The purpose of all the work you’ve put in so far is, of course, to write a teleplay. And, pragmatically speaking, the first thing you need to know about teleplays is format. Luckily, that’s gotten much easier than it used to be. All you have to do is Google “teleplay format” and you’ll find tons of examples and templates. Even better, you can also find software.
Some of the software apps are free, but the two that are the most widely used in the biz carry price tags. Inasmuch as the teleplay is your actual product, either as something you’re trying to sell or else as something you’re using to sell yourself, my advice is don’t mess around; buy either Final Draft or Movie Magic Screenwriter. (Looking for a comparison/review of the top professional screen and TV writing software? TVWriter™ just happens to have one.) These are the two most used within the industry, and odds are that whichever one you pick will be compatible with most if not all studios/production companies/TV networks.
And not only will your output look right with either of those apps, it’ll also feel right while you’re writing it. After 20 minutes of experimenting with FD or MMS, which can be set up for drama shows, “live” sitcoms, and filmed sitcoms (and which contain specific templates for hundreds of TV series) you’ll find that you don’t even have to think about the formatting and can concentrate on what counts: Your words.
Specifically, the quality of those words.
Offhand, I can think of two important definitions of teleplay quality. The first, which most new writers use without even realizing it, is this:
“Good writing is writing that I would enjoy reading or seeing.”
The second, which most people in show business use, is this:
“Good writing is writing my boss will like.”
Yeah, there’s kind of a conflict here. The conflict between what “they” want and what the writer wants is part and parcel of every single project you work at in TV (and feature films), so get used to it now. More importantly, get used to the constant balancing of the buyer’s/boss’s needs and your own needs that you’ll have to perfect if you want to succeed.
Notice that I didn’t advise you to roll over and let your own creative sense die so that you can work in TV. This isn’t a situation where you abandon all intelligence, taste, and sensitivity. It’s one where you write with all the knowledge and skill you can muster, keeping a firm grasp on what situations and characters and language will have the biggest effect on not only your final audience, AKA the viewers, but also on the people who are bringing you to the viewers and paying you to boot.
It’s all about moving your readers. All of them.
And about writing so powerfully that no gatekeeper/showrunner/executive/agent dares to say no.
Your job as a new writer is to decisively prove that you’re better equipped for whatever the bosses decide they want than even the most respected established pro. So you’ve got to work harder than the old pros. You’ve got to be tougher on yourself than anyone else could ever be. You’ve got to show that your mastery of language is so great that every character and situation you create becomes as real to the reader as life itself…and is even more fascinating.
Oh, and you’ve got to keep the act of reading as simple as possible while you do it. No metaphors, no big words, no literary allusions. It’s all about showing off by seeming to not show off.
How do you do that? You toil your butt off, that’s how. But here are some tips to take away some of the guesswork:
- Conflict is the key to audience interest. Make sure conflict is in every scene.
- Every scene is a mini-story with a beginning, middle, and end. Build to a climax by starting each scene as close to the end as possible and ending with a verbal or physical WHAM!
- Characters are what they do, not what they say or think – because when they talk they may be lying and there’s no way we should be able to hear them think.
- Producers judge writers by their dialog. Your characters need to speak cleverly/colorfully/more interestingly than in real life – even the boring ones have to be cleverly/colorfully/interestingly boring.
- Audiences are trained to look for clues in everything that is said and done in a scene so make sure everything a character says and does moves the story forward in some way. No sneezes unless the character is going to have a cold. And no colds unless that’s going to affect the outcome of the story.
- Make sure something is always at stake for your protagonists…and that the stakes build as the story moves on. To put it another way: Make your leads’ lives increasingly miserable and the audience will root for them more. This goes for villains as well as heroes.
- Don’t have characters say things the people they’re talking to already know, just so you can give the information to the audience. Let the audience get the info gradually, naturally, by seeing it unfold. Oh…and having characters talk to themselves is really, really, really cheating unless they’re totally insane.
- Describe the action colorfully, so that your description has a visceral effect, but don’t overwrite it. For that matter, don’t overwrite anything. Keep all your descriptions as terse as possible.
- Come up with things for your characters to be doing even if they’re in a scene that’s just a verbal exchange of information. People sitting and talking, or sitting and eating and talking are dull, dull, dull.
- Vary your settings/locales between exteriors and interiors so the audience doesn’t get claustrophobic.
- Vary your pacing between direct cuts from one time/place to another and direct action such as letting us see a character actually leave one place and enter another nearby setting in real time. For reasons related to our primitive brainstem, when you do this the audience feels more like a part of the characters’ lives.
- No bumps. Write so clearly that no reader will ever have to read any heading/description/dialog twice in order to understand it. Having to reread pulls the reader out of the universe you’ve created and you may never get him or her back in.
- Speaking of bumps, if the professional showbiz type reader finds anything s/he can’t follow, that reader will always blame the writer. Throw the reader off and the response is likely to be, “This is confusing. Bastard can’t write!” And into the trash the script goes.
- Your hero or heroes have to be genuinely heroic. That doesn’t mean everyone has to be Captain America, but heroes do have to drive the action in every scene. That’s how we know they’re heroes: They have more personal power than we do, even when they’re being chased or tortured or just plain suffering miserably. By this I mean that they always take some kind of action in response to their circumstances/problems, and that action always causes the other characters in the scene to have to adapt to the hero, to follow his/her lead one way or another.
- Don’t expect the events in your teleplay to speak for themselves, no matter how powerful they may be in theory. Your job is describe even the most exciting event in the most exciting way possible. In other words, your job is to write.
- Passion and energy sell. At the heart of every sale is one essential characteristic: soul. As in strength, conviction, integrity. Every reader wants to be moved. They want to be caught up, unable to stop turning the pages. So use your words to grab ‘em by the throat and don’t ever let go.
Let me sum it up this way. When writing your teleplay, do whatever it takes to create characters who feel as passionately about their chosen cause as you do about writing, and then put them into a series of situations that test their belief. Write this with language that races as quickly as your totally absorbed mind. Make your work stand up and shout.
A great writer writing a great teleplay is like a great rider galloping on a wild horse. Don’t break the beast, go with it and share the breathless exhilaration of the ride. Your audience will end up richer for it by far. And emotionally, spiritually, and, yes, financially, so will you.