Firsts are important. In life, love, and, of course, television.
The very first episode of your TV show — the pilot — has to prove a great number of things. It must build a world, let people into that world, introduce audiences to the characters in that world, and hook viewers so that they feel they must see the next episode. It’s no small feat.
So, above all else, if you’re attempting to begin your show, make sure that you include these four crucial elements in your pilot episode.
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1. The Premise
Arguably the most important thing to establish in your pilot is what the show itself is about. This must work on two levels.
First, you must lay the obvious groundwork of a concrete premise. What is your show? Is it a sitcom, drama, procedural, mystery, or anthology? What is the main thing your characters are going to be dealing with (i.e. what’s the plot?)?
Second, you must layer in the meaning. What themes will your show touch on? At its heart, what is the message, moral, or overarching universality you want to comment on with the story as a whole?
Take Netflix’s Raising Dion for example. The pilot episode does something incredibly important — it establishes right off the bat that the entire series would be about a widowed mother (Nicole) who tries to keep her son’s (Dion) newly developed superpowers under control. Of course as time goes on, the show reveals that there’s more to the story, like the origin of Dion’s powers, mysteries regarding Nicole’s deceased husband, Mark, and more — but we never stray far from the premise.
2. The Character
A show is nothing — I repeat, nothing — without its characters.
Whereas movies can sometimes get away with being more about the story itself than the people in the story, it can never be that way with television. Characters are the reason television shows exist — TV characters sustain a series over multiple seasons because their stories are bigger than that of their film counterparts.
In your series pilot, it’s essential that you introduce the characters important to the story. Who will the viewers see every week? Which characters are major and which are simply supporting?
More importantly, why should the audience root for these characters? What about them is intriguing enough to get a viewer to tune in the following week, or not switch over to something else on Netflix? Who are your characters?
In the pilot episode of Friday Night Lights, all of the characters are introduced in the first 20 minutes. Coach Taylor, Tami Taylor, Jason Street, Tim Riggins, Matt Saracen, Julie, Landry, Lyla, Buddy, Tyra, Smash, Billy, Mrs. Saracen, the Mayor of Dillon, the radio host who comments on the high school football team — everybody.
Not only that but Friday Night Lights goes one step further. While introducing the characters, the writer also lets the audience in on the web of complicated relationships between all these people. Jason and Tim may be best friends, but Jason’s girlfriend Lyla doesn’t always think very highly of Tim. Matt may be QB2, but he’s got his eye on Coach Taylor’s daughter Julie. And so on and so forth.
If you can, spin the web of your characters while you introduce them in your pilot. It will give you something to unravel in later episodes, and prove more captivating for audiences than if you simply tell them who each character is individually.
3. The Structure
Your pilot’s structure is likely going to be broadly defined by what kind of show you’re writing. Sitcoms and comedies are almost always half-hours, while dramas are an hour long. But the structure you must include in your pilot is a bit more than the 3-or-5-act structure necessary to fit in the commercial breaks —it’s the format and essence of your show.
Is it a procedural? Will there be a new court case with each new episode like in Law & Order? Or is it a serialized comedy that audiences can expect to bring up hilarious yet serious ethical topics every episode or two like The Good Place? Will there be voiceovers or narration? Will the perspective remain with the main protagonist or float between many characters?
These are the things you need to build with your pilot’s structure.
Take long-running Grey’s Anatomy for example. The pilot establishes that each episode will begin and end with narration by one of the main characters (most often Meredith Grey), shows the audience that each episode (or string of episodes) will feature one to three prominent medical cases or surgeries, and spins a web of complicated relationships that the characters are still untangling 14 seasons later.
That’s not to say that you cannot deviate from the format you establish in the pilot — plenty of successful shows do — but you must subtly let the audience know what they can expect to see every time they tune in.
4. The Hook / The Promise
The final element that must be in every pilot, no matter the genre, tone, length, or network, is a hook.
Make note that hooks are not synonymous with cliffhangers, although they often appear to be just that. The hook is what snatches your audience member and draws them in. It is, in other words, the promise of the premise.
When you established what the show was about in the very beginning, maybe even the first scene, you made a promise to the viewers to deliver on the premise. This does not mean you have to wrap up the storylines, close all the windows, and tie a nice bow before you’re done. On the contrary, leave those storylines to be continued, crack the windows open, and let your story remain messy for a while. The point of a TV series is to have many, many stories to tell.
Looking at our three previous examples, notice how each delivers on the promise of the premise and hooks the audience in.
Raising Dion pulls the audience in with the trouble that comes from Dion’s uncontrolled powers, but the actual hook comes at the end of the pilot when ghostly figures appear at the family cabin, along with a frantic warning from an apparition of Mark telling Nicole she and Dion are in danger. The final minutes of the Friday Night Lights pilot see the star quarterback injured so badly that it spins the entire football season, and entire storyline, in a new direction. And the Grey’s Anatomy pilot closes the first exhausting, exciting day for the new surgical interns with a sense that the cycle will continue again in the very next episode.
So, before your pilot is over, you must make good on your promise to the audience. Give them some thematic satisfaction, prove that you know where you’re leading them, and show them where the “play next” button is.
Britton Perelman is a writer and storyteller based in Los Angeles, California. When not buried in a book or failing spectacularly at cooking herself a meal, she’s probably talking someone’s ear off about the last thing she watched. She loves vintage typewriters, the Cincinnati Reds, and her dog, Indy. Find more of her work on her website, or follow her on Instagram.