TV Pilot Scripts
TV pilot scripts are blueprints for producing the first episode of a TV show.
A TV pilot script has to accomplish many things at once:
- Set up the world of the story
- Introduce the characters
- Establish relationships
- Present obstacles and dilemmas
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
If you’ve ever watched a television show and thought, “Well, I could write that,” you may be right.
But writing a pilot is not as easy as it looks.
Do You Prefer Comedy Or Drama?
If you want to succeed as a TV writer, your first goal should be to choose a genre that interests you and focus on becoming an expert.
Being an expert in your genre and sub-genre is what helps you break in and stay in.
Why Read TV Pilot Scripts?
Odds are, you’ve seen a ton of television shows in your lifetime. You probably know good dialogue from bad dialogue. And once you read a couple books on writing television scripts, you’ll be ready to write a sellable script of your own, right?
You also need to be reading TV pilot scripts.
Why Write A TV Pilot Script?
There are two uses for a pilot script:
- To sell your series concept.
- To get a job on the writing staff of a television show.
Executives and showrunners used to be less interested in pilots as writing samples for staff positions. They preferred to see specs, because specs demonstrate that a writer can adapt to the voice of the show.
Pilot scripts are increasing in demand, however, as decision-makers have begun to prioritize voice and perspective in selecting writers. You still have to adapt to the voice of whatever show you’re staffed on, but a pilot script demonstrates how your input on things like character and theme will be unique and fresh.
TV Spec Scripts
For features (movies), the term “spec script” refers to a screenplay that is written with the hope of selling it. Spec is short for “speculation.”
You are writing the movie script on the speculation that someone will eventually want to buy it, as opposed to selling the concept first and then writing the script (which is much harder to do when you are breaking in.)
In the realm of television writing, however, when people say “spec script,” they are referring to a script written for an original episode of an existing show. You don’t actually hope to sell the script – rather, you hope the script helps you get a job on a writing staff.
Why Write A TV Spec Script?
There was a time, long ago, when a TV spec script was a true “spec script”… meaning it was a script you might be able to sell. Back in the day, aspiring television writers could break in by selling their spec script to the show it was written for. This was when television shows were less serialized and characters didn’t change much over the course of a season.
Nowadays, writers cannot expect to sell their TV spec scripts. The spec script is written with one goal in mind:
To get staffed on a TV show.
But not necessarily the TV show for which you wrote the spec script.
A spec script shows decision-makers:
- You can design a great story.
- You can contribute to the character arcs and themes of an established series.
- You can maintain the uniformity of the series by capturing the same tone and dialogue used in all other episodes.
What You Learn From Reading TV Pilot Scripts
Many new writers only seek out one TV script from one specific show.
Often they’re looking for the pilot script because they are about to write a spec for that series.
Reading pilot scripts for a show you plan to spec is a great strategy, because that is the best way to get inside the voice of the story and pick up on the unique storytelling nuances of the series.
Additionally, many television shows develop their own language for certain things.
For example, THE OFFICE and MODERN FAMILY are both mockumentary-style shows, meaning they are fiction executed in the style of a documentary, and characters occasionally address the camera directly as though they are being interviewed about the action. In scripts for THE OFFICE, these side conversations are called “talking heads.” In MODERN FAMILY scripts, they’re referred to as “interviews.” When your script reflects these small details, it shows you’re serious about understanding the parameters of a show.
Your Strategy For Reading TV Scripts
After you’ve immersed yourself in a TV pilot script, ideally you would:
- Read several more episodes from the same series.
- Read more scripts in the same genre.
- When you find a script you love, make a note of who wrote it and seek out more scripts from them.
- Read scripts from all the shows written by a creator you admire.
- Read scripts that have been nominated for or won awards.
- Set a goal of reading at least one script per week.
Initially, this will feel like a lot of work. But the more you read, the more you become accustomed to reading TV script format. Soon, you’ll be able to read a script relatively quickly. More importantly, you’ll start picking up on all the little things successful writers do. And of course, if you can’t find the scripts, watching the episodes will suffice.
Analyzing A Script
First of all, when you read a script, make a point of approaching it with an open mind. Try to remember that the script and the show are two different things, and focus on experiencing and appreciating the script.
Once you’ve read it through once, go back and read it again with a more critical eye. Your goal is to notice when you’re most engaged in the story, as well as where you feel disengaged or confused.
Consider these questions:
- Who is the hero of this story? What is the hero’s need and what is the obstacle standing in the way?
- What is the core theme?
- What elements of this script line up with what you’re trying to do?
- What techniques could you borrow to tell your story?
- What elements seem unique to this specific genre?
- What engages you? What bores you? Why?
With each script you read and analyze in this way, your skills as a writer and your expertise in your chosen genre (the expertise decision-makers are looking for) increases greatly.