Where were you when POTUS crashed his bicycle? I was a young, impressionable kid allowed to watch one hour of television a night. But my parents usually got to choose what was on. They often chose a little show called The West Wing, and the rest was history. They, along with millions of other people. would tune in weekly for the rest of the show's epic run.
But it all started with the pilot episode, written by Aaron Sorkin. It was maybe a perfect pilot. From the character intros to the legs of the show, to the legend of the president built in every scene, it felt so well-conceived and exciting that the audience would beg to see episode two.
But I think, as writers, we have a lot to learn from episode one. So let's dig into a few lessons together.
3 Lessons from The West Wing Pilot Screenplay PDF
1. Let the audience catch up on the world
One of my biggest pet peeves in pilots is when you are spoonfed the world. People are always explaining things or breaking down intricate subcultures for the audience.
People are smart. When we watched the pilot for this show, we liked playing catch up. How many people knew who "POTUS" was, or what the specific jobs inside the White House were? We were dazzled by the dialogue and walk-and-talks, but we also loved learning organically who did what within the story.
The audience is smart. They want to figure out what's going on, not just lay back and listen.
2. Rely on your characters
The pilot of The West Wing introduced some of the best characters in television. Not only did they help us understand the world, but their personalities also helped steep us in where the show would be going.
See, you can have an excellent world, but the characters are why people return week in and out. In the pilot, we get hints of romances, ongoing problems, and people we can root for moving forward.
When you're writing, make sure your characters make people want to hang around with them.
3. Leave the audience wanting more
Shows with legs are important. We know that the world here will be able to sustain the conflict. But I think a genius thing the show did in the pilot saved the president for the very end of the episode. It's like we got a whole world and characters built for us, and then at the end the promise was that the president would be in it and make things even more interesting moving forward. It was almost like a character cliffhanger.
We know from the legend that Sorkin originally planned the president not to be in the show, but added him as a character at the last minute. That was a good add.
How can you leave your audience wanting more? How can you give them a taste of the future with a bit of a cliffhanger? That could be introducing a new and powerful character or just killing someone off. Do something that feels exciting.
What's Next? How To Write a TV Drama Pilot
Hundreds of pilots sell to networks and streaming services every year. What's stopping you from selling your idea?