Here's a question I'm often asked: What is the best way to write a pilot? I can’t speak for dramatic pilots since I’ve never written one but here are some thoughts from the trenches on comedy.
First off, there is no easy answer. But here are some pointers:
Make the premise simple – something you can pitch in one or two sentences. If you have to say
“it’s about two brothers who were separated at birth and now find out they had a sister by another mother who has a diner that she wants to convert into a pizza place but needs help running it because she’s also an actress at night and is raising five kids, three of them orphans from Africa”
then your pilot is dead and you’re dead because you’ve killed yourself trying to write this unwieldy mess.
Make the show about something – I put that in bold because it's important. You know me -- I don't put things in bold haphazardly. Have a theme, a reason for being. Example: THE OFFICE. Trying to survive and find some happiness in a go-nowhere career.
Remember: You have to set up your premise, introduce your characters, establish the tone, and be funny all in the first five minutes. It’s a bitch. Don’t make things harder on yourself by overloading the show with too many characters, too much exposition, a Byzantine story harder to follow than THE BIG SLEEP, or a part for Jim Belushi.
Don't give the girls boys' names and the boys girl' names. It's confusing enough remembering who all the characters are without Sam being a girl and Jan being a guy. And every pilot seems to have a "Kevin". Even if it's set in ancient Rome.
The most common mistake most young pilot writers make is that they over-reach.
“It’s part romantic comedy, part workplace comedy, set in a foreign country with its own language and customs. Kinda like ENCHANTED meets THE WIRE”.
Trust me, by page five you're throwing yourself in front of buses.
When Studio and network people read pilots they ask themselves these questions: Do they like the premise? Does the show make them laugh? Do they get a sense of what the series is about and where it’s going?
Where it’s going is especially key. I once helped out a night on a pilot. It was about midnight and we were bogged down in the story. I said to the creator, “What is episode two of this show?” to which he blurted out, “There is no episode two! Who are we kidding? This show will never get picked up!”
He was right. When you’re developing your show ask yourself: Are there five years worth of stories with this? Don’t write FADE IN until the answer is yes. On the other hand, you don’t need to know all five years worth of stories. We once pitched a pilot and the network president said, “What’s the first show of season seven?” How the hell are we supposed to know that? I said, “The Clip Show because if we’re in season seven we’re a fuckin’ HIT!” And we would’ve been too…if only he didn’t pass on the pilot.
Best of luck with yours.