Pilot Checkride: How To Break Into Television Writing, Part Two
In the summer issue of this magazine, I wrote about how television is written and some of the ways that a screenwriter might break into writing for television — starting as an assistant in the writers’ room, fellowship programs, being hired directly to staff and selling a pitch or a pilot. As I noted in conclusion, whichever route you take, it all starts with a great pilot — that’s the sample that your agents will use to put you up for staffing, that’s the usual application piece for fellowships, and that’s even what assistants submit for consideration. So what exactly is a pilot, and what makes a great one that will stand out to showrunners and development executives?
What is a pilot?
The pilot is the first script for a potential television series. It’s written in the same screenplay format as a feature film, but doesn’t hew to three-act structure the way most traditional feature films do. Television drama (hour long) is typically constructed with a teaser (a short pre-credits scene or two) and five acts, each ending on a distinct, exciting or cliffhanger-type “act break.” (Note that this article will focus on hour-long dramas, and not half-hour shows or comedies.) Act breaks in a pilot for network shows are usually noted in the body of the writing, though serial dramas for cable often skip noting the act breaks. (Act breaks occur where commercials will come in.) A one-hour drama script will usually be between 55 to 65 pages.
I asked Zach Cox, a manager at Circle of Confusion who represents a lot of television writers and creators (and, disclosure, represents me), how pilots differ from features, and what he’s seen in terms of benefits and challenges for feature writers transitioning to writing pilots. He said that the first thing he points out to feature writers is “the idea that you don’t have to fit in a whole character arc in the pilot. The pilot is about setting up the world, character and where these characters are headed within the world, and how it affects each other and subsequent decisions. The prevailing wisdom, whether you believe it or not, is that the pitch for Breaking Bad started with, ‘How does Mr. Chips become Scarface?’ In a movie you would have to show the whole growth from Mr. Chips to Scarface in two hours (more or less). In TV, you get to explore every nuance, every decision and every relationship related to that one arc.”
I recently finished writing my first pilot, and Cox also nailed something else I didn’t realize myself until I was deep in the writing process. “I see a lot of feature writers try to fit way too much in the pilot,” he told me. “Let it breathe a bit. Let the characters carry the show on their backs. Set pieces are great, but don’t get so bogged down in those that you forget to make us fall in love with your characters.”
As I learned by writing my pilot, it’s not a one-hour feature with a neat ending, and it’s not the first half of a feature, either. It’s a tricky, challenging balancing act where you need to introduce characters that we’re going to care about and want to follow; a world that’s fresh, new and exciting; compelling stakes and themes; and a sense, in those 60 pages, that these characters and this world can provide the fertile terrain for five seasons or more of conflict, excitement and content.
Everyone with whom I spoke emphasized the importance of reading pilots to produced shows, which are readily available online. Recommendations I received read like a list of Emmy winners for the past decade. I’ve read several of these pilots myself and learned a lot from their pacing, tone and character development: The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Deadwood, The Good Wife, The Shield, Mad Men, ER, The West Wing, Dexter, Boardwalk Empire, The Affair, Penny Dreadful and Power. Personally, while writing my pilot, I also watched the pilots for compelling new shows I was interested in — Mr. Robot and Bosch — and only the pilot. I didn’t allow myself to watch the second episode for months. This forced — and allowed — me to consider all that had happened in those pilots, all of the characters, themes and locations that were introduced, without muddying my recollections by watching subsequent episodes. Though I can’t wait to watch more of both shows, it’s been a powerful exercise to think about all that I learned about those characters and worlds, and realizing that all was contained in the pilots.
When it comes to watching or reading pilots, there’s a sobering yet inspiring realization for me: before these shows were beloved, award-winning cultural touchstones, they were all just pilot scripts or pitches — the caliber of which my own work needs to match to get attention, staffing or my own show someday.
What makes a great pilot
I asked Ryan Farley, who’s currently a co-executive producer on Netflix’s Ozark and has written on a half-dozen other shows, what he feels a pilot needs to stand out in the marketplace and get attention. As an upper-level writer, his agents still submit his original pilots for consideration when he is going out for staffing — and he keeps getting hired, so he knows what he’s talking about. He thinks one of the most important things for a great pilot is great characters — “characters you’re compelled to keep watching, maybe that you don’t always care about, but they have to be complex, interesting and intriguing enough that you want to know their next step.” I realized as we were talking that I could talk about Tony Soprano forever, but I’d be hard pressed to remember specific episode plot points. (Okay, besides killing the guy on Meadow’s college visit. But you could argue that was a character move.)
