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How to Write a TV Show Pilot (Drama or Sitcom)

Hundreds of pilots sell to networks and streaming services every year. What’s stopping you from selling your idea? 

Want to learn how to write a TV pilot? You’ve come to the right place. 

Breaking into Hollywood with a writing career is one of the hardest things you can do. Fewer movies are being made every year, and now, many young writers are turning to television to find jobs. But to get a job in television, you need a sample. Samples are speculative pilot scripts that your agent or manager can hand to showrunners to prove your worth. 

Sure, there are lots of other factors behind getting staffed, but a great pilot increases your chances of getting in a room because… well… you can sell it. Hollywood is all about betting on yourself and creating your own opportunities. 

So how can you write a great TV pilot? 

This whole post is going to be broken down between writing a drama and writing a sitcom. I want you to be able to navigate both, so it’s all in one place. Use the table of contents to navigate the parts where you want to lean. 

Table of Contents


How to Write a TV Drama Pilot Mission Statement 

First, we’re going to break down the TV drama pilot. You can do it in six weeks. Your commitment is to yourself and to your story. I’m asking you to write 10 pages a week. If you fall behind, take your time. If you want to work ahead, go for it.

We did a similar Free Screenwriting Seminar for features that worked out really well. Now let’s get to it! 

How to Write a TV Drama Pilot? Pre-Writing

I know you’re eager to open your screenwriting software and to get typing, but trust me, it’s way better to move forward with a plan. First up, what are your ideas? As we mentioned in our Four Steps to Writing a Pilot article, your idea needs to have legs. 


‘The Pretender’Credit: NBC

“Having legs” means having the ability to go on and on. You need a network or streaming service to be able to see multiple seasons when they read your pilot. Does your idea have the ability to go on and on? 

One of my favorite TV show ideas was the NBC show The Pretender.  It opened with a treatise on what the story would be about. It also made an unspoken promise, if a Pretender could be anyone… then you could have so many different and interesting episodes that the show could last for a long time. It was a network executive’s dream.   

So make sure your ideas have legs.

Treatments

Once you have your idea, I recommend writing a treatment to flesh your idea out. Treatments can help you feel like you’re both in control of your story and give you a way to map out your story for the pilot. We’ll cover story beats in 10-page increments, but a treatment lets you look and fix at things from 10,000 feet, so when you get to the page minutiae, you can execute accurately. 

All right, enough gab, let’s get right into your TV pilot. 

Writing Screenplay Pages 1-10 in your TV Drama Pilot 

You have the idea locked down. You wrote yourself a treatment. Now it’s time to get going on the first 10 pages of your TV pilot.

We have the Story Map to help you plan story beats in features, but you can also use it to work on your pilot. Sure, it doesn’t fit perfectly, but let me elaborate. 

The first 10 pages of your pilot need to deliver us a cold open, set up the characters, show us their world, and get us into the meat of the story. A cold open is a sequence that is indicative of the theme or story in the episode. The most famous drama cold open of all time comes from Breaking Bad

Those falling pants and roaring Winnebago push us to the brink and introduce us to Walter White. The pilot will answer “how he got here.” Starting with the first 10  pages that show his birthday, him suffering from money troubles, disrespected in class, and generally get us to know the people in his world and the problems he’s facing (including a persistent cough).

If you’re trying to learn how to write a pilot and haven’t watched Breaking Bad yet, then leave this page and go do it. It’s that important.

Let’s dig into a few other pilot examples and see how they work out the first 10 pages. 


‘Breaking Bad’Credit: AMC

Pages 1-10 TV Drama Pilot Examples

TV Pilots are different than feature screenplays. Sure, they are shorter, but they also generally work off Five Act Structure instead of Three Act Structure.

What does Five Act Structure look like? 

  • Teaser
  • Act 1:  p1 to p6
  • Act 2:  p7 to p20
  • Act 3:  p21 to 32
  • Act 4:  p33 to p41
  • Act 5:  p42 to p55 (END)
  • Tag

But don’t worry too much about those five acts. We’re going to tackle them as we go. Those page counts are theoretical too. Focus on tackling the teaser and Act One today, i.e. characters, world, problems. 

Let’s explore a few examples from great pilots. First up, Gilmore Girls. What works here is a teaser showing us the town and central characters. No matter how crazy Stars Hollow gets, it all boils down to this mother and daughter. 

The mother and daughter are positioned as young, only 16 years apart. But we can still see their strong relationship. and that they’re well-known in this town. We get the immediate sense of the tone here, too. This is a fast-talking show that’s not going to slow down for anyone. 

What if you start on something slow. Like a dead body? 

The pilot of The Wire immediately thrusts us into the world of Baltimore. We know it’s life-or-death right away because we’re opening on a dead body. We also bridge the gap between cop and felon too. This is about two sectors of society trying to do their jobs: sell drugs and catch the people selling drugs. 

Look at the character traits we get here too. McNulty is a cop, but he’s not overbearing or on a power trip. He’s asking hard questions in a very soft way. We immediately know he’s seasoned, he knows how to deal with these people, and this is definitely not the first dead body he’s ever seen. 

From one HBO masterpiece to another, let’s take a deeper look at my favorite show of the last decade, The Leftovers

First off, what an incredible teaser. We know right away that this show will be about the people left behind, dealing with the vanishing of young and old across the globe. After we get through this moment, we get right into meeting Kevin Garvey, the chief of police trying to handle everyone three years after the Departure. After such an intense teaser, it’s nice to settle into a world. But The Leftovers never lets you fully settle. 

