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.
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:
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!)
Before you face down that blinking cursor, you need to answer these three questions:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
To have a successful show, every single central character (not just your protagonist) should be three-dimensional and fully-realized meaning they have:
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:
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.
To have well-developed storylines, each should be defined by its premise, theme, and stakes.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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."
Think through each of the storylines in your show and what central theme they're related to.
Here is an example of a beat card using Arc Studio Pro’s notecard function.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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!).
You can read more depth about what the 5 act structure looks like here.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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."
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 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).
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:
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!
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.
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:
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.
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.
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!
Get an actionable guide for writing your first script from HBO writer David Wappel. He takes you to a fully written script, step-by-step.
Totally free for a limited time only.
Get an actionable guide for writing your first script from HBO writer David Wappel. He takes you to a fully written script, step-by-step.
Totally free for a limited time only.