Farley also emphasized how important he thinks really clear world-building is — “You need to be very clear about the world you’re dealing in. Consider the specificity of The Sopranos — the New Jersey mob, the authenticity, the lived-in characters, the fully realized, experienced world.”
Personally, I’m a research junkie, and in the pilot I just wrote, the characters spend some time at a terrible motel in Tampa, Florida. While writing those scenes, I found a real motel with horrible reviews on TripAdvisor, and that’s the exact motel where I put my characters — name, address, etc. I looked at photos on Google Street View of the motel while I was writing and made sure when the characters sped out of the parking lot, I named the street they were pulling out onto. This isn’t the only way to create a fully realized world, of course, and the name of the motel and street aren’t vital to the plot, but for me, the realism and attention to detail reflects my commitment to authenticity, and I’ve been told it comes through in the read.
Farley points out that the very thing that makes television different from features is the third vital prong to a good pilot — “You have to make people want to come back, to plant enough seeds with character and story to show that there are roots that can grow for multiple seasons. I think of a pilot as starting a tapestry, with little bits that sprout all over. Deadwood and The Sopranos both started with core characters in their pilots, and as seasons progressed, the writers capitalized on what was planted early on. A pilot needs to be consistent with tone and themes that you care about so that it feels focused, like you’re in control of the characters, the work and the world, and the reader is fulfilled. A pilot is just one chapter in a 50-chapter book.”
Of course, what writers think makes a great pilot doesn’t always track perfectly with what our reps think. I asked Zach Cox what he tells his clients makes a great pilot, and he said it’s the same as with features, digital or any platform: “It all starts with a great idea that stands out in a very crowded marketplace — because of high concept, character, world, etc., or some combination thereof.”
That’s not surprising, but it’s really good advice to remember before starting to write. My simple litmus test is to run a quick logline pitch at friends. If you can find trusted fellow writers to say “yes, yes, yes!” because the idea is fresh and amazing, go for it. If reactions start with, “Oh, sounds kind of like House of Cards/Law & Order/ER/Empire/Breaking Bad/etc.,” you might want to find a pivot that makes it feel fresh.
As much as I’m focusing on writing pilots here, because that truly is the point of entry for writers breaking in for the first time (even if just to land representation), I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that a great deal of television is still developed and sold via pitches. Cox says that besides a great idea, to sell either a pilot or idea, a writer needs a pitch to show that this idea is really a series. “You need a killer pitch,” he says. “How are you going to convince a TV exec that this show has legs? If you’re already established as a feature writer, selling a pitch is completely doable. In fact, the vast majority of TV is sold on pitch. However, if you’re not established or have been out of the game a while or are a bit ‘cold,’ write the pilot. You can still sell a written pilot even if most TV is still sold on pitch. It’s easier to package a written pilot, and it can also serve as a staffing sample in the right scenarios. But, again, it all starts with the idea and whether it can stand out in the marketplace.”
Personally, I developed a series for over a year with a great producer and eventually got it to a place where I felt it was ready to go. I had the characters, world, tone all sketched out, the pilot mapped out, the first season and 10 episodes broken. And ultimately, after a lot of conversations and tweaking various elements, we decided not to go out with the project. Part of the reason was that despite all the originality I felt I packed into it, it still felt too familiar to a few well-known shows. And my team ultimately felt that it wasn’t likely that I would sell a pitch with my limited credits. And I can acknowledge that the world, characters and tone never exploded out of the pitch document in a way that felt undeniable and screamed at the reader that this world, these characters, this story must be told!
I finally realized that for all the time spent working on this pitch, I could have just written the pilot. I would have gotten to know my characters, their world, the themes, the tone, the big ideas, and the future of the narrative so much more intimately and meaningfully than I ever did banging out the pitch document. And frankly, then I could have pitched the whole series with much more knowledge, excitement and promise.
