Screenplay vs. Teleplay -- How Hard Could it Be? By Emmett Loverde Emmett Loverde is a playwright and screenwriter from Los Angeles. This article was originally written in 2002.
Everyone's telling you that funny scene you wrote is perfect for "Friends". No one can shut up about your skit for the church's holiday fair -- what a great movie that would make! You had a staged reading of your "Just Shoot Me" spec and everybody cried (oops)... maybe it's too serious for TV. All you need to know now is... How is television script format different from movie script format?
The good news is good drama tends to be pretty mobile -- equally at home on silver or electronic screen. The bad news is that each medium has its own production requirements and, thus, its own specific script format. "Format, shmormat. A script is a script!" Agreed. But would you try to build a supermarket using the blueprints for a hospital?
The theatrical motion picture is a descendent of the circus sideshow, the novelty act. The emphasis has always been on spectacle rather than drama. The scripts for the earliest filmed spectacles (if a script was even used at all) consisted mainly of description -- and no dialogue. Audiences soon demanded stories to go along with the spectacle. Stories required scripts-even when the film contained little or no dialogue. The script format for today's (sound) films reflects the emphasis that silent films placed on pictures rather than dialogue. Paragraphs containing scenic and action descriptions have very small margins while dialogue has ridiculously wide margins. The message is clear: in a film, pictures are more important than words.
Modern television is a cousin of film, but TV descended from radio. Nearly every type of program on TV today -- news, sports, sitcoms, dramas, talk shows, etc. -- originated on radio, not the big screen. And radio is all about sound. TV script format reflects its talky radio origins: dialogue is double-spaced for legibility; stage directions are formatted in all capital letters to make them easily distinguishable from dialogue; the pages contain lots of white space for jotting notes.
Types of Film Scripts
There is really only one type of theatrical screenplay format. The variations within the format are minor: margins, use of "MORE" and "CONTINUED" (or not), etc. As a script nears the filming stage, it may include specific camera angles, scene numbering, omitted dialogue notations, etc., but it's still quite recognizable as a theatrical screenplay. ScreenStyle can help format a screenplay according to accepted industry standards. ScreenStyle runs under Microsoft Word on Windows and Macintosh. Go to www.ScreenStyle.com for more information.
Types of Television Scripts
Television scripts ("teleplays") come in many formats. The format that a particular program uses depends primarily on how that program is produced.
Filmed One-Hour Dramas
A "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" teleplay looks very much like a screenplay. Why? Because filmed shows such as "Deep Space Nine" are produced in a fashion very similar to theatrical films: they're shot on location or in a soundstage without an audience; they're shot one scene at a time using one camera (usually); and they often feature many locations. And they may (but don't necessarily have to) emphasize pictures over words.
Taped Situation Comedies
Taped situation comedies ("sitcoms") such as "The Drew Carey Show" use a specific script format. The program is videotaped in front of a live audience which not only (hopefully) gives it a laugh track, it also limits where scenes can take place (street scenes and large crowds tend to be out of the question). The text in the script is spaced out much more so than in a screenplay; a page of a screenplay translates into about a minute of screen time while a page of a sitcom teleplay translates into about thirty seconds of screen time. The scenes are numbered-and the scene numbers are displayed at the top of each page along with the page numbers. The script is divided into acts and scenes-and each begins on a new page. A list of which characters are needed in each scene appears at the beginning of each scene. The dialogue can contain "personal direction" for the actor (such as "she sits" or "glumly") within it rather than outside of it, just like a stage play.
Also available from ScreenStyle.com is SitcomStyle, which can help format an industry-standard situation comedy script. SitcomStyle is fully compatible with ScreenStyle and runs under Microsoft Word on Windows and Macintosh. Go to www.ScreenStyle.com for more information.
Talk/Variety Shows, News Programs, Etc.
Scripts for news or talk shows (yes, talk shows use scripts) look much different than either of the above examples. Such scripts tend to serve as a general outline of the program: the evening's lead stories, notes for the host(ess) about the guests and questions that could be asked, an opening monologue, when and what the musical guest will play, etc. The script may contain two separate columns for "Audio" and "Video" for listing which events/effects occur in what sequence. What little scripted (pre-written) dialogue there is gets squeezed into the "Audio" column (these shows aren't about scripted conversation, after all).
Screenplay vs. Teleplay: A Comparison
Since most writers reading this article will probably be creating either screenplays or sitcom scripts, this article will focus on those two formats.
