Character Development, Story, Technique

3 Steps of Writing a TV Pilot

In this article, we’re going to walk you through how to go from idea to outline when writing your TV pilot. Words by Alexie Basil.

So, you want to write a TV pilot? Before you face down that blinking cursor, you need a secret weapon in your arsenal: an outline.

In this article, we’re going to walk you through how to go from idea to outline so you can knock it out of the park, including how to:

  • Create compelling characters
  • Build an interesting world
  • Develop multiple storylines
  • Map out beats
  • Design an ongoing story

To keep it simple, we’re going to show you how to do this on notecards in Arc Studio Pro, but you can use whatever technique works best for you. For guidance, we will give example answers for The Good Place (you can read the pilot here to get acquainted!).

(Note that any hyperlinked TV show name will take you to the pilot PDF—enjoy!)

1. Characters: Who is your story about?

In television, writers and characters are king. For your audience to want to spend dozens of hours binge-watching your show, they need to be captivated by your characters.

In films, you almost always have characters designed to fill specific story roles—a single protagonist, an antagonist, a mentor, etc. While TV series as a whole can get a bit more complicated, for your pilot, this will absolutely be true.

Choosing your protagonist

The protagonist of your pilot should be the protagonist of your series—which means that, in this episode, you need to make the case that they would be interesting to follow for years to come.

It’s common for people to treat the word “protagonist” as a synonym for “main character” or “the good guy.” While this can sometimes be true, it’s not always the case. In storytelling, the protagonist is the character whose actions drive the story forward and, typically, experiences the most character growth.

For example, in Breaking Bad, Walter White certainly isn’t always a “good guy” or even likable, but in every single episode, his actions create more conflict and drama and ultimately push the story forward. By the end of the series—spoiler—he does change, albeit for the worse. (We call this an “anti-hero.”)

How do you make a character interesting? It’s actually simpler than you think. To be compelling, a great protagonist must have:

  • A seemingly unachievable, tangible objective
  • A seemingly insurmountable flaw
  • And a “superpower”

Their objective is what drives all of the action and conflict in the pilot episode (and beyond), and their flaw is an internal barrier that makes achieving their objective harder.

Finally, their superpower is what special ability makes your protagonist unique. Sometimes this will literally be a superpower, and sometimes it’ll be something ordinary but heightened—like excellent perception (Shawn in Psych) or the ability to break the fourth wall (Fleabag in Fleabag).

When creating your protagonist, keep in mind that you are creating a hub for all of your future storylines. Every single central storyline will be driven by your protagonist, so build a character who perfectly poised to be at the center of it all—likable or not.

Tip: If you create a protagonist who is unlikable, be sure they are somewhat sympathetic and logical. For example, in Breaking Bad, we start with sympathy for Walter’s situation, and even if we disagree with and dislike his actions, we believe the logic of them.

Choosing your allies and foes

With very few exceptions, TV shows are told from multiple perspectives. Even if your character is a stoic superhero who gruffly says, “I work alone,” the truth is, your protagonist doesn’t exist in a bubble.

Often, protagonists’ world will be occupied with characters who fill supporting roles, like:

  • Best friend/confidant
  • Sidekick/team member
  • Mentor
Chidi is Elanor’s sidekick in becoming a better person. Image from IMDB.

Additionally, your protagonist will always have an antagonist. An antagonist is a character who stands directly between your protagonist and their objective. Often, they are the “big baddies,” the supervillains to your superhero, but they don’t necessarily need to be.

For example, for more introspective stories, a protagonist’s antagonist may be themselves. Or, it could be a friend who means well but is keeping them from doing what they really want in life.

Aside from the antagonist, your series will also have characters who create obstacles for your characters but aren’t necessarily the antagonist. For example:

  • Rival / competitor
  • False mentor

To help brainstorm these characters, it’s important that you define your protagonist’s world. Where does their story take place? Where do they live and work? What people do they encounter on a daily basis?

Depending on your genre, this could be as ordinary as a Brooklyn police precinct (Brooklyn 99) or as elaborate as a medieval fantasy world adjacent to the fifteenth-century United Kingdom with magic (Game of Thrones).

When thinking of your series’ world, you need to consider the basic who, what, when, where, why, but also things like:

  • Rules (social, legal, physical, moral, ethical, etc.)
  • Power structures

One technique for coming up with interesting characters is to think about how your protagonist interacts with the world’s rules and power structures, and then devise characters who interact with the world in a different way.

In The Good Place, the world is the afterlife. It’s a seemingly-utopian neighborhood that’s secretly meant to torture the occupants who believe they’re in “the good place.” There are dozens of other deceased people and an AI-like being who can get them anything they want. It’s run by Michael, the neighborhood architect, who is secretly a demon from “the bad place.”

Michael is the architect of Elanor’s neighborhood in the Good Place. Image from IMDB.

