Now is the Perfect Time to Turn your Feature Spec into a TV Pilot
With Hollywood backlogged with movies, selling your spec feature script is going to be challenging at best, at least for a while.
Since the pandemic, streaming networks like Netflix, Hulu and Peacock have been thriving and actively seeking television content because if there’s one thing people have liked to do in the age of COVID it's binge-watching great shows
If you don’t have a spec TV pilot, now is the perfect time to turn your best feature spec script into an hour-long TV pilot.
Considering you have already created the characters, world and tone of your feature-length story, adapting it to TV pilot form is just a matter of reimagining your structure. Here are some things to keep in mind as you go through the process.
Read Pilot Scripts in the Genre of Your Spec
Read. Pilot. Scripts. This is the first step to familiarize yourself with the hour-long format on the page. Most TV drama pilots are between 55 and 65 pages and are broken down into acts. Traditionally, these acts allow for commercial breaks on network (and some cable) TV channels. Networks like HBO don’t have commercials and neither do the streaming services, but you should still think about breaking your story into acts because it will help both you and the reader understand exactly where they are in the story. The number of acts just depends on the show. Some have as few as four acts and some have as many as six, so it’s really up to you.
The acts are separate from the teaser, which is the opening one to three pages at the very beginning of the show. The teaser may introduce the protagonist, sometimes the antagonist or a sticky situation the protagonist will be forced to deal with later in the episode.
As I was adapting my historical feature script set in Victorian England into a TV pilot called Ada and the Machine, I studied the pilot script for Peaky Blinders. Because the show is very similar in tone to my feature script, it was incredibly helpful as a guide to how much plot and action to include in each act. I also used it as a template to help me know where to break my acts.
Recalculate Your Timeline
The great thing about TV is that instead of telling your entire story in a tight, two-hour window, you now have somewhere between eight and 22 luxurious hours to tell that story, depending on the number of episodes you end up having.
Focus on the first act of your feature script. It is where you introduce all your main characters and set up the central conflict in the story. To be clear, your first act of the feature screenplay is not your pilot, but simply the part of your feature script from which you will mine most of the TV pilot.
My feature script spanned two years of my protagonist, Ada’s, life. My pilot took place just in one week of her life. The goal is to parcel out your story, to really slow things down and get into the small details of things you just don’t have time for in a film. I was able to add two new characters and additional dialogue.
‘A’ Story, ‘B’ Story, and ‘C’ Story
Most good TV shows have up to three storylines in each episode:
- A story: The main storyline that mostly concerns your protagonist
- B story: May involve a secondary character, but will eventually influence your protagonist
- C story: A very small storyline, often used for comedic effect or a romance.
Don’t worry if you feature script doesn’t have a B or C story, you can easily add B and C storylines. They will help make the world of the show feel more filled out and rich.
Create Hooks for the End of Each Act
At the end of each act and the episode, there should be a hook – a cliffhanger that entices the viewer to keep watching, tune in next week or immediately binge the next episode. These type of hooks were originally created to keep the viewer from turning the channel during commercials, but even shows without commercials have them. You can think of them as the rising action, an increase in conflict, or a question that must be answered.
In my pilot, my protagonist is a mathematician, but also a gambling addict who thinks her math skills will allow her to overcome the odds. A good hook for me was having her place a bet on a horse that not only couldn’t she afford, but if she loses, the situation could affect the status of her upper crust family. If I’ve done my job and the viewer is properly invested in the outcome, they will absolutely be on pins and needles to find out the outcome of horserace.
Keep Your Main Conflict Alive
In a movie script, you want to have some type of resolution or denouement at the end so people can walk out of the movie theater feeling satisfied. A movie audience expects the protagonist to overcome their challenge and, by doing so, they have transformed, hopefully creating catharsis for the viewer.
In a TV show, however, your protagonist doesn’t arc – they mostly stay the same, facing the same character flaws each week that get them into new sticky situations. When we are emotionally invested in a character, we want to see them continually being tested.
There will be “wins” for the protagonist, but never to the point where all conflict is resolved until possibly the show’s end. If you are mainly used to writing features, this may be a bit of an adjustment, but remember a TV series takes a long-haul approach.
Create a Show Bible
The show bible is a document that keeps all pertinent information regarding the world of the show in one place. It includes the history of the characters, the location, and anything an incoming writer or producer would need to know about the show.
Traditionally, show bibles were tools for new writers that would come into the writer’s room after a show had established itself, but now they can be used to help sell a TV pilot. If you look at the bible for Netflix’s Stranger Things (called Montauk in the bible), it is a deep dive not only into character and location, but also into tone, atmosphere and references specific films from the 1980s like Fire Starter and Poltergeist to really make clear the nature of the show’s feel and look.
Your show bible should be a combination of important information and a continuation of your storytelling. It should answer every question perhaps not answered in the pilot itself. It is a companion piece with the pilot and should create excitement for the reader.
So, give it a shot! Not only is it good to branch out and challenge yourself as a writer but, with TV experiencing such a wonderful renaissance right now, this is such a great time to try out a medium that you're unfamiliar with. This golden age of television has everyone begging for excellent pilot scripts, so strike while the iron's hot.
Shanee Edwards is a screenwriter, journalist and author. After receiving her MFA in Screenwriting from UCLA, she was hired to adapt various stories for the screen including Apes or Angels, the true story of naturalist Charles Darwin, and Three Wishes, based on the New York Times best selfing novel by Kristen Ashley. You can listen to her interview Oscar-winning screenwriters on The Script Lab Podcast, or read her book Ada Lovelace: the Countess who Dreamed in Numbers. Follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards