Writing the Spec Pilot — What Do I Write?

Now that the world has changed and networks are actually buying and shooting spec pilots, the decision of what to write is suddenly much more important. Back when you could only hope that your new script would show off your genius and lead to a staff job on CSI, there was no reason not to go ahead with your dramedy about the Trappist monk who is accidentally assigned to a Buddhist monastery where hijinks ensue.

But now that there’s a chance something you write on spec might actually make it as a series – and make you millions – maybe it’s worth taking a few minutes to contemplate a concept that could actually make it to air.

Not that this is an exact science, of course.  Every year the networks themselves commission dozens of pilots they think will make it to air, and most of them are never seen after their one disastrous screening.

But there are some things you can do to raise your odds. And the most important is choosing the right kind of project.

So how do you know what that is?

Well, before you can answer the question of what to write, you need to know what writer you want to be. If you want to spend your career wrestling with moral issues in the context of serious human relationships – oh, let’s just say it: you want to be Matt Weiner –  you’ve got to come up with a script that shows you understand how to do this in a compelling and captivating way. Sorry, but that mystery series about the circus ringmaster who solves crimes with the help of a troop of clowns isn’t going to get you where you want to be. And if you’d rather spend your days plotting out brilliant locked-room mysteries, the nighttime soap about transgendered teenagers is probably not the right approach for you.

People like to say “write what you know.” In TV, it’s “write who you want to be.”

I can hear your objections already. You don’t want to limit yourself to one kind of script. A great writer can do anything. Why do you have to decide now?

Because if you don’t decide who you are, somebody else is going to do it for you.

You may think it’s ridiculous that one script is going to define your identity to the entire industry. But it will.

Part of that is to help you. Your agent and manager are going to need to have a plan in order to sell you. They need to be able to say “He’s the next Terrence Winter” or “She’s just like a young Anthony Zuiker.” That’s a fifteen-second phone call, and at the end the studio or network executive will be able to decide whether or not to read you. If your people have to say “This script is like Jonathan Franzen’s early work filtered through Anthony Bourdain’s vision, but with a stronger understanding of human behavior and a really cool mystery,” the exec is going to be flipping through the take-out menus before the call is done.  And no one’s going to be reading anything you’ve written.

And if you or your representatives don’t take charge of defining yourself through your script choices, I guarantee that the industry will. You are the script that’s circulating. You’re “the guy who wrote the buddy comedy mystery about the police dog who teams up with a cat.” You’re “the gal who did that thing about vampires fighting zombies.” You’re “the kid with the family drama set in war-torn Srebrenica.”

When you send your next script out, that tag is going to stick to it. So if it’s the same type of show as the last one, readers will get a stronger idea of who you are – or at least who you’re presenting yourself to be. If it’s completely different – if you’ve gone from the dog/cat show to the Srebrenica series – the best you can hope for is that you have to start introducing yourself all over again. The worst is that whoever is reading you spends ten pages trying to understand why your newest light mystery begins with the brutal torture, rape and murder of an adorable Bosnian girl, and then tosses it away in confusion.

So when you’re planning the spec pilot, the question that comes before “what do I want to write?” has to be “who do I want to be?”

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