Even Kevin’s jogging gets interrupted by a violent dog, and then by a man who just shows up and shoots the dog. Yeah, it’s going to be that kind of show. 

In fact, in the first 10 minutes of the show, we meet Kevin, see the Guilty Remnant (a cult), meet Kevin’s daughter, and see her messed-up sense of humor, and then meet the point of contact in a possible religious terrorist organization. All in the first 10 minutes! 

This is staged around the normal daily routine of people who survived, so it feels even more genius to give us the lackadaisical look into the lives of people who experienced extreme trauma. 

If you have HBO, you should watch the whole pilot. I think it’s one of the best in the last 20 years. 


‘The Leftovers’Credit: HBO

How to Write a TV Drama Pilot Week Two: Pages 10-20

We’re in your world now. Show us why we should stay.

Congratulations, you got the audience through the first 20 pages. They should have some semblance of what the hell is happening and know who’s in the story. Now it’s your job to take them through the rest of the first act and act two if you’re writing in five-act structure. 

  • Teaser
  • Act 1:  p1 to p6
  • Act 2:  p7 to p20
  • Act 3:  p21 to 32
  • Act 4:  p33 to p41
  • Act 5:  p42 to p55 (END)
  • Tag

Some shows, like Breaking Bad, are written in Four Act Structure. It’s just a different way to hit your beats and commercial breaks. 

  • Teaser
  • Act 1:  p1 to p15
  • Act 2:  p16 to p29
  • Act 3:  p30 to 44
  • Act 4:  p44 to p55 (end)
  • Tag

No matter what, this is what you need to establish by page 20: 

  1. Characters—Who will play a major role in this show? How do they interact with one another and what are the power dynamics?  
  2. The Rules of the World—Is this set in the real world? Fantastical? 
  3. Stakes—Life and death? Are we chasing terrorists? Or is the worst thing that can happen a loss of love or opportunity? 

Once you’ve established those things, you can guide the audience’s expectations for what’s to come in the episode and the season.  

One of the hurdles in all of this is exposition. The first 20 pages can be laden with the burden of explaining every little thing to the audience. Remember, this is a visual medium. Practice “show, don’t tell.” There are creative ways to allow people to understand a world without characters blabbing on and on about it.

Again, in the classic pilot of Breaking Bad (read the pilot here), in the first 20 pages, we meet Walt, we meet his family, we see their financial predicament, and we also see evidence that selling meth is profitable. 

How do we do all that with limited exposition? We put Walt in new situations. It’s his birthday, and he still has to work two jobs. We know he gets no respect at home, at work, or at school. They never say they’re poor, but we can see it by the penny-pinching. On page 18 we see Walt faint. And by page 20 we know he has cancer. And we can infer that this could ruin him financially and kill him. The show is set.

Let’s look at a few more examples to see where we should be. 

Pages 10-20 TV Drama Pilot Examples

Now that you understand how it happens in Breaking Bad, how about we pull apart a few other hour-long dramas to see how they play the game. First up is the Lost pilot (read here). 

Lost is one of my all-time favorite TV shows. It was must-see TV back in the day. Everyone was talking about it. And part of the fervor that went along with the show was the pilot. At 97 pages, it was much longer than an average pilot, but the story’s structure is fairly compact.  

In the first 20ish pages we find ourselves in the middle of a plane crash as well as the aftermath. 


‘LOST’Credit: ABC

We also set up the rules of this show. We won’t just be on the island, but we will also be flashing back to these characters before they got here. And they won’t always be telling the truth in the present. 

Also, we start to learn about each character and their skillset. Jack is a doctor. He never has to say it. We see his skills in action. Hurley is a good comforter. Charlie… well, he likes to freak out.

The main focus of the first 20 pages is to show you Jack, our hero, and meet the other cast on this wreck. Once we get to the 20th page, it’s nighttime and people have built fires. We finally get a rest period to learn names and characters. 

And then… we hear the smoke monster. This is no ordinary world. But it’s all set. We’re on an island now.

What about a show about people trying to rebuild a home? Look no further than The Walking Dead (read the pilot here).

This show opens reasonably normally. Routine police chase. Shots fired. But we get into the real meat, pun intended, when Rick wakes up in the hospital. Now, this is another longer pilot, but the same principles remain true. After we find out Rick and his wife have a ton of problems, he’s shot and goes into a coma. He wakes up during the zombie apocalypse. We set up our world, the characters (without knowing Rick will find his way back to Shane and Rick’s family), and we know the stakes. People are dead. And the dead have risen. 

At the end of the 20-page stretch, Rick is hit with a shovel. We are terrified for his life. It’s a helluva an act break.

From one excellent zombie show to another, let’s look at Bryan Fuller’s Pushing Daisies for what it’s like to write an hour-long procedural with a bit of magic (read the script here). 

After a brilliant tag, we are thrust into the magical world of the piemaker. Ned, our lead, is a chef and part-time investigator. We meet his friends, Emerson and Olive, and we get his routine of raising the dead so Emerson can crack cases. We get some brilliant and whimsical narration that delivers all the information we need. The exposition is woven into the fabric of this modern fairy tale. 

