Anatomy of a Contest Winning 1-Hour TV Pilot

By Julia Morizawa.

The last two decades have arguably been considered “The Golden Age of Television.” Initially spurred by high-quality cable shows that were more akin to Hollywood blockbusters than the light-hearted sitcoms we were so accustomed to the previous fifty years and boosted by streaming services taking the reins with original content in the 2010s, the format, and expectations of television have become vastly flexible.

This flexibility has led to less stringent rules in format. Although one-hour shows are still largely associated with drama while half-hours tend to fall into comedy, this is no longer a set rule or expectation, especially with the popularity of the dramedy genre (think The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel in which season 4’s episodes range from 43 to 76 minutes).

Ultimately, the real difference between one-hour and half-hour shows is, quite literally, the length of each episode. For screenwriters, this means paying attention to page count and formatting. Whereas a half-hour generally consists of three acts (plus sometimes a teaser/cold open at the beginning and a tag at the end), a one-hour is usually four or five acts (plus sometimes a teaser/cold open and a tag). Specifying act breaks is essential for network television as these delineate the placement of commercial breaks, but not so important for cable and streaming shows. As such a one-hour pilot intended for a network should land around 45 pages whereas a one-hour for cable or streaming generally falls between 55-65 pages.

But again, that’s just formatting. Right? The elements that make a strong TV pilot, whether one-hour or half-hour, remain the same – a strong premise, a well-structured plot full of conflict, compelling multi-dimensional characters, and a clear trajectory for the rest of the season (and series) that makes us want to return for episode two.

As part of our “Anatomy of a Winning Script” series, in this article, we are going to break down one of Shore Scripts’ winning one-hour TV pilots, specifically from the perspective of a contest reader. READ ON!

Pipeline, written by Brian Golden, was the 1st Place Winner of our 2019 TV Pilot Contest in the one-hour category. The story is set in California’s drought-stricken Central Valley and follows three Mexican-American siblings who are forced to confront their complicated history when a controversial public works project pits them on opposite sides of the law.

The script went on to win the 2019 WeScreenplay TV Contest and place in about a dozen other notable competitions and was featured on The Black List as one of the database’s top reviewed TV scripts of the year. At the onset of the pandemic, Pipeline was optioned for development by a producer.

In addition to being a screenwriter, Brian also moonlights as a journalist. He recently penned a story for Washington Monthly about the subculture of elite political gamblers and has ghostwritten many op-eds about California and national political issues in the LA Times, Huff Post, Sac Bee, and more. In his creative work, his passion is writing with a strong sense of place, telling stories about families and the trickle-down impact of politics on ordinary people.

Now, let’s take a closer look at why Pipeline became a Shore Scripts contest winner.


To make a great series there has to be a strong theme. What is the writer trying to say about his perspective of the world in this story? What is the meaning of the script? And is that theme coming across to the reader? As a reader, it may not always be clear what the writer is trying to say, but if written well, we still get to experience our own interpretations of the story’s theme. And a strong story will spin our heads with thought-provoking perspectives about the world, life, and humanity. Pipeline succeeds in this aspect on numerous levels.

With its roots in the universally engaging concept of family ties, Pipeline takes an interesting direction as it forces us to remember that nothing is ever black or white. The moral gray areas the story explores will cause any reader to have second thoughts about their own ethics and values. And that’s the core element of a powerful story – a story that feels like it could change the world – or, at least, the audience’s perspective.

In Pipeline, this morally grey area is seen through the three primary characters – siblings Pina, Urbano, and Alma. Pina is a modern-day Robin Hood – stealing from the rich to give to the poor. Except, she’s not giving to the poor – the Mexican-American community that she grew up with – she’s selling to them for a profit. How does she justify her behavior? “Capitalism, hermano.” As a cop, Urbano struggles to do the “right thing” – either arrest Pina for stealing or protect her as a big brother should – and the line between the law and what’s right becomes blurred. Meanwhile, at her corporate job, Alma chooses to play the performative role of a “mascot” as a Latina from a low-income background in exchange for a promotion, as part of the company’s attempt to secure land for a controversial project that would store rainwater on farmland then sell it at a high price. As each character experiences their own internal conflict regarding the “right” thing to do, we are simultaneously torn over what we would do if we were in their shoes.

