A lot rides on a TV pilot. Like the opening chapter of a long novel, the first episode of a TV series sets the stage for what’s to come—convincing the audience to return for more. But unlike any other genre
, TV shows have the potential to span years, capturing our attention week after week, and month after month. As the first episode of a TV series, a pilot has to be self-contained, but it's also the seed of something much larger. Viewers are introduced to characters, worlds, and content whose years-long journeys will stem from the conflicts established in that very first hour we meet them.
This month, dear writers, get us hooked on a new show. Write a pilot script that gives the viewer a taste of the plot, the characters, the structure, and the tone. What exactly goes into a pilot,
you might be wondering?
- This is just the beginning. Make sure that your pilot allows for a long story to unfold (think Game of Thrones or Friday Night Lights), or is based around a topic that contains many mini stories (like CSI or Law and Order).
- Illuminate the structure or frame. Is your show composed of self-contained stories, or an ongoing plot that builds with each episode? Does the first scene always open with the same character or the same action? Your pilot should reveal the patterns of the show as a whole.
- Think of each episode as a mini arc. Although an episode only serves as a piece of the whole pie, each should have the ingredients of a narrative. In other words, build your pilot around a mini plot with a conflict that engages and challenges your main character(s). But wait! Does your show have to end with a resolution? Quite the contrary. While many comedies end with a conflict resolution (Parks and Recreation, The Office, Blackish), think of all the dramas that leave off with a "dramatic reveal", making us wait until the next episode to find out what happens.
- Consider multiple threads. Sometimes a series follows multiple storylines at once, braiding together different lives that diverge and intersect throughout the season. While this isn’t essential, it’s important to consider early on (i.e. in your pilot!) which threads may need to be introduced sooner rather than later.
- Build complex characters. Your main characters must intrigue and sustain an audience for multiple episodes (and even seasons). Consider what makes a character likeable or mysterious… as well as what makes him or her flawed. Three dimensionality translates to characters that feel real and relatable to the audience.
- Read your dialogue aloud! Written dialogue always sounds different in our heads. Check for authenticity by reading your pilot aloud. Better yet, recruit a friend or sibling to play a part or two, while you sit back and take notes.
Formatting a TV Pilot is very different than writing a play, a poem, or prose. Actors, directors, and producers need to get a sense of timing, tone, and setting as quickly as possible—just like when we watch a new TV show, we can get a sense of the setting, time period, and tone just from the opening frame. Think of the TV pilot as a blueprint from which the show unfolds. As you draft your pilot, keep the following formatting guidelines in mind:
- Begin every scene with a scene header (in all caps).The header indicates whether the scene is interior or exterior (inside or outside), the specific location, and whether it’s day or night. For example, if you were writing an episode of Parks and Recreation, you might write something like this: INTERIOR - LESLIE KNOPE’S OFFICE - DAY
- When the scene comes to an end, include transition instructions (in all caps): CUT TO (indicates a quick transition to a new scene) or FADE OUT (indicates the episode is over, or a major shift in time or space).
- Introduce a new character with their name and age (in all caps): LESLIE KNOPE (37) barges into Ron’s office wearing a pantsuit and carrying an overflowing two inch binder.
- Pay attention to text layout. Traditionally, headers/action/description appear all the way over on the left margin, character descriptions and dialogue are centered on the page, scene endings (cuts and fades) are pulled all the way to the right See the sample pilot in resources for a model!
OTHER COMMON TERMS
= Voiceover. This tells the director and actors that something different is happening on camera while we hear the voice of a character giving dialogue. You might say:
[Begin dialogue here]
You can include a description of what is seen on camera either before or after these directions.
= A character is speaking directly to the camera. First write the character’s name in brackets, followed by “talking head”:
[CHARACTER] TALKING HEAD
= “continued”. This technique lets you break up a character’s monologue or speech with descriptions of what viewers are seeing on screen, signaling to the viewer that you are returning to the same character speaking. Place "CONT" after a character’s name, in parentheses:
[Begin the rest of monologue here]
Who is Eligible?
Young writers ages 13-18
Ryan Ly, TV Literary Agent at Creative Artists Agency
Best Entry: $100 (winning piece + author interview will be featured on Write the World’s website and blog)
Runner up: $50
Best Peer Review: $50 (reviewer interview will be featured on Write the World’s website and blog)
What’s Different about Write the World Competitions?
Prizes: The winning entrant will receive $100, and the runner-up and best peer-reviewer will receive $50.
Professional Recognition: The winning entry, plus the runner-up and best peer review, will be featured on our blog, with commentary from our guest judge.
Expert Review: Submit your draft by Monday, January 9th, and get feedback from our team of experts—authors, writing teachers, and educational professionals.
January 2: Competition Opens
January 9: Submit draft for Expert Review (Optional. We will review the first 100 drafts submitted.)
January 13: Reviews returned to Writers
January 17: Final Submissions
January 27: Winners Announced
Our “Foreign Correspondent” competition Opens Monday, February 6th.
Stay tuned for more details!