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TV Pilot Writing: Building the Skeleton of Your Show

October 28, 2016
3 min read time

So you’ve got an interesting idea for a pilot and rich, complex characters. What now?

A great method for working on your pilot is to start small and expand from there. So begin with your logline – the story of your pilot in one sentence, the “who, what, where” of your show. Boiling it down helps you focus on what is important for us to know, and hopefully hooks us into wanting to find out more. You can always look up loglines for similar shows for inspiration.

It’s important to distinguish the kind of show you are writing. Whether you are writing a multiple-camera comedy or a single-camera comedy makes a big difference. A procedural drama and an episodic drama are two different animals. Reading scripts for shows with a similar format can be a great help in narrowing your focus. See how many acts are in each episode, if any, whether they have a teaser, a tag at the end, or an average number of pages. Do your research and know your format. It will help you build the skeleton of your show (but feel free to move some bones around if needed and showcase your own unique style).

Now you can move on to writing a short, one-page synopsis – your pilot’s beginning, middle and end. Set up your world and characters, introduce conflict, complication and provide a resolution (though not too resolved… you want people coming back next week to see what happens).

Deciding what story you want to tell in your pilot can be tough. You need to find a storyline that introduces your entire show. Start by thinking "Why does your show begin today?" If it could begin any other day, perhaps you need to make stronger choices.

Transparent begins when a father decides to tell his children he identifies as transgender. Friends begins on the day Rachel runs out of her own wedding and reconnects with an old friend. Lost begins on an island directly following a plane crash. These are all turning points that move the story and the characters forward.

Think of the turning points in your story. You can break it down by thinking about the circumstances your characters are facing. How do they feel about their circumstances? And finally, what are they doing about it? It’s all about cause and effect.

When Walter White finds out he has cancer in the pilot episode of Breaking Bad, his wife is pregnant and he has to work two jobs just to keep his family afloat. So he makes a choice. He tries something different. He takes a risk for the first time in his life, and his life changes drastically for it. We see him changing as a person as well. With every new set of circumstances, brings about a new set of choices.

Your character arcs help you create your story points, and vice versa. Create circumstances that will challenge your characters. Explore different choices your characters could make, and see how they will affect your story. You may find better paths to take.

Now that you know the story you want to tell in your pilot, you can begin outlining. Start with your key scenes, the moments you KNOW you want to write. It helps to break it down by acts, expanding on your basic story.

While some cable shows don’t have act breaks, it’s good to think about them as you’re writing your outline and pilot. An act break is the last scene in your act, before going to commercial. This is a great place for cliffhangers or turning points. The goal is to keep your reader/viewer hungry for more. Build up your acts in a way that culminates with a conflict, a dramatic moment, a hook.

Your outline doesn’t have to be extremely detailed, you can leave yourself room to play around and experiment with your scenes, but having an outline is like having a roadmap – you may stray, but at least you know where to go, keeping you from getting lost.

Once you have your outline, you can finally get going on that first draft. Take your time, give yourself license to deviate from your outline if it feels right, and try to have some fun with it. Remember, your pilot will go through many transformations, and so it should. You are not married to any one idea and you can change things when they don’t work out.

Get notes from people who feel comfortable being honest with you. Prepare yourself to rewrite your pilot (maybe many times). Edit out every word that doesn’t need to be there, every scene that’s not moving your story forward.  Your pilot does not have to be perfect, but it should never be boring.

If you need more guidance or inspiration, take a look back at the first article in our pilot writing series, "Developing Your World of Characters". Now start building that skeleton!

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