Your Pilot’s Twist Ending: You Might Be Doing It Wrong

I’m excited about a pilot I’m working on right now, partly because it’s a unique concept set in an interesting world, but partly because I had an idea for a really badass Twist Ending to End All Twist Endings. It’s a stunning visual, a huge surprise, and the kind of thing that if I was watching it on TV, I would sit up in my seat and be like “WHAAAAAT” and immediately text everyone I know.

But after some reflection, I’ve decided to change it.

A common theme across most pilots, whether it’s an hour-long family drama like This is Us or a half-hour sitcom like How I Met Your Mother, is that it ends with what I very scientifically refer to as a “‘whaaaaaaat’ moment.”

You might call it a twist, a reveal, a reversal – it’s something that happens at the end of the episode that you were not only not expecting but that completely changes how you see the show, and that ideally makes you excited for the next episode. It’s hard for me to think of a single modern pilot that doesn’t end this way.

How Do Pilot Twist Endings Work

These kinds of endings usually involve one of the following on the last page of the script (or close to it):

  • the introduction of a new main character
  • the death of someone we thought was going to be a main character
  • a surprising reveal that the relationship between two characters is not what we thought it was (they’re not really married, they’re actually related, they haven’t actually met each other, etc.)
  • the entire situation we thought the characters were in is not the situation they’re really in (it’s actually a computer simulation, it was actually a dream, we’re not actually on Earth, we’re actually in the past, etc.)
  • a main character is not who we thought she was on a fundamental level (she’s actually a villain, he’s actually a superhero, she’s actually a ghost, etc.)
  • something we accepted on faith is not actually true (the murder victim isn’t really dead, the faithful husband isn’t really faithful, the successful business isn’t really successful, etc.)
  • the predicament the main characters are in is actually much worse than we thought (not only are they trapped back in time but there’s also a supervillain after them, not only is the detective on the trail of a serial killer but the serial killer is also on the trail of her, etc.)

These kinds of twists, as a concept, are a great idea. They can make your pilot memorable, they give people something to talk about after reading, and they can make us anxious for the next episode. They’re especially helpful if your pilot on the whole isn’t very good, because at least the twist will trigger our natural human curiosity.

Why Pilot Twist Endings Often Don’t Work

But there are three huge downsides to them if handled poorly, and almost every unproduced pilot I have ever read has made at least one of these mistakes (and I’ve made them myself):

  1. It’s all about the twist.

    When we fall in love with our own twist ending, we’re tempted to make it the focal point of the pilot. Instead of telling a great story in a fascinating world with characters the audience cares about, we kill time for 25-60 pages until we can get to the “good part” which is the big abracadabra ending.

    The obvious problem is that no one will actually make it to the “good part” unless they’re being paid to finish reading it (or are a very loyal friend).

  2. The twist invalidates what the reader understood – or worse, liked – about the show.

    We just spent 60 pages getting the reader invested in a hero only to, on the last page, kill off the only character they empathized with.

    We just spent 25 pages introducing the reader to a world they loved, only to reveal on the last page that the rest of the series will be taking place in a completely different setting.

    At best, this kind of twist is confusing because the reader isn’t sure what to expect from the rest of the series (since it will obviously be nothing like the pilot). At worst, it takes away or invalidates the only thing the reader actually liked about the script.

  3. No one is going to be surprised.

    If your entire pilot’s success rests on the surprise twist of the ending then we really better not see it coming. Unfortunately, readers and viewers are savvy these days and have learned to expect a twist, so we’re likely to see it coming from three acts off.

    Worse, if by some miracle your pilot was actually produced, what would the marketing campaign look like? Won’t it need to spoil the twist to sell the concept of the series? It’s bad enough to spend a whole episode stalling for the big twist reveal – it’s even worse if it’s a reveal everyone knew was coming.

Some Examples

In the real pilot episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it’s Buffy’s first day at a new high school. Before the episode began, she was expelled from her previous high school for burning down the building. She already knows she’s a vampire slayer.

During the course of the pilot, Buffy learns how things work at her new school, she meets the main characters that will populate season 1, she comes around to accept her role as slayer (which she rejected at the beginning), she deals with ordinary high school things, and she slays vampires with the help of her new friends.

Though this is a “premise pilot” (in that it sets up a new situation that did not exist before the show started), it is  representative of a typical episode of the first season. These are the characters we’ll be spending time with, these are the kinds of things they’ll be doing, and this is where they’ll mostly be doing them.

But what if the pilot had taken place at Buffy’s old high school when she first found out she was the slayer? What if that was the surprise ending? That’s arguably a more interesting “bang” for a pilot – an ordinary teen finds out she’s a vampire slayer, burns down her high school, and is forced to move to a new town. The obvious problem is that we’d spend the whole episode with characters and a location that are not representative of the real show (plus, what would the show be called? Buffy, the Totally Normal Teen, We Swear?).

If you haven’t seen the first episode of this season of Black Mirror, I won’t spoil it for you, but there’s a twist in the episode that felt so much like a typical Black Mirror twist ending that I thought it was the end of the episode. It turned out to be the end of Act 1.

Alec Bojalad nails it in his review of the episode when he says:

“The best part of ‘USS Callister’… is that it takes what would have been the ending to a weaker episode of Black Mirror and turns it into the beginning. Black Mirror, great as it is, sometimes falls into a science fiction trapping that has felled many other fine sci-fi stories. It treats the ending as the ultimate ‘ta-da!’ This can, of course, be a thrilling experience still but the best science fiction stories treat the ‘ta-da!’ as the beginning.”

How to Fix Your Twist

Does your pilot have one of these problems? Luckily, there are three things you can do to fix it.

  1. Make the rest of the pilot more interesting.

    Easier said than done, I know, but if your pilot is just spinning its wheels until the big reveal at the end of Act 5, go back and figure out how to use those five acts to tell a real story.

    Give your characters goals and values and stakes and obstacles. Put those characters into conflict. Have a clear plot arc with complications and at least a partial resolution.

    Now you’ve earned your twist ending, if you even still want it.

  2. Make the twist underline what came before it, not strikethrough it.

    The best twists are shocking while simultaneously emphasizing, confirming, or deepening the premise or theme put forth by the preceding 25-60 pages, rather than invalidating them. This is a tricky line to walk, but if you know what you’re trying to say with your story, you’ll know if your twist upends it or cements it.

  3. Move the twist earlier.

    Take the big twist you planned for the end of the pilot and make it the end of Act 1. Or even the end of the teaser! Instead of making the pilot about the twist, make the pilot about the story that happens after the twist. This will make for a more interesting pilot and will make for a pilot that feels more like a typical episode of your show.

    Now you can come up with a second surprise for your pilot’s ending – but one the audience truly doesn’t expect and that doesn’t invalidate the story you just spent five acts telling.

For my own pilot, I decided to make my abracadabra twist ending the end of Act 1 instead, and then spend the next four acts telling an interesting story that’s more representative of a typical episode of the show.

But don’t worry – I came up with another twist for the end.

Writing Monologues for Television: Analyzing 7 All-Time Greats

Everyone loves a monologue. Writers love writing them, actors love performing them. And when they’re transcendentally good, viewers love watching them. Monologues are an opportunity to uncover hidden depths of a character and their relationships, to reveal important background, and to shape the pace of a story for maximum emotional resonance.

Let me start by encouraging you to not write one.

Monologues are very, very hard. They’re hard for writers. They’re hard for actors. And if the monologue isn’t spectacular, they’re hard for the audience too. Most stories don’t need one at all, and our impulse to write one is usually driven by a masturbatory indulgence in the sound of our own voice.

But there are times when a monologue is important, even necessary, and there are ways to ensure yours is the kind that makes actors salivate and viewers illegally screencap your episode to upload to Tumblr.

clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose

So much of what makes a monologue sing is the actor and the director. A gifted actor can make the most lifeless text sound like Shakespeare1, while a terrible actor can make Shakespeare sound like gibberish.

But if you’re writing a script to be read by agents and producers and contest judges, you won’t have an actor, so you’ll need to be aiming for Shakespeare.

In real life conversation, people speak for an average of two seconds before yielding (or being forced to yield) the floor. It’s generally agreed that one page of a screenplay equals about one minute of screen time (on average), and one page of a screenplay is (on average) about 60 lines of text, so using some back-of-the-envelope math, you can estimate that the average line of dialogue should be about two lines if you want a conversation to sound “natural.”

That’s obviously not meant to be prescriptive (please don’t go through your script and painstakingly add and remove words until every line of dialogue is exactly two lines), but if you find that most speeches in your script are three or more lines, you may have some unnaturally loquacious characters on your hands2.

So what makes a great monologue? Great monologues in television usually have most of the following qualities, though not necessarily all of them:

  • Three-act structure: a narrative arc with an introduction, a complication, and a powerful resolution
  • Deepens character: often reveals an unexpected vulnerability or a power shift or a piece of surprising information
  • Circular reference: the end of the monologue ties back to the beginning, or to something said just before the monologue, giving a sense of closure (much like Blake Snyder’s opening and closing image in a screenplay)
  • Contains distinct beats and levels: contains distinct beats in which the speaker changes their intensity level, the emotion they’re expressing, or the tactics they’re using to get what they want
  • Surprising: communicates surprising information or has another unexpected twist, such as a character reacting to something differently from how they normally would
  • Emotional: it doesn’t just communicate facts; it communicates how the character feels about those facts (and sometimes how the listener feels as well – in fact, sometimes the listener’s feelings are even more important than the speaker’s)
  • Climactic: structurally, a monologue like this typically takes place at or near the climax of the episode (roughly 70-85% through the runtime)
  • Powerful ending: the monologue ends with a sucker punch punchline

I asked friends (and Google) for great examples of TV monologues. Let’s take a look at seven of them and see how they stack up against the features I outlined above.
Sherlock

Season 3, Episode 2 (“The Sign of Three”)
Writers: Stephen Thompson, Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss

The first monologue we’ll look at is Sherlock’s wedding speech from BBC’s Sherlock. Nothing is revealed in this monologue that I would consider a spoiler except maybe the existence of the wedding itself, but it’s no secret that these characters eventually marry3.

