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February 20, 2020

How to Write a TV Pilot: 3 Key Steps

So, you want to write a TV pilot. But, how do you do that? We'll break it down for you in 3 key steps.

Directory:

What is a pilot script?

A pilot script is a script for television written on spec - on your own time without a contract or payment from a studio or executive. It is usually the first episode in your series, though not always.

It should introduce the main characters in your series, gives us a flavor of what is to come, and set up the central conflict.

Scripts should always roughly be a page to a minute, so you should expect pilot scripts to be 45 - 60 pages. 45 - 60 pages equals out to about 45 minutes to an hour of screen time. Consider the channel where your script is likely to air.

Remember, if you are writing tv scripts, they will need closer to 60 pages if you anticipate your scripts will be sold to a network without commercials such as Netflix, Amazon, or the BBC in the U.K.

Do you need some ideas or tips to help you develop your next pilot or tv series and get started? Don't worry; we're here to help. Check out these blogs for inspiration:

Use the right tools to set you up for success

Using screenplay software can help you plan a perfect pilot script. The software can streamline your planning efforts and make the brainstorming process easy!

Throughout this blog post, we will use Arc Studio Pro to help explain how we would organize this process. Further, we will mainly be pulling from The Good Place to help explain everything. (you can read the pilot here to get acquainted!)

How to write a TV pilot in 3 steps

Before you face down that blinking cursor, you need to answer these three questions:

  1. Who are the characters?
  2. What is the story about?
  3. How is the story told?

To keep it simple, we will show you how to do this on notecards in Arc Studio Pro, but you can use whatever technique works best for you.

1. Create your characters

For many writers, the events of their plot start to take shape after they have decided on their character.

Remember, a character's personality determines how they act in certain situations and what course of action they are likely to take, which helps you build your plot.  

Choose your protagonist

Start with your protagonist. Since we're going to be following them for multiple episodes and seasons, they need to have a great character arc.

It's common for people to treat the word "protagonist" as a synonym for "main character" or "the good guy." While this can sometimes be true, it's not always the case. In storytelling, the protagonist is the character whose actions drive the story forward and, typically, experiences the most character growth.

For example, in Breaking Bad, Walter White certainly isn't always a "good guy" or even likable. Still, his actions create conflict and drama in every episode and ultimately push the story forward. By the end of the series—spoiler—he does change, albeit for the worse. (We call this an "anti-hero.”)

But, how do you make a character interesting?

A great protagonist has a tangible objective that drives all of the action and conflict in the pilot episode (and beyond). They have a flaw that acts as an internal barrier that makes achieving their objective harder, and they have a special ability that makes them unique.

When creating your protagonist, keep in mind that you are making a hub for all of your future storylines. Your protagonist will drive every single central storyline, so build a perfectly poised character to be at the center of it all—likable or not.

Tip: If you create an unlikeable protagonist, be sure they are somewhat sympathetic and logical. For example, in Breaking Bad, we start with sympathy for Walter's situation, and even if we disagree with and dislike his actions, we believe their logic.

Choose your allies and foes

With very few exceptions, TV shows are told from multiple perspectives. Even if your character is a stoic superhero who gruffly says, "I work alone," the truth is, your protagonist doesn't exist in a bubble.

Protagonists' worlds will often be occupied with characters who fill supporting roles, like their best friends, confidants, sidekicks, team members, or mentors. It's also usually filled with antagonists who stand directly between the protagonist and their objective.

Eleanor and Chidi in a still for The Good Place.
Chidi is Eleanor's sidekick in The Good Place. All rights reserved.

One technique for creating interesting characters is to think about how your protagonist interacts with the world's rules and power structures and then devise characters who interact with the world differently.

In The Good Place, the world is the afterlife. It's a seemingly utopian neighborhood that's secretly meant to torture the occupants who believe they're in "the good place." There are dozens of other deceased people, an AI-like being who can get them anything they want, and it's all run by Michael, the neighborhood architect, who is secretly a demon from "the bad place."

Side note: to build an ensemble with compelling dynamics rife for season-long conflict, check out our post about using Myers-Briggs Type Indicator for character development.

How to develop three-dimensional characters

To have a successful show, every single central character (not just your protagonist) should be three-dimensional and fully-realized meaning they have:

  • Objectives (wants) and inner-needs
  • Unique flaws and strengths
  • Fully developed backstories
  • Unique relationships with other characters
  • Their own storylines

For each character, you should be able to write a paragraph description, or at least a few lines, that touches on most of those points.

For example, here are three sample character descriptions from The Good Place:

ELEANOR SHELLSTROP (early 30s) is a self-absorbed self-proclaimed hot girl from Arizona. She ends up in "the good place" by mistake and urgently needs to learn to become a better person to keep her spot.