From this big picture theme, additional themes and thought-provoking perspectives are born, many of which are summed up in dialogue. When Urbano argues that their father “worked the field till his heart gave up, so you could have a life,” Pina responds with, “Papi made six bucks an hour to make a rich man richer. Papi was a fool” and we can’t help but agree with both of them to some extent. When Alma admits to her new colleague (and lover), “I don’t really trust anyone,” Gilly responds with “World is hard enough, Alma. Without trust – it’s damn near impossible.” A valid argument that seems easy to get behind, yet by the end of the episode, we see that Alma may have been wrong to trust her new friend, and we are left contemplating the pros and cons of trust in the real world. Despite Alma’s attempts to climb the corporate ladder, she is harshly reminded that she’s merely being used and, “you’re always a poor kid from Querencia,” which echoes the sentiment that society prohibits us from growing beyond the life we were born into. Urbano sums up an optimistic perspective on life that he’s beginning to doubt with, “My father believed that if you do the right thing, things end up OK,” which is followed by a beautiful monologue about justice from a supporting character that sets up an important visual element in the end.

Tachi’s monologue.


For some writers, conflict is one of those things that seems so simple in theory, but is one of the most challenging elements of plot development to execute. First of all, what is the definition of conflict? Merriam-Webster defines it as, “The opposition of persons or forces that gives rise to the dramatic action in a drama or fiction.” As such, conflict can be external, such as when the protagonist is prohibited from achieving her goal due to the actions of an antagonist. Or it can be internal, such as when the protagonist struggles to choose the morally right thing to do. Conflict can occur between a character and themself, another character, society, nature, the supernatural, technology, and some might argue, fate.

Pipeline. is full of non-stop conflict that progressively increases. As a reader, this is one of the main reasons the script is impossible to put down. This conflict drives the plot and is executed brilliantly in that every scene builds off the previous scenes. There isn’t time to hit on every example within this article, but let’s start with the basic information: The pilot follows three Mexican-American siblings who all grew up in an impoverished neighborhood called Querencia in central California. Pina is the black sheep – the rebel, the failure – broke and venturing down the criminal path. We meet her breaking into an upper-class gated community to steal clean water from houses, which she then resells at a steep price to her own impoverished community. Urbano is a cop and family man always concerned with doing what’s right, and still living in Querencia with his exhausted wife, expecting a fourth child that they cannot afford. And Alma is a career woman making her way up the ladder with the farming corporation that provides the locals with underpaid but much-needed jobs while “stealing” the land and its water.

With this in mind, here are some examples of conflict we encounter throughout the pilot’s 61 pages. Urbano is the cop sent to investigate the stolen water and he quickly realizes that the thief is his own sister. Initially, he chooses to not turn her in, lying to his boss. Soon the boss reveals potential budget cuts that would entail laying Urbano off due to a lack of seniority, but that capturing the thief could secure Urbano’s job. This news comes right after Urbano and his wife find out their almost-due baby is breech and will require a C-section – an operation they cannot afford.

Meanwhile, Pina continues stealing and reselling water but feels guilty when she is seen attempting to steal water bottles from the Red Cross that are being donated to her community. At the same time, she can’t pay her rent and eventually chooses to steal from her landlord before skipping out. She is kidnapped by a mysterious man who “hires” her to access a laptop owned by County Land Commissioner, David Flores. But she soon learns that her target, Flores, is collaborating with her sister, Alma. Pina must choose between screwing over her sister and following through with her kidnapper’s demands.

Alma is given a promotion in exchange for serving as a “mascot” – a Latina local from a poor background – to appeal to the Latino commissioner, Flores, to convince him to sign over a huge land sale. She accepts the offer despite the hit to her ego and self-worth, but butts heads with her new “Ivy League” colleagues. When she meets with Flores privately with the deal on the horizon, they are interrupted by, of course, Pina, who has come for the laptop.

This is a mere short list of the constant stream of obstacles the three primary characters are hit with throughout the episode. The conflict is non-stop, both internal and external for all three characters, and ultimately it all ties together as we soon realize each character’s goal is in direct conflict with one or both of their siblings’ goals. What results from this is a compelling narrative that keeps us engaged from start to finish.