So when I had an idea for a series a few months ago, I didn’t even think about pitching it. I just wrote it, and frankly, I was right — characters came alive, storylines presented themselves and the narrative potential revealed itself in ways that never would have happened if I had tried to write a pitch document. In short, all of the glorious reasons that I love to write (the beautiful unpredictability of what my characters and their world will do to one another next) came alive in writing a pilot in ways that never coalesced for me in building characters and worlds in a pitch.
And now, as expected, I can actually put together a pitch for the series based on this pilot. My team and I are sending this out as both a sample to use for staffing as well as trying to sell it, and when I go in to pitch, I’m able to present my characters, their world and the tone so much more richly and in a truly compelling way.
I realize not everyone is represented yet, so I was also interested to hear what Cox looks for as a manager both in new clients, as well as what he wants from his existing clients (i.e., me) in a script. He explained his job is to get attention for his writers and to get their scripts read — after that, it will be on them to land the job, but what he needs first is a script that he can call showrunners about and promise them that it’s worth reading. Scripts don’t get sent out blindly — he has to call the recipient, put his reputation on the line and say that what he’s about to send is professional and has a voice. As he puts it, “it all starts with a ‘loud’ idea. Something new and fresh.”
Cox continues with a bit of advice: “Even if it seems too insane to sell as a show or too controversial, write it. Execs love reading samples that stand out.” He says that when he pitches a project to an exec to read, he has a choice — does he say, “it’s in the vein of something that already exists,” or is he saying, “it’s something nobody has ever seen before”? — and he far prefers pitching the latter. “It’s not that the derivative projects can’t work — they can if there’s a twist. It’s just that the script that goes to the top of the pile is either the craziest idea or the script written by an established client. So write something loud and skip to the front of the line. Even if the show can’t get made, they’ll take a meeting, and your network of producers and execs [who know you and like your work] is growing.”
Your mileage may vary based on your experience and the advice of your reps. But, for me, having developed a pitch and written an original pilot, I found the latter a far more educational process.
Who is going to read your pilot?
So who exactly on a show’s production staff might read your original pilot to consider you for a staffing job? It depends on the show. On one end of the spectrum, Kristy Lowrey, who was formerly an assistant on an NBC crime drama, was assigned to read original pilots submitted to her show for staffing consideration and to make recommendations up the chain. Lowrey told me she helped read for staffing a few months ago. “It was eye opening and terrifying,” she says. “At the lower level, we had 40 to 50 submissions for possibly one spot. The staff writer we ended up hiring was the writers’ assistant last year, and unfortunately that’s how it goes for a lot of shows.” (When I interviewed Lowrey for part one of this series, she was still an assistant; as per the very career progression she spoke about, she has since been hired on a new show as a staff writer and gotten in to the WGA.)
At the other end of the spectrum, you might be read by someone like Gary Lennon, an executive producer on Starz’s Power. Lennon got his start in indie film years ago with a feature called Drunks, is a prolific playwright, has sold multiple pilots and has been a writer on a number of high-profile shows, including The Shield and Orange is the New Black.
On Power, he describes himself as showrunner Courtney Kemp Agboh’s “number two.” “I do whatever she needs from me, from running the room, breaking the stories with other writers, helping to create the whole season, to rewriting scenes for her to running the set, helping to select directors, working with the editors,” he says. “We’re a team that works together to get the show on the air.” And part of his duties include reading dozens of scripts submitted for staffing, which he described as “100 percent agent-submitted, 100 percent original pilots.”
I asked him what he’s looking for when he reads those scripts, and without hesitation, he rattled off a series of questions: “What is this writer’s voice? Are the scenes pulling me forward? Am I curious about what the next scene will be? Are these characters I’ve seen before? Am I having an emotional response? Do I care about these characters?” He continued that he wants to be introduced to a new world that he knows nothing about and to be engaged in it, whether it’s “the rodeo or a Renaissance faire, and when I reach the end, I want to feel different and emotionally affected.” (I might simply tape his words on the wall over my writing desk.)
I asked Lowrey the same question, and she advised “writing something that stands out. Have an outlier — it may be weird or something not everyone likes, but if people remember it, and it’s different with a unique voice, that goes a long ways. When I was helping read for staffing, we got so many cop samples (because it was technically a cop show) that at a certain point, I was just looking for something that wasn’t about cops. I could have read a script about aliens who possessed cows, and if it had a voice, great characters and an interesting story, I would have done a tap dance of excitement because it was just different and stood out. Have a unique voice, have something to say, and write great characters. I have a theory that passion separates great scripts from just the good ones. Whether it does or not, who knows, but what I do know is you can feel passion on the page.”
