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10 Tips for Writing That TV Pilot

So you want to write your own television show. Great!

Before you commit to writing the pilot episode for your brand-new TV show, why don’t you take a look at these 10 helpful tips for writing that TV pilot that will make your writing life a little bit easier.

1. Prepare to Invest

Many people jump right into writing episode one—the pilot for a brand-new show—thinking, “Hey, this will be WAY easier than writing that new novel of mine, or taking all that time to write a feature-length screenplay.”

Reality check: It isn’t.

In fact, developing a good TV pilot can be the hardest and most involved of all three, even though the end result may only look like 40-60 pages from the outside. This is because when you write a pilot, you aren’t just writing the script for episode one; you are creating a whole new concept with complex characters, multiple story threads, with as many setups and ideas for future episodes as possible. When someone reads your pilot script, they will only be reading the tip of the iceberg, not the vast amount of backend work that went into producing those measly few pages.

2. The Concept Must KILL

Before you really dig into your show, take enough time to make the concept air-tight. What do we mean by “concept”? The concept is a fleshed-out version of the core idea for your TV show—the idea that makes your show different from every other show out there.

If your concept is clear, it should be obvious what makes your show different from others and also make someone want to watch the show itself. For example, “ER for women” was a successful concept that became Grey’s Anatomy, based on the success of an already existing show but with a new angle. Lost created appeal through the concept alone: A group of strangers become lost after crash landing on a mysterious island inhabited by strange forces, but while surviving on the island, each character finds individual purpose after having been “lost” in their personal lives back home.

That said, make the concept grab the audience’s attention. For example, don’t just write an alien invasion show. It’s been done many times and hasn’t been successful. But if you want to write an alien invasion show where humankind is the invader—now that’s an interesting twist people can get behind.

3. Legs: The Show Must Go On

For American television, “legs” are very, very important. What do we mean by legs? “Legs” refers to the potential episodes the show can produce in the long-term based on the concept. A more open-ended concept typically offers more “legs.” A closed concept with one specific, attainable goal offers less of a future (if any).

With that in mind, part of what your pilot must do is setup the long-term future of the show—the “legs.” My Name Is Earl did this by using a wide-open concept with no foreseeable limitations (his list of wrongs to “right” can be as long as the sun, for all we know). A show about thieves planning a heist is problematic in that the goal is far too easy to reach. Once they’ve reached their goal, where does the show go from there? Breaking Bad solved this by always creating a bigger goal for the protagonist to achieve once (or even before) the old has been solved.

4. Know Your Audience

This should go without saying, but it comes up far too often to leave out. If the show doesn’t have a clear or specific audience in mind, then it will not be successful. Shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Pretty Little Liars and Stranger Things nail their audience targeting. Now imagine if Pretty Little Liars was written to target 30-something males…it would have bombed. The mid-2000s remake of Battlestar Galactica tried to rope in a wider female audience by focusing on romance in later seasons, and the result turned the show into a soap opera in space—disappointing original and the new audiences alike. The moral of the story? Yup, you guessed it: Know your audience.

5. Characters Are Everything, Protagonist More So

While characters are the heart and soul of any story, in television, they are the most important element. The cast needs to do more than survive the pilot. They will be responsible for carrying the show long-term. Above and beyond that, the central protagonist needs to be the most interesting of all, fleshed out with enough potential new material to keep audiences coming back episode after episode, season after season. If your characters don’t have enough setups in the pilot, they won’t be interesting enough to carry a second episode. Remember, anything that applies to the characters counts doubly so for the protagonist.

6. Include Act Breaks

In the modern age of commercial-free Internet streaming, writers sometimes think their pilot scripts should also be act-free (act breaks are where the commercials play). Incorrect. Always include act breaks.

There are a couple reasons for this:

  1. Act breaks represent major structural highs and lows in the plot, so leaving them out flattens these points and harms the overall flow of the story.
  2. It makes the writer look like they don’t know what they are doing, even if they do.
  3. It creates ambiguity about the script’s end goal—is it a short film? Is part of the script missing? Is it actually half of a feature screenplay?

When you aren’t there to explain it to the people reading the script, any extra uncertainties can stop your pilot’s progress dead in the water.

7. Don’t Forget the B-Story

Sometimes writers leave out or drop the B-Story in their pilot because due to lack of room. Big mistake. Don’t ever do this. Your pilot needs to have a B-Story—industry pros will be looking for it and they will notice if it’s missing. Believe it or not, so will your audience. A script with just an A-Story tends to feel hollow and like it’s missing “heart.” Remember, the B-Story is a chance to humanize your characters, keep main cast members involved in the show even when they aren’t directly involved in the A-Plot, and give the audience a breather from the main storyline. The B-Story is also a chance to loosen up and have some extra fun with the show.

8. Blueprint the Show

Your pilot script not only needs to set up the world of the show, character problems and imply future storylines, it must “blueprint” the entire show by illustrating how a normal episode will run its course. This can be tricky because you are essentially trying to pack two different episodes into one. But it’s necessary to communicate the look, feel, and overall sense of what it means to be “the show.” In recent years, well-funded projects have tackled this difficult task by creating two-part pilots (two episodes viewed back-to-back), the first part taking its time to set up the show and the second part showing what a regular episode will look like. While an ideal solution, in a spec script that’s a dicey option since it requires double the effort, double the budget to make, and thus doubles the risk of failure from an investment standpoint. So, for spec script, try splitting up the pilot into first half for setup and second half for blueprinting. Alternatively, integrate them together so we don’t notice. It’s much harder and comes with its own risks, but can payoff in the form of a solid pilot script that stands on its own.

9. Create a Show Bible

You don’t absolutely need a show bible to write a successful pilot, but it helps—a lot. Think of it as a multi-use tool where you can include all your notes and ideas about future episodes, character and story arcs, character bios, hidden and upcoming tidbits, etc. Putting all of this into a formalized document that can be shared along with the pilot shows industry execs that you are serious about your pilot, you’ve spent time developing the show beyond episode one, and that you’re thinking long-term. Having a show bible in your back pocket also allows you to cram less into your pilot (it’s written down elsewhere) and enrich your characters on screen because you’ve spent time exploring them in the bible. Don’t be fooled, creating a show bible can be an overwhelming task. Start by breaking it down into smaller bite-sized pieces, like short season/episode synopses, character roles, flaws, dreams, secrets, etc.

10. Bible First, Script Last (Outline in Between)

Writers and writing teachers often view their “writing” or tangible end product in terms of written pages. Maybe that’s the wrong approach. Try developing a show bible first and getting that really solid, create an outline of the pilot, break it down into a beat sheet, and then write the actual pilot script last. That way you’ve had more time to figure out all the little details and plotlines beforehand, so you end up with stronger pages and fewer rewrites. Once words are down on the script page, it becomes hard to “kill your darlings” and make the necessary changes. But with a show bible, outline, and beat sheet in hand, your first true “draft” resulting in pages will look far closer to a finely-polished script than you may get by going through old fashioned draft iterations.

Now that you’ve had a chance to check off the last 10 boxes, are you still ready to accept the challenge of writing that TV pilot? Hey, it’s the golden age of television right now, so maybe you should.

Working on a TV pilot? Let us know. We’d love to hear about your progress!

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