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10 tips to craft a winning 30-min TV Pilot

Outwardly, you wouldn’t think that there was much difference between writing an hour-

long TV pilot and a half-hour one, but you’d be surprised at how many tiny nuances there

are that go into crafting and mastering each. What works for one, doesn’t necessarily work for the other, so let’s take a quick dive into some 30-min specific tips to ensure that your script is a winning one.


1. Payoff most setups: Not every single setup has to be paid off. Creating an end hook,

cliffhanger, tag, or leaving an open ending is a great way to make the audience

return, for example, but with no guarantee of a second episode, try to pay off as

many established setups in the same script as possible. A setup with no clear payoff

risks being seen as a potential cut and too many unanswered questions can leave a

script feeling somewhat unrewarding.


2. Keep the cast small: When there’s only half an hour, it’s advised the core cast

doesn’t exceed 5 or 6 characters. Try not to overwhelm by giving us too many

characters to remember (and ensure that every character is suitably distinct from

one another too). This cuts down on the page space needed to introduce everyone

and it also means each character can be given enough screen time for us to get to

know them. Otherwise, there’s the risk that the story becomes diluted.


3. Strong characters from the start: In successful shows, yes, there’s absolutely room to

introduce character arcs and continued drama, but in general, it’s the situation that

changes each episode while the characters remain the same (hence the term

sitcom). This means establishing strong, compelling characters from the beginning is

essential. Define quirks, motivations, and distinctive traits early on, always keeping

in mind how you want the audience to feel and react to them while doing so.


4. Streamline subplots: With less time to spare, it’s all the more important that any

subplots tie in with the main plot thread at the end. Including more than 2 story

threads can become challenging, both for the writer and the audience, so keep

things simple if you can. Use subplots to explore the theme or message of the

episode (rather than the series) and to give each of the core cast a moment to shine

or at least to play a pivotal role in the plot.


5. Stick to the expected page count: Page length is important. You need to be able to

demonstrate that you can contain story and write to a specific remit, and submitting

a script that’s gone over the 30-page mark could be held against you. Realistically,

anything between 24-34 pages is acceptable, but remember that a spec script is your

calling card. If you can’t write within the expected boundaries, you’re doing yourself

a disservice.


6. Buck the trend: Whatever’s happening in the world tends to end up in the spec script

pile, meaning it’s hard to avoid trends. If you’re writing about the current hot topic,

realize that you won’t be the only one. Make your script stand out by putting your

own original spin, take, or outlook on the subject that everyone else is writing about

in the most obvious way. Being relevant and covering contemporary topics is great,

but it’s the unexpected angles and original perspectives that capture the reader’s

attention.


7. Have a high gag ratio: Obviously, this only applies to sitcoms, comedies, or

dramadies, but due to the success of a few ‘gentle’ low-stakes comedies, writers

trying to emulate the same thing are scrimping on the laugh-out-loud moments in

their scripts. Statistically, popular sitcoms have 3-7 jokes per minute, so aim to

generate a laugh on every other line on the page. That may seem like a tall order,

but what’s the worst that can happen? There’s no such thing as too many gags in a

comedy!


8. Write to Budget: Whether you’re writing a multi-camera or single-camera pilot, it’s a

good idea to keep the budget in mind. Half-hour shows aren’t exactly known for

having enormous production costs, so be economical whenever possible. That could

mean reusing locations, utilizing studio shoots, limiting extras, avoiding children or

animal performers, or downsizing a big set piece. Put your producer hat on and think

practically. The key is to do this without compromising on story.


9. Keep it Marketable: Admittedly, there are so many different networks and streaming

services, it’s hard not to find an audience that isn’t catered for, but when trying to

break in, going niche won’t necessarily make it easier for you. Broad appeal certainly

helps to open up more doors, but don’t scrap that niche script just yet! You can

incorporate universal themes, retain a diverse cast, use a more familiar setting, or

introduce broader genre elements to increase marketability without compromising

on originality.


10. Have a polished product: Okay, this one isn’t exactly half-hour specific, but if you’re

submitting to contests, a script really needs to be in as near green-lit condition as

possible. Contest don’t want to embarrass themselves by sending out sub-par work

to their roster of industry professionals, so perfect formatting, lean writing, and a

solid proofread is required. No one really has time to help a new writer master the

screenwriting basics or to extensively develop their project. A script (and its writer)

needs to be ready to go.


In essence, a winning half-hour TV pilot needs to do all of the same things that a winning 1hr pilot or feature does; showcase a writer’s creativity, be clearly structured, have engaging prose, compelling characters and premise, blah, blah, blah. But if you want to take your script to a higher level, display your understanding of the medium, and truly give your script the best chance possible, follow the 10 tips above. You won’t be sorry.



The FINAL Deadline for our TV Pilot Screenplay Competition is November 30th! Submit your TV Pilot here - https://writers.coverfly.com/competitions/view/outstanding-screenplays-tv-pilot


Looking forward to reading your work.


Best of luck.



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