4 Steps to Writing a TV Pilot Spec for Staffing Season
Write it up!
We’re in the golden era of television right now and there are more and more shows on the air every year. How can you get staffed on a TV show or get your own idea on the air? You’ll have to learn how to write a TV pilot.
To learn how to write a TV pilot, you can read a ton of pilot scripts, and peruse the following steps. They should help you get you well on your way to writing a great TV pilot script. A great TV pilot script will help you get your foot in the door, can get your reps, and can even get you staffed on a TV show.
A great TV pilot script will help you get your foot in the door, can get your reps, and can even get you staffed on a TV show.
1. Know Why You Wish to Write a TV Pilot
Lots of writers move to Los Angeles in search of feature jobs, but Hollywood is making fewer amounts of movies every year. In truth, the best way to break in now is with an excellent TV pilot. A great TV pilot script will help you get your foot in the door, can get your reps, and can even get you staffed on a TV show.
It’s also a great exercise in closing some loops while leaving others open. When you’re writing a TV show, you need to create a bunch of problems your characters have to deal with every day. In a movie, you would theoretically close these loops at the end of the story. In a TV pilot, you need to close some loops, but leave others open.
Why do you leave those loops open? So that you can show you have a story with legs.
An idea with “legs” means that it could run for a long time.
2. Get an Idea with Legs
Don’t know what “an idea with legs” means? Don’t worry, we got you covered. When you’re writing a TV show, you need to have characters and storylines that can go on for multiple episodes and multiple seasons. An idea with “legs” means that it could run for a long time. Get it?
Think about your favorite shows: did they last for a while? Sure, we all have examples like Pushing Daisies that were gone too soon, but it feels more likely that your favorite show lasted a long time. Think about The Office, or Lost, Grey’s Anatomy, or Big Bang Theory. Those shows were built around characters with a lot of problems, who lived in worlds where a lot of stuff was happening.
If your idea has legs, you should be able to plan out the entire first season and where it would go from there. If your TV show is a procedural, you’ll want the characters to inhabit a world where problems can constantly arise. Think about shows like Criminal Minds and Law and Order. The cops in those shows are constantly dealing with a problem of the week. Sitcoms are similar in this light. The characters in Friends and Sex and the City are all dealing with…situations each week.
Okay, but what if you’re doing something directed more toward cable, like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, or You’re The Worst? Those ideas have legs but in different ways. Instead of a crime a week or some sort of recurring action, those shows take characters and let them sink deeper into the world.
In Breaking Bad, meth sales go from casual to kingpin. In Mad Men, we navigate the entire decade of the 1960s and see a man sink into his own depression. In You’re The Worst, we delve into the deep annuls of a relationship.
So, does your story have legs? Great. But now you need your legs to lead you to great characters.
Writing for television means you get multiple episodes to explore a mood or trait.
3. Find Great Characters
Writing for television means you get multiple episodes to explore a mood or trait. If you want your show to sell, and to last, you need great characters. So how can your showcase great characters in your TV Pilot? First, we need to understand what your characters need. In classic shows like Cheers, the characters in the bar all need a connection. When the pilot ends, Diane needs a job. She gets the job in the bar and a series is made.
What about something a little more complicated?Game Of Thrones balances a ton of character needs, but it sets us up for the next seven seasons. There are people who need the throne, who need allies, and to listen to their mother.
The best characters are immediately relatable to the audience. We don’t have to be as handsome, or as smart, or as witty, but we do need to understand the basic instincts of why they want what they want. Think about Gilmore Girls and how each character’s problem sets up the TV pilot. Rory is too smart for her current school. Lorelei is too poor to pay for her to go to Chilton. Those are beginning character problems, but they work in tandem with the legs of our show. What we learn in the pilot is that the only way to pay for Chilton is to accept the help of Lorelei’s estranged parents. The legs in this show are the generations of Gilmore women reconnecting.
This TV pilot is a perfect example of how we build great characters out of the legs of the show, thus giving execs and viewers a reason to keep watching. Now that you have a story with legs and great characters, what’s next?
When you’re writing a TV pilot, the last thing you need to consider is the “world” of the TV show.
4. Establish The World
Are you in Westeros? Arizona? Stars Hollow, Connecticut? Atlanta? When you’re writing a TV pilot, the last thing you need to consider is the “world” of the TV show. The world of your TV pilot doesn’t only refer to the location. You also have to build out the year, the rules, and the environment. Is it the present, the future, the past? The world of your TV pilot is the “where,” “when,” and “how.”
Let’s think about The Sopranos for a second. The Sopranos is awesome. The Sopranos takes place in northern New Jersey in the early 2000’s. That seems straightforward enough, but the world gets more specific.
The Soprano family lives in the wealthy suburbs. So we have to establish a lot of rules within that community. But The Sopranos has another wrinkle to add. It’s also about the mafia, and the characters and intricacies of that world. When you’re building your world, you’ll be able to go back and tweak your characters and the legs of your story. All three of these elements work together to help you write a great TV pilot.
Let’s look at another world, specifically from an underestimated TV pilot: Superstore. When building the world for Superstore, you have to think about several levels. First, the show takes place inside a Superstore, so you have all the physical elements to get out of the way. You then have to think about who would work in this place and what characters occupy the store and who would shop there on a regular basis?
Lastly, you’d build the world out to show why your story has legs? Wait, what? That’s right, the best TV pilots let all three of the aforementioned elements work together and inform each other. Your world will be made believable by your characters, and your characters will be believable because we’ll see how the story has legs. It’s pretty nuts, but that’s what’s fun about learning how to write a TV pilot. You’re creating an intricate web that can spiral and expand outward with every season.
It can take years to ruminate and rewrite this stuff, but the best way to get these stories going is to just sit down and write them.
Summing Up How To Write A TV Pilot
To write a great TV pilot, you have to have a world, legs, and some enthralling characters. Writing for television is no simple task. It can take years to ruminate and rewrite this stuff, but the best way to get these stories going is to just sit down and write them. Dig deep into each of these elements and see where each takes you.
As I’ve said before, the fun part about working out the TV pilot is that all three of these elements work together. You can have a great idea for a character, but you can then trace back their personality traits to find the world. Once you have the world, you can see if it has legs.
Like I say in every post, all writing is rewriting. Sit down, plan it out, and hop to it. I can’t wait to talk about your TV pilot in the near future.