When you sit down to write a pilot you the first thing most people think about is genre. However, when thinking about a show, the idea you’re making, regardless of genre, should have a serialized component. A good TV series idea takes the “serial” aspect of series seriously. If you’re making a show about a team of bear hunters, what keeps your characters going out into the wilderness hunting bears? While the “bear hunter” premise isn’t necessarily a bad premise for a show, there’s nothing about it, thus far, that locks in inherent serialization or procedural elements right from the start.
When thinking about show development, think about how to build your show around a premise that requires people to come back week after week to get their fill of the story. Making a show with an inherent serialization or procedural mechanics built-in, is going to make your pitch meetings much easier.
While they’re definitely “tried but true” series that have leads in a specific occupations like firemen, cops, doctors, and lawyers have often serve as the foundation of a good TV series idea precisely because the problem solving, conflict, and drama is built in. These procedural shows can last for season upon season, weather the storms of actors, writers, and producers coming and going and people still tune-in for their hour-long fix. Want to move past the typical procedural? Some more genre-centric show ideas are monster hunters, space explorers, and justice driven masked vigilantes.
But despite the effectiveness of great serial writing, it would be unfair to say non-serialized TV series cannot be good. There have been more than a few great “people hanging out and having problems” television shows including, Friends, Seinfeld, Frasier, and Cheers. Seinfeld stands out in particular. Just try to describe all the characters and the setup for the show, and it sounds downright unappealing. “Four people who are rude and mean hang out in an apartment and moan about their problems.” Now that doesn’t sound like a good time at all, does it? Who would tune into that? And who would come back week after week? Answer: 76 million (that’s the number of viewers who tuned into the final episode).
When creating a pilot, you want to make a show that has both compelling characters and a structure that facilitates serialized stories. The key is to make your pilot inventive. Since there have been numerous television shows about firemen, police officers, doctors, and lawyers, what is it about your idea that puts a twist on the subject matter? What is undeniably good about your story? What are you adding, twisting, or flipping to make your series different from the norm?
Writing takes time, energy, and seldom gives you the rewards you desire, but it’s also the best way to get your creative vision out of your head and into the heads of others. What you pay in sweat, tears and frustration is considerable. Nevertheless, printing out those pages costs little more than pocket change. Master the craft of writing well and for next to nothing (out of pocket), you can get your idea on the page and transmit it into the minds of fellow creatives, filmmakers, and producers i.e. the people who rely on your words. Write well and it can be one of the most liberating and vidicating experiences of your life.
Writing a pilot is a good way to become familiar with the nuts and bolts of writing for television and to build a critical understanding of the craft. Write a good pilot and yes, it can be your calling card in the industry. An undeniably good pilot can get made and maybe even picked up by a network. A good spec screenplay or pilot script can also lead to job offers or interviews for a position as a staff writer, writer’s assistant, or other in-industry job. Long story short, if the right people see you’ve got talent, they’ll want to get you in and keep you close, even if that means you’ll have to start with a not-so-great paying gig. Take the opportunties as they come! Keep on building your reputation as a super-dedicated, hard worker. Keep on writing, dreaming, and creating. Write pilot after pilot or even the whole first season of your show. At the very least, you’ll learn a lot and who’s to say how far you can go!