So you want to write a TV pilot, but you’re not exactly sure how it’s done? I know how that bit of fear can turn into an impenetrable wall of procrastination. Let me try to help you out of it.
First, why write a pilot? Statistically, your pilot isn’t going to sell. And even if it’s amazing and it does sell, chances are it will not get made. Even the big guys write pilots that don’t get made. It’s the nature of the beast. So why write a pilot? Because — as a new writer, it’s your calling card. It is your resume. It proves you know what you’re doing. In the eyes of agents and producers and anyone who will ever get you a job — without a writing sample — you’re not a writer.
Now that we understand why you want to write a pilot, let’s get into how. First you need an idea. Not just any idea — you need an idea that could potentially turn into multiple seasons of television. You don’t have to know what will necessarily be in those seasons, but you need to show your reader that the ideas and characters in your pilot can hold a viewer’s attention for 20, 30, 40 or even 100 episodes. Your idea has to have legs.
Great! You have a cool idea that could span multiple seasons! Now you need to lock down the format. Is it an hour-long or half hour show? Most network comedies are half hours, most dramas are hour-long. Is it serialized or procedural? Serialized dramas follow a linear storyline and you need to watch every episode, in order, or you will have no idea what’s going on (House of Cards, 24). Procedurals sometimes have over-arching story-lines, but for the most part have a “movie-of-the-week” format (CSI, The Blacklist). Basically this means a viewer can pop in any episode and understand what’s happening without having to watch last weeks episode.
Next up: Tone — Is your screenplay dark and gritty? Deep and uplifting? Quirky and fluffy? You can take entire classes on tone. It’s also part of this “voice” I’m sure you’ve heard about. Everyone says you need to find your “voice”. That voice is tone, and the way you, as a writer, portray that tone in your screenplay. I can’t tell you how to do it, you have to discover it yourself.
Alright! You’ve decided your show is a gritty, hour-long procedural about a scientist surviving in a world over-run by robots. Great! You probably already have a couple of plot points in your head. Some cool imagery. Some nice dialogue and character ideas. But how do you take that jumble of bullshit running around your head and put it into something constructive?
Stay tuned for part 2 where we talk about BREAKING STORY WITH THE WRITERS BOARD.
Disclaimer: What's the saying? "Those who can't do, teach." I haven't sold a screenplay. So why am I writing an article on how to write a pilot? I started this website as part a helpful resource for those looking to break into the industry. Currently I work for an established TV writer with development deals and a show about to be in production. I've sat through the process of writing an entire season of television. I've read dozens of TV pilot scripts that were submitted to me from agents looking to get their writers staffed on our show. When it all comes down to it... this is 100% free. I'm not trying to sell you a thing. So take my advice or ignore it. Whatever helps you get your script done.