Writing the Spec Pilot

Aspiring writers that used to correspond with me when I was writing my blog would sometimes ask if I was going to write another book on how to spec a pilot. I never really considered doing that for several reasons. Elephant Bucks didn’t sell well enough for the publisher to ask for another book. Writing EB took almost a year. I wasn’t willing to devote that much time to a new book when I only made a couple thousand dollars off of EB. Most of that tiny amount of revenue arrived several years after the book was published. The only economic reason for writing one of these how-to books for screen scribes is to use to book to sell yourself as a speaker or seminar leader or consultant. There are a number of people who make a modest living doing that, but it was never something that interested me. Blake Snyder, my old friend, who wrote what is arguably the most successful how-to book for screenwriters ever published, died nearly broke.

It’s very, very hard to write a great pilot or even a decent one, even after years of experience working as a TV writer, yet that’s what novice writers are asked to do instead of writing spec episodes of existing series. It’s unfair. It’s much more reasonable for an aspiring writer to tackle a spec episode of a series that she or he knows well than to try to create a series out of thin air when seasoned professionals have a hard enough time doing the same thing.

But agents and executives don’t want to read spec episodes. I think in part this is because years ago, when the spec episode was still in fashion, aspiring writers were drawn to only a few of the top series. There were thousands of spec episodes written of Friends, Cheers, The Simpsons, etc., to the point where agents and executives, who hate to read scripts in the first place, just couldn’t pick up another spec Seinfeld and plow through it.

As audiences for TV series split into smaller groups, and as new delivery platforms appeared, agents and executives were also looking for something “different” to attract an audience. The spec pilot offered the potential for an aspiring writer to “speak with her own voice,” or “push the envelope,” or “think outside the box.” These calls for creativity and innovation now sound horribly cliché because they are. But one can understand the thinking. “Don’t bring me another Friends,” the network or studio executive would say, “Bring me Orange is the New Black.”

One might argue that the lowest rated sitcom on broadcast TV still wildly outperforms the highest rated sitcom on cable or from a streaming service, but when you’re trying to make a name for yourself, and get the attention of a gatekeeper, something “edgy” and “controversial” is probably a good thing to have if you can manage it.

The ironies of the spec pilot phenomenon are that: a) even if you write the best spec pilot ever, if you haven’t worked in TV before, no one is going to let you run your own series. They’re going to assign an experienced producer to run it for you, and you may not even survive on your own writing staff, especially if you are too strong with your opinions, and b) more likely, your great spec pilot is going to land you a staff job on an existing series where the “unique voice” that got you the job in the first place will be silenced, and you’ll have to learn to write in the voice of the show runner, which is exactly what the unfashionable spec episode of the past taught writers how to do.

It’s very, very difficult to create a TV series. Even seasoned professionals make stupid mistakes in creating a new series. Hot writer/producers with great credits and years of experience write pilots that are deeply flawed. That’s why so few new series succeed.

My advice on how to think about a spec pilot is to start with a strong main character. Don’t even worry about the premise of the series yet. Don’t worry if it’s a workplace series, a domestic series, or something else. Start with a strong main character. By “strong” I mean a character that has a well-defined personality and a powerful yearning for something.

The main character on The Big Bang Theory is Leonard. What Leonard wanted more than anything else in the world – from the first act of the pilot – was Penny. Leonard was a deeply insecure, tortured, frustrated, slightly angry, short, physically unattractive, defensive, romantic, naïve, self-destructive, cloying, dweeb who falls head over heels in love with a blonde, street smart, poorly educated, sweet, tough, sexually vibrant young woman who moves in across the hall. Look at all of the adjectives I used to describe Leonard and Penny. All of those characteristics were there in the pilot.

Sheldon, who is not the main character on The Big Bang Theory, was also a complicated and very well defined character from the first moments of the pilot. He’s a genius. He probably has Asperger’s. He’s selfish, rude, childish, opinionated, obsessive, controlling, petulant, and unconscious of his affect on other people. Look at all of the adjectives I used to describe Sheldon.

Just by describing the three main characters on The Big Bang Theory, one can already see a series before one adds the premise – that the four main guys are all scientists who work at the same university and all suffer from arrested development. The series premise develops from the characters, not the other way around, and becomes about whether these four boy/men can grow into functioning adults.

Another way to create a series is to start with the premise. Friends and Modern Family seem to have started that way.

Friends was not primarily about any one of the six main characters. It’s a premise series. It’s about being single. That’s a very simple premise. It’s about an experience most people have had: the gang you ran around with after college and before marriage. That’s been the subject of numerous movies, plays, novels, and even musicals. It’s not a new idea. But it’s simple and it works. Everyone on Friends has the same goal, which is to grow up and pair up. The key to Friends was the mix of characters. Again, we’re back to characters. Friends was the right mix of characters for its very simple premise. That’s very tricky and to a certain extent depends on luck. The creators of Friends wrote the right characters, in the right number, and somehow found the right actors to play them – very tough to pull off.   Controlling, mothering Monica, neurotic, funny, insecure, smart-ass Chandler, deeply neurotic and self-loathing Ross, perky, sexy, naïve Rachel, dumb, sweet, sexy Joey, adorable space cadet Phoebe. Friends to me is still lightning in a bottle. I don’t know how the creators pulled it off. It’s not my favorite series of all time, but you can’t argue with its success. Very, very difficult to create a series like that when casting is so critical.

Like Friends, the premise of Modern Family is in the title. It’s a modern family, which in this case means that sixty-ish, conservative wasp-y Jay has married Latin firecracker Gloria who is half his age.   She has a kid. Jay’s resentful daughter, Claire, is married to goofy Phil. They have two kids and are trying to be traditional yuppies. Jay’s son, Mitchell, is gay and married to Cameron. Come up with a strong premise like this that was right in the zeitgeist of 2009, then add the right characters – we’re back to characters again – and you’ll have a big hit on your hands.

When trying to cook up a spec pilot, I recommend starting with the characters. Who is your main character and what does your main character want?

Years ago I helped to develop a series called Newhart. The main character was an uptight and somewhat neurotic writer named Dick Loudon who had always dreamed of owning a bed and breakfast in Vermont. The character of Dick Loudon was easy to create since we knew that Bob Newhart was going to play him. But picking the right premise was key. The New England Inn worked pretty well for nine seasons. The series was populated with a group of eccentric small-town characters. Dick Loudon had something he wanted: to run an inn. That’s all we needed to get started.

Later I worked on Coach, which was about an ambitious and morally flexible football coach at a small college in Minnesota. Hayden Fox desperately wanted to win, and would do almost anything to accomplish that. He had a chip on his shoulder, was impulsive, emotional, childish, sexist, and boorish. He got himself into all kinds of trouble because of his competitiveness, his loose relationship with the truth, and his inability to control his emotions. Sort of sounds like our current president.

When planning your spec pilot, if you can come up with a colorful main character and think of at least five or six adjectives to describe him or her, you’re off to a good start. What does your main character want? Is it love, success, control, revenge, acceptance, freedom, a home? You need to have an answer to that question.

With each additional character, make sure you can come up with at least a handful of adjectives to describe her or his personality.

The premise of the series serves the characters. The heart of any series is about the characters’ relationships to each other. That’s what matters most and is where most of your effort must go.

I hope that helps a little.

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