What makes a good series idea

Apr 11, 2011 by

What makes a good series idea

In my work pitching series ideas and writing pilots (and on good days, selling them to networks such as NBC and Fox), I’ve learned a few things about what they’re looking for, and what makes an idea sellable – as well as what a successful pilot script tends to include.

Most of it I’ve learned the hard way, from having people not want to move forward with one of my projects at some point in the process – be it the network, studio, producers, or even my own agents at CAA. When your project gets “passed on” at some point in the process (or professionally evaluated by someone like me), hopefully you get some valuable feedback about what might be missing.

Here is the number one lesson I’ve learned from that process:

Don’t think of a series as one long story, but as 100+ little ones.

Most of us writers seem to be most interested in how a character and situation arcs over the course of many episodes and seasons, and draft that out in great detail in some sort of “bible.” (Maybe it’s because most of us started in features, where that arc is so central to the point of the movie.) When asked what happens in a typical episode, we might have a whole lot of possibilities of what could, in theory, happen. But what we haven’t focused on enough, often, is the one thing that buyers and agents are definitely most focused on:

“What is the franchise?”

The “franchise” is the endlessly repeatable story engine – the problematic situation(s) for the main characters that is going to create a new story every week. Buyers and agents care far more about this than they do the season arcs. What they really want is a clear demonstration of what generates a story in an average episode – and how that story plays out in a compelling and entertaining way, which takes a full episode to resolve. They want to see that there is a seemingly limitless well of such stories, which are all variations on the same basic type of story problem(s) for your main character(s).

That’s what they’re going to be evaluating, and what needs to be front and center – focused on, and really working – to have a chance to get their approval.

A feature screenplay tends to be about a character (sometimes more than one) who has some sort of problematic life, then is hit with a catalytic event which leads them to develop a goal for that story. They then pursue the goal, and things get  more complicated, difficult and urgent as they do so – until finally there is some resolution in the end.

The average television episode is basically the same. Whether you’re talking about HOUSE, EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, SEX AND THE CITY or THE SOPRANOS (or any series), they all tend to begin with a problem or crisis that the series regular you’re focusing on feels they must solve, to get things back to their normal status quo (however compromised and unsatisfying that status quo might be). It’s very important to them, and they’re basically in hell trying to solve it – but it’s really entertaining for us to watch.

Buyers and agents want to know what’s generating those problems every week, and preferably, it will be in the context of an idea which represents a fresh twist on a familiar genre that has worked before in television. (These genres are more specific and limited than what we might normally think – just as they are in features – but that’s for another post.) Suffice it to say that the thing we must be most crystal clear on, in our pitch and our pilot script – is where these stories are coming from.

Although some series get by with the challenges of a heroic occupation or undertaking with huge, relatable, life-and-death stakes and an entertaining process to watch (i.e. certain kinds of doctoring, lawyering, police investigations or “adventuring”) most dramas and virtually all comedies are mostly about what is loosely (and not pejoratively) called “soap” –  the challenges of personal relationship conflicts for a web of characters, each of whom want something that is important to them, that they can never quite get.

In features, the main character tends to heal and grow and fix their life in the end. Not so in series! (Except maybe in the series finale.) Television characters tend to be pretty much the same from episode to episode, with the same unfulfilled desires – despite the incremental changes of circumstances that happen over time. It’s the pursuit of those unreachable goals (and the problems that come up in life related to them) that are the stuff of story.

So the goal becomes demonstrating who these people and problems/goals are, and how a typical episode takes a full hour (or half hour) for them to resolve a big, specific problem related to them.

This is one reason why pilots should primarily be examples of a typical episode – and not merely the first installment of a long story, which only shows how everybody came together into the current situation. Their primary function is to represent what future episodes will look like, and thus sell the franchise to buyers.

If you can make your primary focus finding and then demonstrating such a franchise, you’ll be on the right track.

     
If you haven't read them already, I also recommend my "Ten Key Principles Successful Writers Understand", and my series of audio downloads.

