How To Write a TV Pilot Script: A Guide For Smart Screenwriters
So you want to write a script for a TV pilot series? Good call. The market’s growing, writers rule in television and you probably need a pilot TV show in your arsenal anyway to increase your options. The problem is the world of TV can be a confusing place for the aspiring writer…
There’s multi-camera vs. single-camera, networks vs. cable, serials vs. episodic, limited series vs. anthologies, etc. And something called a “TV show bible” that you’re not even sure if you need.
How this post will help you write a TV pilot
This post aims to dispel much of the confusion surrounding how to write a TV pilot episode. We’ll strip everything back to its bare basics and give you a solid foundation on which to write one, from the bottom-up.
The problem with most advice on writing a TV pilot is that it’s top-down—that is, you’ll hear lots of nuggets of information like “know your audience” “include set-ups and payoffs” and “your show must have legs”—but no real advice on how to actually craft a compelling story execs will want to buy.
We all know, for example, that “writing is rewriting,” but advice like this doesn’t really help much if you don’t have a strategic plan for writing the first draft in the first place. You might be left blindly writing and rewriting the same mistakes.
To approach how to write a TV pilot script from the ground-up means approaching it systematically with a game plan, and this is what we’re going to show you how to do. But before we get started let’s take a look at a few industry definitions.
What is a spec pilot script?
As an aspiring writer, you’ll be writing a TV pilot episode “on spec.” That is, speculatively for free, with the hope someone in the industry will read it and like it enough to either take you on as a client, as a staff member or maybe even buy the show.
Back in the day, it was common for aspiring writers to write a spec television pilot based on an existing (usually currently on-air) show. This would then be used as a calling card with which to show off their writing chops and get hired to the writing staff on a similar show.
However, after years of industry people getting flooded with spec 30 Rock and Sopranos scripts, the process has changed a little. You might still get somewhere writing a spec of an existing show, but nowadays it’s more advisable to write a TV pilot based on your own original idea.
People want to see not only that you can write to order, but that you have the imagination to come up with original, exciting ideas and sustain them over the course of a whole season.
What’s pilot season? Some kind of shooting spree?
Very few writers (especially aspiring writers) are lucky enough to have their script go “straight-to-series”—i.e. have a studio buy their entire series and put it straight on air without first making a pilot.
This is slowly changing but most TV writers still have to go through the nail-biting hell known as “pilot season.” This is the five or so months from January through May when dozens of pilots get made, but not all of them get “picked up” or given the green light to be made into a series. It’s a very stressful time.
What’s a TV bible and do I need one?
For now, though, all you need to worry about is how to write a TV pilot episode. Don’t worry about coming up with ten episodes for a whole season. And there’s no need right now to come up with a show bible: a more polished outline designed to show to execs and producers when you’re hawking the script around town.
You’ll need to write an outline—a breakdown of the story and characters—but a bible can wait until you’ve garnered some interest in the pilot TV show and need to give people something more concrete. (We include some TV bible examples later in the post.)
For now, though, let’s get started with writing a pilot script.
How To Write a TV Pilot Script Step #1: Focus On Your Reason For Writing It
You may already have a pilot series you’re working on or at least an idea of the kind of one you’d like to write. When it comes to writing a television pilot though, the first step is to understand why you want to write it.
We often hear writers give reasons like these as to why they want to write a TV pilot episode:
- “I heard I need one in my portfolio”
- “It’s easier than writing a feature”
- “I want to sell it asap”
- “I’ll write a sitcom because it’s only 30 pages”
All of these reasons are fair enough, but you’ll stand much more chance of writing a TV pilot episode that will actually sell if you’re actually passionate about television in the first place.
If you have an idea for a story that you’re excited about and think it belongs on the small screen rather than the big screen, then this passion is more likely to come out in your writing.
