TV Script Formatting

Once you know the basics of formatting a TV script, you’ll see that it is about as simple as making your bed (but we promise that it will be much more fun!). And though you might not admit this to your parents, with all the sheets tucked in, and your blankets in their proper places, your bed is just so much more comfortable. And yes, you have to format your script. You’ll need to so that the actors, directors, and TV showrunners can produce your script once it makes its way to Hollywood!

Before you get too far into this formatting how-to, we would like to remind you that there are software programs that will do all of this for you, and there are some great templates and worksheets you can use to format your script in Week 4 of the scriptwriting boot camps!

 

Choosing Your Format

Unlike movies, different kinds of television shows require different formatting. If you’re writing a spec script (see our How-To: TV Writing), then spend some time tracking down a completed script for your show before you start writing. Nearly every series on television is formatted just a little bit differently, and you’ll want to be sure to copy the format of the show you are writing a fake script for as closely as possible.

For those of you writing an original pilot, you’ll need to begin by deciding if your show is a drama or a situational comedy (sitcom). Both of these script types are formatted differently.

Okay, brace yourself for some serious learning!

 

Drama

Dramas are any shows from a half-hour to one-hour in length that are serious in nature. Shows like Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars, as well as shows like CSI: Miami, are all dramas. Dramatic television scripts are formatted a lot like screenplays, with a few important differences. As we said in How-To: TV Writing, hour-long shows are usually structured as follows:

  • Teaser
  • Commercial break
  • Act I
  • Commercial break
  • Act II
  • Commercial break
  • Act III
  • Commercial break
  • Act IV
  • Commercial break
  • Tag

Now, let’s get going!

As with all scripts, if you are writing on computer, your drama should be written in 12-point Courier font.

Every TV script should start with a transition, such as “FADE IN,” “FROM BLACK,” or “COLD OPEN.” This should be justified to the left margin of your page, like this:

 

FADE IN:

 

Two spaces below your transition should be the “slugline” for your “teaser” (or opening scene) also known as a “scene heading.” Now your page should look something like this:

 

FADE IN:
 
 
EXT. CITY STREET - DAY

 

Sluglines are made up of these three elements:

INT. or EXT: Short for interior and exterior (inside and outside). If it’s both, such as when a cute couple is walking through the doorway of their favorite pizza parlor, you can write INT./EXT.

Location: Where the scene takes place. These should be short and you should avoid a lot of description. Instead of writing INT. SUPER COOL AND DELICIOUS PIZZA PARLOR, you should write INT. PIZZA PARLOR. Don’t worry—there’ll be room for the fun stuff later.

Time: Usually just DAY or NIGHT, but can also be a specific time, like 3:00 PM if it’s an important detail to the plot. Don’t use things like DUSK, MORNING, MIDNIGHT, or LATER.

You will need to write a new slugline every time you change locations, so you’ll be writing a lot of these! Remember that your slugline needs to be in ALL CAPS (capitalized). 4) Next comes the “action block” for your teaser. This is where you fill in all the fun details about your location, and explain what your characters are doing. Action is always written in the present tense as if your action is happening as you’re writing your script, and looks like this:

 

EXT. CITY STREET - DAY
 
Heat rises from the pavement. A red car swerves
through traffic.
 
Pedestrians leap out of the way of the wayward sedan.

 

Any time a character is introduced in your script for the first time, the character’s name must be in ALL CAPS, and generally, the character’s age or age range should be placed in parenthesis to the right of it. For example:

 

Pedestrians leap out of the way of the wayward sedan.
 
As the car approaches, we see the driver is MAC ATTACK
(20s), an unwashed cowboy.

 

Notice the description of the character that followed his introduction. Your character descriptions can be packed with detail, but avoid making them too long. You don’t have a lot of room for long-winded explanations. That is what the dialogue is for!

When you’re ready for a character to start talking, move two spaces down (hit "Enter" twice), and indent 2.2 inches from the left margin. This is the same margin used in film screenplay structure, so feel free to use the pre-set formats in any scriptwriting software.Type your character’s name in ALL CAPS like this:

 

Mack leans out the window while swerving around a
corner.
 
			MACK

 

Sometimes you’ll have minor characters that you may not want to name, or a “secret” character who hasn’t revealed his or her identity. In these cases, it’s okay to call them CLERK, NINJA, or ROCK STAR. If there are several of the same types of characters, add a number: ROCK STAR #1 or NINJA #2.

You’re set up now, and ready to give your character a voice! Dialogue is sandwiched in a place one inch from the left margin to two inches before the right margin. It looks like this:

 

Mack leans out the window while swerving around a
corner.
 
			MACK
	Try to catch me now, coppers!
        
He tosses a stack of LOOSE BILLS out of the window.
 