This world has a ton of rules. When Ned touches a dead body, they become alive, but a second touch kills them again. Then we establish that Ned wants something more out of life. Enter a murder and a dead body Ned knows… a girl named Chuck who captured his heart long ago. 


‘Pushing Daisies’Credit: ABC

How to Write a TV Show Drama Pilot Week 3: Pages 20-30 

You have the audience biting on your concept. They’re invested in your characters. They know what the problem is and probably have an idea of what’s going to happen next. So avoid being boring and predictable and throw them for a loop.

These are also the pages where you’re going to make future promises to the audience. 

It doesn’t matter if you’re a cable show, on a network, or even streaming, you want people who tune in to get an understanding of what they can expect week to week. So explore threads like romantic tensions, dark pasts, and backstory that will matter later. 

Not every question in your pilot needs to be answered, just the big ones. You want to leave some narrative threads loose, so the audience returns to see you tie them up. 

Let’s reflect on our five-act structure guide to see where you should be from 20-30. 

  • Teaser
  • Act 1:  p1 to p6
  • Act 2:  p7 to p20
  • Act 3:  p21 to 32
  • Act 4:  p33 to p41
  • Act 5:  p42 to p55 (END)
  • Tag

Pages 20-30 take you through most of Act III.

Let’s start with a pilot I hope you have all seen or read, The West Wing (which you can read HERE). 

The West Wing sets up everyone who works in the White House and their issues early on. By page 20, Sorkin is taking us into the deeper problems behind the policy. We’re getting personal. We know that Josh and Toby are going at it over Josh’s Meet the Press attack on the American Family Council. In fact, this is causing ripple effects all over. We know the crux of the episode will be to clean up this problem. 

And we see each of the characters jockeying for power while also juggling stranded Cubans trying to make it to America and Josh’s gaff pissing off Leo’s daughter. 

We also get a peek into the B-story, Mandy Hampton moving into her office. We realize she may be the key to the president’s reelection, but has a history with some of the people in the White House. That’s a whirlwind 10 pages, but it’s important to point out that they’re all used with the economy on the page and really give us a sense of the show from week to week.  

Let’s look at a few more examples to see some more of Act III in action.  

Pages 20-30 TV Drama Pilot Examples

We looked at The West Wing, let’s stick with Sorkin for a second and check out The Newsroom (which you can read HERE). When The Newsroom hits the 20-page mark we’re still meeting characters. We learn Mackenzie’s role in everyone’s lives here. We also see that Will is going rogue and upset Mackenzie is there. And she meets Jim and Maggie. 

And we learn Don and Maggie are a thing. And their thing is in trouble. There’s even a hint that Jim may like Maggie! 

Remember what I said about backstory? We learn Mac has been in Iraq with the military and has a lot more experience than everyone else. She also is great at reading people and analyzing their problems. We see her fix Maggie’s problem and give her a raise. 

It’s badass and what makes this an excellent pilot. The Newsroom has everything you ever wanted. Except for a fourth season. 


‘The Newsroom’Credit: HBO

One of my favorite pilots and just hours of television all time is the Veronica Mars pilot (which you can read HERE). This is a procedural show that has Veronica solving a case a week, and then also has a massive season-long murder mystery that correlates. Twenty pages in, and we’re making promises to the audience with what they can expect to see from Veronica week in and out. 

She’s got witty banter with her dad, they’re taking an underdog’s case, and she’s willing to get her hands dirty when it comes to solving them. We also learn her dad is an ex-cop who’s been off the force for a while. A little bit of a gritty backstory to give these people an edge. And we can tell that future episodes may exonerate him. 

And we get her friendships, allies, and who respects her. 

Oh, and the twist? In these pages, Abel Koontz is arrested. Not Veronica’s man, but she’s determined to actually get to the bottom of what’s going on. Sometimes it’s not all about twists and mysteries. 

Sometimes it’s about clear eyes, full hearts, and the inability to lose. Or, at least that’s what the Friday Night Lights pilot (which you can read HERE) taught me. The pilot will forever be known for breaking Jason Street’s back and causing millions to fall in love with Tim Riggins or Tyra Collette. But in the pilot, these pages are used to get you to know all the players on the team, the members of the Taylor family, and to raise the stakes. 

We know that the Panthers have a history of winning and that Buddy wants it to continue. We see him meeting with boosters and applying the pressure to Coach Taylor. This has to be their year, no matter what. Coach carries that pressure home, and relies on his wife, Tami, to get his head right. 

We see how that pressure translates to their star QB Jason Street, and his backup (I stan) Matt Saracen. One dreams of glory, the other just wants to get into the game. 

Tensions are always escalating on these pages. We are building toward something and laying down tracks for what the season will hold. God, does anyone give better motivational speeches than Coach Taylor? 


‘Friday Night Lights’Credit: NBC

How to Write a TV Show Pilot: Pages 30-40  

As I mentioned in the opening, we’re about to enter pages 30-40 of your script. This is the home stretch. You have to be really excited about taking the audience in for the landing. Audience control is one of the more underrated aspects of writing. You need to keep in mind that people reading this have to be entertained to buy it. And people watching the pilot need to care enough to watch episode two. 

These pages have to “wow” them and excite them for what is to come in the series. 

So where should you be structurally speaking? 

This is roughly Act IV of your five-act structure. Let’s reflect on our five-act structure guide. 