While comedy TV pilots, for example, are often only around 25 to 35 pages long, this doesn’t make writing them any easier. In fact, it’s often harder to write comedy, so you need to make sure you’re certain you’re in it for the long haul—i.e. months and months of rewrites. And about potentially repeating this process over multiple episodes without getting bored with writing about the same characters.
Rather than just having a vague sense of “wanting to write a TV pilot” really try to pinpoint why. Is it for a calculated reason like those outlined above? Or because you really have a passion for telling extended stories over multiple seasons, as opposed to self-contained ones that wrap in 110 pages?
Let’s stick with the comedy pilot example for a moment. Have you spent your life watching sitcoms from when you were a kid? Can you recite lines from your favorite episodes? Do you love throwing out one-liners with your friends? Do you know the names of your favorite writers and follow them from show to show?
Answering “yes” to most of the above is a sign you have the dedication and passion to succeed as a TV comedy writer. Alternatively, if you’ve already mastered how to write features and decided now’s the time to write a pilot script, this is a more strategic move but it’s also a sensible one.
It’s true that the more variety you have in your portfolio the better. Television’s a great place for writers at the moment, so don’t hesitate to grab a piece of the pie.
How To Write a TV Pilot Script Step #2: Select Three Of Your Favorite Shows
This is where you take all that repetitive top-down advice you’ve heard on how to write a TV pilot script, and instead approach it from the other way around: from the ground-up.
Advice such as “make sure you fully set up the world of the story,” or “remember to include three clear A, B and C stories” isn’t necessarily wrong, it’s just not very easy to actually apply.
However, by studying how the pilots of three of your favorite shows set up the story world, define their A, B and C stories, plant pay-offs, etc. you’ll learn how to do the same in your own TV pilot episode.
Start with six TV shows
Start by selecting six TV shows that most resemble the kind of TV pilot script you want to write. These should arc back to your reason for wanting to write the show in the first place and your passion for television as discussed in the previous step.
To help with this, have a think about the following three questions:
- What are the six TV shows you wish you’d written?
- What is it about them that you love so much?
- What shows can you watch over and over again?
Got six? Good. Now it’s time to refine the list in two ways, by genre and format.
TV Pilot Genre
Start by seeing which shows overlap on the list when it comes to genre. Focus on which major similarities there are between your choices. Are they mainly Comedies, Political Dramas or Fantasy Action/Adventures? If so, you already know pretty much what genre your television pilot is going to be.
On the other hand, if you selected one Comedy, a Crime Drama, three Police Procedurals and a Sci-Fi Thriller, then you need to give it a little more thought. This is because as you’re starting out learning how to write a TV pilot script, it’s best to hone your skills in only one genre.
Even though there’s much blending of genres going on in TV right now—with shows like Stranger Things mixing Crime Drama, Comedy, Fantasy and Horror—try to nail down which broad genre you think you’d have most fun writing.
Don’t worry about budgets or what’s hot right now on TV. Focus on your passion and what types of characters and situations you can imagine still being inspired to write about in a year’s time.
TV Pilot Script Format
Once you’ve decided which genre you’d like to focus on, it’s time to refine the list down to a single TV pilot format. Take a look at your six shows and see where they overlap regarding the four major formats: Episodic, Serial, Anthology or Limited. Here’s a quick breakdown of each:
These are shows with self-contained stories each week. You generally don’t need to know what happened the previous week because it’s a new episode and an entirely new story, but with the same cast of characters. Examples of episodic TV shows are:
- Law & Order
- The X-Files
While each episode is self-contained, these shows can also often have overarching stories from season to season. Ross and Rachel’s relationship in Friends, for example, has continual ups and downs that span the entire course of the show in one long sustained storyline.
The key difference here is that it’s essential you’ve seen the previous episode because otherwise you’re not going to know what’s going on. It’s one big story, told over many seasons, with each episode progressing the plot. Examples of TV serials include:
- Breaking Bad
- Game of Thrones
- The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Generally regarded as more high-brow than episodic TV, serials tend to be where we get the notion we’re in the middle of television’s “golden age.”
