10 Key Rules For Writing For TV

According to the crew at Raindance:


Consider how many characters you will feature. Typically 4 or 5 with a stronger ‘lead’ character seems to work. Pick a handful of shows and check for yourself.


Create characters that will constantly create their own conflict, even if just locked in a room together. Take a look at Family Guy for example: a slob dad, an uptight mum, a scheming baby, and an intellectual dog. Put any two of those in a room together and they would be arguing in 5 minutes, just because their personalities are so different. Conflict is key, both for drama and comedy – and having characters that generate it automatically, rather than relying on outside ‘plot’ will be extremely helpful.


In general, if you’re writing a returning series, especially a sitcom, your characters shouldn’t change, grow or arc – they need to be reset to their default position at the end of every episode. They may learn, but they don’t grow (think Scrubs). There are obvious exceptions to this, but it’s a good rule of thumb.


Give characters goals and motivations – make them want to achieve things. This should keep them moving, and bring them into conflict with other characters (when they want different things, or both want the same thing but only one of them can have it.


Your A plot is the main storyline, your B plot the secondary storyline, and your C plot (if used), the tertiary. Use a roughly 60/30/10 split. Giving characters goals (i.e. the previous point) is a great way of generating these plots.


If you’re writing for a broadcaster who advertises, your act breaks will come at the ad breaks. These all need to be cliffhangers (N.B. there are different types of cliffhanger). If you’re going to show without adverts, then you need to figure out your own act breaks. Typically there are 4 acts in television.


Snappy dialogue is the hallmark of much good telly, but it shouldn’t be your focus, even in sitcoms. Good structure, good plotting and good characters should make the dialogue easy to write – so focus on those first.


Even if you’re only writing one or two episodes on spec, create a series bible that contains the bigger picture. Character bios, episode outlines for the whole series, maybe some background, notes on the setting etc. Keep it snappy and interesting though – the word ‘bible’ can be misleading – think of it more as a pitch document.


Do as much research into formatting as possible. It can vary quite widely and you need to match it to the preferred style of whomever you are submitting to.


You need to have a specific audience in mind – a good way to research this is paying attention to the target market of adverts played during similar shows. You also need to have an idea when you see your show airing and what content is suitable for that time. Research the watershed rules. Finally, you need to know who broadcasts shows like this. Do your research.

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Sam says:

    Excellent point about characters on TV not changing. Although it’s a bit difficult to process for people like me who started writing feature scripts and then made the jump to TV, since the idea in self-contained works (as I understand it) is for the main character to make a clear transition from point A to point B. In your opinion, does this have a big impact on what types of stories can be told in each medium? I’ve only thought about this in a distant kind of way, but I bet it does.

    1. characters on TV have a much slower arc than film so the change can be seen over multiple seasons. The difference is that TV needs to generate multiple stories to sustain a series, whereas as film is a closed ended medium (even in sequels).

  2. Neal says:

    You said episodes should be 4 acts, but I still see a lot of 5act shows (for one hour dramas). How is this determined? Are 4 acts the new standard? I just finished a 5 act pilot, should I write a 4 act version?

    1. It depends on the structure of the show so there is no hard and fast rule. Most current TV shows in the US have 5-6 acts. This often includes a “Cold Open” or “Teaser” and a tail at the end. See if you can get scripts of shows similar to those you are writing to see how they are formatted. Basically the number of acts depends on where the commercial breaks are slotted in. Network TV has the most acts for this purpose. However make sure each act ends on a cliffhanger so you don’t lose your audience.

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