The Difference Between Film and Television Concepts by Daniel Calvisi

Dear Screenwriter,

You may come up with a cool idea for a movie and be told that it would make a better TV series, or you may create a concept for a TV series and be told it’s more fit for the big screen. How do you tell the difference between a concept that works best as a Feature versus a TV pilot/series?


Film is pretty simple: it is a complete story with a closed ending. Unless you’re writing the first part of a trilogy (which I do not recommend, unless you happen to have procured the rights to a best-selling book series), the ending wraps up your compelling tale which (hopefully) had a beginning, middle and end. It can be a happy or sad ending, but that particular narrative has reached a closing point. You’ve exhausted the concept and we, the Reader or Audience, are satisfied. Fade out.

95% of the time, a feature script/film is going to use the “classical” 4-Act structure (Act One, Act Two-A, Act Two-B and Act Three.). Even if the story is told in a non-linear way, it should ideally fit into this meta-structure. My Story Map structure fits ably into this form, and you can learn much more about it in my books and webinars.

The idea for a feature film should be able to be expressed in a logline, which is a one-line snapshot of the unique dramatic situation in approximately 20-30 words. A feature film logline should suggest a stand-alone story, rather than an ongoing saga. Here are three loglines for famous films:

Shakespeare in Love – A comedic “re-writing of history” in which a young William Shakespeare is inspired by his own tortured romance to write “Romeo and Juliet,” the most famous fictional romance in history.

Slumdog Millionaire – A kid who grew up in extreme poverty uses his memories to answer the questions on the quiz show, “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?”

Minority Report – The police officer who oversees the department that predicts future murders must go on the run when the system predicts he is the next killer.

You can see how those loglines suggest just one story. They also have great hooks. A feature film concept must have a HOOK: some kind of unique take, spin, twist or turn that sucks us in and makes the story go in a surprising direction. This may be the thing that makes it cinematic. It may be a new perspective on a classic, familiar story that we’ve heard a million times, but the way in which you’re telling it is new.

I call this the “Big Idea,” but it doesn’t mean it only applies to big-budget or obviously commercial films. A micro-budget film shot on an iPhone can still contain a Big Idea. (Read more in depth about this topic in Chapter III: The Big Idea in Story Maps: How to Write a GREAT Screenplay.)

Your Big Idea can be focused, contained. Here are four loglines for feature thrillers that made the “Black List” and the “Hit List” in Hollywood:


Contained Thriller

Two small time robbers become prisoners when they break into a house and discover a ten year old girl chained up in the basement.



Dramatic Thriller

After negligently killing a hunter with their patrol car, a Sheriff’s Deputy and her superior must decide what to do with the only witness to their crime – a death row inmate only days from execution.



Science Fiction Thriller

A bank teller stuck in his routine discovers he’s a background character in a realistic, open world action-adventure video game and he is the only one capable of saving the city.



Contained Horror Thriller

Having moved into a “clean house” to treat his auto-immune disorder, 11-year-old Eli begins to believe that the house is haunted. Unable to leave, Eli soon realizes that the house, and the doctor who runs it, are more sinister than they appear.


Notice how “Free Guy” is really the only concept here that suggests a sprawling world and possible big budget. The others could easily take place in only one or two locations.

When you submit a feature logline, I suggest you include the genre underneath the title. It can make all the difference to know that your concept is, for example, a comedy before we read it. One man’s drama pitch may be another man’s comedy pitch. Consider these two examples…

When a ruthless killer begins to murder people in a small town, a paperboy realizes the victims are all on his route and he’s the only one who can stop him.

When a ruthless killer begins to murder people in a small town, a paperboy realizes the victims are all on his route and he’s the only one who can stop him!


Same title, same exact logline (except for an exclamation mark), but two separate takes on it, depending on the genre. The first one could be a thriller from the Coen brothers and the second one could be a satire from the Farrelly brothers. Citing the genre gives the reader some stylistic context before they consider your logline.


TV is a bit more tricky. Scripted television is long-form storytelling. The idea (what I call the “Compelling Crisis”) should be able to fill 100 episodes. You don’t need to have all 100 episodes mapped out, but the concept should feel like it could last that long. Your main character will have multiple arcs over the seasons, whereas in a feature film they may only have one arc.

“TV is a playground. You create a fascinating, original playground and fill it with interesting characters who create conflict for one another.” This was told to me by a friend who is a professional feature screenwriter and was making his first forays into television. He was focusing on creating a new world in a subculture not seen on television before.

