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There's no getting around the fact that story analysis is inherently subjective. We designed our process to be as objective as possible by applying the same set of rigorous standards to every script, based on the criteria that buyers and reps use to judge material.
Whether the coverage lauds your masterpiece or encourages your growth, the points made will reference tried-and-true storytelling principles and cite specific examples (with page numbers) from your work.
Usually around 45 pages with the action paragraphs written in ALL CAPS and everything double spaced, the sitcom could be likened to a filmed stage play and often has a live studio audience. Because it is filmed on a sound-stage, there are usually a couple main sets that are used as the central locations for the characters (examples include the diner in Seinfeld, the coffee shop in Friends, the apartments in Big Bang Theory). So a pilot that considers itself a Multi-cam should be written with relatively few locations to make itself feasible for that format. These pilots are always episodic and seek to establish Status Quo by the episode’s end. Examples include: Friends, Seinfeld, Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men, Young and Hungry, The Ranch, How I Met Your Mother, Girl Meets World, Cheers, Frasier, and Mike and Molly.
Usually around 30-40 pages, this comedic format looks more like a movie than a filmed stage play and has no studio audience. It can be either Serialized or Episodic, and often contains aspects of both. As such, this type of pilot can either attempt to establish Status Quo or a Series Goal, depending on where the creator intends this show to reside on the spectrum. Examples include: 30 Rock, New Girl, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Scrubs, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Parks and Recreation, Silicon Valley, The Office, Modern Family, Gracie and Frankie, Girls, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Blackish.
Usually around 52-65 pages, a serialized drama advances the central plot over the course of the season, one episode at a time. This type of show will attempt to establish the Series Goal in terms of the main characters’ journey. There are often multiple journeys owned by different characters over the course of the season, which can manifest themselves in several ways. Sometimes the serialization of the plot is very focused on one specific goal. For example, in Jessica Jones, the pilot establishes the eponymous character’s Season Goal of capturing her arch-nemesis, Kilgrave. Although this Season Goal is established in the pilot, it may not be featured in each and every episode, which in turn may deal with other specific subplots rather than the general direction of the season as a whole. Other times, the serialization can be looser and broader like in Parenthood, in which several characters pursue goals over the course of the season that intersect while the show itself stays focused on the theme of what it means to be a family. Generally, the protagonist’s character arc for the season is implied by pilot’s end. Examples include: Scandal, How To Get Away With Murder, Empire, Mr. Robot, True Detective, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Walking Dead, Jessica Jones, Homeland, Lost, Deadwood, Game of Thrones, Peaky Blinders, Transparent, and Orange is the New Black.
Usually around 52-65 pages, episodic dramas are your typical procedural in which each episode features the same characters but totally contained plotlines that start a new set of conflicts and resolve those same conflicts over the course of the episode. As this type of show is episodic, it will attempt to establish Status Quo. Each episode will be based around a new “conflict-of-the-week” upsetting the regular lives of the main characters, the point of each episode focusing on returning everyone’s life to homeostasis by episode’s end. In a typical procedural, it’s often a new case brought to the attorney, cop, politician, investigator, etc. that the protagonist must resolve over the course of that episode. Examples include: CSI, NCIS, Law & Order, Bones, Criminal Minds, Elementary, ER, Fringe, The Black List, Supernatural, Glee, House, M.D., Boston Legal, and Chicago PD.
A Serialized Show is one in which the central plot spans the entire season and each episode advances that plot, one chapter at a time. In a serialized show, the main characters’ journey is the focus and there is usually a Season Goal for the main character, and a Protagonist Arc that spans the full season. Examples of shows with serialized elements include The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, House of Cards, Halt and Catch Fire, Game of Thrones, 30 Rock, Scandal, How To Get Away With Murder, Parks and Recreation, Mr. Robot, You’re the Worst, Girls, Jessica Jones, Madmen, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, The Sopranos, The Wire, Transparent, and Orange is the New Black.
