Updated: Jun 1
Hi, everyone. Have you ever wondered how to write a TV Pilot? Good news: the market is growing. If you really want a television career, you need a TV pilot script, along with two TV spec scripts to prove your writing ability.
In today’s world, TV can be a confusing place for a writer. The world of television consists of single-camera vs. multi-camera, cable vs. network, and more. Most advice that you hear on how to write a TV pilot is that it is from top to bottom. In reality, it's from the ground up. Writers will hear information such as "include payoffs and settlements," and "understand your audience."
You always hear the old adage, "writing is rewriting." However, this kind of advice doesn't offer much assistance without a strategic plan for writing the first draft. You might have to write and rewrite the same mistakes repeatedly.
What's missing here is solid advice on how to craft compelling stories. To write a TV pilot from the ground up, it's essential to have a game plan.
Be sure to shoot A.E. an email or comment below if you have any questions about this post or to chat. I'd be happy to be of service to you.
A screenplay is an exploration. It’s about the thing you don’t know. It’s a step into the abyss. It necessarily starts somewhere, anywhere; there is a starting point, but the rest is undetermined. - Charlie Kaufman
Before we dive into how to write a TV Pilot, let's explain what a TV pilot is. A television pilot is the very first episode of a series that introduces the viewer to what that show is about. Pilot scripts should set up the characters and the story to hook viewers for future episodes.
It’s also important to understand what type of TV show you’re writing in the first place. The four main types of television shows—Serial, Episodic, Anthology, and limited—each offer something different. After you decide on the show, it’s time to start planning.
It goes without saying that all scripts require some pre-writing. It's even more crucial for a pilot script. Writers must understand where the story goes beyond the pilot script and how to position it properly. You never want the audience to know how the show will end after the pilot episode.
Crafting the perfect pilot requires trust, commitment, and integrity. Writers can find writing a TV pilot challenging, but the best ideas never come easy. Producing an average pilot script and getting rejected doesn't make any sense. Therefore, bringing your best content to the forefront is crucial when writing a TV Pilot.
The Must-Have Elements for TV Pilots
When it comes to movies, the concept is everything. Having the right concept will get your script read. For feature scripts, the idea drives the story. In series writing, concepts change from season to season. However, the core values remain the same. As you develop the series prior to writing the TV Pilot script, make sure it has the right concept to get it in front of streamers and networks.
How to Structure a TV Pilot
In terms of structure, remember the basics—beginning, middle, and end. Writers everywhere have used this structure for decades. They also follow the three-act structure: the most basic structure for films and TV Pilots. When structuring your TV Pilot, it’s important to remember the following:
Screenwriting is like ironing. You move forward a little bit and go back and smooth things out. - Paul Thomas Anderson
Pre-Writing and Outlining
Before you start outlining, it's essential to know as much as you can about your protagonist and the entire world you're creating. Know the themes you want to convey as well as every single facet of your story.
The more information you have, the more authentic your story will become. Small touches will give characters depth and help connect them to the audience. The more work you put into the characters beforehand, the better character you will have at the end.
You can begin the outlining process once you feel like you know enough about everything. I recommend splitting the story up into a three-act structure. It's also beneficial to insert your story beats ahead of time. Start with your first and second act breaks, the midpoint, and the third act's climax. Once you have that down, you can examine the story and see how it looks.
Taking a step back is also a big help to come back with fresh eyes. If you do not give yourself a break, you can become blind to plot holes. Unless you're on a tight deadline, take your time and examine the outline thoroughly. Remember, writing is rewriting.
Writing the Script
Now comes the fun part, you have put in all the necessary groundwork and can finally start writing the script. This part of the writing process is the most enjoyable. Outlining the story can take weeks, but writing a thirty-page pilot script only takes a few days.
Every scriptwriting rule centers around the idea that you make the script as easy-to-read as possible. Keep these ideas in mind when writing a TV Pilot:
Action is the better avenue to communicate your message to the audience.
Construct your scenes moment-by-moment.
Don’t make each scene longer than three pages.
Each scene should be at least two pages.
Have every action move the story along.
If you are not sure how to convey something, google it.
If you want to emphasize something, it’s best to underline them and not use bold or italics.
Keep the dialogue pretty short.
Please don't spend too much time on details or the actor's physical attributes unless the plot depends on them.
When writing dialogue, DO NOT overuse parentheticals.
Write in the active voice.
I could be just a writer very easily. I am not a writer. I am a screenwriter, which is half a filmmaker. … But it is not an art form, because screenplays are not works of art. They are invitations to others to collaborate on a work of art. - Paul Schrader
In conclusion, now that you know how to write a TV pilot, you can acknowledge that a lot of work goes into the script. Like the old saying goes, “practice makes perfect.” If you want to get into TV writing, but lack the proper experience, start writing independently.
Come up with some creative ideas and rewrite them. As mentioned earlier, writing is rewriting. Most TV pilots take hours to assemble because writers want to ensure it looks great. Once you write the script, getting the final approval can take a while.
Once you finish the script, your work is not done. You are about to begin some of your most crucial work. How do you change this first draft and make it into something that works or something great?
If you have any questions about the content of this blog, feel free to email A.E., and he’ll get back to you ASAP.
How to Write A TV Pilot Like a Pro in Eight Steps – Script Reader Pro breaks down eight steps on how to write a TV pilot script that will get your foot in the door.
How to Write a TV Pilot Episode – Victoria Lucia explains what goes into writing a TV Pilot episode and how to construct it.
How to Write a TV Pilot – BBC Maestro breaks down how to write a pilot script in an enticing way.
How to Structure a Great TV Pilot – Ken Miyanmoto gives a simple breakdown of structuring TV.
How to Write a TV Pilot, pt 4: pre-writing and outlining – Luke Giordano breaks down pre-writing and outlining your TV pilot script.
How to Write a TV Pilot, pt.5 Writing the Script – Luke Giordano explains how to write a TV Pilot in five steps.
Kevin Petrochko is a guest writer who has worked with clients in multiple industries writing content for websites and blogs. As a former journalist, Kevin has contributed sports writing to multiple publications. You can connect with him on Twitter, LinkedIn, and through email.