Thursday, December 19, 2013

The TV Pilot Checklist v2

UPDATE: This list has been replaced by version 3, which is here

So here we are: totally re-written and integrated for the first time! You can also download it for the first time right here!

Part 1: Is this a strong concept for a TV show (or any other ongoing story)?
  1. Does the concept contain a fundamental (and possibly fun) ironic contradiction?
  2. Is the show set in an unsafe space?
  3. Does the show establish its own unique way of entering its setting every week?
  4. Will trouble walk in the door on a regular basis?
  5. Does the ongoing situation produce goals or mini-goals that can be satisfactorily resolved on a weekly basis?
  6. Are there big stakes that will persist week after week?
  7. Will the heroes be forced to engage in both physical and cerebral activity on a weekly basis?
  8. Is this a setting that will bring (or has brought) different economic classes together?
  9. Is there a central relationship we haven’t seen in a story before?
  10. Does pilot feature an image haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the show)?
  11. Does the pilot meet the content expectations of one particular intended network?
  12. Does the pilot provide a satisfactory stand-alone story (even if that story is just the accomplishment of a mini-goal)?
  13. Does the pilot build up potential energy (secrets that will come out, potential romances, etc.)?
  14. Is there something bold, weird, and never-before-seen about this concept and/or pilot?
  15. Is there an “Holy Crap!” scene somewhere along the way in the pilot (to create word of mouth)?
  16. Is there something about this promise that is inherently appealing? (Something that will make the audience say “Yes, I will be able to root for some aspect of this situation to recur every week, even if the world being portrayed is unpleasant”)
  17. Does the pilot contain all of the entertainment value inherent in the premise (rather than just setting everything up and promising that the fun will start next week)?
  18. Is there a major twist or escalation at the end (though sometimes this twist will only be new to, or only revealed to, the audience) that will kick future episodes up a notch?
Part 2: Is this a compelling hero? (Note: some shows have two almost-co-equal heroes, who will tend to star in separate storylines in each episode, in which case each of these questions should be answered twice.)
  1. Is there one character (or sometimes two, in separate storylines) that the audience will choose to be their primary hero?
  2. Is the hero role strong enough to get an actor to abandon a movie career, come to work in TV for the first time, and sign a five-year contract before shooting the pilot?
  3. Does the hero have a great strength?
  4. Does the hero have a great flaw that is the flip side of that strength?
  5. Does the hero feel that that flaw cannot be resolved until it’s time to abandon the world of the show?
  6. Does the flaw resonate with the theme and/or setting of the show?
  7. Is the hero good at his or her job (or family role, if that’s his or her primary role)?
  8. Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
  9. Does that ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
  10. Does the hero have three rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
  11. Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
  12. No matter how much the hero changes, does he or she have a default personality trait?
  13. Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
  14. Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
  15. Is the hero curious?
  16. Is the hero generally resourceful?
  17. Does the hero use unique skills to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody else on the show would do)?
  18. Does the hero have a moment of humanity early on? (A funny, or kind, or oddball, or out-of-character, or comically vain, or unique-but-universal “I thought I was the only one who did that!” moment?)
  19. Does it take some effort for the POV character to extract other characters’ backstories?
Part 3: Is this a strong ensemble (beyond the hero or co-heroes)?
  1. Are there at least two more roles that are strong enough to get TV veterans to sign their own five-year contracts?
  2. Are all of the other regular roles strong enough in the pilot to attract great actors?
  3. Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
  4. Is each character defined primarily by actions and attitudes, not an individual backstory?
  5. Do most of the main characters have some form of decision-making power? (And are the characters with authority over the rest also part of the cast?)
  6. Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut (or various forms of 2-way or 4-way polarization)?
  7. Does each member of the ensemble have a distinct metaphor family (different from the hero’s, even if they’re in the same profession)?
  8. Does each member of the ensemble have a different default personality trait?
  9. Does each member of the ensemble have a different default argument tactic?
  10. Does the ensemble as a whole have a unique philosophy about how to fill their role (and competition from an allied force with a different philosophy)?
  11. Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others? (Good characters don’t serve good, evil characters don’t serve evil.)
  12. Whether this is a premise or center-cut pilot, is there one point-of-view character who needs this world explained (who may or may not be the hero)?
Part 4: Is this powerful dialogue?
  1. Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
  2. Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say?
  3. Do the characters listen poorly?
  4. Do the characters interrupt each other more often than not?
  5. Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
  6. Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
  7. Does the dialogue mirror the syntax of real talk, but not the dialect?
  8. Does the dialogue capture the jargon of the setting?
  9. Does the dialogue capture the tradecraft of the profession being portrayed?
  10. Is there a minimum of commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with yes, no, well, or the other character’s name)?
  11. Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
  12. Is exposition withheld until the point-of-view character and the audience are both demanding to know it?
  13. Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
