To become a successful TV writer you need to know how to write a TV pilot script. This is a vital skill that’s necessary for getting a show picked up and aired by a studio.
Whether you’ve written a script for TV before or not, it’s important to be aware of what key elements make a successful pilot script. Read on to find out how to write a TV pilot script.
What is a TV pilot?
A TV pilot is the first episode in a series. As it’s the beginning of what could be a limited series or a multi-season show, pilots are arguably the most important episode. They have to introduce characters and plotlines in a way that leaves the audience wanting to watch more.
What is a pilot script?
A pilot script is a script for the first episode of a TV show. Pilot scripts can be written in isolation from the rest of a season, as they are pitched by writers to studios and production companies almost like a “taster”.
If a studio picks it up and decides to create the show, then the rest of the show will be written.
TV pilot script guide
Here are the key elements to consider when writing a TV pilot.
Your reason for writing it
The first thing to consider with a TV pilot script is why you want to write one. This might influence how you approach the writing process, but it will also be important when it comes to pitching the script.
After all, any TV executive will want to know why you wrote this particular script and why you’re so passionate about it.
Examine your favourite shows
The best way to know how to write an engaging pilot is to look at some of your favourite TV shows and examine what makes the first episode of each so successful. Why did it captivate you? What made you want to keep watching? Which elements did you find most interesting?
Some major TV shows of the past couple of decades are worth rewatching and studying just for their pilots alone. Take a look at the likes of Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, or other award-winning shows. They were hits for a reason.
Understand the genre
The chosen genre for your pilot will influence how you approach the script. Genres have different ways to examine themes, pacing, and stylistic choices.
You may want to write a 30-minute sitcom script or the pilot for an epic fantasy drama. But, whichever genre your proposed show fits within, you need to adapt your script to match the relevant genre conventions.
The length of the script is one important aspect to consider. A sitcom typically needs to fit a 30-minute slot, whereas dramas are usually longer to fill a full hour. The length of the script, therefore, needs to match these accordingly.
Start with a memorable opening shot
A good TV pilot engages, or at least intrigues, the audience from the very opening shot. Your script needn’t start with dialogue; instead, think of an opening shot a write a descriptive passage that can be translated effectively to the small screen.
Focus on the first 10 pages
The first 10 pages of your pilot script are the most important. This is where you need to make a good first impression on whichever readers, executives, or producers read. If they’re bored or not impressed, they won’t bother continuing.
If the script gets turned into a TV pilot, then the first 10 pages translate to the opening few minutes. Any viewer needs to get hooked from the get-go, otherwise they might not keep watching.
These are the key elements you need to introduce in the first few pages:
- Time setting and location
- Main characters
- The main goals and objectives of your protagonist
- The main antagonist
- A hint of the major themes that will be explored
Types of TV pilot
Some writers recognise three different pilot categories:
- Concept pilot – Characters and settings are introduced to the audience as if they have always existed in the world of the show.
- Premise pilot – Events and characters are introduced as if this is a new situation for them, or by writing in a twist that propels them in a different direction. One example of this is the pilot for Lost, where the viewer meets each character as they try to understand what’s going on following a plane crash.
- Hybrid pilot – This is a combination of concept and premise pilots. The world pre-exists, but something different happens within the first episode to take the story or one of the characters in a different direction.
Where to submit TV pilot
Once you’ve finished your pilot script and polished it off, there are a few different options on where you can submit it depending on your goals:
- Submit to screenplay contests – There are various screenplay contests with categories for TV pilots.
- Submit to festivals – Some festivals allow screenplays to be submitted in a similar way to contests, but these offer the possibility of getting your script in front of a large audience and maybe even industry professionals.
- Submit to studios and production companies – The most direct way to try and get your script actually turned into a TV pilot is by approaching studios. Some may not accept unsolicited proposals, so it may be more successful to network with producers or agents who can help you get your foot in the door.
Tips for writing a TV pilot
Now you know how to write a TV pilot script, you should just start writing. But if you need more help, these tips might also be useful.
Establish your characters
Characters are just as important as the plot in more ways than one. In a pilot, it’s the characters who drive the plot forward – it’s their story that is being told.
Your main characters should have their goals and motivations established within the first few scenes so that the direction of the plot for the rest of the episode and future arcs is signposted to the viewer.
You should also set the foundations for their character arcs and what challenges they will be facing in the rest of the show.
Keep the plot moving
The most memorable TV pilots are relentless in how the plot moves forward constantly. It doesn’t have to rush forward at a breakneck speed, but getting an audience hooked is important.
There’s plenty of time to slow things down in later episodes, but a pilot has too much to fit in to move slowly. Characters need to be introduced, relationships established, and storylines set up.
Outline your plot
Writing a well-structured plot is vital for any episode, let alone a pilot. It will also help you know what scenes to include and which elements of the story are worth focusing on.
Using a three-act structure is a tried and tested method to craft a story with a clear narrative arc. Start with a first act that introduces the setting, characters, and situation. Then move to a middle act where the story progresses as the characters seek to fulfil their goals. Lastly, end on a third act that brings the story to a close with a climax followed by a denouement.
Understand what makes good writing
Through practice and learning, you can improve your writing in many ways that will help your write more impactful TV pilots.
You could try reading more scripts and studying how the pieces are brought together to make an impactful story. But, most importantly, keep writing and redrafting. Put your ideas onto paper and your skills will develop naturally.
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TV pilot script FAQs
The length of the script will depend on what genre you’re writing in, as episodes can range from 30 minutes to an hour. Because a minute roughly matches up to one page of a script, a rule of thumb is to write 30 pages for comedy and 60 pages for a drama.
What makes a good TV pilot script?
The most important aspect of a good TV script is the ability to write a unique story that’s worth telling. Originality in the plot but also in the characters is crucial to stand out from the crowd.