How to write a Pilot for Television. This is my mark 2 chapter on the subject. A note of caution from the Off.
Firstly, do read my blog How To Write the Pilot for Television (part 1) here
Then, do not write anything initially. Have a solid think. Ask yourself 3 key questions:
- What is it I want to write about. What do I really want to say?
- Who are the characters who will say this stuff for me?
- What do I want the audience/reader to know/feel having read or watched my Pilot?
The broader and more expanded you can make the Bigger Picture, the better chance you will have of writing a cracking Pilot to sell the rest of your series. So I say to my writers, Broad Stroke your series outline first, before digging into the script itself.
In my world, and this is something some writers do have issue with (until I convince them of the wisdom of my ways!) in the process of writing a Pilot script, the actual scene writing – the getting it down from page 1 page 60, is the very last thing you do. It is also, in my book, not the most important thing you need to do. The most important stage of writing a Pilot script is the structure and planning. And that doesn’t even start with the structure and planning of the Pilot. Firstly, I believe you need to consider the series arc as a whole.
Writing the Series Outline
The creative process in my world, is inextricably linked to the structure questions you need to be asking yourself – problems that you need to both recognise exist and then solve. To write a truly successful Pilot of any series drama – in whatever genre you chose – you need first to ensure it is structured in such a way as to really sell the story you have created. If you manage to solve that knotty issue, you are well on the way to crafting a Pilot episode that will not only be creatively strong, but will also ultimately be a better sell to a commercially savvy Producer.
Indulge me for a minute here – this is my idea of Porn; exploring the various methods and products writers use to structure their work.
I have worked with writers in development of series tv drama for 30 years now, and it never ceases to amaze (and if I am honest appal) when I hear a writer say ‘I don’t plan, as such, I sort of let my characters do the talking and I just write the scenes as they come to me’. This is the way madness and despair lie. Trust me. If you haven’t broadly structured the narrative flow of your overall story line for your series at the start, you will constantly be pulled up by nagging questions as you write your Pilot. The biggest and most insistent of which will be ‘what is this series about?’
So, with no more ado and with utmost haste, I suggest you invest in a big white board, or white board sticky paper. You will need a wall, a door, a solid expanse of space big enough to map out using marker pens or your stationery of choice (Postcards, Postits, stickies) the general flow of the story as a whole.
Break the series arc down into rough episode breaks. You do not need to do a beat by beat outline of the story, that is guaranteed to make you a bit insane, but it is crucially also not necessary.
You are doing all this structure work to do two things essentially: that is, to prove to yourself that you A. Know what it is you actually want to say B. Can produce a series outline and also a Pilot episode that convinces a Producer they want to read what you have to say.
Read my blog How to Write a Series Outline and then have fun. This is the process of getting the series story line – or The Narrative Through line – out of you and on to a solid surface so you can look at it at a distance. The key word here is distance. You will need to be able to see at a glance, where you most need to put more story beats over the series arc as a whole.
Identify the Jump Off Mid Point and Land Point of each episode in the over all arc of your series. You can fill in some gaps at this stage so the summaries (for that is what they are) read well and with a narrative flow to them. Using the white board plan first, you then can transfer these to your Series Outline – each paragraph you write summarises that point in the story arc at that particular time.
The key here is to give a potential Producer a strong idea of the general flow of the series storyline. They do not want to read masses of detail or many pages of text. Keep it visual, keep it succinct, keep it readable.
Rule of Three
Using my way of working, my writers in the construction of their story lines for their characters, consider the Truimvirate of Seed, Explore, Pay Off. You plant the seed of an idea within the story line of a character and then proceed to explore this further always with the intention to land this arc (it may be a long strand across the series as a whole or a short strand in one episode) with a Pay Off moment. At all times your audience/reader needs to be satisfied that their engagement and attention is being rewarded. Do not leave any moment hanging. Always land them. Ask yourself if A happens, which results in B how do I get to C? Also, in order to create Narrative Stretch, I encourage writers to consider how the other story lines in this world are affected, crossed over, or directly impacted by the development of this particular story line.
And then to the Pilot
So having filled your wall with story beats for the arc of the series, you can now address your Pilot episode. The first in the arc. The all important script that will set up the energy, establish tone, jump start all series story lines and introduce the main players to your audience. The Pilot has A LOT to do.
The 5 Act Structure
Television likes to crank up the energy, keep the ball rolling forward, and essentially you need to do this by planting a series of ‘tent poles’ or ‘dramatic peaks’ some small, some bigger, some climatic, across the series but also essentially at this point, across the hour of your Pilot. Rule of thumb, make sure you have at least one notable peak of drama in each act with several smaller on the Richter scale, leading up to and following on from, your big moment. Again, I need to stress, your dramatic peaks do not have to be equivalent to blowing up the Queen Vic or starting a war or murdering someone. Depending on your series story line, tone and message, you may be dealing with the most intense of suburban situation or a series focusing on the ins and outs of a marriage dissolving. In any and all cases however, there needs to be, across the 60 mins you are plotting, a narrative thread that moves into peaks and levels off again, that builds and subsides. This is the way to create engagement, tension and viewer satisfaction. No one wants a flat-lined plotline.
60 minutes can be split into five in many different ways. Rule of thumb working with me, is to address your first 10 pages. This, if got right, will ensure your reader stays with you over to the next 50 pages. If you lose a reader (or audience member) before the end of the Act 1 (which is essentially the page 10 point in your script) you will not get them back. So make those first ten pages count. Here’s a blog I wrote about this knotty problem whereby I give you ways of addressing the issues you need to face and how to get over this 10 page hurdle.
Once you are through the first Act, you will have established the main players in your world and your audience (who I refer to as the Macro View) will know who’s view point we will be following across the arc of the series (which I refer to as the Micro View).
Act Two and Three tend to be the longer of the Acts in a typical 5 Act structure. This is not always the case but for the sake of this blog and clarity I am saying we use these two acts to dig into the exploration bit of the arc. In Act One you have Seeded the essential elements of each story line for each of your main players, now you develop and expand on these. Act Four is a build, a momentum gatherer in terms of structure, because you are going to land – to Pay Off your seeded strands from Act One, in Act Five. The last act is often a shorter one but again, this is not set in stone.
I do not like to be prescriptive about the way you chose to break your Pilot into the Acts but I do need to stress each Act must be moving the plot along by way of sub-textual exploration of the main players in your series and so the viewer/reader will have a strong sense of rhythm and energy across the hour and never feel there is a flabby, un-interesting bit.
The Pilot is the first episode in the series arc and I can’t stress enough how important it is to get that series arc down and rooted in your brain before you tackle the Pilot. If you don’t do that structure work before you dig into actual scenes, you will miss out on so many connections and seeds you can plant in the pilot that you can explore and pay off in the series arc.
I run an Online Tv Pilot Writing Course from my website. Contact me for further details of the next one.
Do you want to learn how to handle series narrative? Do you want to learn how to be Script Editor of your own work and those of others?
This course is running from November in London. Details here. Sign up now.