How To Structure A TV Pilot

Saturday 12 December 2020

What the hell does this guy on Facebook know about structuring a TV pilot?!?

I don’t, or, I do but only a little. 

I’ve recently been garnering some ‘heat’ (is that what they call it?) because of a TV pilot I authored about bomb disposal (I used to serve in the Army bomb teams so it’s a little personal). 

This one script had me shortlisted for C21, Red Planet, BBC Drama Academy, Fade In Drama Awards 2nd prize, and Austin Film Festival 2nd round. It also has gotten me read by production companies and agencies. I want to pass on some of what I learned prior to and during writing this pilot (including a Stage32 pilot writing course)

First, there are lots of considerations to … er… consider when writing a TV pilot. This is purely about structure. It’s about the tent poles you use to hold your pilot up. Also remember this and take it to heart; plot is your characters making decisions. Your plot and your characters are intimately entwined, you cannot have one without the other. I know my characters before I get to structuring my pilot script.

This is not ‘the’ method, or ‘the’ way. It’s ‘a’ method. The one I used. Take it, leave it. Love it or hate it. I hope it helps in some small way.

Before we start, if you are writing a TV pilot then get ready to have to create LOTS of story! TV seems to burn through plot at an insane rate. Why? I don’t know, go ask Jed Mercurio or Jack Thorne! I guess it’s because of the insane amounts of choice audiences have, we have to keep them glued to their chairs. 

To create this much story plot, you have to have a strong story engine, the premise of your show that drives it all forward. Mine was about a soldier that wants to start a war in the Middle East. Mix that with a resonant theme, in my case the rise of right-wing ideologies and how that can affect society, and you have deep fields to mine for story (am I mixing my metaphors there?)

These are the key moments in a pilot script that I create in the order I create them:
Pilot Launch Point (PLP)
Series Launch Point (SLP)
Opening scene
Act Outs

Call these whatever you want, this is just what I call them and will refer to them as. Here I’ve put them back in chronological order and expanded on what I mean.

Opening Scene

This sets up your pilot with regard to the hook, tone, genre, and possibly the pace too. It’s got to draw people in, hook them for the next ten minutes. You’ve got to pack it with tone and genre, so people know what kind of show they are getting into. 

It doesn’t have to make any sense just yet but will need to at some point.

You have two types of openers, those that are part of the main plot, and those that are not. 
Connected openers can show an event that is linked to the main plot, commonly in cop shows that is the first murder.

Unconnected openers, especially in pilots, can show your characters doing something they are good at, or bad at, something that shows their character. In Line of Duty, the opener has nothing to do with the main plot of the season but does push one of the characters into a position where he can play a role in the main plot.

Pilot Launch Point (PLP)

This is equivalent to your ‘Inciting Incident’ in feature writing and should hit at the end of your first act. It’s what kicks off the story for your pilot episode. Actually, every episode will have something like an inciting incident that takes the story forward for that episode. It has to be ‘hooky’ enough to have the viewer/reader stay with you for another twenty minutes. Along with the opener, that’s thirty minutes of reading/viewing time now.

The pilot launch is not just the event, but your lead’s response to that event.

Act Outs

These are the moments where you raise the tension and drama up to a plateau and leave the audience hanging while you, if on an appropriate platform, cut to adverts. Even if you are aiming for a streamer or the BBC (no adverts), you still need this rise and fall in tension over the episode. You still need acts, and act outs.

Act outs should be in the middle of an action, they are a comma, not a period. 

If you have a guy running from the police and climbs a fence to then be stopped by more police and arrested. The act out goes when he starts climbing the fence.

They are not cliffhangers; they plateau the highest point of tension until the next act.

Write your act outs as if you have advert breaks, having something that means people come back after making a nice cup of tea.

Series Launch Point (SLP)

I’ve read too many pilot scripts from peers that don’t rise to the level required for the SLP. Now that you’ve had your audience entertained for 45 minutes, this is your chance to dig your claws into them and keep them for the entire season. This has to be BIG!! The biggest twist, reversal, reveal or change you can think of that just makes the audience sit back and realise that they are now committed to this show for the entire season. They MUST find out how the show ends.