Shonda Rhimes is an incredibly successful television writer/producer (Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, etc.). In an interview, she discussed how you know if an idea is well-suited for a TV series. She recommended first asking yourself whether the idea has an ending. If you can easily picture your story, or your character’s journey, coming to a conclusion, then your idea might be better suited for film. But if your idea sparks hundreds more, it could be the basis for a healthy, long-lasting TV show. For example, she could literally see hundreds of episodes of television for the show Scandal when she learned more about Judy Smith’s job as a Washington D.C.-based fixer (Smith is the real-life inspiration for the show’s protagonist, Olivia Pope). Similarly, Shonda knew that at the very least, she could write seven seasons of Grey’s Anatomy because surgical residencies typically last seven years.

She also suggested considering outside forces when assessing your idea. Where does your idea land when you consider it against the current cultural climate? How does your idea compare to what’s already on television and what network executives might be looking for in their development schedules? You don’t necessarily need to change your idea when you consider these factors, but it’s always good to be aware of them.

Character is important to all dramatic storytelling, but in TV, those long-term character arcs are the most important thing, moreso than plot. If we are going to spend years with these characters, they better be interesting. Especially the protagonist/s…

Breaking Bad: A mild-mannered high school teacher becomes a drug lord under the nose of his brother-in-law, a DEA agent.

Mad Men: An ad man with a dark secret desperately struggles for happiness in Manhattan in the turbulent 1960s.

Sons of Anarchy: “Hamlet in a biker gang.” Stepfather and son fight to keep a gun-running biker gang together amidst corruption, betrayals and escalating violence.

The Americans: Two Russian sleeper agents in the 1980s pose as the perfect suburban couple by day as they run missions by night, which ironically bring them closer as real lovers.

A hot format right now is the 30-minute Dramedy. Dramedies tend to be more culturally specific than most 30-minute sitcoms. For example…

Atlanta: A young black man in a low-income Atlanta suburb struggles to establish a career in the chaotic and dangerous world of hip-hop.

Transparent: A Jewish family in Los Angeles deals with the ramifications of their father becoming a woman.

Master of None: A struggling, Indian-American actor in New York City searches for love and the meaning of adulthood.

It’s still ideal to use one sentence for a TV series logline, but since it can be more difficult to explain a TV story than a feature story, feel free to take an extra line. Just don’t go overboard and submit a five-line paragraph. Here is a three-line logline for a show that sold to HBO that I bet you could fit into two lines…

These Things Happen: Set in present day Manhattan and focuses on two couples – one gay, one straight. They share a 15-year-old son, who lives on the Upper East Side with his mother and doctor stepfather. Trying to get to know his impressive, distant father better, he moves in for a semester with him and his long-time partner who forms an instant friendship with the boy.

Not only is that logline hard to understand, its length demands too much time for the reader (a busy rep or executive) to dissect it. It should be edited for clarity and brevity.

When you submit a TV logline to me and the Industry Advisors in my Story Maps Master Class, I ask you to not only identify the format (one hour, half hour) but also include a “comp” show to help us get a better sense of the style and tone of your series. A comp, or comparison, is a recent, successful series that shares some major elements with yours. Citing the comp will help us visualize and “feel” your show. E.g., maybe your series features a female lawyer protagonist (The Good Wife), a mockumentary format (Modern Family), a 1980s suburban setting (Stranger Things), or it’s a crime procedural (NCIS).

If you have a few concepts and you’re looking for some structure to help you choose the right one to develop into a pilot or feature, don’t hesitate to ask me about my Story Maps Master Class, which is an online course you can take with a group or one-on-one with me. This article is an excerpt from the materials I provide in the class.

Good luck and happy writing,




Special Offer on Story Maps E-Books

The Harsh Truth: Cutting Scenes in your Screenplay

Dear Screenwriter,

you gotta be willing to kill your puppies.

Here’s a quick rule that is deceptively simple, very powerful and utterly crucial. This is a rule none of us can escape. This applies to every scene in your script:

If a SCENE does not:

Read more

M. Night Shyamalan: Method To The Madness

M. Night ShyamalanOriginally published in Script Magazine Online in 2005 in a slightly shorter form here.

Below is the full article…

M. Night Shyamalan is the modern master of the high-concept thriller. He is also a mad scientist.  A tinkerer.

With each new film, he’s gone back into his lab and concocted some new experiment in suspense storytelling.  This is a screenwriter who has mastered traditional narrative and gotten bored with it, so he’s decided to consistently take chances with the form.  From his sub-basement sanctum sanctorum, amidst the smoking beakers and jarred brains and that lightning-rod thingee, adjacent to the plasma screen playing non-stop Hitchcock films, he straps standard three-act structure down onto a slab of unforgiving granite and goes to work.  With The Village he shocks his most bold experiment into life.

Shyamalan has always enjoyed playing the puppetmaster of our emotions.  Don’t kid yourself — he may be fascinated with the retooling of narrative structure, but ultimately, he’s experimenting on us, the audience.  Like Hitchcock before him, Shyamalan is the Great Manipulator.  Manipulation is not a bad word to M. Night; rather, it’s his raison d’etre.  He loves it, gets off on playing us like a marionette.  And considering his four straight commercial successes (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, The Village), it’s safe to say we keep coming back for more.

