An intensive explainer on how TV pilots work…
We’ve all seen a pilot before, whether it’s drama, comedy, or somewhere in between there will always be that first episode saddled with the terrible job of try to entice an new audience to invest time in the creator’s masterpiece.
Due to this, many screenwriters are intimidated by the idea of writing a pilot, since some think it could literally make or break your chance to get your project on the air.
So what exactly goes into writing a pilot, how to do they work, and what is the overall anatomy of a TV pilot?
What is the intention of a pilot?
As you will get no points for guessing, the intention of a pilot episode is to be the entry point for a new show that introduces its story world to an audience.
Depending on the type of pilot the episode will either be adopting the audience into an already established situation (e.g. The Simpsons, The Office) or it will be creating an entirely new situation by forcing a group of characters together (e.g. Lost, Barry, Teen Wolf).
Pilots have an important function and can be quite difficult to pull off effectively. Not only must a pilot work as a stand alone episode of a particular series, it must expertly balance a need for world building, character dynamics, lore, and a heck of a lot of exposition while also somehow being entertaining.
It is a difficult line to walk and not everyone gets it right. You should judge a show off its potential and not off the strength of its pilot. Many shows have bad to average pilots and are great, while some have great pilots and then sort of… flounder (I’m looking at you Heroes).
Firstly, pilots are genetically split into two formats, which are 1-hour drama and 30-minute comedy, although since the start of the streaming era the line between the two has become more blurred.
Next there is the type of pilot the story will tell, these include Premise, Non-premise, and Soft premise. All of which will be explained below.
This breakdown mostly applies to pilots for a continuing series, and not first episodes of mini-series, which operate slightly differently. I will be writing a post specifically on the mini-series in the near future, so watch this space…
How does a 1-hour drama differ from a 30-minute comedy?
There are a few main differences between 1-hour drama pilots and 30-minute comedies, most obviously being their runtimes.
Back in the days of network TV, dramas were typically written to fill a 1-hour time slot (with commercials) and comedies were intended to fit a 30-minute slot. Due to this TV scripts for dramas will usually run about 45–70 pages while comedies are up to 44 pages.
In the age of streaming there is now more flexibility in runtimes but it’s still probably best to use the established page counts and beats for your drama or comedy scripts — be ruthless with your darlings!
Nobody wants to sit through an over-long and bloated script from a self-indulgent writer clinging to scenes that should be cut.
While both comedies and dramas follow as 4–5 Act structure, the main difference is the pace and simplicity of storytelling.
Due to their shorter runtime comedies are often stripped down to their main points, i.e. central dilemma plus 1–2 subplots, which are generally resolved within the same episode. They often express plot points using “tell don’t show” since there is limited time, meaning they will have set ups relayed through dialogue.
This “story of the week” format doesn’t require the viewer to keep track of a continuing narrative as they are self-contained episodes that don’t heavily contribute to the context of any others in the season. Most straight comedies are dip-in dip-out and allow for casual viewing with episodes that you can watch in almost any order.
RELATED: Pilot Analysis… Modern Family
Conversely, dramas tend to be slower and more deliberate in their storytelling, opting for multiple intersecting plots that may span for several episodes or seasons. Most dramas use a continuous storyline, with a new instalment occurring each episode, which requires the audience to stay invested from start to finish.
While drama scripts should tie up the particulars of each individual episode, it works in their favour to leave some loose ends to be addressed in future episodes. Drama episodes tend to be open ended stories that feed into a larger narrative while comedies are mostly closed loops that represents one instant in the lives of the characters.
Genre shows and “Dramedies” that fall into the 1-hour category may use a blend of “story of the week” and continuing story episodes. Due to the more zany nature of these shows they lend themselves to fun throwaways that might follow a lesser character on an inconsequential adventure.
Think Xander-centric episode “The Zeppo” from Buffy the Vampire Slayer or almost any episode of Supernatural or the X-Files.
Types of pilot
There are two generally accepted forms of pilots, which are the “premise” pilot and “non-premise” pilot. Although, some also refer to a “soft premise” pilot as a middle ground between the two.
A premise pilot, as one might expect, is a pilot that establishes the premise of the show. Much like the opening Act of a movie, it will depict the event that puts the characters on their path, which they will remain on for the rest of the season/show.
Characters are often thrown together through a twist of fate and will be, for better or worse, stuck together until the overarching dilemma has been resolved. Show’s that focus heavily on a continuing storyline and need to be watched chronologically will often use premise pilots.
This type of pilot is designed to establish lore, the main character’s goals, stakes, enemies and allegiances, and will give the viewer an indication of what threats the characters will face throughout the series.