  • Teaser
  • Act 1:  p1 to p6
  • Act 2:  p7 to p20
  • Act 3:  p21 to p32
  • Act 4:  p33 to p41
  • Act 5:  p42 to p55 (END)
  • Tag

Pages 30-40 take you through most of Act IV. In this act you’re going to focus on the reveals you spent Acts I, II, and III planting. We’re also going to start closing the loop of the show. You want to fulfill the promise of the premise here. What’s this show about? Why are people tuning in every week? 

If Act V is the landing, this is the descent. People should be extremely excited when reading these pages. 

Let’s take a look at Deadwood (you can read it here). Deadwood is one of my favorite pilots because it does a ton of work world-building and introducing us to characters, without taking away from our understanding of where the world will go and what’s in store for the series. 

The opening scene shows us there’s trouble in town. 

But Act IV is about dealing with that trouble. Plus, we get to see people’s problem-solving skills at work. This act is used to ensure Swearengen has a deal with Driscoll. We start to see Swearengen’s master plan of obtaining land and money come into play. And we learn just how nefarious he can be. 

We also see how easily the Garretts are fooled. They’re rich, unused to the people in Deadwood, and we can feel their problems coming to a head. Deadwood’s pilot is centered around lawlessness and violence. Act IV is about people guaranteeing their own survival. 

Let’s look at a few other examples to see how drama pilots use these pages to build out their plot and characters. 

Pages 30-40 TV Drama Pilot Examples

Another pilot I think strongly sells the series in pages 30-40 is Freaks and Geeks (read the pilot here). While this pilot has different pages that match different acts, we’re going to talk about the general sentiment of Act IV here. 

We know from the opening acts that Lindsay feels like an outsider, and wants a place with the freaks. These planted emotions take off in the later pages as she pursues being their friends. Meanwhile, Sam and Neal are still trying to get in good with the cheerleaders. 

The pilot is about each of the Weir kids finding their place in high school. This act is about them learning who they are and where they fit in. Sam might be a nerd, but he has his friends. And even being a geek has its advantages. 

We see that Lindsay is willing to snap at teachers and take chances to become who she believes in. This sets up her arc for the season as well.

From high school to fresh out of college, one of the most original shows on the air, Jane the Virgin (read the pilot here), has a pilot that puts an incredible twist on the coming of age genre. 

This act in Jane the Virgin has Jane having to deal with Michael and her pregnancy. It’s a total curveball which not only pays off what Jane has talked about with Michael in the opening acts but also sets the audience up for what the show will be week to week. 

We’re going to follow a pregnant Jane as she navigates life now that she’s with child. And still a virgin. And desperate to start her life.  


‘Jane the Virgin’Credit: The CW

What’s epic about this is that it allows us to naturally bring in Jane’s crazy family and showcase how fun they’d be to watch, and we get the relationship hurdles Jane will face as the young woman prepares for motherhood and carrying her boss’ child. This is all juxtaposed against some fun telenovela elements that keep us laughing and pay off the relationship tensions set up in Acts I and II. 

Life’s not all laughs. And neither are pilots. Sometimes it’s all about murder. 

That’s why Hannibal (read the pilot here) sets up such a nice procedural each week. Hannibal the TV show does a lot of heavy lifting. As fans of the movie and the legend of the character, we have to not only be given a new twist in the story, but we also have huge expectations set outright. The pilot’s writer, Bryan Fuller, does an amazing job using pages 30-40 playing off our understanding of Hannibal as fans, and subverting our expectations. 

We see Hannibal counseling people, giving good advice to the FBI, and being generally useful to the investigation. That’s also when we have Hannibal and Will speak for the first time. And we center the show on the ongoing investigation. 

These scenes promise a season-long payoff as Will tracks a killer, and Hannibal continues to kill. Viewers at home know they will get incrementally closer each week, with tension and flesh-eating around every corner.


‘Hannibal’Credit: NBC

How to Write a TV Drama Show Pilot: Pages 40-50 

As I mentioned in the opening, we’re about to enter pages 40-50 of your script. That means you’re going to spend these pages to close all the plot lines and set us up for a killer final scene and tag. You had the characters, you had their problems, now it’s all about solving them. But nothing can be tied up in a neat bow. 

You need everyone to keep tuning in and to see why you deserve a second episode. So even as you want to close the big story loops, you need to keep small ones open. We’ll get to that. But first, let’s do our weekly structure check-in. Where does 40-50 lie on the structure scale? 

This is roughly Act V of your five-act structure. The final act! Let’s reflect on our five-act structure guide. 

  • Teaser
  • Act 1:  p1 to p6
  • Act 2:  p7 to p20
  • Act 3:  p21 to p32
  • Act 4:  p33 to p41
  • Act 5:  p42 to p55 (END)
  • Tag

As you work on the final act, I think it helps to look at how the masters handled it. Act V should feel like a relief. The world is built, and we all know it’s easier to solve problems than to dream them up… right? Sort of. 

To dabble in what Act V can be when it’s great, let’s look at the pilot for one of the longest-running dramas of all time. The Grey’s Anatomy pilot. Here are the Grey’s acts and their page counts.  

  • Teaser – 3 pages
  • Act One – 11 pages
  • Act Two – 11.5 pages
  • Act Three – 8 pages
  • Act Four – 9 pages
  • Act Five – 8 pages

Take a look at the Grey’s Anatomy Pilot (and bible if you want!) and let’s go through Act V together.

