by Marla White
Whether you’re polishing an existing original pilot script for staffing season or coming up with a whole new script for a writer fellowship program or to pitch, you really only get ten pages to make an impression. So what are executives, producers, showrunners and judges looking for when reading your script? Here’s a list of ten elements that need to be present in the first 10 – 12 pages in order to make your script stand out from the crowd.
1. Make sure the main character is clear. Even if it’s an ensemble piece, identify one person for the audience to connect with right off the bat. If they do, they’ll stick around to be introduced to the rest of the cast as the pilot progresses. “Grey’s Anatomy” did a great job of getting you behind Meredith in the opening, which kept you hanging out to see who else populated her world. Of course, it also helps that her name is in the title!
2. Have a compelling opening. It doesn’t have to be explosive action or an expensive affect, just something that grabs the audience’s attention. (Read “The Blacklist” for a great example of an opening that seems mundane but builds to the point you have to stick around to see what’s going on.) This is just as true for comedies as for dramas. You have to get the audience to immediately want to know more about your world. Word of warning: nothing will turn them off more than a huge explosion followed by the super, “Ten Days Earlier” and then fade to a less interesting, less informative scene. It can work, but it’s harder than you think.
3. Bring out the best in your genre. If it’s a comedy, be sure people laugh at least once – and not just your friends. If it’s a drama, have something surprising, compelling or (obviously!) dramatic happen?
4. Clarify the central, on-going, five-season long, sustainable conflict. What does the main character want, and what opposing forces are they facing? Even comedies are driven by conflict. And the opposing forces better be as complex and interesting as the protagonist.
5. Establish more than one storyline. Movies are driven by single storylines, while series are crafted from many storylines interweaving to make a picture full of contrasts. Call it an A and B story if it makes it more comfortable for you, or identify the layers of story that will go on throughout the series and where more can come from.
6. Have at least one line of outstanding dialog. I get it, dialog is hard, but if you have one great line, or even pithy banter between two characters like the opening from “Life In Pieces,” readers are more likely to remember your script. Often times the dialog is literally the voice of your script, so make it unforgettable from the start.
7. Don’t ignore description. Most of your script is written in the description, so make it amazing. It’s also, for many readers, a big part of what they consider “the voice” so don’t miss an opportunity to make every single line say something about your pilot. For instance, in the first page of “Justified” you see this description: “At the table are TOMMY BUCKS, 35, a slick-haired goon from Italy; HARRY ARNO, 55, balding and nervous, and JOYCE, 35, a former exotic dancer who’s wondering how the hell her life brought her to be sitting at this table.” It’s visual, it’s snappy, and it hints at the hard edge of humor in the show.
8. Have your main character’s life take an unexpected turn. Possibly related to their main conflict of what they want and what’s in their way, but not necessarily. By page nine of “The Good Wife,” you get all the clues you need to show how Alicia’s life has taken an unexpected twist and all the bullshit she’ll need to put up with as a result.
9. Introduce key side characters. Just like it needs to be clear this is a complex world with more than one thing going on, make sure it’s populated by complex people. In “Speechless,” you get a very clear idea of all the family members by page five. Granted, Kenneth isn’t actually introduced until page fifteen, but the idea of his character is part of what drives the show – a caretaker who will act as the voice for
10. Have a strong act out. I’m not saying you need to note the acts as such on the page, but they need to be present all the same. By page 10 (or so) there should be something that would make the reader say, “I wonder what happens next? I need to keep reading” much like a viewer would want to hang around during the commercial break to see what happens next. For instance, “Blindspot,” does a great job of showing how Weller’s life – as well as Jane’s – is about to change and want to tune in to see what the hell is going on.
By following these ten simple tips, you should have the beginning of a great pilot spec to use as a sample or to sell as the next hit series!
Leave me a comment and tell me about your favorite pilot cold open!