The pilot episode is your one and only opportunity to make a good first impression. It’s the one chance you get to say, “Hello! This is my show and this is why it’s great!”
As such, you need to make sure that the plot of your pilot has movement. The characters need to be interacting, the action needs to be revving up, and everything needs to come together in a way that will hook the audience for episode two.
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Here are eight plot techniques to ensure that your show’s very first episode is anything but boring.
1. THE INTRODUCTIONS
All shows are character-driven, but some focus on the people far more than the plot.
In these cases, the pilot itself serves as one big introduction. Take The Office for example: you meet Michael Scott, Jim Halpert, Dwight Schrute, Pam Beesly, and the rest of the Dunder Mifflin crew. You learn that Jim has a crush on Pam, that Michael impedes productivity instead of improving it, and that Dwight is a bit of a nutcase. But does anything *super important* happen? No.
There may be small story arcs or a bit of plot, but really they’re just about introducing you to the characters themselves.
Notable examples — This Is Us; The Office; The Handmaid’s Tale; Shameless; Heroes; Master of None
2. THE ARRIVAL
Duh, duh, duh. One of the most surefire ways to begin a TV show is with an arrival.
Now, it doesn’t always need to be ominous — on the contrary, it can be the exact opposite — but the arrival of someone new and important into an existing group is the purpose of this technique. Someone moves in, someone comes home, someone shows up unexpectedly, you get the idea.
The new arrival throws a wrench in the already-established group dynamic. He or she fundamentally changes the way things work. And that’s the whole point.
Notable examples — Friends; Parenthood; Bloodline; New Girl; Once Upon a Time; Stranger Things; Sharp Objects; Big Little Lies
3. THE BIG EVENT
This one’s a doozy. The big event is the thing that your show hinges on… and it all starts in the pilot.
Plane crashes, murders, disappearances, even protagonists who find themselves in the afterlife — these are the kind of big events that serve as the beginning for shows that are about the fallout. It’s a great way to structure a television show.
But the key to this technique is positioning the big event within the pilot. You must decide whether the event happens just before the pilot (LOST), during the pilot (ACS: Versace), or will play out in flashbacks throughout the show (The Good Place & LOST). Either way, the rest of your series — no matter the twists and turns that happen along the way — is a direct result of this single event. It’s important, huge, and you definitely can’t take it back. Your TV series is this event and this event is your TV series.
Notable examples — LOST; American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace; The Good Place
4. THE MEET CUTE
While the “meet-cute” is a tried-and-true facet of romantic comedies, it’s also a technique for kick-starting a TV show. And in television’s case, the “cute” in “meet-cute” doesn’t always imply a loving relationship.
As the title suggests, this type of plot device involves having significant characters meet in the very first episode. Maybe it’s the person your character will have an on-again, off-again relationship with. Maybe it’s the villain who will pursue the protagonists throughout the series.
Whatever the situation, the meet happens right off the bat.
Notable examples — Love; How I Met Your Mother; A Series of Unfortunate Events
5. THE DISCOVERY
When characters learn something about themselves, something about a friend, a spouse, a child, or a parent that completely changes the way they must live their life, that’s a discovery.
Pilot episodes for this kind of technique rely on the reveal — how two husbands break it to their wives that they’re actually in love with each other, how a troubled young woman finds a woman who looks identical to her, how a mother realizes that she is undead.
For this technique, lean into the how and the why and the repercussions of those two things. Your pilot, and the rest of your series, will grow from there.
Notable examples — Santa Clarita Diet; Orphan Black; Desperate Housewives; Grace & Frankie
6. THE LIFE-CHANGING DECISION
Most of the decisions we make every day are of little consequence to the overall trajectory of our lives. I’m talking about what to eat for dinner, what to wear to work, or what to do on a Saturday night. But there are a few instances in which, when faced with a decision to make, what you choose could change your life forever.
These kind of life-altering decisions are perfect fodder for a pilot. They provide a path forward for your characters because of the implications of whatever choice the character makes.
Choosing to move across the country, deciding to keep a baby instead of having an abortion, or simply making a decision to pursue something big at work — all of these situations will propel your characters forward for episodes, and probably seasons, to come.
Notable examples — Crazy Ex-Girlfriend; Jane the Virgin; Parks & Recreation
7. THE START OF SOMETHING NEW
Pilot episodes usher in the dawn of the brand new, whether that be the start of a new life, the first day of a new medical program, a new football season with a new coach, or something else entirely.
This plot device is all about beginning. Whatever the setting’s previous situation will be disrupted from the very start of the pilot episode. Audiences don’t often get to see what it was like before, and instead, are thrown right into the now— getting to know the setting in its disrupted form, the characters, and the set-up of the show all at once.
Notable examples — Friday Night Lights; Grey’s Anatomy; The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt; Outlander
8. THE STRING OF EVENTS
This technique is a fun one. The pilot episode includes several events, all happening as a domino effect, that lead to the end of episode one and the very premise for the show itself.
A science teacher finds out he’s dying of cancer, decides to sell crystal meth in order to secure his family’s financial future, and brings in a former student to help him. A plucky Jewish mother tries to help her husband succeed in stand-up comedy, only to have him leave her for his secretary, leading her to go on a hilarious rant at the very club he bombed in, where she is then arrested, bailed out, and decides that she is the one who should be a comic.
Pilot episodes that employ this device are lots of fun. One simple move and the plot just cascades out in front of you, creating chaos for your characters and a premise that audiences cannot resist.
Notable examples — Catastrophe; The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel; Breaking Bad
These tried-and-true techniques for getting the plot going in your pilot aren’t cut and dry. It’s possible to use several of these as the basis for your first episode, and it’s also possible to have a pilot that doesn’t follow any of these rules.
But, if you’re stuck with a stagnant story, try introducing one of these plot devices into your pilot episode. You’re sure to have things moving right along in no time.
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.
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