In case you forget what happened in this landmark episode of television, the Grey’s Wiki has this to offer: “Meredith Grey, Izzie Stevens, George O’Malley, Cristina Yang, and Alex Karev become interns at Seattle Grace Hospital. Meredith discovers that her one-night stand was actually with one of her bosses and she and her new friends discover that being a surgeon isn’t as easy or fun as they thought it would be.” 

But what happens in Act V? 

Meredith and George, who have been questioning whether or not they belong in this world, decide that they do belong at the hospital. This is proven when Meredith can answer the chief’s questions. Meredith also makes her peace with Derek and learns that no matter what Izzie says, she’s a good doctor. And everything will be all right. 

Do we tie it all up? No. There’s still romantic tension, jealousy between the residents. And lots more sick people to take care of. But at this moment, we know this might be a group we want to hang with week-in and week-out. And we know the voiceover will carry us each week too. 

Let’s look at a few other examples to see how Drama pilots use these pages to build out their plot and characters.


‘Grey’s Anatomy’Credit: ABC

Pages 40-50 TV Drama Pilot Examples

I wanted to bring you three completely different pilots to check out. All of them involve resolutions that close glaring problems for their characters but give us an excellent peek into where they’ll go in future seasons. 

First up, let’s head to high school in a quiet town called Sunnydale and read through a pilot called “HELLMOUTH.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer (read the pilot here) was an exciting show. The pilot not only took us through the politics of cliques in a small town, but it also gave us the world and mythology of what it meant to be a slayer. 

At the end of the episode, in Act V, Buffy and Giles discuss Angel, we get a glimpse of a future romance there, and we introduce Willow as her best friend. Plus, the Master is awoken, and we can see where our season will go as he decides to create new vampires ready to wage war. 

Everything in the pilot has been leading here. We close personal stories but leave open the big hook of the show. This place needs a vampire hunter. We go to Buffy.

Speaking of singular heroes hellbent on making evil pay, let’s take a look at Justified

Justified (read the pilot here) has a brilliant pilot. It not only introduces a “crime of the week” procedural but also introduces Raylan and his world of people outside the law. 


‘Justified’Credit: FX

It uses Act V to close the story between Raylan and Boyd—in a standoff. But emotional wounds can’t heal as easily, as Raylan and Wynona talk about how he’s become a killer now. We can see that his brand of justice will define this show and where it does in the future.

Justice by death is not for everyone. Especially not Superman.  

Smallville (read the pilot here) was a huge part of my teen years. I am a massive Superman fan. And long before Alison Mack was a cult leaderSmallville ruled my evenings. The pilot for the show is so special because it helps invent Superman’s origin story, and brings some baggage with it. The meteor shower cold open builds the possibility that that show will have a freak of the week. 

But Act V shows that this will be much more about high school and hurdles for Clark. Act V doesn’t solve our bullying problem. It doesn’t solve the love of Lana. All it does is show that Clark knows he has to use his powers to stop some of these creatures from hurting the town. And it leaves open the Lex Luthor question. 

Will he be a friend or a foe? Does he think Clark is special? 

How to Write a TV Show Drama Pilot: Pages 50-60  

Congratulations faithful reader, and hopefully writers. You’re in the home stretch—the final pages. You’re going to write out the words that make networks and streamers alike want to take your pilot to a season commitment. But only if you nail those last pages the way you nailed the rest of the script. 

This is the end of the Free Drama Pilot Writing Seminar. It’s time to wrap up the plot points and leave everyone wanting more with an inventive tag that sets up the series. 

This is your race to the finish. You should wrap everything up here and have the characters express some sort of closure on what happened in this week’s episode. Still, it’s all about balancing future storylines. If you wrap things up too neatly, there’s no incentive for people to keep watching. 

As we do every week, let’s reflect on our five-act structure guide. 

  • Teaser
  • Act 1:  p1 to p6
  • Act 2:  p7 to p20
  • Act 3:  p21 to p32
  • Act 4:  p33 to p41
  • Act 5:  p42 to p55 (END)
  • Tag

Let’s take this all in context and look at the Empire pilot (download the script here) real quick. The pilot is about Cookie rejoining her family’s music empire after a 17-year stint in prison.  Her husband, Lucious, is now the mogul and times have changed. She wants her company back. He wants to keep her in her place.


‘Empire’Credit: Fox

The pilot ends with them in bed, talking like an old married couple (and bickering like one too). Cookie wants Jamal to succeed, Lucious wants him not to be gay. Then we flash back to before Cookie went to prison. And we see them talking about her maybe being exposed to criminal activity and Lucious promising nothing will tear apart his family. 

We see that the family drama moving forward will be about money versus image. And we know the investigation left Cookie upset and wanting vengeance and maybe Lucious sold her out. 

Your pilot needs to leave the audience with a question. For Empire, that is, “What will tear this family apart?”It’s a strong enough question that keeps us watching for many more seasons… 

Let’s take a look at a few more pilot tag examples to learn a few more big questions. 

Pages 50-60 TV Drama Pilot Examples

The ends of pilots are always the most fun. If you’ve taken the audience on a good journey, then this should leave them wanting more. People tune into future episodes because they are hooked. This is your final chance to let them know why they should stick with your story. At least for a season. Or most of one season. Like what happened with Freaks and Geeks (read the pilot here). 

