Claim Your
Off Discount
Blog
/
Character Development
/
21 MIN
READ /
February 20, 2020

How to Write a TV Pilot: 3 Key Steps

So, you want to write a TV pilot? 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’re going to show you how to do this on notecards in Arc Studio Pro, but you can use whatever technique works best for you.

For guidance, we will primarily give example answers for The Good Place (you can read the pilot here to get acquainted!).

1. Who Are the Characters?

In films, you almost always have characters designed to fill specific story roles—a single protagonist, an antagonist, a mentor, etc. While TV series as a whole can get a bit more complicated, for your pilot, this still holds true.

In television, writers and characters are king. For your audience to want to spend dozens of hours binge-watching your show, they need to be captivated by your characters.

While TV series as a whole can get a bit more complicated, for your pilot, this still holds true.

Choosing Your Protagonist

The protagonist of your pilot should be the protagonist of your series—which means you need to make the case that they would be interesting to follow for years to come. In other words, 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, but in every single episode, his actions create more conflict and drama 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?

Simple. 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 creating a hub for all of your future storylines. Every single central storyline will be driven by your protagonist, so build a character who is perfectly poised to be at the center of it all—likable or not.

Tip: If you create a protagonist who is unlikable, 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 the logic of them.

Choosing 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.

Often, protagonists’ worlds will be occupied with characters who fill supporting roles, like their best friend, confidants, sidekicks, team members, or mentors. It’s usually filled with antagonists too, who stand directly between the protagonist and their objective.

Chidi is Eleanor's sidekick in The Good Place. All rights reserved.

One technique for coming up with 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 in a different way.

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.”

Eleanor and Chidi in the TV series, The Good Place.
Michael is the architect of Eleanor’s neighborhood in the Good Place. Image from NBC.


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.

Developing 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 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
  • On the next line, include their age and a basic description, like the ones above. Be sure to include flaw, inner-need, super-power, and primary objective.
  • At the bottom of the notecard, include a quote of dialogue that they might say that you feel is quintessentially “them”
character creation tool arc studio pro screenwriting software



2. What is the Story About?

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 give writers the ability to spend time on multiple storylines—not just a main plot and subplots. Central characters usually each have their own main storylines, but they almost always make up integral parts of other storylines.

Defining Premise, Theme, and Stakes

In order 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

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 powerful 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?” As a rule of thumb, with every single storyline, you should strive to raise the stakes. If Voldemort was 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 by building out an outline of each major plot point.

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

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.”

Storyline Action Steps

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

3. How Is Your Story Told?

You cannot skip this step! Your outline is a map that creates the skeleton for your pilot episode. If you have a killer outline, you’re well on your way to writing a knock-out pilot. This is also the step where you can figure out whether your pilot idea may be better suited as a feature or a short film.

Determining Act Structure

Although every single pilot should include story beats that we’re going to define in a moment, we need to talk about your episode length and act structure. 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.

Three Acts

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 at a network.

Two Acts

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 at that (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.
Five Acts

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, it is possible for a half-hour series to use five acts as well (The Good Place does!).

  • 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.

Defining Core Story Beats

For simplicity’s sake, we’re going to walk through how to create an outline for your pilot using a three-act structure. If you want to use two or five-act structures, use these beats and the act explanations above as a guide—just be sure to include a story beat for each act break.

Opening Sequence: Protagonist and World Introduction

Typically, you’ll throw your audience right into the action by introducing them to your protagonist and world. In this scene, your protagonist is quintessentially “them”— and almost immediately, your audience will know exactly who your protagonist is.

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

  1. Reveal their flaws and superpower. What will keep them from achieving their objective and what helps 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.
First Act 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 that has enormous stakes for your protagonist.

It also sets up your protagonist’s central objective—it’s 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.

Second Act Start: New World

Now, the consequences of the first act break begin to unfold. 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 conundrum at high school. Whatever it is, it should demonstrate how exciting this new world can be and highlight the kinds of 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 comes along and 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 continue to up the stakes for your protagonist.

Second Act 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 in time, 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” and your antagonist may say, “No, you need to look out for yourself above all else.”

Third Act 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 to them.

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 presents itself 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 insurmountable—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 the most straight-forward action-step of this article—and the most important! But fortunately, you’ve already done most of the work.

Before you start, be sure to lay out all your character and storyline notecards. Using the explanations above, start by creating one notecard per major story beat. 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. This is where you justify why this beat exists in your story—what important information it conveys, who it introduces, what purpose it serves, etc.
Beat Card Arc Studio Pro Screenwriting software

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!

Putting It All Together

After you’ve finished all of these cards and group them by Act, you’ll have a solid outline for your pilot script and are ready to start writing your television show!

If you’re interested in utilizing Arc Studio Pro’s screenwriting software, please click here.

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.

Level-up your screenwriting software

With Arc Studio, you stay focused while writing your screenplay, craft better stories, and collaborate with ease.

Go to Desk

Heading

This is some text inside of a div block.
This is some text inside of a div block.

Read More

Ready to get started?

Go to Desk
No credit card required
Anna Klassen

The most efficient, elegant, intuitive, and all around user-friendly screenwriting software I've ever used — and I've used them all.

Anna Klassen
Screenwriter (Netflix)