(To build an ensemble with compelling dynamics rife for season-long conflict, check out our post about using Myers-Briggs Type Indicator for character development.)

Developing three-dimensional characters

To have a successful show, every single central character (not just your protagonist) should be three-dimensional and fully-realized, meaning they have:

  • Objectives (wants) and inner-needs
  • Unique flaws and strengths
  • Fully developed backstories
  • Unique relationships with other characters
  • Their own storylines

We will come back to the storylines bit in a moment, but in general, what all this means is that every member of your ensemble should be developed to the extent that you’d develop the protagonist of a film.

While you will obviously spend more time developing your recurring characters than Mailroom Worker #2, the more you can develop each role, the more depth and intentionality you will lend your world—and, you’ll ensure that even the small roles in your work are sought after by actors.

Character Action Steps:

For each character, you should be able to write a paragraph description that touches on most of those points. For example, here are three sample character descriptions from The Good Place:

ELEANOR SHELLSTROP (early 30s) is a self-absorbed self-proclaimed hot girl from Arizona. She ends up in “the good place” by mistake and urgently needs to learn to become a better person to keep her spot.

CHIDI ANAGONYE (early 30s) is an ethics professor from Senegal who suffers from extreme anxiety and the inability to make decisions. He’s told Eleanor is his soul mate and wants to help her become a better person.

MICHAEL (50s) is a demon from the Bad Place who built a fake “good place” to trick dead people. He wants to pioneer a new era of torture in “the bad place”. He secretly has a good heart, which he has to keep squashed down. 

For each of your characters, create a notecard, these notecards serve as quick reminders as you write to help you get into a character’s head.

  • Title the notecard with the character’s name and their story role, if they have one
  • On the next line, include their age and a basic description, like the ones above. Be sure to include flaw, inner-need, super-power, and primary objective.
  • At the bottom of the notecard, include a quote of dialogue that they might say that you feel is quintessentially “them”

If you want to get into more detail, you can build out elaborate backstories (including notable moments from their life, like family, social or emotional status, education or training, childhood, and interests). You can download the character sheet template after you follow our quick character creation exercises found here.

Once you have a notecard for each of your central characters—protagonist, antagonist, allies, and foes—you can circle back and add brief notes about essential relationships between characters. Don’t get lost in the details because it will bog your cards down (and cards are about efficiency). But for example, “Joe’s best friend” is useful information.

2. Storylines: What is your story about?

Storylines are the lifeblood of your TV show—your story’s engine. They make up every plot point that happens across the entire series as a whole, during each season, and within each episode.

Unlike movies, TV shows give writers the ability to spend time on multiple storylines—not just a main plot and subplots. Central characters usually each have their own main storylines, but they almost always make up integral parts of other storylines.

Defining premise, theme, and stakes

Storylines vary in importance and prominence, but it’s important to carefully think through what each one means for your series as a whole. In order to have well-developed storylines, each should be defined by its premise, theme, and stakes

Premise defines the central conflict driving each storyline forward. For example, many shows will have:

  • An ongoing central storyline or overall objective
  • A new storyline for each episode
  • An ongoing love-interest storyline
  • An ongoing storyline for each character’s individual objectives/backstories

Theme describes what an audience member should take away from each storyline—the lesson, moral, or message it’s meant to convey.

Typically, most (if not all) of the storylines in the most powerful TV shows will explore the same theme from different perspectives and angles. For example, in The Good Place, even though it’s a comedy, we’re grappling with the very thought-provoking thematic question / moral argument: what makes someone a good person?

And lastly, stakes define what each character has invested in each storyline—what is their stake in the storyline or said another way, what is in jeopardy here.

The stakes answer the question, “So what?” As a rule of thumb, with every single storyline, you should strive to raise the stakes. If Voldemort was only kinda annoying and not a serial killer, we wouldn’t be nearly as invested in Harry’s mission to take him out.

Looking beyond your pilot

Your pilot sets the stage for the rest of your series, and so it’s not enough to throw a bunch of random conflict on the page. Instead, you need to plan where you intend to take each storyline by building out an outline of each major plot point.

Imagine each storyline as a string of fairy lights, with each bulb as a plot point. The lights are what the audience actually sees, but you as a writer need to hang the entire strand. For a series to be compelling, you should always have multiple storylines happening at once, with each of these lights weaving around and supporting one another.

Tip: All of your storylines should create a web with your protagonist at the center. Even if it’s not initially obvious how a particular storyline connects to your protagonist, you as the writer should know how it will affect them from the get-go.

Depending on your series format, you may not need to know how each storyline ends in advance. But you should have a general sense of where all the storylines you introduce in the pilot are going.

In the Good Place the central storyline is what makes a person good? Image from IMDB.

For example, in a serial or limited series, the pilot episode will introduce a central storyline that will carry the series through its entire arc.

