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How to write ACT ONE of your TV pilot

TV pilot

In the TV writing game, a TV pilot is the hardest type of script to write. Regular episodes further down the line benefit from having characters who are already established, and storylines that are already on the move. But a TV pilot needs to establish everything right from the start. You're introducing new characters, new stories for the series AND for the episode, establishing the tone of the show, and giving a sense of your style of writing... and all that's just in the first act.

Often, new TV writers treat a TV pilot as part of a feature. They leave important context for the story to episode two and they don't introduce key characters until late in the script. So, based on my experience of what works for a TV pilot, I wanted to just talk about act one of your script - what needs to be included, what you need to prove, and why this is so important for those reading your script. Always remember, your audience is not the eventual viewers of this produced script. Your audience is execs, reps, and writers who are simply reading your material and making snap judgements because your script is in a pile of hundreds of others.

With that in mind, let's talk about act one, starting with...

Establishing your characters in act one of your TV pilot

Most, if not all, of your main characters need to be introduced in the first act of your pilot. This is when the reader is getting a sense of who we're going to be following for the remainder of this series. And you need to bring them into the world of the show through those main characters. Now, if it's a third or fourth lead and they matter a bit less, then fine, maybe they can come in act two. But if we're following somebody for the entirety of act one and then in act two we find out that your main character is this new person we're just meeting, you've got a problem. Screenplays, whether TV pilots or features, are about characters, and treating your act one in that way will greatly affect the direction you take. Let's get to know them, what they want, what their goals are, and how they plan on achieving them.

Establishing the story of your TV series

This seems like an obvious one, right? But it's a little complicated. There are plenty of shows where you're not quite sure where the series is going until the end of the pilot. And that's fine. But we need to know what big obstacle the main protagonist will be facing. So, for example, we don't know that Walter White's entire goal for the Breaking Bad series will be becoming the biggest drug lord and making the most money. But by the end of the first act, we know that Walter White is living a boring life, that money is a concern, and he has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Okay, pretty clear problem, and pretty clear goal. The twists and turns that come later are the bulk of the show, but by the end of act one, we've established a man with a problem wants to provide for his family before they die.

Establishing the story of your TV pilot episode

So, the story of the TV series is a little easier to establish. But then you also need to cram in that episode's storyline. The Sopranos is about a mobster having a nervous breakdown and going into therapy. That's the big overarching TV series premise. But the TV pilot is much more confined. They have a problem with Arite Bucco and his business. This is the protagonist's episodic storyline that happens to coincide with the start of his series storyline.

Your TV pilot needs to establish the tone of your TV series

By the end of act one, a reader should know exactly what your TV series is. Is this a dramatic procedural? Is it a dramedy? What's the world of this show? Do supernatural things exist? Does it have a silly bent to it? This is all done in the writing. Jokey scene descriptions aren't appropriate if you're writing a legal procedural, and flowery prose would not be appropriate for a network sitcom, etc.

By establishing all of these things in act one, you set yourself and the reader off on the right foot, ready to tackle the rest of your TV pilot.


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I'm Anton, a TV writer and author of Breaking Into TV Writing, a book about the business of TV writing and how to get your foot in the door.


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