I’m always curious how fellow writers define that most vital but ineffable quality of writing, the “voice.” Since both Lowrey and Lennon referenced it, I asked Lennon to elaborate: “Voice is dialogue, but it’s more than just how each character speaks differently, it’s a strong point of view, it’s a clarity where the writer is getting across what he or she wants the reader to feel at fade out; a strong voice finds moments to differentiate itself whether through dialogue, scene and character description, or action lines,” the last of which he pointed out are a great vehicle for painting a picture. (He used the example from something he had read once, “modest needs, lavishly met…” as a great example of the writer’s voice.) Lennon also sent me three of his pilots that he has sold, and after reading them all, I had a great feel for his voice — as well as the high bar for selling a project in this town — and if I had to, I could read a dozen different pilots and figure out which was his.
Lennon also provided some inspirational career encouragement and urged me, and all writers, to always be creating new material. Despite being consistently and gainfully employed on well-regarded shows for years, he’s always writing new pilots. He reminded me that careers will have highs and lows and hit plateaus, but that as writers, we can and always must be generating new material for ourselves. He also pointed out that even as he hires upper-level writers for the Power room, he’s always looking at original pilots and never at an episode from some show the writer just came off of.
What do you do once you’re in the room?
Lennon also had great advice for what to do once you do get into a writers’ room. Navigating and thriving in the writers’ room requires skills in addition to plotting, character development and being an idea engine. Lennon has been in a lot of rooms on a lot of staffs, and he’s seen writers learn, grow and succeed…and he’s seen good writers who haven’t been able to figure out the dynamics of a room and seen their careers falter as a result. It was interesting in speaking to writers at three different stages of their careers — Lowrey at the beginning, Farley at upper-level and Lennon as a very senior writer — that their advice about how to be in the room (and how NOT to be) was so frequently the same.
Lennon said the most important skills for a new writer on a show is to “listen and learn. Soak it all in and see how the ship is run, where you’re needed, and fill that void. Lead with your strengths — do you have lots of ideas of where these characters can go? If so, offer them up in the room. And don’t take it personally when some of your ideas don’t land.”
A writers’ room is a collaborative environment, but it’s not exactly a democracy — there is a showrunner, and the writers are there in service of her or his vision. Lennon says, “if your pitches aren’t landing, don’t try to force them through — learn when to let go. Realize that it’s not your show; you may have a great idea but the showrunner doesn’t want to go in that direction, so get in line and in the direction the show is going. Learn to play well with others, and if you’re difficult to be around, you will not be invited back, no matter how talented you are. Learn your boss’s taste, and find ideas in their wheelhouse, and if you feel an affinity for a character or a storyline, let the showrunner know [so] they can look to you for that character/idea/episode. And learn to take notes and do rewrites, and if you don’t understand a note, say you don’t understand and get clarity — everybody knows that this is the first time you’re staffing.”
Between the good advice, success stories and caveats in both parts of this series, I realize there has been a lot of focus on how difficult it is getting started in television. And how gaining this foothold requires being, networking and working in L.A. And, that it’s difficult to write a truly great pilot, one that will jumpstart a career in television.
Yes, all of this is hard, but I’d like to end on a note of encouragement. Ten years ago Ryan Farley was in grad school. Five years ago Kristy Lowrey was teaching high school.
But every year, Zach Cox sees clients get their first staffing jobs or sell pitches or pilots, and every year, Gary Lennon sees people get hired. With television, it starts with a great pilot script, and that’s the first step in the door to an assistant gig, a fellowship or a staffing job, not to mention selling a series.
It’s 60 pages of voice, passion, great ideas and undeniable, compelling characters, which you don’t need permission, special tools, money or connections to write. Yes, it’s difficult to write such a pilot and, yes, it’s hard to then land on a staff or sell that pilot or pitch. But there are various routes to achieve all of these things, and they all take time, luck, talent and resilience. Which is not that different from anything else in life that’s meaningful, pays well and offers creative rewards.