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21 January 2021

Tips for TV screenwriters | Prepare your application to our Writing an Original TV Drama Serial course

Writing from Home
by Jack Hadley Screenwriting, Writing Tips

Are you thinking of applying to our Writing an Original TV Drama Serial course? Maybe you already have some screenwriting experience – you might even have credits to your name… Or perhaps you’re a writer who’s worked in other disciplines (such as theatre or fiction). Maybe you’re totally new to writing and feel inspired to give it a go.

Whether you are new to the script format or have written a screenplay before, here are some top tips to help you format your work, take the plunge into writing for TV and polish your CBC course application…

Software

When it comes to selecting for the course, we’re looking for something that is professionally formatted.

Final Draft is ubiquitous in the industry and is what most professional screenwriters use. It’s a good, accessible piece of kit and if you’re serious about screenwriting as a vocation, it’s well worth investing in.

Though you can get yourself a 1 month free trial, there’s no denying that the price will be a significant financial barrier for some. If the price of First Draft feels too steep we’d very much recommend looking into a cheaper alternative.

There are number of Freemium options out there – one to check out is Celtx. They currently offer a free plan which allows you to work on up to 3 projects at once.

Whatever you do, don’t waste time trying to create your own script-like formatting on Word. Take it from us, it won’t cut the mustard here, or with any competitions, agencies or production companies you end up sending your scripts to. (And don’t forget to save your scripts as PDFs before you send over to us!).

Formatting basics

You’ll find that any screenwriting software worth its salt will do most of the formatting for you, and will free you from the nitty gritty of margins and indents. A quick google and you will find a tonne of formatting tips online, but here are some the basics.

Scene Headings (also known as sluglines)

When you start a new scene, the heading acts as a shorthand to orientate us as to whether we are in an interior or exterior location (‘INT’ or ‘EXT’) where we are and what time of day it is, for example:

Writing action

This should be written in present tense, for example:  

Characters

When a character is introduced, their name should be capitalized within the action. For example:

A character’s name needs to be in capitals and always listed above their lines of dialogue. Minor characters can be listed without names, for example “SHOP ASSISTANT” or “POLICEMAN.”

Dialogue

Dialogue format is used anytime a character is heard speaking, even for off-screen and voice-overs. You can add some directions in parenthesis, but you want to keep this to a minimum and let your actors bring their own interpretation to a scene. For example:

Dos and don’ts…

These are some key issues and questions to consider before sending in your application

  • Everything on the page needs to be showable on screen. For instance, unless it’s something a character is reacting to– we don’t need to know if the drains smell. For those of you used to writing fiction, you won’t have access to the same level of interiority you’re used to. Everything needs to be dramatized, unless you employ a voice over narration, but this is likely to feel a bit naff unless it’s done well and fits the tone of the script.
  • Leave out stuff like camera moves and set-ups and any incidental music (i.e. music that isn’t actually playing in the real world of these characters). Keep directions for actors to a minimum – you want to be able allow directors and actors room to bring their own vision and interpretation to a script.
  • The script should read at the pace it will be shown on screen – and keep in mind the rough guideline that a page of script is around a minute of screentime. So don’t get bogged down with too much description, unless you want it to be paced that way. Two pages of description of a setting or a character would equal around 2 mins on screen – is that the kind of pace you’re looking for? Probably not.
  • Work on your dialogue – Strong, believable dialogue is key to making your script to come alive. Read your dialogue out loud – does it sound natural? Give your actors something to work with and avoid having long chunks of clunky exposition.
  • Be very clear on your format –  remember that this course is specifically for serial drama. Does your script fit that criteria, or is it actually a comedy. Does it have enough to sustain itself for 5-10 episodes – or is going to work better as a feature length film or a single episode drama?
  • Is your script actually a screenplay? This sounds basic, but please remember that this is a course for TV screenwriters – any play or radio play scripts will be automatically rejected.

Further reading/watching

As with any artistic discipline, you’ll learn a huge amount from looking at examples from the best practitioners in the field. The BBC Writers Room have a fantastic free collection of scripts from great BBC shows – from Doctor Who to Dublin Murders. Seeing how some of best shows on TV read as scripts will give you a enormous insight into how the process works, and how a professional script should read.

And this one sounds obvious – but watch as much TV as you can. Think about the choices that have been made in terms of structure, action, story and character in your favourite shows. Why have they made the decisions they have – and how might you have done something differently?

Give it a go

Though it’s important to consider all of the above as much as possible – remember that what we’re looking for is potential. We’re not expecting your script to be the finished article.  

With so much fantastic new drama being commissioned, it’s an exciting, vibrant moment to  get into TV screenwriting. So whatever your experience level, if you’ve got a great idea for a show and you want to learn more about the craft, we want to hear from you!

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