There is, perhaps, no more daunting task in the world of television series writing than crafting the perfect pilot episode. You are essentially inviting an audience to sign up for your show or check out, based on what information you include, how you include it and in what general tone you present it.
In a network television sitcom, you have about 22 minutes. In a network drama, perhaps around 44 minutes. In indie series, you can take as long or as little time as you like but you still have to illustrate what your series is about and what your viewers can expect in the ensuing episodes. But, to get them to stick around, you have to have a sure hand in how you write it.
Your characters and their motivations and conflicts have to be established in as efficient a way as possible. You also have to make your pilot’s tone be clear: is it a kooky comedy, a slow-prodding drama, a faux docuseries? Whichever genre your show is will certainly dictate how you create your pilot.
It can be effective to begin in the middle of a situation, prompting the viewer to stay tuned to figure out what’s going on. A great example of this is the pilot episode of “Cheers”, one of my personal favorites. Diane lands in the bar just as she’s about to get dumped by her fiancé, leaving her with no prospects but to work as a waitress. We get all the information we need in dribs and drabs as we’re also introduced to all of the staff and patrons. Brilliant and unaffected. It unfolds for you while you’re still getting your questions answered.
Whatever way you choose to go, sharing the exposition of characters and their circumstances is the key ingredient. However, you have to fold this information into the script in a seemingly unconscious way. That is where the ultimate challenge is posed. Don’t make it seem like you’re sharing information, let it just be part of the dialogue and situation in, perhaps, a cleverly composed scenario.
Very often a pilot offers a particular event, such as a funeral or a family gathering. This offers the opportunity for characters who are strangers to, perhaps, meet and offer information about who they are. It proved very helpful for the pilot of my first series, “He’s With Me”, where a wedding was the “situation” that the characters mingled in and got to offer what they wanted in life and how far along they were to getting it.
I have created 4 digital series (including Make Your Show's "Searching for Sylvie" and "Cady Did"). Three produced, one still in my computer, just waiting to get out. In 2 of the 3 produced scripts, the pilot episodes were reshot after reviewing the first try. Why? They didn’t grab. They weren’t “special” enough. They didn’t invite an audience to stay as much as they could. And the other one? I WISH we had reshot it because of what I know now.
Writers: take a look at your pilots. Do they share the first part of your story in a way that would make YOU want to watch more? Read it. Read it again. Be honest with yourself. If you need to, go back to the drawing board. It’s a lot easier (and cheaper!) that having to shoot it all over again.
Will it be perfect? Most likely, it won’t. But, perhaps, it will be better!