How to write a perfect pilot script: 5 pro tips

Wed 3 May 2023
Looking to pitch a script? Take a look at five pro tips for creating a pilot screenplay that will get commissioned.


This post is by John Finnegan, founder of The Script Department, a screenwriting network that showcases up and coming writers and their work. He is also Senior Lecturer in screenwriting at Falmouth University and is the Course Leader of MA Writing for Script & Screen, an online screenwriting master's degree.


If you’re an emerging screenwriter, you’ve likely thought about what it would be like to pitch a television series to one of the big streaming platforms like Netflix or Amazon. Well, the good news is that there’s never been a better time to try and get your project in front of streaming and broadcaster commissioners

The emergence of the big streamers means that there is a continuous demand for new and original productions, but at the same time, standards are higher than they’ve ever been. In short, your pilot screenplay needs to be perfect. 

With this in mind, here are five pro tips on how to ensure your pilot lives up to its full potential.

Focus on character and world building

A common mistake that I see from many pilot scripts is that writers put too much focus on establishing the rules of the world and, in doing so, the characters feel like they are simply a vehicle to explore the world. 

While world building is incredibly important, this should never come at the expense of understanding who our key characters are; their wants, needs and value systems. Your choices to set the story in this particular place and time should be thoroughly justified and the world should serve as a great opportunity to test your characters. Some will thrive in this world, others will struggle. But one way or another, the world of your story will make the characters better.

Get more advice on becoming a professional screenwriter in John Finnegan's two-part guide: 

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Be clear about what the show is about

Your pilot is your pitch to the producer and commissioner but it's also your pitch to the audience who have chosen to watch your show above another. It’s imperative that you make it clear what the show is about. 

This might sound easy on the surface but the trick is to do it in a natural way that showcases your storytelling skills. One technique that has become quite common in recent years is what I call ‘the changing status quo’. This is where the status quo of the character’s life is established early on and then changed in a small but significant (significant being the key word here) way. This relatively small change in their life will serve as a signal to the audience that things are only going to escalate throughout the rest of the series.

Two great examples of this in action are Westworld and The Haunting of Hill House. Westworld is a story about a sentient android trying to liberate her kind from the humans who’ve enslaved them. The pilot cleverly establishes the protagonist, Dolores, as a happy-go-lucky android who, in the words of her human programmers, “couldn’t hurt a fly”.

Throughout the pilot, she starts to sense that something is wrong with her world - as if she’s becoming aware of her reality - and as she’s delivering a slightly ominous monologue at the end, swats a fly that lands on her collar. Cut to credits…

What does this tell our audience? By the end of the season, Dolores is likely to be hurting far more than flies. The audience has been teased with something to come and, more than this, they are the ones figuring it out for themselves. It’s always good to make the audience feel like they are working for their meal.

In The Haunting of Hill House, one of our main protagonists is a ghost hunter who admits in the first act of the pilot that he’s never seen a ghost. By the end of the pilot, he sees a ghost and, more importantly, recognises as much. The status quo has changed for this character and signals to the audience that things are only going to get more bizarre as the show progresses.

What can you take away from these examples? Keep things centered around your show’s protagonist and hint at the series to come in their experiences here.

Use minimal locations

In a recent article, Amazon’s James Farrel explained that writers and producers should be more considerate of budgets when writing their episodes.

“If you can make this great movie with 20 locations instead of 30 to save a little bit of money, let’s do that. If we can reduce the episodes on the scripted show from eight to six and tell the story we wanted to tell to save some money, let’s do that. Let’s be responsible.”

HBO’s Succession is a fantastic example of minimal locations being used to great effect. In the most recent series, each episode has had a very minimalist approach to setting, whether it’s a party, spending the day at the office or closing business deals on a plane or boat. They might not be cheap locations in and of themselves (this is a show about billionaires after all), but that doesn’t mean the show itself has bottomless pockets. 

Being selective about locations is, in this case, a great way of allowing the wealth and opulence of the world to come through while making the episodes logistically practical. Whatever the genre or scope of your show, keeping this tip in mind will make your project a lot less intimidating to executives worried about budget later on.

Keep your pilot simple

Make your pilot as good as it can be so that an agent or commissioner will fall in love with your show. However, don’t feel the need to overimpress either. It can be tempting to squeeze as many plot points as possible into your pilot and introduce every character in one go. In many shows, some major characters don’t get introduced until the second episode. Some key plot points don’t get introduced until later in the series. 

Remember that a great pilot isn’t one that sets up everything in one episode, it's about making us want to watch the next episode. You’d be amazed how easily that can be achieved with a few well executed storytelling components. 

“But what about that amazing plot twist that I’ve got in episode 2? What’s the harm in squeezing it into the pilot so the producers can see how great my story is?” It’s certainly difficult to choose which parts of your story make it to the front of the queue, but as one development executive said to our students recently, “be brave enough to leave some things for the next episode…”

How long is your episode?

In the world of advertiser driven broadcast television, episode running times need to be very precise. A minute longer than planned will disrupt the broadcast schedule. However, on streaming platforms, this isn’t a problem and it’s common to see episodes with varying lengths. 

While this makes the writing process far more flexible, it’s still worth disciplining yourself and sticking to a predetermined running length that is comparable to other similar shows. Not only does it help people understand the scope of your series but it can be a useful guide to help you stay focused on what it is you have to accomplish in this specific chapter of the season.


Writing a pilot episode can be far more challenging than writing a feature film, despite its shorter running length. The larger scope of the project means there are far more pitfalls to succumb to. The good news is that most tv shows are not written by a single person so the challenge is made easier by surrounding yourself with great collaborators. But none of that will come to pass if the pilot script isn’t in top shape. 

Following these five tips is a good start but if you’d like to learn how to pitch your projects to the highest levels of the industry, check out Falmouth Flexible’s MA in Writing for Script & Screen. During the course, you will explore strategies for promoting yourself as a freelance scriptwriter and work on a major script development project:

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