Writing the TV Pilot: What Makes a Pilot Successful?



Writing TV pilots is hard. You not only have to tell a great story in very few pages, but also do so in a way that plays within a very specific genre, and very different needs that vary from network to network.

Your pilot needs to not only demand the attention of your audience, pull them viscerally into your story, and take them on a journey that creates an emotional response, but also function as a blueprint that allows anyone who reads it to immediately see the engine, the unique structural formula, that’s going to allow this show to run for many many years.

With all the emphasis on the things your pilot is supposed to do it’s easy to lose track of the one thing that it truly has to do in order to give you any chance to succeed.

It has to capture your unique voice as a writer.

Contest judges, coverage readers, agents, managers, producers and actors are inundated with thousands of pilots. And most of these pilots are going to fall into one of two categories.

The first category is: “It’s a mess!”

These are pilots, often by newer writers, that simply haven’t been developed to a professional level — that aren’t doing what a pilot needs to do. The idea might be great, but the formatting is wrong, the structure isn’t working, the engine isn’t clear, the characters aren’t castable, etc.

If you fear your pilot is falling into that category, then you’ve got to spend some time educating yourself. Study the shows that are currently on television. Read pilots that have sold recently and break down how they are constructed. Seek out a mentor who has succeeded in this industry. Or take a good TV Writing class (and do your research on your teacher — because if they don’t have real TV writers room experience, there’s a good chance they don’t know any more than you do).

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Don’t just depend on the brilliance of your idea. Keep working on your pilot until you know that it’s at a professional level. You’re going to ask someone to invest a ton of money and many years of their lives into your project, so if you want them to even pay attention, you have to show them that you’re a writer worth investing in. Not just a source of great ideas, but someone who has the craft and the dedication to execute that those ideas in a way that can sustain many seasons.

The second category is much more dangerous. It includes the many, many scripts that seem to be doing everything right, but actually, have even less chance of succeeding than the ones that are riddled with technical flaws.

These are the pilots that play by the rules, beginning with an original idea, and then developing it in the least original way possible, rehashing some predictable formula from a screenwriting book or from an existing series, revealing nothing new about what makes this writer, or this pilot, special.

A script like that may impress your friends, or someone who doesn’t have a lot of experience in the industry. But it’s not going to make any impression at all on someone who’s reading hundreds of pilots. It’s just going to blend right in with all the noise.

If a producer wants a safe script that plays by the rules, there are hundreds of professional writers, with proven track records, and much better credits, much better connections, and (most likely) much better craft than yours, from whom they can get one.

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There’s only one reason to take a risk on a new writer: because they can give you something that nobody else can give you. Something you can’t buy from another writer. A unique perspective, a unique approach, a unique voice. The thing that makes your script stand out from the crowd, and demand the attention of the reader, because nobody could have written it by you.

Great writing requires great craft. But that’s not where it begins. It begins by getting your vulnerabilities out on the page– the parts of you that you don’t normally express, the truths that you don’t normally look at, the characters that exist inside you, the way you look at the world that is different from everyone else.

It means using your craft to shape your art, and not the other way around.

If you think of the most successful series in Television, you’ll quickly realize that they all break the rules in profound ways from the very first episode. Transparent, Westworld, BoJack Horseman, Stranger Things, Orange Is the New Black, Game of Thrones, Catastrophe, the list goes on and on.

The success of all these series grows from the same place, by growing their unique structure organically from their characters, and from the voice of their writers, rather than imposing an external structure upon them.

So as you work on your own pilot, I hope that you will do the same thing. Giving voice to the unique characters that already exist in you, writing them in the way that only you could, and then using your craft to develop the structure you need to support their stories, in a way that reveals something truthful and meaningful about you.

The founder of Jacob Krueger Studio in NYC, Jacob Krueger has worked with thousands of writers, from Academy and Tony Award winners, to new writers facing the blank page for the first time. His writing includes The Matthew Shepard Story, for which he won the Writers Guild of America Paul Selvin Award and was nominated for a Gemini Award for Best Screenplay. To follow Jacob’s podcast or learn more about his Screenwriting Workshops, Online Classes, One-on-One Mentorship and International Retreats please visit WriteYourScreenplay.com.

If you have your own pilot, considering submitting it to the Launch Pad Pilots Competition. The last day to submit entries for the 2017 competition is February 28.


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