How to Write a TV Pilot, pt. 1: Concept & Considerations

My job is that I write for television. I have been hired to write for three different television shows, finishing up work on my third one right now. This doesn’t mean I’m a better writer than you or even a good writer at all. But at the very least, it makes me good at tricking people into hiring me to write for television shows.

If you’d like to get a job writing for television (you should — it’s great), here’s how to write a sample pilot to submit to agents, execs, showrunners, etc. I get a lot of questions about this stuff, so I figured I would write all my thoughts down.

Formerly, the general wisdom was that you should write a spec script (meaning “speculative,” or for no pay) for an existing television show to use as a sample. [“Spec” seems to be used mostly to refer to a spec script for an existing series, but really it just means anything you write for no pay. If you’re writing an original pilot that no one’s paying you for, that’s a spec pilot. If you write something for a studio at their request for free, you do it “on spec.”] At some point, this shifted to writing an original pilot of your own conception. People probably just got tired of reading Friends scripts at some point. I personally have never written a spec script for another show. I’ve gotten all my work and meetings from my original pilot scripts.

I’ll be primarily be talking about situation comedy and thirty minute shows because that’s what I have experience in. A lot of this stuff will apply to hour long drama, though.

Your Concept

You probably have some semblance of an idea for what you want to write about if you’ve made it this far. But what you might want to do is consider how your concept affects and influences the world you aim to create with your pilot script. If your premise is a show that takes place in a haunted bakery, you’ll want to populate your show with characters who are going to get the most mileage out of that premise. You’ll want to ask who the lead of your show is and how he or she is uniquely affected by the experience of the premise. How is his or her central problem related to or complicated by the situation you’ve set up?

What you might want to do is consider how your concept affects and influences the world you aim to create with your pilot script.

Alternately, if the concept of your show is based around a character — an inept bounty hunter, for instance — then what is the situation you can put him or her in that maximizes the comedic potential? What’s going to put this person in the most amount of conflict? Who are the characters you put around them that help or hinder them in resolving their conflicts, internal and external?

You pair up true believer Fox Mulder with skeptic Dana Scully. You pair up blowhard intellectual Frasier with his blue collar, no-nonsense father. Who runs Cheers? An alcoholic washed-up ball player. Who’s the star of your documentary about your supposed everyday office? The most obnoxious, attention-seeking man who ever lived. Who’s the last man on Earth? The man least equipped to survive in the post apocalypse. A lot of writing is math in this way. You populate your world to get one hundred half hours of story and conflict so you never have to work again.

If your idea for a show isn’t based around a high concept comedic premise, you have other considerations to make. Aziz Ansari’s Master of None is a show based around his worldview on dating, relationships, and social issues. He wanted to express how he felt about larger issues through the show and the characters. So his job was to choose the characters and setting that would best allow him to express that worldview. If Freaks & Geeks is a show about what life was like for the outcasts in high school, then the conflicts come from characters and how they relate to one another and their environment. Yes, this is true for all shows, but in this case they’re not high schoolers who are also on a spaceship. So the stakes become more rooted in the every day and in each other. And thus, the characters will probably have to be more specific and clearly defined from the get-go.

Single Cam vs. Multicam

A single camera show is one shot like a movie — on sets, locations, etc. A multi-camera (previously three camera) is shot on a stage like a play. Four cameras shoot the action all at once to get the necessary coverage, rather than getting each angle one at a time with a single camera. There’s often a studio audience watching the shoot, or they just use a laugh track. The use of an audience actually isn’t to tell the people at home where the jokes are supposed to be. It’s to simulate a live performance, and because of that, the timing and delivery of the actors changes. Which is why it’s not fair to cut the laughtrack out of The Big Bang Theory like they do in those YouTube videos. Of course it’s going to sound insane, the rhythm of the actors’ performance is feeding off of the audience’s reaction.

So a consideration you’ll have to make is whether or not you want your pilot to be written in the single cam or multicam format. I know most people will opt for single cam. Four out of the five sample pilots I’ve written since being a professional writer have been single camera. But don’t count multicam out, especially if your show will occur primarily within the same location or locations. A few reasons why:

  1. There are a lot of multicam shows on the air and it would be good to demonstrate that you can write for one.
  2. If you want to sell your show, often networks are more likely to buy a multicam (they’re cheaper to producer and generally do better in ratings).
  3. Some of the best shows of all time were multicams. They really aren’t comedy death.
  4. I find they’re easier to write.

I would only advise you to write something in a way that best showcases your abilities as a writer. So if you can’t do that in the multicam format, don’t do it. But I would at least give it some consideration before you start writing.

Ask Yourself Lots of Questions

When I think of a premise for a show I want to write, I always try to vet it to make sure it holds up. Could it sustain itself for more than one or just a couple of episodes? Why would this cast of characters stick together? Why are they acting this way — because that’s how real people would act in this particular situation or is it because the plot demands that’s how they act to keep the show going? If you were to pitch this show to a network, these are the kinds of questions they would ask. So they’re the kinds of questions you need to be ready for.

Make sure you know all of the why’s of your characters and premise because it will end up making your writing stronger when the time comes.

Basically, you want to do as much of the hard work as possible before you start actually writing the script. And that starts with making sure your concept stands up to scrutiny. Make sure you know all of the why’s of your characters and premise because it will end up making your writing stronger when the time comes.

Next time in Part 2: Character