How to Write a TV Pilot
Television is having a big moment right now, perhaps even more so than movies. With fantastic series on Netflix, HBO, AMC and so forth, it seems like television writing is the place to be. And why not? Unlike with films, writers rule television. Plus, television writing offers a regular paying job, perhaps one of the few in the storytelling world, where most of us work "freelance" (if we work as a writer at all).
However, despite this big moment, TV writing can be incredibly baffling to some, especially given that most shows are written by not just one person but a huge team of people. In fact, screenwriting classes only recently began to offer television writing as a course, yet with the growing market it's become an essential skill as a screenwriter to have a TV pilot in your arsenal.
Because of that, it's hard to know where to start. Do you write a Bible for your show first? Do you map out the entire series? Or do you just write the entire thing like that True Detective guy did?
While there's no "right answer" here, there certainly is a solid starting point - writing a pilot. When you write a pilot you can submit it to competitions and networks without working tirelessly over an entire series and further demonstrate your ability to tell a story, albeit a slightly different one. So with that in mind, read on to see how to get started writing your first pilot.
(Note: this post contains affiliate links. You can read my full disclosure here.)
It's worth noting that almost all of this knowledge in terms of what makes a strong pilot (for a serial show) come from the short and well-written book, Writing the Pilot by William Rabkin, which I highly recommend should you wish to write for TV, and my knowledge of television structure comes from my pilot writing professor in undergrad, Beau Thorne.
1. Determine whether your TV pilot idea is either a serial/episodic or an anthology/limited series
Before you even begin to start outlining your TV show, you need to understand what type of TV show you are writing in the first place. As of now, there are four main types of television shows, each one offering something different. Below the four types are listed with examples to help you decide which TV show you are writing.
A serial TV show is much like a novel series or movie series in that the major plot and conflict span the entire duration of the show. This is part of (in my opinion) what makes coming up with a strong pilot so difficult. Some examples of serial shows are Breaking Bad, Lost, Mad Men, and so forth. It is usually what people think of when they think about a classic drama.
Episodic TV shows are series where the previous episodes' events do not effect the next ones nor does the main conflict of that episode continue to the next one, though there might still be grand overarching changes like characters leaving the show or things in the world changing. Most episodic shows are comedies like Friends or SpongeBob Squarepants, though even things like Adventure Time fit into this format because each episode can stand on its own without previous context.
Anthology series differ from the first two in that each season or episode, a new story or set of characters is presented, but they all exist under the same themes or worlds. Examples include American Horror Story, Fargo, and True Detective.
Much like anthology series, limited series only average about ten episodes or so, though there is no set number. They tell one story in one "season" with no promise of a following season or connection in any way. A limited series is in many ways the closest thing to a novel, each episode existing as a sort of chapter and most of the plot lines coming to a close in the final episode. Examples of limited series are The Night Of and Over the Garden Wall, though I'd argue Stranger Things is a limited series as well, though the writers seem to think otherwise (and I believe they will get themselves in trouble for this!)
You might be wondering why these differences matter. If you've read my post on why Game of Thrones works for television when Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter never could, you'll understand the notion of renewable conflict, something Rabkin details well in his book. This only matters for the first two types of television shows, where a conflict must be able to sustain the series the entire way through.
For instance, if you are writing a show that is about solving one murder case, you are likely writing an anthology (American Crime Story) or limited series (The Night Of). If you are writing a series where every episode the characters solve a murder (CSI, Criminal Minds), you're writing an episodic series. And if you're writing a TV series about humanity's inclination to murder each other and go to war (Game of Thrones), you're writing a serial.
Additionally, before you move onward, start exploring your main character/s and themes, and eventually your side characters. You don't have to know everything yet, but be sure to start jotting down ideas and plot lines for everyone.
2. Choose whether you're writing a half-hour or hour long show.
Now that you've decided whether your show needs a renewable conflict or not, it's time to decide how long your show will be.
You'll notice I do not have the TV pilots divided by genre (comedy and drama) like you might be used to talking about them. That's because with shows like Orange is the New Black and Transparent, the lines have been blurred so that a thirty minute show can be a drama and an hour long can be a comedy. Furthermore, whether you are writing an anthology or limited series or a serial one, the structure in terms of act breaks is more or less the same.
The following outline is brief and neglects act outs, which are essential to keeping the viewer hooked, though it should provide enough for a rough draft. Just keep in mind that just like with films, the acts should end on a climactic, engaging moment.
The thirty minute, or half-hour, TV episode can have between two to three acts, especially depending on whether your show is being written for networks like NBC or premium cable like HBO, where there are no commercials. In fact, that can be a difference of up to about eight minutes of screen time (about eight pages), but is really not something to worry about until you are in the process of trying to sell your pilot.
Act One: Depending on how you've divided up your acts, act one can be used solely for introduction purposes in a half-hour, or it can also be used to build tension, therefore ending on a cliffhanger. If you are writing two acts, this will take up around a half to a third of the episode, and if you are writing three acts it should take up one third.
Act Two :Act two is where half-hour shows raise tension and put their characters in the most challenging places, or if you're writing a two act version, it's where things are worked out and the resolution takes place.
When deciding whether to do a two act or three act half-hour show, understand that it is more about pacing than it is about what is "right." Most television nowadays leans towards the three act structure, but trends can change, so if you sense your story should be two acts, write it as two acts.
Act Three: When writing a three act half-hour, act three is where the resolution takes place. This differs from the two act structure in that the two act structure also includes a continuation of the characters dealing with and then solving the conflict, whereas a three act only has a resolution in the final act.
