How To Structure a Great TV Pilot
When it comes to formatting a script, there's little difference between writing a feature film script and a TV pilot. You follow the essential formatting directives between both mediums.
However, how you structure a TV pilot script requires a little more nuance. With that in mind, here is a simple and straightforward breakdown to help you learn the basic guidelines and expectations of the TV pilot structure.
Read More: The Screenwriter's Simple Guide to TV Writing
Table of Contents
What Does "Structure" Mean?
The general story structure is fairly simple — Beginning, Middle, and End.
This has been the story structure followed by mankind since the days of telling stories around the village fire or etching cave paintings on stone walls depicting worthy stories of hunting for prey (beginning), confronting the prey (middle), and defeating the prey (end).
The three-act structure in cinema is the most basic and pure structure that most films — no matter what gurus and pundits say — follow.
How you build on that basic structure creates many additional variations.
Read More: 10 Screenplay Structures Screenwriters Can Use
For television, four-act and five-act structures (see below) — as well as many other variations — are just additions to the core three-act structure of any story. However, the television platform has many unique differences compared to cinematic storytelling.
With movies, you have a general 90-120 minute (or beyond) window to tell a single story from beginning to end. But with television, you're telling an overarching story that spans multiple episodes and multiple seasons. Because of that unique platform dynamic, the structure of your story changes.
For TV pilots, you're tasked with having to tell not only the beginning chapter of an overarching story but also introduce the world of the story, as well as the characters within. You're basically using a TV pilot to sell the structure, tone, atmosphere, genre, characterization, and narrative of a whole series.
There's also the unique element of commercial breaks (for network shows) and how you go about breaking your single-episode story into commercial breaks, which encompass your act breaks. The structure is where you accomplish all of this hard work. It's almost formulaic at first sight. Because of that, the TV pilot structure doesn't have to be as difficult as it is made out to be.
The Two Elements TV Pilots Need to Have
Before we dive into the basic TV pilot structure, let's talk about the two elements that will help your TV pilot stand out the most.
In movies, the concept is everything. Sure, character-driven pieces can succeed (usually in the indie market), but Hollywood is driven by the concept when it comes to feature scripts. The concept is what gets your script read — that mash-up of a protagonist dealing with a compelling and engaging conflict.
However, in series writing, concepts change season-to-season — and conflicts change episode-to-episode. If you look at the multiple seasons of a successful series like Cobra Kai, you'll see that the central protagonist's focus changes, as does the immediate villain and threat. The same can be said for any series.
But the core elements remain the same.
- The revisiting of Daniel and Johnny decades after their initial story ended.
- The world of karate and how those characters collide with it.
As you develop your series before writing the TV pilot script, make sure it has these two elements to increase your chances of successfully getting the pilot into the hands of networks and streamers.
Tony Soprano, Walter White, June Osborne, Rick Grimes, Lucy Ricardo, Mary Richards, Don Draper, Michael Scott, George Jefferson, and countless other amazing television characters force audiences to watch their series, whether the characters are hilarious, intriguing, entertaining, or deplorable.
You can't have a compelling TV pilot without an equally compelling lead character.
Read More: How to Create Memorable and Resonant Characters
The answers to how you create such characters can only be found within your own imagination. We could endlessly list the character traits of the aforementioned iconic television characters and try to come up with some secret formula for creating Emmy-worthy characters, but it's impossible. There is no secret formula, and anyone who tells you they have it is trying to sell something.
An excellent compass that can help you create such compelling characters involves developing conflicted characters with flaws.
You can certainly create a cast of intriguing characters as well. Friends, ER, Game of Thrones, Lost, The Walking Dead, The Big Bang Theory, Modern Family, The White Lotus, and Euphoria, among many others, offered a cast of characters whose dynamics engaged us from episode to episode. The key way to create a cast of hopeful icons is to play with the differences between all of the characters. You can do it for both comedic results in sitcoms or for dramatic results in drama or genre.
You just want to make sure that these are quality characters worthy of devoting a series to. But even that's not enough.
The Mafia (Sopranos), meth-dealing (Breaking Bad), a totalitarian society where women are property (The Handmaid’s Tale), a zombie apocalypse (The Walking Dead, The Last of Us), 60s-era advertising (Mad Men), office life (The Office), rich people on vacation at a high-end luxury resort (The White Lotus), a look into the lives of teens amidst the world of drugs, sex, trauma and social media (Euphoria) — these are the worlds that are brilliantly matched with compelling characters.
Read More: When Worlds Collide: The Art of World Building
Find those compelling characters living in those intriguing worlds that audiences will want to live vicariously through — or watch those more morally-challenged ones fall.
