By Lee Hamilton.
The calling card for any would-be TV writer is an impressive original TV pilot or a well-crafted spec script of an already established show. [i]
Having one can help you find writing jobs, be accepted into fellowships, or gain representation by winning established contests.
But writing one-hour TV episodes is almost like a whole other discipline when compared to features, shorts, and even half-hour shows, so before committing virtual pen to paper, here are 5 crucial things to consider first…
1) Is your show going to be, episodic, serialized, an anthology, or a limited series?
a. Episodic is the most common type of show such as Star Trek, The X-Files, and Dexter. Although there can be character arcs throughout a season, each episode is a self-contained story, meaning that they can be watched in any order.
b. A Serial in contrast must be watched one episode after the other as they can have complex plots that can potentially span entire seasons or longer, such as The Handmaid’s Tale, Loki, and Game of Thrones. There are pros and cons to writing either. Episodic shows risk becoming formulaic and predictable, while serials might lose viewers if one or two episodes get missed etc.
c. Just to make it more complicated, some Hybrids use elements from both, such as The Good Wife, Grey’s Anatomy, and Hannibal, so if you have a versatile concept with great minor characters with spinoff potential, a hybrid might give you the best of both worlds.
d. An Anthology series can be a collection of different characters, stories, or seasons based around a central theme, such as American Horror Story, Black Mirror, and True Detective. They can be more hard work to write, but they can also be creatively exciting.
e. Not every idea can stretch itself into multiple seasons, and if your idea has a clear conclusion, it might work better as a Limited Series, such as Band of Brothers, Chernobyl, and Watchmen. Think of a miniseries as a really long feature film chopped into more digestible chunks, but also be aware they’re much harder to monetize, making them harder to pitch.
2) The Hook/Act One.
A common mistake made by new writers is using the pilot episode as an extended set up to establish the series premise. You can nearly get away with this in a serialized show, but if your show is about a cynical science teacher running a haunted hotel that he’s inherited from a dead uncle, it’s probably a good idea to have all of that established by the end of act one, rather than showing him discovering that the hotel is haunted in the end climax instead.
Referring to your logline will help here. Whatever you’ve been able to whittle your series premise down into needs to be clear to the viewers as quickly as possible. Not starting the story until the second episode risks the viewers not fully understanding what your series is about and giving up on it, so you’ve got to deliver the promise of your premise a.s.a.p.
This doesn’t mean skimping on the teaser or cold open, which are effective ways to hook the audience fast. A cold open allows you to jump straight into the story without needing setup or backstory and it doesn’t necessarily need to feature your protagonist. Think of it as an immediate inciting incident that gets the viewers asking questions, creates conflict, builds suspense, and grabs our attention.
Most one-hour TV and cable shows are written using a 5-act structure, and more recently (due to more commercial breaks equating to a higher revenue) a 6-act structure isn’t uncommon to see either. Additionally, there’s also usually a teaser (or cold open) at the beginning, and a tag scene at the end.
Acts are broken up a lot more evenly in a 5-act structure whereas a 6-act structure has a longer teaser/act one followed by much shorter acts. This gives you longer to hook the viewers and get them to invest in the story during the opening sequence.
As there are no commercial breaks on streaming services, so shows being pitched to Netflix, Amazon Prime, or Hulu, etc., have more leeway when deciding what structure to use. Regardless, it’s still highly recommended that you have a strong first act that grabs and frequent hooks to keep the audience consistently engaged throughout.
Although most of the basic story-telling principles are the same in every media, getting to grips with television structure is a must, with a real emphasis being placed on retaining the audience’s attention at all times. If you’re serious about becoming a TV writer, you’ll also need to understand season structure and even the entire series structure too, always keeping the bigger picture in mind.
Want to read some inspiring TV Pilots from your favorite shows? Head over to our stunning free collection of some of the top TV Pilots ever!
4) Story threads.
How many story threads your pilot episode should have, depends on the genre you’re writing, so make sure you have a good understanding of what the audience will be expecting. Traditionally, there should be at least three threads, with the A-story usually focusing on the protagonist and taking up the most screen time, followed by a B-story, featuring secondary characters following a parallel story to A, and a C-story, which gets the least amount of screen time and often features smaller ongoing stories that pay off in the long run or are used as light relief to break up the tension.
There’s no set amount of threads that an episode should contain. Dexter, for example, often filled the entire episode with the A-story, only cutting to the B-story so we could catch our breaths, while How to Get Away with Murder is at the other side of the scale, with countless side-stories helping to keep the momentum going. The bigger the cast, the potential for more threads, but it’s also more for a writer to juggle.
If you are new to screenwriting, don’t overcomplicate your pilot episode as if you trying to impress. Keep your cast small and manageable. Also, be mindful that the reader probably won’t get the chance to read a second episode, so make sure that the majority of your setups get paid off in your pilot, as anything that doesn’t get paid off there could be potentially wasting space in your script.
Television shows aren’t constricted by the same time constraints that feature films have, meaning there’s a lot more room to explore your characters, and as we’re potentially spending much more time with them. Character is what drives a show, so knowing what your protagonist’s arc is over the season is just as important as knowing what their episode arc is.
You’ll need to consider what type of protagonist will create the most conflict in the scenario you’ve created. And vice versa, what situation is going to add the most conflict to the lead character you’ve already developed. There’s got to be enough to carry however many episodes your series will run for. A strong introduction to your protagonist is crucial. Not only do we need to know who they are, what their problem is, and what’s standing in their way, we’ve got to care about them, so creating a great protagonist that we’ll keep wanting to follow is essential.
Add to this, your supporting cast, who are either going to help or hinder your protagonist along the way. Too few, and there might not be enough plot occurring to fulfill an episode, too many, and you risk confusing or overwhelming the audience with too many new faces to remember. You should also consider; Are they diverse enough? How relatable are they? Will we want to follow them? Are they flawed enough? And are they three-dimensional characters as opposed to stereotypes?
Hopefully, these points will give you something to think about before delving into the rewarding, but challenging world of writing for TV. Boundaries are being broken all the time, structurally and narratively, with TV shows getting bigger and bigger budgets as our consumption grows. But keep in mind that your pilot script needs to demonstrate that you understand the fundamentals first.
Remember. It’s your best calling card. So, showing that you can juggle multiple character arcs, story threads, plant setups, and payoffs, as well as having compelling characters and a story with dramatic momentum is key. TV writing is a hard discipline to master, but it’s also one of the most rewarding too.
Lee Hamilton is a script reader, developer, and author. Lee was one of the original readers to join Shore Scripts and has since moved into education and development, penning numerous articles, workbooks, and writing courses.
[i] Our TV Pilot Contest includes both 1-Hour & ½-Hour categories and has helped launch the careers of numerous screenwriters. This includes deals with SONY, YOUTUBE, CBS & HULU. We only accept original TV pilots. Go to the webpage for all the Rules & FAQs and to Enter Your Script.