The TV Writers Vault Guide to Writing, Pitching & Selling Scripted TV Series
By Scott Manville
Founder, TVWritersVault.com | Contributing Writer, National Association Television Program Executives (NATPE)
In this golden-age of critically acclaimed, binge-worthy TV drama series, the demand for new TV show ideas by producers on the hunt for TV pilot scripts and pitches for new shows has never been higher. Still, for the new screenwriter strategizing to connect and submit their scripts and pitch treatments, the path to getting a series produced, or even knowing how to pitch a TV show, can be a complicated challenge.
At the TV Writers Vault we provide resources and insight from the many TV executives and producers who use our platform to discover new talent and buy pilot scripts and ideas pitched in our marketplace. We share this article to increase your odds of success when crafting your ideas and writing scripts for new TV series. And we even have a bit of strategic advice for those wanting to pitch a script to Netflix.
A Writer for TV and Film must have the sensibility and creative instinct of a director, while having a polarizing view of story and subject that producers and network executives project. When considering to pitch a pilot script or TV series treatment, it’s important to understand the process that an executive or TV Producer undertakes in getting a television show produced. Knowing their priorities will help you use the most potent elements within the series you conceptualize, and help create a pitch that will convince a Producer to invest their time and resources in buying your pilot script or treatment.
“They’re looking for that core idea that will tap into a genre and subject not yet explored, with a protagonist we can root for despite their flaws, with story components that can fuel the longevity of the series.”
A Producer will first focus on identifying or creating material that falls within any mandate given by any of their connections at a variety of networks or studios. That material may come in the form of an idea for a TV show delivered as a written pitch treatment (detailed pitch overview), a pilot script, a book for adaptation (still requiring a treatment) pitch, or a true story that may be developed as the basis for series. When a producer or development executive is scouting ideas and TV scripts, they’re looking for that core idea that will tap into a genre and subject not yet explored, with a protagonist we can root for despite their flaws, and story components that fuel the longevity of the series. When a viable series is discovered, it may only be in treatment form, but the proposed show explores a captivating subject, its logline (core concept) is highly marketable, and the synopsis or proposed pilot script opens up a world of characters and story that are ironic and clever enough to fuel the life of the series.
Producing is a collaborative process that requires a broad ability to exercise and facilitate all aspects of the industry. They will source new projects from agents they’ve worked with, other producers they’ll collaborate with, or industry marketplaces like they use here at the TV Writers Vault. When you’re formulating your ideas, keep in mind that Producers must convince a studio or network that their new series (Your pilot script, or treatment pitched) will captivate their viewers, and has the longevity required to benefit their investment. The fundamentals we’re hitting on in this article will help the new writer and producer make stronger choices for their proposed pitches to deliver a more compelling and viable first impression for any TV executive reading or hearing the pitch.
“…One would be a fool to ignore a good one.”
VP of Programming for Fox TV Studios, and TV Writers Vault Industry Member, Karyn Forge (“Burn Notice“, “The Shield“, “Saving Grace“) was asked in a recent chat with us, “How much do you pull from true life and other properties outside of actual scripts?” Her response reinforced the value of ideas, saying “Iï¿½m always on the lookout for properties, graphic novels, books, articles and formats. Iï¿½m always hungry for ideas ï¿½ and one thing Iï¿½ve learned in this business- ideas can come from anywhere, and one would be a fool to ignore a good idea — regardless of where it came from.“
“What you’re looking for is intention, and obstacle.”
Emmy and Oscar Winning Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, (“The West Wing”, “Moneyball”, “The Social Network”, “A Few Good Men”) On Finding Ideas: “With The Social Network, I saw a ten page book proposal…and buried in that book proposal were these two lawsuits that were going on. When I saw that- it’s not like I could picture the whole movie in front of me or anything, but I just knew that that was a pitch that I could swing at. What you’re looking for is intention and obstacle. You’re looking for conflict. Generally the conflicts I write about are ideas. It’s usually a conflict of ideas, and what you want is for the competing ideas to be equally strong.”
You want to arrive at Netflix with a top production company already vested in your project. Theyï¿½re not in the business of developing projects on spec. If they do, it will be with a slate of A-list talent theyï¿½ve set up in a deal, and thatï¿½s for them to manage in-house. So for the brilliantly inspired screenwriter with a groundbreaking TV pilot script or movie script, you really need to get an established company on board first so that they can package the project in preparation for the pitch. You want to stack the deck in your favor, and arrive with a script that has a hot director attached to it, an actor attached to it who brings perhaps an ironic and exciting twist to the casting, and a production company who Netflix knows can actuate and deliver production of it.