A pilot of a serialized show will often start ‘in crisis’ and try to establish the Series Goal, which is the overarching goal for the main characters that will span numerous episodes. Examples include Kimmy Schmidt deciding to assimilate into modern society, Hannah in Girls wanting to grow up, or Rick wanting to survive and find his family in The Walking Dead. And while this goal is established in the pilot for the entire series, it should also be noted that the pilot should contain its own, stand-alone plot with proper turning points.
An Episodic Show is one the main plot of each episode is often closed-ended, or contained to each individual episode. Some episodic shows have a format that offers “a day in the life” type presentations for the episodes, generally seen in the half-hour comedy, or sitcom. For the hour-long episodic drama, otherwise known as a Procedural, each episode is often described as a “case of the week.” In episodic shows, the engine of conflict is often integral to the main characters’ mode of being, consistent across the entire show, and produces a different challenge each episode. Because the core cast generally remains unchanged from episode to episode, the focus is less on an individual character journey and more on the dynamic between characters, their clashing perspectives, and how they will work together or bicker in the midst of the unique challenge each week brings.
Episodic pilots seek to establish Status Quo, rather than a series goal, and each episode will be based around a new “conflict-of-the-week” upsetting the regular lives of the main characters, the point of each episode focusing on returning everyone’s life to homeostasis by episode’s end. The traditional family sitcom falls into this category as the focus is more on the conflict specific to each episode rather than overarching, long-ranging plotlines. Examples of shows with strong episodic elements include: The Cosby Show, Cheers, Modern Family, SVU, Boston Legal, Law & Order, CSI, House, M.D., Elementary, How I Met Your Mother, Bones, Big Bang Theory, Friends, Young and Hungry, and Two and a Half Men.
It should be noted that while Serialized and Episodic comprise the two ends of the spectrum, most shows exist somewhere in between, with serialized shows having the occasional, standalone episode of the week, and episodic shows such as CSI dealing with events from previous episodes, such as the death of a major character.
As the names should make clear, the length of the show dictates these two distinctions. That said, there still is some variance within each type, the Half-hour show ranging from the traditional 22 minutes for network shows to 30 minutes for paid cable and streaming services, while Hour-long can range from 44 minutes to the full hour for the same reason.
When assessing an effective pilot, one of the most important elements is the unique World the characters inhabit and how it demonstrates a hook that will draw the audience in. As such, setting plays a major role in defining the show’s world, focusing on what makes it distinctive as well as in direct conflict with the main characters.
It should be noted that not all shows need a high concept premise, with the traditional sitcom focusing more on interpersonal interactions of its main characters rather than a unique hook. If the pilot’s format does not require a high concept hook, we examine the Show’s Voice, or whether or not the Show’s Perspective offers a unique or compelling viewpoint on its focal subject. Hour-long serials and Hour-long episodic/ procedurals, almost always require a high concept hook.
In addition to these criteria, the premise should be able to be summed up succinctly as well as having its own voice in examining its world.
• The show’s world encapsulates a period in human development (ex. 20/30-somethings) or type of relationship (family, coworkers)
• The show uses a specific time period (post Civil War), specific location (NYC, a paper company), or unique profession or hobby (advertising execs/ deep sea divers)
• There is inherent conflict between the setting (a hospital) and the situation (protagonist is a recovering pill popper)
• The show’s core concept can be discerned and summarized quickly
• The setting/ situation dynamic is open-ended
• The pilot employs a unique perspective as it explores its core concept.
• The premise is particularly inviting, intriguing or interesting.
Unlike feature films, which usually employ a three-act structure, pilot structure varies widely across different TV show formats. Most pilots begin with either a cold open or a teaser, but there is no set number of acts a pilot must have. A pilot can have as few as 2 acts or as many as 6.
Act breaks were originally designed to coincide with commercial breaks in network television. For this reason, act breaks often occur after a cliffhanger to ensure the viewer stays tuned. But with the introduction of cable and streaming services, these overt act breaks are no longer uniform for all shows. Typically, cable and network pilots still have distinct act breaks written into the script, while premium cable and steaming pilots do not. When act breaks are demarcated in the script (e.g. END OF ACT ONE), the rest of the page is usually left blank so that the start of the next act occurs at the top of a fresh page.
