For those unfamiliar, a “spec” television script is written for an established show. A “pilot” is written to sell an original, new show, be it comedy or drama. I’ve written mostly film screenplays to date, and one spec television script (for the show HUNG). These days I’m writing my first ever television pilot, and I gave it to my manager two weeks ago for notes. She sent me back three television pilot scripts to read, all being produced this year on major networks, all similar in tone to mine and to each other, but with distinctly different plots.
Reading these scripts was incredibly helpful and inspiring. They were all great scripts, easy to read and compelling. I will watch these shows. More importantly, they were very well structured and well-developed… both areas in which my own script needs improvement.
The following are some things I picked up from these scripts:
They were all one-hour dramas, one clearly meant for cable, the other two meant for network. How could I tell? Because of the controversial subject matter, curse words, nudity, etc.
They were 62, 67 and 69 pages long, respectively.
They all had 5 acts. An Act is basically how the show is divided (like chapters). On channels with commercials, the commercial breaks separate the Acts.
Each Act ended with a twist that made me want to know what happened in the next Act. Put another way, each twist propelled the plot in a different (forward) direction. And the Really Big Twist was on the last page of Act 5, the last-minute or two of the pilot. This is what gets viewers hungry to know what happens in the next episode.
I’m going to focus the rest of my analysis on Script A because it had the clearest structure.
Script A was 62 pages long and had a total of 79 scenes:
Act 1 – 17 pages, 16 scenes
Act 2 – 8 pages, 4 scenes
Act 3 – 15 pages, 28 scenes
Act 4 – 11 pages, 10 scenes
Act 5 – 11 pages, 21 scenes
You can tell from this that Acts 3 and 5 had a lot of very short scenes, indicating perhaps a chase sequence. In general, scenes are no longer than 2 or 3 pages (most are shorter).
The narrative set up of Script A was established in Act 1. So, basically by the first commercial break you have an idea of the show’s main dilemma and the main characters.
The characters were established as follows:
5 main characters were introduced in Act 1
1 main character was introduced at the top of Act 2
1 main character was introduced at the top of Act 3
1 minor character was introduced in Act 5
The title of script was explained in Act 4.
The location of the story shifted dramatically in Act 5. It’s hard to say if the whole show was going to move there or if it was just for the pilot (me thinks the latter).
Without knowing anything further, you basically now have a rough structural guide to a one-hour dramatic television pilot script. Obviously, these numbers are not set in stone and you can deviate from them. Personally, I don’t plan to deviate from them that much because I want my pilot to resemble the pace of Script A.
But you need more than a rough guide. You need to read some scripts for yourself, preferably scripts that are similar in tone to yours.
Here are three sites for free scripts you can download:
Try breaking a couple down like I did and see what you come up with. If you have more tips and/or advice, by all means chime in.
October 1, 2015 at 10:31 am
Thank you for this information, it was a great read. Do you edit script’s? Thanks!
October 6, 2015 at 8:34 am
Hi Darrell, thank you. To answer your question, yes I edit scripts. If you’re interested in discussing, please head over to my website http://www.nivadorellsmith.com and contact me from there. Cheers.