What do you do when you have a great idea for a TV show? How do you get it from your brain and onto the page? It's not as simple as just sitting and writing it. You have to actually break that story.

If you're not in a writer's room, breaking a story on your own can be incredibly hard.

So, I set out to create a list of things you can do at home to help yourself break your pilot and to demystify the process, providing practical insights and proven techniques to help you pen a script that not only captures the audience's attention but also meets the high standards of the television industry.

If that sounds like your jam, let's do this.

11 ways to establish worldbuilding in your story'Game of Thrones'Credit: HBO

Understanding the TV Pilot Landscape

Before you start writing a TV pilot script, it's vital to comprehend the landscape of the television industry. Different platforms, such as networks, cable channels, and streaming services, offer diverse opportunities and unique challenges.

The good thing is, with all these channels and platforms, buyers are expanding more than ever. All you need to do is figure out who would be interested in something like your idea.

The television market is growing exponentially, and writers are playing a significant role in this expansion. Having a pilot TV show in your portfolio can exponentially increase your options and open doors to exciting opportunities in the television industry.

And it'll make you attractive to representation.

1515492647-f985e53d-ef6d-42dc-a331-4916fa568b24-new-girl-kitchen-05740565-v6-hires1_0'New Girl'Credit: 20th Century Fox Television

This is all easier said than done. Ideally, you'll have a producer, agent, or manager to help you figure out which buyers are right for you.

The world of TV can often seem convoluted to budding writers. It still intimidates me. When I come up with ideas, it feels like one of the hardest parts of the business. There's a multitude of formats and terminologies to understand, such as multi-camera vs. single-camera, networks vs. cable, serials vs. episodic, limited series vs. anthologies, and the concept of a "TV show bible."

But take your time, pick what your show should be. It's time to write the pilot next.

Seinfeld'Seinfeld'Credit: NBC

Crafting a TV Pilot Script

You probably came to this article for this bit of information. Whether you're wanting to write an hour-long show or a half-hour, at some point, breaking the pilot means writing it. But there are some steps before that happens. I always recommend writing a pretty detailed outline, so you know where you're going.

The primary issue with most advice on writing a TV pilot is that it's often top-down, focusing on vague tips like "know your audience" or "include setups and payoffs." To craft a compelling story that executives will want to buy, you need more than just generic advice. You need a strategic plan and a systematic approach.

Vince-gilligan-breaking-bad-austin-film-festival-2'Breaking Bad'Credit: AMC

The Ground-Up Approach

The ground-up approach to writing a TV pilot script involves systematically crafting your script with a clear game plan of what it needs to be and who should be buying it.

This involves understanding the industry definitions and knowing how to write a TV pilot script "on spec," that is, speculatively for free, in the hope that someone in the industry will read it, like it, and potentially buy the show.

But the only way that happens is if the show is great and showcases your original voice.

How 'Barry' nails its dark comedy'Barry'Credit: Warner Bros. Television Distribution

The Importance of Originality

I've never sold a TV show. The farthest I've gotten us doing an "If/Come" with a major studio. But I've been staffed and I can say the only reason I got those jobs is that I had a sample that was a little off-the-wall and showed people my unique point of view.

In the past, aspiring writers often wrote spec television pilot scripts based on existing shows.

However, the industry has evolved. Today, it's advisable to write a TV pilot based on your original idea. Originality showcases not only your ability to write as per the industry's demands but also your capacity to generate fresh, captivating ideas and sustain them over an entire season.

So before you sit down to write, really think about what makes your point of view so special and unique to you.


Understanding the TV Pilot Script Structure

As I said above, outlining is so important because once you get into TV structure, things have to be tight and feel like they fit.

Structuring a TV pilot script requires a nuanced understanding of the television medium. Although the general story structure of Beginning, Middle, and End applies to TV scripts, the structure of your story changes due to the unique dynamics of the television platform.

There's a three-act structure or a five-act structure, and it all depends on where your pilot lives. So do some research and see what similar pilots are doing.

Read a lot of TV pilots and see how they're put together for various networks.

What is An Anthology Series? Definition and Examples from Film and TVChris Rock in 'Fargo'Credit: FX

The Unique Challenge of Writing TV Pilots

A pilot is not just to sell, it's also a piece of work that can get you meetings to then work in other writing rooms.

So what does a great pilot have?

Well, a great pilot begins the overarching story spanning multiple episodes and seasons but also introduces the story's world and the characters within it. Essentially, a TV pilot is a sales pitch for the structure, tone, atmosphere, genre, characterization, and narrative of an entire series.

If showrunners see you can do that and do it well, then they'll want you in their room as an asset.

Great TV pilot scripts create big expectations for the upcoming series. They accomplish this by setting up compelling characters, creating emotional hooks, and establishing a unique world for the story. The key is to craft a script that leaves a lasting impression and entices the audience to return for more.

The Sopranos'The Sopranos'Credit: HBO

The Building Blocks of a TV Pilot Script

Okay, now that you have the world of TV down. let's get into the steps of actually writing down your story.

