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Professionals fail a lot

Do you think writing winning stories is easy? Would you be surprised to know that 3 of 5 pilots each season, of the hundreds of TV pilots I’ve seen over the years, never make it to the TV screen? Lots of talent and money goes into failures. 

One of the remaining two pilots dies sometime during the first season. Only one goes full season and a fraction of those go on for multiple seasons. These are screenplay pilots written by professionals with excellent industry guides and expensive professional productions.

The reasons for failure

In comedy, they aren’t funny — really funny. Comedy is difficult to write and depends a lot on the actors. Usually the writer needs to work with them, not just write alone far removed from the production. 

There are exceptions with comedy. Writers who draw comedy from characters who are placed in situations in which the human condition is revealed in an embarrassing way, or through witty dialogue, with directors who know comedy well, and well chosen actors can pull it off. 

Other reasons for failure

When it comes to actors, the main character often isn’t relatable. Or somewhere in the cast is a character that the audience just doesn’t like.

Generally at least 3 of the five are completely obvious to me that they’re going nowhere. I get surprised occasionally by one that makes it and one that doesn’t. 

The pros do a lot of things right, but still fall short. 

Writing contests

It’s the same in screenplay contests. Very few scripts stand head and shoulders above the rest. 

Following are some things they do right:

  1. The characters are motivated. They aren’t there just to fill space or do simple things for the other characters. Each character is important.
  2. They have a well developed concept (usually stated in 3 lines), that is identifiable, and they generally have a strong plot that doesn’t wander off in all directions. (Seasons usually experiment with new directions.)
  3. The characters are original – not duplicates from other shows. They have dimensions to their personality – they’re not pieces of cardboard that say words and do things. And they have their own voice (perspective or attitude).
  4. They have new storylines, not something that is overused, hackneyed, or stereotypical.
  5. When they set up something, it’s real to the story, and there’s a payoff. They don’t just put in crap with no ties or significance to the story that ends up going nowhere – a loose end.
  6. There is a main character, or two principle characters who often a man and a woman who are juxtaposed.
  7. The story (premise) is credible.
  8. The action in one scene follows from the action in the previous scene. Every piece of dramatic action is a reflection of the larger story.
  9. The dialogue and dramatic action move the story forward. It’s relevant and compelling.
  10. The drama has significant stakes to the characters. It isn’t just dialogue to fill space. It’s important to the character and the story.
  11. Character action follows from the characters’ motivation, and isn’t just the writer pulling strings to make the story do what he wants.
  12. Character action follows from the previous character’s action. Action leads to reaction to reaction to reaction, just like ping pong.
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