Kick the Dog: TV Scripts vs. Film Scripts


By Roadmap Top Tier Writer Craig Berger (Signed to Meridian Artists)

A while back, I attended a screenwriters’ conference where one of the seminars was an analysis of “Save the Cat,” the seminal screenwriting book by Blake Snyder, but as applied to TV scripts, rather than film scripts. A documentarian was giving the seminar, so that should have been my first clue. I was skeptical, but as a big fan of “Save the Cat,” I was curious, so I checked it out.

The seminar did not go well. As the presenter tried to give various examples throughout the book of applying the principles to T.V., he kept running into stumbling blocks: Questions he couldn’t answer, concepts that didn’t quite work, it just didn’t fit.

He gamely completed the presentation but I could tell he was having second thoughts about giving it again. It just wasn’t working.

Of course it wasn’t working. TV scripts are not like film scripts. In fact, they’re practically the opposite. Instead of having your TV hero saving a cat, he should be kicking a dog.

Kicking the Dog

I’m not talking about anti-heroes, although of course the “Golden Age of Television” loves anti-heroes. My point is that the goal of an episode of a TV show is almost the opposite of the goal of a film. In a movie, we want to open with a flawed character and have him grow and change to overcome those flaws by the closing credits.

In a T.V. show, we want our audience to embrace those flaws. We want them to want to come back every week specifically to see those flaws. If Larry David realizes by the end of the pilot what an ass he’s always been, and resolves to be nicer and let stuff go and not say everything that comes into his head, there’s no show. If House gets surgery on his leg, gets rid of his pain, and becomes a congenial medical practitioner who loves life and his patients, there’s no show (this does happen after several seasons, but it doesn’t last).

This reality is true of all types of T.V. It’s most important in sitcoms and procedurals, but even in dramas, you want your main characters to grow and change as little as possible (unless it’s your final season). Again, the flaws are what we tune in to see.

This doesn’t mean your TV characters can be unsympathetic and irredeemable. If your hero is a jerk, we have to have some reason to like him. A simple formula for drama is if he’s really great at what he does and he loves his family, we’re in. Tony Soprano, Walter White, even Gregory House, if you consider his team and Wilson to be his family, all meet these criteria. For sitcoms, your hero has to be vulnerable and have very human problems, even if he’s a jerk. Larry David says what we’re all thinking, he just doesn’t have the filter the rest of us do. Sam Malone is just lonely at heart. It’s all about being relatable. We don’t really have to relate to Die Hard’s John McClane or even Luke Skywalker. We’re only spending two hours with them. We just have to find a reason to root for them.

How else are movies different from T.V.? While the lines are getting increasingly blurred these days, there are some differences that still exist: Movies usually have a much bigger budget. This means dialogue is more important in T.V. because there are going to be more talking head scenes. That doesn’t mean movie dialogue doesn’t have to be sharp. It does. You just don’t have to have as much sharp dialogue. In the same vein, you can devote a little less time to scene description in a TV show. Again, make your description lines count, but you’re not going to be able to afford as elaborate a set up on T.V., so no need to go overboard.

A movie is usually about 2 hours long, while a TV show is an hour. But don’t think of it that way. Think of a T.V. show as 60-80 hours broken up into 1 hour chunks (if you get cancelled, that’s not on you). Don’t rush to fully develop your characters and your world—give the audience something to look forward to. Let things unfold. But, of course, give them something, or you’ll have promised too much to deliver by the end (I’m looking at you, LOST)

When all is said and done, dramatic writing is dramatic writing. You want to tell a compelling story with interesting characters. But the way you do it definitely changes when comparing movies to TV, and if you’re going to write both, it’s important to be aware of this.

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