Taking such variance into consideration, we are focusing more on the storylines themselves, assessing how well they escalate over the course of the episode and weave logically back together to end the show. Here are some terms to keep in mind when assessing the pilot’s structure:
Storylines: The A-Story is the main plot of the episode; what we would refer to as the “throughline” in a feature. The main character almost always owns the A-Story. In the case of an ensemble show, there may be several A-stories. The B-Story is a secondary plotline that may involve the protagonist or a main character and a supporting character. A C-Story, sometimes referred to as a “Runner” in comedy, is usually a tertiary plotline that’s often abbreviated, meaning it may only be advanced 3-4 times, and scenes that explore it are often more brief. A C-Story is not necessary for a successful pilot and should only be mentioned if woven particularly well into the pilot or when it notably disrupts the story.
Cold Open: In a comedy, this is the sequence that comes before the title sequence and usually relates to the A-Story. If it exists, it will typically introduce the external conflict or primary goal for the episode.
Teaser: In a drama, this is the sequence that comes before the title sequence and usually relates to the A-Story.
Tag: Usually in comedy, this is a short scene after the last act ends, and is usually in service to one final joke that calls back an earlier joke or wraps up the loose end of a runner or subplot.
Open-Ended Plotline: Use this phrase to describe any plotline that does not resolve its conflict by the end of the episode and is intended to span multiple episodes over the course of a season or series. These long-ranging conflicts are often, but not always, attached to the season goal.
Close-Ended Plotline: This is a plotline that begins and resolves within the same episode. Although not all pilots require an open-ended plotline, every pilot should demonstrate a close-ended plotline over the course of the episode.
• The A-Story is introduced by an external conflict in the first few pages.
• The main characters recognize this conflict and decide to overcome the challenge in the first few pages
• The external conflict escalates ONCE over the course of the episode, sending the story in a new direction
• The external conflict escalates a SECOND TIME, setting the story in another new direction (NOTE: any additional escalations DO NOT increase the score)
• The main characters use a lesson learned over the course of the story to overcome the conflict established in the early pages
• There is a B-Story (additional storylines are not necessary and DO NOT increase the score)
• The B-Story intersects with the A-story by the ending
• Scenes flow logically from one to the next
• The story feels natural and not by-the-numbers.
Characters are the beating heart of the TV show, and comprise the individuals the audience will be asked to invite into their home week after week. While the feature film seeks to complete a character arc for the protagonist(s), the TV show’s character arcs usually take place very gradually over many episodes or seasons, so as not to disrupt the core concept established by the show’s pilot.
As such, we measure effectiveness in this section by how well the major characters can be distinguished from each other by their roles and traits, as well whether or not their goals based upon their distinct wants and weaknesses.
Empathizing with the major characters comes to the forefront when assessing TV characters, and while it’s NOT a requirement that the major characters are likable, their perspectives should be understandable, and should be consistent throughout the pilot.
• Each main character has a defining trait or role
• Each main character role/ trait is DIFFERENT than the other main characters
• Each main character has a clear weakness/ need
• Each main character has an identifiable want/ desire
• Each main character has a goal to mollify his/her want/ desire (the goal can be minor)
• The main characters are consistent throughout
• The main characters’ behaviors are understandable (not necessarily likable)
• The main characters are interesting/ intriguing. You want to invite them into your home to see what they’ll do next
While external and internal conflict are the yardsticks traditionally used to measure characters in film, Interpersonal Conflict – that is, the conflict between one character and another - supplants internal conflict to become far more prominent for television. Since the characters and their perspectives are so important to TV, pitting these characters against each other is the central component for effective conflict in pilots.
That said, External Conflict - that is, physical obstacles that oppose the character’s main goal - still plays a major role in television, each episode centering on an issue that the characters must overcome by the episode’s end. The series engine, established by the pilot and discussed below, plays a large role in this by demonstrating the types of external and interpersonal conflicts the audience can expect from its characters in the future.
