Update: The script discussed in this article wound up winning the 2009 New York Television Festival, and is currently in development at Fox!
As a writer, I’ve always told stories that are both serious and speculative. But for my first writing project this summer, I decided to tackle a concept that was neither of those things. It was rough! If you’re interested in writing for television yourself, here’s a look at how I approached writing a half-hour comedy pilot for Fox’s open call.
Before even opening Final Draft, there are a lot of conceptual decisions to make. I settled on a one-camera show (a la The Office, Arrested Development, 30 Rock, shows without a laugh track), as I had no desire to write a sitcom (I haven’t really watched any since Boy Meets World). But there are just as many three-camera shows on network tv these days, so pick the format you’re most familiar with.
Then you need a premise, one that plays to your strengths as a writer. The best way to find one is to start with a setting that you understand well. On The Office, it’s an everyday workplace, whereas Scrubs uses a hospital. Try to find a setting that hasn’t been done to death! It should also readily provide you with lots of characters and limitless story potential. In a pilot, you’ve got to prove that your series has “legs,” meaning that it’s narratively fertile enough to sustain dozens of episodes.
I turned to personal experience and went with a series centered on a shy, well-meaning student during his first year at a small, private, prestigious liberal arts university. That gives me plenty of diverse characters (the student body), and tons of storylines (orientation, classes, homecoming, parents weekend, finals, rushing/pledging, you get the idea).
Once you’ve got a setting, you need characters. If movies are all about plot, television is all about characters. It’s what people are addicted to. People aren’t religiously devoted to Friends or The Office because of the storylines; they tune in to see what their favorite characters are up to. So creating compelling, unique, three-dimensional characters is probably the most important step in creating a series.
Next, I suggest reading as many scripts as you can for shows that are in your format. Simplyscripts.com has all kinds of shows, including current series, which should be at the top of your list. It’ll give you a sense of what works, style-wise and pacing-wise.
Choosing a storyline for the pilot is tough, because it has to accomplish so many things. Most importantly: your main character, his goals, and the world he’s living in, including his allies and enemies. Further, it’s got to be an encapsulation of your series as a whole. The main themes of the show need to be imbedded in the story, all while you’re introducing the characters and the setting.
As for making it funny, my advice is to use your characters’ weaknesses. Put them in situations where they’re certain to fail, or to humiliate themselves. The humor should come from your characters, not one-liners or gags.
Finally, there are two books that I found indispensable (and several others that I didn’t). Ellen Sandler’s TV Writer’s Workshop is amazing for helping you find a story and structure it, and Alex Epstein’s Crafty TV Writing gives you a broader look at the industry and how to craft something that works within that context.
But basically, for a half-hour show, you want two acts, plus a teaser (the cold open before the opening titles), and a tag (the quick scene before the credits). The story’s got to be driven by your main character, and there has to be something at stake. If he or she doesn’t acheive is goal, what’s the worst that could happen? And based on what kind of person he or she is, what’s the most awkward situation you can put him or her in?