How I’m Writing my 30 Minute Spec Pilot
I’m currently concentrating on writing a spec pilot for my application toward Fox’s writing program. Now, I’ve had a couple of ideas in the past for pilots, but none of them have spoken to me quite like this one. To put it vaguely, it’s a workplace comedy set in a highly artistic community. In a way, we would follow the characters in the same way that we followed the characters on Spin City: the ensemble is there to work, and they’re all drawn by the same passion, or belief, represented by their boss (in Spin City‘s case, Mayor Randall Winston).
How did I come up with my premise? How will this help you figure out whether you have a good idea? Find out after the jump…
The idea came about after an evening of batting ideas around with my husband, who was also looking for a premise for a spec pilot. I started looking around our bedroom, trying to find a jumping off point, when I saw one of my favorite books on creativity, passion, and work, sitting on my bookshelf. From there, I started to think, “What would it be like to work for the eccentric, interesting, highly intellectual author of this book?”
From there, I developed the premise — a young woman, who is now a has-been at 22 years old, who has to work for someone who she’d idolized her entire life, only to realize she is an actual human with faults, failure, and little passion left in the reserves tank for what she does. Nothing purely original, I’ll admit. But the environment in which this show is set is ripe for some ribbing, and it’s an original-ish concept that a particular audience/demographic could get hooked to.
So, fresh off of finishing my Modern Family spec (I got an A in the class, btw!!), I decided to try to seek some help to write this pilot. I HEARD that the amazing Ellen Sandler is writing a book about how to develop a pilot script in the same vein as her wonderfully helpful book on spec writing, The TV Writer’s Workbook. Alas, no book. I tried The Writer’s Store, and I couldn’t really find something specialized that would really help me. I searched online, and found NOTHING. It’s all eHow, and Helium, and Yahoo! Answers, with cookie-cutter methods of writing a pilot. So I realize now, that I was looking for an easy answer, and, quite frankly, there ISN’T one. But I don’t think this is a bad thing. I think this will actually help me grow as a writer.
For now, I have developed something of a checklist in my head, as to know whether the fledgling idea I’ve come up with is actually worth taking the time to craft into 30+ pages of amazingocity. The main idea is that, sure, I’d only be writing the first episode, but whomever will actually be evaluating if they should hire me after reading this pilot, will be looking for whether I understand the mechanics of story, the actual realities of production, whether I have a voice, and the importance of ensuring a show’s longevity, among other things, I’m sure. My criteria of what (probably!) makes a good pilot premise:
– As a writer, does the premise jump at me? Is this pilot begging to be written?
– Has someone tried to sell a show with a similar premise recently? Is it on the air? If not, why did it fail to make it to broadcast?
– Has a similar show made it to air? Why did it succeed? Did it eventually fail?
– Would your lead roles entice actors?
– As a rule, most multi-cam and single cam shows alike only have a few sets. Can your pilot, and subsequent episodes, be contained in just a few sets?
– Will you still have strong story lines to carry you to season 4, episode 15? (Note: Personally, I think we Americans should be open to The U.K. Method, with a short, 12-episode run of a stunning story, instead of milking a premise for 328 episodes…).
– From a studio’s/producer’s standpoint: Is this show marketable? Can it sustain a healthy audience from week to week, from season to season?
– Can you develop an “addicting” cast of characters that people will want to catch up on every week?
– Think about selling this to a network; are there a few networks to which you could plausibly sell your pilot? Can it be easily tailored to better fit the voice/branding of a variety of networks?
– Think about the shows you absolutely love and can’t live without — why are you so attached to those shows? Can those same attractions be captured through your show?
Answer those questions truthfully and I believe you’ll walk away with, at least, a better understanding of whether you’ve got a great idea for a pilot. I don’t think any of these questions are necessarily set in stone, either. If you have an insane idea, write it! You’ll enjoy the process a hell of a lot more than forcing yourself to write another rehash of yet another couch-based family sitcom.
Later, I’m going to talk about developing characters, and outlining the plot of the pilot (in real time, because, well, I’m writing this!), so keep those eyes pealed.