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In direct relation to the themes explored throughout the script and the beautifully developed plot rife with conflict, the characters and their relationships with one another in Pipeline are undeniably complex and multi-faceted. Urbano’s strength is simultaneously his weakness – his innate need to do what’s right – particularly in that he is a cop and what’s “right” doesn’t always align with the law. And when it comes to family, the lines between lending a helping hand and codependency increasingly become blurred. At the same time, his desperation to maintain optimism pulls him further away from making responsible choices. Urbano is in constant inner turmoil, resulting in extremely compelling character development. But his compass always points north. Of course, thematically (and such is true in real life), he doesn’t always know what’s “right.”

Similarly, Alma’s desire to build a better life and climb the corporate ladder simultaneously earns her a promotion while distancing herself even further from her family. Ironically, she uses her roots – her ethnic background, her family’s poverty, the Spanish language – which is the thing she is most trying to escape, to climb that ladder with unexpected results. She is torn between earning success through her own hard work and talent versus being handed it by a new sexual partner. But that’s the way the world works, right? You gotta play the game to win the game. And, like Urbano, her constant inner conflict drives both the plot and her character development, keeping us engaged (and questioning our own values) from start to finish.

Even the supporting characters have distinct personalities – and secrets – that makes us want to know more. Urbano’s coworker and police dispatcher, Tachi, fulfills a light-hearted “Guardian Angel” archetype while providing a distinctly Native American perspective on the history of the land now plagued with drought. County Land Commissioner, David Flores, seems to immediately connect with Alma as they both grew up in Querencia, but then surprises Alma (and us) by blatantly telling Alma she is being used, and suddenly his true intentions are a mystery. Now we’re left wanting to know who this man really is – what’s his secret? Urbano’s partner, Pace, provides a bit of comic relief with his blunt bro attitude. Pina’s cranky elderly landlord won’t back down without a good fight. Every main and supporting character has a fully fleshed-out backstory, a distinct point of view, clear goals and stakes, and multi-dimensional personalities including their strengths and flaws, resulting in compelling characters that are still grounded and undeniably human.


Perhaps a direct result of the distinct characters and solid plot development, the dialogue is excellent. Each character has a unique voice. Every line either serves the story or the character development. There is never a moment of seemingly unnecessary small talk or overtly expository lines. Additionally, characters speak to other characters differently depending on their relationship, status, and current situation.

One unique highlight throughout is the writer’s use of set-ups and pay-offs in the dialogue – especially because it surprises us in a wonderfully satisfying way. For example, when we first meet Urbano’s partner, Pace, on page 6, he implies that he’s learned a bit of basic Spanish because he’s “been doing a Mexican dancer at the Coyote. We’re meeting up later. Private lessons, know what I mean?” Later, on page 12, Urbano offers to take a patrol shift so that Pace can still make his date (Urbano’s true motives are to protect his sister). When Pace expresses gratitude, Urbano hits him with the punchline, “You better come back bilingual.”

The subtext is another highlight in the dialogue. When Pina visits her childhood friend (and partner in crime), Chris, his harsh words are cruel but we know that he’s hiding something – that underneath his words he’s trying to warn and protect her – something that Pina is too hurt to realize until it’s much too late. Similarly, Alma’s “very Ivy League” White colleague at work, Digby, passive-aggressively belittles Alma by critiquing her English – a jab that almost feels worse than if he were to openly state that Alma is beneath him because of her ethnicity and class background.

Bilingual punchline.
Subtext Pina & Chris; the dialogue in bold is spoken in Spanish with subtitles.


For any reader, giving and receiving notes on writing style can be complicated. Sometimes when the writing style in a script is lacking, notes lean into generic technical “rules” such as, “Don’t write scene description that can’t be filmed” or “Keep scene description 3-4 lines max to increase the white space” or “Always write in an active voice (she walks instead of she is walking),” all of which can inadvertently sound like the reader is putting too much focus on formatting and not enough on the story. The thing is, it’s often difficult to give a constructive note when a script lacks a clear and distinct voice.

