Opening a TV Pilot (The Good Wife, Downton Abbey, The Walking Dead)
When an InkTip-approved producer starts to read your script, you’ve already piqued their interest with your dynamic logline and hooked them with your compelling synopsis and intriguing résumé, but now you need to reel them in with precise execution on the page, and that begins with a great opening sequence.
You must suck in the reader with a well-crafted opening that shows them the look and feel of your unique world, defines your protagonist in action, and establishes a fascinating Central Dramatic Question to give the story a sense of mystery, urgency and momentum. Perhaps most importantly, these first few pages need to show the reader why they should care about these particular people in this place and this time.
Nowhere is this more important than on television where every season a new batch of pilots contend for an audience. With so many viewing options available to a fickle channel-changer, those opening scenes are sometimes the only hope for a series to gain traction and avoid cancellation.
In TV, the beginning of a script is referred to as a “Cold Open” or “Teaser,” because we are thrown into the action of the story, our interest is piqued, and we are left with a wanting for more. Usually, “Cold Open” applies to 30-minute sitcoms and “Teaser” is used by one-hour dramas. Let’s focus on dramas for now.
What attributes must your Teaser have to be effective?
Your Teaser must draw in the viewer with dynamic images, a strong sense of place, time and tone, and an expression of the central theme of the series. Ideally, there is movement of some kind to inject a sense of energy and forward propulsion in the narrative...leading to a surprising discovery.
Let’s look at memorable opening sequences from three hit shows:
The Good Wife
In The Good Wife, we open on the image of a husband and wife’s hands joined. In a tracking shot, we follow their hands as they enter a room filled with news photographers. Their hands separate as flash-bulbs explode, leading us to a press conference where the husband defends allegations of impropriety and the wife bristles at the thought of his affair. This “Teaser” ends with the wife slapping the husband and walking away from him. The partnership has dissolved and she is now utterly alone. What does she do now? How will she start over?
In Downton Abbey, we follow the servants of the manor in an unbroken Steadicam shot. As they do their jobs, we see the opulent rooms of the mansion, perfectly establishing the time period and aristocratic tone. Meanwhile, we cross-cut to a teletype machine receiving a dramatic message and the morning paper spreading the news throughout the house. We will soon find out that The Titanic has just sunk, killing the rightful heir to the Abbey. This is the catalyst that kicks the first season into motion.
The Walking Dead
In The Walking Dead, we meet our hero, Sheriff Rick Grimes, as he searches for gasoline amidst what looks to be a post-apocalyptic wasteland. We don’t yet know why he seems to be the only living person around; he seems just as confused as we are. It’s a familiar dramatic scenario, so we’re looking to see what sets this story apart from the cliché-ridden hosts of its genre brethren. When Rick spots a little girl from behind and calls out to her, she turns around to reveal she’s a zombie. She shuffles toward him, hungry for flesh, and Rick is forced to pull his gun and take his first zombie casualty – we immediately understand that this is a show about the terrible decisions made to maintain one’s humanity when society breaks down. This will be the emotional throughline of the series.
Cue cool opening titles sequence!
If you’d like to learn more about the structure of a TV pilot script, please join me for my webinar “The TV Pilot Beat Sheet: From ABC to AMC to HBO to Netflix” (on sale through 11/28/14!) presented by The Writers Store. You can also learn more about me and my Story Maps method here.
Good luck and happy writing,
Daniel P. Calvisi
Go to ActFourScreenplays.com for more about him, Story Maps, and to listen to the Story Maps Screenwriting Podcast.
Follow Dan on Twitter: @StoryMapsDan.