This monologue hits several of the bullet points above:

  • Three-act structure:

    Act 1 (01:27 – 02:17): Introduction – Sherlock rambles nervously about how he came to be best man at John’s wedding

    Act 2 (02:37 – 03:45): Complication – Sherlock behaves as typical Sherlock, managing to insult both John and the bridesmaids, generally offend everyone in the audience, and makes the speech all about himself

    Act 3 (03:46 – 05:17): Resolution – Sherlock does something we’ve never seen him do: show vulnerability and express love

  • Deepens character: We’re well aware of what John sees in Sherlock (he’s exciting and charming and brilliant), but for the first time, we learn what Sherlock sees in John and how much he values him. It also might be the first time we see a glimmer of self-awareness in Sherlock and realize that his difficulty in relating to others is more painful than he lets on.

    It’s important to note that while Sherlock is talking about John in this monologue, the monologue is not about John. It’s about Sherlock. His name is literally in the title of the show – the show is about him. So when you have a long, emotionally resonant monologue like this, the goal is generally going to be deepening Sherlock’s character, not anyone else’s.

  • Circular reference: The monologue begins with Sherlock talking about how John asked him to be best man and that he didn’t understand why. It ends with Sherlock admitting that he was surprised to be asked to be best man because he’s surprised to find that he has a best friend.
  • Emotional: Is someone chopping onions in my general vicinity?
  • Powerful ending: “We will never let you down and we have a lifetime ahead to prove that.”

Scandal

Season 3, Episode 1 (“It’s Handled”)
Writer: Shonda Rhimes

What occurs in this scene is technically a spoiler, I guess, but every second of this show is so batshit bananas that I don’t think a preview of this one tiny plot point would diminish your enjoyment of the series.

If you asked me for my top three monologue writers of all time, I’d probably say Shakespeare, Sorkin4, Shonda – not in that order. And this monologue is classic Shonda: a funny, surprising, infinitely quotable and emotionally gutting rollercoaster engineered by an eloquence we only wish we could have when angry. When I asked for TV monologue recommendations on Facebook and a friend posted this link in the comments, I got a preemptive chill before I even watched it.

  • Three-act structure:

    Act 1 (00:00 – 01:05): Introduction – Rowan tells Olivia (and us) the situation and what they will do to her (“I know more than you can possibly imagine about things of which you cannot dream”)

    Act 2 (00:00 – 02:08): Complication – Rowan launches into a protective, belittling, patronizing rage against Olivia for falling for Fitz (“Do you have to be so mediocre?”)

    Act 3 (02:09 – 02:56): Resolution – Rowan calmly tells her what’s going to happen next (“Olivia, you are getting on that plane”)

  • Deepens character: Like in the Sherlock monologue above, though Rowan (Olivia’s father) is the one delivering the monologue, this show is not about Rowan, it’s about Olivia, so most of what he reveals here is actually about her.

    Olivia, who is often found delivering searing, soaring, Shonda-certified monologues of her own, is reduced here to a sniffling teenager before her towering father. So much is revealed here about their relationship and about the weakness (or what they both fear is weakness) beneath her strength.

    We see Rowan’s deep, painful love for his daughter (possibly for the first time), but we also see the controlling, menacing way that he expresses it, and how that’s made her who she is today.

  • Contains distinct beats and levels: Rowan moves seamlessly between tender, raging, calmly professional, and cruelly belittling in his attempt to convince Olivia that she has failed him, that she must get on that plane, and that she must never make a mistake like this again
  • Powerful ending: “Olivia, you are getting on that plane, come hell or high water. And to be clear? I am the hell… and the high water.”

Mad Men

Season 1, Episode 13 (“The Wheel”)
Writers: Matthew Weiner & Robin Veith

  • Three-act structure:

    Act 1 (00:39 – 01:19): Introduction – Don opens by talking about his first job and a Greek man named Teddy who taught him about the concept of nostalgia. “My first job, I was in-house at a fur company…”

    Act 2 (01:20 – 02:23): Complication – He explains what nostalgia is (“the pain from an old wound”) and how the carousel can invoke it. “This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine.”

    Act 3 (02:24 – 03:20): Resolution – He brings it home emotionally for himself, for the executives in the room, and for us. “… to a place where we know we are loved.”

  • Deepens character: Yes. Don is an enigma at this point in the series. Does he have feelings at all? Is he just always in manipulation mode? But this slideshow of photos of his kids and wife feels real and for probably the first time on the show, you get a glimpse of the depth of emotion he buries inside himself.
  • Circular reference: Sort of. Just before the monologue starts, one of the Kodak executives asks Don if he “figured out a way to work the wheel into it,” adding that “we know it’s hard.” A few minutes later, Don brings this home emotionally when he says, “It’s not a wheel… it’s a carousel.”
  • Contains distinct beats and levels: It’s a quiet monologue but it definitely has levels. In the beginning, Don seems light-hearted, telling a folksy story about a Greek man he used to work with, but as the monologue progresses, what he’s saying takes on a heavy emotional weight until he himself is nearly in tears.

    The rhythmic click, click, click of the slide carousel and the ghostly light of the projector (and of course the non-diegetic music scoring the scene) adds to this feeling of growing emotional weight.

  • Emotional: Yes. We see real emotion in Don (and in at least one other character in the room).
  • Climactic: Yes. This monologue takes place 35 minutes into the 48-minute first season finale.
  • Powerful ending: “It lets us travel the way a child travels, around and around and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.”

The Blacklist

Season 2, Episode 6 (“The Mombasa Cartel”)
Writer: Daniel Knauf

This clip contains major spoilers for this one particular episode, but not for the series as a whole (except that you learn the backstory of how Red and Dembe met, which I would not consider a huge spoiler but is technically unknown until this reveal).

I pity the fool who wrote a spec script for The Blacklist when it was in its prime. Every damn episode has a killer monologue at the end for Raymond “Red” Reddington (played to perfection by James Spader) and nailing that in a spec is probably the hardest part of imitating this show.

His monologues are always a fascinating story with beautiful imagery and an emotional gut punch at the end, and this one I’ve selected is one of the best.

  • Three-act structure:

    Act 1 (00:00 – 00:59): Introduction – Red sets the stage and tells the story of a young boy captured by the cartel. “Twenty-nine years ago in Sierra Leone…”

    Act 2 (01:00 – 01:30): Complication – Red explains that he took the boy after he’d been left to die and saw to his education. “His name is Dembe.”

    Act 3 (01:31 – 02:00): Resolution – Dembe tries to dissuade Red from killing Geoff, but fails. “You see? That is what a good man does.”

  • Deepens character: Yes. Every episode of The Blacklist involves Red convincing the FBI to help him take down a criminal mastermind from his secret “blacklist” for the good of mankind. They do, and it does benefit mankind, but it also always turns out at the end that Red had some secret selfish motivation for taking down this particular criminal, like obtaining a shipping container full of illegal weapons, etc.

    What’s special about this episode, and thus this monologue, is that it turns out this particular criminal takedown isn’t about personal gain at all, but about vengeance on behalf of someone Red loves. That someone is Dembe, Red’s mysterious personal driver and bodyguard who we as an audience already felt some affection for. The monologue has emotional resonance because it shows a depth to Red that we hadn’t fully seen before – a selflessness and a love for another person.

  • Contains distinct beats and levels: Red starts out almost friendly, educating, but then becomes bitter and angry over Dembe’s treatment, then proud as he reflects on Dembe’s accomplishments, and finally resolved when he kills Geoff.
  • Surprising: Yes. We didn’t know this backstory about Dembe or that Geoff was a bad guy (he’s initially presented as a friend).
  • Emotional: Yes. Red gets emotional when talking about his love and respect for Dembe.
  • Climactic: Yes. It takes place 37 minutes into a 43-minute episode.
  • Powerful ending: Yes. “That is what separates men like him from men like you… and me.”

The Leftovers

Season 1, Episode 1 (“Pilot”)
Writer: Damon Lindelof & Tom Perrotta

This is from the first episode of the show so I wouldn’t say it’s a spoiler.

This is Nora’s “Heroes’ Day” speech from the pilot of The Leftovers.

  • Three-act structure:

    Act 1 (00:23 – 01:20): Introduction – Nora tells the crowd about a beautiful day at the beach with her family a few months before the “departure.” “The best day of my life happened… but I didn’t know it.”

    Act 2 (01:21 – 01:46): Complication – She tells the story of a terrible day a few months before when the whole family had the stomach flu. “I thought… this is it.”

    Act 3 (01:47 – 02:06): Resolution – She says if she could have her family back, she’d gladly take that horrible Saturday. “I’m not greedy. I’m not asking for the perfect day at the beach. Just give me that horrible Saturday.”

  • Deepens character: I believe this is the first time we’ve ever met Nora, who will turn out to be a very important character.
  • Circular reference: Yes. She starts by talking about a perfect day her family shared at the beach, but ends by saying she doesn’t even need that – she just wants to have them back, even if it was the worst day they’ve ever had.
  • Contains distinct beats and levels: Yes. She seems peaceful when reflecting on her nice day at the beach, and even laughs when talking about the terrible day when everyone was sick, but then fights tears at the end when she says she just wants her family back.
  • Surprising: Yes. It’s the first time we’ve met Nora (I think?) and we’re surprised by this speech.
  • Emotional: Yes.
  • Powerful ending: Yes. “I’m not greedy. I’m not asking for the perfect day at the beach. Just give me that horrible Saturday, all four of us sick and miserable but alive and together.”

