7 Steps to Project Planning Your New Screenplay or TV Pilot

Before I even get started, a caveat: Every writer is different. Every project is different. Therefore, every writer will have their own unique process for developing each of their particular projects, be they screenplays or TV pilots. And every project may just require its own unique process. I am fully and entirely aware of this, and am writing this blog post with that understanding very much in mind. HOWEVER, not every writer has a process set for pre-work, a term used for conceptual and practical building-block development, i.e. everything they should be doing prior to going to actual pages. Which is where this blog post comes in…

It’s been said a million times: Writing the screenplay or TV pilot itself is the reward the writer gets for putting in the hard work and doing the heavy lifting on their outline or carefully thought out beat sheet. However, to this day, I continue to be surprised by how little time many writers (usually those less seasoned than others) spend mapping out their new project and getting their hands dirty in what has been widely defined as “pre-work,” i.e. that work that precedes even the outline, prior to jumping into pages.

The truth is… I get it. The fun is in writing scenes. In seeing a screenplay or TV pilot come to life on the page. Foundational work is just not as exciting to most, who just can’t wait to get deep into their screenplay or pilot, and see the work, page by page, act by act, come to life before them. The only problem is that without significant pre-work necessary to get the screenplay or TV writer off to a solid start, the material is more likely to fizzle out or get stuck halfway, rather than triumphantly and effortlessly cross the finish line in a respectable  fashion.

In the industry, when working in a writer’s room, outlines and story areas are a standard requirement. While not every writer will choose to take them on, whether they are writing a feature or TV pilot, those development tools are critical to a project’s success. This is exactly why, not too long ago, I turned to my friends in the consultant space and asked them to weigh in on the methods and importance of outlining your screenplay or TV pilot But it’s not just about throwing together a quick outline. Pre-work is about much more than that. Let’s break the various steps of project planning down:

First, the easy and most obvious:

Is this a feature, an original pilot, or something else? Give it a logline, even just a rough one, and a working title. Everything is up for discussion and subject to change, but the more clarity you have right out of the gate, the more likely you are to arrive successfully at the finish line.

Be sure to note what inspired you to write this project. Is there an event, a moment, a thought, a person or an experience that inspired it? A personal connection you have to the overall theme or the core story presented in the material? Whatever it is, put it down.

No project is ever written in a bubble. Therefore, it’s important to know the other projects that came before it in its unique genre and format space. This means: movies. TV shows. Even web series. Create a list of comparable projects, and be sure to study all of them. This is not so that you can simply reinvent what was already made in the past, or regurgitate another version of a movie or TV show that previously found success; You want to have a deep knowledge of these projects so that you can eloquently identify how your project will set itself apart from the rest. How it will not be a version of another project already made. Additionally, once your project is done, you will want to put it in front of agents, managers and producers who make projects in its designated genre space, and you will be expected to be well versed in the other projects that came before it. Therefore, you have to eloquently speak to how your project might be similar, but where it is also very much singular, fresh and different.

If the screenplay or TV pilot that you’re writing is based on or inspired by or directly tells the story of real people, events, cultures, human conditions, professions or places, then research will have to be done. If so, be sure to create a list of the materials you want to dig into in preparation for this project, be they books, newspaper articles, documentaries, podcasts or other materials, so that by the time you dive in, you have the necessary knowledge to authentically build your world and weave the story you are telling. However, while research is critical for providing a project the authenticity it needs, be careful not to over-saturate yourself in information, so much so that writing time is dwarfed by the time spent uncovering every last kernel of information. At some point, you have to have gathered enough base knowledge to set the research aside and move on to discovery.

For many writers, discovery can represent the single most uncomfortable stage of writing, as the material is still ill-defined and sometimes agonizingly unfamiliar. During discovery, working on project materials for a full hour can be excruciating, as clunky and inelegant as it gets. But powering through this stage will make it so that writing pages just a few weeks or months later will be a breeze, with hours passing effortlessly while the writer is deep in the work. In my experience, most every writer goes about discovery differently: some start out with mood boards, providing visuals to define the tone of it.  Others turn to playlists. Many writers spend significant time completing writing exercises, worksheets, as well as writing the project’s treatment, putting the broad strokes and colorful splashes of story on the page in prose before they begin to organize the work in a more structured document. Treatments, theme explorations, character bios… in discovery, anything and everything is game.