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17 Comments

  1. Jon Abrams

    Your Band of Brothers was a critical success. As a beginning writing, what are your thoughts on books like Minnick’s 300 Writing Prompts for War Fiction? Do books like this help stimulate ideas?

    • I actually don’t know that book or the process it promotes, so it’s hard for me to say. But I will say that I think virtually any/every book or tool for writers has something of value, and recommend exploring anything that resonates with you.

  2. Katy

    Really useful – thanks!

  3. Great post, Erik!

    Really clears up a lot of the problems I’ve had with previous pilot attempts – they were merely introductions to longer stories.

    Loads of useful stuff here, especially for writers like me who’ve never been in the pitch room.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Nick

  4. Joyce Howard

    Hi Erik,
    As other writers have mentioned, your blog came just at the right time for me. Happily I seem to have hit a number of the points you mention in the first half of my TV pilot and was just about to begin on the second half…going down all the avenues!
    Thanks for pulling me back…so here I go again!
    Very best from the UK.
    Joyce Howard

  5. Thanks for sharing your insight and experience with aspiring beginning writers like me!

  6. Zamo

    Thanks

  7. Select a specific genre of show, and write a synopsis detailing the content of the show. This means that you should select a certain base subject and then write the show’s meaning, or goal. Make sure that your idea is one that can go on for seasons and seasons if necessary.

  8. katharine

    I like your discussion regarding tv v. screenplay .
    –katharine Jones
    (New York)

  9. Excellent advice! Thanks Eric. My writing partner and I are at EXACTLY this juncture with our pilot script. Your advice couldn’t have come at a better time. Thanks again!
    Paul

  10. Gabrielle M.

    Thank you for this article! It’s truly inspiring for me right now. I love that your tone is conversational, and not critical of new writers. I only wish I had found your blog earlier. Your articles are greatly appreciated!

  11. Mary pease

    Had the good fortune to set in on two of your forums at the Writers
    Conference July 20th-22 2012. Extremely helpful in getting me to
    Understand creating story peaks and valleys. Especially helpful is
    Your vast knowledge of movie examples you used. My only disappointment
    Was every forum was only an hour. Thanks for sharing your wisdom
    On line . I can hear you voice in your on line teaching
    Look foreword to your accomplishments.

    Mary pease

  12. Good advice. Thank you for sharing. I’m going to apply your tips to a couple spec TV scripts I’m developing.

  13. Stephane

    Thanks ! very smart ! I’m pitching in 2 days and had a problem with this exactly !!!! Perfect timing.

  14. MARK GEORGEFF

    Couldn’t agree with you more Erik.
    I know…taking a break from feature script writing, while also putting together an indie feature package for some current investors; I am also writing a tv series pilot. I’ve started off with an overall, big picture for the story world itself…knowing full well that the 100 little stories you mentioned is the actual, concrete skeleton for hat same overall story world. It’s like…

    Here’s my main character, my story hero on his journey. The big journey with a big goal in mind.
    But then, like all solid drama…there are these main conflicts that get in the way — the per episode conflicts.
    Then, I break those episode main conflicts into bits and pieces.

    And then, after I do the hard work…the writing and rewrites — I can then go into my pitch meetings
    and discuss the little stories as you mentioned. Exactly the way you mentioned…because I want to create a success for those I’m pitching to. I really want to help them achieve their goal.

    Buy doing so, i achieve my goals in the process.
    And sometimes after many trial and errors…I simply wake up and realize this teleplay episode may
    be really a short story in fiction I meant to write all along. And not a tv series episode.

    And if you love to write and create stories as much as I do…in the end, it doesn’t matter what form that writing really takes.

    Thanks for the wisdom again Erik.

  15. Stacy

    Love the idea of 100+ little stories, as well as using your pilot to set up what the franchise’s future episodes will look like. Am working on my first spec pilot, so this is perfect timing. THANK YOU for the insight and inspiration.

  16. Jim

    This is really great stuff! I would tend to be the person who focused on the bigger picture to the exclusion of the individual episodes. Great food for thought, thanks.

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