The typical runtime of an hour long pilot may seem obvious. It’s right there in the title, after all: one hour. However, the length of an hour long pilot varies both in terms of page count and runtime based on the medium you’re targeting and the format you choose to employ. 18 years ago, long before Netflix was a glimmer in Reed Hastings’ eye and almost a decade before Matt Weiner sold Mad Men to the then fledgling AMC Network, the hour long pilot format was far simpler to explain. It was an if/then scenario best summed up as, “If you were selling to broadcast, then you wrote in the four act structure and if you were selling to pay cable, then you had carte blanche.”
But things have changed quite a bit in the intervening years. First, broadcast networks moved toward a five act model which allowed for an additional commercial break, and, soon after, basic cable followed suit. Pay cable outlets continue to play by their own rules, and the advent of streaming has allowed for structural flexibility. However, most networks are still beholden to advertising. Take, for example, Hulu and CBS All Access, both of which have commercial loads. Therefore, this piece will focus primarily on the six act structure that currently dominates broadcast and ad supported cable/streaming.
Before we get started, let’s talk about why this is where we’re starting. Your pilot needs to function as both a proof of concept for the series and a clear point of entry. This is to say that it needs to walk the fine line of showing people what to expect week in and week out, while also justifying why this is the place we’re first dropping in on the narrative. The exception to this is the premise pilot, but those are few and far between. It’s also important to know from the start what you aspire to say through not just the pilot but also the series at large. Themes drives TV series just as much as character and story. Furthermore, a good writer should also be aware of where they see their pilot landing. In other words, don’t write something you would expect to live on CW without act breaks.
Separate from the act break is the act out, a cliffhanger moment that serves as punctuation within your pilot. Whether or not you are writing a pilot you expect to live on an ad supported television, it is important to understand that TV has certain rhythms. Even a series like STRANGER THINGS, which was conceived for streaming and built to be binged, still has moments that effectively double as act outs and allow the audience to catch their breath. Below you’ll find an excerpt from the original STRANGER THINGS pilot (then titled MONTAUK). This scene closes Act One.
Another show that understood the value of an act out better than most, was USA’s WHITE COLLAR. The Jeff Eastin created series was particularly good at building tension throughout a given act and then using the commercial break as a mini cliffhanger. Not just in its pilot but throughout the entire run of the series.
Most hour long pilots will have an A, B and C story. The A story is your primary narrative thrust and takes up the bulk of your page count. In serialized storytelling, this is likely the protagonist’s story whereas in procedural storytelling is typically your case of the week. The B story runs parallel to the A story and may or may not inform it. In procedural storytelling (ie cop dramas, medical shows and other series with episodic based storytelling), this would be the personal stories occurring around the case of the week. With regard to serialized storytelling, it tends to center around a strong supporting character. Using GAME OF THRONES as an example, the pilot A story is that of Ned Stark and his family while the B story belongs to the Lannisters. Now, because GOT is such a dense show, their A and B stories do eventually intersect in the closing moments of the pilot but they don’t always have to. GOT also has enough characters to juggle that their C story is sprawling and centers around Daenerys Targaryen, arguably their female lead. Normally, C stories are less integral and exist almost on the periphery. The C story can sometimes be referred to as the “runner” because it is doled out in bits and dovetails into the A story.
Kit Harington, Isaac Hempstead-Wright, and Richard Madden in Game of Thrones
Although there is no set page count for each act of a pilot, we can find a general mean by looking at past works. Below you’ll see the page counts of three recent successes. HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER was selected because it represents the last development cycle before the six act structure began to dominate. With MANIFEST and RIVERDALE, you can see how the first act has grown in size to accommodate an embedded teaser. However, MANIFEST’s subsequent acts are more evenly distributed whereas Riverdale is top heavy.
More and more the teaser is being rolled into Act One, which in turn makes Act One the longest of all six acts. It tends to hover somewhere around 20 pages. These 20 pages begin with a brisk, usually no more than 6 page, teaser that hints at things to come and the title card. Afterwards, the pilot rolls into the remainder of the first act, which sets up the world and introduces us to the main characters we’ll be following.
Melissa Roxburgh and Josh Dallas in Manifest
Act Two builds off the end of Act One and can be used to introduce the B story. It is where things start churning and the greater problem facing our characters begins to take shape. When partnered with the first act and the embedded teaser, this should bring us to the halfway mark of the episode. In MANIFEST, the opening act closes with the realization that all of the passengers aboard the lost commercial airliner have returned and none of them have aged a day. In Act Two, we see them begin to re-acclimate to life in a world that has passed them by. For the passengers, nary a day has passed but for all of their loved ones it has been 5 years, which obviously creates complications and affirms the stakes of the series moving forward.
It’s easier to think of Act Three and Act Four in tandem. If you come from the feature world, then this portion of the pilot should remind you of Act Two there. And, if not, let me break it down further. Act Three and Four are where the characters begin to struggle and fail. This is the meat of the episode. Usually, there is a moment of false resolution at the end of Act Three that culminates in the all is lost moment. Thus, much of Act Four sees the characters at their lowest. The aforementioned RIVERDALE pilot actually has two of these moments back to back. First, we see that someone is lurking outside of Archie’s house and then we cut to Betty’s home where she and her mother are arguing. Just as their fight reaches its apex there is a loud SLAM and we cut to black.
Cole Sprouse and Lili Reinhart in Riverdale
This is where we find resolution. Depending on the type of show (procedural v. serial), that closure may be temporary or finite. Regardless of the format, this is where the characters hopefully learn something.
In some cases, Act Six may simply serve as a TAG that hints at adventures to come. A good example of this is THE FLASH, which often uses their closing moments to highlight problems on the horizon. For others, this is a full act with a full page count. It could possibly be where the B story comes to close and/or where the C story pays off.
Remember, screenwriting is an art and no two pilots are the same. But, there are certain guidelines that it helps to follow, if you want your work to be acknowledged as professional. Be aware of your audience and know the rules. Once you master the basics, feel free to experiment more with you structure.