Anthology series are kind of a mix of episodic and serial TV shows in that they contain self-contained seasons instead of episodes. An anthology series will usually feature the same location, genre and themes, but change its cast from season to season. Some examples:
- American Horror Story
- The Sinner
Anthology series have made a major comeback in recent years as the general trend toward better written and produced television has increased.
Formerly known as a “mini-series,” a limited series tells a complete story from beginning to end in around eight to ten episodes—a bit like taking a whole serial and condensing it down to just one season. Here are some examples of popular limited TV series:
- Feud: Bette and Joan
- Sharp Objects
- Twin Peaks: The Return
The problem with limited series is that they’re often so popular that producers can’t resist extending them into anthologies or serials but at the risk of losing their appeal. Some people argue that Big Little Lies and Stranger Things, for example, might have been better off left as limited series.
Nail down your three TV shows
By considering how your six favorite TV shows fit into these genres and formats, you’ll hopefully be able to select three that share both of these elements in common.
If your list contains 30 Rock, The Big Bang Theory, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Frasier, Modern Family and Parks and Recreation, for example, then it’s clear the three TV pilots to select should either be single-camera or multi-camera sitcoms.
(30 Rock, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Modern Family and Parks and Recreation, are single-camera sitcoms, while The Big Bang Theory and Frasier are multi-camera. Read more about the difference between the two in our post on how to write for TV.)
If, on the other hand, your list contains Big Little Lies, The Sinner, Sharp Objects and Twin Peaks: The Return, then it’s clear you’re more inclined toward Crime Drama, whether that’s as a limited series or a serial.
Analyze your three shows
Once you have three shows, it’s time to break down and analyze them. Yes, great writing requires originality, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s built upon and inspired by great writing that came before it.
By analyzing the TV pilots and shows you love you’ll gain a stronger grasp of why you love them and what makes them work. Then can you move on to actually writing your own.
While you might have a great idea and just want to get stuck in with the writing, underestimate the importance of this prep work at your peril. To skip it is essentially the same as expecting Jimi Hendrix to have come up with Purple Haze out of nowhere—without first spending years studying and playing rhythm and blues.
You need a solid foundation for this harder-than-it-looks enterprise of writing a TV pilot episode. And that foundation can be built through watching, re-watching, studying and breaking down the kind of pilot TV show you want to write.
How To Write a TV Pilot Script Step #3: Outline TV Pilots
This is the initial first step in order to get you really stuck into the process of deconstructing your three favorite TV shows: outlining them.
This is a simple, yet very powerful practical exercise that will help you understand all about strong character introductions, story world set-ups, A, B, and C stories and so on, in a much more hands-on way than just being told you need them.
Outline the TV pilot
Start with the first TV pilot episode on your list and follow these steps. Create a new document and name it after the pilot TV series, something like “The Purge—Outline”. In another tab, bring up the show’s details in IMDb. This is handy for adding character names as each episode progresses.
Start the pilot show and simply begin typing what you see on screen. Summarize each scene into a few short sentences that capture the absolute essentials needed to know what’s happening.
For example, the opening three scenes of The Purge pilot should look something like this:
Note how you don’t need to include every little detail, such as what Miguel’s wearing or his pep talk about overcoming fear to the nurse’s son. Just put down the bare bones needed to understand what the overall purpose of each scene is.
It can be tricky at first to keep up with the speed of the action, but after a little practice, it becomes fairly easy to outline in real-time without continually having to pause it. You should end up with a document a few pages long with each paragraph or sentence representing a scene in the pilot.
How To Write a TV Pilot Script. Step #4: Break Down the Completed Outline
Now it’s time to go back and break down the outline’s scenes into acts. Depending on the show you’re outlining it can have anything from two to five acts, but some have more.
Just like in a movie, act breaks in a TV show occur at cliffhanger moments designed to keep you wondering what’s going to happen next. This is true for shows with and without commercials, and by breaking down enough shows you’ll start to see a pattern of where they occur.
