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Here’s What’s Wrong With Your Pilot Script

One change could make a world of a difference for your TV pilot script.

A person writes in a notebook with a pencil at a desk with a laptop

You know that you have a great idea for a TV show and that your writing is strong. So why isn’t your pilot script advancing in competitions and fellowships?

Last year, we selected 43 quarter-finalists for the 2023 Moonshot Pilot Accelerator out of a total of 607 submissions. That means that 7% of submissions advanced to the next round of deliberation; 93% did not.

But among the 93% that did not move forward, there were many original ideas, laugh-out-loud comedies and scripts that stayed on our readers’ minds for days or weeks. We saw pitch decks that demonstrated a clear creative vision, thoughtful responses to application questions and impressive writer bios.

For many of the strong projects that didn’t advance, every reader had the same reaction: “I loved it, but …” — just one thing wasn’t working.

This week, we launched applications for our 2024 Moonshot Pilot Accelerator, so we wanted to share some of the most common notes from last year’s applications. Take a fresh look at your script and see if any of the following might apply. Then, make sure to apply to the Pilot Accelerator on FilmFreeway by the final deadline of April 14, 2024.

“I loved it, but the stakes aren’t high enough.”

Often when readers gave this note, they loved the characters, the world and the writing — they just needed higher stakes to really draw their interest.

How to spot it: What does your protagonist want, and what happens if she doesn’t get it? If the reward isn’t captivating enough or the consequences aren’t severe enough, the reader or viewer won’t care about the main character’s journey. This pitfall often occurs in pilots centered around a group of friends. Sometimes, as dynamic and interesting as a friend group may be, there’s not enough of an engine to push the plot forward.

How to fix it: Make sure that you’re extremely clear about what’s driving your protagonist and what the stakes are. Take a look at similar TV shows and try to identify the stakes. For example, “How I Met Your Mother” is a comedy about a group of friends, and the episodes center around their high jinx. But what’s driving the plot is Ted’s search for the love of his life — which feels like it’s of life-or-death importance to him.

“I loved it, but it should be a half-hour/hourlong format.”

Several of our favorite scripts were 60 pages long, but every reader wrote, “Why isn’t this a half-hour comedy?” And there were some half-hour scripts that would have been better suited to an hourlong format.

Of course, streaming has changed the game, and rules aren’t as strict nowadays. You can find 30-minute and hourlong dramedies, and shows like “I May Destroy You” delve into heavy topics in a half-hour format. The rom-com “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” meanwhile, has hourlong episodes. So take this advice with a grain of salt; ultimately, you know your project best.

How to spot it: Tell the logline or premise of your project to a few friends (both industry members and non-industry TV fans), and ask them if they think it’s a comedy or a drama. Try not to sway their opinion either way. It may help to text or email the logline so that your delivery doesn’t affect their response. Do they think that your idea is inherently funny or inherently dramatic?

Typically, anything with a light or comedic vibe will work better in the half-hour format — meaning your script should be around 30 pages. Audiences typically expect drama episodes to be an hour.

How to fix it: If you’ve written an hourlong pilot but realize that the quirky characters, snappy dialogue and off-the-wall situations make it a comedy, try writing it as a 30-page episode. You may even be able to cut the fat and keep most of the plot of your original pilot.

If you want to try making your drama into an hourlong format, think about what conflicts you can introduce or deepen. Can you heighten the stakes? Can you make the characters and conflicts meatier? We would not recommend adding pages just to add pages — but can you set up a stronger drama series with more room?

“I loved it, but the inciting incident starts too late.”

This was one of the most common complaints from our readers — and, luckily, one of the easiest issues to fix!

How to spot it: Without looking at your pilot script, what action or scene sets the entire series into action? This is your inciting incident — the catalyst for your plot. Take a look at your script — does the inciting incident occur within the first 10 pages (or, ideally, within the first five)? If not, you’re probably making the reader wait too long for the story to begin.

Another way to spot this problem is if you have pages and pages of your protagonist’s “regular life” before the plot begins. Often, viewers don’t need much to hint at your main character’s “normal”; we certainly don’t need their entire morning routine.

How to fix it: Play around with different starting points for your pilot. What would happen if the inciting incident were in the very first scene, such as in “Schitt’s Creek,” when the Rose family’s fortune is seized by the government?

“I loved it, but it’s not formatted correctly.”

If your script isn’t formatted in line with industry standards, that means it’s not ready to be submitted to contests or sent to a potential agent or manager.

How to spot it: Start reading TV scripts, many of which are available online (just search the name of a TV series with “pilot script,” and often it’ll come right up in Google). Take note of how the sluglines, action lines, and dialogue are formatted. See how transitions are handled. Make sure you’re looking at a script for a current TV show, as standards have shifted over time.

How to fix it: Read a book like “The Screenwriter’s Bible” by David Trottier to make sure you have a handle on all of the rules. When you believe your script is ready, have a trusted friend (someone who’s an experienced film or TV writer!) read it over with a focus on formatting.

“I loved it, but it should be a feature/novel/short.”

Pilot scripts need to give development execs the sense that this story has longevity — or “legs.” Unless it’s a limited or anthology series, viewers will need to stay invested in these characters and storylines for years. There were strong projects that our readers felt would be better suited to another medium, such as a novel, a feature film or even a short film or comedy sketch.

How to spot it: Could you realistically tell this story in a 90-minute feature film? Does the 30-page pilot script feel like the beginning of a long journey with a character, or does it feel like a complete story in and of itself, indicating that it might work as a short film? Is it a gimmicky idea that would be funny as a 5-minute comedy sketch, but that might get old played out over several episodes? In any of these cases, this project might be suitable for the screen, but perhaps not as a pilot.

Alternatively, some submissions read more like novels, with long description paragraphs, flowery language, and descriptions such as scents that would not translate to the screen. Compare your pilot script to a script in a similar genre for a produced series that you can find online. Do you see a drastic difference in how much “white space” is on the page and how description-heavy the project is?

How to fix it: If you take a hard look at your project and determine that a feature, short or sketch would be a better way to tell your story, consider reworking it to move in that direction. You could also brainstorm ways to improve the longevity of your TV series idea. What would you say in a pitch meeting if an exec asked what you’ll be seeing across five seasons of this series?

If you realize that your pilot reads like a novel, you have two options: write it as a novel, or drastically edit down the descriptions so that it reads more like a pilot script. Novels provide more freedom and control as you can really paint a picture, share your characters’ inner thoughts and build worlds without regard to production costs. (And if you write a bestseller, it could be much easier to sell your vision for a fantasy series since you’ll have created valuable IP — intellectual property.) If you’re committed to telling this story on screen, cut down on flowery, clunky language and focus on the most salient details.

So, what's next?

It can be hard to view your project objectively, especially after you pour so much time and creativity into it. Your trusted writer friends or representatives can provide valuable feedback and help you determine if you’ve stumbled into one of these pitfalls. Take a step back from your pilot script and try to gain a fresh perspective.

Want to submit to the 2024 Moonshot Pilot Accelerator? Make sure to check out the upcoming deadlines and apply to the Pilot Accelerator on FilmFreeway. The final deadline is on April 14, 2024.


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