How To Write a TV Pilot: Free Drama Pilot Seminar (Week Three)

You're halfway through. Surprise us. Show us why we should finish reading.  

Welcome to week three of the Free Drama Pilot Writing Seminar. It's time to get to the middle of your drama pilot and give people a twist or a turning point. 

This is the time the character you thought was guilty has an alibi, a wrinkle is exposed in the plot, or there's a big reveal. 

If you're just joining us, go back to week one, go back to week one and write until you catch up.  

If you're in the right place, then stick with me. Things are about to get a little hairy.

But first...

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 20-30 in your TV Pilot 

You have the audience biting on your concept. They're invested in your characters. They know what the problem is and probably have an idea of what's going to happen next. So avoid being boring and predictable and throw them for a loop.

These are also the pages where you're going to make future promises to the audience. 

It doesn't matter if you're a cable show, on a network, or even steaming, you want people who tune in to get an understanding of what they can expect week to week. So explore threads like romantic tensions, dark pasts, and backstory that will matter later. 

Not every question in your pilot needs to be answered, just the big ones. You want to leave some narrative threads loose, so the audience returns to see you tie them up. 

Let's reflect back to our five-act structure guide to see where you should be from 20-30. 

  • Teaser
  • 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)
  • Tag

Pages 20-30 takes you through most of Act III. 

Let's start with a pilot I hope you have all seen or read. The West Wing (which you can read HERE). 

The West Wing sets up everyone who works in the White House and their issues early on. By page 20, Sorkin is taking us into the deeper problems behind the policy. We're getting personal. We know that Josh and Toby are going at it over Josh's Meet the Press attack on the American Family Council. In fact, this is causing ripple effects all over. We know the crux of the episode will be to clean up this problem. 

And we see each of the characters jockeying for power while also juggling stranded Cubans trying to make it to America and Josh's gaff pissing off Leo's daughter. 

We also get a peek into the B-story, Mandy Hampton moving into her office. We realize she may be the key to the President's reelection, but has a history with some of the people in the White House. 

That's a whirlwind ten pages, but it's important to point out that they're all used with the economy on the page and really give us a sense of the show week to week.  

Let's look at a few more examples to see some more of Act III in action.  

Pages 20-30 TV Pilot Examples

We looked at The West Wing, let's stick with Sorkin for a second and check out The Newsroom (which you can read HERE). 

When The Newsroom hits the twenty-page mark we're still meeting characters. We learn Mackenzie's role in everyone's lives here. We also see that Will is going rogue and upset Mackenzie is there. And she meets Jim and Maggie. 

And we learn Don and Maggie are a thing. And their thing is in trouble. There's even a hint that Jim may like Maggie! 

Remember what I said about backstory? We learn Mac has been in Iraq with the military and has a lot more experience than everyone else. She also is great at reading people and analyzing their problems. We see her fix Maggie's problem and give her a raise. 

It's badass and what makes this an excellent pilot. 

The Newsroom has everything you ever wanted. Except for a 4th season. 

One of my favorite pilots and just hours of television all time is the Veronica Mars pilot (which you can read HERE). 

This is a procedural show that has Veronica solving a case a week, and then also has a massive season-long murder mystery that correlates. Twenty pages in and we're making promises to the audience with what they can expect to see from Veronica week in and out. 

She's got witty banter with her Dad, they're taking an underdog's case, and she's willing to get her hands dirty when it comes to solving them. 

We also learn her Dad is an ex-cop who's been off the force for a while. A little bit of a gritty backstory to give these people edge. And we can tell that future episodes may exonerate him. 

And we get her friendships, allies, and who respects her. 

Oh, and the twist? 

In these pages, Abel Koontz is arrested. Not Veronica's man, but she's determined to actually get to the bottom of what's going on. 

Sometimes it's not all about twists and mysteries. 

Sometimes it's about clear eyes, full hearts, and the inability to lose. 

Or, at least that's what the Friday Night Lights pilot (which you can read HERE) taught me. 

The pilot will forever be known for breaking Jason Street's back and causing millions to fall in love with Tim Riggins or Tyra Collette. 

But in the pilot, these pages are used to get you to know all the players on the team, the members of the Taylor family, and to raise the stakes. 

We know that the Panthers have a history of winning and that Buddy wants it to continue. We see him meeting with boosters and applying the pressure to Coach Taylor. This has to be their year, no matter what. 

Coach carries that pressure home, and relies on his wife, Tami, to get his head right. 

We see how that pressure translates to their star QB Jason Street, and his backup (I stan) Matt Saracen. One dreams of glory, the other just wants to get into the game. 

Tensions are always escalating on these pages. We are building toward something and laying down tracks for what the season will hold. 

God, does anyone give better motivational speeches than Coach Taylor? 

Summing Up How To Write A TV Pilot: Week Three 

Alright, it's time to conquer week three. Show us your great twists, refine your characters, and set up some incredible stakes. 

You're almost halfway through your drama pilot. I hope you're having fun propelling the audience into a fun and exciting journey. 

Remember, always go for the unexpected, and refuse to be boring. 

Your writing should help you stand out from the pack. What's at the emotional core that sets your voice apart from everyone else? 

If you have problems or hit roadblocks, look for help in the comments. 

Go forth and write! 

TL;DR How To Write A Tv Pilot: Week Three 

- Give us a twist 

- Let the pressure mount for your characters 

- Make future promises 

The How to Write A TV Pilot Playlist: Week Three 

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