Since the excitement of upfronts is over and the new series for the next season have (mostly) been picked, it seemed like a good time to talk about writing a TV pilot.
The one thing every aspiring writer needs to know about writing a TV pilot is that it will not get made. Not yet, anyway. Embrace that fact and make it your friend because the reason to write one if you’re still trying to get your first break in Hollywood is as a calling card. Proof to agents and producers that you get what it takes to write an episode, get characters, and create dialog. Since you don’t have to worry so much about being commercial (it’s anyone’s guess what that really means anyway), let your creative juices run wild. The sky really is the limit, but there are a few rules to be aware of.
Formatting: The format of a TV pilot is pretty much the same format you use for features. Oh, some networks like the description to be all in capital letters (my personal pet peeve) while others double space everything so it’s a little more flexible but it’s still your basic format.
Page length: One hour dramas this year ranged anywhere from the high 50’s to 67 pages long. Now, I wouldn’t recommend you write 67 pages unless it’s freakin’ awesome, but there is a little wiggle room beyond the standard one page = one minute of screen time. For half-hour comedies, most are around the low 30’s – 35 in regular formatting pretty much topping it out.
Acts: Every pilot needs to be broken out in to acts. For one hours, the number ranges from 4 to 6, depending on the type of show you want to write. Half-hours usually have some kind of opening teaser and then divide into 2 acts, although some go for 3. Some of the pilots for the comedies letter the scenes as well. My advice would be to skip that for now
How do you choose how many acts to use? Watch the kind of show you want your pilot to be, note down how it’s structured, and try to emulate that.
Give your series legs: Always remember that you’re writing a PILOT, the first of hopefully 100 or more episodes of a successful television SERIES. Make sure that it’s clear from the pilot that there are a limitless number of story possibilities in this series. For instance, if it’s set in an office full of whacky characters, it’s easy to see that there’s no end to the stories. If, on the other hand, it’s set in a political campaign, you might have some problems convincing a network executive that you can keep the same tension involved in a campaign up show after show for a number of years. Eventually the candidate has to win or lose, right? This is why cop, lawyer and medical shows are always going to be around. There’s almost no end to the stories that can come from those settings. The trick is to find a new and different spin on those workhorse ideas.
Have characters with… character: Make sure that each character in you pilot (and therefore the series) has a clear and distinct voice. Their dialog is the only way they have of setting themselves apart so make it sharp and unique. It really defines their roles in the series, whether it’s a drama or a comedy, so don’t make it too vague. Great characters that jump off the page are what will make executives want to buy the series. Think about how many police procedurals are on TV; now think about what sets them apart. “Psych” and “The Mentalist” are basically the same idea but with completely different characters.
Set the right tone: Make sure it’s clear from the very first scene what the tone of the show is going to be. Is it dark comedy? Is it warm and fuzzy? Is it cold and analytical or action filled? The tone of the pilot is just as vital as the characters in letting the network know that you have original ideas and know how to execute them.
There are no new series ideas that have never been done before. It’s about the life you bring to it through the setting, characters and tone that will make your pilot stand out as a sample of the kind of work you can do. Make it bold enough AND professional, and it could be the ticket to getting your first writing job.