From page 1, it’s clear that the writer of Pipeline has a solid handle on writing composition. The scene description is efficient yet visually effective. It’s easy to comprehend and, for lack of a better term, it’s “pretty” – it sounds good. There’s just enough flavor beyond merely listing, “This happens, and then this happens, and then this happens,” but it’s never overdone in a way that reads too much like a novel. For example, the scene description reads, “Two symmetrical rows of PISTACHIO TREES stretched, unbroken, to the horizon. The trees are barren from harvest – shells blanket the dirt like a dusting of snow.” We would have comprehended the same information with a mere, “There are two rows of harvested pistachio trees. The ground is covered in shells.” But the latter example is a mere sharing of information, whereas Brian’s writing style truly evokes a solid visual and emotion – it’s beautiful but barren, peaceful but lonely, haunting. It feels like something bad is going to happen.

Similarly, the writer’s voice is evident within this efficient scene description (as well as in the abundance of themes previously mentioned). “He spits a fuck-the-man spray of tobacco juice on the lawn” paints such a visually clear picture that tells the actor exactly what to do, while incorporating a hint of sass that feels unique to the writer’s perspective and life experience. The writer’s voice particularly stands out each time a new principal character is introduced. Urbano is “already settling into Dad Bod, with temperament to match: unassuming and soft at the core.” His partner, Pace, is “a bump of Skoal in human form” (Skoal is a brand of chewing tobacco). Mrs. Woo “hasn’t smiled since 1984” and Digby is “very Ivy League, but Dartmouth, not Yale” and “sips an Evian.”

These details – this expert handle on sentence structure and word choice combined with a bit of “flavor” – make a huge difference in the reader’s experience and are one of the major elements that quickly separates a “green” script from one that can compete with the pilots that are being developed and produced for television today.

Opening scene description.


A major plot twist at the end of a pilot isn’t necessarily appropriate for all stories or genres. But what a pilot episode should do is make us want to read (and watch) episode two, and ideally, binge the entire season. Pipeline hits the mark with a couple of quick turns in the final few pages. But these turns do not come out of nowhere – they are foreshadowed earlier in the episode, ensuring a satisfying ending that still keeps us wanting more.

First of all, the ending brings us back to the beginning. Spoiler alert! We find out that the fieldworker we saw collapse in the pistachio grove in the opening scene is Chris – Pina’s childhood friend that weirdly blew her off. His unexpected behavior in that scene on pages 16-17 is explained when Pina finally finds his note in her bomber jacket pocket, just before Urbano identifies his body.

A couple of other plot twists are indicated – the land commissioner, David Flores, may not be who he seems, while the true intentions for buying the land (or stopping the sale of the land) suddenly become more complicated than we were initially led to believe.

And as a special treat, the episode ends with the visual of “A DENSE FOG that renders the freeway useless” – a callback to Tachi’s monologue about justice that leaves us with chills.

The final page.

With so many resources available for writers today, it’s easy to become overwhelmed or unsure of where to start. In addition to books, classes, and articles like this, one of the best ways to learn and improve is to read other pilots – especially produced ones – and then watch the pilot to see how the script translated into production.

“I mean look, life is short. Don’t wait. That’s my advice. Don’t wait to write the thing. Whatever your reason is, whether it’s personal shit or time or energy or ‘it isn’t ready’, or who cares — you’re not going to look back on your 20s or 30s or your entire life and think ‘I wish I’d waited longer to be an artist.’ Just do the thing. The reason you’re doing this is to create something you find beautiful, and hope other people find it beautiful, too. But no one is born knowing how to do it. So you have to try. But life is short and we’re all in a race against time to make the most beautiful thing we can, the thing our experience and life really put us on Earth to do, before we run out of time. The more you write, the sooner you try, the more urgently you just shut up and do the thing, the better chance you’ve got to win that race.”Brian Golden

For more insight into writing a great 1-hour TV Pilot, check out our collections: The Ultimate HBO Screenplay Collection and our Genre TV Pilots Collection.

Last thoughts: Write what you know, write what you’re passionate about, and keep writing!

Julia is a writer, actress, producer & Shore Scripts script consultant who has also worked with Coverfly, Austin Film Festival, and the BlueCat Screenplay Competition. She has also worked on features, shorts, digital series, and scripted audio fiction series that have won awards presented by Scriptation, Screenwriting Master, Action On Film Festival, The Audio Verse Awards, and more.

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