Breaking Bad

Season 4, Episode 6 (“Cornered”)
Writer: Gennifer Hutchison

The only spoiler this monologue contains is that it reveals one pivotal thing that happened in Season 3. Don’t watch it if you don’t want to know.

Also this monologue is a pretty awesome moment that you should get to experience in context if you haven’t watched this far in the series yet.

  • Three-act structure:

    Act 1 (00:51 – 01:00): Introduction – Walt asks Skyler what she sees when she looks at him. It’s almost a friendly question, but it’s chilling. “What is it you think you see?”

    Act 2 (01:01 – 01:23): Complication – He tells her that a business big enough to be on the NASDAQ would crumble of he went to prison. “You clearly don’t know who you’re talking to, so let me clue you in.”

    Act 3 (01:24 – 01:37): Resolution – His rage overfloweth. “I am not in danger. I am the danger.”

  • Deepens character: Yes. Walt shows a side of himself to Skyler that she has never seen, altering their relationship forever and cementing for the audience how far he has really gone.
  • Circular reference: Yes. Attempting to appeal to Walt’s fear, Skyler suggests he might “(get) shot when you open your front door.” He ends the monologue by famously saying “I am the one who knocks.”
  • Contains distinct beats and levels: Yes.
  • Surprising: Yes. Skyler appeals to Walt’s fear and weakness, but is surprised to learn she’s only stoked the fires of his ego.
  • Powerful ending: “I am the one who knocks.”

Parks & Recreation

Season 6, Episode 9 (“Second Chunce”)
Writers: Amy Poehler & Michael Schur

The content of this monologue is only a spoiler in that it takes place in season 6 and so it reveals something about the emotional/plot journey the protagonist has taken by that point in the series.

This is another monologue that is delivered by someone other than a main character. The purpose of this monologue is not to reveal hidden depths of Kathryn Hahn’s character (though it does do a bit of that) but to propel the protagonist to make a pivotal choice.

  • Deepens character: The monologue itself doesn’t reveal information about Leslie’s character, but the advice Jennifer gives her triggers a major decision in the next act, and the fact that this advice resonates with her in the way it does expresses something about her character and how she’s grown.
  • Climactic: Yes. This monologue occurs 17.5 minutes into a 21-minute episode.
  • Contains distinct beats and levels: Yes. She goes from critical to silly to inspiring to business-like.
  • Surprising: Yes. Leslie expects Jennifer to help her run for office, but instead she encourages her to not run at all.
  • Powerful ending: “You can trust me… because I don’t care enough about you to lie.”

Structuring Your Half-Hour Dramedy Pilot

So now you know what makes a half-hour dramedy what it is and you know how to get to the core of what yours should be about. The next step is writing the actual script, or punching up one you’ve already written.

As promised, I analyzed the structure (length, act breaks, number of characters, and narrative arc) of a group of half-hour dramedy pilots. I found that all the pilots I studied were structured in a very similar way1, even across networks.

I did a less in-depth version of this analysis for one-hour drama pilots here.

I share this information not to give you a paint-by-numbers template because there are hundreds of TV series out there that take a paint-by-numbers approach to storytelling and most are instantly forgettable. But if you write about something that matters to you and set it in a world you find interesting, comparing its structure to this template might help you see what your story is missing or why it feels too slow or too rushed.

There are definitely some outliers, like FX’s Better Things, which is more of a stream of consciousness “slice of life” pilot, but even that episode has act breaks and still loosely follows the pattern of the other shows I studied, just in a quieter, more subtle way. (It’s a beautiful pilot that I recommend watching even if it’s hard to take many structural lessons from it.)

Better Things on FX

Amazon’s Transparent is another pilot that doesn’t fit comfortably in the structure of most half-hour dramedies because each season is written as a five-hour movie.2 The first episode is really just the first half of Act 1 leading up to the inciting incident. So it does have a formal structure, it’s just not TV structure. I would not recommend attempting this unless, like Jill Soloway, you already have a full season order from a streaming network.

How Long Should Your Pilot Be?

The half-hour dramedy pilots I studied all had 4 or 5 acts (usually 5), including any teaser or tag that might be included. Across those acts, the episodes were divided into 11-16  scenes, usually in the 14-15 range. These pilots were all 21-27 minutes long (most were 21-22 minutes), but one minute doesn’t always equal one page. Note that at least one of the major TV writing contests requires half-hour pilots to be at least 25 pages. I assume the higher page count is because comedies have historically had more quick back and forth dialogue which means more line breaks on the page in a short period of screen time.

So your pilot would feel similar to a produced pilot if it was 5 acts (possibly including a teaser and/or tag), divided into 14-15 scenes of about 1.5-2 pages each (on average).

I don’t mean that prescriptively, but if something about your script feels off, that’s a place to look if your script differs wildly from this very common template.

How Many Characters Should I Introduce?

I read a lot of pilots and some of them feel too thin because there aren’t enough characters to create conflicts between, while others feel overwhelming because there are too many characters to keep straight in your mind.

Of course, it’s much less about the number of characters you have and more about how you differentiate those characters and how you make use of them. Every character should represent a different side of the argument you’re making or the theme you’re exploring, and those characters should have between them inherent potential for conflict and inherent potential for connection in as many different combinations as possible.

What really makes a script feel like it has “too many characters” is when multiple characters are serving the same purpose in the story, and what makes a script feel like it has “too few characters” is when there aren’t enough built-in opportunities for conflict or connection between characters.

What really makes a script feel like it has “too many characters” is when multiple characters are serving the same purpose in the story, and what makes a script feel like it has “too few characters” is when there aren’t enough built-in opportunities for conflict or connection between characters.

This is why shows like The Walking Dead (in later seasons particularly) keep piling on more and more new characters – it feels like there aren’t enough characters even though there are already so many, but it’s actually just that the characters they already have don’t have enough different combinations of naturally-occurring opportunities for conflict and connection between them. This is a common problem I see in pilots I read.

All of that said, the pilots I studied had between 10-20 speaking parts, and of those speaking parts, there were only 2-4 main characters. I define “main character” here as a character who is in a lot of scenes and will obviously play a major role in the series going forward with their own problems to solve and a meaningful character arc. This is important because if you have more than 3 or 4 main characters in a half-hour pilot, it’s going to be hard for the audience to keep track of and care about all of them.

People of Earth on TBS

We also see between 3-10 secondary characters introduced. I define “secondary character” here as a character with a name who will be coming back in future episodes. These characters usually don’t have their own goals, problems, and arcs, though they might develop them in future seasons. These are characters like Dory’s boss in Search Party, the priest in People of Earth, or Sam’s dad in Better Things.

These kinds of characters are important because while they do not initially have goals and problems of their own (or at least not ones we’re invested in), they can create or complicate conflicts for our main characters, and they’re waiting in the wings in later episodes when you start running out of story ideas for your protagonists.

Last, these pilots had between 2-10 minor characters, which I define here as characters that only have a line or two, usually don’t have a real name, and most likely will not return in future episodes. These are characters like “Bellhop” or “Protestor #2.”

It’s worth noting that the line between “main character” and “secondary character” can be blurry. For example, in the pilot of The Good Place I considered only Michael, Eleanor and Chidi to be main characters, while I classified Tahani, Jianyu, and Janet as secondary characters. This is accurate based on the pilot, but if you keep watching the show, those three secondary characters take on a much bigger role and some minor characters step up as new secondaries. This happens on most series, but for the purpose of this analysis, you should think of your characters in the context of just your pilot.

 

What Happens in Each Act?

First Section (Teaser or Act 1)

The first section (either a teaser or Act 1) is 1-2 scenes and lasts between 1-3 minutes. In this section, we establish the basic premise (what this show is about on the most logline-y level) and the tone (funny and action-packed, heightened reality, a musical, dreamlike and tender, etc.).

These are really important concepts that are missing from the first section of most pilots I read. We don’t need to understand every complexity of the plot and theme in the first three minutes of your pilot, but we should be able to state the logline of your series (or at least the first half of it) based on these three minutes.

It’s also important that we get the tone of your show – if it’s a show that’s mostly funny, the first scene should be funny. If it’s going to have scary parts or a heightened, fantastical quality, that tone should be presented in the very first scene so we understand what we’re watching and can view it through the right lens. If it’s a musical, there better be a song real quick.

In this first section, we also usually meet the main character, but sometimes not if it’s a teaser. If we do meet the main character, we might also meet one or two other main or secondary characters, but almost certainly not all of them.

Search Party on TBS

 

Second Section (Act 1 or Act 2)

The second section (either Act 1 or Act 2) is 3-6 scenes and lasts between 3-8 minutes. In this section, we meet the rest of the main characters. We learn what we need to know about the world. The main problem of the series/season/episode is established.

When I say that we meet the main characters, it’s not enough that they are just physically on screen. We should understand their deal, at least on a basic level. What is one word that most strongly describes their personality? Of course your characters are more complex than can be summed in one word, and we’ll hopefully have a chance to learn this over the course of many episodes and seasons, but there’s probably one quality that describes them most simply: arrogant, insecure, sullen, idealistic, selfish, gullible, logical, etc. That one word should come across right away so the audience has something to hold onto about this character, even if later we will come to understand them in a more nuanced way (which we hopefully will).

This is also where we’ll probably meet the antagonist if there is one. Remember that an antagonist doesn’t have to be a mustache-twirling supervillain, just a character whose choices, values, and desires stand in opposition to our protagonist.

