Turn your feature screenplay into a TV pilot using these 7 steps

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Jon Snow in Game of Thrones. Photo courtesy: HBO

Most professional writers will tell you not to chase the marketplace. But if you’re working with an agent or manager, they will urge you to write what is currently on trend. The days of selling spec features are long gone. Yes, it does still happen, but it’s not reasonable to plan on it happening. Today, it’s all about television: network, cable, but mostly streaming.  And that’s a very good thing for writers.

But if all you have are feature specs, does that mean you have start from scratch? Luckily, no, you don’t. You can rework your feature into a dramatic TV pilot. Here are seven things to keep in mind.

No. 1: Characters in perpetual conflict

One could argue that feature movies are really just fairy tales, with a beginning, middle and end. TV shows, however, are all really soap operas with a beginning and a middle, and a middle and more middle. Resolution may only come when the show is going off the air.  A show like Game of Thrones is a good example. Yes, it’s fantasy and the dragons are amazing, yes, it’s action and there are brutal battles with magical weapons, but at the end of the day, we all want to know if Daenerys is going to end up with Jon Snow. The more conflict you can bestow onto your characters, the better.  Cersei and Jamie Lannister aren’t just lovers, they are brother and sister, adding that extra layer of conflict.  Tyrion isn’t just the black sheep of the family, he’s also a dwarf, adding more conflict.  In TV, conflict is king.

No. 2: Decompress your timeline

In a feature screenplay, we often have to compress a lot of story into a two-hour feast. For a TV show, you get eight to 12 hours (more if it’s on a major network or goes into multiple seasons) to tell your story, so you’ll need to really parcel out the story in bites. Focus on your first act of the feature screenplay.  Find the conflict and add another layer.  It will feel like little is happening in your pilot as compared to your feature screenplay, but that is the point. Your pilot only needs set up a world where a larger story can take place over many hours.

Anna Brewster and George Blagden in Versailles (2015). Photo courtesy: Ovation

No. 3: Make it bingeable

It’s imperative that there’s a hook in the final scene of your pilot to make sure your audience is desperate to watch the next episode. Every network, from Hulu to ABC, is looking for the next show people want to binge. The pilot for Ovation’s Versailles has a jaw-dropping twist/hook that locked me in (I don’t want to spoil it, watch it for yourself on Netflix).

No. 4:  Create a teaser

The teaser will be two to three pages that will introduce the reader/viewer into the world of your pilot. It will tease the main conflict of the show. This will also need to have a hook to ensure the viewer will want to keep watching.

No. 5: Put it into four, five or six acts

Even if you are writing a show you know will only work on cable or for a streaming service like Netflix, put it into acts. This will help both you and your reader navigate where they are in the story. Find the pilot script from a show you like that is similar in tone to the one you are writing (there are several websites dedicated to sharing screenplays & teleplays, I’ve also had luck on Reddit).  Six acts seems to be popular nowadays but the standard four still works. I promise you’ll be glad you added this extra step.

No. 6: Create a show bible

Every studio or producer will expect this.  The bible summarizes the story you envision for the next eight to twelve episodes. Use an active voice as you write the summary for each upcoming episode, and don’t make them too long. One paragraph for each episode works.  Also include character bios and a summary of the major story arc for the season. Think of this as your sales pitch and include why people will want to watch the show (e.g. it’s a untold story, or it’s groundbreaking in some way, or it sheds light on something happening in society today).

No. 7:  Page count

55 to 65 pages is good for a dramatic pilot. Do not go over 65 or under 55.

Do you have a feature you want to turn into a TV pilot? Let us know!

 

 

author-avatar

Shanee Edwards graduated from UCLA Film School with an MFA in Screenwriting and is currently the film critic for SheKnows.com. She recently won the Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer. Her pilot, Ada and the Machine, is currently in development with America Ferrera's Take Fountain Productions. You can follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards

10 Replies to "Turn your feature screenplay into a TV pilot using these 7 steps"

  • comment-avatar
    JW August 28, 2017 (3:46 am)

    Thanks for the info. I have little knowledge of TV writing, but I do know that it is the new frontier, along with streaming. Your insights I found enlightening and intriguing.
    Thank you

    • comment-avatar
      vj August 28, 2017 (8:07 pm)

      Yes, I am working with an Author on her book adaptation and after shooting the Short Film, I realized a TV Series Pilot is the best approach right now. We still will be open to the screenplay to the big screen even a theatrical play, but the cast and the story really works for Television, it is timely, trendy and a story that need to be shared. Thanks for this great article, show us how!

  • comment-avatar
    Geoff Dupuy-Holder August 28, 2017 (4:11 am)

    I’ve got two supernatural features that would make pilots / series of some excellence (of course, my judgement may be clouded on that). Currently thinking about how to convert them into the shorter form – but, perhaps more importantly, where to send them.

  • comment-avatar
    York August 28, 2017 (4:54 am)

    I’m usually a feature screenwriter, with one optioned script, some competition success and one pilot under my belt. I’m now working on a long biblical story about Joseph of Arimathia, Jesus, Mary and the Family, taking the legendary Holy Grail in a “ship without sails” to Gaul (France) then on to Britain. I think it will be suitable for a fairly long run TV saga, so your pointers are well taken. All the best with Ada and the Machine and any more of your words of wisdom would be welcome. Thanks Shanee…

    • comment-avatar
      Tom States September 6, 2017 (7:10 pm)

      For more on Joseph of Arimathia, you might read “Jesus Died In India.”

  • comment-avatar
    Chuck August 28, 2017 (5:09 am)

    This was a very good article and it just helped me make up my mind about my feature. As of now, I am going through the Master Screenwriting Certificate course and I have been struggling on if I should turn my feature into a mini-series. After this article, I plan on continuing to learn how to write a show Bible and begin the 1st episode and then piece together the following episodes.

  • comment-avatar
    Michael August 28, 2017 (6:04 am)

    Hi York, am I to assume the ship is metallic, silver and circular in nature? 🙂 You are onto something. A conclusion I had also long came to after research for my Roswell UFO script. Keep seeking, both time lines will converge. Ancient Alien and Biblical.

  • comment-avatar
    Eugenia Renskoff August 28, 2017 (1:33 pm)

    Hi, I would like to turn my novel Different Flags into TV pilot/series. Eugenia Renskoff

  • comment-avatar
    Alden Cheney September 3, 2017 (1:17 pm)

    I have three screen plays. The first could be stretched to 70 minutes. The second, a retelling of an Arthurian legend, doesn’t introduce one of the two main characters until well into Act II. The third, might be a candidate. I reluctantly pared it down from 210 pages to 135. Most of it takes place in two settings at the same time, with two sets of characters, some shared conflicts, some unique. That seems like the one. Plus, I always have the 135 pp treatment.

  • comment-avatar
    Florin September 21, 2017 (4:45 am)

    Thanks a lot for the great advice and insights! It’s illuminating — creatively, aesthetically, and pragmatically (business/pitching-wise).

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