One of the key elements in a screenwriter’s portfolio is an original pilot — especially if that screenwriter hopes to land a seat at the table in a writer’s room. Pilots are an art. And one of the easiest ways to learn how to write your own pilot episode is to break down those that already exist.
Have you already written a great pilot script? Enter the ScreenCraft TV Pilot Screenplay Competition here.
In this series, we’ll break down the pilot episodes of both dramas and comedies, current and past, streaming and network.
Here are the elements we’ll be using, which you can then use for your own work, or some of your personal favorites:
- Created By:
- Page Count:
- Original Air Date:
- Total Number of Episodes:
- Where You Can Watch It:
If TV Guide wrote a blurb about your episode, what would it say? Keep it simple!
There are so many different structures for television shows. How many acts does your pilot have? Is there a cold open or tag (comedy)? What about a teaser (drama)?
If you write without acts… what’s the beginning, middle, and end? Lay out the broad strokes!
Identify the storylines in your episode. Half-hours usually have A, B, and C storylines, while hour-longs can have A, B, C, D, E, and even F storylines.
How many characters are introduced, by name, in your pilot? Who are they?
Where does your pilot take place? This is more than just time and place though. What is the atmosphere of the setting? How does it contribute to the story?
IMPORTANT MOTIFS / DETAILS
Pilots typically establish certain details, themes, or motifs that they will adhere to throughout the series. What kinds of details are essential to your story? Is there a running gag? Does every episode include voiceover? These are the things you need to know!
What is the very first scene the audience sees?
What event/action gets the ball rolling in your pilot? What is the source of all the action and drama? (Note that you might have several for your varying storylines.)
What is the primary conflict in your episode? This could take the form of a question, a conflict between characters, or a situation. As long as you can point to the source of the drama in your pilot, you’re good to go!
If the inciting incident got the ball rolling, the turn is the bump in the road that causes your plot to change course. What do your characters encounter that makes them reevaluate? When do they realize they’re headed in the wrong direction?
The Turn is usually roughly one-third of the way through your pilot, depending on pacing.
The Twist is that final hurdle, the last challenge or wrench in the plan that causes your characters some trouble. It typically happens two-thirds or three-quarters of the way through the pilot, depending on episode length.
THE BIG MOMENT
Also probably known as the climax. What’s the biggest moment of your episode? The culmination of the drama? The crazy situation that could only happen in your show?
Usually somewhere during a pilot, one of the main characters will say something that perfectly encapsulates the core theme of your show. This can be a long monologue or a short, simple line. You might even have more than one (especially in hour-long scripts). Locate this line!
Go out with a bang! What’s the very last scene of your episode?
WHAT COMES NEXT?
Hopefully, the pilot will have set up a few questions audience members want answers to… (And that will be answered in episode two…?)
Britton Perelman is a writer and storyteller based in Los Angeles, California. When not buried in a book or failing spectacularly at cooking herself a meal, she’s probably talking someone’s ear off about the last thing she watched. She loves vintage typewriters, the Cincinnati Reds, and her dog, Indy. Find more of her work on her website, or follow her on Instagram.