Writing TV Pilots: Original vs Spec

If you want to to write for TV, you need at least two items in your war chest; a spec script of a TV show currently on air and an original spec pilot. They exercise different creative muscles.

A spec TV script demonstrates that you can mimic the voice, tone and feel of an existing show. An original pilot reveals you as a writer and as a person. Current trends dictate which is more important. Right now, original pilots are the most popular. But you also must demonstrate the ability to write for an existing TV show and mimic its voice and tone.

Pilots serve two purposes; to set up the world of the series; the locale, the characters, the plot. The ORIGIN type pilots did just that. They set up everything, but did not indicate the trajectory of the series. The PROTOTYPE episode, is a typical episode. The show has settled after overcoming its opening episode nerves. In the current climate of serialized TV, where shows are screened out of order, the hybrid prototype model is ideal.

In the current climate of economic storytelling, the setup of the series is occupying less screen time. The vital elements of the show are set up quickly and efficiently, while fragments of the back story are infused into the story as the series progresses. Think about where you want to start your series in terms of the overall story timeline. The setup (events leading up to the present) doesn’t have to be the opening scenes of the pilot. You can tantalize the audience with a bit of mystery.

I’m hearing many TV development executives complaining that current pilots are too safe. Writers are trying to be all things to all people, except themselves. Let yourselves go. Audiences are getting bored with recycled, derivative material and tuning out. Be daring. Write what you want to watch.

Start off with the overall concept of your pilot. How is it distinctive? Is it “Modern Family” in Atlantis? Then construct as few main characters as possible. Introducing too many characters too soon is confusing to the audience.

Experiment with the format. Is it 30 or 60 minutes? Drama or comedy? What are the character arcs over the season? How do the characters interact?

The fractured state of television has opened up many opportunities ranging from web series to cable to free to air catering to a wide variety of tastes.

Click here to read many past and current scripts of TV shows.

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6 Comments Add yours

  1. Hello! First, I’m enjoying reading your blog. To be honest, it is a lot easier for an ‘outsider’ to understand than some others I’ve seen.

    Why is it that I keep hearing that sitcoms are ‘supposed’ to be in studio-shot, multi-camera format? I’m working on a pilot that would be single-camera because of the need to change locations (outside, school gyms, different rooms in a home or school). I am trying to find formatting advice and instruction, but the majority of the sites I look at assume that I’m using a multi-camera format. I know that many sitcoms are shot in studios, but is it really *that* unusual for a sitcom to be shot a different way? If not, why wouldn’t some forums or websites acknowledge this? Mine is a kid’s sitcom you’d find on networks like Nickelodeon or Disney.

    I hope I’ve made sense. Thanks!

    1. The majority of 30 minute sitcoms are studio-based multi-cams. Exceptions include Modern Family, 30 Rock, The Office which are multi-cam. WGA has an extensive library with typical episodes for formatting advice. Otherwise see if you can find them online. Make sure they are production scripts and not transcripts.

      1. I used a spec script of iCarly as an example. I figured that it would work b/c not only does it look like it’s shot the same way I’m imagining, it’s geared toward the same target audience as my pilot (kids). I wonder, are the ‘usuals’ in terms of formatting, etc different on cable than on the broadcast networks? Or does it matter?

      2. single cam scripts look more like movie scripts. multi-cam have more spacing and a higher page count. it’s not crucial to get it perfect because it’s the quality of the script that ultimately counts.

  2. I’ll have to look at the WGA site, thanks.

  3. That’s what I thought re: looking like movie scripts. That’s what a lot of the sitcoms made for cable that I looked at (iCarly, etc) were done…one-page-a-minute, not as much spacing, etc. I wasn’t sure what the ‘proper’ format was.

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