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!