Writing an original spec script requires a solid understanding of pilot script structure. The good news is you have an excuse to watch TV rather than write. The bad news is your thumb is will get tired from hitting the play/pause space bar so many times. Once you know what sub-genre you are writing in, you can put your researcher hat on and really geek out with the spreadsheets. The real secret to studying structure, whether for an original pilot or a non-original spec script of an existing show,) is to methodically figure out what is happening scene by scene. In this case, take three or more pilots of the shows most relevant to your own and break them down. It’s tediously slow work but it’s the best way to absorb the structure and pacing that you are aiming for. You want your script to FEEL like it belongs on TV. This is how you do that.
There are four steps to creating a script study breakdown:
- Pick the right show to analyze.
- Find a .pdf of the script.
- Design your spreadsheet.
- Study the episode scene by scene.
Pick The Right Shows
Every type of show has unspoken rules of pace and expectation. A medical procedural traditionally introduces a protagonist differently than a serialized crime thriller or a workplace sitcom. While you might be tempted to break these rules to get noticed, that’s a high-risk game. If you are trying to build a portfolio that gets you into a room, your job with writing an original spec pilot is to show that you understand the conventions of your genre and you are able to deliver the “promise of the premise” in a fresh and entertaining way.
Pick three (or more) successful shows that best represent the genre your script belongs in. Warning: If you aren’t sure what genre your script belongs it, prepare to confuse the people you most want to impress.
Get .pdf copies Of The Scripts.
Find a .pdf of the script online if you can. The TV Calling Script Library is a great place to start your search. If you dare to use up the printer paper, you might want to print the script out for easy reference. Give the script a read and pay attention to the placement of act breaks, the length of the scenes and the style and depth of descriptions and slug lines. If you can’t find a .pdf copy of the script you can skip this step. Most of the meat of this exercise comes from watching rather than reading.
Design Your Spreadsheet.
Make a chart template. Using one row per scene works well. Along the top, label your columns. I recommend the following column headings:
Scene number/ Time/ Story Line (A/B etc)/ Plot Point (What happens) / Structure and Function / Physical Action / Reveal of Character / Emotion Evoked
Study The Shows Scene by Scene
This is most easily done watching on a computer where you can have one window for video and another for the spreadsheet. It is a very slow process but the best way to absorb the structure and pacing of your chosen genre.
The first line of my breakdown of the pilot for Killing Eve looks like this:
|TC||Sc#||Story Line||Scene Description, Plot Point||Scene Structure/Function||Physical Action/Setting||Reveal of character||Audience Emotion|
|00.05||1||B||Vilanelle is jealous of a little girl’s dismissal of her and the girl’s attraction to the ice-cream seller. V tries to imitate the man’s charming smile. She tips the girl’s ice cream into her lap as she walks out. Title: Vienna||Set tone. Surprise viewer. Intro Vilanelle.||Sitting, then exit||Eve is stylish but obviously not normal. She is unpredictable and easily angered and perhaps ruthless.||Tone feels like an Int’l spy thriller. Settling in for intrigue – then surprised. Amused and unsettled.|
You might have to watch the episode a few times to fully fill in each section. You will get a little faster each time you do this, and it will train you to notice plot and structure attributes more acutely as you watch television in general. As your library of episode breakdown sheets grows, you will notice similarities and differences between shows of the same genres. These are clues that can help you to achieve the tone and pacing you are aiming for in your own work. I guarantee that if you do the work, you will have a much firmer grasp of where your own outline needs tightening and tweaking.