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Writing an original TV pilot similar to a show vs. speccing it directly (Readers’ Mail)

On this edition of Readers’ Mail, BettySpinks asks:

Hi Alex– Congratulations on the Paper Team podcast! Gonna listen to the Spec v. Pilot episode after I ask you this question…
I’ve written an outline for a pilot with similar bones to Preacher. Should I write my pilot? Or should I funnel the ideas into a spec for Preacher?

This is a great question that can really only be answered on a case-by-case basis.
I’ve definitely been through similar “parallel thinking” moments, and there are steps I do to gauge whether to continue or not with a project (or transform it) —

One of the first things I’d ask is: What is the purpose of this new sample?

On the Paper Team episode you mention, I do bring up that (IMO) writing spec should be done primarily for the exercise of TV writing (akin to being a staff writer), rather than purely having it as a usable sample (beyond fellowships and contests).
If you create a Preacher spec out of your outline, it could be an awesome episode, but it would still be “limited” to the reach of, well, a spec.

Flash-forwarding to something you’ll be asking yourself six months from now–
Are there any other shows that you would be interested in speccing? If Preacher is the only one worth it to you, maybe it could be good to consider it.

A pilot would be the way to go if you’re primarily trying to showcase your writing style, your “voice”, and overall building a portfolio for representation/staffing.
If your story is unique enough to you that you need to get it out and puts your own stamp on the world, then the choice should be simple.

Another important question would be: How close is the pilot/outline to the existing show?

In this case, this is something only you would know based on:
1) The pilot/season 1 of Preacher;
2) Your own script and plot beyond the pilot;
3) Future stories of Preacher (based on published comics/educated guesses).

Is your pilot, literally, about a preacher in a small southern town seeped in supernatural elements?
An interesting litmus test could be to pitch your story to friends familiar with Preacher and see what they think of the similarities (and if they’re dealbreakers).
Maybe even pitch both shows to people unfamiliar with Preacher, and see if they feel they’re distinctive enough on their own.

Keep in mind this isn’t just about the concept itself, but the execution of it (we’re still talking about an original pilot).
How many shows did we have about people coming back to life a couple seasons ago? What about the amount of cop procedurals still on the air?

You shouldn’t sell your pilot short just because it has similar ideas to something produced.
Go back to your perspective and the themes you’re trying to explore.
The battle between faith, superstition, and the fantastic can be approached in vastly different ways through so vastly different characters.

Last (but not least), I would wonder: How much of a sacrifice is it if I’m never writing this pilot?

You have already done the work of outlining your pilot.
That means (hopefully), you’ve already gone through the mindbend of figuring out your characters, your structure, your acts, your scenes, your world.
This is so much of what goes into a pilot script that it could be a huge loss if you simply discard it.

Also, are you saying something unique to you in that pilot/story which cannot be done through another script?
When making those important binary decisions, remember why you were writing this pilot in the first place. Probably something evocative that you wanted to tell through these characters, or that world, or that setting.

On the flip side, if it’s already extremely easy to replace your characters in the outline with those of Preacher, maybe you were already subconsciously writing a Preacher spec over a truly original piece.

Most times, a unique execution of a pilot, even within an ambiance similar to your existing show, would still make it worth the write. In fact, it could be a powerful sample to be staffed on that very show (over a spec of it).
It all depends on the goals of your script, and similarities to what you’re going to be compared against.

If you’re a reader with a question of your own, feel free to send me a message!

Write on.

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