Our favorite TV shows had to start somewhere, and that somewhere is the pilot episode. A television pilot episode is the first episode of a series that introduces the audience to the world of that television show. Television scripts should set up the story and central characters to hook both early readers (such as agents, producers, and the like) and, later, viewers for future episodes. Writers use pilot screenplays to pitch show ideas and may have even written a few additional episodes to show off. Writers also use pilot scripts to get into a writers' room. Often, showrunners will want to see a spec script written for the show that they're hiring for, as well as a pilot script in your own voice. Additionally, some writers develop pilot TV shows as proof of concept for a feature-length movie script before they delve into writing one.
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So, if you’ve got a great idea for a TV show, and you’re ready to sit down and put the story to paper, let me show you where to start! Below, I cover what needs to be included in a TV pilot to set up your future series for success.
While all scripts require some pre-writing to plan and figure out the overall story and important beats, it’s even more critical for a pilot script. You need to know where the story is going beyond the pilot script and well into the potential future for your show. During this pre-writing phase, you can build the world of your story, learn who your characters are, and figure out the show's vehicles – meaning, what keeps the show going. Make sure your original idea has legs that will continue to generate new ideas, plotlines, and scenarios for the characters to encounter. You never want the audience to know how the show will end, or on the other hand, If it will ever end.
Decide What Type of Show You’re Writing
It’s important to consider what type of show you’re writing. Is it a series that tells longer stories that rely on each episode to delve deeper and resolve plot lines (think NBC’s “This Is Us,” created by Dan Fogelman)? Or does each episode exist as a self-contained anthology (think Netflix's “Black Mirror,” created by Charlie Brooker) or procedural?
A serial is a television show that relies on the series as a whole to tell complex stories. Each episode builds and connects to the previous and the following episodes. Serials include “The Sopranos,” created by David Chase, “The Walking Dead,” created by Robert Kirkman, or “Game of Thrones,” created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.
A procedural is a show where each episode finishes a story. You could watch any episode of a procedural and understand what’s going on because there's no connecting overarching plot from one episode to the next. However, the main characters will usually be the same. Think “Law & Order,” created by Dick Wolf, or “Criminal Minds,” created by Jeff Davis.
Are there shows that combine a bit of both? Interestingly enough, yes! Shows like “Hannibal,” created by Bryan Fuller, “The Good Wife,” created by Michelle and Robert King, and “Fringe,” created by J.J. Abrams, all had both serial and procedural elements present during the shows’ run. It’s not ultimately necessary for your show to be one or the other, but you do need to understand what your show is to write the script and then pitch it to people in a way they’ll understand.
Another type of TV show we see more of is anthologies. An anthology series is different from the types above because each episode or season introduces an entirely new storyline with a new cast of characters. Often while the storylines are different, the entire series is held together by the same themes. Think “American Horror Story” created by Ryan Murphy, “True Detective,” created by Nic Pizzolatto, and “The Twilight Zone,” created by Rod Serling.
30-Minute vs. 1-Hour Pilots
Thirty-minute comedies and hour-long dramas are the standard lengths for television shows. However, things are changing as we watch more and more content via streaming and limited series. People are looking for binge-worthy content, and the length doesn't matter as much. Comedies used to be the only type of 30-minute content, but now we see a rise in 30-minute dramas and dramedies like "Atlanta," created by Donald Glover, "Barry," created by Alec Berg, and "Russian Doll," created by Natasha Lyonne, Leslye Headland, and Amy Poehler. When figuring out how long your finished script should be, consider which amount of time will best serve your story, now and in the future. If you're using a comedy pilot as part of your portfolio, you may still want to keep it to 30 minutes since that's what most showrunners will be looking for.
Writing a television pilot is not all that different from writing a feature film. When it comes to structuring a feature screenplay, writers use all sorts of different act structures. When it comes to writing a one-hour television episode script, there is more of an industry standard. One-hour shows start with a teaser section and are commonly followed by four or five acts. A teaser is a short opening, usually set in one location, that runs for a couple of minutes (between two to three pages). The teaser is meant to tease some conflict that viewers will learn more about in the episode. “Criminal Minds,” mentioned above as a procedural, does this teaser thing well if you’re looking for an example.
Things can be slightly less structured when it comes to crafting a 30-minute show. As I said before, we see a lot of reinvention in 30-minute shows, so when writing one, it’s best to simply think of it in terms of beginning, middle, and end.
The best way to learn about TV pilot structure and formatting is by reading television pilot scripts. Below are the links to TV pilots that you can read for free online! Check them out to get familiar with pilot script formats!
Watch the pilot episodes for some of your favorite TV shows. How does the television writing introduce the overall idea of the show while teasing future storylines and character arcs? How can you recreate things that your favorite show's pilot did well within your own script? Besides reading and watching TV pilots, the other best way to learn is by doing. So, get down to business and start writing your pilot! You can always tweak elements later. Happy writing!