CHIDI ANAGONYE (early 30s) is an ethics professor from Senegal who suffers from extreme anxiety and the inability to make decisions. He's told Eleanor is his soul mate and wants to help her become a better person.

MICHAEL (50s) is a demon from the Bad Place who built a fake "good place" to trick dead people. He wants to pioneer a new era of torture in "the bad place." He secretly has a good heart, which he has to keep squashed down.

To help you develop each of your characters, create a notecard. These notecards can serve as quick reminders as you write. We are using Arc's notecard function, but you can also use a regular paper notecard:

  • Title the notecard with the character's name and their story role, if they have one
  • The next line includes their age and a basic description, like those above. Be sure to include flaws, inner-need, superpower, and primary objectives.
  • At the bottom of the notecard, include a line or two of dialogue that they might say that you feel is quintessentially "them."
Character creation tool arc studio pro screenwriting software
A notecard in Arc Studio Pro.

2. Develop your storylines

Storylines are the lifeblood of your TV show. They make up every plot point that happens across the entire series as a whole, during each season, and within individual episodes.

Unlike movies, TV shows allow writers to spend time on multiple storylines—not just a main plot and subplots. Central characters usually have their own main storylines, but they almost always comprise integral parts of other storylines.

Defining premise, theme, and stakes

To have well-developed storylines, each should be defined by its premise, theme, and stakes.

Premise

Premise defines the central conflict driving each storyline forward.

For example, many shows will have an ongoing central storyline or overall objective, a new storyline for each episode, an ongoing love-interest storyline, or an ongoing storyline for each character's individual objectives/backstories.

Theme

The theme describes what an audience member should take away from each storyline—the lesson, moral, or message it's meant to convey.

Typically, most (if not all) of the storylines in the most influential TV shows will explore the same theme from different perspectives and angles. For example, in The Good Place, even though it's a comedy, we're grappling with the very thought-provoking thematic question / moral argument: what makes someone a good person?

Stakes

And lastly, stakes define what each character has invested in each storyline—what is their stake in the storyline or, said another way, what is in jeopardy here?

The stakes answer the question, "So what?" You should strive to raise the stakes with every single storyline as a rule of thumb. If Voldemort were only kinda annoying and not a serial killer, we wouldn't be nearly as invested in Harry's mission to take him out.

Looking beyond the pilot

Your pilot sets the stage for the rest of your series, and so it's not enough to throw a bunch of random conflicts on the page. Instead, you need to plan where you intend to take each storyline and the entire concept of your story by building out an outline of each central plot point.

Tip: All of your storylines should create a web with your protagonist at the center. Even if it's not obvious how a particular storyline connects to your protagonist, you as the writer should know how it will affect them.

Depending on your series format, you may not need to know how each storyline ends in advance. But you should have a general sense of where all the storylines you introduce in the pilot are going.

Michael explains the central story line of the TV series, The Good Place.
In The Good Place, the central storyline is what makes a person good? Image from IMDB.

For example, in The Good Place, Eleanor finds out she's dead and has been mistakenly sent to "the good place" even though she was supposed to go to "the bad place."

Connecting plot and characters

Think through each of the storylines in your show and what central theme they're related to.

  • What is the premise of each? How do they end? What changes over time?
  • What questions do they raise? What themes?
  • What is at stake? What does each character have to lose?
  • How does every single character relate to each storyline, even if it's only from a distance?
  • How do storylines interact with one another? Is there an overlap?

Here is an example of a beat card using Arc Studio Pro’s notecard function.

beat card arc studio pro screenwriting software
Arc Studio beat card.

3. Establish your structure

Your outline is a map that creates the skeleton for your pilot episode and is the basis for the plot structure of your entire series.

Outlining is where you can figure out whether your pilot idea may be better suited as a feature or a short film. Generally speaking, you can write either a 30-minute or 60-minute show, and this will help inform how many acts you should include: three, two, or five.

The 3 act story structure

Three acts are primarily used for feature films. However, when a pilot for a series uses the three-act structure, it serves to introduce the central problem of your story.

  • Act 1 is when you introduce the central storyline of the season or series.
  • Act 2 is when you face the consequences of the central storyline.
  • Act 3 is when you resolve a piece of the central storyline and make a plan to tackle the rest of it.

Since it's a bit non-traditional to use the three-act structure in TV, this tends to be a better choice if you want your show to end up on a streaming platform rather than a network.

The 2 act story structure

If you're using a two-act structure, the first episode serves to introduce the world, characters, and context in which recurring issues will arise. This structure is almost entirely reserved for half-hour-long shows and usually comedies (like The Office).