A, B, and C Stories
Lastly, before we get into the simple and straightforward structure of a TV pilot, let's discuss the content within your structure.
Networks and streamers always want two or three-story strings flowing and integrating together throughout a single episode. It offers more depth for the audience.
"A" Story — This story encompasses the main protagonist(s) dealing with the central conflict presented in the concept of the story and series.
"B" Story — This secondary story relates to the secondary wants, needs, and desires of the main protagonist(s) or how side story elements eventually relate to and connect with the A story.
"C" Story — Smaller side stories within the overall story arch are usually found in sitcoms — moments of little funny repetitive nuances that eventually work themselves out.
Rather than break down multiple examples of A, B, and C stories, go watch your favorite drama, genre, and sitcom series. Try to identify the A, B, and C stories for each.
General TV Pilot Structure Breakdown
We'll start with one-hour TV pilots.
Hour-Long TV Pilot Page Count Structure
Hour-long TV episodes generally range from 45-63 pages. The sweet spot page count to shoot for would be 50-55 pages.
Utilize the basic one-page equals one-minute guideline. With a 60-minute episode for network television (ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, TNT, AMC, etc.), you obviously need to account for commercial breaks. If you go above 60 pages, you're already over an hour. Use the one-page equals one-minute guideline as a gauge. It's not an exact science by any means, but as a novice television writer, it's a good barometer to work from.
With five-act television scripts (see below), you generally want to keep each act between 9-12 pages, give or take a page. The old benchmark was 15 pages per act for four-act television scripts, but with additional commercial time these days — not to mention more story — it can now often break down differently.
Hour-Long TV Pilot Act Breaks
With an hour-long television series episode, you will break the story down into four or five acts.
- Teaser (2-3 pages)
- Act One
- Act Two
- Act Three
- Act Four
- Act Five (optional)
The teaser is the compelling hook that introduces your protagonist, the world, or the core conflict of the episode/series — preferably all together. This isn't the first act of your story. It's a moment that entices the audience to keep watching. You tease the tone, atmosphere, genre, world, concept, and conflict. And then, at least if it makes it onto television, the scene then cuts to a commercial break.
For shows like Breaking Bad, Grey's Anatomy, The Last of Us, or any other hour-long episode, you'll often see the character either in peril by the end of it or the conflict of the story will be teased. Then when the first act starts, the stories either flash backward, flash forward, or switch to the protagonist(s) and their ordinary world.
Check out the teaser for the hit HBO series The Last of Us:
None of the main characters were introduced. However, we're teased with the world that is about to be in the series.
Not all hour-long TV pilots utilize teasers. However, we strongly suggest that you include them in your TV pilots to help entice the reader to read on.
Formatting Necessities: You'll start the teaser with a centered teaser heading and then write the script below.
After the teaser, you'll then start a new page with the centered ACT ONE heading.
Act One is where you introduce the main and supporting characters within their ordinary world. You've teased the peril, struggle, conflict, or situation that the episode will tackle, but now you're getting things really started by setting the stage as far as where the characters are and what is leading up to the point of the next act where they will be confronted by the situation at hand.
The end of the first act usually offers you the opportunity to present a cliffhanger to keep the audience invested. You actually want to do that at the end of the first three acts for the same reason.
After ACT ONE, you'll then start a new page with the centered ACT TWO heading.
Act Two is where you introduce the "A" story (as well as any "B" and "C" stories). This is where the characters are dealing with the conflict in full swing.
- They're struggling with it.
- They're figuring out how to get through it.
Much like the beginning of the second act of a feature film script, the characters often still have some hope or chance. By the end of this act, the audience feels like the characters may figure things out — until, that is, another hook is introduced that flips that hope or chance on its head, forcing the characters to face the fact that they may not succeed.
After ACT TWO, you'll then start a new page with the centered ACT THREE heading.
Act Three is where the characters are at their lowest point, and the bad guys or conflict is winning. Where the second act gave the audience, hope that they'd figure it out, the third act is usually where that hope was proven to be false. By the end cliffhanger of this act, audiences will want to tune in to see how the characters will prevail despite such odds against them.
After ACT THREE, you'll then start a new page with the centered ACT FOUR heading.
Act Four is where the characters, against all odds, begin to prevail again. They start to take action, triumph and win. They've learned from their missteps in the first and second acts, and now they're applying the lessons learned to confront the conflict in full force.
After ACT FOUR, you have the option of starting a final act with the centered ACT FIVE heading.
Act Five can work as a closure for the episode. For TV pilots, it can also act as a gateway into the rest of the series. You have the option of ending your TV pilot (or any episode) with a fourth act, or you can also end the fourth act with a significant cliffhanger or hook and then use the fifth act to close things up with a finale.