Unless you have the connections, it will take that production company to accomplish those things. Sure, Netflix can piece together their own team, and may package it themselves, but you canï¿½t show up without a company behind you, and you canï¿½t show up just hoping theyï¿½ll fall in love with the script. Amazon Studios was catering to the ï¿½crowd sourcingï¿½ business of taking blind script submissions, and now theyï¿½re out of that business.
Knowing how to pitch a script to Netflix, means knowing how to get your script optioned by a good production company, and THEN it gets pitched to Netflix. Many of the production companies here at TVWritersVault.com scouting new projects do pitch Netflix, and some with projects on air. Also networking at Film Festivals, or industry conferences like RealScreen West can be a great venue for making connections and learning more from others with the same plight, and who actually do it.
In the actual pitch, whether itï¿½s you, the writer, pitching the story, or your producer pitching the story and youï¿½re just adding color, you need to be pitching a story and world that is totally original with such a unique and clever set of circumstances that they can see the potential for greatness.
One thing that always helps is if the story is either rooted in true life events (based on a true story), or that it taps into a nerve and human experience that everyone can relate to, but with an unexpected angle into the story. Another is having a great ï¿½I.P.ï¿½ as the basis for the script. That means you would have the rights to a book, published article, or actual person the story is based on as the foundation of your script and the ï¿½Intellectual Propertyï¿½ that gives it exclusivity and helps market the project.
So in a nutshell, to pitch and sell a script to Netflix, you really need to think like a Producer…and connect your pitch with a notable production company who can deliver the pitch and production for Netflix.
The benefits of writing a TV pilot script or treatment goes beyond any potential sale. More often than not, penning your pitch and sharing it with the industry delivers two vital sources of life-blood for any writer; Getting hired for other projects because of the talent shown in your writing, and bonding with like-minded creative producers who like how you think. So don’t live or die by a “yes” or a “no”. Get them to fall in love with your ability to capture the tone of a story, or your ability to create irony with your characters. The reasons a series gets produced goes beyond your creative world, and you can’t always influence those factors. Win hearts and minds, and you’ll find more traction for future projects.
The Treatment (Synopsis & Bible) Template:
There is no hard and fast rule for the structure of a treatment for series based on an idea, but any producer or executive reading it should get a clear understanding of the storyline, setting, and main characters. Treatments written to sell ideas can be little more than a one page summary, but the length will often be determined by its complexity and to whom you’re pitching (at what stage in the development process).
Here’s a basic outline of content you’ll want in a scripted TV series pitch treatment:
Title: Create a compelling title that hits on the core theme of the story, or the personal plight of your main protagonist.
Logline: Write a short and powerful description of the core concept. Two sentences is ideal. A logline for a scripted series will often describe the main character’s plight and unique circumstance that drives the story.
Synopsis: Write an overview of the series idea, describing the world or setting it takes place in, the unique conflicts faced, and the dynamics between main characters that fuel the story. This is a great sales tool because you’re going to highlight the most interesting facets and themes of the series. You should be able to do this in three paragraphs, but a few pages is ok so long as the writing is “tight” and reads efficiently, moving the story beat by beat.
Characters: Describe you main protagonist and other key characters in the series. Write less about their background and more about their current circumstances and shared conflict. A short paragraph for each is ideal. Clarify how they view their world, and how they relate to others. Create irony with their behavior. Find the flaw in a hero, and a redeeming quality in an antagonist.
Pilot Outline: This is a step-outline of the script that will be first episode, which sets the series in motion.
Episodes: Write a list of 8 to 12 episode descriptions, similar to a Logline for each, so we quickly understand the content of each proposed episode, and can see an arc of story over the course of a season.
The number of pages per episode script is directly influenced by how much action versus dialogue there is. Dialogue moves through pages more quickly, while action takes up less space, but can often take up more actual time on screen. If the dialogue is brisk and sharp, having more pages isn’t a problem. Its always important to do live read throughs replicating the likely pace of the action and dialogue to know the actual time of the episode. And lets not forget, you’re going to sell your script because of its mind blowing content, not because the structure is on target. In regard to number of Acts, a one-hour drama may have 4 to 5 acts, while a half hour sitcom may have 2 to 3 acts. The content of your episode may dictate the number of acts. Each may have a “cold open” which can often be considered the first act.
1 Hour Drama (4 to 5 Acts. 50-60 pgs)
Act 1 – Touted as the first act, this is really the “Teaser” for the episode, or “cold open” bringing the audience directly into the world of characters, meeting our protagonist and witnessing a dramatic event that grabs our curiosity and pulls us into the story. It can be a bold example of our protagonist’s character and how they operate and “survive” in their world, or an event casting conflict with the intention of our protagonist and the obstacle imposed in the story.
