Looking for your big break in TV? Submitting your very own pilot to TV screenplay contests can be the first step towards that goal. But before you do, there are a few things you need to know about writing for television. Nowadays, the word “television” has transformed from a device sitting in the middle of your living room to an online streaming channel sitting in the palm of your hand.

The good thing about this revolutionary change is that endless new opportunities have sprouted for screenwriters.

Big names in the business like HBO, Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu are always looking out for the next record-breaking, award-winning TV show idea. They scout new talents and invest in first-time screenwriters if they find a good pilot that promises not only a good quality television series but good profit, too.

Screenplay ideas

So what exactly do they look for in a TV pilot? Selling a screenplay or winning a screenplay contest requires more than just a script after all. So what do you as a screenwriter need to focus on when submitting a script to TV screenplay contests?

There are two key elements of a screenplay, especially a TV show screenplay, than can determine the fate of your script. Let’s find out what they are.

That may sound counterintuitive but that’s how TV pilots work. A good concept is what big production studios look for in features, sure. But for TV, concepts don’t really form the foundation for multiple seasons. Over time, a concept changes. The main storyline is rerouted very easily throughout the seasons, or even within a single season.

That’s why you shouldn’t work too hard on polishing your concept. What you need to do is push yourself to create the most captivating characters. They are the heroes, literally and figuratively. They will carry your pilot, and hopefully, your whole show. So if your goal is selling a screenplay, you need to have those characters locked down.

Character-driven TV shows keep the audience interested in the next twist of fate and engage them in whatever happens in the next episode. That’s how television works. So the question isn’t if your screenplay ideas are good, it’s if your leading characters are good. Who are they? Can they attract readers and audiences? To get a better idea about good TV characters, think about your personal favorite TV shows.

Is there a single one that lacks a well-written, captivating character? It doesn’t matter what kind of personality they have, whether it’s Don Draper or Michael Scott, Selina Meyer or Daenerys Targaryen, they all have a compelling quality that keeps you watching. That’s what judges are looking for in submissions at TV screenplay contests.

How To Write Good Characters

character design

Writing good characters relies on your talent as a screenwriter. There’s no secret ingredient that you magically use to create amazing characters. There is, however, a few tips that make characters better and more engaging. One such tip is to avoid easy, flawless characters. No one wants to watch a show about a man who’s perfectly happy, who always gets what he wants easily without any obstacles, who cruises through life without a care in the world. Your character should not be so basic and simple. That’s boring.

A good character is one that is flawed. Flawed characters end up facing tough decisions, confronting their very own weaknesses and how those affect their relationships with everyone around them. Flaws tend to generate conflict and conflict is the crux of a good story, whether it’s feature films or TV shows.

Elements of a screenplay

When you create conflicted characters, your script becomes a fertile soil for good character arcs and gripping plot. The richer your script is with such characters, the more likely your TV pilot will succeed in hooking the script reader.

After all, some of the most successful TV shows consist of a group of flawed characters interacting with each other. They can be mortal enemies in a Game of Thrones or they can be the best of Friends, but no matter what the genre is or who they are, conflict breeds compelling characters. That’s the key element you need to develop if you’re planning on selling a screenplay. But it’s not the only one…

Settings Sell

TV screenplay ideas

A group of captivating characters is a must for any TV pilot but what can those characters achieve without an interesting setting? Building a world to capture the audience’s attention is another key to nailing your TV pilot.

Once again, think about your favorite shows. Don’t they all provide a special setting, intriguing enough for you to follow its characters as they grow and change within that world?

Breaking Bad gave us the meth drug dealing community while Silicon Valley puts the tech industry on display. The world you create has the power to sell not just your pilot but an entire season of your show, if not more.

When you’re writing your TV pilot, make absolutely sure that your characters live in such a setting. You want the audience to keep watching, you want the script readers to find out more, you want the producers to sign you for a whole season. So concentrate on your setting, make it original and attractive to grip whoever’s reading or watching. And always ask yourself this question: do I want to find out more about that world?

Do you want to know what happens in Gilead? Are you curious about exploring Westworld? If the answer is yes, then your script is on the right track to create buzz at TV screenplay contests.

Script readers

Your screenplay ideas matter but what matters even more is how you bring them to life on the page. You can develop the many elements of a screenplay and hope for the best but for TV pilots, there are two that are must haves: characters and settings.

With these two key elements that make or break a TV pilot in mind, go forth on your writing journeys and tell stories about captivating characters struggling and surviving in captivating worlds. It’s a tricky balance to strike because sometimes you’ll get one and not the other, but you need both to really nail a TV pilot that’s out to win and hopefully get picked up for a full season.


Adam Parham
Adam P.
Lead Writer at | + posts