  • Act 1 (10 pages) is when you introduce the world and the episode's central storyline.
  • Act 2 (20 pages) is when you face the consequences of that central storyline and resolve it.

The 5 act story structure

Most narrative hour-long TV shows will follow a five-act structure with two bookends: a teaser and a tag. Although it's less common, a half-hour series can also use five acts (The Good Place does!).

  • The teaser is a hook. Sometimes in a pilot, you'll flash forward and show a highly dramatic situation down the line (like Walter White about to shoot himself in Breaking Bad or a serial killer murdering his most recent victim in any Criminal Minds episode).
  • Act 1 is when you introduce the main characters and the world.
  • Act 2 is when you introduce the central storyline and conflict of the episode.
  • Act 3 is the low point when your characters don't think the conflict can be resolved.
  • Act 4 is when your characters take action in the face of the conflict.
  • Act 5 is the resolution of the episode's conflict and, for a pilot, establishes the long-term storyline.
  • Tag is a hint of the conflict to come in the next episode.

You can read more depth about what the 5 act structure looks like here.

Defining core story beats

If you want to use two or five-act structures, use some story beats and the act explanations above as a guide—be sure to include a story beat for each act break. We'll be breaking down story beats using the 5 act structure.

Opening sequence: Protagonist and world introduction

Typically, you'll throw your audience into the action by introducing them to your protagonist and world. In this scene, your protagonist is quintessential "them"— and almost immediately, your audience will know precisely who your protagonist is.

In the opening sequence, you will want to establish three main aspects:

  1. Reveal the protagonist's flaws and superpower. What will keep them from achieving their objective, and what will help them?
  2. Establish exactly where your story takes place. What are the rules that define the world? Is it fantastical or more grounded? How does your protagonist fit into it? This usually includes meeting allies and foes.
  3. Introduce your audience to your theme. Usually, premises can be summarized in a question with multiple answers. For example, how far would they go for their family? Sometimes a character will directly state the theme, but you can also be more subtle.

Act 1 break: Inciting incident

This is when the rubber hits the road. The inciting incident is the moment that launches your story into action and ignites the main storyline. It's an earth-shattering event, discovery, or revelation with enormous stakes for your protagonist.

It also sets up your protagonist's central objective: the disease outbreak (The Walking Dead) or a new police chief (Brooklyn 99). It's the moment that changes everything and turns your protagonist's world upside down.

Act II start: New world

Now, the consequences of the first act break begin to unfold. So what does this new world look like? What are the new rules and dynamics?

Traditionally, this new world presents plenty of challenges for your protagonist—the second Act is back-to-back obstacles. It's a world rife with conflict, and often, your protagonist isn't happy about it, which we call a "reluctant hero."

This launches a short-term conflict for your protagonist to solve within the pilot. The first criminal case, the first bad guy to fight, the first social problem at high school, etc. It should demonstrate how exciting this new world can be and highlight the challenges your protagonist will face in the episodes to come.

Midpoint: Reversal

Just when your protagonist starts getting comfortable in the new world, the reversal changes everything.

The antagonist could reveal themselves; the protagonist could get a brief reprieve that makes them think everything is fine, only to have the problem come back ten times worse, an ally might back out, etc. Whatever it is, your objective as a writer is to surprise your audience and keep up the stakes for your protagonist.

Act II break: Climax

Finally, your protagonist faces off against whatever is at the end of the road for their short-term conflict. Their flaws and foes will nearly keep them from victory while their superpower and allies pull them through.

At this point, we usually see that your protagonist's answer to your story's thematic question is inherently different from their foes. For example, if the thematic question is, "Do you have a responsibility to help other people?" your protagonist may say, "Yes, other people always come first." Your antagonist may say, "No, you need to look out for yourself above all else."

Act III start: Resolution

In a film, the resolution is when everything comes together. Your protagonist experiences a victory in the form of their short-term conflict, and now they get a bit of a reprieve.

They've won a small battle within a big war. They may reunite with allies, celebrate, recover, come back to base, complete the perp walk—whatever victory means.

Ending sequence: Call to action

To wrap up your pilot, your protagonist—who before may have been a reluctant hero—finally understands that they need to take on whatever challenge in your main storyline.

In the closing scene, you need to show your reader how your story has the potential to continue for a long time (this is a series, after all).

So be sure you set up a conflict that seems impossible—something that will take a lot of time (or even an infinite amount of time) to overcome, like defeating every supernatural being (Supernatural).

Outline action steps

Oddly, this is perhaps this article's most straightforward action step—and the most important! But fortunately, you've already done most of the work.