Break down the acts to outline TV pilot structure
Take a look at the pilot to the classic sitcom, Frasier, in which Frasier is forced by his brother Niles (and fate) to take in his father, Martin, and hire a home care provider for him, Daphne Moon.
By writing an outline you’ll be able to clearly see that the show contains two acts, with the end of the Act 1 occurring with this exact event: Martin moving in with his dog, Eddie. Act 2 then explores this conflict further, ending with Daphne moving in and Frasier being forced to get used to his new life.
You can also read the script of course, but outlining is a better method because it’s more hands-on. It will force you to think about TV pilot structure by working out where its act breaks occur, rather than just seeing them laid out on the page. (Also not all TV pilot scripts are available to download and read.)
You’ll also begin to notice how many scenes roughly make up each act. In the case of the Frasier pilot, it breaks down like this:
- Act 1: Five scenes
- Act 2: Three scenes
This means, rather than just blindly writing a show not knowing how many scenes you should be writing, you can now see whether you’re writing too few or too many. But always bear in mind this will only give you a rough guideline. Nothing’s set in stone that says “you must include three scenes in Act 2 of a multi-cam sitcom.”
Finally, the length of your show should become apparent. In today’s TV world there’s a blurry line between Comedy and Drama but the former still usually come in at around 30 pages and the latter around 60.
Break down the A, B and C stories of TV shows
Returning to the Frasier pilot, the multiple plotlines break down like this:
- A-story: Frasier and Martin
- B-story: Frasier and Niles
- C-story: Frasier and Roz/work
- D-story: Frasier/Martin and Daphne
- E-story: Niles and Maris
As you can see some of the most memorable aspects of the show aren’t properly set up in the pilot episode: Frasier’s fraught love life and Niles’ unrequited relationship with Daphne. It’s these kinds of details that will become obvious the more outlines you write.
It’s a good idea to label each A, B and C story etc. in the outline either with a tag at the end or by making its scenes a different color. This way you’ll be able to look at the document and easily see which plotline each scene belongs to and how much time is devoted to it.
Break down the story world
By writing outlines you’ll also get a stronger grasp of the kind of story world you need to emulate, what’s included and what’s left out. In Frasier, the main story worlds are Frasier’s apartment (home) the radio station (work) and coffee shop (leisure.) We don’t have any scenes shot outside or in locations that deviate from one of these three, such as seeing Frasier at the opera.
In later episodes, we see the characters in a variety of locations but how and why we do so are all elements that you’ll come to understand by outlining the pilot series. The core sets that remain a constant throughout are all established in the pilot: Frasier’s apartment, his workplace and Cafe Nervosa.
Likewise, in Big Little Lies, each characters’ home serves as a core location, as well as the school, the coffee shop and Monterey itself. In American Horror Story, the core location is the “murder house,” so outlining will help draw attention to where scenes take place and what the show’s main locations are.
Break down the characters
Finally, break down the show’s characters by noting how each one influences and causes conflict in the main protagonist’s life. Every character needs to earn their place in the show and so by noting just what each characters’ role is you’ll be influenced to strengthen the relationships in your own show.
For example, Frasier is the flawed protagonist who just wants to be left alone. Martin moves in, inconveniencing him. Niles instigates this. Daphne with her eccentric personality and Eddie with his staring move in, inconveniencing him further. Martin instigates this. At the end, Roz tells Frasier the story of Lupe Vélez, making him see that when things don’t go as we planned, they have a way of working out anyway. She’s his advice-giver.
The more episodes you outline, the more patterns you’ll see when it comes to the characters and how they influence and cause conflict with the protagonist. As well, of course, how the protagonist causes conflict for themselves.
You’ll notice that there are never any characters in a pilot TV series that don’t have a specific role to play, and so it’ll be that much easier to cut extraneous characters out of your own script—the ones that aren’t doing much except sitting around shooting the breeze.