A good example of this pilot is Lost, in which a group of strangers wash up on a deserted island following a plane crash and begin unravelling the mysteries therein.
There is common wisdom that executives don’t really like premise pilots, as they have a tendency to be heavy-handed, and that it’s better to drop the audience into the action and let them learn from context (such as the non-premise / soft premise pilot).
However, some stories really only work with a premise pilot, such as those with a complicated set up, a lot of lore, or where the incident that changes the status quo is a major part of the story.
A non-premise pilot is essentially the opposite of a premise pilot and will not devote much time to establishing the characters, set up or narrative.
They are designed to throw the viewer into the thick of things and use clever exposition to deliver information to the audience as needed. Non-premise pilots drop us into a story during a regular day in the characters’s lives and will be representative of the format the show will follow going forward.
It’s very common for comedies to use a non-premise pilot, particularly those that depict a “slice of life” that doesn’t require much context to be understood.
Often comedies have a lesser focus on a continuing story that requires heavy exposition, meaning it’s more effective to see the characters on a “regular Tuesday” rather than wasting time on establishing the set up.
Non-premise pilots are popular because they can seem more organic, but they are not appropriate if the story is complicated or needs a lot of explanation to get going.
They usually only work for pilots were the audience can get the gist from context regarding how characters relate to each other (i.e. the Dunphy/Pritchett clan in Modern Family).
While there are often continuing storylines in sitcoms they usually serve as character development and rarely disrupt the dynamics between characters.
These shows can, for most intents and purposes, have their episodes played in any order and it will have little impact on an audience’s ability to understand what’s happening.
Soft premise pilot
A soft premise is exactly what it sounds like in the sense that it has some element of a “set up” to the overall status quo of the show, but the episode otherwise looks like any other and could technically be dropped anywhere in the season. It is a happy medium between the premise and non-premise pilot.
A soft premise will usually employ a “fish out of water” character who helps coax exposition out of the story as they are being assimilated into the existing world. This is the guy or girl who doesn’t know anyone or anything and asks helpful questions like “who is this and how do you know them?”.
Rachel Green is a great example of this character, because while she has an implied history with the other main characters in Friends, she is removed enough that she needs context to their dynamics. Another example would be Penny from Big Bang Theory, who is the new neighbour to an already established friend group.
There are some other functions to pilots, as explained on Wikipedia, which are slightly more nuanced than those described above. Often, the pilot shown to the public is not the same one used to sell the show to the “money people” (AKA — the bigwigs who have the power to green light the project).
These “proof of concept” types of pilots can be mini-sodes, or produced on a very limited budget, and are intended to show the potential of a project for the “men behind the curtain”. In cases of a rough pilot, the episode may be reshot by the studio before making it to air, pending rewrites or retooling.
However, screenwriters who are writing on spec will want to produce a pilot episode with the assumption that it will be the version of the episode seen by the general public, since readers will want to know how you envision the finished show.
Pilot structure (in essence)
As mentioned above, both comedy and drama pilots will use a 4 or 5 Act structure. Like any story, such as a film or novel, they will include the standard beginning, middle and end (Acts 1–3), but TV scripts will also include what is known as a Teaser, and sometimes a Tag.
A Teaser and Tag in a comedy serve a slightly different purpose from that of a drama. In a comedy the Teaser or “cold open” is usually a stand alone joke that primes the viewer.
It’s a funny caper that sets the tone and may or may not establish the dilemma of the episode. Similarly, the Tag uses the format to deliver a final joke that acts as a wink to the viewer that says “thanks for watching”.
While these serve a similar function in drama, the intention is slightly different. In drama the Teaser is intended to entice the viewer to invest in the episode, while the Tag serves the function of enticing them to want to see what happens next.
While these Acts do have a specific purpose in terms of the rhythm of a story, they were also used as a natural stopping point for commercial breaks (although, most TV stations pretty much throw those in indiscriminately these days).
I don’t think it matters all too much how many Acts you choose to use, as long as your script is clear to the reader, and you use those breaks effectively to build tension and keep a viewer invested.
The Act structure for both a comedy and drama will look something like this:
Teaser: A short scene intended to grab the viewers attention and keep them watching
Act One: A set up of the central dilemma and introducing the important players in the episode
Act Two: Characters try to resolve the central dilemma and almost succeed until they hit a bump in the road
Act Three: Characters come to a head with the central dilemma and things finally come to a head to resolve it
Tag: In a comedy this is a final “joke” to wave the audience off, whereas in a drama this is usually a hint to the dilemma of the next episode or a last hurrah to remind the audience to tune in next time.
For more in-depth explanation on structure, make sure to check out my next posts on pilot episode structure for both 1-hour dramas and 30-minute comedy scripts.
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