Before you start:

  1. Layout all your character and storyline notecards.
  2. Using the explanations above, start by creating one notecard per significant story beat.
  3. Title them as the story beat (for example, "Midpoint") and then list details beneath.

For example:

  • First, title the card with a scene heading for where it will take place (EXT. STORE – DAY)
  • Then, write a brief description of what happens with new characters' names written in all CAPS.
  • Beneath that, write a bulleted list of what the scene establishes. You justify why this beat exists in your story—what important information it conveys, who it introduces, what purpose it serves, etc.

Once you do this for all of your major story beats, lay them out in order and start creating notecards for connector scenes (or transitional scenes, like walking from one location to the next or a switch in locale). They should include all the same information!

Beat Card Arc Studio Pro Screenwriting software
Arc Studio beat card.

Before you start writing

You can save yourself a lot of time if you put in some work before putting pen to paper. Here are some activities you can do to make sure your first draft goes smoothly.

Determine your genre

Be clear about what genre you are writing in before you set to work. For example, it might be tempting to write an experimental piece to wow executives, but that is unlikely to cut it when you're a newbie in the TV industry.

Genre is the most crucial factor when considering your series's network, time slot, and marketing budget. Your show is unlikely to get picked up without clearly fitting into one genre.

Study hard. Take a look at tv shows you like as examples of the type of writing you want to do. What are the conventions of that genre? Look at where different shows within the same genre overlap and how you can incorporate aspects of them in your own writing.

Here are the main types of genre that your show might fit into, though do note this is not exhaustive:

  • Serial drama, otherwise known as soap operas
  • Crime
  • Comedy
  • Sitcom
  • Fantasy
  • Romance
  • Sci-Fi
  • Police procedurals, otherwise known as detective dramas
  • Cartoons
  • Children's or young adult drama
  • Western
  • Historical drama
  • Biopic
  • Adventure
  • Political thriller

Outline first

You can save yourself time by coming up with an outline first. If you start writing without them, you are likely to get yourself stuck if you change your mind about what is happening to a character halfway through, or you realize you've boxed yourself in, and the plan you had in your head doesn't make sense.

You might even have a clear idea about where you're going one day, and then when you next open up your laptop to write, you've forgotten all about it! So be careful to watch out for this and instead prep.

Different outlining strategies work better for some writers. For some, the most helpful outline is a scene-by-scene breakdown. For others, it's a quick 500-word document stating what will happen in simple terms.

You can use a simple Word document, the arcs and beats function on Arc Studio Pro, or use a note-taking program.

What is a TV bible, and do I need one?

Once you have written your pilot script, you need to consider how you will pitch the entire series to a production company or executive.

You need a TV bible that includes details about the rest of the episodes in the season, what will happen in future seasons, character arcs, and details on any spinoffs. If your show is commissioned, your bible will serve as a directory, updated with biographical information on characters and locations as they are established on screen.

The TV bible is usually ten pages and broken down into several components. It includes a one-page pitch of your show with your logline, story engine, character breakdowns, episode synopsis, and plans for future seasons.

You will need one when it's time to pitch your show as a whole to producers and executives. Additionally, your TV Bible could play a significant role in helping you network.

Want to read more about getting a job in the screenwriting industry and learn more about the business of film? Click here.

Choose the right screenwriting software

Now that you've got your outline and done your research choosing the right screenwriting software is the final step.

For a long time, the TV and film industry relied heavily on Final Draft. While this might suit your needs today, you have many competing options that match and even outdo the standard.

Arc Studio Pro has advanced story-building features such as the story beats and templates which come with the software as standard. You won't have to sit there and google different structures and outlining techniques. Arc Studio already has them pre-loaded into the software!

Another bonus to using Arc Studio is they are the optimal screenwriting solution for tv writers and co-writing. With collaboration features that make collaborating as easy as using Google Docs, you and your team can write faster and more efficiently.

Whatever software you choose, plan carefully and then work on writing your movie; you never know your show might end up on Netflix or HBO sooner than you think.

Our last word of advice - the movie and film industry can be hard to break into, but don't give up! We hope you understand that the struggle is part of the journey. Perhaps your first pilot is a bust, but the more pilots you write, the more you write in general, your craft will only improve over time.

If you put effort into writing, you will reap the benefits. Good luck!

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How to Write a TV Pilot: 3 Key Steps
Alexie Basil

Alexie Basil is a screenwriter who uses psychology to craft deeper characters. Hosting the Young Screenwriters workshops and podcast.

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David Wain

For decades I've been searching for a seamless screenwriting app and and everything has come up way short – until Arc Studio. Writing and collaborating is easier than ever and it gets better every week. Well done!

David Wain
Writer/Director "Role Models"