In The Good Place, Eleanor finds out she’s dead and has been mistakenly sent to “the good place” even though she was supposed to go to “the bad place.” For an hour-long drama example, in Wynonna Earp, a curse is unleashed on Wynonna making it so she is the only one who can send 77 demon-zombies back to hell.

Storyline Action Steps:

Think through each of the storylines in your show and what central theme they’re related to.

  • What is the premise of each? How do they end? What changes over time?
  • What questions do they raise? What themes?
  • What is at stake? What does each character have to lose?
  • How does every single character relate to each storyline, even if it’s only from a distance?
  • How do storylines interact with one another? Is there an overlap?

Specifically, think about what plot points your storylines hit. What does your audience actually see of each storyline? Are there any anchoring scenes you have in your mind that pull each storyline along, like a breakup or a battle victory?

To map this out, look over your character notecards and create a list of all the different conflicts listed. Your protagonist’s objectives arere the focus of your pilot, but beyond that, every either character’s objectives to their own storylines matter, too.

Create one notecard per storyline. For each, write on the front:

  • Title the notecard with the premise of the storyline.
  • On the next line, write out the theme—particularly, the dramatic question at the center of your theme.
  • Next, list out the stakes and the primary players involved in the storyline.

Again, notecards are just loose overviews of your stories. But smart use of cards can be useful to develop each storyline in more detail (which you should!) and establish the premise in your pilot episode by playing around with them. Create cards on storylines and beats that can visually connect your storyline’s elements. For example, if it’s a love storyline, can you show your protagonist ask their crush to be their date to a wedding and get rejected?

3. Outline: What beats make up your story?

Now we’re finally at the part you were waiting for: the outline. Your outline is a map that creates the skeleton for your pilot episode. If you have a killer outline, you’re well on your way to writing a knock-out pilot. You cannot skip this step!

An outline is made up of a series of story beats that pull your audience through your story, introduce your characters, welcome them to your world, and set up the central conflict.

Determining act structure

Let’s briefly touch on structure. Although every single pilot should include story beats that we’re going to define in a moment, we first need to talk about your episode length and act structure.

In another post, we will break down the different kinds of episodes. But generally speaking, you can write either a 30-minute or 60-minute show, and this will help inform how many acts you should include: three, two, or five.

Three Acts

Three act structure is usually used in narrative-based shows, like serials and limited-series. If you’re familiar with feature writing, you know three-act Structure inside and out—this is the same thing, but more quickly and with some loose ends.

A pilot for a series that uses Three Act Structure serves to introduce the central problem of your story.

  • Act 1 is when you introduce the central storyline of the season or series.
  • Act 2 is when you face the consequences of the central storyline.
  • Act 3 is when you resolve a piece of the central storyline and make a plan to tackle the rest of it.

Since it’s a bit non-traditional to use the three-act structure in TV, this tends to be a better choice if you want your show to end up on a streaming platform rather than at a network.

Two Acts

If you’re using two-act structure, the first episode serves to introduce the world, characters, and context in which recurring issues will arise. This structure is almost entirely reserved for half-hour-long shows, and usually comedies at that (like The Office).

  • Act 1 (10 pages) is when you introduce the world and the episode’s central storyline
  • Act 2  (20 pages) is when you face the consequences of that central storyline and resolve it

Five Acts

Most narrative hour-long TV shows will follow a five-act structure with two bookends: a teaser and a tag. Although it’s less common, it is possible for a half-hour series to use five acts as well (The Good Place does!).

  • Teaser is an optional hook. Sometimes in a pilot, you’ll flash forward and show a highly dramatic situation down the line (like Walter White about to shoot himself in Breaking Bad or a serial killer murdering his most recent victim in any Criminal Minds episode).
  • Act 1 is when you introduce the main characters and the world
  • Act 2 is when you introduce the central storyline and conflict of the episode
  • Act 3 is the low point when your characters don’t think the conflict can be resolved
  • Act 4 is when your characters take action in the face of the conflict
  • Act 5  is the resolution of the episode’s conflict and, for a pilot, establishes the long term storyline
  • Tag is a hint of the conflict to come in the next episode

Defining core story beats

For simplicity’s sake, we’re going to walk through how to create an outline for your pilot using a three-act structure.

(If you want to use two or five-act structure, use these beats and the act explanations above as a guide—just be sure to include a story beat for each act break.

Opening Sequence: Protagonist and World Introduction

Typically, you’ll throw your audience right into the action by introducing them to your protagonist and world. In this scene, your protagonist is quintessentially “them”—almost immediately, your audience will know exactly who your protagonist is.

At this moment, you can also reveal their flaw and superpower. What will keep them from achieving their objective, and what helps them?

You also want to establish exactly where your story takes place. What are the rules that define the world? Is it fantastical or more grounded? How does your protagonist fit into it? This usually includes meeting allies and foes.

