Pilot Structure: Yes, It Matters

by Tawnya Bhattacharya

Black woman writing in a notebook

 

Earlier this year, we asked our Twitter followers what they’d like to see us focus on in our blog. One of the most overwhelmingly unanimous responses was that you’d like to see a blog post on pilot structure. This is mostly what we focus on in our Televisionary Writers Workshop and Structure Lab, and exclusively what we focus on in our Advanced Drama and Comedy Pilot Labs, so if you’re curious about taking classes with us, those would definitely be ones to check out. In the absence of 8 weeks’ worth of curriculum, though, we’ll briefly discuss different ways to structure a pilot and why having a sense of structure is important.

It may seem like a lot of groundbreaking TV shows nowadays defy conventional TV structure. It may be tempting to try to do the same thing yourself. One thing we hear from writers that inevitably makes all of us wince is when a writer says they’re writing a pilot without outlining it first. “I’m just letting it flow!” We’re not discouraging this as an exercise by any means. But if you name your top 5 all-time favorite TV pilots, we’ll bet money that they came from at least one draft of a solid outline of some sort.

We know what you’re going to say. “But Fleabag!” “But The Affair!” “But (Insert name of “unconventional” pilot here)!” Fleabag started off as a one-woman show in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Plays have a definite structure. As anyone who’s done theatre, especially solo performance, can tell you, developing a play is a structural journey of its own. We have no doubt that Phoebe Waller-Bridge went through many, many revisions and many, many incarnations of her one-woman show before performing it in the Fringe. And there were probably still many many more rewrites of Fleabag between play and pilot. And when Phoebe Waller-Bridge was developing Fleabag initially as a Fringe show, you’d bet your ass she adhered to a sense of story structure there. When we say structure, we don’t always mean A Story/B Story/C Story/Act Outs. We get that the conversation has grown to encompass more than that. But we still feel strongly that it’s important, when writing a pilot, to articulate the shape of it first and then stay faithful to it. And if FLEABAG has proven anything to us, it’s that you have to demonstrate some sort of mastery of structure — even if it’s solo performance — in order to deliver a memorable, kickass pilot.

 

woman writing at desk

 

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of story structure, first, it’s important to nail down the simple staples of a strong pilot. Do you have a clear main character? Even if your show is an ensemble drama or a two-hander, most of the time those shows still have a clear main character. If you watch a few pilots in your chosen genre, try noticing who gets the main POV, or whose POV serves as our window into the story or the world. Chances are we’re getting our first view of the show through a specific character’s eyes.

Speaking of world, is the world of your show clear? Is there room for high stakes, and is there a clear antagonist for your main character in the pilot? These are all important aspects to address because they help with what we like to refer to as “seeds planted,” giving your show legs that prove it can last for multiple episodes.

Another important question to ask yourself as you’re figuring out the structure of your pilot is: what are the storylines? If you’re writing an hour-long, you’ll definitely be working with multiple storylines, and identifying them is a must. In most hour-long shows, there are at least 3 storylines. Sometimes, especially in a case-of-the-week procedural, the C story might be very small and hard to identify, but there are at least a few personal beats that make up a small runner. If you’re writing a half-hour multicam, chances are you’ll also be working with at least 3 storylines. Sometimes, a single-cam cable show like a FLEABAG or a CATASTROPHE might only have one or two — but the vast majority of TV pilots have multiple storylines, each with their own arc, that run parallel to one another and converge at a point, usually the climax (more on that in a minute).

When figuring out your storylines, try making a list of a few shows that your pilot is reminiscent of. Then, watch those pilots. See if you can figure out what the A, B, and C stories are. For cable or streaming pilots, there may be more than 3 storylines. Some episodes of ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, for example, have as many as 5. An important note on storylines: more does not necessarily mean better. Especially if they’re not well articulated and clearly arced. Figuring out your storyline arcs is a key part of determining the flow and pacing of your script, including another important characteristic of your pilot: the act-outs.

people looking at wall of sticky notes
When we teach pilot structure in class, we usually recommend building a pilot with Act-Outs, regardless of whether you’re doing an edgy single-cam dramedy aimed at a streaming outlet or a suit-and-tie network procedural crime show. Ultimately it’s up to you if you want to leave act-outs in your script, but we often find it’s beneficial to build the story with those peaks and valleys just because it takes the reader on more of a clear journey. Regardless of whether or not you’re adhering to a traditional Aristotlean five-point narrative structure, we highly recommend at least identifying these three tentpoles of your script before you get off and running.

INCITING INCIDENT

What moment is the catalyst for your Main Character’s journey in the pilot? What event or epiphany sets them off on the arc they’ll follow over the course of your season? Your series? A good example of clear inciting incidents is the pilot of NBC’s THIS IS US: the inciting incident of each storyline is a pivotal moment that happens on each character’s 36th birthday. For Jack, it’s the birth of his twins. For Randall, it’s finding out who his biological father is. For Kate, it’s making the resolution to lose weight. If you look at your storylines, does each one have a clear jumping-off point?

LOW POINT/ALL IS LOST MOMENT

Where is the point of no return for your character? What happens when they hit rock bottom? How can you stack all possible odds against them so that we are rooting for them to come out on top or keep going? One of our favorite Low Points is in the pilot of NBC’s THE GOOD PLACE, when Eleanor wakes up to the Good Place in full chaos, and Chidi tells her that it’s because of her. Things can’t get much worse for Eleanor at this point, and she’s faced with the inevitable reality that something’s gotta give: either she becomes a better person or she tells the truth and risks going to the Bad Place.

CLIMAX

What moment is all the action of your pilot driving towards? What is their moment of victory, or, in other cases, their moment of defeat? What is the culmination of your character’s journey in your pilot, and how does that set up their goal and the stakes they’re fighting for the rest of the series? A good example of a strong climax is the main storyline of the JANE THE VIRGIN pilot, when Jane finds out who the sperm donor is whose fetus she was accidentally impregnanted with, and she finds out it was his last sample due to testicular cancer. This is a point of no return moment for Jane that ultimately sways her decision to deciding to carry her pregnancy to term.

Every good script, whether it’s a pilot, feature, play, or even graphic novel, has these three clear story points. Some are more unconventional than others, but they are undeniably the hallmarks of a well-executed narrative. If you’re struggling with the structure of your pilot, start by identifying these three story points in all of your storylines. If you can’t articulate one of them, then that’s where you need to focus when you re-write or re-break your story. At Script Anatomy, we believe focusing on structure is integral to writing a successful TV script. In our classes and workshops, we do deep dives into overall pilot/episode structure and also break down the structural arcs in each of your script’s storylines. To find out more about how we prefer to break down scripts and how we analyze good pilot structure, check out our online or in-person classes in our 2020 course calendar. We hope this blog post has been helpful for those of you about to dive into a new script. Happy writing and hopefully we will see some of you in class!

SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER

For the latest in Script Anatomy classes, workshops, consultations, panels and more, please enter your e-mail to be added to our list.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER

For the latest in Script Anatomy classes, workshops, consultations, panels and more, please enter your e-mail to be added to our list.

You have successfully subscribed!