WRITING FOR TELEVISION
For over a year now, in between writing books, I’ve been working on a pilot for a new TV show. Yes, I’m aware that I stand a better chance of winning the lottery or being struck by lightning than getting anything I write on film, but my labor is free and the time would otherwise be spent on the couch watching reruns of Law & Order—so, what the heck. Somebody’s gotta win, right?
Turns out, what you need to pitch a TV series is not that overwhelming—nothing like a 100,000 word manuscript, right?
First, you need a script of the pilot episode. It only needs to be about 40-45 pages, the length of an hour television show minus those pervasive commercials, and if you’ve ever seen a script you know that those pages are mostly white space. Easy, right? That’s what I thought when my first book was optioned and I had to convert the full-length novel into a 90 minute script. Nothing but dialogue, none of that beautiful prose or scene-setting descriptions or getting characters logically from point A to point B. But as short story writers know, when your words are limited, every single one has to be vital. And that’s not easy at all.
Along with this script you need to send a packet of other information. One item will be the character sketches of all the main characters and brief descriptions of minor ones. Who are they, where do they come from, what makes them tick, and most of all what do they want? All the rules that apply to writing books, of course, also apply to writing for film: 1) They have to want something in every scene. 2) We have to care about them in order to care what happens to them. 3) State their problem on the first page and don’t resolve it until after the last commercial break.
You may need a page on setting/location. If you’re writing a sci-fi series that’s set on another planet, you will have to spell out what this place looks like, how it functions, how humans came to be there and how they’re doing in this alien landscape. If your story is set in current day suburbia, much less explanation is needed and might be incorporated on the pitch page.
The pitch page is, in a way, the summary for all the other pages. It describes the show, the intended audience, the intended channel and time slot, other comparable shows, and the feel for what your show is: Light? Dark? A vehicle for social issues? A comedy of human errors? It will include your tagline(s)—you know, like an elevator speech on steroids. “It’s a cross between Dragnet and Gunsmoke!” “In space no one can hear you scream—unless it’s with laughter!”
Then, the bible. This is the plan for the first season of future episodes, one by one, plus at least a summary of seasons two through five. You need to illustrate your plan for where the show is going, where the characters are going, and that your original concept can carry a series for as long as necessary without running out of plots. This is not so easy. Maybe in something like Battlestar: Galactica where the long-term plan was to escape the Cylons and find Earth, but characters in more everyday lives don’t really goanywhere…we just tend to lope along from day to day doing what we must. Fortunately, the rule here is: shorter is better. One advice guru I found said all episode summaries should be two sentences only: one for the ‘story of the week’ and one sentence charting the progress of the characters’ arcs.
And that’s it. Stuff it all in an envelope or email, ship it off to Hollywood, and wait for the checks to roll in.
Except I forgot to mention the hardest part of all. All these pages have to be fun to read. They have to be more than creative, they have to be can’t-put-down incredibly entertaining. Because, as we all know, the average human being’s attention span has dwindled to that of a gnat, and if you’ve ever seen The Playeryou know that it’s less than that in Hollywood. Griffin Mill explains that he hears about fifty pitches a day, and the studio gets 50,000 submissions per year. But they can only afford to make perhaps 12 motion pictures per year. I can’t find the exact quote, but it was something along the lines of “this means I have to say ‘No’ 18,249 times a year.”
So good luck.
Now, a challenge to the reader: Give me the tagline for the series you’d like to see on TV!
Welcome to the Rogue gang here, Lisa! I must say you are brave in your endeavor to create a new TV series, considering the competition you've laid out. On the other hand, with your bestselling novels, you have a terrific track record and obvious talent. Please keep us posted on the new script. Meanwhile, you asked what type of TV series I might want to watch. Actually two current series we like are MADAM SECRETARY on CBS and DESIGNATED SURVIVOR on ABC. So how about this: The (female) Director of the White House Office of Homeland Security must deal with constant threats to our national security. OK, full disclosure — this type of character IS the heroine in my own thrillers….sure would love to see a series about a woman like this (but I have no clue how to write a TV script). Thanks for a great, thought-provoking post!
Great details on how to write a pilot. My daughter who lives in West Hollywood, writes movie scripts and pilots as well as novels, and I've marveled at her ability to switch between mediums. Tipping my hat to you and wishing you success.
What a terrific post, Lisa! I lived in Santa Barbara for many years, with Hollywood just a whisper away, and heard so many horror stories (including my own, in which I sued a production company and walked away with cash – a miracle, I'm told) that I figured writing novels was hard enough. You are inspirational! I'm gonna rethink this whole thing. Thanks! 🙂
I remember thinking that one of my shorter books, Fatal Truth, a straight police procedural, would make a great script, because it was so short. And I remember thinking how easy. All I have to do is delete all the narrative and voila! the script is there from the dialogue, right? Took about a few pages in to realize how naive that thinking was. Because, as you said, every word counts, and now you don't have the advantage of internal dialogue. You have to convey all that emotion, thoughts, lead ins, whatever, to visual and audio only. Yikes! But I still want to do it. It'd make a great episode for a TV series… Sigh. Curious about how your adaptation went. Did you finish it? Or are you still working on it? Details!
Wow, Gayle! I had no idea. Wondering how much writing you got done in the middle of that suit? I have a hard time writing when bad things are happening!
Wow. I'd love to be able to switch mediums like that! Does she finish each project before starting another? Or is she the lucky sort who can work on multiple at the same time?
That's exactly what I thought when I started turning Trace Evidence into a screenplay. I had to keep the idea of it and then write the whole script from scratch–once I accepted that, it wasn't too bad. Producers took it, extended my option, tried for 2-3 years to sell it to TV (mainly Lifetime) and finally gave up. But it was worth it for the experience.
I'd love to hear this story!!
I expect that experience was invaluable. Even the few pages I wrote was (to a much smaller extent), in that I now know it is a whole different medium! I still want to do it. Maybe one day…
As a reader, I can usually "tell" that a novel I am reading was written by an author who also writes for TV and/or movies. How? Well, by the style. The plots are generally more focused and purposeful. The action is usually tighter with less "fluff." Every word conveys multiple meanings, and everything advances the plot. There are no wasted words. I really like that focused, purposeful style in books I read. Write on!
Oh, I forgot my tag line — Marysville, Ohio a small town with big secrets. Home of Honda of America, Scott's Lawn Products, and the Ohio Reformatory for women — fast cars, good grass, and bad women. (When you write this, just thank me in the credits)
I like that! And not just because my sister lives nearby in Marion!
Welcome to RWW and love that you're writing a pilot! I just finished some "one-sheets" of my novels (a short pitch page-like a movie poster) and they really seem to focus one's mind. Hard to distill a story into one of these short paragraphs. Kudos to you and fingers crossed one gets picked up!