How to Write a Screenplay Script for a TV Miniseries
Some of the most memorable and ground-breaking moments in television have been the result of a mini-series. Roots continues to impress and inspire. Angels in America shed light on the heartbreak of HIV/AIDS. Band of Brothers took us to the front lines of WWII to share national and personal triumphs with its characters.
Writing in this genre is a challenge. The stories must be large enough to justify several hours of story time, tight enough that they can be told over commercial breaks, and compelling enough that viewers will tune in day after day to get the whole story.
Read on to learn about how to write effectively for this genre.
How to Write a Screenplay Script for a Television Mini Series
Develop and/or research your story. In order to write any script effectively, you must know your story in and out before you begin writing anything in a script form. Determine what story it is you want to tell and do a free writing exercise to help develop the story. Ask yourself why you want to tell this story and write out your answer. You will need to know exactly what drew you to the story so that you can draw other people to the same ideas. If your story is based on true events or true people, you will need to dedicate some time to researching the facts of the story. You won't use every fact that you find, but you will need to have all of the information you can so that the story is complete and makes sense when you are done writing.
In this first step, get all of the information you can before you start whittling the fat away. List all of the pieces of the story you want to tell. Try another free writing exercise where you explain in detail the facts of the story. List all the major and minor plot points and do some writing about them. What makes them interesting? What makes them important? What makes them compelling? You will need all this information as you move forward to tell a story that is complete and satisfying for your audience.
Describe Your Characters. From the information you have so far, determine who your major and minor characters are. While you may have lots of characters in your story, you will likely have one major protagonist (or hero, the person the audience wants to succeed) and one major antagonist (or villain, the person who is or creates the main obstacles to your protagonist's success.)
Explain these characters in the most detail. List as much information as you can think of. You want to make sure to include the basic information---who they are, what kind of person they are, what they want, what they fear, etc. But you may also want to include information that may not be directly reflected in your script. Where would this person like to go on vacation? What kinds of things do they do for fun? What were their grandparents like?
These extra types of questions may not give you information that will be literally written on the pages of your story, but will give you a wealth of information from which to create a whole, layered character.
Do the same exercises for every other character in your script. Even if there is a character with only a few lines of dialogue, if you have done this kind of work, that character will stand out as well and serve as more than an expositional device.
Determine Length and Structure. When writing for television, you must take commercial breaks into account. Unless your series is definitely running on a network like HBO or Showtime, your story will be interrupted by commercial breaks. This also decreases the amount of actual storytelling time you have.
In an average "hour" of commercial television, only about 44 minutes are dedicated to the story you are watching. The rest of the time is given to commercials.
With the basic building blocks of your story in hand, determine how many hours you think you will need to tell the story. The average mini series runs for two hours a night over several days. Can you tell your story in 3 days (6 hours) or will you need a week (10 hours)? Regardless of how many days it is, you will need to divide each two-hour episode into 7 acts. Your movie will likely be interrupted six times by commercials, so the space between each commercial should be treated like an act. Each act needs to build to some sort of new tension or cliffhanger before the commercial break so that the audience is interested in sticking around after the commercial to see what happens next.
Build an Outline. Now that you have the story of your story, your character profiles and the basic structure, you can write the outline that will serve as the backbone. While it may be tempting to just dive into the script, a solid outline will definitely save you time and energy. For the outline, write out your story like you are writing an essay. Explain what happens in each scene - both what actually happens (the action of the scene) and what happens internally (what that action means for the characters.) Be sure to honor the act breaks and indicate when they occur. This process will help you see what information is most pertinent. And what pieces of information you can drop from your story. Each scene should build momentum, move the story forward and teach us something about your main character.
The overall series should follow the traditional 3-act structure of any script. Act one, about one quarter of whole your story, should set up the world that we are in and the main characters and what the protagonist wants. The end of act one should be the moment when the main character is forced into action. Act two is the action of your main character trying to get what he or she wants. This part of your story is the second and third quarter of your piece, so it will take up about half of the entire story. Act two ends at the lowest point for your character, where it seems like he or she will not be able to achieve his or her goal. Act three is the denouement. Faced with seemingly insurmountable odds, your character now has to change again. This is the part of the script where the character finds what it is he or she truly needs and redoubles his or her efforts to get to his or her goal. While the breaks for commercials may be seen as minor act breaks, these three acts are your major act breaks. Be sure to indicate both in your outline.
Write Your Script. With a solid outline, your script should flow fairly easily. Industry standards call for the script to be written on software like Final Draft. This software automatically formats your script correctly.
In a properly formatted script, you will see a few things. Each scene will start with a scene heading that looks like this: "INT. Restaurant -- Day." The scene heading lets us know where the scene we are about to read takes place and what time of day it is. Under the scene heading, you will then write Action or Description. That will look something like:
INT. Restaurant -- Day Billy sits alone at a booth reading a magazine.
The description or action sets the scene for your reader and gives us visual context for what is happening. You will also have Dialogue which will look something like this:
BILLY I'll have the eggs.
You don't need to include quotation marks around your dialogue. The Character Name above the line of dialogue lets us know who's talking and indicates that this is a spoken line.
Rewrite. They say that the bulk of the writing process is rewriting. And you will do a fair amount of it. After you are done with your script, put it away for a few days to clear your head. Then read through the script again. Try to read it as though you were a stranger reading this for the first time. Imagine that this was the first time you were reading this story and see if it makes sense, is clear, and is enjoyable. You may want to give your script to a few trusted friends and see what they think.