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Jennifer's Question: How should I choose a pilot idea to write?

Categories: Reader Questions, Writing Advice, Writing TV.

Hey, folks–

Happy Valentine’s Day… and sorry I’ve been awol for a few days.  Work has been nuts, and I was in and out of town a bit… which means I totally slacked on getting to all your questions and messages.  It also means I have an inbox full of emails from you guys, so I’ll get to the business of answering them.

First up, as promised, a question from Jennifer, who writes…

I’m beginning the process of writing an original sitcom pilot spec.
Have any advice on brainstorming ideas for a brand spankin’ new series?
Also, once you have a list of ideas, any advice on how to narrow down
the best one to pursue?

Well, first of all, Jennifer– I always think the best ideas– whether for a TV series, a novel, a stage play, whatever– are those based on personal experiences, those coming from the deepest, darkest places of your soul.  This doesn’t necessarily mean your show idea needs to be autobiographical– although it could be– but it should illuminate something special about you, your voice, and how you see the world. 

Think about how some great TV storytellers see the world.  Ryan Murphy, for instance, has never been a plastic surgeon, but when you first watched “Nip/Tuck,” you instantly understood what it felt like to live in Ryan Murphy‘s skin.  I’ve never met Ryan, but I feel like he did a great job of articulating– through his stories and characters– how he views male friendships, dysfunctional family bonds, notions of loyalty and betrayal, etc.

You job, as a writer and storyteller, is to figure out how you view the world– or whatever story-world you want to look at– and how to convey that world-view to audiences through story and character.  Do you see life as a  battlefield, where everything you do– from  your marriage to your job to simply shopping for groceries– is fraught with landmines intent on blowing you up… and your job, every day, is to traverse that battlefield without getting blown up?  Or do you see the world as an exclusive amusement park– filled with amazing rides and games– where only a select few visitors are allowed to come in… and you’re never on the list?  Or is the world an endless maze from which you’re trying to escape, and each day takes you down another long and frustrating blind alley or dead-end… yet each morning you wake up, determined that this is the day you’ll finally get out?

Once you understand the world-view, or “lens,” through which you see the world, or through which you want to see the story-world you’re interested in exploring, it becomes much easier to create characters, stories, arcs, etc. that service that world-view.

Next, you want to begin thinking about the components that really make up a successful TV series.  TV works very differently than movies, novels, short stories, stage plays, blogs, comic books, or any other medium… so spend some time watching as many pilots and shows as possible, really studying what makes them tick.  Read some books– Pamela Douglas has a good one, “Writing the TV Drama Series” (I know you’re writing a sitcom, but it’ll still be helpful), and you can also check out my book, “Small Screen, Big Picture.”  Granted, I’m biased, but I think both these books do a good job of illuminating the special mechanics of TV shows… how they work and why.

I also think a good litmus test of your show’s viability is how well you can answer these two questions:

•  Can this idea generate an ENDLESS NUMBER OF STORIES?  In other words, does this series have the “legs” to run for many months, years, seasons… without running out of fresh, interesting stories?

•  Can this show idea generate an endless number of STANDALONE STORIES?  Most TV shows, like “Bones,” “Royal Pains,” “30 Rock,” “Modern Family,” tell “standalone stories,” stories that have a beginning, middle, and end and wrap themselves up a single episode?  While serialized shows like “Lost” and “24” can be incredibly interesting and fun to watch (or write), they’re rarely successful on TV… both “Lost” and “24″ are anomalies that have outlasted similar shows like “Daybreak,” “Threshold,” “Reunion,” “Invasion,” etc.  So it’s important– are at least helpful– if your show is NOT serialized and tells self-contained, standalone episodes.

So, to apply all this to your question… I’d think about your own life: emotional, personal experiences and relationships that A) you want to explore and mine, and B) can generate an endless number of standalone stories. 

For instance, maybe you’re a high-powered lawyer who sees life as a world of lands to be conquered… but you live with (or could imagine living with) your mom, who sees life as an inevitable journey toward simplicity and domesticity.    Or perhaps you view love and romance as a contest where the goal is to rack up as many lovers as possible… but your sister views love and romance as a slow, methodical search for a soulmate.

I’m not saying either of these ideas is brilliant or hilarious– they’re right off the top of my head– but I hope they’re helpful examples of the kinds of personal relationships that could generate an endless number of stories.  In either example, no matter what those are characters are doing– buying a car, going on a double-date, vying for a job opportunity– you can see how conflict (and, hopefully, comedy) will ensue.

Lastly… I think it’s important to keep in mind why you’re writing this pilot.  The truth is…

You are NOT writing this pilot to sell it.

Why?…

Because the odds are that you will NOT sell it.

Most pilots that are sold are sold on pitch by established, experiences showrunners, producers, and writers… and while a handful of spec pilots from baby writers have been purchased over the last few years, these RARELY– and by “rarely,” I mean “basically never”– make it to air.

So why, then, are you doing all this?…

TO HAVE A GREAT WRITING SAMPLE… a brilliant piece of original material that beautifully and perfectly captures your unique voice and world-view.

You’ll then use this writing sample as a calling card, along with spec scripts of shows currently on the air, to get jobs, land an agent, etc.

Once you embrace that, it helps tweak the way you approach your pilot.  Sure, the pilot still must look, sound, feel, and function like a TV show… it must prove you understand the medium… but you no longer need to ask yourself– in fact, you SHOULDN’T ask yourself– questions like, “What will be the most sellable?”  “What are producers looking for?”  “What has the best chance of getting on the air?”  Because the truth is: what execs, producers, and agents are looking for in a spec pilot script from a baby writer is usually slightly different from what they look for in a pilot or pitch from an established showrunner or producer.  From Marc Cherry or Shawn Ryan they’re looking for a project they can put on their air… from a baby writer they’re looking for a unique voice or vision that they can hire to place on a staff.

So… to recap… I think you should approach your pilot brainstorming by thinking about:

•  Shows that reflect your own unique voice or world-view

•  Show that work like traditional TV shows… meaning they can tell an endless number of close-ended, standalone stories

•  Shows that aren’t concerned with “selling,” but are simply concerned with illuminating the brilliance, vision, and imagination of the writer/storyteller behind them.  I.e.– you.

Hope this helps, Jennifer… lemme know how it goes– and if you have more questions!

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One Response to Jennifer's Question: How should I choose a pilot idea to write?

  1. Matt says:

    Excellent advice as always Chad. Thank you.
    Matt Chan

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