Maybe it came to you in the shower, or on a train, or while you were trying to fall asleep on the eve of an important meeting. Maybe it’s a glimmer of plot, the outline of several characters, or the perfect closing line of dialogue.
Whatever shape your story idea takes, before you type in that first scene header, you must know if it’s going to be a single film or a television show.
Thankfully, there’s a simple way to figure out if you should be writing a 120-page screenplay or the pilot in what you hope will be a long-running series. Okay, maybe it’s not simple, per se, but it does only involve one set of questions.
1. Does your story have a fixed ending?
(If the answer if yes, skip the next question and keep reading.)
2. Does your story have a large group of characters, feature a big story/character arc, or include problems that are introduced and resolved in the same episode?
(If the answer is yes, skip the next section and move ahead.)
IF YOUR STORY HAS A FIXED ENDING…
Congrats, you’re writing a screenplay!
If, from the outset of your idea, from the very second it flits into your head, you know how it’s supposed to end, there’s a good chance that you’re dealing with a standalone screenplay.
The stories that take place in movies are singular — they deal with a specific time or event, with a fixed character arc that ends in a fulfilling resolution. Yes, the characters’ stories continue on after the fade to black at the end, but what happens next isn’t as important as what already happened.
These kinds of stories are often about one or two people, not big groups — as it’s much harder to delve into multiple people in the short time span of a single film. They’re often about a single problem or situation and how that problem or situation is resolved.
Think about movies like The Way Way Back, Inception, Arrival, and The Shape of Water. The stories in all are standalone; they wouldn’t work as long, drawn-out TV series. All deal with one protagonist who faces a single problem that, throughout the course of the movie, will force them to grow and change. Once they’ve resolved that problem, the story is, effectively, over. Though their stories go on, the movies don’t.
AND IF YOU HAVE ANY OR ALL OF THOSE ELEMENTS MENTIONED IN QUESTION #2…
Get started on that pilot!
First, if you have an ensemble, these days you should likely lean into the Golden Age of Television. Today more than ever, the silver screen lends itself to stories with huge ensemble casts. With a seemingly endless amount of episodes in which to explore and get to know your characters, it’s possible to have upwards of 15 or 20 in your story.
The second element — a big story/character arc — is a bit harder to define. Think of it as expansive change or character growth. There’s just so much ground to cover it would be impossible to do in a two-hour film. For example, Big Little Lies involves far too much character growth, story arc, and plot for a movie. Instead, it makes a perfect limited series (or regular series now… who knows). If the writers had tried to make it a movie, too much of the rich detail and depth would have been lost in the process. There was simply too much, which is a surefire sign that you’re dealing with a television series and not a screenplay.
And finally, if you want to tackle problems that are introduced and resolved in the same episode, you quite obviously have a procedural on your hands. Procedurals are any shows that include some kind of “casework” — legal battles, medical cases, police work, etc. Every network has shows like this because they’re guaranteed to stick with audiences. They are the NCIS, Grey’s Anatomy, Law & Order, Chicago Fires of the entertainment world — full of memorable main characters who tackle difficult things day in and day out.
The two questions above aren’t flawless — there will always be exceptions, those story ideas that could fit into either category. But the questions are guaranteed to get you thinking about the essence of your story idea and which format it will be better suited for.
Britton Perelman is a writer and storyteller based in Los Angeles, California. When not buried in a book or failing spectacularly at cooking herself a meal, she’s probably talking someone’s ear off about the last thing she watched. She loves vintage typewriters, the Cincinnati Reds, and her dog, Indy. Find more of her work on her website, or follow her on Instagram.