When I say we learn what we need to know about the world, this is sometimes as simple as an establishing shot of a city skyline and a scene in the office that makes clear what everyone’s job is in a company. In other shows, the world is unfamiliar and complicated and so a lot more time must be dedicated to explaining how it works.

If your pilot is in an unfamiliar, complicated world, you’ll need to figure out exactly what the audience needs to understand in the first episode to understand and enjoy the show, and then communicate that in as succinct and entertaining of a way as possible. You don’t need to explain every single fact about your world in the pilot, but you need to explain enough that they feel grounded in the story. Watch the pilot of The Good Place for a great example of how to do this.

THE GOOD PLACE -- "Michael's Gambit" Episode 113 -- Pictured: (l-r) Ted Danson as Michael, Kristen Bell as Eleanor Shellstrop -- (Photo by: Vivian Zink/NBC)

The Good Place on NBC

If you have any unusual elements like magic or musical numbers, it’s especially important to introduce these right away so it doesn’t feel like it’s coming out of nowhere later. Similarly, if your world has a complicated geography that’s important to understand, you might need to spend some time laying that out visually.

Last, this is the section where you’ll introduce the main problem of the series (or the problem of the season or of the episode). The problem might be as small as “teen girl doesn’t get along with her mother” or it might be as large as “aliens have invaded a small town” or “a mild-mannered accountant must solve a murder.” Whatever the problem is, this is when you introduce it.

 

Third Section (Act 2 or Act 3) *OPTIONAL*

The third section (either Act 2 or Act 3) is usually 3 scenes and lasts 5-7 minutes. This section is optional. Some pilots skip this section and instead make their first or second section (or both) on the longer side. You’d be especially likely to skip this section if your pilot requires more world-building due to a complicated setting or situation.

If you do include this section, it’s where you’ll do any combination of the following, depending on the needs of your story: introduce B-stories, explore the primary relationship, explain mythology, or complicate the protagonist’s problem.

If your show is about several characters with their own separate problems, you might choose to introduce B-stories in this section to tee up conflicts that will play out over the course of your season. These will not be lengthy, complicated scenes, because you don’t have time for that. You’ll need to introduce these stories very efficiently. For a good example of how to do this, watch the pilot of Search Party.

In some pilots, there’s a primary relationship that’s key to the show. In a show like Please Like Me that has a love interest at its core you might use this section to explore the primary relationship.

Please Like Me on Hulu / ABC (Australia)

If your show has a complicated mythology, like in the case of People of Earth, this section might be when you explain the mythology.

The last thing you might do in this section is complicate the protagonist’s problem if the main issue in your pilot is a problem the protagonist is individually facing.

 

Fourth Section (Act 2, Act 3 or Act 4)

The fourth section (either Act 2, Act 3 or Act 4) is usually 5-7 scenes and lasts 8-11 minutes. In this section, you’ll do some (but probably not all) of the following: resolve some problems, bring the protagonist’s main conflict to a climax, have a “moment of real” in which the protagonist reveals their vulnerability, complicate B-story situations previously introduced, culminate the main relationship, and escalate the protagonist’s problem in a way that’s caused by their own actions.

In some cases you’ll also have the protagonist choose to “step across the threshold of the series” and introduce a twist to launch us into the next episode, but sometimes those two things are done in the following section instead.

You’ll definitely want to resolve some problems in this section because there’s nothing more frustrating than a story that only asks questions and never gives answers. Leaving some of those mysteries unsolved and problems unfixed is necessary to bring people back next week, but to gain trust you need to show the audience that you are capable of resolving some problems and giving some answers.

For example, if it’s the kind of show that has a Problem of the Week along with a larger season- or series-long arc, this is where you’ll want to resolve this week’s problem.

This is the section where you bring the protagonist’s main conflict to a climax. Whether that’s an explosive fight with her daughter or a final showdown with the Monster of the Week (can’t it be both?), this is where things come to a head for this episode’s story (not the larger arc of the series).

In this fourth section, you’ll almost certainly have a “moment of real” in which the protagonist reveals their vulnerability. Depending on the tone of your show, this might be played half for laughs or it might be a truly dark moment. In this moment, the protagonist will often reveal a secret such as a fear, a weakness, or something in their past.

If you have B-stories in your pilot, this is the section where you might complicate B-story situations previously introduced.

If there’s a primary relationship in your pilot (not necessarily a romantic relationship), this is probably the time to culminate the main relationship by the characters either finally coming together or finally breaking apart.

This also might be the time to escalate the protagonist’s problem in a way that’s caused by their own actions. In other words, make them suffer, and make sure it’s their own fault.

 

Fifth Section (Act 3, Act 4 or Tag)

The fifth section (either Act 3, Act 4 or a tag) is usually 1 scene and lasts 30 seconds to 3 minutes. Usually this section is where the protagonist steps across the threshold of the series and a twist is introduced to launch us into the next episode, but sometimes this section is just a funny scene to end the episode if the threshold/twist happened in the previous section.

In very rare cases like Better Things, you might not have a threshold/twist at all because the show is “smaller” and lower concept, but keep in mind this is very rare and you will generally only see that in pilots created by showrunners with a proven track record. Your pilot should probably not be like that. But as always, listen to your own story.

If this is where your protagonist steps across the threshold of the series, what I mean is that they make an active choice to leave their ordinary world and step into the new world of the series. The audience should understand from this action what the show is going to be about (the second half of the logline) and that the protagonist is actively choosing it.

If you have a last minute plot twist that spins us into the next episode (and many pilots do, but not all), this is most likely when it will happen. This is usually a surprising piece of information revealed to the audience at the last minute that complicates what came before it and makes us anxious to see how it affects what happens next week.

 

The Surprisingly Conventional Narrative Structure of “Arrival”

If you haven’t seen Arrival (2016), this is the plot description from Wikipedia:

“Linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) leads an elite team of investigators when gigantic spaceships touch down in 12 locations around the world. As nations teeter on the verge of global war, Banks and her crew must race against time to find a way to communicate with the extraterrestrial visitors. Hoping to unravel the mystery, she takes a chance that could threaten her life and quite possibly all of mankind.”

This is an exciting, persuasive, and technically accurate description of the film, but based on this description, you might expect the movie to be a nonstop action fest of alien attacks, space battles, and explosions, a la Independence Day.

You would be wrong.

A look at the structure of 'Arrival' - a great movie that feels like it's breaking every structure rule in the book, but actually isn't. Click To Tweet

I finally watched this movie after hearing raves since last year (it has a 94% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes). My analysis below contains only vague, mild spoilers – I’d consider it safe to read before watching unless you want absolutely zero prior knowledge.

Arrival is an Alien Invasion Art Film

Arrival is a beautiful, sad, slow, contemplative movie that feels more like an art film than a big budget blockbuster. There are dozens of lingering, moody shots of the misty green hills of Montana (actually Quebec in real life) and lengthy, silent close-ups of Amy Adams Feeling Things.

It would be easy to watch a movie like this, love it, read a hundred rave reviews, and think “To hell with structure! I’m going to write a BRILLIANT ART MOVIE like Arrival!”

Please do write a brilliant art movie like Arrival. We need a million more of these and we need them yesterday. But before you burn every dog-eared screenwriting book on your Kindle, let me make one small point:

This slow, quiet, contemplative art film follows the three-act structure covered in most screenwriting books pretty much to the minute.

To be clear, we’re making art here, not playing The Price is Right, so hitting exact page numbers from a self-styled screenwriting guru should not be your objective. But understanding how the vast majority of great movies are structured – even ones that feel like they’re breaking the rules – can be helpful if you’re getting feedback that your own script feels too slow or too rushed.

So let’s look at the structure of Arrival: a great movie that feels like it’s breaking every structure rule in the book, but actually isn’t.

We're making art here, not playing The Price is Right, so hitting exact page numbers from a self-styled screenwriting guru should not be your objective. Click To Tweet

Arrival‘s Structure (It’s Less Subversive than It Seems)

Act 1

While this movie feels slow and meandering, it’s actually not. The aliens touch down on earth a mere four minutes into the story. Though it feels wandering and dreamlike, that first four minutes turns out to be plenty of time to comprehend the tone and theme of the movie and to understand our protagonist’s world before it changes forever.

The moment that Blake Snyder refers to as the “catalyst” in Save the Cat (he says it’s typically a phone call or a knock on the door – in this case, it’s Colonel Weber walking in the door of Louise’s office) is expected to take place about 12 minutes into this 109-minute runtime. In Arrival, it actually happens a bit earlier than that, at 9.5 minutes.

Syd Field (in Screenplay) calls a similar beat the “inciting incident” and would have expected it a hair later, around minute 14, which is exactly when Weber rings Louise’s doorbell in the middle of the night and she gets on the helicopter to go to Montana.

Either way, this is the moment in a screenplay where the protagonist receives a “call to adventure” of some sort, and it happens in this movie in a very standard way and at a very conventional time.

I want to make a note here because it’s something that’s confused me in the past: Snyder refers to the second half of Act 1 (after the catalyst) as the “Debate” section. I used to interpret this quite literally to mean the section of the screenplay where the protagonist is actually deciding whether or not to accept the offer that was made to her in the catalyst.

So, for example, I might have previously expected the “Debate” section of this movie to be the period between Colonel Weber showing up at Louise’s office and Colonel Weber showing up at Louise’s house, even though the Debate section is usually 12-15 minutes and that would be a stupidly long time to kill between those two events.

That is not what the Debate section is.

The Debate section is just the part of the story after the catalyst and before the protagonist “steps over a threshold” from which she can never return, one that literally or metaphorically takes her into an “upside down” version of her former world. In some movies that means going to another planet. In others, it just means switching lunch tables in the cafeteria or starting a new job.

