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Writing a 60 min TV Pilot (Returning Drama Series)

Just a quick one today, for the lovely Soulla:

I am writing a pilot for TV. Any golden rules/tips/do’s or don’ts to keep in mind for first ep of a series?

Here are my thoughts, in no particular order:

DON’T write “for the market”. Supernatural stuff might be hot at the moment, but don’t try and shoe-horn some vampires or the like in for the sake of it. Stay true to your story and yourself.

DO know your audience. Knowing who you are writing for is key in TV. It’s no good writing a sex fest and saying it’s aimed at families at 6pm on a saturday anymore than it’s OK to write fluffy bunnies past 9pm. Seems obvious, but lots of spec TV scripts get very muddled as to the audience they’re aimed at. Equally DO know where it’s going or likely to be going – if you want to see your series on BBC1, then don’t write C4-type stuff. There’s a difference!

DON’T forget your structure. TV drama pilots are NOT just about set up where nothing gets resolved, don’t leave the reader dangling. Remember your “story of the week” and your “serial element” and plot it out carefully.

DO write a series bible. Your series bible is a SECOND CHANCE to sell your script AND series “off the page”. Don’t waste this opportunity by not sending one, just because you’re daunted by the prospect of writing one (yes, they are difficult). Also: don’t waste the opportunity by being overly long or DULL with yours. Make it stand out, there are no “norms” on series bibles! But don’t be weird either.

DON’T be constrained by what has gone before. This is a spec series; you can do whatever you want. Story is king/queen, just develop it well.

DO know there are boundaries – and create your own USP. There are certain expectations, based on producer perceptions and what they see working for an audience… and how audiences have responded to various stuff in the past. For every ground-breaking piece of TV we’ve NEVER seen before, there are loads that are the “same… but different”. You don’t HAVE to be 100% original all the time, in fact sometimes it’s advisable to NOT be: “cops n’ docs” are a staple of returning drama because that’s the audience WANT. So how are you going to work within that boundary? By creating your own show’s “unique selling point” or USP – ie. CSI reinvented HOW we look at cases, by introducing the “version”: the imaginings of various characters COMMITTING the crimes, even if they didn’t. NCIS has the famous freeze frame for “realisations” and other “moments”. LAW AND ORDER has the iconic black screen/captions tracking the cases through the police and courts. What’s yours?

Good luck!

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5 thoughts on “Writing a 60 min TV Pilot (Returning Drama Series)”

  1. DO write a series bible.

    Can you say a bit more about this? Does it depend on where you're sending it and your track record. EG I can't imagine Writers' Room being that interested in one, but if you've written episodes of Spooks the Red would probably be keener….

  2. Hi Matthew,

    I ALWAYS recommend sending a 1 page pitch or series bible with every submission, no matter where you send it. It's a second chance to sell your idea/script "off the page". Sure, some readers may ignore them or skim them, but you never know. And actually, I sent a series bible to the Writersroom with one of my submissions once and they made reference to it in the feedback.

    You can find loads more on series bibles and one page pitches here:

  3. Hi Lucy,

    As someone who reads a *lot* of scripts can I thank you for this advice – it’s all very sound – especially if you’re pitching a series in the hope it will be commissioned.

    May I just add – if you’re sending your spec as a calling card to an existing TV show, we recommend not sending a pilot. So, so few are really self-contained stories and are more usually lengthy set-up eps lacking rounded structure. If you really prefer to send an episode from your series (as opposed to a one-off hour for example) send us the second episode of your series. Show us you know how to weave the story of the day with your ongoing arc.

    And always send your series bible (one-page is great) – it’s up to us then whether we read it, and I always would (I say ‘would’, not ‘do’ – I rarely receive one).

    1. No, not necessarily – this post has a UK bent cos we have the BBC over here (no commercial breaks). We tend to have **spec** TV pilots of 50-60 pages as a result I find 🙂

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