Writing a TV pilot is just about one of the most exciting ventures in the writing world, and if it’s comedy well, it just adds six feet more of pure, unadulterated fun to the mix.
But because it’s not all party crackers and knock-knock jokes, and the process itself can be murky terrain, it helps to have a checklist to guide you through the battlefield. If you’re looking to send a spec pilot out for the first time, and the terms tag and premise plot sound like something that belong behind the closed doors of stuffy exec offices, you might want to pay attention. This pilot checklist is for anyone looking to send out a spec pilot for the first time and needs a bit of background to create some… well, perspective.
The Pilot Checklist
Cast of Characters
Any show that’s become successful has done so as a result of three-dimensional, complex characters. If you think about it, every pilot that has gone on to have a successful run of seasons has at its core a cast of characters to pave the way to greatness.
Your pilot needs a goal that’s not just driven forward by the overall world introduction, but also by your character’s overarching goal and episode goals. And to understand these? You need to understand your character.
A character board is a great way to keep track of all this, by scribbling down names, physical descriptions, backgrounds and likes. Create a gigantic pinup extension for your wall that makes people fear for your sanity. This board should include main, recurring and extras – and have your entire cast well thought out before you move onto the next part.
Your characters sell your concept. So whatever premise you’ve set out to explore, your characters need to fit in with your world-building concept.
What makes them unique? What are their quirks? Create a rich backstory and make them as complex and three-dimensional as possible. It always helps to offset certain personalities with polar opposites. If we look at BBC’s Gavin & Stacey, for example, Gavin is kind and romantic, Stacey sweet and naïve. What truly gives the show comedic value, however, is not the protagonists specifically, but Smithy’s and Nessa’s anti-heroic qualities and quirky traits.
The actors will bring your characters to life on screen, but it’s up to you bring them to life on paper. You can’t just create a one-off cast of recurring and secondary characters for your pilot, and then change these in your episode outlines: everything has to match. Producers need to see that you’ve thought about every single character in the show and to do this, you need a long-term game plan before you start writing your pilot. That way your cast introductions can be made accordingly. It’s all about creating credible characters who clash, opposite personalities.
Character intros in pilots are tricky, volatile things, but they can be done. Channel 4’s Fresh Meat for example, sets up the first five minutes in a way that the characters all meet on-screen for the first time in the most awkwardly memorable way possible. Yet, if you watch closely, everybody’s defining characteristics are peppered throughout the entirety of the pilot, so it’s not overwhelming. If your characters aren’t meeting for the first time onscreen, however, introductions can be trickier, and a more creative approach is required. For example, in CBS’s Two and a Half Men, Alan and Charlie interact with one another in such a way that they describe themselves to each other, though really, they’re transmitting these ideas to the audience. The best thing to do is study characters’ introductions of other shows and you’ll see a formula start to develop, one you can apply to your own pilot.
Structure: the A & B Storyline
The pilot kickstarts a journey you will be taking over an extended period of time, at least for the length of one season, and as such, you’ll need to look at the different types of structure and format that make up a TV sitcom.
First, the pilot will contain a main storyline that stands on its own, while also expertly threading through potential for many more episodes throughout the first season. Every single comedy episode contains the following:
- The teaser: This is an opening joke, a mini act that sets up the episode and relays the problem ahead in a comedic way. In the Gavin & Stacey plot, the couple talk over the phone and the premise of the episode is portrayed in the opening minute: After six months of distance dating, the pair will meet in London for the first time. It works across all pilots. In Friends, Rachel barges into Central Perk- and the friends’ lives – in a wedding dress, and the rest of the episode is focussed on Rachel’s integration into the group and her new independence. This teaser gets the audience hooked before the opening credits.
- Story A is the main storyline, the principal focus of the episode. In Gavin & Stacey, it’s their meeting, and in Fresh Meat, it’s the gang getting used to living with one another.
- Story B is the side story, the one that runs in parallel to Story A. It contains the more secondary characters and breaks up the A story with comedic gags. In Gavin & Stacey, it’s Nessa and Smithy’s mutual hate and hook up, and in Fresh Meat, it’s each of the student’s individual hang-ups and fears (take Oregon’s desire to be popular or JP’s loneliness).
- The tag is the bookend scene, that comes before the final credits and is 1 to 5 minutes long to show the aftermath of another storyline following the episode’s resolution. You see it all the time in comedy shows like Friends, the Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother.
Every pilot needs a premise. This consists of a log-line and defines your entire series in one or two sentences. It basically summarises the main hypothesis of your series. So before you do anything else, you should try to define your series idea as succinctly and as cohesively as possible. Regardless of its misleading size, log-lines can be the hardest part of your bible treatment. Think about it. You’ve got three or six lines to provide the setup, your world, setting and of course your overarching style. The best ones are always the simple ones. For example, Gavin & Stacey’s premise is: a boy from Essex and a girl from Wales meet and fall in love – joining two very odd families from very different backgrounds. For Fresh Meat it’s: Six students miss out on student halls and live together in student housing for their first year of university – and hormones cause havoc.
The premise is essentially, the summary of your entire show, compressed into a few sentences. But you also need to take into account a few other details for your premise.
Will your show be multi-cam shot or single-cam shot? The difference is that single-cam shot shows are filmed on different sets much like a film. Examples include Gavin & Stacey, Modern Family and Arrested Development. Multi-cam shows on the other hand, involve those which are filmed in front of a live audience, and as such the dynamics of the comedy and acting are very different. Examples include the Big Bang Theory, Friends and Two and a Half Men.
You then need to figure out if your show will be a premise plot or a non-premise plot. Premise plots are those in which the pilot establishes a new circumstance and event, where a main character meets the other for the first time, for example, so we see that it’s the beginning of something. Exactly like Fresh Meat, as before the pilot none of our characters know one another. A non-premise plot is the opposite, it’s like a day in the life of the show, no one is introduced because the characters already know one another. A good example of this is the Simpsons.
The premise breaks down the barriers of your show and reveals to the audience/reader exactly what it is you’re trying to do, with who and why. It’s a summary of everything you know about your show.
Treatment – episode outline
So you’ve written your pilot and it’s ready to be sent out. Congratulations. But… have you written your episode outlines yet? Executives or producers need to see evidence that you’ve thought about the rest of your first season, and not just a one-off, random pilot episode. Breaking down the events of each individual episode with a quick log-line helps people see that there’s enough material to go the distance. It will definitely help the right people invest their time and their money into your show.
In three to six lines you’ll need to provide a summary of approximately 8-12 episodes more. This short statement should include a mention of the principal Story A and Story B as well as the outcome of your episode. You don’t need to write out the script of each episode just yet, but it’s really important to have everything laid out and written down, even if it is just the idea. Producers will want to see the potential of a whole season, so dedicate all your efforts into this. It’s all about seeing your story material on a general basis – a guarantee, if you will, that your series is well thought out, and viable. I assure you that every series out there at the moment has gone through this process, and you’ll be a better writer for it.
Elena Alston is a freelance writer and editor based in London. She writes about technology, screenwriting, culture and travel–and has a knack for bringing brands to life with words. There are two things she can’t live without: books and the sea. Not necessarily in that order.