These are the tentpoles I use to start structuring a pilot. I want to know how I get my protagonist into the story (PLP) and how I set up the rest of the season (SLP). I need to then work out how to open the show, and what moments will keep the audience hooked to the screen. With these huge and smaller tent poles, I aim to keep the audience’s attention, have them gripped.

So it all kinda looks like this:

Looks a bit like a rollercoaster, right? Exactly. Dramatic tension and therefore interest rise and falls. You can’t be 100% all the time, you’ve got to vary it, give a breather, then hit them hard again.

The keen eyed of you will notice that I tend to use a 5-act structure though sometimes your opener could be considered Act 1 all on its own. The minutes per act in the diagram are simply what my tutor told me for US television and are just a guide, though it’s what I’ve used for my pilot scripts and I’m UK based.

I thought I would grab some examples and, again, people will argue all day long about whether I’m correct with my analysis or that they hated the shows in question so don’t want to copy them. This is not about copying them, it’s about understanding how audience attention is held by these bigger moments that twist and turn the story. I spent some time watching only pilot episodes to identify these tentpoles.

For my pilot, called Under The Wire:
A car bomb explodes on Westminster Bridge.
An ex-bomb disposal expert is pulled into the case when his name appears on handwritten instructions to the car bomb driver who is strapped to the driver’s seat.
The bomber meets with others and we see that their plans reach all the way to Army HQ and the halls of Westminster.

That’s what has gotten me some attention this year, and many thanks to all of you that helped get me there.

A little show called Game of Thrones:

A soldier runs from scary looking men in a frozen forest.
The King arrives in Winterfell and asks Ned Stark to be his Hand (and loads of other stuff kicks off as well which was the genius of this show).
The White Walkers are real, and they are coming.

Here are a few shows on Netflix that you can go watch today if you like.

Line of Duty (Season 1 pilot)

DS Arnott leads an operation to take out a terrorist, but they get it wrong and kill an innocent man. He won’t cover it up.
The Anti-Corruption team go after DI Gates for a technical offense of ‘laddering’ however we also see him covering up a crime for his lover.
DS Fleming is working undercover.

“You” which is a great example of how to use voice over. i.e. contradicting what we see on the screen. (ARGH, he said “we see”!!!) 

Joe spots an attractive young woman (Beck) enter his bookstore. He analyses her and creates a fictional relationship between them.
He, through VO, commits to finding out more about Beck.
It looks like he’s going to kill the guy in the basement (SPOILER).

A show called Colony:

We discover that LA is surrounded by a huge wall and the city is run by malevolent aliens.
A bad-ass ex-FBI agent is forced by the aliens to hunt down the leaders of the resistance or his family will be killed.
Unknown to the FBI agent, his wife is the leader of the resistance movement.

A show called Timeless:

The Hindenburg disaster.
Terrorists storm a science lab, take the chief scientist hostage and jump into a futuristic looking pod which then disappears. They have travelled through time.
The protagonist is a history professor who’s dying mother was being cared for by the protag’s sister at the beginning of the show. The SLP is that this woman, after traveling through time and changing history, discovers her mother is in good health but her sister doesn’t exist in this timeline.

Breaking Bad did it differently, which is why Vince Gilligan is so bloody clever!

Walter White, dressed in his underpants and a gas mask, careens an RV through the Arizona desert with an unconscious Jessie and two dead guys in the back. He hears approaching sirens and prepares a gun, ready to fight. He records a message for his family where he says they are going to learn some things about him, raises his gun and waits for the police.
Cut to three weeks earlier, Walt learns he has cancer, and that he knows a kid that cuts meth. Maybe he can make some money doing this?
We watch the run up to the opening scene and discover that they are in the clear to carry on, but now we are invested in what they do next. We also watch Walt with his wife, he’s found his mojo again.

Can you identify these tent pole moments in either your pilot or something you’ve watched?

All the best to you all, keep digging for those breaks.

Guest Post article written by Lee Lawson.

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