Because first impressions matter.
The first scenes of your pilot need to capture the reader’s attention, because you never know how far a busy Hollywood exec (or their assistant) will read before losing interest. You need to introduce your characters and story, show off your writing skills, and give the reader something they haven’t seen before — it’s a lot of pressure!
As the co-founder of Moonshot Initiative (formerly Women’s Weekend Film Challenge), I’ve read over 1,000 scripts submitted for our Pilot Accelerator for emerging TV writers. I’ve seen teasers that were undeniably strong, cold opens that weren’t doing the script any favors, and everything in between.
Read on for some exercises to make those crucial first pages shine, and register for our Write a Pilot in 30 Days course if you're looking for guidance in crafting a strong beginning and ending for your pilot script.
Do your research.
Read pilots in your genre — especially if they’re comps. Most pilot scripts are available for free online; just Google “[Show title] pilot script.”
As you read, focus on the first scenes. What is the writer accomplishing in these first pages, and how is she achieving it? In what ways does the writer establish a sense of place and time; introduce characters; create stakes; build mystery or suspense; construct the world; and develop tone?
Even if a specific script isn’t available, you can learn a lot by watching pilot episodes, too. Watch the first few minutes of “I May Destroy You,” and jot down everything you discover about Arabella’s relationships, career, living situation, and personality. Michaela Coel gets a lot of information across with natural-sounding conversations, whereas many newer writers pack their dialogue with too much exposition.
2. Get more white space on the page.
As you read pilot scripts, observe how the writer accomplishes everything she needs to do succinctly. Notice how much white space is on the page. Often, pro writers will even use spacing and paragraph breaks as a tool for building suspense in dramatic scripts.
Be wary of having long pages of description; even if your teaser is all action and no dialogue, break it into manageable chunks and keep it concise. Remember that it’s not a novel and that you want readers to be able to digest information easily.
Read the cold open of “Hacks,” which takes us through several locations and introduces numerous characters without slowing down our reading pace. Then, print out the first 10 pages of your pilot and use a red pen to cross out as many unnecessary words as possible.
3. Imitate the masters.
Watch a cold open that you admire. Then, break out your favorite screenwriting software and write that scene. You don’t have to do this from memory; feel free to pause and rewind where necessary.
The dialogue will simply be transcription, but for the description, you’ll have to make decisions of what details to include and what to omit. Work on the scene until you’re happy with it.
Then, look at the actual script for that pilot and compare the two versions. You’ll learn a lot about where you tend to be wordy and what you might be missing in your writing, such as characters’ reactions.
4. It’s all in the details.
Think about your protagonist’s bedroom or office (or any other personal space). Brainstorm items she might have in this room, as well as other details about the atmosphere (ex. Chipped paint, crumbs on the counter, furniture so pristine it looks like no one’s ever used it).
Once you have a nice, long list of details, circle the most salient ones. You only need a couple to give the reader a sense of the character’s personality.
In “Girls,” when we’re introduced to Hannah’s room, Lena Dunham only mentions the paint color, the specific posters on the wall, the show on the DVD player, and the snacks Hannah has nearby. Mindy Kaling shares even less in the “The Mindy Project” when we see the protagonist’s dorm room; she has piles of biology textbooks, and her roomie throws her a box of Pop-Tarts. Both pilots let our mind fill in the rest — we can imagine a lot just with “tiny Brooklyn bedroom” or “brick dorm at Princeton University.”
5. Find the best place to start.
Here’s an exercise you can do with a friend, because when you’ve been staring at your pilot for a long time, an outside eye is key.
Tell your friend about the concept of your show and the major character arcs in a few sentences. Then, have your friend rattle off as many possible opening scenes as possible. Have your friend share every option that comes into her head; there are no bad ideas.
For example, if you were creating “Gilmore Girls” and described the premise, your friend might come up with these options:
Rory gets her acceptance letter for Chilton
Lorelai finds out she’s pregnant as a teen (flashback)
Rory and Lorelai nervously wait outside Richard and Emily’s house
Rory and Lorelai get coffee at Luke’s
Rory is having a miserable day at the public school she goes to
Lorelai is in the middle of a stressful day at the Independence Inn
Rory and Lorelai are fighting at home; at first, the reader thinks they’re sisters, but then it becomes clear that they’re mother and daughter
The list goes on and on.
Jot down the options that are most intriguing to you. Spend time actually writing at least two of those scenes.
Now, you have a few options: Your original scene, plus these two new ones. Read all three to see what’s the most engaging. Plus, you can share the scenes with your friend to see what pulls her in most effectively.
For more advice on nailing a cold open, read our six tips for hooking a reader in the first pages of your pilot.
Want a step-by-step process for writing your pilot, from building a solid concept that can last multiple seasons to drafting the full script? Register for our Write a Pilot in 30 Days course, taking place in January 2024! Simply click here, scroll down to click "Join," and create a sign-in to register.