A benefit of TV is that you remove the distance between characters and audience. Every wrinkle, expression, glint of an eye is visible – so think about whether your story will benefit from the use of camera angles, close ups or voice overs.
Does your story fit the sitcom format? Or, does the drama medium suit better? Anything filmed in front of a live TV audience has limitations of location, particularly outdoor scenes and scene changes, and you will need to factor in potential interactions with the audience.
Last, but not least, you must consider your actors in your script. TV actors may get little time to learn and rehearse before shooting each scene, which often won’t be shot in sequence. They need to live and breathe your characters every day, so it’s important they are clear who they are portraying.
Writing a Movie script
In the movies the emphasis is on spectacle rather than drama. Pictures and sound effects can be more important than words, especially with the evolving world of special effects. The focus is on making an impact in an hour or two, rather than over a series, so the writer must be able to tell a great story in a way that no one else can tell it.
Similar to TV, your story will be enhanced through varied locations, scene changes, camera angles, sweeps and close ups. The audience sees every twitch, glance and gory detail, so consider which aspects of your story will benefit from such technology.
TV dramas and made-for-TV feature films share some similarities with movies – there is more scope for locations, scene changes, and audio. Movie actors get little time to learn and rehearse scripts. They will shoot one scene at a time, often out of sequence, and while they are able to reshoot, time is usually pressed on a movie set. With both movies and TV, it’s likely your story will be filmed once, with one cast and one production team. No one knows what’s coming next, unlike in a play where audiences may have already read, studied or memorised the script.
Writing a Play
Live performance of scripted drama is the least forgiving format, since the actors have only one chance to get it right. In writing a script, you need to consider ways for actors to remember their dialogue, with clearly anchored scenes and limiting repetition. The plot of a stage play needs to be strictly defined, with as few scene changes as possible.
Actors will usually have plenty of rehearsal time, and your play may be performed (and interpreted) by many different casts over time. The story needs to reach everyone in the theatre, which can be some distance. Therefore, you need to find ways that actors can convey emotions without the benefit of camera close ups. Dialogue and body language are key.
Ultimately you will need to decide which medium your story idea suits best. Do you have the content for a perfectly packaged play on stage, for a gripping two hours of drama, or can your idea be developed and compartmentalised into six (or more) bite sized chunks?