Everything you need to write an amazing first episode…
Do you have a great idea for the next big drama series but have absolutely no idea how to get started?
All great shows start with great pilots, so knowing how to write one is essential if you want to get your amazing series off the ground.
For more info about what pilots are or how they are used then make sure to check out my previous post explaining everything about pilot.
So, if you want to know how to write a spectacular pilot — keep reading!
I personally work using a 5-Act structure for both comedies and drama scripts, although some may exclude the Tag in a drama and instead divide it into 4 Acts.
I have rarely seen an official Tag in drama scripts and it’s something I adopted from comedy scripts, which use this section for the episode’s final punchline.
The Teaser and Tag should be shortest and most punchy parts of the script, while Acts 1–3 are the meat of the episode.
As mentioned in the previous instalment of this series, the breaks between different Acts were strategically placed to allow for commercial breaks back in the days of Network only television.
Although this is largely ignored now, with Networks putting ads pretty much as and when they feel like it, this doesn’t mean these breaks should be treated arbitrarily.
Each Act has a specific narrative function that help you break down the parts of your story effectively, which is why they are still used today. Even if you decide to subvert expectations, you still need to understand the original format first.
Now, remember, while the explanations are applied to a pilot episode, they will, for the most part, apply to any episode in terms of their beats and the intention of each part of the structure.
So, let’s talk about how to write a captivating 1-Hour drama pilot, looking at our 4/5-Act Structure...
I like to call the Pilot Teaser “punching the audience in the face with the premise”. The purpose of this section is to give your viewer a reason to invest, not only in your episode, but your show.
It’s the amuse-bouche — an intriguing unanswered question, an exciting action sequence, an unusual or dramatic event — that puts your viewer on the edge of their seat thinking “I have to know what happens next!”.
This is your promise to the viewer that if they stick with you for the next hour they won’t be disappointed.
The teaser doesn’t have to be a linear part of your story, it merely needs to give the audience an insight into the world they are entering.
If you can use this scene to introduce your protagonist in an interesting way, then great, but it isn’t essential. You could introduce the antagonist, the world, a hint at the central dilemma… anything!
This is your chance to showcase what makes your story special enough that your target audience would to want to invest in it. Studies show that viewers take less than 30-seconds to decide if your show is worth watching, so make them count!
Now, this doesn’t mean you want to open with something completely unrelated to your premise, but the more action without context the better. The point is to raise a question and gradually give context to it throughout the rest of episode or even season.
Here we move into what most of us recognise as the “official” story structure of beginning, middle and end. As with any first Act, this section provides the building blocks for our story.
Here we will introduce central characters, the world they live in (their status quo), and their plight.
Unfortunately, in the case of a pilot, Act One has a lot of heavy-lifting to do, as it not only has to set up the story for the episode but for the entire show.
Drama episodes are more complicated than comedies because not only does each episode need to have its own self-contained and resolved storyline, but it must also contribute to the overall season arc.
A lot of pilots end up being quite heavy-handed due to the amount of exposition required to set up certain premises, especially those with a lot of lore or complex character dynamics.
Obviously, it’s great to express these points organically over the course of the episode, but it’s also important to be clear about what your show is trying to achieve. It’s a fine balance between clarity and building intrigue without confusing your viewer.
As with any Act One there are a few beats we need to hit here. Introduce the world as it currently is, who the story is about, who they interact with and why, what are the stakes (both episode and show), and the “Call To Action”.
The descent into Act Two will usually have the protagonist accepting the call to action and stepping through the door of “destiny” from which they will not return.
Obviously, not all dramas are quite this suspenseful, but you should get the gist of what is intended from this part of the episode. It’s the Who, What, Where, Why… but not yet How.
As we drop into our next Act, it is great to give a hint to the “How” that will be explored in the next two Acts, and how this impacts the continuing storyline. While not essential, it is often good to end each Act on a small cliff-hanger to keep the viewer invested and pique their interest.
Your cliff-hanger doesn’t have to be anything flashy. You can merely use this to deliver surprising information, a reversal of fortune, or hint that some exciting action is about to kick off (but you’ll have to stay tuned to find out).
Here the protagonists will begin their adventure and begin pursuing the overall goal of the episode/season. In this section the heroes will be working out what they are up against and formulating a plan to either escape or fight the antagonist of the episode.
This part of the story is where we develop the central dilemma and delve into the character relationships. Here we learn about their strengths and weaknesses, as well as give context to the stakes, and what will happen if the main characters fail to overcome this dilemma.
The heroes may hatch a plan, enact said plan, but usually their scheme will fail and they will be sent back to the drawing board.
The failure will usually raise the stakes, shakes the hero’s confidence, and make their problems seem even more insurmountable. Their foolhardiness just made their bad situation even worse.
Here is where the heroes strengthen their resolve. Taking what they have learned from their previous failure, or change in allegiances, the hero will reformulate their plan and go to meet the danger head on determined to succeed.
The “bad guys close in”, the warring friends resolve their conflict after one scathing tête-à-tête, until finally the antagonising force is beaten back or destroyed and the hero learns a valuable lesson.
While the particulars of the episode should usually be resolved by the end of this Act (i.e. the monster attacking Sunnydale has been defeated… for now) there is a sense that the war is not over.
The victory is merely a chance for our heroes to catch their breath before everything kicks off for them next week.
As mentioned above, a Tag isn’t a necessity for a drama script but serves a specific function, which is why I thoroughly recommend using one.
If the Teaser is “punching the audience in the face with the premise” then the Tag is “leaving them wanting more”.
Similar to the Teaser, the Tag doesn’t need to have a direct linear connection to the story of the episode, it just needs to be the digestif that hints to what might happen next or reveals an intriguing secret.
Personally, I don’t think a Tag should be very long at all. It’s the 30-seconds or so that flips the script on what just happened or briefly shows the viewer what will happen next time.
Here you might show someone we previously thought to be friend is actually foe, our hero might end up in a sticky situation, someone comes back from the dead, or maybe we even learn were in a parallel universe.
There are no real rules here. This is purely our cheeky wink to the viewer that says “see you next time”.
The above is quite a heightened example of how drama pilots (and episodes) operate. If you were writing a tame historical drama, such as The Crown, things obviously won’t be as intense.
However, regardless of the type of production, the beats and intentions of each section are the same. Even in The Crown the characters have a dilemma they need to solve, it just won’t be life or death.
There are no official screenwriting rules and most of the conventions are based on what makes most sense on the page. The rest is generally up to the writer’s personal preference.
So don’t get too caught up in the “rules”. Write the script in a way that makes sense to you but be consistent with your stylistic choices. (i.e. Make sure they look purposeful and not like you didn’t proof-read your work.)
If you’re writing a show, it’s helpful to watch shows in the same genre, as well as read their scripts so you can see how the script translates from page to screen. This can really help you understand the rhythm of a screenplay and why certain Acts and beats fall where they do.
Have fun writing the script, especially when you’re working on an original piece. If you hate writing a particular story and have no passion for it, why should anyone watch it?
There’s all for knowing how to write a script but it’s obvious when you’re writing something by the numbers that you don’t have any investment in. The best stories come from the heart, so don’t focus too much on what you think the market wants, and write something that makes your heart sing.
To enhance your understanding of how this pilot structure works in practice, please stay tuned for my upcoming series Pilot Analysis… which will break down different pilots to show how they operate.
RELATED: Pilot Analysis… Modern Family
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