A sitcom teleplay's cover should contain the name of the show, the title of the episode, and the name of the writer. A screenplay's cover should contain the name of the script only.
The Title Page
A sitcom teleplay's title page should contain the name of the show, the title of the episode, the name of the writer, the writer's "contact info" and/or the name of the production company, and the draft number. A screenplay's title page should contain all of the above except, of course, the episode title.
The first (and every subsequent) page of a screenplay should contain page numbers in the upper right-hand corner. The first and every subsequent page of a sitcom teleplay should have page numbers as well, but the page numbers should also include scene letters (i.e., "A", "B", "C", etc.)
The First Page Following the Cover and Title Page
The first (and only the first) page of a screenplay should contain the title of the screenplay. The first page of a sitcom teleplay should contain the name of the show, the title of the script, the act number (or the word "Teaser"), and the scene letter.
The First Page of a New Act/Scene
The first page of each act of a sitcom teleplay should contain the name of the show, the title of the script, the act number, and the scene letter. Every scene in a sitcom teleplay should begin on a new page, and the scene letter should be displayed at the head of the scene. On such pages, the scene letter should not be repeated at the top of the page underneath the scene number. Every scene in a sitcom teleplay should feature a list of all the characters who appear in that scene. Unlike in a sitcom teleplay, the "acts" in a screenplay are not specifically defined. Since new scenes in a screenplay do not have to begin on new pages, there are no special requirements for a page on which a new scene begins.
Screenplays and sitcom teleplays differ little in this regard. In both cases, scene transitions can be indicated using "CUT TO:", "FADE TO:", etc. The end of each act of a sitcom teleplay can, if desired, be labeled "END OF ACT ONE", etc. Scripts of both formats usually end with the words "FADE OUT" and "THE END".
Text formatting for screenplays and sitcom teleplays is pretty similar. There are several important differences, however. Note: For the following section, the names of the appropriate ScreenStyle/Sitcom styles will be in [brackets] for the users of that script-formatting software. For more information, go to www.ScreenStyle.com.
"Fade In:" ["Fade In"]
When used, "Fade In:" is formatted using all caps in a screenplay and with all caps and underlined in a sitcom teleplay.
Scene Numbering (Lettering) ["Heading 1"]
As noted above, scenes in a sitcom teleplay are numbered using capital letters. The letters have ample space above and below them and are underlined. When scenes are numbered in a screenplay, the numbers appear in both the left and the right margins adjacent to the slugline.
Slugline ["Heading 2"]
"Sluglines" are also called "scene headings", "headings", and "scene captions". Sluglines indicate where a scene takes place, at what time of day, and whether it needs to be shot indoors or out. In screenplays, sluglines are in all caps; in sitcom teleplays they are capitalized and underlined.
Character List ["Subtitle"]
In a sitcom teleplay, a list of characters that are needed in a scene should appear directly below that scene's slugline. It is in upper- and lower-case text and enclosed in parentheses. Screenplays should never contain lists of characters.
Scene/Action Descriptions ["Actions"]
Scenic and action descriptions in a screenplay are formatted as upper- and lower-case text. In a sitcom teleplay, they are formatted in all caps.
Character Intros/Sound Effects/Special Effects/Camera Instructions
In a screenplay, all of these are written in all caps. In a sitcom teleplay, they are capitalized and underlined.
Character Names/Dialogue ["Character"/"Dialogue"]
For dialogue in both sitcom teleplays and screenplays, character names are typed in all caps and the dialogue itself appears in upper- and lower-case text. However, in sitcom teleplays the dialogue is double-spaced.
Personal ("Adverbial") Direction ["Line Actions"]
Often, instructions specifically for the actor appear within a character's dialogue. In a screenplay, this "personal direction" is inserted inside parentheses on a separate line or lines in upper- and lower-case text between the lines of dialogue. In a sitcom teleplay, personal direction appears within the dialogue-on the same line-in all caps and enclosed within parentheses.
For most other items, screenplays and sitcom teleplays are formatted identically.
Are They Interchangeable?
Screenplays and sitcom teleplays are not interchangeable, as the preceding doubtless illustrates. However, it is possible to reformat a screenplay into a sitcom teleplay or vice versa with a minimum of retyping and reformatting. The main thing is to understand where the formats differ and where they do not. ScreenStyle and SitcomStyle, ScreenStyle.com’s two flagship products, not only allow writers to easily format their scripts, but when used together they allow, say, text from a screenplay to be copied and pasted into a sitcom teleplay and automatically take on proper sitcom teleplay format! (Of course, it works the other direction as well.)
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