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How to Structure Your TV Pilot

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by Naomi Write + Co. in screenwriting

TV pilots need to accomplish a few specific things. They need to establish the series concept (all the makings of the show) and successfully launch the series (or at least the first season). But pilots also need to stand on their own as entertaining experiences, in order to capture an audience’s attention and interest in the first place.

Unfortunately, many writers overlook the dual purposes of a pilot, often leaning heavily toward one and missing the other. When the one they miss out on is making the pilot an entertaining story unto itself, they’ve lost the audience before anyone even cares there’s a second, third, fourth episode on offer.

Your TV pilot needs its own 3-act story

An episode of TV can look very different from a feature-length movie, but they usually have one thing in common: 3-act structure.

Why is that? The setup, escalation, resolution framework of 3-act structure is satisfying to us for a lot of brain-science reasons. This shape is found in stories of all lengths. From the very short (like in this commercial) to the feature length and longer (like a whole season of a TV show).

And it definitely shows up in the storylines of an individual TV episode.

So let’s look at how you can use 3-act structure to create a compelling story within your TV pilot.

3-act story structure vs. commercial breaks

There’s less confusion around this now as we’ve trended toward pilots written without act breaks, but it’s still worth pointing out:

When we’re talking about 3-act structure, we’re talking about story structure. When you see pilots with act breaks written in for Act 1, Act 2, Act 3, etc., those are commercial breaks. The break into that Act 2 is not the same as the “Break into Act 2” story beat.

Each “act out” (what happens in the show right before a commercial break) will have a cliffhanger-y quality to it to entice audiences to stick around. But this is separate from the 3-act story structure we’re examining, and which you can use to structure the storylines of your show.

The proportions of 3-act structure in a TV pilot

In features, we aim pretty consistently for Act 1 to run about 25% of the total length of the movie, Act 2 to run the next 50% of the total length, and then Act 3 to run about the last 25%.

However, in a TV pilot those proportions have more give. Which makes sense, because with multiple storylines to weave together there’s a lot to accommodate and fit into what has traditionally been more strict in the TV arena, which is total length of each episode. So some flexibility in the timing of story beats is necessary and useful.

The Major Plot Points in TV storylines

The Major Plot Points are those big turning points in a 3-act story. You’ll see them in movies, and you’ll also see them in TV episodes.

In the examples I’ll focus on the episode A-story since it generally gets the most screen time. Because of that, it’s the most robust and you’re more likely to see the Major Plot Points occur separately.

In a B- or C-story, a storyline that gets less screen time and fewer scenes, the Major Plot Points can get stacked together. That’s not a bad thing – it’s actually an example of the flexibility I mentioned. But it can make storylines harder to analyze when you’re still getting familiar with how it all works. So for the sake of clarity, we’ll just look at the A-story.

The spine is the storyline

Just like in the features we’ve talked about, the structure of a storyline in your episode revolves around someone who wants something badly and goes after it against strong opposition. In other words, your protagonist has a goal, and he engages in conflict as he tries to get that goal.

So to structure your pilot A-story you first need to know who wants what. And then you can use the Major Plot Points to figure out the spine of the story.

For example, in the Prison Break pilot, protagonist Michael wants to launch an intricate plan to break his brother out of prison. Let’s look at how those Major Plot Points create the spine of the story:

Prison Break

Episode logline: A structural engineer gets himself sentenced to the same prison in which his brother awaits execution, and launches an intricate plan to break them out from the inside.

      1. Inciting Incident: Michael’s brother, Lincoln, has lost his last appeal and is going to be executed in a month. That’s why this story happens now. (We see this information in the headlines in Scene 2.)
      2. Break into “Act 2”: Michael asks his new cellmate how to get to Lincoln, revealing “He’s my brother.” We know Michael’s trying to get to Lincoln (who is kept separately since he’s on death row), and has some kind of plan in motion, but we don’t yet know what it is, which is part of the entertaining execution of this story.
      3. Midpoint: Michael surprises Lincoln in the prison chapel: “I’m getting you out of here.” Now we know what Michael’s doing, and we know how difficult it will likely be, but we don’t yet know what his plan is.
      4. Low Point: On the inside, Michael’s beat up by mobster Abruzzi’s men. On the outside, the bishop is murdered. (He was the one hope Lincoln still had for a stay of execution.)
      5. Break into “Act 3”: Michael accepts/offers to help Warden Pope. This is a new strategy Michael’s implementing in order to stay out of the SHU and continue to carry out his plan.
      6. Climax: Michael tells Lincoln about the plan, shows him the blueprints tattooed on his body. Now we have an idea of how Michael is going to do what he plans to do.