Furthermore, you’ll see how each character is introduced and developed in order to elicit the maximum amount of conflict from the show. Frasier isn’t just any old shrink, he’s a grumpy snob. His father isn’t just any old guy, he’s a blue-collar straight-talker—the exact opposite to Frasier.
Niles, his brother, is just as stuck-up and principled and this is the cause of their friction, while Daphne’s ditzy English ways are specifically designed to exasperate him. In fact, each character annoys him but in a different way, and these kinds of character contradictions and conflicts will become more apparent as you outline your chosen shows.
Repeat the process on the TV show’s whole season
Once you’ve broken down the pilot, it’s time to repeat with the entire season. Then move onto the television pilot of your second choice and repeat, followed by the third one on your list.
You’re welcome to repeat the exercise for the entire series of each show, but by breaking down three opening seasons of three series you’ll gain a terrific understanding of your chosen genre’s characters, worlds, storylines, TV pilot structure, dialogue and more.
Is the main idea high or low concept? Are the stories complex or simple? How many plotlines are there? What’s each character’s goal? Is the tone dramatic with comedic moments or relentlessly downbeat?
Writing around thirty outlines (three seasons) is probably enough to give you answers to all these questions and more. Then it’s time to move on to the next phase.
How To Write a TV Pilot Script Step #5: Read TV Pilot Scripts
Actually, it’s not really a “next phase” but something you should be doing concurrently as you write outlines of your favorite shows: reading the TV pilot scriptsas well.
We have a post that contains 50 of the best TV scripts to read that you can check out.
And here are some more TV pilot scripts worth reading depending on your TV pilot’s genre:
- American Horror Story pilot script
- Breaking Bad pilot script
- Community pilot script
- Fargo pilot script
- Friends pilot script
- Game of Thrones pilot script
If your chosen pilots aren’t on the list we recommend trying an internet search. The best way to find scripts is if you look for: “name of the TV show” in quotation marks, followed by “pilot pdf download.”
The difference between outlining a TV pilot episode and reading one is that the latter will really help with dialogue and scene construction. By seeing how each scene looks on the page, as opposed to merely on screen, you’ll gain a much firmer grasp of how characters speak and how their personalities are shown by what they say.
Also, breaking down how each scene starts late and finishes early, pushes the story forward and/or reveals character is much easier on the page than by watching it on screen when we tend to easily get wrapped up in the story.
Read as many TV scripts as you can but you should definitely be reading at least the pilot TV show and three or four episodes of each of your three shows.
How To Write a TV Pilot Script Step #6: Come Up With (Or Refine) Your Concept
Now that you’ve built a solid foundation in your script’s chosen genre having written a ton of outlines and read a ton of TV pilot show scripts, the real work begins… writing. The advice that you only get better if you “write write write every day” is fine, but it doesn’t make much sense unless you have a clear idea of what to write.
As you’ve probably already heard, your core concept should be original, interestingand conflict-filled. If so many aspiring TV writers already know this, then why are so many spec TV pilots lacking in these areas?
The answer lies in the writer taking on board this advice but not acting on it. In other words, not actually applying tests to their own idea in order to make sure it’s strong enough to start working on the script. And that’s what we’re going to do in this section.
Concept is king
The biggest reason most TV pilots don’t move forward is that the studio script readers, producers and execs are underwhelmed by the core concept—either when being pitched the logline or after reading the script.
Whether you already have a TV pilot episode you’re working on, or if you intend to start writing one, the best thing to do is first make sure you have a rock-solid core concept and logline.
Be honest with yourself
The first step is to write out the logline to your pilot TV series one more time and be honest with yourself as you answer the following questions:
- What’s the conflict inherent in this idea?
- What makes this idea different from similar shows?
- What are each of the characters’ goals and what makes them interesting?
- Is this an idea that’s likely to stand out in the marketplace?