Bear with me as I lean into an obvious metaphor: If you want to build a solid, standing, straight-angled house, foundation and structure is key. Therefore, if it’s a TV pilot you’re writing, how many acts are you planning on? Even if you don’t include act breaks in the pages of your 1/2-hour comedy or 1-hour drama pilot, much as you do in features, you have to know how your material is to be constructed. Are you coming in with a teaser? ending with a tag? Or directly going into 3-, 4-, 5- or 6-act structure? That same thinking has to be applied to screenplays: Are you writing in acts, or sequences? If acts, how many? The more straight forward 3-act structure, or are you breaking your act 2 into 2A and 2B, writing a true 4-Act? Some writers prefer to write their features in more digestible 8 sequences. 9 sequences. Even 12 sequences. Whatever it is, know the construct for your architecture before you go in. 

With discovery behind you, it’s time to get down to the nitty gritty of it, be it in outline or an expanded beat sheet. This will serve as the roadmap for your screenplay, a guide for getting from FADE IN to FADE OUT. You wouldn’t go on a road trip without a map; you shouldn’t start on a screenplay or pilot without a complete beat sheet or outline that shows you, in broad strokes, the moves you have to make to get you from here to there.

Over the years, I’ve had writers tell me that they don’t like to outline too deeply because they feel that doing so will take the magic out of the writing itself; that they prefer to discover story on the page. If you have all the time in the world to write a draft without an outline, get stuck, go back to the drawing board and start again, or better yet, toss it all out and start back from scratch, by all means, go for it. Admittedly, I do work with a number of professional writers who have been writing most days for the past 10+ years who are capable of going to pages with minimal architecture, if any, in place, but those are very much the exceptions. Most writers I’ve worked with, both professional or emerging, needed that outline or beat sheet in place in order to create an efficient and effective writing process when going to pages on their pilots or screenplays.

In the industry, when a writer has commenced on a writing assignment or given a writing position in a writers room, outlining is a standard requirement that must be checked off before the writer is permitted to go to pages. Developing this skill is key to screenwriting success in the professional space. Outlines and beat sheets provide the writer with a 30,000 foot view on the work, allowing for story, character and logic problems to reveal themselves long before the writer is deep in pages, where significant fixes are significantly more difficult, and often require painful story surgery, to implement.

I do highly recommend sharing your outline or beat sheets with your writers group, writing friends, a paid reader or screenwriting consultant to help identify any challenges that may lie ahead. Again, it’s doing the heavy lifting here that will allow the writing of the screenplay or TV pilot to be a bit more painless.

True story: Years ago, one of my writers was developing a feature while in the room on a network show. Because writing time on original work was limited to early mornings, the writer opted to develop an outline first, in what little time she had before work. The material demanded intricate plotting and character work. By the time her room wrapped, she had a 40+ page outline on her hands. It was the outline for a screenplay that would go on to win Final Draft’s Big Break contest. And because the outline was so detailed, it took the writer three 12-hour writing days to generate the first draft. While subsequent drafts followed, I can tell you that the final product that went on to win a prominent screenwriting contest was not very far removed from that first draft.

Finished watching your comps, doing your research, writing your treatment, your outline, your beat sheet? Time to go to pages, i.e. writing your screenplay or original TV pilot. This is where milestones and deadlines come into play, where a writing schedule should be put in place. In order to deliver effectively, set at least 4 milestones, by act or by page count, that will lead you to the completion the first draft by the deadline you set for yourself. This is the reward you get for all the pre-work you’ve done, and if you’ve done it right, the writing itself should not raise too many new questions, and instead allow you to write your screenplay in one fell swoop, from beginning to end.

Once you’ve finished your first draft, read it to make sure that the story tracks and the characters present as you intended. Once you’re satisfied with this initial draft, get the material out for notes, be they from writing/industry friends, writers group members or even paid story consultants. Remember: Getting feedback and notes is integral to gauging how the material is received, if your story is landing the way that you intended. But be sure to iron out any kinks you see prior to asking for feedback – no point having notes come back highlighting what you already know will need work.

And after that? Keep moving forward, writing draft after draft to a thought-out schedule, though those will change per each unique TV pilot or feature screenplay. Some will require more development, while others may only require a handful of rewrites to get from first to final draft, the sort that can garner the attention you require in order to move your screenwriting career forward.

Need some more help? CLICK HERE to ask for my Project Planning Worksheet via my contact form!

Not sure you like all this planning? You can always try developing and writing your material in a class. For TV writing classes I am a huge fan of SCRIPT ANATOMY, and PILAR ALESSANDRA’S classes are always great. Both Pilar and SA offer in-person and online classes.