Want to Write a TV Pilot? Don’t Skip This Step


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by Naomi Write + Co. in screenwriting

Are you thinking about writing a TV pilot to add to your portfolio? You might be surprised by what I’m going to suggest:

Start by thinking about your pitch.

But wait… isn’t that putting the cart before the horse?

Even if you’re nowhere near the pitching phase, thinking about your pitch will help you develop a stronger pilot script. Because what you end up pitching are the vital elements that make up your series, and those have to be conveyed in the pilot.

A lot of writers don’t realize that and they set about writing a pilot without doing the big-picture thinking that goes into a series.

It’s hard to write a great pilot, and even harder if you don’t think about the series first

I’ve heard many writers say that they want to write a pilot because it’s shorter than a feature, so surely it’ll be an easier and faster project… right?

They’re surprised to discover just how difficult it is to write a great pilot. If you ask me, it’s harder than writing a feature. To write a pilot you have to think about how to build in the elements that will generate hours upon hours of must-see TV. Your little pilot has a lot on its shoulders.

You may only write the pilot episode. But when you pitch, you pitch the series.

A lot of writers don’t think about pitching until they’re actually faced with the prospect of doing it. They might even have a smart idea and an entertaining script. But often, that’s all they have. They haven’t thought about the series as a whole.

Knowing how to pitch your project means you understand the big picture, what people (buyers – the people you’re pitching to) are looking for in a series. And that knowledge will help you write a stronger pilot.

Your series pitch, in a nutshell

There isn’t just one way to pitch, but there are a few elements that pitches are generally expected to include.

One of the most commonly used pitch templates comes from WB. I’ve found that sometimes a slight variation on it works better, but either of these will give you a good basic pitch outline to follow.

Think of each bullet point as a section of your pitch:


    • Teaser
    • World
    • Characters
    • Series
    • Pilot
    • Tone

The alternate version:

    • This is my connection to the idea,
    • this is the idea,
    • these are the characters,
    • the pilot would be essentially this,
    • the world of the show is this,
    • examples of future episodes are the following,
    • quick, punchy “out.”

You can see there’s a lot of overlap there. That’s because a good pitch showcases the elements that are vital to the series. The elements that make your series unique and appealing, but also the elements that make it clear that this project (your pitch) has everything it needs to really be a series that can go the distance.

Of the bunch, the element I see writers tend to overlook or not think through all the way when they’re working on their pilot script, is what makes the series a series.

What’s the series?

When you’re thinking about writing a pilot the question you really need to be able to answer is: What is the series?

Meaning, what makes this a series, and not just one cool episode?

In features we deal with closed-ended stories. We want to be able to resolve the big story problem within two hours. But in TV, we want the concept to be able to generate lots of future episodes, whether that’s escalations on one main conflict or new conflicts each week (or a combination).

When you’re pitching, you’ll describe the core concept and main conflict, and you’ll make sure to convey the story engine. That’s how we know what happens, what we’re watching from episode to episode.

The story engine is where new stories come from. It’s what creates episode after episode.

It’s easiest to see the story engine in something like House or Law & Order, where each episode brings a new case to be dealt with. But all kinds of shows have story engines (they must, or there are no new episodes!)

    • In The Bear, new episodes are generated as prodigal son Carmy leads the staff at his family’s restaurant in order to keep the place alive.
    • ​In The Rookie, new episodes are generated as LA’s finest fulfill their duty to protect and serve.
    • In The Dropout, new episodes are generated as ambitious young Elizabeth Holmes struggles to get her startup off the ground.
    • In How I Met Your Mother – if I remember correctly – new episodes are generated as Ted searches for “the one.”

When you’re trying to figure out your series’ story engine, you can try phrasing it as I did above, “New episodes are generated as…” You can also think of the engine as why your series characters have to interact (or interact with new characters) each week, because that’s how stories are born.

Your pilot plants the seeds for your series

Now, you may have an idea of where your TV series ends – and that may be after six or eight or ten episodes (as is trendy right now), or it may be after three or five seasons.

That’s fine. Just make sure the pilot isn’t all there is. The pilot will launch that big arc you have in mind, and we need to see from the pilot that the story goes somewhere (and we should have some sense of where/what that is, so we know what kind of show we’re watching).

While writing a pilot will use many of the same screenwriting skills you’ve developed writing features, there are some things specific to TV writing that you also need to know.

The story engine is one of them, and an important one. Because when you write a pilot you’re not just writing one standalone script. You’re writing one episode of a larger whole, and that episode’s job is to launch the series to come.

To do that, the pilot episode has to have the series DNA baked in.

The series DNA is what goes into your pitch, so — even if it seems counterintuitive — starting with your pitch will help you make sure to build a pilot that does everything it needs to do.


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.