How to write an original TV pilot

January 30th, 2013 by

Some reflections on an intriguing trend in Hollywood writing circles:


As Netflix ‘releases’ David Fincher’s “House of Cards” series in a few days, TV’s new golden age reaches something of a landmark. This high profile show arrives complete, with all its episodes available from day one. So the “watching the box set” series-viewing phenomenon enters a phase that is amazing. Who will be the first at the virtual water coolers to have watched all the episodes? It is as if a big fat novel by an established and important author was hitting the bookstores. Note that just as most television series spin their series arcs over time, Charles Dickens wrote and delivered his novels chapter by chapter – rather than as a finished book.

The Probability: This high budget, high aesthetic cable style one hour show, Fincher’s House of Cards (exclusively on Netflix) amplifies the TV arena’s creative potentials and creates future opportunities for writer-creators,

For screenwriters, at the very least, it accelerates change. TV changed movies in the fifties, TV on demand, cable, on DVD force cinema to evolve again.

It isn’t just competition for eyeballs. It is how the eyeballs and the minds behind them are conditioned to respond to filmed entertainment. The character detail in cable series schools viewers to eventually expect a bit more in theatrical films. The bar may be raised considerably. Simple, fun movie-movies need to be better, more precise, a bit more complex perhaps. Old school studio manufactured movie-movies may win out sometimes. But long-term, the influences of cable, of quality TV, have to changes audiences. Understanding TV, how script structure, plot, character differs from features is a great thing to do right now. It is fun. It is challenging. It can be an impactful creative endeavor as a marketing tool for screenwriters — a means to representation and jobs. Manager, agents, producers like to read 30 page or 60 page scripts. Spec pilots sell. They get made into shows. They lead to jobs – in TV and in features.

As soon as I finish the feature job I am on right now, I will be writing a one-hour spec pilot. It may sell, land me a writing job in TV (or features) and of course it may just sit there:). I will not know until I write it – as Scott wisely tells us all.

My upcoming class, TV: HOW TO WRITE AN ORIGINAL TV PILOT is a great place to start or accelerate your work in this vibrant, growing arena. It will provide a quick and thorough Immersion into writing for the medium, its workings, plus some familiarity with people on that side of the business

GETTING STARTED – Here is how we will be approach TV writing in the class:

Spec pilots do sell. They generate work, help writers build careers, become hit shows once in a while, too. That piece of writing (60 pages or so if it is a one-hours show or 30 pages if it is a half-hour program) can be complex in many ways. Yet it also must be quite simple. It must be describable in 90 seconds. So — Gentlemen and Gentlewomen, start structuring your pilot script. Please remember that it is not just a logline with a character and a central conflict. It is a world. A sensibility. A family of characters. All this must function as a major mechanism of inherent and infinite dramatic conflict. Plus numerous subsets of infinitely repeatable character conflicts. A lot like our lives day to day in many ways. But heightened – theatrical.

Before embarking on the writing of a spec pilot, you ought to be able to sell it to yourself or maybe a few writer friends/colleagues as a pitch. You don’t have to simulate a network meeting to do this. You can cover all the main points on the phone, in an email, even a very long text message.

Television shows are incredibly simple and simultaneous extremely complex. It’s easy to understand how a show that takes place in an ER can be dramatic and entertaining yet the nuance of the relationships of the characters to each other and to their world of work as medical practitioners is the true sustenance of the show. That requires creative effort to build properly.

There is more where that came from, plus wisdom and insights on writing TV from:

Henry Bromell (Homeland)

Ed Bernero(Criminal Minds)

Josh Brand (St. Elsewhere)

Blake Masters (Brotherhood)

David Park (TV Partner – United Talent Agency

So please do consider joining this class. It starts February 4. 

Starts February 4 at

10 Day Immersion into the Process of Writing a One-Hour Pilot Script
4 Interviews with Major Writer/Producer/Showrunners
Live Q and A with TV agent
4 Lectures.
2 Workbook Assignments
Clean and Sticky Note-Annotated Pilot Scripts to Read/Download

That’s right, Screenwriting Master Class is moving into TV writing. Here’s your chance to take advantage Tom Benedek’s years of experience and massive Hollywood connections to learn how to write an original TV pilot.

4 thoughts on “How to write an original TV pilot

  1. Shaula Evans says:

    I have signed up and I’m really looking forward to the class.

    A quick question: the post lists the start dates as Feb 13 AND as Feb 4. Which is correct?

    Thanks for the clarification.

    1. Scott says:

      Shaula, I contacted Tom and he confirmed the course starts on Feb. 4. I changed the OP to reflect that fact. Have a great class!

  2. FYI, I took the first version of this class.

    Highly recommended, and the interviews by themselves are worth the price of admission. Plus Tom’s a fantastic teacher.

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