It’s also important to introduce your audience to your theme here. Usually, premises can be summarized in a question with multiple answers. For example, how far would you go for family? Sometimes a character will directly state the theme but you can also be more subtle.

First Act Break: Inciting Incident

This is when the rubber hits the road. The inciting incident is the moment that launches your story into action and ignites the main storyline. It’s an earth-shattering event, discovery, or revelation that has enormous stakes for your protagonist.

It also sets up your protagonist’s central objective—it’s the curse starting (Wynonna Earp), a disease outbreak (The Walking Dead), or a new police chief (Brooklyn 99). It’s the moment that changes everything and turns your protagonist’s world upside down.

This is also when you establish your central storyline’s premise: now that the cataclysmic event has happened, we know what this show is about.

Second Act Start: New World

Now the consequences of the first act break begin to unfold. What does this new world look like? What are the new rules and dynamics?

Traditionally, this new world presents plenty of challenges for your protagonist—the second act is back-to-back obstacles. It’s a world rife with conflict and often, your protagonist isn’t happy about it, which we call a “reluctant hero.”

This launches a short-term conflict for your protagonist to solve within the pilot. The first criminal case, the first bad guy to fight, the first social conundrum at high school. Whatever it is, it should demonstrate how exciting this new world can be and highlight the kinds of challenges your protagonist will face in the episodes to come.

Midpoint: Reversal

Just when your protagonist starts getting comfortable in the new world, the reversal comes along and changes everything.

The antagonist could reveal themselves, the protagonist could get a brief reprieve that makes them think everything is fine only to have the problem come back ten times worse, an ally might back out; etc. Whatever it is, your objective as a writer is to surprise your audience and continue to up the stakes for your protagonist.

Second Act Break: Climax

Finally, your protagonist faces off against whatever is at the end of the road for their short-term conflict. Their flaw and foes will nearly keep them from victory, while their superpower and allies pull them through.

At this point in time, we usually see that your protagonist’s answer to your story’s thematic question is inherently different than their foes’. For example, if the thematic question is, “Do you have a responsibility to help other people?” your protagonist may say “Yes, other people always come first” and your antagonist may say, “No, you need to look out for yourself above all else.”

Third Act Start: Resolution

In a film, the resolution is when everything comes together. Your protagonist experiences a victory in the form of their short-term conflict and now they get a bit of a reprieve.

They’ve won a small battle within a big war. They may reunite with allies, celebrate, recover, come back to base, complete the perp walk—whatever victory means to them.

Ending Sequence: Call to Action

To wrap up your pilot, your protagonist—who before may have been a reluctant hero—finally understands that they need to take on whatever challenge presents itself in your main storyline.

In the closing scene, you need to show your reader how your story has the potential to continue for a long time (this is a series, after all). So be sure you set up a conflict that seems insurmountable—something that will take a lot of time (or even an infinite amount of time) to overcome, like defeat every supernatural being (Supernatural).

Creating Connector Scenes

The story beats above make up the tent poles of your story. Now, you determine the scenes that will connect them together and make the story complete. This is where your writer’s intuition will come into play.

For guidance, think about the transitions between each major beat. Things like:

  • How do your characters get from one location to the next?
  • How do you set-up secondary storylines?
  • How do you convey information?
  • How do your characters connect with one another?

Outline Action Steps:

Oddly, this is perhaps the most straight-forward action-step of the article—and the most important! But fortunately, you’ve already done most of the work.

Before you start, be sure to lay out all your character and storyline notecards. Using the explanations above, start by creating one notecard per major story beat. Title them as the story beat (for example, “Midpoint”) and then list details beneath. For example:

  • First, title the card with a scene heading for where it will take place (EXT. STORE – DAY)
  • Then, write a brief description of what happens with new characters names’ written in all CAPS
  • Beneath that, write a bulleted list of what the scene establishes. This is where you justify why this beat exists in your story—what important information it conveys, who it introduces, what purpose it serves, etc.

Once you do this for all of your major story beats, lay them out in order and start creating notecards for connector scenes (or, transitional scenes, like walking from one location to the next or a switch in locale). They should include all the same information!

As an added bonus, it can be helpful to have a color-coding system. You can mark all cards that are related to a specific storyline in one color, and have a color marker that indicates who is involved in the scene. That way, you can see at a glance exactly what’s happening where (and make sure you have a balance).

After you’ve finished all of these cards and group them by Act, you’ll have a solid outline for your pilot script and are ready to start writing!

Putting it all together

Over the course of this article, you have acquired the building blocks to create an impressive outline for your TV pilot. If you’re ever in doubt or get stuck, read your favorite pilots and series bibles for inspiration!

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Alexie Basil uses storytelling, screenwriting, and psychology to elevate cutting-edge innovators and share their message with the world.