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  • Writer's pictureLee Hamilton

Your Story's Best Fit: Unpacking Screenplay Formats


Here's the deal - not every story is meant to fill a two-hour movie, and some are too colossal for anything less than a TV series. Let's face it; some narratives aren't even cut out for that, they're so streamlined and targeted, they'd make a perfect short film. It all boils down to the scope and depth of your story.


If your first draft is coming up too short or too long, use this comparison chart to assess whether you’ve possibly chosen the wrong format to begin with.

​Feature

1hr TV Pilot

Half-Hour TV Pilot

Short Film

Length

Typically 90-120 mins

55-65 mins

25-35 mins

Under 45 mins

Story Complexity

Self-contained story with clear three-act structure

Can handle complex narratives with ongoing subplots

Less complex than 1hr TV show, often with a single or a couple of related storylines

Single, focused narrative, typically with a simple structure

Character Development

Limited by film length, characters often follow a clear and concise arc

Allows for deep, long-term character development

Characters can develop over time, though at a typically faster pace than in 1hr TV show

Often focuses on one or two main characters, limited development

Visual Elements

Cinematic, big visuals. Emphasis on show, don't tell

Visual storytelling important, but episodic nature allows for more dialogue and character development

Often more dialogue-driven due to shorter length, but visual humor/style important in comedies

Depends on genre, but usually highly visual due to short length

Pacing

Steady pace with climactic points at the end of each act

Slower pacing with cliffhangers at the end of each episode to keep viewers coming back

Faster pacing, usually with a focus on efficient storytelling

Typically very fast-paced due to time constraints

Audience Appeal

Broad audience appeal, often genre-specific

Can target a more niche audience due to episodic format

Often comedy-oriented, appealing to a wide demographic

Can target very specific audiences; often used as a stepping stone into the industry

Production Resources

Requires substantial funding and a large team

High budget but stretched over multiple episodes

Less costly than a 1hr pilot, but still requires significant resources

Can often be produced on a smaller budget, with fewer resources

Career Goals

Good for those aiming for a career in film industry

Great for long-term employment and consistent work

Good for writers interested in sitcoms and comedic storytelling

Ideal for beginners seeking recognition in film festivals and competitions

Hopefully, you now have a clearer understanding of which format is going to work best with your idea, but that doesn’t mean it’s set in stone that you have to use that format. Read on to discover how to flesh out or trim back your concept to suit the format you want to write in.




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