Internal conflict cannot be entirely ignored though, and does come back into play, most often for the Hour-long serialized drama.
• The external conflict for the pilot has stakes if not achieved
• The external conflict specific to this episode is resolved by the end of the episode
• The main characters disagree over how to reach their goal
• The main characters’ defining traits clearly put them at odds
• The series engine is easily apparent in the external conflict of the pilot
• A key long-ranging conflict is still open ended at the end of the pilot (Serialized)
• The Protagonist(s) have clear internal conflict, which escalates (Serialized)
• The protagonist(s) finds ways to TEMPORARILY overcome internal conflict to deal with the external conflit of the pilot.
• While the A-Story conflict of the episode resolves by the end, the series engine for future conflict is apparent (Episodic)
• The conflicts are particularly interesting, intriguing, nuanced, or utilized well in the pilot
As the traditional Multi-cam sitcom was an outgrowth of stage and radio plays, characters’ conflicts are often verbally expressed, and witty lines are often the litmus test for successful dialogue in sitcoms. And while the rise of Single-cam serialized shows has reduced the dependence on witty banter in favor of teasing out character intention through action and plot development, the importance of dialogue is still significant.
What makes for strong dialogue is entirely in the eye of the beholder. So in this section, we’ll focus more on how the dialogue differentiates the main characters’ personalities, as well as how appropriate the dialogue is for the characters’ ages, time period, and intended audience. In addition to this, we will examine the use of Subtext, or how well the characters get their points across without flat-out, overtly stating the obvious.
Additionally, strong dialogue sometimes features characters speaking at Cross-Purposes, misunderstanding each other’s points due to clashing intentions. This is considered a technique for imbuing dialogue with tension and demonstrating constrasting perspectives.
• The dialogue differentiates the main characters’ personalities
• The main characters sound time-period appropriate
• The main characters sound age appropriate
• The dialogue is clearly appropriate for either a cable or network channel
• The main characters’ voices are consistent throughout
• The dialogue is natural (exposition okay IF makes sense for the characters)
• The dialogue consistently contains subtext
• The dialogue showcases tension, disagreement, and interpersonal conflict.
• The dialogue is particularly witty, nuanced, authentic, clever or humorous
While the Premise section assesses the effectiveness of the core concept of the show, Series Potential seeks to see if all the seeds planted in the pilot will bloom over the course of the series. As such, Series Potential wants to ensure the core concept, goals, and interpersonal conflicts between characters remain open-ended and sufficient to carry the show further into the future. In effect, we want to see that the core concept is realized enough in the pilot to support a series for multiple seasons.
To do this, we examine the show’s Series Engine, the device that drives episode after episode and can be compared to the core concept in features. For Friday Night Lights, a serialized drama, the engine is how football affects the folks in a small Texas town. The Series Engine in Six Feet Under is the family mortuary business, while the engine’s job in Modern Family is to consistently generate non-traditional interactions of an extended family across several generations.
And while many sitcoms may revolve around the “day-in-the-life” shenanigans of the main characters, most successful modern shows introduce a new crisis in the pilot, one that upends the lives of the main characters and is crucial for establishing the core concept of the series. This creates the “new-normal” for the main characters, which can be exhibited by either the emerging series goal or new status quo that will define the series.
• The main characters’ lives are upended by this pilot; meaning today is unlike any other day that has come before (ex. new job, first day of school, moved to new town/ apartment, new partner, etc.)
• The status quo (episodic) or overarching goal (serialized) of the series is clearly established by the end of the pilot
• You have a good idea where the show is headed, just not how it plans on getting there
• The major characters (not necessarily the main characters) are defined enough to support their own future subplots
• Key interpersonal conflicts remain unresolved
• The pilot clearly has a point of view and something to say
• You can readily think of at least one future episode you would like to see/ write
Unlike feature films, which measure the effectiveness of the tone by how well they succeed within the expectations of their chosen genre, assessing pilot effectiveness is more dependent on the show type, be it Single-cam comedy, Multi-cam comedy, Hour-long serial, or Hour-long episodic/ Procedural. This is accomplished by assessing how often jokes appear for the comedies, turning points and clues for the Procedurals, and incidents of interpersonal conflict for serialized dramas.
