Screenplay or Pilot? Consider This When Deciding What to Write Next!

Picking their next project, for most writers, is not an easy task. While writing journeys often start with that irresistible idea that the writer just has to get down on paper, and in the name of which they dive into the study of the craft, as the writer amasses her body of work, choosing that “right” next project seems to often present even more challenges.

It used to be that, not too long ago, if you were a feature writer, that was all you wrote: Features. And that goes double for TV. But today, most reps like to see their writers diversify their portfolio, which makes the question of what to write next – in a world where everything, format wise, is possible, even more difficult to answer.

With that in mind, there are a few factors to keep in mind as you determine what your next project should be:

Allow yourself some discovery
If you are earlier in your screenwriting journey, allow yourself some time to discover your voice on the page. Therefore, you may not want to write ONLY comedy just because your first screenplay was a comedic romp; if you have interest in exploring other genres like Sci-Fi, horror, thriller, action adventure or family drama, for example, allow yourself to explore it, in order to discover where your voice and storytelling sensibilities are at their best.

Write with an eye to your brand
Once you identified the genre that best suits your voice, and that your ideas naturally lean into, be sure to consider that when debating what to write next. Brand is important; it is key for making the case for how you will be advocated for in the professional space. Consider this: When a producer or executive calls into an agent or manager looking to bring a writer onto a particular project, they ask for a particular TYPE of writer; the same thing happens at agencies when TV agents get together and discuss what sort of staffing opportunities are coming up, and what writers would be right for them. A writer will be considered for an opportunity IF she has the material that aligns with its requirements, and that, usually, starts with genre. You don’t submit a horror writer for a small family drama assignment; you don’t submit a 1/2-network comedy scribe for a period drama on prestige TV.  Therefore, whatever you write next should enforce or expand the brand you have already started building for yourself.

Consider the marketplace/industry
While you never want to be a slave to the industry’s every-changing trends, you do want to select your next project with an eye for what’s happening in the industry. For example, if you are a horror writer and want to take on a Zombie movie, take a little time to study up on other recent Zombie projects out there, and consider how your Zombie movie would be different than others that came before it. The idea here is to figure out how to best embrace the “same but different” adage and building on movies or TV shows that came before yours in a particular genre.

Equally, you want to know where your project would fit in the industry. This is not to deter you from writing a particular project, but rather to allow you to go into it with your eyes wide open. If you’re writing a pilot, where would it “live”? Is it right for networks or streamers? Is it the sort of pilot that can get a wide viewership, or only be right for a couple outlets? And on a feature front, simply consider whether or not you are writing something that would be very viable, or offer limited opportunities for exposure. Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that you shouldn’t write your animated western musical. If that’s the thing you are compelled to write you absolutely should. But you should also write it with more realistic expectations, knowing full well (and embracing the fact) that you are taking on a project that may be challenging when it comes to finding traction or an appropriate home.

Write towards the writing career that you want
While, as mentioned above, many writers seeking to break into and build careers in the industry today write both features and TV pilots, it’s important to determine your next project keeping the career you are aiming for in mind. If, ultimately, you want to become a TV writer and work your way up from staff writer to showrunner, then writing more pilots is where you should be investing your time. If you are not based in Los Angeles, don’t particularly respond to episodic storytelling, or are not excited by the thought of writing in a writers’ room, then writing features is probably where you would most thrive.

Put your passion on the page
While it’s important to select your next project with – ay the very least – awareness of these points that I made earlier, perhaps the most important factor in deciding on your next TV pilot or screenplay should be your passion for the material, the world, the characters, the themes, the story, and/or what it has to say. While this may seem simple enough, the reality is that it’s important on a number of levels:

  • When writing original content, we are looking for the writer to put on the page her sensibilities, voice and interest. This can only happen when she writes something that she is truly interested in, that speaks to her, and that she is able to connect with.
  • The writing process is rarely without its challenges. For your next venture, therefore, you have to choose a story you are passionate about, in the hopes that despite all the challenges that writing it will surely bring, your emotional connection to the material, characters and/or subject matter will bring you back to the page again and again.
  • If there is one thing that I know for certain, it is this: The pursuit of a screenwriting career, whether it’s the birth or growth of it, will bring with it its fair share of rejections and frustrations. It’s the passion for the material at hand that will keep you fighting for your project, despite all the disappointment that will inevitably come your way.
  • Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, passion on the page, when done right, is potentially the one thing that can get you past some of those deniability factors, because passion on the page can supersede all the naysayers. It’s those screenplays written with energy and enthusiasm for the subject matter, the protagonist’s journey or the world in which the story is told that are able to overcome some of its genre or budgetary challenges. At the end of the day, there’s nothing that readers, be they agents, managers or executives, respond to better than forgetting the mechanics of the read and getting swept up in the story, passion and emotion, done just right on the page.