We want him in that lab.  We need him in that lab.

Read more

Three Shades Of The Romance Film


My take on the success of this film is that it was Casablanca for gay men. It’s a classical period “doomed” romance in a unique milieu that had never been presented in this way, at least not in a wide release with major movie stars. Put simply: its time had come. This was great writing about two people in quiet desperation (actually, four people), one of whom is a man so beset by guilt and fear and held to a code of ethics formed in his youth that he absolutely CANNOT allow himself to be with the person he truly loves the most.

I don’t think the ‘shock factor’ had as much to do with the phenomenon as the press would have had us believe. And for some viewers who didn’t “get it,” they complained that not much happened. But this film is not so much about actions — it focuses on theme, character and inner conflicts. Subtext is a huge factor in this story, and the writers (Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana adapting Annie Proulx) use it to create great depth from what seems to be a narrow-focus story. Read more

Story Maps #2: The First Trial/ First Casualty!

The First Trial is the first test of the commitment that your protagonist made at the end of Act One when they made that active decision that pushed them and us into the second act. This must be a setback…a failure…thus there is a First Casualty…

Read more

Story Maps: A Quick Introduction

The Story Map breaks down your narrative into its eight main dramatic elements, the four major story engines and the ten crucial story beats that must be in the same order and must fall in specific page points in your screenplay, no matter the genre.

Learn more about Story Maps and buy the new E-Book Story Maps: How to Write a GREAT Screenplay.

Good luck and happy writing!


Dan’s 2-minute Screenwriting School #3 – THE FIRST TEN PAGES!

The first ten pages of your script must establish the world of your story, set up a compelling conflict with intriguing characters, establish your skills on the page and suck in the reader.

Related: Don’t Suck, Suck in the Reader!

Click to read excerpts

Disney’s Tangled re-imagines Grimm’s Fairy Tale Page 2

Back to Page One

Story Map beats for Rapunzel (original Grimm’s Fairy Tale, source material for Tangled):

Opening: A WIFE convinces her HUSBAND to steal the delicious rampion from the garden of the powerful WITCH that lives next door.

Inciting Incident: The Husband goes back for more rampion and he is caught by the Witch. She puts a curse on him — he must give her his first-born child. RAPUNZEL, a beautiful, golden-haired girl is born and given to the Witch.

Strong Movement Forward: When Rapunzel is 12, the Witch locks her in a cell at the top of a tower with no stairs or door, only a single window. Rapunzel’s only visitor is the Witch, who climbs up Rapunzel’s long hair to reach her cell and bring her food.

End of Act One TURN and DECISION: The PRINCE is riding by one day and he hears Rapunzel’s lonely singing coming from the top of the tower. He can’t find a way into the tower so he rides by every day listening to her song.

First Trial/First Casualty: The Prince observes the Witch call out “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair,” and climb up the hair. The Prince does the same, tricking Rapunzel and putting them both in danger.

Midpoint: They fall in love, get engaged and come up with a plan. The Prince will bring a piece of silk rope each time he visits, and over time Rapunzel will sew a ladder from the rope that she may climb down to escape.

Declaration of War: Just as the escape ladder is almost ready, The Witch learns of Rapunzel’s engagement to the Prince and she cuts off the girl’s hair and casts her into a desert.

End of Act Two TURN and DECISION: The Witch tricks the Prince into climbing up the cut hair to the top of the tower — she tells him Rapunzel is dead and he leaps from the tower in grief. He survives the fall but blinds himself on thorns.

True Point of No Return: The Prince wanders blind, for years, as Rapunzel bears two twin children in exile.

Climax: The Prince hears her voice and reunites with Rapunzel and their two children. Her tears cure his blindness.

Epilogue: They return to the Prince’s kingdom and live “long and happily.”

Like many of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, it’s got some pretty dark moments.  There’s a lot of people dying “miserable deaths” in Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Not exactly the stuff of Disney, huh?

You’ll notice, however, that Rapunzel is almost completely passive.  No wonder they’ve given her SUPER-HAIR in this movie!

The trailer suggests that the Prince is the protagonist of the movie, but we all know that Disney’s princess line generates billions of dollars so it would seem to behoove their bottom line to appoint Rapunzel as the character who drives the story with her active decisions. But what’s better for the story? We’ll see. (sound off in the Comments below)

The original fairy tale also says nothing of the fate of the Witch. (If anyone needs to die a miserable death, it’s that bitch.) We all know that if the villain goes unpunished in a movie, we tend to leave the theater unsatisfied, so I’m guessing they’ll make sure she gets hers.

I look forward to this new take on the classic tale.

Good Luck and Happy Writing!

-Dan Calvisi

Related: Story Maps

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