It’s no secret that if you want to tell a great onscreen story TV is where it’s at. However, writing your first or even fifth pilot can feel a bit overwhelming. So, we’re starting a new series where we break down great pilot episodes of fantastic shows to help you learn the ins and outs of creating your own world and characters. We’re kicking things off with a half-hour pilot, but stay tuned for an hour-long breakdown coming soon!
30 MINUTE PILOT STRUCTURE
First off, what we’re finding with the streaming services is that structure isn’t as important as it is with broadcast networks that use commercial breaks. Streaming pilots can run anywhere from 23 to 90 minutes long. There’s much more flexibility on that side of the biz.
Structure is very similar to a feature film’s three-act structure. You have a teaser which does exactly what it says it will do: tease the audience. Lengths vary but the shorter the better. It’s the equivalent of a hook in a feature. Grab us with something either story or character-centric. Some teasers involve a main character; some present a story question. But, the best grab us and tease us to get engaged.
Then we have three acts – beg/mid/end. In ACT ONE, we set up character, situation and at the end of the act, present the problem of the pilot. Always end your acts on a cliffhanger that, if on broadcast TV, begs the viewer to hang out to see what happens next. In streaming, it escalates the problem.
ACT TWO is all about escalation and the action your protagonist takes to solve the pilot problem. One step forward, half a step back. Complications. The act out should be a lower point that puts success into question. Just like in a feature.
ACT THREE is the resolution. Where our protagonist solves the episode/pilot problem. And in the process sets up the larger series problem.
Sometimes, not always, there is an epilogue. But, it’s not required.
Let’s break down one of our favorite half-hour streaming shows: CATASTROPHE on Amazon. If you haven’t seen this show we highly recommend it.
In the CATASTROPHE teaser/opening hook Rob and Sharon meet for the first time in a London bar (Rob is there on business) and have a one-night stand. They agree to see each other again and we spend three minutes seeing their whirlwind week-long relationship. It ends with them having sex in a stairwell one last time before he goes back to the US.
At the end of the teaser, we freeze-frame on them having sex in the stairwell and the word CATASTROPHE splashes across the screen. Normally, I’d advise against writers calling out TITLES in their script, but in this situation, it would be called for and would work perfectly because it is the punch line to the visual of Rob’s bare ass exposed, pants around his ankles, as he has sex with Sharon one last time. And, as we’ll soon see, their three-day romance leads to a catastrophe.
Good teaser. It sets up the characters beautifully and sets the tone of the show. Also, it foreshadows their future choices. He brushes her off in his goodbye speech and she says something that suggests she really cares for him. This intrigues him and leads to them having sex for what they, and we, believe will be the last time.
Rob is back in the US and on a date. Superimposed: 32 DAYS LATER
He gets a call during the date – looks at his phone. It’s Sharon. Her contact on his phone is SHARON – LONDON – SEX.
More character establishment. He only saw her as an object. And we also get that character sense from him in his exchange with the date he’s on – she’s an intern where he works. Bosses shouldn’t date interns. He also lies to the intern and says when Sharon calls that it’s his mom.
Sharon has called to say she’s pregnant. Meeting and having sex for a week was the inciting incident. Now we have our episode problem: Sharon is pregnant.
He goes back to London and they decide to keep the baby. So, we have an action (I’m pregnant), reaction (we’ll keep it).
Complication: They go to the doctor for a check-up and discover Sharon may have cancer.
That’s the end of act one: Character/situation/problem. And a cliffhanger. Possible cancer.
Reaction to act one problem: they’ll monitor the cancer situation and see what happens.
Now we expand the story. Introduce supporting characters and subplots. There’s a dinner party with another couple, Fran and Chris, who spend the dinner party talking about all the bad things that have happened to their friends in childbirth. Shit. Do we really wanna have a baby?!
Definitely a complication.
Rob and Chris have a cigarette outside. Chris warns Rob about the hell that is childbirth but the subtext of the convo is marriage sucks. So, Rob starts to question his choice to go through with the pregnancy and his relationship with Sharon.
Rob gets into an argument with Fran that ends in Sharon revealing she has cancer. Not good. Cliffhanger: We want to see how that’s going to play out specifically because Sharon warned Rob before the dinner not to mention the cancer.
So, act two is all about obstacles and escalations. Let’s have the baby. Obstacle: cancer.
Let’s go to a dinner party with friends: it’s a shit show full of warnings and horror stories about childbirth and marriage that ends with the reveal of Sharon’s cancer.
But, the reason we love these characters is their shared sense of humor and twisted outlook on the world, and act three begins with them getting ready for bed and we see they thought the night wasn’t all that bad.
And then… Rob proposes to Sharon. She says “I don’t even know you. What if you’re crazy?” Rob replies, “Marry me and find out.”
So, we go from them being strangers, to a week-long whirlwind relationship to being pregnant to going through it together to her maybe having cancer to being warned about the hell that is childbirth and relationships to committing to each other in marriage. All in 23 minutes. Beg/mid/end. The episode problem (what to do with the news we’re pregnant) is solved and we set up the rest of the series which will be about marriage, family, and relationships.
Easy-peasy, right? The great shows make it look effortless, but we all know that creating those setups, characters, and worlds is absolutely fun and thrilling, but can sometimes feel like an uphill climb. But, keep pushing through! If you’re stuck, watch a show that’s in the same genre as your pilot and break it down yourself. You’ll be amazed at what you’ll learn and how it can help you get humming along on your own work.