Experts Weigh In: First Step to A Great Screenplay or TV Pilot

Every writer starting a new project comes to the computer bursting with ideas, characters, worlds he is interested in and themes to explore. There is nothing but promise – only potential for the great script the writer can write. While a particular concept’s potential may vary (often wildly), there is one thing that every writer who starts out on the development of a new feature or pilot script wants: to write a strong, undeniable script. To hit it out of the park. To deliver the sort of standout work that would help him attract representation, push his existing career to the next level, or reinvent himself along his existing writing track and reinvigorate industry relationships that have stalled. However, most writers soon discover that writing that stellar script is easier said than done. In order to help provide guidance for what it takes to develop a strong screenplay or pilot, I once again turned to my generous friends, experts in the story space, for some guidance and asked them:

What is the most important first step for developing a strong screenplay or pilot?

Here is what they told me:

Working television writer Tawnya Bhattacharya, who also heads up the popular writing program Script Anatomy, told me: “Passion. It has to start there. You must love what you are about to write because developing, writing and rewriting is a process and you have to be able to sustain your excitement throughout since that will inherently show up (or not) on the page. This might seem like a “duh” thing to say, but writers will often have other voices (agents, managers, friends, etc) weighing in and persuading them to write something they think the writer should execute for a number of reasons. It usually ends up being a mistake and the project doesn’t turn out very good. I can say that from my personal experience as a writer as well as teaching and consulting with other writers through my company.”

Career Coach Carole Kirschner, who is also the director of the WGA’s Showrunner Training program, had this to say: “(The most important first step is) Developing a fully realized protagonist. Someone original that we haven’t seen before. Someone that only you can write. One of the best resources for developing characters is:  Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing.”

Screenwriter and seasoned industry reader Rob Ripley contributed: “Assuming the idea is a serviceable one, the most important first step for developing a strong pilot or screenplay is to create a solid set of pitches – the longline, the 2-minute, the 5-minute and the 15-minute.”

Pilar Alessandra, renowned screenwriting teacher and consultant, whose popular OnThePage podcast has been heard all around the world, said: “Being bold with your idea and taking it to the limit. Go for the big “what ifs” it brings up in terms of activity and emotion. Take it to extremes within the genre.  What’s the funniest thing that could happen; the most frightening; the weirdest?”

TV writing guru Jen Grisanti, who instructs NBC’s Writers on the Verge program when not consulting with private clients told me this about the first step to developing a stellar screenplay or pilot script: “Choosing a concept that utilizes your emotional truth and gives you the right platform for your message. Why are you the perfect writer to be writing your story? This is the biggest thing the writer has to establish when they choose to develop a strong screenplay. The writer should identify how they emotionally connect with the concept in a way that separates them from the masses.”

Andrew Hilton, also known as Screenplay Mechanic, one of the industry’s most sought-after readers, said: “Writers need to come up with concepts they are passionate about bringing to an audience, but that concept must also be something a producer/financier can turn into a profitable investment. If the author isn’t passionate about the story, why write it? If the producer can’t make a profit on the picture, why produce it? Screenwriting is an amalgamation of art and commerce.  It’s absolutely crucial for writers to understand the business side of the medium.  Producers aren’t charitable organizations.  They want quality product (product being the operative word) which filmgoers will be compelled to consume.  If a writer ignores that side of the business, or rejects it, that’s absolutely fine, but they’ll need to be prepared to finance their budget themselves (and possibly lose that investment).”

Screenwriting consultant Danny Manus described the most important first step to having a strong screenplay or pilot as: “Having an idea that could even BE a film or TV series to start with. Most writers fail on concept before they even start developing the story. So, the first important step is brainstorming and outlining and figuring out the strongest ways to go with your idea.”

Ruth Atkinson, who consults with private clients as well as Sundance Labs and Film Independent shared this about the most important first step for a winning script: “A thorough outline that uses the protagonist’s inner/outer goals as the spine of the story.”

And finally, Script Angel’s Hayley McKenzie who’s done work with the BBC and Star1 across the pond contributed: “It’s an idea that really excites you. You’re going to be working on this every day for at least the next six months so your passion for it has got to be strong enough to sustain you through a lot of hard work over that time and way beyond.”

For me, a strong first step for creating a feature screenplay or pilot script is bringing your passion to the page. It’s your passion for the project that will help you see it through, that will inspire you through writing challenges, that will help you make difficult choices in order to bring out your very best story, and that will ultimately leap off the page and inspire others. Once you’ve got that? Outline, outline, outline!

Looking for more expert advice? Check out my previous entry in this series: EXPERTS WEIGH IN: HOW DO YOU KNOW YOU ARE READING A GREAT SCREENPLAY?