How to write a pilot

The director Mike Figgis tells the story of how he once arrived at LAX and was asked the reason for his visit. “I’ve come to shoot a pilot,” he explained, and was promptly hauled off for questioning. But creating a successful pilot episode is one of the trickiest jobs in television. You have to set up the idea of the show, introduce the major characters, tell a sample story and leave the viewers wanting more, all in one episode. The best pilots are unforgettable, like the ripple of grief as news of Laura Palmer’s death spreads through Twin Peaks; the worst feel clunky and awkward, as characters introduce themselves to one another and the set-up is explained. Comedy is particularly hard, as so much of the humour comes from our existing knowledge of the characters; the pilot of Friends is notoriously unfunny for a show that would then run for a decade, and still plays approximately 28 hours a day on E4.

So what are the secrets to a successful pilot? Fortunately for us there’s now a fine selection of pilot screenplays available to study right here, including The West Wing, Twin Peaks and the famously awful US remake of Spaced. There’s also the first episode of Entourage, which is a virtual masterclass in character description:

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NB. These screenplays come from several different sources, and some of the links are broken; the pilot of Bonekickers, for example, is no longer available, presumably to spare anyone’s embarrassment …

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