Part 5: Is the pilot episode a strong story and good template for the show?
  1. Does the pilot have the average page-length for its format?
  2. Does the show have the right number of commercial breaks for its intended network?
  3. If this is intended for commercial TV, does every act end on a cliffhanger or escalation, especially the middle one (and, if not intended for commercial TV, does it still have escalations happening in roughly the same places)?
  4. Do all of the storylines believably occur (and climax) within the same time frame?
  5. Do the storylines have a variety of moods?
  6. Is this episode’s plot simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
  7. Is the pilot’s challenge something that is the not just hard for the hero to do (an obstacle) but hard for the hero to want to do (a conflict)?
  8. Does the hero start out with a short-term goal for this episode?
  9. Does a troubling situation or major change in the status quo develop near the beginning of the episode?
  10. Does the hero eventually commit to dealing with this situation personally?
  11. Do the hero’s efforts quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
  12. Does the hero try the easy way first?
  13. Does this culminate in a major midpoint setback or escalation of the problem (whether or not there’s a commercial break)?
  14. Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
  15. By halfway through, are character decisions driving the story, rather than external plot complications?
  16. Are the stakes increased as the pace increases and the motivation escalates?
  17. Does a further setback force the hero to adopt a wider view of the problem?
  18. After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal?
  19. Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has the hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
  20. After the climax does either the hero, the point of view character or a guest star have a personal revelation and life change, possibly revealed through reversible behavior?
Part 6: Does the pilot manage its tone to create and fulfill audience expectations?
  1. Does the concept satisfy the urges that get people to watch and recommend this type of show?
  2. Are unrealistic genre-specific elements a big metaphor for a more common experience (not how life really is, but how life really feels)?
  3. Separate from the genre, does the story have a consistent mood?
  4. Is there a moment early on that establishes the mood (and type of jeopardy)?
  5. Are there framing devices (flashforwards, framing sequences and/or first person narration) to set the mood, pose a dramatic question, or pose ongoing questions?
  6. Is there a dramatic question posed early on, which will establish in the audience’s mind which moment will mark the end of the story?
  7. Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
  8. Are set-up and pay-off used to dazzle the audience, distracting attention from plot contrivances?
  9. Is the dramatic question of the pilot episode’s plot answered near the end of the story?
Part 7: Does the pilot create a meaningful ongoing theme?
  1. Does the pilot have a statement of philosophy and/or theme (usually either at the beginning or ¾ of the way in.)
  2. Will the heroes grapple with new moral gray areas on a weekly basis?
  3. Are the storylines in the pilot thematically linked in an indirect way?
  4. Can the show’s overall theme be stated in the form of a classic good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
  5. In the pilot, do the characters have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
  6. Does the pilot episode plot reflect the way the world works?
  7. Does the show focus more on the ethical breaches than moral breaches?
  8. Does the show have something authentic to say about this setting?
  9. Does the ongoing concept include twinges of real life national pain?
  10. Are these issues addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
  11. Are small details throughout the pilot tied into the theme?
  12. Do all of the actions have real consequences?
  13. Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the pilot episode’s story, forcing the audience to do that?
  14. Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the ensemble’s initial goal?
  15. Does the end of the pilot leave the thematic dilemma wide open and irresolvable?
Part 8: Is each scene the best it can be?
  1. Is this scene a character event, not just a plot event?
  2. Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may shift)?
  3. Were tense and/or hopeful expectations for this interaction established beforehand?
  4. Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
  5. Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
  6. Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or even the middle)?
  7. Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
  8. Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
  9. Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
  10. Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
  11. Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext?
  12. Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
  13. Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
  14. Is there re-blocking?
  15. Is there literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
  16. Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
  17. If this is a big scene, is it broken down into a series of mini-goals?
  18. Are previously-asked questions answered?
  19. Are new questions posed that will be left unanswered for now?
  20. As a result of this scene, does at least one of the scene partners end up doing something that he or she didn’t intend to do when the scene began?
  21. Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
  22. Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (or ironically fulfill) the original intention?

Coming soon: We subject some great pilots to the checklist!


James Kennedy said...

For the book writers among us, it seems to me that this is also a useful checklist if you're planning series of children's books (as opposed to a one-off). The Harry Potter books fit this template to a T.

Matt Bird said...

Great, I'd hoped that it would work for that, too!

Anonymous said...

A lot of this is generally applicable to fiction writing. Some of the entries overlap. Some are obvious. It's a lot to read, but there are some takeaway points that would help specifically television writing, especially 1 hour dramas.