Freaks and Geeks is one of those shows that would have gotten a fair shake if the onset of digital and streaming had existed back when it debuted. It was truly ahead of its time, and we didn’t get the opportunity to appreciate it when it debuted. Throughout the pilot, we see Lindsay and Sam try to become parts of different sectors. 

In the end, we see them both fail. But we know what the show will be asking us. “How can I be someone else?” This is high school, and everyone’s trying to figure it out. That question taps into who we are as people. 

In the tag, we see that Lindsay, as much as she wants to be a freak, has a huge heart. And that’s going to be hard to look past as she continues to figure out who she wants to be in this life. 

Speaking of being someone else, let’s talk about Alias

Alias (read the pilot here) is a show about being a spy, quite literally being someone else for a living. In the pilot, we meet Sydney, who does college by day and spy stuff by night. But things get complicated when she realizes her dad is a double agent, and her fiance is dead. 

As the pilot ends, our tag tells us that there will be tension as Sydney now has to try and trust the man who she realizes has been lying to her over and over again. But what’s the big question? It ties back into the show’s theme and the final words Sydney hears her dad utter. “Who can you trust?”

Shows like this hook people because of the speculation tied to them. And we know J.J. Abrams is a master of those sorts of shows…

What about a show that leads with its big question? “The truth is out there…”

I was a fan of the X-Files (read the pilot here) when I was growing up. It was one of those late-night shows that made you feel like a cool kid. You were questioning society and looking for the deeper meaning behind things in this procedural. It made you ask the big questions. 

And the end pages of the pilot set up the dichotomy between these two lead agents. One believes. The other is a skeptic. Each week they search for the truth. And there’s excitement in that. 

Summing Up How to Write a TV Drama Pilot 

Did you figure out your pilot’s tag a big question? Good for you! These are the hardest pages in the script, but you’re going to be able to use every resource No Film School has to offer. Need a better antagonist? What about tips to make your protagonist pop? If you truly know and understand the great characters you’ve created, you’ll also know how to make their lives a better place. And to give your story some legs. 

Getting ready to start another idea? Check out the public domain. Stuck on that fight scene? We got you covered. We want your scripts to sell and to get acquired! 

Any work you do will make your tag even better. I can’t wait to see what you put on the page! But what if drama is not for you? Then it’s comedy time.

Learning how to write a sitcom can open your career to more opportunities and get your ideas on the small screen. But first, you have to master the sitcom structure and format. Sitcoms are watched by billions of people across the globe. 

They’re frequently the highest-rated television shows, and the hits can last over a decade with hundreds of episodes. Having a sitcom sample can open you to the world of television too. Jobs writing on hit sitcoms are long and stable. They usually have big rooms that employ teams of writers to work on jokes and story on multiple episodes at a time. 

But you can’t even sniff one without a solid sitcom sample that’s mastered the structure and format of the half-hour television show.

Let’s learn how to write a sitcom pilot. We will go over the structure of a pilot, how to format a TV script, and offer some general story notes and examples. 

So let’s fade in on this topic and hopefully get to syndication. 


‘Friends’Credit: NBC

How to Write a TV Show Comedy Pilot: Single-Camera vs. Multi-Camera 

When you’re developing a TV idea you need to pick: single-camera vs. multi-camera.

Television is a really interesting beast. There are so many different ideas that fit in the TV world, and there are really only two forms in which they can take place. You’re either making a single-camera show or a multi-camera show, no matter the genre. 

That’s kind of the liberating thing about TV—even more so than the kind of content you’re making, it’s classified by the way you make it. Today, I want to go over the different kinds of TV writing and how they fit together and define who and where you’ll sell them to.  

So let’s dive in. 

Why Single-Camera vs. Multi-Camera Production Is a Choice That Matters…

Before we dive in, I thought I should spend some time defining what our terms mean. We’ll go over a ton of examples as well, so if you are bored and have nothing to watch, this might be a good post to gather some shows you might have missed or want to study. 

Single Camera TV Definition

A single-camera television show is one shot with the perspective of a single camera. Yup. That’s it.

They look more like movies, and their production and writing are dealt with in the same way. Now, lots of times they don’t only use one camera to shoot these shows, but the look of the show is always from one perspective edited in a cinematic way. 

Traditionally, this type of show is a comedy, but there is room for other genres. 

Single-Cam Dramas

Shows like BarryTransparent, and Casual are all single-cam shows that play in the drama realm. Sure, they incorporate some comedy as well, but they would be your single-cam dramas. Obviously, 60-minute dramas are also shot through the single-cam perspective, like Law & OrderFargo, and Friday Night Lights


‘Barry’Credit: HBO

What is a single-camera comedy? 

The most popular format of single-cam shows is comedies.

Shows like The OfficeModern FamilySuperstore, and many network comedies are single-cam. This kind of style is favorable for the mockumentary style of shooting that rose in the early 2000s. 


‘Parks and Recreation’Credit: NBC

Single-camera production

These kinds of shows shoot much like films do. You have a dedicated crew and location scouts, and you build sets for places you might return to often.

Directors here all try to match a particular style set in the pilot. The shows feel uniform but sometimes can have some experimentation with shots and angles. 

Single Camera TV Scripts 

If you want to write a show that’s in the single-camera format, you’re in luck. Most of these shows are written in a way you might have already learned, like a movie. The half-hour shows are usually 22-35 pages, depending on what network they’re on. The more dialogue, the longer the script. 

If you want to read and download some single-camera scripts, here are a few to look at. 

