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The Art of Writing a TV Pilot, Part 1: First 15 Minutes

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Recently, I had an opportunity to write a pilot episode and an outline for a TV show based on my novel. No, let me rephrase that. I’ve always had that opportunity. The one I had recently was an opportunity to pitch the show to a production company. Writing a TV pilot had always been an option. I just never attempted it until now.

What became of it and whether there’s a new TV show on the horizon, is a story for another time. In a nutshell, I was given truly valuable feedback and the door was left open for a revision. As far as I’m concerned, this is as good as it gets in this business for someone who doesn’t have a track record of creating successful — or any — TV shows. Today’s story is about what I’ve learned while writing the pilot and the outline. And I have learned a lot.

Now, before I get into the details, I want to preface my newfound wisdom with some not so fine print. I am not a screenwriting professional. I have written quite a few novels and short stories, but as far as screenplays are concerned, this was my first attempt to write one. Which, in some way, makes my list quite different from other advice on the subject. There are many wonderful guides and articles written by successful screenwriting professionals. They have their own experience to rely on in identifying what works and what doesn’t. I read quite a few of them before starting to write my pilot, but I felt that I was still missing some practical advice. Some ingredients that result in the kind of pilots that I, as a viewer, appreciate.

And so I decided to take a look at some great TV shows (Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, The Expanse, and a few others) and to distill some patterns that likely played a key role in making their pilot episodes such gems. And I wasn’t surprised to discover that these patterns were quite evident in all shows I looked at. As I worked on my own pilot, I kept writing these patterns down, but the only intended audience was me. However, when I ended up with a list of 20+ items, I thought it may be worth sharing with others, who, like me could use some practical principles distilled from great shows. So today, I’m publishing the first part of that rather long list and, if there’s enough interest, more parts will follow.

Lastly, needless to say, this article contains heavy spoilers for all shows it mentions, so if you haven’t seen them I encourage you to watch at least the pilot episodes first. Now, let’s dive in.

1. Introduce all key characters in the first 15 minutes

Or, in the case of multiple complex subplots, at least, by end of the pilot. Don’t keep some introductions till the second episode — the viewers may never see it. If a character is important, there’s no justification for not letting the audience meet him or her. In Breaking Bad, we get to meet Walt, his entire family, Jesse, and even Hank’s partner Steven in less than ten minutes — and none of that feels forced.

Writing a TV pilot could be harder if your show has as many characters as Game of Thrones. It's better to start with a smaller set of players.
Credit: HBO

Unlike Breaking Bad, centered around a single protagonist, Game of Thrones has more characters and subplots than most shows. And yet it manages to introduce us to everyone who matters — at least, matters in Season 1 — in 62 minutes of the pilot. Unlike the North, which always remembers, we may have a hard time remembering all the names, titles, and relationships, but they all are there nonetheless — and for a good reason.

The point of introducing characters early is not to make the audience memorize every one of them immediately.

The point is to outline the world of the show, thus creating the foundation for the drama that is about to unfold.

And the drama of any story is defined, above all, by its participants. It may take the audience another episode or two — or in the case of Game of Thrones even longer — to make sense of all the names and faces. But it will be a process of putting together pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that have been on the table from the very beginning.

2. Show the protagonist’s true character as soon as possible

This is very different from just letting the audience see the protagonist in action. We can spend an entire episode watching someone go about their business — and still know nothing about the person, at least, nothing that truly matters. In fact, this is what we all often experience in life. How well do we really know our colleagues, acquaintances, and neighbors? But when it comes to a story this is not good enough.

Someone’s real character is not defined by their appearance, status, or biography. It’s the person’s essence — their set of values and their resolve to manifest these values in action.

That’s how we learn about others — and ourselves — in the real world, and that’s what we look for as viewers. Show us a struggling middle-aged chemistry teacher who has been told that has got two years to live — and we will feel sorry for him. Show us him starting — and winning — a confrontation with three strong young men who were making fun of his sick son — and we’re hooked.

That’s is exactly what Breaking Bad does in a wonderfully unexpected— and yet, fully believable— scene.

And yet, while the confrontation in the store is very powerful — after all, it gives us the first hint at the Walter to Heisenberg transformation — it’s not the only one. The entire partnership between Walter and Jesse — the backbone of the story — starts with a threat. “Either that or I turn you in,” says Walt, and we, together with Jesse, realize that there is more to mellow Mr. White than meets the eye. And that “more” is a preview of Walter’s real character.

Game of Thrones’ pilot is just as swift about showing us the true characters of the game’s main players. “The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword” scene tells us pretty much everything we need to know about Ned Stark’s character. It makes it crystal clear that for him, the old law is not just a formality. He means it. He is someone who never shies away from his duty and from taking responsibility for his decisions and actions. He is a true man of honor and that, more than anything else, defines him.

Credit: HBO

Similarly, Arya’s true nature is shown — or, at least, hinted at — even faster. Hitting the bullseye with an arrow instead of knitting peacefully is such a fitting entrance for the girl who will become one of the most lethal characters in the bloody world of Westeros. Yes, she is just a little girl when we meet her, but thanks to a well-written introduction, we expect her to gravitate toward weapons rather than knitting.

3. Bring together opposites

Stories are born out and driven by conflict. When there is no conflict there is simply no story to tell. Getting up, having breakfast, and spending a day going about one’s business is a wonderful option in real life, but it makes for a very boring narrative. A story needs tension, obstacles, disagreements, fights. They could be external or internal — and best stories always have both types — but they must be present.

And the simplest way to create a conflict is to bring together opposites. That way, the audience can sense an upcoming confrontation way before the characters themselves sense it.

And, of course, anticipating a confrontation is a powerful reason for watching episode two and beyond. Two similar characters with conflicting agendas are good, but two opposite characters with conflicting — or even similar — agendas are even better.

Game of Thrones, just like its name suggests, is full of characters with conflicting agendas. But it’s their fundamental differences that make these conflicts worth caring about. And so when we get to observe Jaime Lannister and Ned Stark in the pilot episode, there’s little doubt that sooner or later these two will cross their swords. And this, again, is another reason for the audience to come back.

Credit: AMC

Breaking Bad, at the first glance, doesn’t rush to show us the opposites of Walter White. We don’t meet his archenemies Tuco Salamanca and Gus Fring in the pilot episode. But we don’t need to. Because we do meet Hank Schrader, and, even more importantly we meet Jesse Pinkman. And Jesse is not just Walter’s partner in crime. He is his opposite in many things that matter.

Walt is meticulous, Jess is sloppy. Walt is highly educated, Jesse is “Yeah Science!” Walt is a planner, Jesse has the attention span of a puppy. And despite their partnership, a half — if not more — of the show’s most dramatic conflicts ultimately stem from their differences. What’s more, as they both evolve in their own ways throughout the show, they remain different, constantly providing opportunities for a good ol’ conflict.

This concludes Part 1 of the series. Writing a TV pilot is not easy, especially if you are new to it. But like in any form of art there are only two fundamental components of getting better at it: learn from the best and keep trying.

Leave your thoughts below, and best of luck in crafting your own rich and powerful stories, whether for TV or for any other medium.

Part 2: Keeping it Connected >>

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