12 Tips for Writing a Spec TV Pilot Script

Writing a pilot is difficult, but you're not alone in your struggle.

 

Lessons Learned (So Far)

Since the fall of 2011, my writing partner and I have been developing a television pilot “on spec”; that is, at our own expense, with the hope that the final product will open doors. It’s been a long off-and-on journey scheduled around other projects, at times difficult but never less than rewarding.

Over the years, we’ve learned a multitude of lessons large and small. I’d like to take a moment to share twelve of the most valuable lessons with you here. No doubt they’ll evolve with time – although we’ve finished a presentable draft, there’s further still to go, and we’ve much to learn! – but for now, here’s food for thought, from one writer to another:

  • You don’t need to reveal everything in your pilot. The temptation to explain everything upfront can be strong, especially if you’ve done a lot of worldbuilding and are eager to show it off. Resist the dark side! Backstory and world details can emerge gradually over time, if they emerge at all – HBO’s Game of Thrones is case in point. By the same token, you don’t have to reveal everything about a character in one go. Remember, you’re writing a multi-season show, not a two-hour feature. Things can and often should take time to develop, so long as you’re not dragging your feet.
  • Get into the scene as late as possible; get out of the scene as early as possible. Don’t waste time on unnecessary action and dialogue. Only show what needs to be shown and get rid of the rest.
  • Keep the audience guessing with your scene transitions. I remember realizing this for the first time when LOST was on the air. For example, if a question is posed to a character, instead of waiting for an answer, end the scene and then show the answer in the subsequent scene. “Where are you going?” – Character smiles – Shot of this character driving toward New York City.
  • Write with vision, but don’t belabor the action. Writing a screenplay’s action can be challenging. It’s a balancing act, with specificity of description on one side of the scale and concision on the other. Don’t “over direct” the action, but don’t be so vague as to leave the reader confused, either. Your goal is to create a clear image in the reader’s mind without prescribing every detail.
  • Capitalize on plants and payoffs. There’s little as satisfying as paying off a good plant. It might happen in the pilot, or it might happen in a later episode – that’s okay! Remember, your show will unfold over many hours.
  • Balance “plot imperative” with “character imperative”. Audiences may come for a show’s world/conceit/plot, but they stay for the characters. Ask yourself if a scene fulfills a “plot imperative” or a “character imperative” – does it exist to move us from Point A to Point B, or does it exist to develop a character? Ideally, many scenes will do both. In our early drafts, my writing partner and I found ourselves writing more “plot imperatives” than “character imperatives”, which we later reworked to fulfill both.
Eph and his son in "The Strain" episode "Loved Ones" (Michael Gibson / FX)

Eph and his son in “The Strain” episode “Loved Ones” (Michael Gibson / FX)

  • Give characters “decision moments”. Your characters should be faced with tough choices. This shows their priorities and makes them more memorable. For example, in the pilot of Guillermo Del Toro’s The Strain, Eph, the protagonist, must choose between his marriage and his work. He chooses his work despite his love for his family, a character flaw explored in subsequent episodes (and a great example of a joint plot and character imperative).
  • Feedback is invaluable. Get input from people you trust. Then get input from people who don’t know you or your work. Consider paying for professional script coverage to get a sense of where you stand industry-wise.
  • But feedback is not infallible. It’s important to distinguish between useful feedback and feedback that’s less useful or even downright wrong. Your show won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Not everyone will appreciate what you’re trying to do. Trust yourself. Consider the feedback that understands what your show wants to be, and dismiss the feedback that just doesn’t get it. Of course, weigh the frequency of a note and its source, as well. When working with feedback, you’re walking a fine line between confidence and humility.
  • Rewrite. The old adage, writing is rewriting, could not be more true. My writing partner and I reworked the first act of our pilot from the ground up roughly five times. Don’t be afraid to rewrite a scene if it’s not playing. Scrap, reimagine, tweak; revisions run the gamut of severity. I’ve found that, for me, it’s often helpful to rewrite a scene line-by-line, even when making tweaks. This forces you to consider every decision to date. Ultimately, your goal is to make your pilot as watertight as possible. Don’t give a reader a reason to stop reading, be it a subpar scene or a simple spelling mistake.
  • Cut down your draft. You can do a lot more of this than you might think possible. We were astonished to discover we could revise our pilot from 95 to 65 pages. Don’t be precious with your writing! Words are a dime a dozen. Retain only what serves the story.
  • When co-writing, check your ego at the door. It’s about what’s best for the project, and that may not always be your idea. My writing partner and I have learned that a writing collaboration must be a safe place of mutual respect. Have a sense of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Be willing to let your co-writer fill in for your weaknesses, and be willing to fill in for theirs.

The list goes on, but this is a fairly representative synthesis of what I’ve been thinking about during our writing hiatus, as we reflect and recharge the batteries before beginning another draft later this year.

I’ll also say that writing a television pilot is difficult. You’re setting up the world, characters, mood, and big picture story of your show in roughly one hour, generally according to industry standards and expectations. That’s a heavy burden for just sixty minutes to bear!

If you’re having a hard time, push on. Maybe that means taking a break to benefit from the clarity distance brings. Maybe it means reading scripts and breaking down a few pilots to sharpen your understanding of narrative principles, or perhaps a drastic rewrite is in order. Whatever the case, know that you’re not alone in your struggle.

What’s your perspective? Anything to add? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

 Michael Koehler, with


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