If you compare the Breaking Bad pilot, you’d still find all of the Major Plot Points, but they’d (obviously) make up a different story, and you’d see just how different the proportions are – yet both pilots work.

Breaking Bad

Episode logline: When a chemistry teacher learns he has incurable lung cancer, he enlists the help of a former student to begin a risky and dangerous meth-cooking operation, in order to ensure that his family is cared for after he’s gone.

      1. Inciting Incident: Walt collapses. That’s a problem he can’t ignore and the “Why now” of the show.
      2. Break into “Act 2”: Walt calls DEA agent and brother-in-law Hank for a ridealong. (Walt secretly wants to see how meth is cooked, putting his plan into motion.)
      3. Midpoint: Walt gives Jesse $7k – all his retirement savings – to buy an RV for their meth lab. Walt’s all in.
      4. Low Point: Drug dealers think Walt is DEA and threaten to kill him and Jesse.
      5. Break into “Act 3”: Walt makes a deal with the dangerous drug dealers, “Let us both live, I’ll teach you my formula.”
      6. Climax: Walt kills the drug dealers (we think), saving himself and Jesse.

The Breaking Bad Inciting Incident happens much later in the episode, because we spend a lot of time up front getting to know and empathize with the Walt character. The audience needs this time to align with the character before he starts down the criminal path, which we need to be willing to go along with in order to continue watching the show.

The Prison Break pilot, on the other hand, has clearer B- and C-stories to weave in, which requires getting the A-story going right away in order to make room for the other storylines without losing focus on the main story.

It’s a lesson in understanding the challenges of your particular story, and finding an effective way to address them. Breaking Bad leans on empathy to get and keep us engaged, while Prison Break makes more use of curiosity.

Making a good landing

Something features don’t do that TV pilots must, is plant seeds for future episodes.

If we don’t have an indication of where the show is headed, what we’ll be watching after the pilot, it feels like the show isn’t going anywhere. In which case, it’s not actually a series… it’s just a short feature.

So you must also think about where the episode lands, and what that tells us about where we’re going next. That’s what tells us it’s a series.

In Prison Break, the episode partly lands with something we see in the Climax. While Michael is showing Lincoln his cool tattoo, Abruzzi is nearby saying he “keeps his enemies close” and he doesn’t trust Michael. From this, we know there’s antagonism there that will lead to future conflict and problems with Michael’s intricate plan, which requires Abruzzi’s help even though Abruzzi doesn’t know this.

We also know from a few things that have occurred over the course of the episode that Michael has a plan, but he’s already having to adapt to unexpected things – like the prison doctor suspecting he might not be diabetic, the warden asking for Michael’s help building a gift for his wife, which requires time and attention Michael wasn’t counting on.

In Breaking Bad, the episode lands as Walt gets away with it all. He’s not in trouble for cooking meth, or for killing the dealers. He’s seemingly skated by, and because of that he’ll keep going down this criminal path. At home, we see Walt is different with his wife Skyler – their relationship is outwardly improved, but he’s keeping secrets from her now. When will the consequences of all of this catch up to him? We’ll have to watch the show to find out.

Structure is a tool, not a rule

While TV pilots have a few things they need to accomplish that make writing one a whole different experience than writing a feature, when we narrow in on the individual storylines we can see the 3-act structure that most stories share.

If you take one thing away from today’s post, I hope it’s the value of understanding the function of 3-act structure and the Major Plot Points. Because that understanding will serve you well no matter what form your stories take: TV, film, or anything else.

When you know what each part of your story needs to accomplish in order to engage and entertain your audience, you can focus your energy on finding the most compelling and cinematic ways for those story beats to play out – which is the fun of writing!

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.

Subscribe