The Pilot Script Checklist
As a former comedy agent at UTA and WME, Priyanka represented numerous big-name writers and performers before leaving to start a TV production company with Jack Black. Now she writes and produces on her own, but she still encounters a tidal wave of comedy hopefuls looking for the advice, information, and pep talks that only a former agent can provide.
In show business, they say that it’s all about who you know. Well, you’re in luck, because now you know Priyanka!
I’ve been working on a pilot script in a total vacuum. Before I send it out into the world, how do I know it’s good? I don’t want to embarrass myself.
— Lila F., Ohio
Oh, you’ll never know it’s good! Even if you win an Emmy someday, you will probably still think everything you write is garbage. And it’s a given that you will be embarrassing yourself every day for the rest of your career. If you can, start excising embarrassment from your vocabulary; it will only slow you down. This could take up an entire column.
I’m assuming you like your idea (read about good ideas here) and have built your world correctly (see here), because you’ve written an entire pilot. Congrats, by the way, because most people just talk about writing until they evaporate. I can’t improve your actual writing. I can’t make you funnier, or a better speller, even though I’d really like to. What I can do is attempt to walk you through my mental checklist when I read a pilot script I’m developing, so you can figure out how I help make them a little better.
First, put your script aside for a week, think about other stuff, and come back to read it with fresh eyes. Print out two copies of this checklist. You keep one for your read, and hand one to a friend you think is smart and funny. Ideally this friend would be a reputable writer or producer or representative or work at a studio, but in the absence of all of the above, any human who has ever watched a movie or television show will do. Then, just answer the questions.
-Are the characters clearly defined? Could a reader describe them like real people?
-Are they defined by actual human characteristics and desires, instead of tics or quirks?
-Where are the characters coming from (emotionally), and what do they want?
-Is diversity written into the script? Gender, racial, socio-economic is a start.
-Are any characters extraneous or overlapping, could any be combined? You really want four to six regulars at most.
-Are the characters introduced one at a time, in a non-confusing way?
-Do we understand what the relationship among all the characters is, how each one feels about each other one? What their collective histories and futures are?
-What can we do to introduce more interesting elements to the interwoven relationships? Foiled romance, family ties, secrets, other intrigue?
-What is this show about? Is the premise of the show established cleanly and clearly? Could I explain it in one sentence?
-Is the tone of the show clear, appealing, and consistent?
-Where does this show live? Are locations clearly established?
-(If based on previous material) Can it stand alone, without familiarity with the IP (good)? or does it lean on a pre-existing audience, confusing anyone who might not be familiar (bad)?
3. Pilot episode specifics
-Not always needed, but do we have an audience surrogate? Do we enter the script through the right person? Who is our audience surrogate?
-Is the pace compelling? Were there any boring parts, or any that went too quickly?
-Is the episode idea (logline) established cleanly and clearly, and early enough on?
-Does this episode idea make use of all of the series regulars, amongst A and B stories (maybe a C)?
-Do at least an A and B story exist, and are they well organized? Do they best showcase the characters’ interactions? Can we get them together in a more organic, interesting way?
-Is this particular episode the right time/place to start this series? Try not to start on day one of anything. You’ll hear the note over and over “Start with episode 2, midstream.”
-Is most of the story/conflict couched in dialogue (show vs. tell)? are all the interesting visuals described instead of shown?
-If the above problem exists, and it reads like a play, which conversation-heavy areas should be inspected? What is the information each scene is trying to get across, and what would be a better way to show it?
-If the script feels overstuffed, what is getting lost in the noise? What could be pruned back, to expose the essentials?
-Does this pilot story make us want to watch the next episode?
-Do we feel this episode lays foundation for a series — does it hint at a season/series arc for each character, and big-picture, plot -wise?
4. The “why” of the show
-Is it clear why the show exists and what it means to the writer? What are the themes, and are they addressed?
-If there are no clear themes, what is the missed opportunity? What should they be, what is the writer trying to say?
-Why is now a good time for this show?
This last part is obviously a bit more difficult to convey on a page, but worth mulling over, to add some cohesion and a layer of meaning to your pilot, otherwise, you’re just telling a funny story. If you’ve been thorough in workshopping your way through this list, then attacked another draft with the goal of answering the questions, you’re well on your way to a much-improved draft of your pilot. You will probably plug up the holes professional readers would otherwise find in your script, and will have elevated it to a more thoughtful and well-planned piece of writing. After all of that hard work (it should definitely be hard work, this is an intense series of questions), all you’ll need is a little luck, so godspeed!