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Q: What Are The Differences Between Features & TV Pilots/Series?

Claire Yeowart asks:

What are the specific differences in television pilots vs features?… In pilots – how do you balance characters and plot without there being too much going on overall?

These are really good questions  which other Bang2writers have struggled with in the past, so I’ll break down the aspects of features vs. pilots, one by one as I see them.


Features. There are many ways of looking at features in terms of structure, but I think of The Three Acts in a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” kind of way – and because the industry *tends* to talk of acts. First Acts usually start off quite well, now scribes have a handle on the first ten pages being really important. However frequently features – especially genre specs – have a problem with their identity because they don’t know who their audience is and more often than not, features feel quite turgid, especially within Act 2, as they “run on the spot”. Features also can have problems with dramatic context and the resolution being tied up too quickly. Read more about different ways of looking at structure in The Required Reading List.

TV pilots. In direct contrast then, scribes frequently “get” structure in TV pilots and generally know how to balance their “story of the week” with their “serial element”. Perhaps this is because they watch more television, or because 60 pages seems less daunting than 90? Whatever the case, I always find it really interesting the same people who “get” structure in TV often have issues with The Three Acts in their features, it rarely seems to happen the other way round … And when it does, it’s often the feature-writing scribe overthinking things. More on writing a 60 Minute Returning Drama.


Features. We’re generally following an individual’s journey more than most in the feature: there’s a goal, s/he wants it and various people and obstacles get in that person’s way. It can be really overt (as in “life or death” scenarios) or it can be more metaphorical (as in psychological drama). Even passive protagonists must have another character “take the reins” for them and generally speaking take them back in the resolution. Whether a group (as with Horror) or sole protagonist (as with Thriller, Drama, or comedy), the ensemble cast is generally the exception, rather than the rule.

TV pilots. In direct contrast then, the ensemble cast is king of TV world: there are groups everywhere, whatever genre the scribe is writing. That said, I would argue there is an “umbrella character” who edges out over the rest – ie. Grissom in the original series of CSI, Ray Langston in later series, now DB Russell. Even series about a particular character – ie. House – have a very strong selection of supporting characters whose paths we’re also heavily invested in. So to answer Claire’s question here, an “umbrella” over 4-5 other characters seems ideal in the case of TV pilots … Check out the likes of Hustle, Spooks, Torchwood et al. They have their group, plus an “antagonist of the week” accompanying their “story of the week”. Check out this post about your “unique selling point” when it comes to “hooking” audiences on TV projects.


Features. Dialogue is probably the least of ALL script’s worries as I’ve said multiple times … but least of all in the feature. Visual is key here; dialogue is your back up. Obviously there are certain elements that stand out – dramas and comedies tend to be more talky than action adventures, thrillers and horror – but generally speaking, LESS IS MORE, SHOW IT, DON’T TELL IT and all the rest. Screenplay dialogue is MORE than just words.

TV Pilots. Television is more “film-like” and high concept than it was in say, the nineties, but there’s still a strong difference between the *type* of dialogue uttered on television than on the silver screen. This is mostly to do with stuff like watersheds, schedules, audience share etc but also the fact that there is just MORE TALK in TV pilots. That’s not to say you can rattle off reels of dialogue – “less is still more” and all that – but the TV writer has a certain amount more leeway than the film writer when it comes to dialogue.


Features. That fabled “feel of the piece”, not just the location. Arena can be really important in a feature – or you can more or less forget about it and concentrate on other things and hope it forms itself on its own (which it can). It depends on the story and how you’re telling it. Really. Arena can be “make or break” to a story, but very often you can get away with it altogether. Don’t believe me? Read two good feature scripts, one with an obvious arena, the one without. Don’t forget lots of movies change their arenas – especially location – depending on where they can get their funding from. Does it change how the story ends up? If the premise was strong enough, then no.

TV Pilots. In direct contrast then, Arena is everything in the TV pilot. Very often series are “precinct dramas” – not relating always to police procedurals, though it can include them – but rather, the SETTING is “bigger” than the characters themselves very often. This is why TV series can kill off or change their protagonists and antagonists at will. (Of course it’s possible to kill off your protagonist in your feature, but very few people do … Something to think on in terms of standing out? I think so).

So, that’s how *I* see the differences between features and TV pilots … What about you?

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