- Would you be confident enough in this idea to pitch it to a producer?
- If you could write your dream show, would this be it?
- If you heard this show was being made, would you be excited to watch it?
Answering these should flag up any originality and conflict issues if they exist. For example, imagine you’re face to face with a producer and have 30 seconds to pitch your idea. Wouldn’t be 100 percent confident in doing so? If not, this means it probably needs work.
We understand that being objective about your own ideas and creativity can be extremely tough. The logline may seem fine to you, but is “fine” good enough? Is it really strong enough to start writing the pilot script?
On the other hand you may think the idea’s not up to much but in reality, it’s an incredible idea that you’ve been putting off writing for way too long. That’s why it’s never a good idea to rely solely on your own judgment, but instead get some input from other people—specifically writers and/or people who work in the film business.
Get feedback on your TV pilot
If you know someone who works in the industry, ask them what they think of your idea. Try to get them to be as objective as possible by saying something like “I’m not wedded to this idea so just be honest. I can take it.”
If you’re feeling really brave, ask strangers in coffee shops. This way you’ll get a straight-up no-frills reaction to your idea. If they’re excited to know what happens next or wish they’d thought of the idea themselves then you’re onto a winner. If they’re confused or uninspired then you know you have work to do.
How to make sure there’s enough conflict in your TV pilot
A TV pilot episode can never have too much conflict. Return to the logline and think about how, in line with all the shows you’ve outlined and read, the conflict could be tightened and made even more exciting. When it comes to the core concept in television, the idea can be broken down like this:
Protagonist + Story World = Conflict
All three elements should be more or less indistinguishable from each other and feed off each other. As touched on earlier, the protagonist should be the one person who’s got the most to lose from being placed in that particular story world.
They should be the one character who’s going to suffer the most from this conflict and also the one who does the most week in and week out to drive the action trying to solve it. Let’s take a look at Frasier, Stranger Things and Sharp Objects again for examples:
In Frasier, him being a stuck-up snob is the perfect character to be forced into a story world living with his blue-collar father, dog and home care provider. If he was more easy-going, the show wouldn’t work because the characters wouldn’t cause conflict in each other’s lives. Frasier is the character who drives the action, trying to solve his various problems.
In Stranger Things, three innocent, imaginative boys are the perfect characters to have a best friend be abducted by an alien. If they were all grown-up UFO hunters the concept wouldn’t be as interesting because they’d already be familiar with living in an adult world and the extraterrestrial. They’re the primary characters who push the story forward as they try to find their friend.
In Sharp Objects, Camille, the self-harming alcoholic reporter, is the perfect character to be forced to return to her hometown to report on the murder of a young girl and move back in with her deranged mother. If Camille’s childhood had been great and she was just a regular reporter, then returning home to cover the case wouldn’t generate any conflict within her, or for the show.
How to make sure your TV show’s idea is original
TV shows live or die on their originality. With so many spec TV pilots circulating Hollywood, for something new to catch the attention of an exec or producer, it needs to be super original. It needs to be something we’ve never seen before or at least something we’ve seen before but with a different twist on it.
Again, getting feedback from other people is often a great way of highlighting any lack of originality in your show’s basic premise. If your television pilot is about a kid who develops supernatural powers after being sent to a school built on a chemical dump site they may say “Wait, that sounds like that show The Secret World of Alex Mack from the 90s. Except he got hit by a chemical truck.”
Let’s take a look again at our three shows for examples:
Yes, we’ve seen many sitcoms before revolving around a father and son, but not one in which the son is a snobbish radio show psychiatrist, and the father is a gruff retired police officer. This is the heart of what makes the Frasier pilot unique.
We’ve seen a hundred shows and movies in which kids run around trying to solve a mystery, but not one which so successfully mixes mystery, sci-fi, humor and horror with a wonderfully nostalgic 80s retro vibe. This is what makes the Stranger Thingspilot stand out.