In Arrival, it’s when Louise gets on that spaceship for the first time – because up until that moment, she could still call the whole thing off and go back to her old life, but once she steps into that (literally upside down) world, there is no going back.

Act 2a

Snyder thinks Act 2 starts around minute 25, and that this act break is marked by the moment our hero leaves the old world behind, and enters an “upside down version” of that world. 25 minutes is exactly when Louise and Ian enter the spacecraft for the first time, and they are quite literally (and figuratively) turned upside down.

Field would have expected that moment a few minutes later, around the time when Louise and Ian meet the aliens for the first time.

Act 2b

Both Snyder and Field think Act 2 is divided in two parts at the midpoint, which is halfway through the film (around minute 54), which they both say is a pivotal moment when the story changes and the protagonist experiences either a “false high” or a “false low” which will mirror the end of the movie.

In a louder, splashier movie, this moment would likely be marked by a huge explosion or a dramatic death. But Arrival is not a loud, splashy movie. Without going into spoiler-y detail, I believe the midpoint in this film is the conversation Louise and Ian have in the back of the truck outside the camp. It happens exactly halfway through the movie (at minute 54) and it fits both Field’s and Snyder’s descriptions. It’s a very subtle mirror for the end of the movie and is a moment when a pivotal part of our protagonist’s story (very quietly, very subtly) changes.

Act 3

Syd Field expects Act 3 to start around minute 82 in a film of this length, while Blake Snyder expects it around minute 84. Field calls this the “final showdown” while Snyder says it’s a moment when the character achieves “synthesis” by combining all that she’s learned and deciding to make one last crazy attempt to accomplish her goal.

It’s 85 minutes into the movie when Louise goes back into the spacecraft (by herself, without permission) to try one last idea that’s come to her as a result of all she’s learned. This is pretty much the literal definition of a “break into three,” and it happens when you’d expect it.

Conclusion

This movie leaves a lot of room to breathe between big moments, which I think is part of why it’s so deeply affecting – but if you look under the hood, it’s actually very conventionally paced.

And while it certainly subverts some storytelling rules (for example, I’d argue that the protagonist doesn’t truly “step over the threshold” of the story until almost the very last page – which makes perfect sense for this unique film – and subverting that expectation actually makes a powerful point) it also hits a lot of typical story beats at pretty much the exact moment we’d expect to experience them.

On a more artistic level, Nerdwriter’s video below beautifully analyzes what makes this movie so good and I recommend watching it, but be warned: the video is 100% Spoiler City. This is a film I recommend watching unspoiled, so consider watching it first. It’s free on Amazon Prime Video (as of this writing).

 

7 Things We Can Learn from John Boyega’s “Attack the Block”

I finally watched Attack the Block, John Boyega’s film debut from 2011 about kids from a South London housing project who become the world’s first line of defense against an alien invasion. It has a very 1980s feel, like those movies from your childhood that made you wish your friends could have thrilling adventures.

It’s a nearly perfect movie, in my opinion, and if you haven’t seen it, I recommend watching it1 before reading any further. If you want to brave the article below, the spoilers are pretty mild and vague.

What makes this movie so great? Here are seven takeaways:

1. There are Enough Villains to Go Around

Our heroes in this movie are outrunning, outgunning, and outwitting three major opponents: the aliens, the police, and Hi-Hatz (the drug boss of the Block). A lot of stories have just one antagonist, or a main antagonist and his henchmen, but having multiple, separate antagonists makes for a richer story with more opportunities for tension and surprise.

For example, a common pitfall in thrillers is that any time things get a little quiet, the audience knows the bad guy is about to pop out from behind a corner. Having multiple villains allows for more surprise – when we think the kids are about to get jumped by the aliens, it turns out to be the cops, etc.

It also creates richer conflicts. There are several scenes in which the kids are being detained by one villain (the police or Hi-Hatz), only for that detainment to make them vulnerable to an even bigger threat (the aliens). It makes their predicament feel that much more impossible as they become boxed in from threats on all sides.

Having multiple, unrelated villains risks making a story feel unfocused but it works in Attack the Block because (a) there’s a logical (and connected) reason why each villain is after our heroes, and (b) there’s a clear pecking order between them, with the aliens being the scariest, the cops being the least scary, and Hi-Hatz being somewhere in the middle.

It’s also worth noting that characters in this movie only die at the “hand” of aliens, never by police or Hi-Hatz. I think that’s important because it keeps the aliens as the “Final Boss” the kids will have the hardest time escaping or defeating. It would muddy the story if characters also died from other causes.

2. The Kills Matter (or At Least Some of Them Do)

This is an action-adventure-monster movie, so there are several kills to let us know the aliens mean business.

These kids open the movie by mugging an innocent person, but as the film goes on, we realize how young they are and how they look out for each other even in the face of grave danger, and they each get at least one brief moment to show some vulnerability or generosity. They’re also pretty funny.

We grow to care about these kids, so we genuinely worry about them, and when a few of them die, the loss is sincerely felt. (And luckily most of the kills are characters we aren’t invested in, so it’s not overly depressing).

3. Everything Gets Called Back

Some call it Chekhov’s gun. In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder calls it “the six things that need fixing.” Whatever you want to call it, this movie has it. Problems and opportunities set up in early parts of the movie are paid off later.

When Biggz brags early in the movie that he can jump from one flight of stairs to another and his friends doubt him, you can be sure that later he will need to do just that to escape the aliens. When we learn that Brewis took a zoology course in college, you can bet that information will come in handy by Act Three. When we see inside every kid’s apartment except for Moses’s, the movie is setting us up for an emotional payoff later when we finally catch a glimpse.

I could go on with a dozen more examples. Some of these setups and payoffs are small and some are huge; some are predictable and some are surprising, but they all make for a more cohesive, satisfying movie.

4. It Takes Place in a Specific, Fully Realized World

The entire film takes place inside – or just outside – a giant South London housing project they call “the Block.” At the beginning of the movie, we learn everything we need to know about this location: (1) all of our characters live there, except for Brewis and Ron, (2) the elevator is very slow, (3) there is a complicated series of outdoor stairwells, and (4) Ron’s weed room is on the 19th floor and is locked down “like Fort Knox.”

There are almost no other locations in this movie – a brief scene or two in a park across the street and a couple of scenes in the alley outside the building, but otherwise everything takes place inside the Block.

Obviously it’s not necessary for good storytelling to restrict your locations, but sometimes limited locations can actually make a story feel richer instead of thinner because we feel fully immersed in the world. We see a hallway and we recognize it like we’ve been there before ourselves. We know to say, “no, no, don’t go in the elevator” because we know how slow it is.

This movie has a lot of similarities to another near-perfect film2Die Hard, which makes similar use of a single location.

5. The Protagonist is Not “Nice,” But He Is Redeemed

John Boyega’s Moses is one of the most empathetic heroes I’ve come across in awhile, which is impressive given that he opens the movie by viciously mugging a defenseless woman. Part of that empathy comes from the actor’s innate charm, but it’s also built into the text.

First, Moses is trusted and beloved by his crew, which gives him some cred with us right away. There must be a reason these kids follow and trust him, so we extend him some faith.

Second, he’s good at things. We see his bravery and leadership immediately.

Third, we see glimpses of his vulnerability at multiple points, driven home to emotional effect in the final act when we learn three simple facts that crack open that sliver of empathy into a heartbreaking chasm. These points are not overplayed to saccharine effect but merely presented, allowed to breathe for the merest moment, and then left behind.

Last, and most importantly, he’s allowed a small but powerful character arc as he realizes the effects of his actions and chooses to risk his own life to make amends. It’s not a grand, sweeping change in his outer life, but it’s clearly a powerful shift in his inner life. We believe it, and we care.

6. There’s a Larger Point

This point isn’t belabored, but there are several moments throughout the film that address police brutality against black boys. The movie isn’t “about” that – it’s about a violent alien invasion –  but it’s a theme that courses through the veins of the story, and by the end it has made a subtle but important point. Attack the Block is a fun, silly, exciting action-adventure movie, but the story is deepened by the broader point it is subtly but powerfully making.

7. There’s a Clever Explanation

Sometimes invasion movies like this end with the heroes blasting away each monster one by one until they’re all gone, or perhaps the old “round ’em up in a central place and then torch it” approach. These are both fine, but what elevates the story here is a twist – the characters figure out what’s driving the aliens and then use that knowledge in a clever way to outsmart them. The clues were there all along and it’s a surprising character who manages to put them together. The final moments of the film are like a heist story as we slowly piece together the plan the characters have devised and realize just how crazy – and brave – it actually is.

How to Write a Great Villain: 5 Surprising Lessons from Kylo Ren

I’m not the first person to come out with the hot take that Kylo Ren is a great villain, and I hope I’m not the last. Let’s explore what makes him unique in a sea of soporific summer blockbuster baddies.

Beware that this post contains major spoilers from both The Last Jedi and The Force Awakens.

Note: this was originally just four lessons, but I realized there is an important fifth!

 

1. Great Villains are Motivated

Too often villains are like Pinky and the Brain with nothing in their pocket but a tube of chapstick and a vague desire to “take over the world.” What makes Kylo Ren different is that we actually understand his motivations.

He’s desperate to differentiate himself from his famous parents, their heroism and ideals choking his individuality like a Vader death grip. He resents Luke for stepping in as a mentor and then turning on him1. He’s anxious for Rey’s approval as someone he sees as an equal, but fears is his better.

All of these motivations are relatable which makes them terrifying – we understand on a human level that no bridge is a bridge too far for this wounded, desperate child in the body of a man2.

