How to Write a Television Pilot

Every year a slew of new television shows come on the air. Some make it and become popular while others don't make it past their first episode. Someone has to come up with all these new ideas and write the series so how does it all work? This will help you learn how to write a television pilot.

So you have a great idea? Okay, what is it? You need to be able to summarize the concept in a maximum of two sentences. Write it down and make it as concise as possible; protagonist, dilemmas, where, and what is ironic. This is your logline. Now, we need to get to know your characters. You should write full character bios for each character. Then we need to know where the show is going from here on. Write out a couple ideas for future episodes so you can try to add some foreshadowing elements in the pilot.

Next you need to write an outline for the first episode, also known as the pilot. Take into consideration that a half hour show is actually twenty-four minutes of programming and an hour long show is forty-eight minutes. A half hour show typically has a teaser and three acts. An hour long show has a teaser and five or six acts. Your outline should show where the breaks will take place and if possible, the cuts should leave the audience hanging so they'll sit through the commercial break to continue watching.

Alright, it's actually all laid out before you, the characters, outline and future episodes. Now it's time to bring it all together and write. If you have a screenwriting software program you can find a template on it to help you with formatting issues. You'll start by typing the episode title on the top line of the first page, centered and in quotation marks. Then the next line is the act line. This is the act number or teaser and is underlined in the center of the page. Following this we get to the slug line. The slug line is the line that describes the place and time. It goes like this: INT. RALPH'S HOUSE - DAY. You start with interior (INT) or exterior (EXT), then a period, the location, a dash and the time of day (DAY, NIGHT, MORNING).

Following that is the action lines that describe the scene and what the characters do. The action lines also introduce the characters. Then you'll of course have dialogue which is written with the character's name in the center of the page in capital letters and the dialogue lines below. You will continue on with the scenes in this manner. The software really helps!

What you want to make sure you do in a pilot episode is clearly express who the main characters are. We, as the audience, need to understand their motivations, problems, perspective and general personality. The plot is secondary to the characters in a pliot episode because if the audience fails to connect to the characters and enjoy spending an evening with them they won't tune in again and there goes your show.

Page count is one page per minute of television. So a half hour show that is really twenty-four minutes should be about twenty-four pages. Have several people read your pilot once it's fully written and listen to their feedback. Writing is rewriting so expect to make changes. Good luck, you never know, maybe someday we'll be watching your show!


Do your prep work as far as outlining and character development

Don't write in camera directions or directorial comments

Things You'll Need

  • computer
  • screenwriting software