Welcome to week two of the Free Drama Pilot Writing Seminar. I hope you feel good about the first ten pages because it's time to finish off act one and move into the meat of your story.
This week we're going to learn about world-building, setting up the stakes, and defining the tone of your story.
So, if you want to learn how to write a TV pilot? You've come to the right place.
I'm pumped to get you into week two of the seminar and get your pilot ideas moving toward your final sample.
Go back to week one if you're just joining us!
For the rest of you, come with me if you want to write...
How to Write A TV Pilot (Drama) Mission Statement
Over the next six weeks, we're going to break down the TV drama pilot. Your commitment is to yourself and your story. I'm asking you to write ten pages a week. If you fall behind, take your time. If you want to work ahead, go for it. The whole point of this class is to just offer free information to writers.
We did a similar Free Screenwriting Seminar for features that worked out well.
I'm excited to have you join us every week for this journey.
Now let's get to it!
Writing Screenplay Pages 10-20 in your TV Pilot
Congratulations, you got the audience through the first ten pages. They should have some semblance of what the hell is happening. And know who's in the story. Now it's your job to take them through the rest of the first act and act two if you're writing in five act structure.
- Act 1: p1 to p6
- Act 2: p7 to p20
- Act 3: p21 to 32
- Act 4: p33 to p41
- Act 5: p42 to p55 (END)
Some shows, like Breaking Bad, are written in Four Act Structure. It's just a different way to hit your beats and commercial breaks.
- Act 1: p1 to p15
- Act 2: p16 to p29
- Act 3: p30 to 44
- Act 4: p44 to p55 (end)
No matter what, this is what you need to establish by page 20:
Who will play a major role in this show? How do they interact with one another and what are the power dynamics?
2. The Rules of the World
Is this set in a realistic world? Fantastical?
Life and death? Are we chasing terrorists? Or is the worst thing that can happen a loss of love or opportunity?
Once you've established those things, you can guide the audience's expectations for what's to come in the episode and the season.
One of the hurdles in all of this is exposition. The first 20 pages can be laden with the burden of explaining every little thing to the audience. Remember, this is a visual medium. Practice "Show, don't tell." There are creative ways to allow people to understand a world without characters blabbing on and on about it.
Again, in the classic pilot of Breaking Bad (read the pilot here), in the first 20 pages, we meet Walt, we meet his family, we see their financial predicament, and we also see evidence that selling Meth is profitable.
How do we do all that with limited exposition? We put Walt in new situations. It's his birthday, and he still has to work two jobs. We know he gets no respect at home, at work, or school.
They never saw they're poor, but we can see it by the penny-pinching.
On page 18 we see Walt faint. And by page 20 we know he has cancer. And we can infer that this could ruin him financially and kill him.
The show is set.
Let's look at a few more examples to see where we should be.
Pages 10-20 TV Pilot Examples
Now that you understand how it happens in Breaking Bad, how about we pull apart a few other hour-long dramas to see how they play the game?
First up is the Lost pilot (read here).
Lost is one of my all-time favorite tv shows. It was must-see TV back in the day. Everyone was talking about it. And part of the fervor that went along with the show was the pilot. At 97 pages, it was much longer than an average pilot, but the story's structure is fairly compact.
In the first 20ish pages we find ourselves in the middle of a plane crash as well as the aftermath.
We also set up the rules of this show. We won't just be on the island, but we will also be flashing back to these characters before they got here. And they won't always be telling the truth in the present.
Also, we start to learn about each character and their skillset. Jack is a doctor. He never has to say it. We see his skills in action.
Hurley is a good comforter.
Charlie...well he likes to freak out.
The main focus of the first 20 pages is to show yo Jack, our hero. And meet the other cast on this wreck.
Once we get to the 20th page, it's nighttime and people have built fires. We finally get a rest period to learn names and characters.
And then...we hear the smoke monster. This is no ordinary world.
But it's all set. We're on an island now.
What about a show about people trying to rebuild at home?
Look no further than The Walking Dead (read the pilot here)
This show opens reasonably normally. Routine police chase. Shots fired. But we get into the real meat, pun intended, when Rick wakes up in the hospital. Now, this is another longer pilot, but the same principles remain true. After we find out Rick and his wife have a ton of problems he's shot and goes into a coma. He wakes up during the zombie apocalypse. We set up our world, the characters (without knowing Rick will find his way back to Shane and Rick's family), and we know the stakes. People are dead. And the dead have risen.
At the end of the 20 page stretch Rick is hit with a shovel. We are terrified for his life. It's a helluva an act break.
From one excellent zombie show to another, let's look at Bryan Fuller's Pushing Daisies for what it's like to write an hour-long procedural with a bit of magic (read the script here).
After a brilliant tag, we are thrust into the magical world of the pie maker.
Ned, our lead, is a chef and part-time investigator. We meet his friends, Emerson and Olive, and we get his routine of raising the dead so Emerson can crack cases. We get some brilliant and whimsical narration that delivers all the information we need. The exposition is woven into the fabric of this modern fairy tale.
This world has a ton of rules. When Ned touches a dead body, they become alive, but a second touch kills them again.
Then we establish that Ned wants something more out of life.
Enter a murder and a dead body Ned knows...a girl named Chuck who captured his heart long ago.
Summing Up How To Write A TV Pilot: Week Two
Are you ready to get week two underway?
Hopefully, you now feel at peace about establishing your world and finishing your first twenty pages. We should learn what's at stake and understand the tone of the show.
There might be a lot to get out, but keep that exposition hidden behind interesting scenes.
Now is the time for us to get to know the characters and begin to root for them. These pages should be indicative of the changes we need to see throughout the episode, and of the series.
You have your marching orders, now get back to writing!
TL;DR How To Write A Tv Pilot: Week Two
- Show us what's at stake
- Make us love and root for characters
The How to Write A TV Pilot Playlist: Week Two