Script Coverage Chronicles -- December 2014: Three Thoughts On Writing For TV

I’ve pitched original TV shows.  I’ve judged TV scripts in a major screenwriting competition.  And I’ve been hired to write for television.  Based on these experiences, here, for what they’re worth, are three thoughts on writing for TV:

One: Write The Pilot Before Finalizing The Bible

When writing for TV, it may seem logical to nail down the pitch bible before turning to the pilot episode.  In reality, it actually makes a lot of sense to go ahead and draft the pilot when the bible is still at a very preliminary stage. 

Before you draft a pilot, it’s difficult to know exactly which elements will work in the actual show.  A character trait or plot formula that sounds great when described in a bible may actually be difficult or impossible to execute well in a script. 

And if an element is difficult to incorporate into one script, it will be hell to do it over and over again for multiple seasons. 

Two: Conserve Your Story Energy

In reading for contests and giving notes through my consulting website, I’ve come across a certain kind of pilot script numerous times.  This kind of script is chock full of excellent writing.  Every few pages I find one of those clever moments writers strive for.  It’s simply a great read.  But at the end of the pilot, I think: “Now what?” 

It’s a fantastic pilot, but the series is out of fuel.

In feature scripts, character arcs should be visible and closure is your friend.  In the best pilots, you can’t see whole arcs at all; you only see suggestions of arcs.  In features, any sequels are another writer’s problem (at least for now).  In TV, there are dozens of sequels already planned and they’re very much your problem from the start.

I’ve done it myself:  I’ve resolved a conflict between two characters in a pilot, with the intention of providing an emotional and entertaining moment and later thought to myself: “You did more harm than good there.  You sacrificed the energy fueling many later episodes for a single moment.” 

That’s not energy efficient.

A producer once said to me that he reads feature scripts from a lot of promising writers, but too often all the good stuff is in Act One.  While it’s not as obvious, the exact same issue occurs with pilots; you can’t put all the good stuff in episode one. 

Or you’ll run out of gas.

Three: Consider “Setting”

How many times have you watched a TV show and wondered what city it was set in?  A lot of shows make little use of setting.

Similarly, in many pilots I read, there is very little sense of setting at all.  I think it’s an underused device in TV writing, one that has the potential, given the right locale, to set a script apart. 

Consider the extremely popular CSI Miami; it mined a great deal of entertainment value from its Floridian-urban setting.  The City of Miami is a vibrant element of the series, which may be one of the reasons the show was so tremendously popular worldwide.

Setting isn’t an essential ingredient in every popular show, but it is another tool for every writer to keep in mind.