Anatomy of a Contest Winning ½-Hour TV Pilot

By Julia Morizawa.

What makes a great script? More specifically, what makes a script stand out to contests, fellowships, and similar opportunities that will help me land meetings with agents, managers, and production companies? This is a question that we get asked all the time.

Although there isn’t a single, straightforward answer that encompasses all formats and genres, there are absolutely elements in the screenplays we are lucky enough to read through our contests, Film Fund, and coverage services that stand out as must-haves in a contest-winning script.

In this article, we’re going to break down one of our own winning TV Pilot scripts, specifically from the perspective of a contest reader. Many of our readers also have experience reading for studios, production companies, and agencies, making their perspectives largely universal for industry standards today.

The Big O, written by Kate Shenton, was our Grand Prize Winner for our 2019 TV Pilot Contest in the half-hour category. The comedy focuses on an awkward millennial who has never had an orgasm. When her boyfriend unexpectedly proposes, she launches into a messy journey of sex therapy to face her demons and achieve “the big O”.

Kate is a London-based comedy, drama, and horror writer. Her comedy web series, Netflix & Kill, was nominated for Best British Web Series at the Pilot Light TV Festival. She won First Place at the Starlight Residency for her web series script, Dead In Love, and her script, Savage, won the Filmmatic Horror/Thriller Screenplay Awards. Kate’s produced films have screened at over one hundred festivals including Raindance, Slamdance, Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival, and Fright Fest.

As our Grand Prize winner, Kate was awarded $1,500 cash, a copy of Final Draft, distribution of her script to our Industry Roster, and more. After The Big O took 1st Place in the Shore Scripts TV Pilot contest, she signed with Casarotto Ramsay & Associates, a leading UK agency that also represents Steve McQueen, Kayleigh Llewellyn, and Jack Thorne, and has clients known for projects including The Worst Person in the World, The Witcher, Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, Wheel of Time, Halo, and more. Kate shared that finally owning a copy of Final Draft was hugely beneficial and the prize money helped pay off her credit card.

“Since winning, I achieved representation and I’m now pitching my projects to some of the biggest production companies in the UK. I feel the whole experience has really evolved me as a writer, and if it wasn’t for Shore Scripts I would not be on my current career path.” –Kate Shenton

So, let’s take a deeper look into why The Big O became a Shore Scripts contest winner.

PREMISE: Establishing a clear, simple premise early in the script is a sure way of grabbing a reader’s attention and keeping them invested in the story. In the case of a pilot, this premise needs to set up what we can expect for the episode as well as what we can expect for the series. In simplest terms, the premise tells us the protagonist of the story, their goal, and the stakes if they fail to achieve that goal. Sometimes including the inciting incident and the antagonist serve the concept as well. The premise is usually summed up in the script’s logline.

For the protagonist in The Big O, Josie’s inciting incident occurs during the teaser on page 2 – her boyfriend, Martin, proposes. In a panic, Josie admits that she’s never had an orgasm, and we soon learn she believes that a complete and satisfying sexual experience goes hand-in-hand with love and marriage. This kicks off Josie’s journey for the episode – to decide whether to accept Martin’s proposal. It also kicks off her series’ journey – to achieve an orgasm. Every scene for the remainder of the episode is in direct pursuit of these goals.

Josie’s problem is revealed.

CONFLICT: Despite a simple premise, Josie’s journey is, in fact, complex, which is what keeps us emotionally invested long-term. In pursuit of her goal, Josie soon realizes there may be much deeper issues preventing her from achieving The Big O, such as a lack of sufficient guidance, low self-esteem, and growing up witness to a loveless marriage between her parents.

As she attempts a variety of tactics to achieve her goal from a bag of sex toys provided by her best friend, to cheating with a stranger who claims he’s never failed at giving a woman an orgasm, to eventually getting into therapy, Josie is progressively faced with more problems than solutions. Over and over, she comes up against obstacles and hard truths that fill every scene with conflict. This further contributes to the strong pacing of the script because every scene builds on a previous scene and serves to either help or hinder Josie in achieving her goals. Maintaining constant plot progression, throwing as much fuel into the fire as possible, and ensuring that every scene serves the story will keep a reader engaged to the end.

TONE: Immediately establishing the tone of the script is necessary to put the reader into the right mindset for the story. This can help prevent any logic issues or difficulties with the suspension of disbelief arising, as well as avoid unintentional obstacles with believability. And tone extends far beyond the borders of genre.

The Big O is clearly intended to be a half-hour comedy. But comedy is a relatively generic term with many facets. There are broad, dark, satire, parody, absurd, slapstick, surreal, and many more branches within the genre. From the first two paragraphs of the scene description, which includes the protagonist’s introduction, we know that this pilot embraces a heightened comedic tone with a focus on over-the-top characters that fulfill traditional comedy archetypes. Although the script is formatted for single-cam, it checks the boxes of a classic sitcom. The tone is reminiscent of Arrested Development meets Coupling, and could easily conform to either single-cam or multi-cam television. And with a punchline occurring just about every three lines of dialogue or more (a formulaic standard for sitcoms), The Big O remains true to this tone, and our expectations of the genre and medium, beautifully.