Act 2 – Just as the second act in a three act film is the most difficult to carry an audience, this is also the case for the second act in your TV script where it can fly or die. The plot should widen a bit to introduce third parties or influences related to the conflict and plot, feeding the various factors our protagonist must face.
Act 3 – As the stakes are raised, and just as the audience feels they know the direction the story is going, the protagonist may face an ironic event that changes the course of the story, setting the course of action for our main character in an exciting new direction. Secrets may be revealed, and the odds for challenge resolution become more narrowed. The stakes are at their highest.
Act 4 – The characters and protagonist in the story begin to overcome the challenges on route to redemption. Revelations are discovered, and ironic twists are resolved.
Act 5 – The episode has evolves to a conclusion for this for this episode and segment of the series, but it sets the groundwork for the plot to expand or redirect in the next episode.
Cold Opening – In a modern sitcom format, this would be the opening scene that sets up the episode’s conflict or issues between main characters. It’s not a teaser that give preview, but a scene that takes us straight into the issue or “situation” that will lead to comedy later in the episode. It may be an event as a premise for a running joke in the episode, and often sets in motion the humorous hurdles the characters face.
Act 1 – The Setup – As the main character established their unique need, they face conflict with other characters over the situation and therein lies the comedy often fueled by misunderstanding and contrasting needs. At the ACT BREAK (End of Act 1) there should be a cliffhanger that raises the stakes for whatever situation the characters are in.
Act 2 – Complication & Obstacles – Stakes are heightened as the conflict escalates, forcing a resolution.
Midpoint for Act 2 – Often mistaken for the 3rd act, this is where a 3rd influence or event comes into play and forces your main character toward a humorous or ironic conclusion.
Tag Ending – This is a bonus scene at episode’s end, typically after final commercial break and during credit roll. The episode plot has wrapped up by end of final act, and this is an add-on that typically plays off of a running joke or issue from earlier in the episode. For the viewer it feels like a more candid moment after the fact.
“Breaking Bad”, “Mad Men”, “Sons of Anarchy”, “House of Cards” are just a few recent examples of breakout TV series hits that changed the landscape of television programming and the expectations of viewers. Today’s scripted dramatic series are a world apart in terms of story and content from the programming of previous years. Creators and Writers of these shows approach each episode with the intensity and detail of a film, as well as the overall season arc and series arc as one long movie. This captivating approach to scripted series allows us to watch what is essentially a 13 hour movie with a story arc so intense, ironic, and surprising, that we must come back to see what happens next. When you’re conceptualizing and writing your pitch that outlines what the series is, as a catalyst of inspiration for your pilot script, your choices of story and character must weigh heavy on strong main characters that are flawed, and usually operating as foes or allies within a highly unique circumstance and world, with a common and/or conflicting plight.
Although the arc of a drama series these days holds a tightly woven story that evolves much as a film does, the opening of a series and episode for television should feel like we’re jumping right into the 2nd act of a film with multiple sub-plots already in play, and our protagonist abruptly facing obstacles that quickly define their intention and character.
Having a powerful pilot script is critical for garnering the attention of producers who would be able to package the project for development so that it would be presentable to a network. Writing your series idea in a captivating Treatment/Synopsis is the sales tool you’ll need to bring Producers to the table. This is the arena for seriously passionate writers who are willing to break down preexisting genres to find new areas of story, and develop three-dimensional characters that are strong enough to support an evolving story line.
Here’s a pearl of wisdom from top executives at a Producers Guild of America event:
“Studio Heads: What they want to hear in a TV Pitch”:
“Once you’ve got the conflict… Once you’ve got the intention and obstacle–
Event Versus Story : There are always moments or dramatic events in our lives that are so incredible one could think “this should be a TV show!”. However, one event does not make a dramatic story unto itself, and many times a dramatic story does not suit well for a televised or filmed adaptation. However, such specific events can become the focal point by which a larger dramatic story is told that a producer or network may take an interest in. How has that event changed someone’s life? What new course does the story take as the characters evolve over the course of the series? What is the point of social relevance within this story? What does the main character overcome or accomplish that brings challenge, redemption or irony to their life? As you will always see, it’s never just about an event. It’s always about the person, their conflict, and the story it fuels.
Find The Conflict: Another pearl from award winning Screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin; “Once you’ve got the conflict- once you’ve got the intention and obstacle- it’s like a taut clothesline that you can hang everything else on. Building that taut clothesline is the most important thing you’re gonna do”.
