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Take Me To Your Pilot: 3 Rules For Writing a Successful TV Pilot

Categories: Writing Advice.
While the Writers Strike may have decimated this year’s pilot season, one thing it won’t decimate is TV’s continuing need for pilots.  Once the strike is over, networks and studios will be desperate for new shows and content.  And fortunately, the market for spec pilots (pilots written without being first pitched and sold as ideas) has been robust lately… with studios hungrier than usual to snatch up already-written scripts.

So as writers all across America use the strike’s down-time to work on their pilots (yeah, yeah—the Writers Guild says no one’s supposed to write during the strike, but come on… not even the WGA can keep a writer from writing), I thought we’d take a quick moment to discuss some of the vital elements that make pilots work.

First of all, let’s answer this question… which a student in my Writing the TV Pilot class asked last month:

What, exactly, is a pilot?

A pilot is most commonly thought of as the first episode of a television series… the first story in a series of many more stories… and while this is often the case, it’s not entirely accurate.

The truth is: a pilot, whether in script form or actually produced, is a selling tool used to illustrate what the TV series is about and how it works.  In other words, a pilot is designed to convince network or studio executives that this series a good investment of their money and airtime.  Some pilots never even make it to air… they’re simply used to get the series “picked up,” then discarded.

When you begin looking at a pilot this way—as a selling tool, rather than just the first of many stories—you realize that pilots must accomplish certain things besides simply kicking off the series narratively.  Thus, here are three important tips to think about as you craft your own TV pilots…

•  Pilots must prove your series has longevity.  TV series are designed to run not just for a few weeks, or even a few months.  Successful TV series must run for years.  Which means your pilot need to prove that this world can generate a nearly endless number of stories.  

One way to do this is to base your series around a locale or occupation that organically generates stories.  Cop and detective shows, like Bones or CSI, never run out of stories; as long as the world has crimes, these shows have tales to tell.  After all, every time the door of a police station or detective agency opens, in walks a case—which is a story.

Soaps, like Brothers & Sisters or even Heroes, never run out of stories because they’re filled with incredibly deep, rich, and complex relationships.  It’s easy for an executive to see—in a world where people are constantly lying, cheating, sleeping with and backstabbing each other—how these relationships will generate many years of interesting stories.

Whether you’re writing a mystery show, like NCIS, or a character-driven dramedy, like Grey’s Anatomy, it’s your pilot’s job to prove this series can generate an endless number of stories.

•  Pilots must illuminate how every episode of the series will work.  Although a pilot is kicking off a new series, meaning it works a bit differently than subsequent stories and episodes, it must also demonstrate how the series’ regular episodes will work the same on a regular basis.  In other words, they must help buyers (executives and producers) understand exactly what it is they’re buying.  Does each episode tell a single, close-ended mystery… like Law & Order: SVU?  Or will each episode deal with a particular issue about married life or relationships, a la ‘Til Death or Rules of Engagement?  While a pilot is indeed the catalyst that sparks the rest of the series, it must also work just like every other episode of the series.  If your doctors will heal one patient per episode, let them heal a patient in the pilot.  If your squabbling couple must solve a marital problem each week, let them do so in the pilot.

This is often a difficult tightrope to walk.  How can a pilot be both the beginning of a long-running saga as well as an example of a prototypical episode?  This, unfortunately, is the delicate artform of writing a pilot, and one of the reasons it often takes writers years of working in and developing TV before they get a series on the air.

•  Pilots must (usually) show us how/if episodes are repeatable.  Repeatability is the bread and butter of traditional television.  This is because relatively little money is made off the “first run” of a TV episode; the real money comes when a series is sold into syndication (reruns on local stations or cable channels). But in order to be repeatable, episodes must function in specific ways.  The most repeatable episodes are “standalone,” meaning they tell a singular, close-ended story in each episode.  Each week, the cops of K-Ville receive, investigate, and solve a completely new mystery.  It begins and ends all in one episode, making it easy for audiences to watch a single episode—whether it’s the show’s first run or a rerun—and still understand what’s going on.  Similarly, Justin and Raja in Aliens In America deal each week with a new problem in their friendship, school, or family… and it’s solved that same episode.  Standalone episodes not only makes a series more repeatable, they make it easier for audiences to pop in and watch just one episode at a time.  (It’s pretty difficult to simply bounce in and watch a single third-season episode of Lost.)

If your series has repeatable episodes, it’s infinitely more sell-able… and you need to show this in your pilot.  Let your detectives begin and close a mystery in the pilot.  Let your bickering best friends deal with an issue and resolve it.

On the flip side, if your show is highly serialized or soapy, like 24 or Cane, with stories spanning many weeks or months, let us see how this works as well.  Use your pilot to show how stories will play out over the course of an episode and then seduce us to come back the following week.

Remember: selling a TV series is like selling anything else, from vacuum cleaners to used cars.  You job is to show your buyer what they’re buying and how it will continue to work.  This is the true purpose of a pilot.  

As Script Notes continues, we’ll keep discussing pilots and what makes them work the way they do.  In the mean time, if you have questions, thoughts, or comments, please don’t hesitate to post them below or email me at WDscriptnotes@fwpubs.com!

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One Response to Take Me To Your Pilot: 3 Rules For Writing a Successful TV Pilot

  1. Carlo says:

    "… Heroes, never run out of stories because they’re filled with incredibly deep, rich, and complex relationships."

    *gag*

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