Lessons I learned from reading 723 scripts
By Katrina Medoff
The first pages of your pilot need to be solid — as in, a representation of your very best work — and they need to establish us in the world succinctly.
Last year, I read hundreds of pilot scripts submitted for Women’s Weekend Film Challenge’s inaugural pilot accelerator, and I saw some general themes emerge for how to make the opening of your pilot stand out. Read the six tips below, and then submit your pilot to WWFC’s second annual pilot accelerator by Jan. 4, 2023, for a chance to pitch your project to Netflix, HBO, Showtime and more.
1) Your opening scene should introduce us to the main character(s) through conflict.
One great example is Schitt’s Creek. The show opens on an establishing shot of an opulent mansion, and then we’re inside the entryway, where a maid is walking to the door; someone is ringing the doorbell incessantly. She opens it to find a horde of people from the Revenue Agency, who barge in to seize the Rose family’s fortune. We meet Johnny, Moira, David, and Alexis as they scramble to salvage personal items and make sense of their new reality. Already, the characters are distinct: Moira is weeping over her wigs, and David is yelling at the feds, asking why anyone would want to “destroy another person’s life.” In the next scene, we learn that the only asset the government has allowed the family to retain is the town of Schitt’s Creek.
A lot of writers submit pilot scripts where in the first few pages, we see characters going about their regular lives — waking up, getting ready for the day, working, etc. There’s no conflict yet; instead, the writer is trying to establish who the character is.
Instead, try to start your pilot like Dan Levy does in Schitt’s Creek. We didn’t need to see the Roses’ old lifestyles to get a sense of who they are; we just needed to see how they reacted to losing everything they had.
Importantly, Levy doesn’t drop us into the scene without any background; the establishing shots of the mansion and luxurious entryway with hired help give us useful information.
2) The conflict in the first pages of your pilot should either be the inciting incident or center around a central theme of the series.
The pilot script for The Handmaid’s Tale opens on a car racing down the road and skidding off. June and her husband Luke, with their young daughter in tow, are panicked and make a snap decision to split up and run. By the end of the scene, men in uniforms have snatched June’s daughter away and seized June, mentioning that they need to be careful with her because “she’s a red tag.”
Right away, we get a sense of June and Luke’s relationship, the stakes, and the dystopian world; while it looks present-day, these men aren’t in any uniforms we recognize, and the throwaway “red tag” comment hints toward more that we don’t know. In terms of theme, we see that June’s body is being turned into an object (although we’re not yet sure what its purpose is), and we’re already seeing the traumatic separation that will drive much of June’s action in the series.
3) If your series is a procedural, the pilot needs to serve two purposes: being a “regular episode” AND introducing us to the characters and the world. The teaser needs to reflect that.
If we’re going to see a mystery, a medical emergency, a murder or a PR nightmare in each episode of the series, there needs to be one in your pilot, too. You can’t just spend the whole pilot setting up the characters and the world; we also need to see them in action.
Take a look at the teasers of your favorite procedurals, and you’ll notice that often, the “crisis of the week” is introduced in the very first scene. In Madam Secretary, for example, we see two American citizens being held as hostages before we ever meet the protagonist. Already, it’s a life-or-death situation.
Similarly, the pilot of Law & Order: SVU opens on an overhead shot of a busy crime scene. We see a car pull in, and two people get out. “Sex Crimes?” an officer on the scene asks. Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler introduce themselves. The officer shares the details of the crime. Benson and Stabler are on the case, and we cut to the theme song. In the next scene, our protagonists are at the precinct, where we meet the rest of the cast of characters through fast-paced dialogue. This episode serves as an introduction to the world and the characters, but it’s also just a regular case-of-the-week episode.
In some cases, we’ll be introduced to the world through the eyes of a character who’s being shown the ropes, such as in the procedural-turned-serialized drama “Scandal.” Before we get to the scandal of the week, we see Quinn being offered a job with Olivia Pope, followed by a scene of Olivia in action as she resolves a high-stakes crisis. Quinn arrives at the office, overwhelmed by this new atmosphere — and then a man walks in, covered with blood, kicking off the meat of this episode.
4) Consider the “flash forward,” but be wary of it.