The sixty minute, or hour long, TV episode can have between four to five acts, as well as a teaser and a tag tacked on to the beginning and end. Like the half-hour show, the total run time will vary for networks, the difference being between 47 minutes to an hour. Because of this, you should aim for your script to be between 50-60 pages as its final draft, with each act averaging around 8-10 pages.
Teaser: Teasers, though not required, are great ways to hook your audience into the show and often hint at the grand conflict of the series. In Game of Thrones, the pilot introduces the conflict of the white walkers, whereas Breaking Bad shows Walt in his underwear, about to shoot himself, a flash forward to the end of the episode. There are no real rules here as to what to show, though the average page length is usually around three pages.
Act One: In an hour long pilot this is where you introduce new characters, the world, etc, the same way you would in a feature's first act. However, for later episodes, this will be where you introduce a new conflict, side-character, or even continue on from an previous episode's conflict depending on the type of show you're writing.
Act Two: Act two is when the momentum of the central conflict (either of the series or the episode) picks up and the character/s must address it. It looks similar to the second act of a film, though usually only the first half of the second act.
Act Three: Much like in a feature film, act three is the low point, though keep in mind for other characters it can be a high point depending on how they stand with the main character/s. Keep in mind that this comparison should only be used for the conflicts of the episode or the season, not the entire series.
Act Four: Act four is where things begin to differ, though only slightly between a five act and four act hour long. For a four act hour long, act four serves as a reaction to the conflict as well as a resolution, whereas for a five act the fourth act is just a reaction to conflict.
Act Five: The fifth act in many ways looks like the fourth, and it mostly depends on how your show pans out with subplots. Whether you have four or five acts, the final one should offer some sort of closure, though not too much, and somewhere within the last act or two, there should be a reaction to the conflict in some way or form.
Tag: Like the teaser, the tag is not required and it is usually short, often even just lasting a few seconds long. It differs in that it offers a hint as to what will come in the next episode. Maybe viewers think all things are worked out, then the tag comes along and hints at a some looming problem none of the characters see. For comedies, the tag can also just exist as a comedic moment however, and occasionally you'll see tags in half-hour shows after the credits, which serve a less plot-driven purpose.
3. Decide if you are writing a premise episode or an episodic.
A premise pilot is akin to how a feature film might start. Often the inciting incident is the main focus of the first episode, like in Lost, where the episode opens with everyone on the island waking up after the crash. It can also be a new person arriving and changing things like in 30 Rock.
An episodic pilot is much like an episodic TV show. You start the show out trying to emulate a "day in the life" of the characters. A great example is The Office, where we are introduced to all the characters, but it feels like we are jumping into the middle of the story, not the beginning.
If Lost had decided to start with an episodic beginning, it'd have looked more like episode six or seven of that season, or even a season later. Just a day of life on the island. Doesn't that feel incredibly different?
If you are writing an anthology or limited series, you are more than likely writing a premise episode. I can't imagine how you could write an episodic one given the nature of this style of television. However, if you are writing an episodic or serial show, this decision can shape a lot of things later on. For instance, if you write a premise pilot, you could be revealing a lot of mystery that might be saved for later on in season six, or if you write an episodic pilot, you could leave viewers wondering why they should care about any of your characters at all.
It's all about balance, and there's no right answer. If you're unsure, turn to your favorite TV shows and see how they do the pilot. You'll find that most of them blend the elements of premise/episodic really well, but will lean in one general direction. For instance, half-hour comedies, especially cartoons, usually opt for an episodic pilot, whereas dramas like Game of Thrones are very much a premise.
4. Create and outline your A plot, B plot, C plot, etc.
As a beloved pantser, I must admit that when you are writing a screenplay, you will benefit far more from outlining than with other mediums. Why? Because screenwriting is part of a bigger business, and if they find an extra ten pages exploring the nature of humanity or the arc of a random side-character, it will be cut. You need to stay on track and stay focused so that your audience - which is far less patient than a novel audience - won't change the channel.
After you've decided on the structure of your show, you can start plotting out the different story lines (called the A plot, B plot, and so forth) and plugging them each into their acts. There is no hard fast rule as to what the A plot is, though it's usual the central, overarching conflict, with each plot after that growing smaller though not less important.
Additionally, there is no limit to how many subplots you can have. Look at Game of Thrones! Many come to a close over time and interweave with A plots and B plots and outlining them from the get go for your pilot will help you immensely.
If you aren't sure where to begin, just write down the outlines of each plot line separately and plug it into the act structure of your choice, moving things around as you go. Outlining is different for everyone, but I highly recommend you do it for your TV pilot to ensure the show is well balanced.
5. Get to writing!
Now for the part you've been waiting for - writing! With all your hard work deciding everything else, this part should be easier. If you are new to screenwriting, look to my guide on how to get started as a newbie, but if you're a seasoned pro, get away from this blog post and start writing already!
If you ever start feeling lost, try doing the minute-by-minute method I discussed for feature writing for a TV show that emulates similar themes or structures as yours does. What you'll do is pause after every scene and write what happens. Then afterwards, you'll see where they make their act breaks and if you're so bold (or required for a class like I was) you can follow the minute-by-minute method for several episodes and see how they also track various plot lines throughout the series. It may seem like a lot of work, but once you've done you'll be amazed with how much clarity you have!
Totally overwhelmed? Don't worry! Learning all this comes with practice, but also experience, meaning - yes - watching lots of TV! And if you're still new to screenwriting, why not try out writing a feature first?