Hit television shows, from “The West Wing,” to “ER” began as hour-long television pilot scripts. Pilot scripts serve as the first episode in the series, if ordered by the network, and are a very specialized form of writing. Dramatic television pilots are a lot like films (in fact, most studios hire film directors to shoot pilots). They have a very strict structure. The writer must accomplish a great deal in a very short amount of time, usually around forty-six minutes on network or cable. The writer needs to setup the world of the series and all of its characters, create tension that can last for potentially hundreds of episodes and do all of it within the budgetary constraints of network shows.
Hour-long television shows use a five act structure, unlike films that use three. The division of pilots as well as subsequent episodes into five acts isn’t an arbitrary paradigm; it emerged out of the need for commercial breaks during television shows. Each act in the television pilot is broken by a commercial break and therefore, unlike film, requires it’s own unique structure. The overall shape of each act, however, with its setup and rising action leading to a climax mirrors that of all storytelling. Whether it’s a film, a television pilot or just good gossip, well-told stories have a beginning, a middle and an end.
The opening of the pilot, or Act I, introduces the world of the story and the series’ principal characters and sets up the main conflict upon which the series will be built. T he world of the story is first introduced in the status quo phase, before any dramatic change has affected it.
The most important characters to introduce in the television pilot are the main characters, the protagonist and the antagonist. The antagonist is the thing that poses the greatest threat to the main character as he or she strives to achieve their goal in the show. It can be a nature or another character. The Main tension in the pilot is generated by the primary struggle between protagonist and antagonist.
The middle acts, Act II and III, deepen the audience’s emotional involvement in the story. Here the characters are more elaborated on and the audience learns backstories of the characters. Also during Acts II and III, subplots, also called B and C stories, are introduced. Both acts end in cliffhangers to bring audiences back after commercial breaks.
Act IV brings the rising action of the story to a powerful climax and introduces a twist where either the character has succeeded but a new threat emerges, or the character has failed and a new opportunity arises. Act V wraps up the story and brings the audience’s involvement to a satisfactory end but also leaves room for subsequent episodes. Sometimes the pilot may end with a cliffhanger in order to invite the audience to watch the rest of the series. This natural story progression of setup, complication, resolution can be found woven throughout the entire show; individual scenes and acts organically reflect this same structure.