5 Great Things to Do Before You Write Your TV Pilot
by Chris Blair
Motivation grabs you and whips you around like a professional tango dancer. Or at the very least, it grinds against you like a drunk guy in a nightclub. What to do with this motivation when it’s telling you to write a pilot for your show?
It’s time to sit down and write, right?
Yes, I’ll go with that. Sitting down and getting something on paper is always a good idea for a writer, since writing and procrastination are such perfect soulmates.
But before you really get settled into writing your pilot, there are going to be a few things that you want to do to get ready for it.
I know! The last thing you want to do is plan and plan and plan and never get to writing. But these are things that will ensure you’re heading the right direction instead of going miles out of your way. It would be ridiculous to build a house without a blueprint; it’s the same for writing your pilot.
1. Get a Concept that Excites You
This seems like the “yeah duh” rule. Of course you should do something that excites you. And this is probably already true if you’re planning to write a pilot.
Buuuuuuut first do yourself a favor and consult with “future you.” Is he or she as excited by this idea as “current you” is?
You’re essentially proposing to marry this particular idea. What if it says “yes?” Do you think you’ll be excited writing episode after episode of this idea you’re toying with? Or do you see yourself getting burnt out after an episode or two?
I say this from the perspective of knowing people who took on long-term writing projects and wound up resenting that particular project.
So really ask yourself, is this something you feel has a lot of legs, or is it just passing excitement? Do you feel you could visit this world and the characters in it a lot and be happy with it over and over again?
If so, congrats, you’re doing the right thing! If you really can’t see yourself loving this a few months down the line, then maybe not. But that next idea, waiting to pounce on you like a tiger, might be the one for you.
But what if you can’t find this concept, or you don’t even have an idea to begin with?
In this case, you’re going to need to brainstorm. Go on a walk, get into nature, smoke a joint, do whatever it takes to get yourself in a creative space. And then start thinking of ideas.
Ideas will come.
One of them will grab you and excite you.
And if not, well maybe adapting someone else’s work or idea is the route for you.
2. Have a Direction that Excites You
You’ve got a great idea, but you want to make sure that the pilot is as well-made and as representative of the overall show as possible.
And this might be easier said than done.
Your pilot often has to do the legwork of setting up this world you’re creating and introducing all of the characters, showing the audience what this world is like before it’s turned upside down or made more dramatic in your show.
But besides doing all that you also have to make it fun to watch and to be a true representative of what your show will be like. Only one chance to make that first impression.
Quite the tall order.
Look at some shows that do this well. The Wire’s pilot shows us all sides of the world it’s creating and challenges the viewer to think right from the cold open. Lost shows us some weird things and gives us a hint of what’s in store for us as the series continues. Mad Men gives us a taste of Don Draper and a look at this advertising world through Peggy’s eyes. Master of None shows us some of the hilarity and insights into dating that the rest of the series will stick to. Black Mirror has a Prime Minister bone a pig in the first episode, boldly saying, “yeah, this is what we’ll do.”
How are you going to take us into the world, show us around and make us want more?
Just as important to make the audience want more, you have to make the people reading your script want more.
A brainstorm may be in order here too. What starting point excites you as much as your idea excited you in the first place?
3. Get Great Lead Characters
At the very least you’re going to have a protagonist and an antagonist. Both of these characters should be gripping. See my post on Making Characters Gray to get a better idea of how to make them as compelling as possible.
But where do you get the original ideas for these characters? There’s lots of places. You could make them up from scratch, which if you have a big enough imagination, you can pull this off. You just start with one detail and then build up from there. Start with a profession, or a look, or an article of clothing that the person might wear and begin creating from there. Be careful not to stereotype. The last thing anyone wants to see is cartoon charactures of lawyers, or stoners, or rockstars. Re: my post on giving characters depth.
You can also base characters off of people you know, but you have to be careful about this. If the character is too similar you can get sued. Start with the person you know, and then make enough changes (look, job, backstory, etc.) so that the person can’t say beyond a shadow of a doubt that he or she is being represented on screen.
