Lost changed network television forever.
We're in quarantine and it seems like we have endless opportunities to revisit the shows that formed us as people. For me, it was Lost. When Oceanic Flight 815 crashed on the island I was transfixed.
From the very first frames, Lost taught me so much about writing—I don't think I even knew it at the time. And most of it was communicated in the pilot.
With the way Hollywood is going, there are way more opportunities to be a TV writer than to work in features. Having a pilot you've written that you're proud of can provide many more opportunities in the long run.
It can open you up to selling a TV show, staffing, or getting your foot in the door as an assistant.
But to write a great pilot, you need to learn from one of the best.
1. Dynamic Character Introductions
One of the hardest things about writing is finding new ways to introduce characters. Lost found a way to give everyone a dynamic intro. They were literally fighting for their lives. We also got to see who these people were in a time of crisis. When we meet Jack, he's running into the fray. Hurley is trying to help others. Sawyer is scavaging for himself, and Kate is there to help Jack put himself back together.
The best part of this thing is that we see people in action, so when the slower dialogue scenes happen the story bolsters these characters as well. You can build off of the way they're introduced.
2. Obvious Emotional and Physical Stakes
Look, maybe this is a cheat but Lost has the most obvious stakes. We are on an island with limited food and shelter. Those are awesome. And they are supported by a pregnant woman, a guy who is dying, the emotional weight of surviving the plane crash, wild animals, and some sort of monster we never truly understand.
Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=LFp8vxpjRgM
These stakes are not only measured in terms of life or death but also the weight of choosing to survive. All the group dynamics that go with being a leader, the burden of not being trusted, and the hope that someday they'll be saved.
What kinds of stakes does your pilot have? It doesn't need to be just like Lost, but it does need to have hurdles we see characters dealing with day to day.
3. A Show with Legs
The term "legs" is one we toss around in TV a lot. It means a show you can see going on for a few seasons...where the concept is so strong you can see it getting to 100 episodes. Well, when the characters landed on the island you could see that happening.
See, what Lost did was have a situation with so many possibilities that it seemed like ABC had to make it, even when staring in the face of massive budgets. The very concept was so strong they knew they could manage multiple seasons.
Doe your idea have legs? Is the concept so open that you can see how other seasons begin to play out?
4. Ask Crucial Questions
While this became a joke much later in Lost, the pilot asks a ton of questions, the biggest one being "how will they get off this island?" But other than that, we had questions about key characters on the show. In the pilot specifically, we wanted to know most about Claire and her baby. How far along was she and will this baby be born on the island?
The other crucial question raised in the pilot is how these people are going to survive. Because we're looping in the stakes to the questions, I don't want to go overboard, but the key thing here is to make the audience assess how they would feel in this situation themselves.
Once you get people engaging, you have them on the hook.
That's the best place to be as a writer.
5. Always Leave Them Wanting More
We have segued nicely into how pilots should end. Most of the time you want to make sure you wrap up small storylines while leaving big ones open. Lost kept us on the edge of our seats. We kept transitioning into the questions, and the pilot leaves us with a big one.
"What the hell is the monster living in the jungle?"
But aside from those questions, what makes us want more is the drama between each character. We want to know if the flirting between Jack and Kate will go anywhere. We want to know what the signal is that Sayid found. We want to know if the US Marshall will die. And we just want to know why these people were on the plane in the first place.
We want more Lost.
Does your script have people you want to see every week? Does it have questions for which we demand answers?
Will we want more than the pilot you write?
Lost gave us so many great scenes to enjoy, but this one, in particular, was indicative of what the show would bring. We have to go back to the island!