What Is a Multi-Camera TV Show? 

These kinds of shows are the ones you commonly think of as shot in front of a live TV audience or ones that occur on the same set over and over again. They run three or four cameras all at once, spread all over the set. 

While many do have live audiences, some do not, and they just pipe in the laugh track after. 

Advantages of Multi-Camera Production System and Techniques

The advantage of shooting multi-camera is that you can shoot out an entire episode in only a few hours. You capture multiple takes at once and have lots of choices in the edit. The actors also get to feed off the energy of the crowd. They record the laugh track from the crowd’s reaction that encourages people to enjoy it at home.

These shows are usually much cheaper to produce than the single-camera versions.

Multi-Camera Sitcom Examples

Some of the most famous multi-camera comedies are Seinfeld, Friends, Two and a Half Men, and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. While widely considered some of the best multi-camera sitcoms, these shows exist all over. They’re not just for networks anymore.

Netflix has The Ranch,  Fuller House, and the reboot of One Day at a Time


‘Fresh Prince of Bel-air’Credit: NBC

Are There Any Multi-Camera Dramas?  

There’s a fun answer here. In the early days of TV, everything was shot multi-camera. As TV evolved, dramas wound up shooting single-camera, but sitcoms generally stayed multi-camera, until things changed in the late 90s and early 2000s, when they started experimenting with form more. 

So there are multi-camera dramas, but they have largely been forgotten in the annals of history. 

Multi-Camera TV Scripts 

Multi-camera TV scripts have been around for quite some time, and they are formatted entirely differently than a single camera. There are some key differences. Screenwriting IO created a list, which we’ve included below: 

  • Slugs/scene headings are often underlined. Sometimes, the names of each character featured in the scene are listed in parentheses directly below the scene heading.
  • All action and description are in ALL CAPS.
  • Character names are underlined the first time they are introduced.
  • Often, character entrances and exits are underlined. Sometimes, major physical transitions are as well, ie “JEFF CROSSES TO THE OTHER END OF THE ROOM.”
  • Major or important sounds, sound effects, and special effects are often underscored, and usually set off with a colon, ie “SOUND: DOOR SLAMS.”
  • Dialogue is often double spaced.
  • (Parentheticals) are more common than they are in feature screenplays. They do not have to be on separate lines, and are sometimes in line with the dialogue.
  • Often, scenes will be identified by a standard designation (ie “ACT 1 SCENE B”), and sometimes all-new scenes will start on new pages.
  • The page header will often include the scene and act numbers below the page number.
  • Acts all begin on a new page and start with the all-caps, centered act number written about 1/3 of the way down the page. For example, act two will start on a new page, with “ACT TWO” centered before the first scene header, and the top 1/3 of the page will be blank save the page header. This also applies to the cold open and the tag.
  • Acts end with a centered, all-caps “END OF ACT [NUMBER].” Again, this applies to the cold open and tag as well.
  • The end of the episode is indicated with an underlined, right justified “FADE OUT.”

Check out some multi-camera TV pilot scripts here: 

Single-Cam vs. Multi-Cam Wrap Up 

Now that you understand the different formats of television, you can understand why you need to choose if you want to be a single-camera production or multi-camera production before you even write. You want to take into account the point of view and how it will affect the story. Also, have some idea of the kinds of shows you want to emulate. 

Whatever you choose, now you know the ins and outs of both formats.

How to Write a TV Show: Sitcom Format & Structure

So you want to write a sitcom? Welcome to our all-inclusive, free, sitcom writing experience. We will go through the steps I’ve experienced and have been shown by TV writers. There are no secrets here, just cold hard facts about the business and what people expect. 

What Are Your TV Show Ideas? 

Unlike the noisy loglines that we learned about for film, TV loglines have to have legs.  As we mentioned in our Four Steps to Writing A Pilot article, your idea needs to be able to go the distance and sustain several seasons’ worth of episodes. You need a network or streaming service to be able to see your show’s potential to go the long haul.

Does your logline showcase how your sitcom idea will generate a four or five-season run of episodes? 

Location, Location, Location 

Think about shows like The Office and Parks & Rec. They are sitcoms whose locations help inform the idea of an ongoing series. The same goes with the perfect sitcom pilot for Cheers

How can your idea’s location tell you that the story will have legs? How can you use your location to your advantage? 

Sitcom Characters 

When we talk about character arcs and development, we usually focus on film. In television, we don’t want there to be solid arcs, you want to gradually move characters along, so we see who they can become over the course of many years. 

But character development is the same. You need to come up with characters whose interactions will cause drama and laughs. The word “sitcom” is short for situation comedy. What kinds of situations will your characters face? And are these situations a result of who they are and how they are developed?

In Friends and Seinfeld, each of those characters comes with a personality that not only can cause trouble in their own circle but can outside of it, too. 

So how can your characters and their traits help solidify the story and the possibility for more stories? 

What Is a Sitcom? 

A sitcom is a 30-minute television show. As mentioned earlier, sitcom stands for situational or situation comedy. It’s a genre of comedy centered on a fixed cast of characters who carry over from episode to episode within an ongoing series.

What are some of the best sitcoms of all time?

This is a hard list to make, but we’d include Friends, The Office, MASH, Cheers, 30 Rock, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Last Man on Earth, I Love Lucy, The Simpsons, How I Met Your Mother, Modern Family, The Jeffersons, Good Times, Seinfeld, and Veep.