We’ve seen a journalist be sent back to a hometown to report on a murder, but not one which is the source of so much pain that they’re not only an alcoholic but a self-harmer who can’t wait to get out again. This is what draws us into the Sharp Objectspilot.
Keep your TV pilot idea simple and logical
Likewise, any confusing logic issues will likely be picked up by anyone you tell your idea to, if there are any. In the above example, you don’t want to write a whole pilot episode about a kid who gains superpowers after being sent to a school built on a chemical dump site, only to realize you haven’t explained why no other kid develops the powers. Or that your reasoning behind it doesn’t make much sense.
Stick to one core idea that you want to develop over the course of the season. So rather than having a logline like this:
A group of supernatural beings raised by American foster-parents become pseudo superheroes and try to understand their powers while reaping the souls of malevolent individuals and saving the world from an evil mastermind intent on world domination.
This logline has too much going on. The ideas are good but it needs refining down to one single, clear conflict in order to avoid muddying the story. The best way to do this is to focus on the protagonist’s main goal and make sure the antagonist is in direct opposition to it.
Let’s take a look at how this is done in our three shows:
- Frasier wants to live alone / his father moves in
- The kids want to find their missing friend / he’s been kidnapped by a powerful mystery force
- Camille wants to find out who murdered the girl / her past gets in the way
Or if you’re writing a lower-key Comedy or Drama, like Mad Men, then it’s all about creating an unusual setting and strong characters and pulling the audience in through their individual stories and slowly developing relationships.
List all of your major characters and make sure each one has a goal during the course of the pilot series. Ask yourself and others if this is something you/they’d want to watch. Is it original? Is it exciting? etc. Repeat the feedback exercises above and repeat.
When you’re sure the logline is watertight, it’s time to start the next step in the process of writing a TV pilot episode…
How To Write a TV Pilot Script Step #7: Start Outlining (Or Editing) Your Own TV Pilot
We recommend that you leave actually writing the TV pilot script until last. The best next step is to write an outline of what you want to include in it. As you should already be used to the practice of writing outlines, this process should be somewhat easier than if you haven’t already broken down numerous TV episodes.
Different writers have different methods of coming up with blueprints for their television pilot show before actually writing it. Some write a one scene per sentence/paragraph outline as we’ve previously discussed.
Others write out their scenes on index cards and stick them to a cork board so they can visually see how everything maps out. While others prefer to start by writing a detailed document in prose form—either a treatment or show bible.
This isn’t an exact science. It doesn’t really matter which method you choose, the important thing is that you get down a skeletal blueprint of what happens in your TV pilot before you start writing it. While some writers like to dive straight in and start writing the pilot script without an outline, this is a very risky move.
Without an outline, it’s hard to properly structure the pilot episode and make sure the conflict is as focused as it can be. In short, going this route is likely to result in quite a bit of rewriting which could probably be avoided by mapping out the show beforehand.
How to outline your TV pilot
Whichever outlining method you choose, probably the best way to start is with a blank page. Jot down all of the elements we’ve already discussed: who your main characters are, what they want, what the conflict is, what’s at stake, etc.
Then start thinking about how you’re going to approach the TV pilot structure in the script. Start with the big act breaks. What happens at each? What big event throws the story in a completely unexpected direction, pouring more misery on the protagonist? What are the big story beats for each plotline?
Then get into the scenes in each act. Plot each one so the protagonist is actively working toward their goal, which succeeds or fails at the end of each act break. Write a sentence or two for each scene, just like in the outlines you created for your favorite shows. What’s the purpose of each scene? What do you want to show the audience about a particular character or relationship?
There’s no real need to include dialogue in here unless something particularly telling or witty jumps out at you. Once it’s finished, step away for at least a week before re-reading it. This small amount of distance should give you the chance to see it again with fresh eyes.
If you keep plowing on without backing away once in a while, you’re likely to become too close to the story and unable to see obvious faults in it or with the characters. So write a draft of the outline, take a break, rewrite, take a break, etc.
