Understanding the Teleplay
A teleplay is another term for a television script.
It’s a leftover from the early days of TV when the idea was to put a play, the kind you see onstage, onto television, hence the term, teleplay. Before that, there was the radio play, which was a play put on the radio that one could listen to. Now can you guess where the term screenplay comes from? You got it. It’s also a play, intended for the screen, which used to be at a movie theater. These days, the term screenplay means a feature-length script (approximately 90 minutes) for any screen. And that’s the biggest difference between a screenplay and a teleplay. The teleplay is strictly for the television medium, but there are various formats.
Let’s talk about the term script for a moment. With very few exceptions, pretty much everything you see on a screen is scripted. Yes, even reality TV. When we are referring to a screenplay or a teleplay, we are talking about a narrative. It’s a story told with Actors rather than a documentary, which tells a story with real people. Whether it’s fiction or history, a screenplay or a teleplay is a dramatization of events instead of the real events.
So what’s the difference between a teleplay and a screenplay besides length? The major difference is the way they are structured. Let’s look at the various kinds of TV programs and unravel some of the differences. If you are interested in learning more, at the bottom are some references so you can dig in deeper and see if writing a teleplay is for you.
There are many categories of the one-hour drama. There’s the procedural, like Law and Order, the police drama like The District, or the hospital drama like Grey’s Anatomy, among many others. They are usually serialized, that is, each episode picks up where the other left off, but they can also be an anthology in which each episode is self-contained like Black Mirror. More and more we are seeing limited series dramas that replace what used to be known as a mini-series, in which the series has a set ending like Escape From Dannemora.
If you look at the script of a one-hour drama, it hardly looks different than a feature screenplay in the way it’s presented on the page. It’s just structured differently. The one-hour drama is usually divided up into four or five acts and sometimes a “teaser” which starts the episode. Unlike a feature screenplay, the act breaks are noted in the script. This practice serves network television where there are commercials. If you are writing for a broadcast network, you have to be aware of commercial breaks in order to craft the story so people “stay tuned.” God forbid someone flip the channel during a commercial break and not come back!
These days, with commercial-free cable and streaming services, the act break is less important and, in fact, the time constraint of one hour is falling by the wayside in this realm. There is no longer the need to fit a story into broadcast time because people can tune in whenever they want. An episode can end earlier or later with no consequence. The only given across the board is to keep people watching, or in the streaming world — binging.
The sitcom, short for situation comedy, has been around since the dawn of television. Remember I Love Lucy? What about Friends? These are 22-minute shows slotted into 30 minutes of broadcast time with commercial breaks. They are usually character driven and are about the situations these characters find themselves in, rather than a plot. The character arcs are less important and the program is more about getting a laugh.
A sitcom can be either single-camera or multi-camera, but a single-camera half-hour comedy isn’t necessarily a sitcom, so the next two categories are very similar and even cross over. A single-camera half-hour comedy can be a sitcom, but a single-camera half-hour comedy might also fall into another category, such as the dramedy.
The biggest difference in formatting a sitcom is the way the story is organized. Rather than breaking the script into acts the story is broken into three major sections, “Story A,” “Story B,” and “Story C.” These stories are bookended by a teaser, which opens the episode, and a tag that ends it.
Most sitcoms are shot using a multi-camera setup. So as I mentioned above, this is a subset of the sitcom. If you think about a popular sitcom, say, Will and Grace, or The Big Bang Theory, what are the major elements? They are usually shot in front of a live studio audience and as a result they are very limited in their locations. Out of all formats, the multi-camera show is the most like a stage play because it is performed on a stage and captured by three cameras.
The teleplay format for a multi-cam sitcom is considerably different from a screenplay. For example, scene headings are underlined, action is in all caps, character names are underlined the first time they are introduced, but the major formatting difference is that the dialog is double-spaced, so a sitcom, though it runs 22 minutes, is about 40- 50 pages long.
Single-Camera Half-Hour Comedy
The big difference with a single-camera show is that it is not performed in front of a studio audience. It’s captured more like a movie. You have more freedom to set up and block each scene to get various pieces of coverage. As a result, single-camera half-hour comedies are more cinematic. HBO made this format popular with shows like Sex and the City and Curb Your Enthusiasm. The difference with the script is that the Writer has more control over the visual storytelling. It’s not cameras “capturing” jokes.
Then there’s the dramedy, which is a hybrid of comedy and drama. These shows seem to bend all the rules. Shows like Fleabag and Dear White People run in the half-hour range, but they can also run an hour, like Russian Doll or Jane the Virgin. Either way, with a single-camera show, the formatting is similar to a regular screenplay. Where it differs, again, is with structure. Even though a half-hour dramedy runs about 21- 27 minutes long, it, too, is divided up into four or five acts like a one-hour show.
Another genre that falls into this category is the mockumentary, such as The Office or Parks and Rec. Unlike a documentary script, which has a widely different format from a narrative, the mockumentary is formatted like a screenplay. Check out the Parks and Rec pilot here to see what I mean.
Spec vs. Pilot
These terms get a little murky in the TV world. The term spec, short for “speculation,” is the term for a script you write without being paid. You are writing something that you hope someone will buy. A pilot is the first episode of a TV series. Now, if you are writing a script based on an idea for a show, then you are writing a spec pilot that you hope to sell.
There is another type of spec script in the business of television. Though it’s referred to as a spec script, it’s really a spec teleplay, also referred to as a sample episode of an existing show. This used to be your stepping stone to being a paid Writer. You would write an episode of a popular show to demonstrate you could write and prove you could jump into a story that already exists, in the “voice” of the show. It was a way to audition a Writer. Nowadays, the spec pilot serves a similar purpose. You write a script in your preferred genre with the hopes of getting a job as a Writer on a comparable show. And for all that slaving away to prove you can write, you might even try to sell your teleplay in the process.
If you are interested in writing for television, I suggest you dig deeper to understand the structure of the format that interests you the most. If you watch a lot of programs, there’s a chance you already understand structure intuitively, but understanding it professionally is what it takes to get into a Writers room or to sell a spec pilot. Structure is even more important if you want to write for network television. The rules are not easy to break in the world of broadcast media, so you really need to have a handle on it.
Here are some resources to get you started:
If you want to read TV scripts, this is a great place. Forget binge-watching. Get to binge reading!
It’s a good idea to examine screenwriting as a whole even if you are only interested in television. One of my favorite books is:
- The Screenwriter’s Bible, by David Trottier
Once you have a grasp of the overall craft, you can dive into the specifics of television with these books:
- How to Write for Television, by Madeline Dimaggio.
- Writing Television Sitcoms, by Evan S. Smith
- Developing a Series, by Wade Pens
- Write to TV, by Martie Cook