Introduce Your TV Pilot With A Dilemma

TV script consultant, Jen Grisanti discusses how to approach writing a TV pilot.

A hot trend in story structure is having the series dilemma link to the pilot dilemma. When done correctly, you set up both a closed-ended arc and an ongoing serialized arc for your story.

A dilemma is defined as being forced to act to an negative event and none of available solutions are desirable. This creates conflict because the main character is forced to behave in ways they might normally chose not to.

The basic rule is this: establish the series dilemma in your pilot opening. In the opening,establish the following:

  • the world
  • the central character
  • the wound of the central character
  • the trigger incident; and the dilemma.

Consider the following example for the FX series ‘The Americans”:

The world establishes the tone of your pilot and the engine for your story. By establishing the central character and the wound that is driving him/her, you set up the motivation driving the central character toward the external goal.

The trigger incident is the event that forces your character into a dilemma. Your character must make a choice. The series dilemma will link to your pilot dilemma; in other words, your pilot dilemma can only occur because the series dilemma exists. By linking the series dilemma to the pilot dilemma and your pilot goal, you establish the personal wound that connects to the professional goal.

Your pilot dilemma should result directly from the overarching series dilemma. The pilot dilemma is one that would not happen but for the existence of the series dilemma. The choice your central character makes as a result of the pilot dilemma is the external goal for the A story. All of your obstacles, escalating obstacles and “all is lost” moments should connect back to your pilot goal or your series dilemma. The external goal that stems from your pilot goal should be achieved in your last Act.

In The Americans, in the series arc, the central characters, a pair of deep undercover Soviet spies masquerading as a married couple, fail at their mission. In the pilot, the central characters are established and we see the wound displayed in what they have to do for their job. The trigger incident occurs when another Soviet spy gets hurt and they have to drop him off at the ER, making them late for their delivery of a captured defector to a ship bound for Russia.

The series dilemma is: what does a Russian spy couple do after they fail to complete a mission? This links directly to the pilot dilemma: what do they do with the KGB Colonel they captured who is supposed to be on a ship to Russia? While having the same goal of resolving the issue with the KGB Colonel, the wife and husband have different ideas as to how to achieve this goal. We learn at the end of Act I that the KGB Colonel raped the wife when she was training in the KGB. With this reveal, we learn that her personal dilemma connects with the professional goal of getting rid of the KGB Colonel. The pilot dilemma would not be possible without the existence of the series dilemma.

When you add the layer of “linking dilemmas” to your TV pilot, you add more complexity to your story. You enable your show to have a closed-ended story as well as a serialized arc.


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