TV Pilot Structure Variations
Some pilot scripts like the 70-page The Sopranos, the 55-page Mad Men, and the 61-page Game 0f Thrones don't have act breakdowns at all.
HBO's The Sopranos and Game of Thrones never had any commercial breaks — as is the case with all premium cable and streaming platform series. That's not to say that those scripts don't accomplish the same type of structure explained above — minus the aesthetics of act breaks.
In the case of the Mad Man pilot, it was written on spec by the writer to use as a sample to attain assignments on other shows. It was eventually rejected by HBO, Showtime, and others but was embraced by AMC, a basic cable network with commercial breaks.
The Lost pilot script is unique because it was written as a 97-page pilot script. Essentially debuting as a feature-length pilot. It does have act breaks, but due to the feature-length script, the page number for those breaks is different (the first act goes for 27 pages).
Read More: 65 TV Pilot Scripts That Screenwriters Should Study
Half-Hour-Long TV Pilot Structure
Take all that you've learned above and adapt it to a half-hour situation comedy series. Yes, there are 30-minute drama/genre series episodes out there. However, most half-hour TV pilots usually fall under the sitcom umbrella.
Because sitcoms are half-hour episodes, the structure and page counts in the general TV pilot structure are obviously condensed.
Four to Five acts (see above) become a simple Three Act structure (sometimes two acts) that represent a more standard beginning, middle, and end story structure, with the teaser or cold open working as the beginning.
Half-Hour-Long TV Pilot Page Count Structure
As is the case for hour-long TV pilots, the page counts vary.
If you're an established writer or showrunner, a half-hour sitcom script can be as long as 44 pages. For novice writers, the general guidelines and expectations are 22-25 pages, which allows you to get under that 30-minute gauge.
Keep in mind that sitcoms are, more often than not, dialogue-heavy, which would account for the increased page counts.
Half-Hour-Long TV Pilot Act Breaks
With half-hour-long television series episodes, you will break the story down into three acts.
- Teaser/Cold Open (2-3 pages)
- Act One
- Act Two
- Act Three
- Tag (optional)
This brief scene opens the episode with a stand-alone funny moment that may or may not also introduce the main plot point of the episode. You'll recognize a TV episode's teaser/cold open by the scene that appears before the opening credits.
Here's a cold opening for the Emmy-winning sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine:
Act One is where you introduce the conflict the main character will be facing throughout the episode. You can also introduce "B" and "C" Story elements as well.
Act Two is where a series of additional conflicts and obstacles stand in the way of the focus character and their goals. They fail time and time again, creating hilarity in the process (since this is a comedy).
Act Three is the resolution of the conflict(s). The focus character has learned from their failures and struggles in the second act and must now use that knowledge to overcome or hilariously succumb to the conflicts.
Note: Some sitcoms employ only two acts.
In sitcoms, you can also use a TAG scene at the end. Tags are bookend scenes usually included after the episode's story has played out. This is where one last gag or character moment is offered. They usually only take up a page or two.
It's also advisable to learn about the differences between the two types of sitcoms — Single-Camera and Multi-Camera.
Read More: Single-Camera Vs. Multi-Camera TV Sitcom Scripts: What's the Difference?
3 Additional Ways to Learn TV Pilot Structure and Format
The best additional tools you can utilize to learn about TV writing are:
- Use Screenwriting Software - Whether it be the industry-standard final draft or one of the other equivalents, the software will do most of the work for you from a formatting standpoint.
- Read Television Scripts - Find a series that is close to what you are writing, find the pilot script for it, and emulate it as much as possible. One of the best places to go is The Script Lab because it offers you a free library of pilot and episode scripts for many, many shows.
- Binge-Watch TV Series - With all of the streaming available now, the best possible resource is watching episodes. For network and cable shows, you'll see where the act breaks are as far as where they would normally cut to commercial. For premium channel shows (HBO, Showtime, etc.) and streaming platforms series (Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV, etc.), you'll have to simply time code it — one minute equals one page — and pay attention to the various changes in the story.
All TV pilots will have variations in format and structure. It's not an exact science. However, as an undiscovered screenwriter, it's best to adhere to the general guidelines and expectations as closely as you can.
Also, understand that most TV pilots don't sell on spec. There's a big difference between being a feature film writer and a TV writer.
Learn About Those Differences Via ScreenCraft's The Different Lifestyles of Feature Screenwriters and Television Writers!
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, and Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner, the feature thriller Hunter's Creed, and many produced Lifetime thrillers. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies and Instagram @KenMovies76.