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Setting the tone of your story.

CHARACTERS: Distinct, multi-dimensional characters that are familiar but avoid overused tropes are a key element in a solid script. Ultimately, most readers just want to feel something while reading a script, and this is almost entirely reliant on characters, character development, and their relationships with one another. This is one of the areas in which The Big O excels the most. Every principal character is introduced to us with a clear personality that the writer adheres to throughout the entirety of the episode. These characters all serve the plot, specifically in prohibiting or assisting Josie from achieving her goals. No character is included purely for laughs or to perpetuate a stereotype.

Although each character does fit into one of the traditional Eight Characters of Comedy that we’ve come to love and expect for the genre, they are all far more than a mere archetype. The protagonist, Josie, is a traditional “straight man” (or The Logical One) – the most grounded person who serves as the audience’s point of view. Her boyfriend, Martin, is a “permanently anxious” people-pleaser (The Neurotic). Josie’s mother, Veronica, is controlling, condescending, and narcissistic (The Materialistic One); her father, John, is a pushover that smiles and nods through his wife’s passive-aggressive abuse (The Lovable Loser); and her best friend, Roxy, is the rebellious badass that brings edginess to the show (The Bitch/Bastard).

Every character is distinctly unique and brings a contrasting perspective and various levels of help or harm to Josie’s journey. Each principal character remains true to their personality throughout, which is evident through their dialogue and behavior. Their deeper layers and relationships with one another are explored over the course of the episode, such as how Veronica and John’s awkward, cold marriage affects Josie’s views and values. And they are all wonderfully relatable or familiar while remaining unique to the writer’s own voice.

The awkward attempt at a kiss.

The people pleaser.

DIALOGUE: Finding the balance between natural dialogue that fits the tone of the script while providing necessary information that drives the story can be challenging. In pursuit of naturalism, sometimes writers slip into unnecessary small talk. Whereas, in an attempt to ensure readers can follow the plot, sometimes writers slip into overt exposition. In the comedy genre especially, sometimes writers include dialogue that is undeniably funny but isn’t necessarily serving the story. The Big O is an excellent example of comedic dialogue that masters this tricky balance. The dialogue remains believable while maintaining a heightened comedic tone. It’s witty and funny, averaging a solid 6-8 punchlines per page yet never feels overtly formulaic. It serves the story by progressing the plot, serving character development, or both. Additionally, the voices of the principal characters are undeniably distinct. This pilot provides a prime example of a script where a reader could delete the names from all the dialogue and still know exactly which principal character is speaking each line.

Packing in the punchlines while still progressing the plot.

VOICE: Perhaps the element of screenwriting most difficult to master (and explain) is voice. Is the writer’s unique voice evident in the script? Does it seem like no other writer could have written this particular story?

Voice can be simplified as a representation of the writer’s unique personality, life experiences, and opinions about the world within their writing. A writer’s true voice cannot possibly be duplicated, which is where sometimes overly formulaic scripts can unintentionally become too generic or predictable. Sometimes writers aim to duplicate the voice of a well-known screenwriter and it becomes obvious and distracting. The writer’s voice is also affected by the genre of the script, meaning their writing style will (and should) differ depending on whether they’re writing for multi-cam comedy versus historical drama versus horror, and so forth. Kate’s unique voice is clearly defined throughout The Big O, as seen through a snarky tone in scene description, punchlines directly related to world events or pop culture, and a satirical sense of humor in her portrayal of flawed characters. Additionally, Kate’s passion for the topic and her belief that female sexual dysfunction isn’t talked about enough, especially in entertainment, are evident in the writing. She shared that parts of the story are based on her own experiences in therapy. Despite being fictional, the writing feels very personal. And as a result, we are emotionally invested, as if Josie is a friend and she’s telling us her story over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.

In conclusion, then, it is important to remember who will be reading your script and how to align your submission with a contest’s objectives and potential audience. At Shore Scripts, our contest winners’ and finalists’ scripts are read by a panel of award-winning Judges and are circulated to our Industry Roster of over 150 production companies, agents, and managers.

In addition to strong screenwriting elements such as premise, plot, structure, character, and dialogue, it is important that the scripts we share are formatted properly and presented professionally. One of Shore Scripts’ primary goals is to get great scripts optioned, sold, and/or produced, and to get great writers repped. Meaning our winning scripts are generally fully developed, have already gone through a thorough rewrite process, and are ready to be shown to the industry.

“My advice to writers would be: Don’t just wait for inspiration. Sometimes the only way to find inspiration is to put one word in front of the other until it finally clips.” –Kate Shenton

Want to find out more about Kate and her screenwriting journey to creating The Big O? Read our winner’s interview with Kate, where she reveals how she came to write the story.

Julia is a writer, actress, producer & Shore Scripts script consultant who has also worked with Coverfly, Austin Film Festival, and the BlueCat Screenplay Competition. She has also worked on features, shorts, digital series, and scripted audio fiction series that have won awards presented by Scriptation, Screenwriting Master, Action On Film Festival, The Audio Verse Awards, and more.

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