2. Great Villains are Sometimes Sympathetic

This is something that most writers have no control over, but the casting of Adam Driver as Kylo Ren is obviously inspired. His physicality is simultaneously hulking and pathetic and in a single silent expression, his eyes communicate a series of like seven nuanced emotions that we immediately, viscerally understand.

But there’s sympathy for Kylo right there in the text, too. When Luke reveals the Rashomon-style alternate ending for his confrontation with Kylo at the Jedi temple, he describes him as “a frightened child whose master had failed him.” Destroying the entire temple and becoming Supreme Leader of the First Order might have been a slight overreaction, but we can certainly imagine how scary and sad that must have been for him, to feel so misunderstood by his own mentor to the point that his mentor had intended to kill him in his sleep.

3. Great Villains are Sometimes Right

The scene when Kylo Ren kills Han is heartbreaking and resonant beyond anything I’ve experienced in the Star Wars universe and in fact beyond most things I’ve experienced in film, period. But it isn’t just sad because a beloved character dies, it’s sad because on some level, we understand why Kylo does it.

There is a point in a person’s life when they have to metaphorically kill their parents (metaphorically, Kylo, not literally) in order to become what they are meant to be. We have to not only leave the nest physically, but learn to reject some of what we were given as children in order to build what we need as adults. Kylo Ren does have to kill Han to become who he is meant to be – he knows it, we know it, and Han knows it too.

Kylo actually articulates this in plain language in The Last Jedi when he says to Rey: “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. It’s the only way to become who you were meant to be.” Rey hesitates here because while she realizes they are not on the same side (what a great scene that was!), what he’s saying is actually not wrong. It’s the same sentiment Yoda expresses when he burns down the ancient tree full of Jedi texts. For Rey, it resonates with something Maz said to her with more benevolent intentions in The Force Awakens: “The belonging you seek is not behind you, it is ahead.”

4. Great Villains are Worthy Adversaries

All of the sympathy, motivation, and salient points in the world won’t combine to make a great villain if your villain is not also super powerful and scary. Whether it’s his late night Jedi Skype sessions with Rey, his killing of the all-powerful Snoke, or his epic lightsaber battles, it’s clear Kylo Ren is one of the most powerful beings in the galaxy, even if he is still learning to harness it, like a teen driving a Bugatti with a learner’s permit. He is very nearly Rey’s equal, and there’s a sense that as he grows and learns to control his power, he may even grow stronger than her.

This is an area where the series will need to develop Kylo more if he’s to stay a worthy villain. His emo teen antics give him complexity now, but as Rey grows into her power, he will also need to grow into his.

5. Great Villains are Redeemable (Even If They Choose to Not Be Redeemed)

So much of what makes Kylo fascinating and sympathetic is the ever-present possibility that he could still be redeemed. There may be good in him somewhere and as an audience, we’re invested and in suspense to see if he’ll find it, or if someone will bring it out. When I think of many great villains from television, this redeemability is a common theme, a constant sense that this character could still choose to leave the Dark Side (whatever that looks like in their particular story world), and rather than simply wanting them defeated, we hope against hope that they will.

Don’t Throw Away Your Shot: 3 Storytelling Tips from “Hamilton”

I wasn’t planning to go out of my way to see Hamilton. It had been so overhyped that I was sure I’d be disappointed, and the one I time I’d tried to listen to a few songs of the soundtrack, they hadn’t really grabbed me.

But 8 months ago, a friend somehow managed to get tickets and I think I’d had a few drinks when he said, “Do you want tickets for December 20, you have thirty seconds to decide” and I impulsively said yes.

December 20th eventually came, despite the world’s best intentions, and up until the last second I thought of selling my ticket or giving it away. But I went.

The first few songs I was like, “Oh, this is pretty cute, sort of like Schoolhouse Rock, but maybe more fuss than was needed.” And then there was a song In Act 1. No spoilers, but it’s 11 songs in. And I almost literally stood up.

And then it just kept going like that, with my jaw dropping more and more, with tears eventually, and anyway – not to overhype it… but it wasn’t overhyped.

via Hollywood Pantages

But of course the whole time I was watching it, I was noticing what about it worked so well, and I wanted to share a few observations.

1. Lead with people, not with plot.

There’s a lot of plot in Hamilton – wars, rivalries, betrayals, weddings, deaths. But behind all the rap battles and the duels, the heart and soul of the show is the characters and their relationships.

We may have never led an army into battle or ran for president and fought in a duel, but who hasn’t been the Angelica to someone’s Eliza? Who hasn’t been the Burr to someone’s Hamilton? Who hasn’t been the Hamilton to someone’s Washington? These are characters and relationships we understand because we’ve seen them, we’ve lived them – and watching them on stage helps us understand ourselves.

2. Don’t be afraid to reinterpret history.

I enjoy period pieces as much as the next BBC aficionado, but it’s frustrating that the entire cast is often white, straight, and cisgender, and very often also men. When directors are asked about this in interviews, the understandable excuse is usually, “Well, that’s how it was back then!”

Something amazing about Hamilton is that it stays true to the heart of the history and the characters (sort of) while rejecting the idea that all of these characters should be white. Even better, it’s more than just “colorblind casting” (an old term sometimes used when an actor of color is cast in a role written to be white, as well as the reverse) which is problematic when it erases the real differences in people’s lived experiences. Instead, the show actually brings those experiences into the text and the production.

I also personally dislike “based on a true story” stories (it’s been a rough few years for me at the cineplex) because it usually feels like the writer did years of historical research and then felt she had to shoehorn every single fact she learned into the script so they wouldn’t go to waste. The stories feel bloated and boring and often kind of confusing, because real life rarely follows a clear story arc.

Something I appreciate about Hamilton (that some historians likely do not) is that Lin-Manuel Miranda altered, embellished, or straight up invented several plot points in the play to fit the larger narrative he was trying to tell. That might make for bad history books, but it makes for better stories. As an audience, we get the capital T “Truth” (the heart of the story’s meaning) without getting bogged down in the lowercase t “truth” (a complete accounting of provable facts).

3. Give every character a distinct point of view.

I had this text message exchange with my friend Anna the morning after seeing Hamilton:

Every character in Hamilton has a distinct worldview. Hamilton thinks it’s most important to be bold, take chances, speak your mind, and jump into the fray. Burr thinks it’s best to keep your opinions to yourself, play both sides, and look out for #1. Eliza thinks there’s no point to liberty if not to enjoy it beside the people you love. Angelica thinks romantic love can never satisfy so there’s no point in prizing it above other things. Jefferson, Washington, and even King George have similarly clear perspectives.

These worldviews aren’t something you have to work hard to interpret; the characters literally speak the beliefs and values they hold most dearly and they say them multiple times throughout the show. The complexity of character comes from how those perspectives play out when characters are put in situations that challenge their values and beliefs, and when they are pitted against (or are forced to be allied with) characters who have opposing values and beliefs.

Some characters eventually change their minds, at least a little, over the course of their character arc, while other characters never change but instead their views take on an irony or a poignancy in light of events of the story, but all of the characters’ central worldviews are relevant to the themes and plot of the show, which is why they feel resonant to the audience.

How to Write What You Know When You Don’t Know Anything

The standard advice for writing fiction is “write what you know.” I don’t know about you but whenever I heard those words, I always assumed the speaker was talking to ex-Navy SEALs, heart surgeons, and people who were raised by wolves. “Write what you know! As long as what you know is interesting.”

I am not an ex-Navy SEAL, I didn’t go to med school, and though my table manners may suggest otherwise, I was not in fact raised by wolves. My life so far has been – luckily for me – mostly pretty boring.

And so for a long time I thought “write what you know” didn’t apply to me. Because who would want to read about what I know?

So I started trying to build a life worth writing about. I road-tripped across the country six times. I went to law school and quit three months later, I spent two months backpacking across Europe, I moved to New York and Chicago and LA. I spent ten days in Nigeria. I started and sold a business.

And still, I didn’t feel I knew things worth writing about. Because while those experiences were all interesting and helped me grow as a human, I didn’t feel they were really mine. How could I write about life as a law student – or worse, a lawyer – after three months of law school? How could I write about life in Budapest or Lagos or Paris after spending a few days or weeks in the city? And who wants to read another book about New York (especially written by someone who lived there only four months)?

All of those things are just facts in a list. “I lived in New York.” “I spent a semester in law school.” “I traveled.” Those are things you do, not things you know.

And that’s when I realized I’d been doing it all wrong.

What I realized is that “write what you know” isn’t about your tenth grade band trip to Shanghai, it isn’t about the time you broke your leg in three places, and it’s not about your sordid past in the CIA.

Writing what you know isn’t about the things you’ve seen, it’s about the things you’ve felt.

“‘Writing what you know’ isn't about the things you’ve seen, it’s about the things you’ve felt.” - @heylauriestark #amwriting Click To Tweet

It’s about the devastation you felt on that tenth grade band trip when you walked into your shared hotel room to find your crush kissing your best friend, and how you ran down to the lobby and wrote your friend a note on hotel stationery using words you would have been grounded if your parents had heard you say, hot tears falling onto the back of your hand.

It’s about the time you broke your leg in three places because your brother bet you you couldn’t jump off a bridge into the Hillsborough river, and how you hit the water so hard you blacked out and sunk like a stone through the murky depths, and how when you woke up your brother was leaning over you on the litter-strewn grass of the embankment and there were tears in his eyes and he was calling your name and you realized for the first time in your life that he loved you.

It has absolutely nothing to do with the CIA.

We all have these stories inside us. A moment when we realized we were loved, a moment when we thought we were going to die, a moment when we did something that filled us with shame. We all have things that make us feel – things we care about enough to write an impassioned speech on our boss’s cousin’s Facebook page, things we care enough about to end friendships over, to quit jobs over, to lie awake in the middle of the night worrying will never be ok.