Chaos ensues as PEOPLE rush into the street to grab
the money.

 

Notice that in the action blocks after the dialogue, the words LOOSE BILLS and PEOPLE have been capitalized. Any word that describes one or more persons, such as CROWD, PEOPLE, KIDS, or ZOMBIES should always be placed in caps. So should any key props like MONEY. As well as words that describe sounds, such as THUMP, BOING, ZING, or WHOOSH! At certain times, it is also good to capitalize ACTIONS for special emphasis, such as:

 

He LEAPS across the doorway.
 
The car RACES around the corner. 

 

If you want dialogue to be spoken with a special emphasis, you may indent by an additional .6 inches (or one tab) on the line directly beneath a character’s name, and add in your direction:

 

Mack leans out the window while swerving around a
corner.
 
			MACK
		(with a sneer)  
	Try to catch me now, coppers!
        
He tosses a stack of LOOSE BILLS out of the window.

 

A parenthetical can also be used to clarify who a person is talking to, or who they are talking about. For example:

 

			MACK
		(to GRANDMA)  
 
			BORIS
		(re: ABIGAIL)

 

If the description within a parenthetical runs longer than a few words, try to move it out of the parenthetical and into the action block preceding the dialogue. The last thing you need to know about dialogue is how to handle a VOICE OVER, or a situation in which a character can’t be seen on camera but is heard speaking OFF SCREEN. This is easy. Simply add the initials (V.O.) or (O.S.) directly to the right of a character’s name, as in:

 

			MACK (V.O.)
 
			BORIS (O.S.)

 

If you need to cut to a new scene, simply drop down two lines and add a new slug line for the next scene:

 

Chaos ensues as people rush into the street to grab
the money.
 
 
INT. POLICE STATION/OFFICE - DAY
 
SERGEANT PAUL GARCIA (55) slams down his phone.
 
			GARCIA

(to his sidekick) Mack is back.

 

At the end of your teaser, tab down to the start of your next page. On the next clean sheet, center the words ACT ONE at the top of the page:

 

ACT ONE

 

Some writers also choose to underline ACT ONE, but you don’t need to do that unless you’re writing a spec and copying someone else’s formatting.

After your ACT ONE title, go down three spaces (hit "Enter" three times) and write your first slugline for this act. After that, simply progress through your act using all of the formatting we just discussed above. You’re doing great!

Incidentally, have you ever noticed when watching your favorite TV show that as the program progressed, the commercial breaks got longer and the good stuff in between got shorter? Well—that was planned. In television, Act One is usually the longest, and each act that follows tends to get shorter and shorter. It’s all about getting your audience hooked into your story up front, so that they’ll sit through the commercials at the end.

After you’ve hooked your audience with the thrilling action and hilarious plots in your first act, triple space down, and center the words END OF ACT ONE. It will look like this:

 

			ABIGAIL
	I have something to tell you, Boris. I am not
a human. I am from the planet Zorbot.
 
Boris' eyes widen as Abigail walks away,
leaving him in the pouring rain.
 
 
END OF ACT ONE

 

After that, tab down to the top of your next page, and center the words ACT TWO. Move down three spaces, and begin your next act!

Now, you’ve really got it! If you still have questions, you can always post a question in the forums, or check with a commonly used reference book such as David Trottier’s The Screenwriter’s Bible. And, the final step is to start writing!

 

Situation Comedy

Okay, before we get going, let’s think back again to Section 7 in Intro to TV Writing where it states that half-hour shows are usually structured as follows:

  • Teaser
  • Commercial break
  • Act I
  • Commercial break
  • Act II
  • Commercial break
  • Tag

Now let’s get going!

Again, like all scripts, sitcoms are written in 12-point Courier font.

If you’re beginning with a “teaser,” write the word “TEASER” in all caps at the top of your first page, and center it like so:

 

TEASER

 

In a sitcom, each scene is demarcated by a “letter,” starting with the letter “A.” Before you can start writing a scene, its scene letter needs to be centered at the top of a new page. If it is the first scene in a teaser, a tag, or a new act, the scene letter should be placed three lines below this specification, like so:

 

TEASER
SCENE A

 

Next step, move four spaces down your page, and left-justify a “transition” that will bring us into your scene. Some of the most common transitions are “FADE IN,” “FROM BLACK,” and “COLD OPEN.” Your page should now look like this:

 

TEASER
SCENE A
FADE IN:

 

Two spaces below your transition should be your first “slugline,” also known as a scene heading:

 

TEASER
SCENE A
FADE IN: INT. FANCY OFFICE - DAY

 

Sluglines are made up of these three elements:

INT. or EXT. Short for interior and exterior (inside and outside). If it’s both, such as when a ninja is kicking down a doorway, you can write INT./EXT.