Discover Your Protagonist: They are the hero or main character from whose point of view the story is told. This is perhaps the most important choice when adapting a story to be dramatized. It may not always be the most obvious or centralized character when first looking at the story as it develops, but it should be the most unique. Once you create that person’s intention, along with an overwhelming obstacle they must face, you’ll then have the conflict that can fuel the story arc as the series evolves.
When exploring the development of a unique main character in your story, there are some very important choices to make that must be communicated when giving limited information in a treatment you will submit to producers. If you look at all the great character-driven pieces you will see that explored in each hero, or anti-hero, is not just the obvious, but sometimes the opposite. In a hero, don’t just focus on the great qualities, but find his flaws. This gives him a human quality. Conversely, in a main character who is primarily bad or of criminal persuasion- find the qualities that are good and explore their struggle with poor choice making in their life. “Don Draper” in Mad Men is a great example. No matter how much he tries to escape his past, he can’t escape who he truly is. Connecting story and plot to their flaws delivers great content and helps an audience care or sympathize with someone whose habits may hold ill intent, but brings truth to their character by humanizing them.
Perhaps the most valuable aspect of any TV pilot script, or movie script, is when it’s rooted in or related to a true story. Audiences love stories that are based on true events. The important thing for any writer or producer to understand in writing and pitching a script based on a true story is knowing or discovering what issue or subject within the story has social relevance at this time. Your pitch may also be based on a true life character with no particular “social issue”, but whose life is significant enough to be the basis for a series. Finding an element of your story that is rooted in truth brings a tangible These issues of social relevance impact society heavily or in a unique way. If you believe that your personal story, or the story of a person whose life you are writing into a treatment for adaptation could have the same impact of relevance it is important to find that key issue and point of view that an audience will be enthralled by. The audience wants an emotional experience that they can relate to on some level. Find that message in your story and characters and you may garner the attention of producers who want to develop it into a new TV series.
Here’s a Few Samples of Scripted TV Shows Based on True Stories or Real People:
Orange Is The New Black – The critically acclaimed Netflix dramedy is based on author Piper Kerman’s memoir.
Band of Brothers – HBO’s hit WWII drama is based on true stories from a 1992 book of the same title.
Deadwood – Real life characters, such as Calamity Jane and Wyatt Earp, inspired the characters in this hit wild west drama.
Boardwalk Empire – The critically acclaimed HBO series is based on the life of corrupt Atlantic City politician, Enoch L. Johnson, with storylines based on true events, but also fictionalized to fuel the series with other historic characters woven into each episode.
The Goldbergs – The hit comedy series is based on the creator’s real life family.
Scrubs – This medical dramedy is based on the creator’s best friend who shared his true experiences as a resident doctor.
Scandal – The hit series is inspired by the experiences of real life crisis management expert, Judy Smith.
We love what the people over at StudioBinder.com are doing for writers and producers. They have a great Free TV Show Pitch Bible Template providing a step-by-step how-to with visual layout. Some of the key items they discuss include:
Want to read the pilot scripts for “House of Cards“, “Empire“, “Narcos“, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt“, “Black-ish“ or others? Check out TV Calling’s library of scripts from networks including Netflix, AMC, Fox, NBC, FX, and more at http://scripts.tv-calling.com/
Here’s a list of 2016-17 TV Drama pilot scripts where you can check out the pilots for new series like “This Is Us” and “Designated Survivor.“ https://sites.google.com/site/tvwriting/us-drama/pilot-scripts/16-17-season
Up for some laughs? Check out the 2016-17 TV Comedy Pilot Scripts: https://sites.google.com/site/tvwriting/us-comedy/pilot-scripts/16-17-season
Online Industry Marketing:
indiepitch.tv is used by a majority of our industry’s top networks and production companies scouting scripts and treatments for new TV series. Here’s a list of industry members at the TV Writers Vault. New TV writers and producers are invited to submit original ideas and scripts for consideration by TV companies scouting.
Submitting your TV series scripts to Network fellowship programs can bring great reward and exposure for finalists and winners. The ABC Disney Writing Program, CBS Mentorship Program, NBC’s Writers On The Verge, and the WB Writers Workshop offer the new TV Writer opportunities to work hand in hand with executives and showrunners at those networks. Check out the Tracking Board’s Article providing detailed advice and requirements for submission to each fellowship program.
Pitch & Sell Your TV Show Idea to TV Producers or Networks. Make Direct Connections To Production Companies for Producing Deals.
Scout New TV Show Ideas & Formats for Your TV Development & Production.