So, you’re thinking of writing a TV pilot. That’s great news – this is a great time to be writing for TV!
After years of living in film’s shadow, the TV series has stepped up and become a major medium in its own right.
The days are gone when a television series would struggle to tell a big, coherent story from first episode to the last. The subscription model of networks like HBO rewards a viewer’s commitment to a show, and the rise of streaming services such as Netflix has made it easy for audiences to keep track of their favourite shows, never missing an episode – and as a result, television has become the place to tell more complex stories. Instead of cramming dozens of characters and subplots into a 2-hour movie, you can now spread them out over multiple episodes and seasons.
But when it comes to introducing viewers (and before them, readers) to such a complicated story in a pilot episode can be difficult. When you’ve got lots of things going on, it can be easy to lose track of who’s who and what’s going on in each storyline as we rejoin it. So here are our tips for writing a TV pilot to help you on the way:
- Create clear and distinctive personal identities for each of your regular characters. That way, it’s easy to recognize who they are and what they stand for in all situations and how they relate to the other characters around them.
- Not sure how to do this? Try to explain each of your characters in a simple two-word epithet to make sure that they’re strongly defined. If you can’t, their personality and role isn’t clear enough!
- It helps to gel a multi-strange pilot if all the plots, characters, and settings have visible and regularly affirmed connection to each other. This could be a person who all the others meet or see, a place they all share, a motif that keeps coming up in different contexts (e.g. a word like ‘change’).
- Another way to connect everything together is to have a focal event that everyone is directly affected by, or which every subplot is building up to. It’s best if this is something that all the characters are aware is coming up at around the 3/4 point of the episode.
Writing a TV pilot can be tough – you need a full season to tell a complex story, but you’ve also got to introduce that complex story in less than an hour in the first episode! But keep these tips in mind, and you should soon be heading in the right direction.
And if you want more inspiration, take a look at Ian Kennedy’s series of articles on GAME OF THRONES, for his thoughts on how the show juggles a huge cast of characters and locations with only very limited screen time each!