Writing a TV pilot script requires a thorough understanding of its various components. These building blocks help shape your script and ensure it caters to the specific requirements of the television medium.

The "This happens…but… therefore… this happens" Formula

If I had to pick one way to write a pilot, this would be the way. I saw it first introduced by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and it stuck with me ever since.

Every successful TV pilot script follows this basic formula: You need an event to occur, which prompts the characters to pivot, causing a reaction that leads to another event. This formula forms the basis of your script and helps drive the narrative forward.

These events drive the story and force the characters to grow and deal with things. Dealing with things shows the audience who these people are and why they should be interested in following them throughout the series.

We call that giving the pilot "legs."

Southpark_s18_cast_2-h-2020-1600189256_0'South Park'Credit: Warner Bros.

The A, B, and C Stories

My advice to people is when writing a pilot, I always prefer scripts with two or three-story strings flowing and integrating throughout a single episode. There are lots of alternative pilots that don't do this, but this is the most commercial way to do it.

These strings provide depth to the story and keep the audience engaged. Plus it showcases the vast array of actors who could be in your show.

So, what are these stories?

  • "A Story": This is the primary narrative involving the main protagonist(s) dealing with the central conflict.
  • "B Story": This secondary narrative relates to the secondary wants, needs, and desires of the main protagonist(s) or how side story elements eventually connect with the A story.
  • "C Story": These are smaller side stories within the overall story arc, usually found in sitcoms.

Elisabeth_moss_in_the_handmaids_tale'The Handmaid's Tale'Credit: Hulu

Unleashing the Power of Characters

Your characters are the single most important part of your TV idea. Developing strong ones will set you apart from the crowd.

Compelling characters are the lifeblood of a TV series. Think about characters that captivate audiences, like Tony Soprano (John Gandolfini), Walter White (Brian Cranston), or June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss). Making audiences want to watch the series, whether the characters are humorous, intriguing, entertaining, or despicable. Developing conflicted characters with flaws can help create such compelling personalities.

What is a Leitmotif? Definition and Examples in Film and TV'The Simpsons'Credit: 20th Century Fox Television

Crafting the World of the Story

Worldbuilding is one of the most fun parts of breaking your pilot. You're a god! You control the world and how it works.

The world in which your story unfolds plays a crucial role in the success of your TV series. Whether it's the mafia world of The Sopranos, the meth-dealing world of Breaking Bad, or the totalitarian society in The Handmaid's Tale, the world should intrigue audiences and make them want to explore it further.

What does your world have to offer?

Only-murders-in-the-building-h-2021'Only Murders in the Building'Credit: Hulu

Structuring Your TV Pilot Script

Depending on whether your TV pilot script is for an hour-long or half-hour-long episode, the structure and page counts will vary.

However, regardless of the length, your script should follow a systematic structure that caters to the specific requirements of the television medium.

Hour-Long TV Pilot Structure

Hour-long TV episodes generally range from 45-65 pages. The story is typically broken down into four or five acts, each act ending in a cliffhanger to keep the audience invested.

  1. The Tag: Start exciting
  2. Act One: Exposition for the Audience
  3. Act Two: Conflicts appear
  4. Act Three: Things get really bad
  5. Act Four: Everything's downhill
  6. Act Five: Tying up loose ends
  7. The Dénouement: Where do we go from here?

Charlie-lost'Lost'Credit: ABC

Half-Hour-Long TV Pilot Structure

Half-hour-long episodes usually fall under the sitcom genre. The structure and page counts for these scripts are condensed, and the story is generally broken down into three acts, each act serving a specific purpose in the narrative.

We did a whole breakdown of the sitcom structure here. But here are the basics:

  • Cold Open
  • Act One
  • Act Two
  • Act Three
  • Tag

30rockfinal'30 Rock'Credit: NBC

Variations in TV Pilot Structure

While most TV pilot scripts follow the general structure guidelines, there are always exceptions. Scripts for shows like The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Game of Thrones don't have clearly defined act breakdowns. As an undiscovered screenwriter, it's best to adhere to the general guidelines as closely as possible.

The best way to get discovered is just to have something great to show people.

5 of the best ways to network in Hollywood.'Mad Men'Credit: AMC

Utilizing Tools to Learn TV Pilot Structure and Format

Screenwriting software, television scripts, and binge-watching TV series are excellent tools to learn about TV writing. They can help you understand the subtle nuances of scriptwriting and provide insights into the industry's standards and expectations.

We have an entire library of pilots for you to read and learn from here.

Yellowjackets_s2_2'Yellowjackets'Credit: Showtime

Summing Up How to Break Your TV Pilot

While crafting a TV pilot script can be an exciting journey, it's essential to remember that most TV pilots don't sell on spec.

The path of a TV writer is filled with unique challenges and opportunities. and lots of failures, which is true for everyone.

However, with passion, dedication, and a solid script, you can navigate this path successfully and make your mark in the television industry.

So, get your creative juices flowing, bring your unique story to life, and take the television industry by storm!