Read TV show bibles
Although you don’t actually need to write a full TV bible at this stage, reading bibles for existing shows can be really helpful in seeing how the creators formulate their ideas in one concise document.
Here are some TV bible examples:
- Fargo TV bible
- Freaks and Geeks TV bible
- New Girl TV bible
- Poltergeist TV bible
- Stranger Things bible
They can be harder to find than TV pilot scripts, but try to find the pitch bibles online of your chosen three shows too and dissect them.
Get feedback on your TV pilot outline
Also, remember to ask others for feedback along the way. If you don’t know anyone in the industry, we have a Story Analysis service in which you can send us your outline, treatment or bible and one of our professional TV writers will give you feedback on what’s working and how to fix what’s not.
Overall, we advise not skipping on the outlining part. It may be tiresome but you don’t want to wind up having to do a huge rewrite because you’ve just had a major epiphany about the protagonist midway through writing the script.
How To Write a TV Pilot Script Step #8: Start Writing (Or Editing) Your TV Pilot
Finally, it’s time to write the script. If you’ve already spent a great deal of time outlining and breaking down your favorite shows, as well as your own pilot, this stage should actually be fairly straightforward.
If the concept, story and characters are air-tight, now it should just be a case of following the outline and writing the scenes in an as exciting and original way as possible. Of course, this is easier said than done.
There’s too much information on how to write characters and dialogue, develop themes and conflict to go into here in this post, so we recommend doing some further reading. Here are some books and guides on how to write a TV pilot that we strongly recommend you purchase and read if you haven’t already (the first two contain affiliate links, so we get a small commission at no extra cost to you):
- Writing The Drama Series: Pam Douglas
- Writing the Pilot: William Rabkin
- How To Write For TV: A Step-By-Step Guide To Starting Your Career
- How To Pitch A TV Show To Netflix & Networks
Get feedback on your TV pilot script
Once you have a completed draft, repeat the exercise of getting as much feedback as you can on your TV pilot episode before you send out into the industry. Another great way to get a really strong idea of just how good your script is, is to put it through the trials and tribulations of a table read.
Get some friends together or join a writing group that does table reads and hear how your pilot show sounds when read out loud. This is something professional writers do all the time and it should be in your arsenal of feedback options too.
We also have a TV Script Coverage service dedicated to this. All of our consultants are also working writers, many of whom have worked in TV for major production companies and can help get your TV pilot sold too.
We also have a Mentorship Program in which we can work with you one-on-one in developing your television pilot, every week over twelve sessions.
Whoever you choose to look over your TV pilot, make sure you check out their credentials before parting with your hard-earned cash. Are they professional writers or just college grads? Do you know who’ll be working on your script? How long have they been in business?
Some websites also run TV pilot competitions which offer feedback as well as giving you the chance to win prize money or set you up with a manager or producer. Do your research first and you’ll be just fine.
How To Write a TV Pilot Script: Conclusion
This was a long post but we hope we’ve gone some way to answering how to write a TV pilot script for you. In short, for your TV pilot to be successful requires as much research and background work as it does actually writing.
Don’t fall into the trap of jumping straight into writing the script, work out what the core conflict is, what makes it engaging and what sets it apart from everything that’s gone before. Don’t write every episode for the whole season. Start with the pilot show and make sure it’s good enough first before proceeding with the rest of the episodes.
Ask yourself what kind of new TV pilot episode would you want to watch? What kind of characters and situations would you most like to see on screen? What kind of show do you wish was available on Netflix but isn’t? This is the TV pilot script you should aim to write.
Next comes the business of getting your pilot script into the right hands, by getting a job as an assistant, networking, moving to LA, etc. all of which you can read more about in our post on how to write for TV.
We’d love to hear your input on how to write a TV pilot script. How do you go about writing a pilot for a TV show? What are your favorite TV pilot scripts?
Let us know in the comments section below.