Some pilots — think Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead — really nail the “flash forward” opening, where we see some intense action right off the bat and then rewind to the beginning. This structure especially works when the beginning of the story isn’t able to hint to the action that’s coming, like in Breaking Bad. The first scene shows Walt in his underwear and gas mask careening down a desert highway with bodies in the back of his RV. Without that flash forward, we would just see a high school chemistry teacher struggling with a crappy second job and learning he has cancer. That would be a lot of action if this show were a family drama, but since we’re going to see high-stakes drug dealing, murder, and other various law-breaking, it’s nice to get the audience on board with that right away.
However, this type of cold open doesn’t fit every pilot, and yet a ton of writers start their scripts this way. It gets old when you read cold opens like this back to back — plus, many writers who begin their pilots with a flash forward don’t follow it with a compelling scene. Often, writers use an action-packed opening to justify a slow pace in the rest of the pilot. You don’t want to catch a reader’s attention right off the bat just to lose it in the next scene.
Some writers start with a flash forward, go to the present, then have a flashback. Unless jumping around in time is crucial to the story, this structure gives the impression that the writer hasn’t settled on the best entry point for the story.
If you flash forward in the opening, make sure there’s a real reason to do so. And before you commit to that as your cold open, play around with other ideas; there may be a more compelling point in the story to use as the teaser.
5) Don’t open with a dream or an alarm.
It’s frustrating to read an opening scene and then find out that it’s not real when the character wakes up. A dream might give us a window into a character’s psyche, but in reality, the action of the scene can be described as “character wakes up.” More should happen in your first scene than something that happens to every person on earth every day.
Yes, there are times that the dream opening has been done in wildly successful projects — think the movie “Bring It On,” where we learn immediately that we’re not going to see the story of a stereotypical, mean cheerleading captain; this cheerleader is human and has anxieties, too. However, this type of cold open is truly overdone and doesn’t help your script stand out in the pile.
Likewise, after reading hundreds of pilots — and watching hundreds of short films and reels from applicants to the Women’s Weekend Film Challenge — I can tell you that opening with an alarm going off has been done far, far too many times. Sure, it can be a great character-building exercise to write a scene where your character wakes up and goes about their morning routine. But instead of opening your pilot with that scene, file it away as helpful information about your protagonist.
A few other teasers we see a lot:
- Sex scenes, which work best when sex is a major part of your concept (such as in Sex Education). It’s less effective when simply used to grab attention or seem gritty.
- Influencers livestreaming on social media before their less-perfect real lives are revealed to the reader.
- Audition scenes, especially when the casting director is stereotyping the actor in some way.
- Movie scene fakeouts, where we see an action-packed or dramatic sequence, and then a director yells “Cut!” and we learn that it was a film all along.
Note that any of these openings can work well in the right hands for an appropriate project; just be aware that they’re used often.
6) Proofread the hell out of it.
Your cold open is your first impression, and it needs to be completely free of spelling, grammar, formatting and punctuation mistakes.
Before you submit your script to any contest, you should read your pilot multiple times and have a trusted friend comb through it for errors. Submitting a polished product shows that you are taking this opportunity seriously and that you’re ready for the next stage in your career.
Readers might let a couple typos or formatting errors slide if the script is otherwise stellar, but if it’s riddled with mistakes, it’s going to be distracting to them. When a reader has to re-read a sentence a few times because of a confusing grammatical error, it slows down the pacing of the script. Similarly, when she has to flip back to the previous page to decipher if she’s reading a phone conversation because you neglected to write that one character was off screen, you take her out of the flow.
A lot of people think, “Since typos are so easy to fix, why should it matter if my script has typos? Shouldn’t a reader be able to look past that?” My answer: If typos are so easy to fix, you might as well just fix them so that they’re not a distraction from your work.
How to apply to the accelerator:
Applications for WWFC’s 2023 pilot accelerator are now open through Jan. 4, 2023. Submit your pilot script for a chance to receive three weeks of industry training and the opportunity to pitch to major studios and production companies including HBO, Netflix, Showtime, Sid Gentle, Element Pictures, Fabel Entertainment, Yes, Norman, Anonymous Content, Irish Cowboy and more! Visit womensweekendfilmchallenge.com/pilotaccelerator to learn more and apply.
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