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How to write the pilot script for a fictional series?

By Hermes Leal

There are countless ways and tips to structure the writing of a “pilot” script for a series of fiction, the very important first episode, which will serve as a mirror of the entire series. So it requires a lot of attention. The knowledge that we are going to introduce is not a hint, but a strategy for structuring the narrative and the characters, generated after decades of scientific studies in the area of ​​narrative theory.

What differs it from the others, is that, in the first episode, there is the function of setting up future conflicts, which begin through “contracts” between the characters for a journey, which will determine the expected and unexpected events of the following episodes. In this sense, the first episode, considered as a pilot, does not have a separate theory from the other episodes in a series, and will only be developed satisfactorily, when the series is written until its last episode.

This type of narrative creation has a "beginning" with the function of organizing the presentation of the characters and their journeys, through "contracts" with other characters, not always because of their wishes or interests. We consider the contract between the characters (as something already defined by Aristotle in an implicit logic) a need, in terms of action, to exercise a manipulation and arrangements, related to this contract, and a sanction, in the last act, when the truth of the contract should be revealed. What we add now are the passions of the characters in this contract, which has a “concessive” character, of not predicting what will happen to the future of the characters. And that it will arrive unpredictable in the form of surprises.

No pilot script for “Game of Thrones” (HBO, 2011), the scenes are well distributed among the characters to meet the main contracts. The consummation of Daenerys Targaryen, the Queen of Dragons' contract with warlord Dothraki Khal Drogo, in exchange for an army to conquer Westeros and regain the Iron Throne, begins and ends in the first episode. Jon Snow's contract with the Night's Watch also begins and ends in the first episode, as does the promise of a marriage contract between members of the Ned Stark and Lannister families. A contract between north and south.

What is at stake in a pilot episode, related to the contract, is that it is a type of illusory contract, it does not always have its clauses explicit, in which a character also does not always know what is "signing" in this contract. Each character wants something different from the other, when they establish this contractual phase, therefore, the tendency to appear problems later on. Especially, when this contract is broken. Because the contracts are governed by the "passionate intentions" of the other characters.

Daenerys' contract for her long journey, when she marries out of interest, includes a level of "feeling", which deals with the passion of "revenge" that affects her, and which will come to the fore in the last episode of the saga, when she is killed by Jon Snow, in the sanction, where the truth needed to be revealed. Jon Snow's contract to be a patrolman includes a feeling of resentment and hurt at being a bastard, a no-one in the series' values. It will be your passion for hurt and rebellion that will move you to the contract with the Patrol.

The first episode of “Game of Thrones” dedicates three long sequences to show suffering as Jon Snow's bastard; in the division of the wolf cubs, when he is segregated from the family during the party and in the unexpected conversation with the dwarf Tyrion. This type of contractual journey, which takes into account the "acting" and "feeling" of the characters, is present in any quality series.

It is through this “contract”, which can be with an object or with a cause, that John Snow joins the Night's Watch, due to his passion for rebellion, bitterness for being a bastard. He acts and shapes his destiny because of this revolt. The emotional contract between Jon Snow and his half sister Arya Stark is motivated by this passion for revolt and rebellion, because they feel excluded.

All contracts will be called into question in the following episodes, going through a phase of "arrangement" between the characters so that the contract works, when the characters manipulate others due to this contract, and it closes when the truth hidden in the contract comes afloat. This journey, which goes from “contract to sanction”, is a journey that goes “from an illusion to a truth”.

The curve that closes at the end is related to the journey started with the contract in this first episode. On the emotional level, John Snow needs to close his passionate wound, his resentment for being a bastard will need to be liquidated in the future.

In the pilot of the miniseries “Chernobyl” (HBO, 2019), the events in the action plan, related to the nuclear accident, reflect the tension of the characters due to the contracts between them that structure the narrative and the internal journey of at least two main characters : by Lyudmilla Ignatenko with the fireman Vasily Ignatenko, who works as a tool for the screenwriter to show the “suffering” of the characters affected by the radiation. Lyudmilla's contract, in this first episode, has the function of showing the suffering of the characters, in the middle of the search for her husband in the following episodes.

The other contract, in the first episode, takes place between the scientist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) and the bureaucrat Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård), who opens and closes the episode, starting with a recording of the truth before the suicide and closing with their conflicting connection with Shcherbina, which will be shown as
“Arrangement” between the two characters in the next episodes, so that they can adjust to each other. The contract with the bureaucrat exists due to the revelation of the truth (in the sanction), in the last episode, when this truth, recorded in the first episode, surfaced, that the Soviet communist state tried to hide its guilt and responsibility.

All characters, in the first episode of “Big Little Lies” (HBO, 2017), act around a contract with another character, especially the four wives with their husbands. The first episode has, in the action plan, the reunion of mothers and friends looking for their children at the door of a school. And he closes, at night, with all those characters acting as a result of contracts, in insomnia and dissatisfaction, without sleeping, as if they all had a fault in their soul.

The first episode is to show the passions of the characters, to argue the intrigues and the suspense about the culprit being one of those women. We know who the stressed Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) really is, when she discusses her contract with her naive husband, Ed (Adam Scott), revealing, on the plane of passion, how insecure she is and immature.

The pilot serves to structure the main contract of the series, between two female characters, the popular Madeline and the suffering Jane (Shailene Woodley), who was raped in the past, resulting in a son, now six, and wants to find out who caused him this damage and take revenge. It is through the marriage contract of Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman) that the drama becomes violent, and that the winner Renata Klein (Laura Dern) reveals her arrogance and intolerance, when her husband does not listen to her.

While, in the action plan, there is a “damage” caused to Jane, who has a six-year-old son, the result of this rape, which needs to be settled in the other episodes, because in this first episode she is the character that most experiences feelings of hate , anger and opens the sense that will close the series, when it will be revealed who was killed, and who was the murderer. The contract between Madeline and Jane allowed this well-organized narrative construction to close each character's narrative program, which started in the first act.

And the novelty is also that, in this theory, the "feeling" of the characters and their internal journey, uncertain, suffering and full of unforeseen events, is included in the action journey. Jane has this fracture to resolve, as all other women have theirs. It will be the search for the truth, in relation to the father of his son, and the accusations that he is violent, that will move the passionate tensions of the following episodes, and close the “passionate” problems of the characters that arose in the first act.

This contract theory is bigger than this summary limited to the characters' action plan, and can be better studied and understood in a broad study applied in films and series, called “The Passions in the Characters”, which is found in Amazon website, translated into three languages.

Within our narrative theory, we can donate necessary tools for a screenwriter to develop this first episode well, showing a character's curve to undergo transformations. For this, it is necessary that the arc of a story, with a beginning, middle and end, be operated by these obligatory transformations of the characters. A transformation at the level of "action" that must also occur at the level of "feeling" of the characters.