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Your quick reference guide to crafting a compelling season arc

May 5, 2021
5 min read time

Sitting down to write a television pilot is a bit of a thrill. There are endless story possibilities on a blank page and characters just waiting to spill their guts — sometimes literally, depending on your genre of choice. The pilot episode is your chance to really dazzle; a set-piece, in a way, that exemplifies what your series could be. And therein lies the trick: writing a pilot isn’t just about a stand-alone story to wow them; it’s about setting up enough story engine, characters we want to spend time with, and stakes to keep viewers tuning in for a whole season. So, when you’re plotting out your pilot, you’ll want to think your whole season through. Below are five things to keep in mind while you craft a compelling season arc.

Set down story roots with an enthralling inciting incident

The first step to creating your season arc is defining the inciting incident of your story and what kind of conflict that creates for your lead character — both internally and externally. From there, it becomes about crafting an unforgettable pilot, but also ensuring that whatever happens in the closing moments of your pilot will set up the rest of your series by way of a question or revelation (bonus points if it’s both) that makes your viewer have no choice but to hit "next episode" rather than switch off their streamer. Consider that all-important final pilot beat — the one your whole, excellently written first episode set up — will drive your entire season. While your pilot will have an ending that neatly links back to your opening dilemma, it will also raise more questions so powerful and raise the stakes so high that it’ll take multiple stories (episodes!) to resolve.

So how do you create a story that lasts 10 or more episodes?

Wherever your idea for the pilot came from — a character that just keeps nagging you, an explosive scene that woke you up in the middle of the night, or an abstract concept you’re passionate about — creating a story arc that’s compelling enough to last an entire season (or more) will hinge on your story engine. Find one powerful enough, and your series will practically write itself. Just kidding. But it is important. Examples of story engines include the procedural, story-of-the-week variety like 9-1-1 and Grey’s Anatomy; task-based types such as The Flight Attendant or Ozark; and those rooted in character arcs like Ginny & Georgia and Euphoria. Speaking of characters...       

Characters we care about

Does whatever goal your characters are trying to achieve in the story you’re creating resonate on an internal level? In other words, by saving the cat, will they be able to resolve a childhood trauma surrounding a beloved family pet? To really make it sparkle and up the stakes, does their pursuit of the current goal also involve overcoming a deep-seated fear? The more empathetic you can make your character and their quest, the more your audience will relate and care to tune in again.  

You want those driving forces to propel your main character(s) through an entire 10-episode run, minimum. What makes them who they are? Dig deep into their pasts to discover what makes your characters tick and why. Often, it’s a person or an event, or some passing comment that lingers in the subconscious that propels us toward our goals in life. The same goes for our characters. Each one needs a backstory and how that plays into their choices in each episode helps create that throughline of the season. Therefore, it’s also important to know how to set up intriguing character arcs, how to handle ensemble character arcs, as well as nail down the three kinds of character arcs or use the Enneagram method to create compelling and empathetic characters to elevate your story.

What and when to reveal

Not everything needs to be held back for the season finale! Plotting when to reveal and when to conceal key plot points throughout a whole season, not just one episode at a time, will help you balance the episodes against each other for a seamless season arc. By way of pacing, ensuring your characters receive the right amount of weight and airtime, and “scheduling” your major conflicts  which is particularly crucial if you’re writing in the mystery, thriller, fantasy genres  your season arc will build with steady momentum toward the nail-biting finale you’ve envisioned. 

An excellent study in crafting a sexy thriller is HBO Max’s recent binge, The Flight Attendant. With undertones of Hitchcock in a hyper-stylized, candy-coated presentation, the viewer follows along on Cassie Bowden’s (Kaley Cuoco) murder-mystery journey, where everyone is a suspect. If you break down each episode, you can clearly track the breadcrumbs we’re left with to decipher whodunnit.

Creating a series arc so good it’ll snag you a second season

Just as “time” follows “once upon a,” you’ll want to plot the end of your season arc, and each episode resolution as you would each act within an episode. Knowing your ending before you start — even if it’s a cliffhanger or one that presents a brand-new question (because isn’t the dream a season two renewal?) — can help focus your writing.

So will knowing your theme by heart. What are you trying to say with your story and character choices? Having a clear vision of your theme from the outset can help streamline your process to make distinct choices — like following the GPS all the way to your destination. You can take a detour, sure, but in the end you’ll get to where you wanted to go.

On a side note, if you’re planning a story based on previous IP, consider these five questions before you begin

Resolution

If you make crafting a compelling series arc part of your pilot-writing process, it can elevate your concept simply by you knowing all facets of your story so intimately — especially if you do get that golden opportunity to pitch it. In which case, go you! You got this!

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