Also taken into consideration is how well the tone of the show matches the intended audience depending on whether the show is meant for network or cable channels. Network shows must generally aim to appeal to as broad a demographic as possible, and seek to aggregate a large audience to satisfactorily demonstrate to advertisers that their money would be well spent on commercials. Cable shows, on the other hand, can cater directly to the paying customer, which means the shows can target smaller demographics, and be more niche, experimental or risqué. Cable shows can often be identified as having more overt adult situations, including sexual material, nudity, violence, drugs, or cursing.
• The style of drama is readily apparent in the first few pages/ cold open
• The tone established in the first few pages remains consistent throughout
• The drama or comedy is appropriate for the type of show (cable/ network)
• The A Story conflict is an appropriate outgrowth of the series engine
• The pilot clearly demonstrates knowledge of the conventions for its chosen genre
• Clues used to solve the case appear frequently (Procedural)
• You found the case to be compelling and cleverly solved (Procedural)
• Interpersonal drama between the characters appears frequently (Serialized)
• Internal conflict occurs regularly (Serialized)
• (Comedy) Jokes appear frequently at least once per page (single-cam) or twice per page (multi-cam)
• The jokes often made you laugh.
Somewhat counter-intuitively, Originality is assessed in terms of the shows that have come before. Each reader should provide at least two similar shows and then assess how well the pilot differentiates itself from them by adding new conceptual components. Overall, the focus of Originality should be on the core concept or series engine of the show rather than on specific plotlines, as well as the unpredictable choices the author made in the plot.
4 = The two comps seem exceedingly disparate but actually fit the material well. Ex: “It’s Jessica Jones meets Walking Dead!” or “It’s Lethal Weapon meets Friday Night Lights set in space!”
3 = The two comps are very similar, yet there is one specific element to the core concept that differentiates it. Ex: “It’s Sherlock Holmes updated to a MODERN setting.” Or “It’s your basic workplace comedy like The Office or Superstore but now set in an I.C.E. DETENTION CENTER.”
2 = The two comps are very similar and adhere to genre expectations WITHOUT a specific element to the core concept to differentiate it. OR an adaptation of a preexisting property. Ex: “It’s a comedy focusing on a suburban family ala King of Queens and Home Improvement.” Or “It’s a serialized comedy based upon the characters from the movie Fight Club.”
1 = The pilot bares significant similarities to popular preexisting properties, either by blatantly ripping off main characters, core concepts, or plot points WITHOUT being an official adaptation. Please note these similarities must not be slight, but so obvious that they cannot be ignored.
Bump: The author made choices in the story that took the reader by surprise/ deviated from expectations
The section on logic focuses mostly on the World-Logic, the rules established early in the pilot, and how consistently they are adhered to throughout. Deviation from established world-logic, as well as incongruent character behaviors and apparent plot holes, are also taken into account.
• The world logic/ setting/ hook is established within the first few pages
• The world logic remains consistent throughout
• There are no plot holes/ deviations to the world logic
• The main characters’ actions/ reactions are appropriate for the world/ time period
• Information transitions consistently from scene to scene (no jarring jumps in logic)
• All questions are answered with the exception of the overarching series engine / hook
• There is an authenticity to the world, and/or a twist that was set up but not noticeable until it was revealed
The section on craft assesses how well the writer actualizes his or her intent through the words on the page. Adherence to proper formatting and grammar is taken into account, as well as the vividness of character introductions, flow of information, and writing style.
• The action sentences are clear, concise, and descriptive
• Characters are vividly and economically introduced
• Action paragraphs flow well and are not blocky
• Spelling and grammar issues are infrequent and do not disturb the flow of the read
• Proper formatting is used consistently throughout
• Everything written can be shown on the screen
• The writing is particularly bold, evocative and well done.