And that is what we know.

photo credit: Tuan Hoang Nguyen

Here are two exercises I made up to help you figure out what it is that you know.

Write What You Know: Things You Believe

Every good story has a guiding thesis statement or story question, a statement the author is making about the world or – even more powerfully – a question the author is asking about life.

Instead of starting with a premise or a plot or even a character, consider starting with a moral question or a strongly-held belief. Examples: deeply-held convictions, pet peeves, guiding moral principles. Beliefs that shape our choices, beliefs that lead us to judge, beliefs that will send us into a ten-minute rant if provoked.

Now this is important: preachy stories are the worst so it’s best if this belief is something you wish weren’t true or that you suspect isn’t true or that you at least acknowledge has hidden complexities. It should be something that you feel strongly about but could imagine a sound argument against. These kinds of beliefs often aren’t even things we believe rationally, but are things we believe subconsciously that influence how we live.

Part I

Set a timer for ten minutes and answer as many of the questions below as you can. You don’t have to answer them in order; feel free to skip around to the questions that resonate with you most. Also feel free to answer a single question with more than one answer.

  1. What’s the last argument you had with someone that really upset you?
  2. What’s a recent thing you really judged someone for?
  3. What’s a decision you made that seemed foolish to everyone around you? Why did you think it was the right decision?
  4. What’s the last thing you ranted about on social media? Why did it get you so worked up? Did anyone disagree with you?
  5. What’s a small thing you did as a child that you still feel ashamed of? Why do you think it was so bad?
  6. What’s a recent seemingly minor incident that really pissed you off? Why did it bother you so much?
  7. Is there a common moral theme to the stories you’ve written in the past (or ideas you’ve had for stories)?
  8. Think about the last terrible nightmare you had or the last dream that was so good that you didn’t want to wake up. What was it about? What was so terrible/wonderful about it? What emotions did you feel? Do you dream about things like that often?
Part II

For each story or example you wrote above, write down the belief that led you to make the choice you made or to feel the way you felt. It doesn’t have to be a belief that you logically agree with. Try to keep each belief to one short sentence as in the following examples:

  • It’s important in society that people follow the rules.
  • The worst quality a person can have is conceit.
  • Paranoia is worse than ignorance.
  • Harmony is more important than justice.
  • If you really loved someone, you should never be able to get over them.
  • It’s a sin to not do what you’re meant to do in the world.
  • Nothing should ever come before family, no matter what.
  • Adults should always be able to handle the truth.
  • You should never let yourself be dependent on anyone.

As you’re making the list, make a star next to any beliefs that really stir something in you as you’re writing them.

When you’re done, take the list and, for each belief, write down an opposing belief. For example, if one of the beliefs you wrote was

It’s important in society that people follow the rules.

for an opposing belief you might write something like:

For a society to function, it’s important for people to know when to break the rules.

Again, make a star next to any opposing belief that really stirs something in you when you write it down.

When I say that it “stirs something in you,” I mean that you feel an emotional reaction to it or find it particularly complex and interesting.

Part III

For each belief that you starred (beliefs you agree with or ones you disagree with), start a separate page. On that page, answer the following questions while thinking of an imaginary person for whom this belief is the core of their moral code or worldview:

  1. What are some things a person who strongly holds this belief might do (that most other people wouldn’t)? What problems could this create?
  2. What are some things a person who strongly holds this belief would NEVER do (that most other people might)? What situation could force this person to do that thing (or at least seriously consider it)?
  3. Is there a situation in which a thing the person WOULD do (question #1) could lead to the situation that forces them to do the thing they would NEVER do (question #2)?
  4. Try to come up with at least 5-10 character, plot, or premise ideas that would allow you to explore both sides of this belief. Even if the ideas are dumb, keep listing more until you get so stuck that it takes you more than three minutes to think of the next one.

Example:

Belief: It’s important in society that people follow the rules.

Opposing belief: For a society to function, it’s important for people to know when to break the rules.

What are some things a person who strongly holds this belief might do (that most other people wouldn’t)? Give up a family member to the police for committing a victimless crime.

What are some things a person who strongly holds this belief would NEVER do (that most other people might)? Speak out against authority to protect a family member.

What situation could force this person do that thing (or at least seriously consider it)? If they found out that the government was corrupt and therefore its rules should not be followed.

Is there a situation in which a thing the person WOULD do (question #1) could lead to the situation that forces them to do the thing they would NEVER do (question #2)? If they gave up their brother to the police for committing a victimless crime, then found out the police were corrupt and were going to kill their brother. They might then break the law to break their brother out of prison and save his life.

Character and plot ideas:
– a by-the-books parking enforcement officer
– a young religious zealot
– a vindictive prosecuting attorney
– a society with endless, complicated, nonsensical rules (and breaking them is punishable by death)
– a lone rule-lover in an anarchic, seemingly utopian society that’s only rule is there are no rules
– a teacher in a strict boarding school who begins to question the oppressive rules she enforces
– a character who believes in her society’s rules, then learns that her very existence is against the rules
– a parent of 10 children who believes rules bring order to chaos
– a retired military vet who now must move in with his chaotic sister

Write What You Know: Things You’ve Felt

At their core, good stories are made up of characters who do things because they have feelings, and then have feelings because they did things. That’s really the gist of it.

“At their core, good stories are made up of characters who do things because they have feelings, and then have feelings because they did things. That's really the gist of it.” - @heylauriestark #amwriting Click To Tweet

So if you want to write great stories, you need to be able to tap into honest, relatable, powerful feelings. Any feeling you’ve ever had – any emotion – has been felt by millions of other people even if that emotion was brought about by a different situation.

Part I

You definitely don’t need to respond to all of these prompts, but read through them and see if any spark a memory you hadn’t thought of in a while or had never believed was interesting.

You could just write down a few words to remind yourself of the story you’re thinking of, or you could write a few pages of detailed story about the memory. Whatever you’re inspired to do. Try if you can to think of a specific moment, not just a general event or time in your life.

These don’t necessarily need to be big, traumatic events (though they might be). It could be a very small moment you hadn’t thought about in decades.

Warning: some of these might bring up some difficult memories, so do this when you have some time alone and are in a comfortable place.

Negative emotions:

  • a time when you were embarrassed in front of someone you wanted to impress
  • something you did (maybe as a child) that you still feel shame when you think about, even though you know now it wasn’t your fault
  • something you did that you still feel ashamed of, and you think you’re right to feel ashamed
  • a time when you were really proud of yourself, and then were embarrassed or disappointed to realize you shouldn’t really have been proud
  • a time when you learned that someone you trusted had lied to you, or hidden something important
  • the worst fight you ever had with someone you cared about
  • a time you found out that someone you knew had died
  • a time when you were fired from a job, kicked off a team, or pushed out of a group you belonged to
  • a time when you were really excited for something, then terribly disappointed
  • a time when you realized you had to break someone’s heart
  • a time when you were rejected by something or someone you hadn’t expected to reject you
  • a time when someone caught you doing something you weren’t supposed to be doing
  • a time when you genuinely thought you might die
  • any other memory this list brought up, even if it doesn’t exactly fit with any of these prompts

Positive emotions:

  • a time when you’d expected to be rejected, then were surprised when you weren’t
  • a time when you stood up for someone else
  • a time when you stood up for yourself
  • a time when someone you wanted to impress was impressed by or proud of you
  • a time when you made up with someone after a bad fight or being on bad terms for a long time
  • a time when you were awed by the magic or beauty of a place you visited for the first time
  • a time when someone gave you an unexpectedly meaningful compliment
  • a time when someone did something for you that made you feel really loved
  • a time when something funny happened to you when you were with someone (or a group) you cared about, and you all laughed until your stomachs hurt
  • any other memory this list brought up, even if it doesn’t exactly fit with any of these prompts
Part II

For each memory you wrote down, if you feel comfortable, answer any of the following questions you can remember an answer to (you might be surprised what you remember):

  1. Where were you when it happened? Be specific. “Mr. Lorenzo’s 4th grade math class” is better than “school.”
  2. What do you remember about the place? Was it inside or outside? Were there windows? What was outside the windows? What was the lighting like? How big was the space? How was it decorated? If there was a surface in front of you, what was on it? What kind of sounds could you hear in the room? What was the temperature? What did it smell like?
  3. What were you doing? Were you sitting or standing? Were you alone? Who else was there? What were you wearing? Were you holding anything? Did you speak? What did you say?
  4. How did you feel before this incident happened? How did you feel during or after? Try to be specific about the emotion. Rather than saying you were “happy,” is it possible you were actually “eager” or “proud” or “giddy?” Do you remember any physical feeling in your body?
  5. Are there any other details you remember? Smells, sounds, tastes, textures, words, feelings?
  6. What did you do after it happened? Did you cry? Did you run? Did you call someone? Did you clench your fists? Did you jump up and down? Did you punch a wall? Did you write about it in a diary?
Part III

For each memory, try to think of an idea for a story or a scene based on the following questions:

  1. What is a more exaggerated version of what happened to you? By “more exaggerated,” I mean higher stakes, more extreme consequences (positive or negative).

    For example, if something embarrassing happened to you on a first date with someone you really liked, what if it had happened on the wedding day with someone your dystopian future society had assigned you to as your One True Soulmate and they had 24 hours to decide if they wanted to marry you or banish you from the planet?

    The idea doesn’t have to be something high-concept like that, just a situation with higher emotional stakes.

    For example, if your memory was about winning the elementary school spelling bee, what if your estranged father had been in the audience and you were hoping that winning the bee would convince him to move back in with your family?
  2. Think of a character who would be the most ironic or surprising person to be put in the situation you were in.

    For example, if your memory was about winning the spelling bee, what if you had been dyslexic?

