Five questions to help pilots take flight

by Jonathan Abrahams

Now that the WGA writers strike is over, many writers are gearing up to meet the 100-page Script Frenzy quota by writing two TV pilots in a month. We asked Los Angeles-based TV writer Jonathan Abrahams to lay out the Top Five plot questions pilot writers should ask themselves before the writing begins.

First of all, let me say to those who have decided to take this on: You’re out of your minds. It takes most professional TV writers a month at the very least just to write one 60-minute original pilot, and many more weeks of planning and researching and taking notes and obsessing before that. But that’s because most of us live in fear: Fear that our imagination has dried up, that our agents are apathetic,
that originality is secretly frowned upon in our industry. So we spend forever plotting and planning to make sure we have a failsafe product before we start writing. The irony of course is that it is never failsafe, not even close, so all our fears may be realized anyway.

Anybody who signs up for this, however, is cut from a different cloth. You laugh at fear. You spit on fear. You are to writers what X-gamers are to mere athletes.

That being said… If you are going to jump helmetless into the half-pipe, protect yourself by doing just a little pre-script thinking. You don’t have to get obsessive about planning, with the index cards, and the post-it notes, and the endless lists of story points that you work and rework until you want to shoot yourself in the head. Sorry. Enough venting. Just try to answer the following five questions before you actually start scripting:

1. What is the show? That is, start with an idea. That’s the big difference between this particular challenge and writing, say, a novel in thirty days. A novel is essentially formatless. It can be hundreds and hundreds of pages if you wish, so you have time to explore and meander and sort of figure out what your idea is as you write. With a TV script, there are—I loathe to say the word—regulations. A one hour drama pilot needs to be no less than 50 and no more than 65 pages. The very purpose of a pilot is to launch and set up a long-running series, so regular characters and settings (called set-pieces) must be introduced, and overall, people should read it and get a sense of what they’re going to see every week when they faithfully tune in to your show.

So, since you’re restricted both in space and time (two scripts in thirty days!) it’s important to start with an idea. Is it a legal show? A family show? A show about two brothers who are criminals? A show about a CIA counterrorism agent? Named Jack? You don’t have to have the whole thing figured out, but if you have some sort of idea, you can start thinking about scenes to support it, and that’s what a TV script is, a series of scenes that tell a story.

2. What do my characters want? Maybe your show is an ensemble like Brothers & Sisters, or maybe it’s a single-character lead like The Closer. Either way, you’re going to want to have a sense for who your characters are, and in the world of television, the characters are defined by what they want. That’s what drives what they do. A detective show is easy—he or she wants to solve the crime. That may be enough to start, but you’ll do yourself a favor by figuring out what drives him internally to solve the crime (bad version: our hero’s parents were victims of a violent crime, so he’s compensating by trying to protect the innocent… Wait—that’s Batman.) Anyway, it’s easy to come up with interesting characters in interesting situations—like a violinist who surfs in between concerts—but unless they’re driven by an extremely strong desire or need (Tony Soprano wanted to take care of his family) they won’t seem interesting to the reader. A note on ensemble shows: You don’t have to know all the characters beforehand. But know at least three, and the needs that drives them to do what they do.

3. What is the teaser? A standard one-hour drama has five acts and something called a teaser, which is a small (usually about four pages) mini-act at the beginning. It’s not a bad idea to do a little crafting of your teaser before you start writing, because this is the scene or series of scenes that basically defines the entire series. The teaser is where you introduce your main character or characters—it’s your show’s first impression, so try to think of something grabby but also, accurate. Don’t put a car chase in your teaser unless that’s the kind of thing viewers can expect to see regularly.

4. What is the event? “Event” can mean anything from the football game in Friday Night Lights to the eruption of a long-simmering confrontation between characters on Six Feet Under. No matter how you slice it, your pilot will be built around an event—a scene or situation or…event—where storylines converge and climax together. You don’t have to plot out how you’re going to get there but you should have in mind what the big moment of your show is. The event may change as you write, but writing toward even a vague idea will keep your story progressing.

5. What are the act-outs? This may be the most annoying piece of advice I can give you, but I’m going to give it to you anyway. A drama script is a teaser and five acts, and that structure, unfortunately, has everything to do with money and nothing to do with anything particularly creative. The show’s titles generally come after the teaser, and then, in between acts, you guessed it—commercials. So the scenes at the end of the acts are necessarily designed to be extra-compelling in order to get viewers to want to sit through the commercials and keep watching the show. Act-outs, as they are called, tend to be the most dramatic moments in the show—when somebody finally reveals the truth, or the hero makes the decision to fight back, or the heroine is captured by the bad guys. These scenes are all supposed to make the audience say “oh wow—what’s going to happen now?” (“Oh wow” may be optimistic, but we hope for it anyway.) In any case, these scenes are also the tent poles that hold the entire story up, so it’s not a bad idea to think about what they are before you write so when you do start the script it’s a bit more of a process of connecting the dots than wandering around blindly in the dark.

Good luck!

Jonathan Abrahams has written on the staffs of the ABC Family dramas Wildfire and Greek and has developed a pilot, Legal Affairs, with Steven Bochco for A&E. His plays have been produced in both New York and Los Angeles, and he is the screenwriter of the independent musical film Moonlight Serenade, starring Amy Adams.