You can also base the character on what the story needs. If we are telling a story about a cop turned criminal, we are automatically going to have some guesses of what type of person we have that would have done that (but again don’t resort to stereotype). If there’s an incredibly smart but disorganized protagonist, and she’s married, what kind of husband might she have. Someone who’s just like her? The opposite? Decide what your story wants.
4. Get a Writing or Brainstorm Team
Yeah. Writing is a solitary exercise, where you sit in your empty space Hemingway-style, drinking, surrounded by your six-toed-cats.
And my sympathy to anyone who’s actually sat at a computer with another person trying to co-write something. You’ll spend ten minutes debating for every line written, arguing over the most minute details. If you think your inner-critic is bad, wait until you talk to the outer-critic of a writing partner.
So why do I bring this up?
A writing team is not literally a team who writes the script line by line. It’s a group who brainstorms all the possibilities of what could happen in the story.
This is that mythical synergy people talk about and that we’re always trying to strive for.
You get some beers, snacks, a table and chairs, and you invite a group of your favorite writing friends to toss out some ideas. Don’t have writing friends? Go take a writing class or an improv class and make some. Make sure you bring a tape-recorder or you’re good at writing everything down. Tell them exactly what you think the story and the characters are going to be, and then get to brainstorming.
Every idea is a potential idea here (even if you know it would never work; the word “no” is killer in brainstorming), and you can have so much fun and get so much out of building on top of each other’s ideas. You will get some ideas you never would have thought of before.
You are simulating a writer’s room here.
And not only will you get some great ideas for your pilot but you’ll get some great potential ideas for future episodes.
I got some of my best ideas from other people’s heads.
5. Break the Story
Breaking the story is getting the rough beats of the story out on a paper. Some call it outline, but “an outline” is very un-sexy.
There have been a couple identities thrown out lately in regards to writing: the architect and the gardener. It’s usually used to describe two very different styles of writers, who wouldn’t even be caught at the same shitty dive bar together.
Architects are those who like to plan out every detail in advance. They have binders of worksheets, filled with every plot point and every interaction in their stories.
They have it down to a science, and nothing is going to come as a surprise. When they sit down to write, it’s just a matter of filling in the dots that they’ve already laid out.
Maybe they’re not Type-A in day to day life, but they are when they sit in front of their computers.
Gardeners, on the other hand, can’t be bothered with planning it out. It ruins the fun and surprise. Once they have everything mapped out, they aren’t even motivated to write the story anymore.
They go with the flow and sometimes characters and points in the story wind up surprising them. Who are they to tell the characters what they’re going to do or the story where it’s going to go?
You probably identify more with one more than the other, but the truth is that they’re not so polarizing as we think. We all have a little of both inside of us.
And you should have a little of both.
Knowing every single detail of your story ahead of time will make it seem too rigid, and since you’re not going to have much excitement writing it, the audience is not going to have much excitement watching it.
But not knowing anything at all will cause your story to go in all kinds of unnecessary tangents. You’ll go in places that lead you away from the plot, you’ll probably wind up dropping storylines for no reason, and you may think you encounter the dreaded writer’s block (although it doesn’t actually exist — more on that in a future post).
So what you need to do is incorporate some of the other side. Be an architect who’s open to leaving some elements of his story open for surprises and twists. Let your characters lead the action sometimes. Or be a gardener, who knows generally how you’re going to water and care for your garden (never having owned a plant in my life, this is the best analogy I can think of).
How this relates to breaking the story, is that you should figure out the natural beats of the story, and write them down (a page or less). And then work from there.
But always, always be true to those great characters you created. If you ever start writing something, and you feel it’s untrue to your character, and you’re just writing it because the plot needs to go there: stop, rewrite, and make it more true. Don’t destroy your characters for the sake of the plot.
And I know this might be impossible, but don’t constantly think and daydream about your story when you’re not writing it. You’ll either script it way too much, or you’ll start to doubt the things you went with for no good reason. I speak from experience.
I hope these elements help lead you to the pilot you want to write, and they inform you on the things to do before you write your pilot. By the way, if you’re interested in submitting the idea for your pilot to us and have us make it, you have two days left (the deadline is October 18). Submit here: pitches.
Originally published at www.candivan.com on October 16, 2017.