    Or if your memory was about stealing a CD from the mall, what if your mother had run the music store?
  3. Is there a television or movie premise you could build around this story in which a version of your memory could be either the inciting incident or the climactic scene?

    For example, if your memory was about winning the spelling bee, what if it was a different kind of contest – a contest that decided whether or not the protagonist got to relocate off a dying planet?

    Or if your memory was about feeling guilty when a friend got in trouble for a prank you both participated in and you got away with it, what if your story was about a protagonist who was the only survivor of a plane crash?
  4. Is there a different way your memory could have gone that would have been even more surprising or interesting?

    For example, if your memory was about a game of “Bloody Mary” you played at a sleepover with friends in middle school that ended with you in tears, what if Bloody Mary really had shown up and you were the only one who saw her?

I hope these exercises prompted some new ideas!

So You Want to Write a Half-Hour Dramedy? Then Dig Deep.

There’s a new genre of TV series that is becoming very popular to write: the single-cam, half-hour dramedy. For the purpose of this article, I’m not talking about multi-cam sitcoms1 like Black-ish or hourlong dramedies like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

the good place, search party, people of earth

Some examples of single-cam, half-hour dramedies include The Good Place, Search Party, People of Earth, FleabagDear White People, One Mississippi, BoJack Horseman, and even Transparent (which is less of a comedy than the others but still often funny). These shows may not seem to have much in common on the surface, but here are some common elements they share:

  1. They are usually 22-30 minutes per episode (a length we’ve historically associated with comedy).
  2. They are usually serialized (an element we’ve historically associated with dramas, whereas comedies have usually been episodic).
  3. They often star stand-up comics or actors known best for their comedic work.
  4. They often, but not always, contain “genre” elements such as mystery, thriller, horror, or science-fiction (a hybrid we’ve historically expected in dramas, not comedies).
  5. They are usually very funny with lots of quotable, gif-able moments and a few characters who are purely or almost purely comedic.
  6. They have poignant, even heartbreaking moments with some regularity, even ending episodes or entire seasons on a downbeat (which pure comedies almost never do).
  7. They have an overarching, “serious” theme they explore from different angles throughout the series.

So are these comedies or are they dramas? No wonder the Emmys can’t figure it out. But despite the genre confusion, it’s no mystery why these are appealing to write:

  1. They have a low page count (usually in the 22-30 range).
  2. Writers can flex their comedy, drama, and often even their genre muscles.
  3. Some of the best, most celebrated shows on television fall into this category.
  4. If the pilot doesn’t sell, it can usually be split at the act breaks into web-series-sized episodes.

I love watching single-cam, half-hour dramedies (or what The New Yorker aptly referred to as “heartbreak comedy“) but I rarely enjoy the unproduced scripts I read in this genre and I finally realized why: they’re not about anything.

“What makes single-cam, half-hour dramedies special? They're ABOUT something.” #amwriting Click To Tweet

It’s not even enough to just be about something – these types of shows, when they’re successful, are about something deeply important, emotional, and meaningful. The Good Place is about what it really means to be a “good” or “bad” person. Search Party is about what lengths a human is entitled to go to to find meaning in her own life. People of Earth is about what it really means to be “normal.”

When I say these shows are “about” these things, what I mean is that the theme is inherent in the very premise (People of Earth is about a group of people who claim to be survivors of alien abductions, Search Party is about a directionless young woman who becomes obsessed with solving the disappearance of a former acquaintance, and The Good Place is about a self-identified jerk who dies and is accidentally sent to heaven through what appears to be some sort of clerical error) and it’s a complex enough issue that it can be explored from different angles over the course of several seasons and through the lens of characters with different worldviews.

All of these series explore a profound, complex, and nearly universal question in brief, serialized episodes using comedic, dramatic, and sometimes genre elements. The pilots I read that I don’t like are usually just about a bunch of people hanging out and doing stuff under the umbrella of a comedic premise with occasional downbeats.

So how do you pick a “profound, complex, and nearly universal question” to make your pilot about? I have an idea for that actually: How to Write What You Know When You Don’t Know Anything.

Already have your profound theme but aren’t sure how to structure the pilot? Structurally, I’ve deconstructed a group of good single-cam, half-hour dramedy pilots into acts and story beats – check out the common features between them here (it turns out they’re mostly structured in exactly the same way).

How Long Should the Acts Be in My Pilot? (Data Analysis)

There was a discussion in one of my writers’ groups this week about how long a teaser should be in an hourlong pilot. We all thought it should be fairly short, but we had different ideas of what “short” actually meant. I remembered that awhile back I’d made a spreadsheet analyzing act lengths from 51 hourlong pilots so I decided to go to the data.

(If you’re interested in half-hour dramedy pilot structure, I broke that down here.)

 

What I found: across all pilots that had a teaser, the average length of that teaser was 8 pages (with the shortest teaser being 3 pages and the longest at a whopping 16 pages). This surprised me! I would have guessed that teasers were more like 3-5 pages on average.

I shared this info with my writers’ group and someone asked if I could also share average act lengths for the other acts. This is tricky because I assumed the average length of an act would depend on how many acts the pilot has in total – this group of pilots ranged from 4 acts to 7 acts.

The most common three structures among these pilots were:

  • teaser + 4 acts (17 pilots)
  • 5 acts (13 pilots)
  • teaser + 5 acts (11 pilots)

So I decided to break down average act length by structural type:

TEASER + 4 ACTS 
Teaser: 8 pages (range: 3-16)
Act 1: 17 pages (range: 11-22)
Act 2: 14 pages (range: 5-22)
Act 3: 11 pages (range: 6-16)
Act 4: 11 pages (range: 4-18)

5 ACTS
Act 1: 17 pages (range: 11-30)
Act 2: 13 pages (range: 8-18)
Act 3: 11 pages (range: 7-15)
Act 4: 10 pages (range: 5-15)
Act 5: 9 pages (range: 4-14)

TEASER + 5 ACTS
Teaser: 9 pages (range: 5-13)
Act 1: 10 pages (range: 6-15)
Act 2: 11 pages (range: 7-17)
Act 3: 11 pages (range: 7-15)
Act 4: 9 pages (range: 6-13)
Act 5: 9 pages (range: 1-15)

As you can see from the ranges provided, the range of lengths for each act is quite broad which means there is not some hard and fast rule about act length that every professional writer follows. Some individual networks and shows may have rules about act length, but that’s not something you can really concern yourself with when writing an original pilot.

Because there are so many different ways you can tell a story, even on television, you should obviously choose a structure that you feel fits your particular story (or possibly the network you’re hoping to be on, which is a different analysis entirely).

That said, one hunch I had that this data backs up is that acts do tend to get shorter as you progress through a pilot (with the exception of the teaser, if there is one, which is usually shorter than Act 1). This makes sense because it creates a sense of quickening pace as we barrel through the story to the inevitable BANG at the end (which then hopefully propels us to episode 2).

That isn’t a rule you must follow, but it might be a helpful thing to look at it if you’re writing a pilot and the pacing feels slow. Maybe your earlier acts are too short or your later acts are too long.

Another interesting observation is that the total number of acts in a pilot didn’t seem to have as much effect on individual act length as I expected. The only exception is that in pilots with five total acts ([teaser + 4 acts] or [5 acts]), Act 1 is quite a bit longer than the other acts, whereas in the six act structure ([teaser + 5 acts]), the acts are all a more uniform length. You can see this is true even in the broader ranges and not just in the average.

One last fact: the average total page count across all 51 hourlong pilots was 61.5 pages. The shortest was 56 pages (nine pilots were 56-58 pages) and the longest was 69 pages (six pilots were 67-69 pages).

Some caveats on the stats here:

    • This dataset is not huge. It only includes 51 hourlong pilots: 17 are [teaser + 4 acts], 13 are [5 acts], 11 are [teaser + 5 acts], and the rest are a sprinkling of other structures composed of teasers, acts, and tags in various combinations.

 

    • These pilots come from a mixture of cable and broadcast networks but none are from streaming networks like Netflix. (Look out for a future imaginary post titled Stop Using “My Pilot is Written for Streaming” as an Excuse to Be a Lazy Storyteller.)

 

    • This list includes pilots that premiered as long ago as 2002 and as recently as 2017. It’s possible (even probable) that trends have changed. That said, 22 of the 37 pilots premiered in the past three years (14 of them in 2017), so most of these are recent.

 

    • Speaking of recency, I’d need to do a different kind of analysis to confirm this, but it seems like among the more recent pilots, the [5 acts], [teaser + 5 acts], and even [6 acts] structures have increased in popularity over the classic [teaser + 4 acts].

 

    • Genre isn’t taken into account here at all (except that they’re all hourlongs, so no sitcoms). This may not be true, but my hypothesis is that teasers for crime shows might be shorter than other types of dramas because it’s a more traditional find-a-dead-body “cold open.”

 

  • Keep in mind that “average” can be a misleading statistic – all datasets have a calculable average, but just because you can calculate a statistic doesn’t mean it’s meaningful.

    For example, let’s imagine that my dataset had included 20 pilots and that in ten of them the first act was 10 pages and in the other ten the first act was 50 pages. In that case, the average length of act 1 would be 30 pages. The problem is that if you took that information and wrote a pilot with a 30-page first act, you would be writing a pilot that doesn’t look like any of the pilots in that dataset. If you were trying to mimic existing pilots from that list, you’d actually be better off writing either a 10-page first act or a 50-page first act, not splitting the difference down the middle.

    Fortunately, our data here is not that dramatically split. Most of the data tends to be grouped around the averages with a few outliers that are much longer or shorter than the average. I included the full range of lengths for each act so you can see how long and short some of those outliers were.

1 | 2 |