Writing a Standout Procedural
When writing for TV, there are serialized and episodic types of shows. Serialized shows carry the story from one episode to the next, whereas episodic shows are more stand-alone (although they still have some serialized components so we engage with the characters and their arcs). Regarding episodic shows, there is what’s known as procedural shows, which are standard tropes in American television. The three big procedurals are: medical dramas, police dramas and legal/courtroom dramas. Every network is always looking for new series in these categories, and every season they get hundreds of submissions. Networks want them because they’ve been proven to work: audiences always want to watch them, they lend themselves to multiple episodes where the conflict comes from the different cases of the week, and they’re interesting type of shows with life or death stakes. Writers want to write them because they know networks are looking for them every single pilot season. So the main question here is: how do you make your procedural spec pilot stand out among the sea of pilots being written every year?
- First and foremost, find an original take. There have been dozens of medical, police and legal shows—but what’s a story or angle we haven’t seen before? How could you modernize old tropes? For example, the current medical show The Resident (Fox) exposes how medicine is a for-profit enterprise, and the doctors try to fight against that.
- Find interesting characters with unique backstories that we haven’t seen in those types of shows. For example, when House M.D. (Fox) came out, we hadn’t seen a doctor who was extremely rude, didn’t want to actually meet his patients, and was a drug addict. And it worked!
- Finally, what’s something unique from your own background that you can bring to your story and provide a unique take, embedding your script with a background that would mean that only you would be the right writer to tell that story, and that nobody else could tell it. Maybe you had a bad experience at a hospital growing up, or maybe your family had some legal troubles, or someone you know was saved by a brave police officer. Producers want to see that you connect to your material. Dig deep, and use that to make your story and your characters stand out, and you’ll be on your way to writing a procedural spec script that will stand out among the thousands of scripts producers and networks receive every year!