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Step-by-step guide to writing your TV pilot like the pros

Updated: Feb 20

Breaking a TV pilot

Want to write a TV pilot, but don't know where to start? Take a cue from the pros. Professional TV writers have a very specific way of fleshing out episodes from just an idea or even the kernel of an idea to a full-fledged script.

Each stage in this process allows input and different ideas to take hold. It also gets more and more specific at each stage to the point that, even before you write the script, you know exactly what's going to happen in each scene.

I have worked in 14 different TV writers' rooms and this process took place in each and every one. And while there's no reason you have to follow this process exactly in order to create your TV pilot, these steps may give you an idea about how to flesh out an idea you're working on, or avoid writing yourself into a corner you can't get out of.

The first stage is the most fun because there are no rules...

Blue Sky your TV Pilot

Blue sky your TV pilot

This is the time in a writers' room when there is no general consensus for what an episode should look like. So, everybody's pitching anything they can think of until the room comes to a consensus on a basic idea for a story.

Unfortunately, you won't have the benefit of a bunch of writers focusing on your story. But if you're still at the idea phase, just start writing everything you think you might want to write down.

They can be as short as one or two sentences. It doesn't need to be any longer than that. The point is to get them down on paper and keep adding to them until you have 5-10.

At that point, step away from them and come back. You'll really see what sticks with you and what idea you think is ridiculous. Or you'll find the right idea that's just ridiculous enough to work.

Once you've settled on a premise, then you can move on to...

The Story Area

This is where your story really starts coming together. A story area is a two-to-three page document written in prose, meaning it's not in script form, that tells the summary of the story of the episode.

Story Area

You're not getting bogged down in scenes or dialogue. You're just writing the story and seeing if it works. Major problems will become obvious when you write it out.

All of a sudden it won't make sense why a certain character would go to the store at 4am and you've got some revising to do.

The goal here is to make the big challenging problems evident, and to revise the story area until those problems don't exist and you have an appealing story.

At this point, we're going to get even more specific with an even longer document...

The Outline

The outline is an 8-10 page document that, well, outlines your story. It is also written in prose, but it will at times contain any important dialogue that is needed in a scene.

Notice I mentioned your "scene." Finally we're breaking up our story into scenes. So, we'll see the scene headers now:


And we'll be much more focused on the moves within a scene. It's no longer "Frank gets hustled in a game of poker and leaves pissed" from the story area.

In the outline, we're getting into the logistics of the scene. Which other characters are present? How do they hustle Frank? How does the scene begin and end? What is his emotional state at the beginning and end of the scene?

A lot of story and character problems will come up during this stage. And that's a good thing. The more you catch now, the easier a time you'll have during the scripting phase.

So, embrace the issues that arise and fix them. Rewrite the document, moving away from the story area if these issues come up. You may also see an amazing new direction for a scene or a certain part of the story. Indulge that and follow your gut.

Off on Script

Writing your TV pilot

Okay, the hoops have been jumped through, the outline is finished, the problems and kinks have been worked out. Finally, you're off on script.

In a TV writers' room, this is when a writer is literally sent out of the room for a week or two to write their script. They're given all the notes that have been taking during the breaking of the story along with the outline and the story area and they leave and write up their script.

Despite this long process and the stages along the way, problems will arise, and that's okay.

The point is to make the best script you can, and focusing on this script idea in many different forms gives you the best chance at writing a kickass pilot.

When it comes to your TV pilot, do whatever works

The way they break stories in TV writers' rooms is interesting and I find it helpful to model to some degree. But when it comes down to it, you just need to do whatever works for you.

Whatever makes you sit down and start getting ideas out is the best method. I tend to write out two different beat sheets -- an early one that has some problems and a second one that seems less problematic -- before diving into the script.

It's sort of a mini version of the Story Area-Outline-Script method. And I do that because I know I'll get impatient if I write a whole outline and I want to get to the script phase faster.

That's what works for me. The more you write, the more you'll learn your style and figure out what makes you the most creative in the most efficient way.

Photo Credit: "Trumbo" Bleecker Street


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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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