Page Count for Sitcoms 

For half-hour comedies, the page count should be between 22 and 60 pages.

It really depends on the show’s network and platform. Some pilots are double-spaced, so that contributes to the wide array of page lengths. 

Sitcom Format 

Television screenplays have the same basic elements as a feature film script, but each format of sitcom has different ways of dealing with the elements. 

Single Camera Script Format 

Guess what? If you know how to write a movie, then you know how to write single-cam scripts. They have the same basic sluglines, action, dialogue, and transitions. The only added feature is that you clearly mark the act breaks. This only applies to shows with commercial breaks.

So, if you are writing for streamers, then you don’t need them—but they can be useful when you’re writing. 

The basic act structure: 

  • Cold Open
  • Act One
  • Act Two
  • Act Three
  • Tag

We’ll go deeper into each of those later. Check out this page from 30 Rock that shows single-cam format. Whenever an act ends or begins, you must mark it at the center of the page. 


Credit: NBC

Multi-Camera Script Format 

The formatting for multi-cam is usually different as well. Let’s go over a list of things that have changed. 

  • Slugs/scene headings are underlined. The names of each character featured in the scene are listed in parentheses directly below the scene heading.
  • All action lines are usually in caps.
  • Character names are underlined the first time they are introduced.
  • Character entrances and exits are underlined.
  • Transitions are underlined ie “DEBORAH CROSSES THE KITCHEN.”
  • Sounds are called out with a colon, ie “SOUND: DOOR SLAMS.”
  • Dialogue can be double spaced for some shows. Check for the show you may spec! 
  • The header includes the scene and act numbers below the page number.
  • All acts have page breaks between them.

Below, see an example of this in action from a Friends script:


Credit: NBC

Sitcom Structure 

We’ve talked about the format, now let’s focus on the sitcom’s structure. 

Much like the structure we’ve learned in features, sitcoms follow three acts. But there is a twist. There’s also a cold open and a tag.

  • Cold Open (same as a Teaser)
  • Act 1
  • Act 2
  • Act 3
  • Tag

Breaking Down Sitcom Structure 

Let’s go through each part of a sitcom’s structure and dissect what should happen and look at a few examples to help you write your sitcom pilots.

Cold Open (Or Teaser)

The strict definition is the first few pages of a sitcom script. It’s a scene that teases what is to come or is emblematic of the tone of the show to follow. Why is it “cold”? Because nothing is setting you up. You come into this first scene “cold.” No credits. No title screen. Just the story starting to happen.  

Sometimes a cold open is also called a “teaser.” It can set up a problem, or theme for the episode.

These TV leadoff hitters occur in both drama and comedy pilots. You’re probably most familiar with the idea as you’ve experienced it in Saturday Night Live. In many instances, the SNL opening sketch is the one people talk about the most. It always ends with the line, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” Just when the joke has reached its pinnacle, they break that fourth wall and let you know you’re watching the classic live sketch show. 

In sitcoms, the cold open gets people laughing right away. It can set up the problem in the episode or just be a quick story with no resonance to what happens after. The cold open is usually one to three pages. 

Cold Open Examples 

Check out this cold open from the pilot of 30 Rock. It uses the opening pages to set up the world and tell us what to expect from the show. It also delivers a ton of laughs and clues the viewer into the tone and story they can expect from the series. 

Act One

In the first act, we need to meet the characters, discover the world, and get the main problem of the episode. In a pilot, you want to set goals that can be achieved within the 30 minutes of the show but also begin to open threads that will take more episodes to unravel. 

This goes with having legs. 

Act One Example

In How I Met Your Mother, it’s when we see the bar, meet Ted and his crew, and get the introduction to Robin.

Act Two

The second act is about the complications. We get deeper into the story and see the characters fail at getting what they want. Make things hard on them. The struggle here will prove why we want to keep watching. 

Act Two Example

In Barry, it sees our titular assassin-turned-aspiring-actor join an acting class to help deal with a guy he wants to kill—and liking the acting class. A lot.

Act Three

In the final act, you begin to resolve the narrative. Remember, you don’t want to tie it up cleanly. Get the main problem solved, but leave things like romantic dynamics/complications and overarching problems open-ended—so that we know where the show is going after the pilot. 

Act Three Example 

In Cheers, this is when Diane gets hired to be a waitress. We know there is flirtation among Sam and Diane, but the crux of the show is her staying on to work inside the bar. where the majority of the entire series takes place.

Tag

The tag, much like the cold open, is a brief moment at the end of an episode to add one final joke. This joke can be a continuation of the story we have seen, or just a blip to remind you how great of a show it is you’re watching. It could be a payoff to something set up sooner. 

Example of an End Tag

Community was famous for its tags. Sometimes they had raps, cartoons, puppets, and alternate realities. But they were always fun parts of the show that gave us one final laugh. 

Summing Up How to Write a TV Show (Drama or Sitcom)

Show us your great twists, refine your characters, and set up some incredible stakes.

Remember, always go for the unexpected, and refuse to be boring. 

Your writing should help you stand out from the pack. What’s at the emotional core that sets your voice apart from everyone else? 

Start thinking about a lasting image that will make the audience tune in again and woe development executives as well. I like to make them mirror our opening. But that’s just me. 

You have the tools and now know how to write a TV show, so stop reading—and get writing!      

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