Location. Where the scene takes place. These should be short, and avoid a lot of description. It’s not INT. REALLY RUNDOWN MANSION, just INT. MANSION. Don’t worry—there’ll be room for the fun stuff later.

Time. Usually just DAY or NIGHT, but can also be a specific time, like 3:00 PM, if it’s an important detail to the plot. Don’t use times like DUSK, MORNING, MIDNIGHT, or LATER. That will be up to the director to decide.

Sluglines in sitcoms are underlined and are always in CAPS.

Occasionally, you’ll need a SUBLOCATION to clarify the location. These look like:

 

INT. HIGH SCHOOL/PRINCIPAL’S OFFICE – DAY
 
or
 
INT. HIGH SCHOOL - PRINCIPAL’S OFFICE – DAY

 

A new slugline is needed every time you change locations, so get used to typing these up!

Next comes your “action block.” This is where you can fill in details about your setting or location, and explain what your characters are doing. Action is always written in the present tense (meaning you write your script as if the action is happening as you are writing it) and must be written in ALL CAPS. It’s always justified left, and looks like this:

 

FADE IN:
 
INT. OFFICE - DAY
 
A LARGE OAK DESK IS STREWN WITH PAPERS, AND A COMPUTER
RESTS OVERTURNED ON THE FLOOR.

 

When a character is introduced for the first time, his or her name should be underlined.

Any action that describes a character’s movement, whether an exit or a dance move, should also be underlined:

 

FADE IN:
 
INT. OFFICE - DAY
 
A LARGE OAK DESK IS STREWN WITH PAPERS, AND A COMPUTER
RESTS OVERTURNED ON THE FLOOR.
 
OFFICER TIM SURVEYS THE DAMAGE AS PROFESSOR MCGORDY
ENTERS THE ROOM.

 

Almost there! Next stop—dialogue. Sitcoms are all about talking, so you want to keep your action blocks short. In sitcoms, you want to tell your story almost totally through dialogue.

In situation comedies, dialogue is the only part of the script that is not in all caps. Before a person can speak, you need to move two spaces down from your last line of action, and type their character name 2.2 inches from your left margin. A character’s dialogue block should start two spaces down from his name, and should be sandwiched within a window one inch from the left margin to two inches before the right margin. The dialogue should be double-spaced, like this:

 

OFFICER TIM SURVEYS THE DAMAGE AS PROFESSOR MCGORDY
ENTERS THE ROOM.
 
			TIM
 
		I think I know who broke
 
		into your office.

 

Note: This double-spacing is why sitcoms tend to average two pages per minute of screen time, rather than the usual one page per minute of screen time demanded by other types of scripts.

Directions for the actors in a sitcom can be very specific, and should be written parenthetically within the dialogue. These should also be written in all caps, like this:

 

OFFICER TIM SURVEYS THE DAMAGE AS PROFESSOR MCGORDY
ENTERS THE ROOM.
 
			TIM
 
		I think I know who broke
 
		into your office.
 
			PROFESSOR
 
		(EXCITEDLY) Let me guess!
        
		Revolutionaries? (LEANING
        
		IN CLOSER) Intent on
 
		stealing my life's work?
 
			TIM
            
		(CALM) Squirrels.

 

When you’re ready to end a scene, move down two spaces from the last dialogue or action block, and right-justify the words “FADE OUT” or “CUT TO” like this:

 

PROFESSOR MCGORDY STARES BLANKLY AS OFFICER TIM'S
WORDS SLOWLY SINK IN. SOMEWHERE FAR AWAY, A RODENT
SQUEAKS.
  
  

FADE OUT

 

To start the next scene, tab down to the top of the next blank page, and center the words “Scene B” at the top of the page. After that, format your new scene just as you did the last:

 

SCENE B
EXT. COURTHOUSE - DAY OFFICER TIM EXITS THE BUILDING WITH JAMIE.

 

To end your teaser, simply center the words END TEASER at the end of the scene:

 

END TEASER

 

To begin your first act, tab down to the start of the next blank page, and set it up just like your did the start of your teaser:

 

ACT ONE
SCENE C
INT. ICE CREAM TRUCK - NIGHT

 

Note that the scene letter should continue from the last one, not start over within the act.

When you have finished Act One, move down three spaces after your last dialogue or action block, and center the words END ACT ONE in all caps.

 

END ACT ONE

 

It’s that simple! Move on to your next act and begin again! Every scene always starts at the top of a new page, and your acts, teaser, and tag should always end with a clear END WHATEVER IT IS in all caps.

 

That’s all there is to it…

If you run into the odd situation where you’re unsure how to format something, you can post a question in the forums, or check with a commonly used reference book such as David Trottier’s The Screenwriter’s Bible.

Now that you know all the tricks of the trade, the final step is to start writing! Have fun!