By Lee Hamilton.
The calling card for any would-be TV writer is an impressive original TV pilot or a well-crafted spec script of an already established show. [i]
Having one can help you find writing jobs, be accepted into fellowships, or gain representation by winning established contests.
But writing one-hour TV episodes is almost like a whole other discipline when compared to features, shorts, and even half-hour shows, so before committing virtual pen to paper, here are 5 crucial things to consider first…
1) Is your show going to be, episodic, serialized, an anthology, or a limited series?
a. Episodic is the most common type of show such as Star Trek, The X-Files, and Dexter. Although there can be character arcs throughout a season, each episode is a self-contained story, meaning that they can be watched in any order.
b. A Serial in contrast must be watched one episode after the other as they can have complex plots that can potentially span entire seasons or longer, such as The Handmaid’s Tale, Loki, and Game of Thrones. There are pros and cons to writing either. Episodic shows risk becoming formulaic and predictable, while serials might lose viewers if one or two episodes get missed etc.
c. Just to make it more complicated, some Hybrids use elements from both, such as The Good Wife, Grey’s Anatomy, and Hannibal, so if you have a versatile concept with great minor characters with spinoff potential, a hybrid might give you the best of both worlds.
d. An Anthology series can be a collection of different characters, stories, or seasons based around a central theme, such as American Horror Story, Black Mirror, and True Detective. They can be more hard work to write, but they can also be creatively exciting.
e. Not every idea can stretch itself into multiple seasons, and if your idea has a clear conclusion, it might work better as a Limited Series, such as Band of Brothers, Chernobyl, and Watchmen. Think of a miniseries as a really long feature film chopped into more digestible chunks, but also be aware they’re much harder to monetize, making them harder to pitch.
2) The Hook/Act One
A common mistake made by new writers is using the pilot episode as an extended setup to establish the series premise. You can nearly get away with this in a serialized show, but if your show is about a cynical science teacher running a haunted hotel that he’s inherited from a dead uncle, it’s probably a good idea to have all of that established by the end of act one, rather than showing him discovering that the hotel is haunted in the end climax instead.
Referring to your logline will help here. Whatever you’ve been able to whittle your series premise down into needs to be clear to the viewers as quickly as possible. Not starting the story until the second episode risks the viewers not fully understanding what your series is about and giving up on it, so you’ve got to deliver the promise of your premise a.s.a.p.
This doesn’t mean skimping on the teaser or cold open, which are effective ways to hook the audience fast. A cold open allows you to jump straight into the story without needing setup or backstory and it doesn’t necessarily need to feature your protagonist. Think of it as an immediate inciting incident that gets the viewers asking questions, creates conflict, builds suspense, and grabs our attention.