Here’s the thing, as I pointed the first day, the real purpose of a spec pilot is to help you get a job on a pre-existing show. Your spec pilot will be handed over to that show’s producers along with your other writing sample (a spec episode of a similar pre-existing show) and they will decide whether or not to hire you for their own staff.
For the most part, no one will want to actually put your spec pilot on the air, unless one of these things is true:
- You’ve been a staff writer on another show for a while
- You’ve been a showrunner.
- You got a veteran showrunner attached to run this show instead of you.
- Maybe if none of the above are true but you’ve recently sold a hot feature screenplay.
The point is this: you’re creating a show that will, in all likelihood never get on the air, and everybody knows it. Don’t pretend otherwise. In fact here are some more DON’Ts:
- DON’T create a show bible: If you’ve been hired to create a TV show by a network, they’ll often want a 5-10 page document explaining the premise, tone and characters. They’ll give this to the other personnel so that everybody is on the same page. These things can be fun to create, but they’re a waste of time if you’re not actually likely to sell the show. Put all that clever concept work on the page in the actual script. This also means…
- DON’T save any good stories for future episodes: you’ve got so much work to do introducing all the characters, it can be tempting to just line them up for now and promise to make them dance later. But there is no later! This pilot is the whole show. Take all those exciting ideas you had for future episodes and weave them into the pilot! Blow your wad!
- DON’T create a safe show. Networks these days are getting less experimental in what they actually put on the air than they were a few years ago, but you don’t have to worry about that. Don’t try to sell them “CSI: Kansas City”. That may be what they really want, but they won’t admit it. Flatter them by writing something they wish they could buy. Or... if you want to write about cops, doctors or lawyers, make sure that they’re doing their jobs in ways we’ve never seen onscreen before.
- DON’T worry about the budget: Set your show on a pirate ship. Or in World War I, or after the robot apocalypse. Go crazy.
- DON’T worry too much about how sustainable this premise is. A lot of spec pilots read like the first half of a movie: exciting, unpredictable, and volatile. Don’t go too crazy with this: Show you understand the form by establishing an ongoing situation that will last for at least one season, but don’t start worrying about the first episode of season five: it’s never coming.
But I’ll end on one big DO: DO keep your pilot character-driven, not plot-driven. Again, I miss all-business shows like “Law and Order”, but those shows are no more. For better or worse, TV is all about character now. And I don’t mean a “character study”, I mean a character-based story. You hero has a tough decision to make, makes it, and handles the consequences. No matter how wild your setting is, you have to establish it quickly and get us focused on a character goal within the first act.