Writing a TV Pilot in 4 Simple Steps

Stage director watching show

The TV pilot presents some unique challenges. The following steps for writing a pilot will help you tackle these and learn the art of the pilot.

1. Concept

Before you write about characters or plot, you need a concept. Your idea should be one-of-a-kind, not a trend chaser. Think of interesting places, people, time periods, or situations that are unique. In addition, keep in mind:

  • The pilot functions as a sales presentation to TV executives. Pilots are filmed for the sole purpose of selling TV brass on a new show. The pilot must have elements of everything your show will be if it ran for several seasons. It should be a microcosm of what you envision the show to be throughout its entire life.
  • The show's concept must be a fertile ground for future story ideas - a bottomless fountain of conflicts and plot twists.
  • It should have broad appeal. Avoid niche concepts that limit your reach.

Single Camera vs. Multi-Camera Show

Do you want your show to be single camera or multi-camera? You must make this decision early on because it dictates how you write. A single camera show has these characteristics:

  • It is not filmed in front of a live studio audience, but more like a movie. 30 Rock is an example of a single camera show.
  • It uses a single-spaced script format similar to film screenwriting.
  • The scripts are typically shorter, around 30 pages give or take.

A multi-camera show has these characteristics:

  • It is filmed in front of a live studio audience on multiple sets with continuity similar to a theatrical performance on a stage.
  • It has a very different writing format (as the detailed analysis in the "script format" link above explains). A multi-camera script is double-spaced and has closer to 60 pages, on average.

2. Characters

The next step is building your characters. Write a detailed bio for each character as if he or she were a real person. Decide how the character will talk, walk, and think. In TV pilots, it's the viewer's connection to the characters that will keep them coming back to future episodes. In addition:

  • Pilots set the pattern for the rest of the show. Characters will grow over time, but their essential personality remains the same. The personality you create for a character will be set in stone once the pilot films. Make sure you love their personalities.
  • Balance plot imperatives (things that advance the plot) with character imperatives (things that advance the character). Don't go too far in either direction or the pilot will be boring.
  • Set up an essential character flaw or source of conflict in the pilot. This is often done with a major decision the character has to make that has repercussions long-term and is usually not fully resolved until the show ends.

3. Plot

The basic plot structure must exist in a pilot. Even if you are setting up future conflicts in your broader world, your pilot should have a satisfying story arch:

  • Act 1: The characters and setting are introduced. However, the pilot should not have too much back-story. That can be unraveled gradually in future episodes. It's fine to include setups (or "plants") in the pilot that will have big payoffs in future episodes, but don't make the pilot so mysterious that no one knows what is going on.
  • Act 2: Conflict arises.
  • Act 3: The characters find some kind of resolution, good or bad, that resolves the storyline for the pilot but sets up a world of possibilities for future episodes.

Only Use Recurring Devices and Techniques

In pilots, you should not use plot devices or storytelling techniques that will not be used again in future episodes. For example, in How I Met Your Mother, the show always started with the dad off-screen (as a voice-over) talking to his two kids as they sat on the couch staring at the camera. If the pilot used this storytelling device but never did it again in future episodes, it would have been odd. The pilot sets expectations.

4. Write Multiple Drafts

Be ruthless in the revision process. Let friends and strangers critique your work. Don't be afraid to scrap everything and start over if it is not working. Arriving at the perfect script for a TV pilot takes patience and a thick skin.

One Final Tip: Learn From the Best

Although you shouldn't chase current TV trends, you should still learn from the best. Check out this analysis of the top 50 TV pilots of all time for a gallery of great writing. These classic pilots will teach you the craft and remind you why you started writing scripts in the first place.

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Writing a TV Pilot in 4 Simple Steps