Welcome to version 4 of The Ultimate Pilot-Story Checklist! The list is rewritten, newly subdivided, and broadened to apply to more types of series (comics, webseries, book series, etc.)!
I’ve used this list to evaluate my favorite pilots and my own work. The result: my favorite pilots all pass and my own work always fall short. This tells me what I’m doing wrong. Of course, every story is unique and no pilot that I’ve evaluated has answered yes to all 128 questions, nor should it. Check out the pilot roadtests in the sidebar to see how each does on the list. If you want to play along at home, you download a copy of this checklist in docx format here.
Part 1: Is this a strong concept for an ongoing series?
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Does the concept satisfy the urges that get people to love and recommend this type of series?
Even if the setting is unpleasant, is there something about this premise that is inherently appealing? (Something that will make the audience say, “Yes, I will be able to root for some aspect of this situation to recur episode after episode.”)
Series Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong ongoing series?
If this is a TV series, is the hero role strong enough to get an actor to abandon a movie career, come to work in TV for the first time, and sign a five-year contract before shooting the pilot? (And even if not for TV, is the hero role still that strong, simply for narrative purposes?)
Are there big stakes that will persist episode after episode?
The Pilot: Will this pilot episode be marketable and generate word of mouth?
Even if this is episodic, is there a major twist or escalation at the end (though sometimes this twist will only be new to, or only revealed to, the audience) that will kick future episodes up a notch?
Part 2: Is this a compelling hero? (Note: some shows have two almost-co-equal heroes, who will tend to star in separate storylines in each episode, in which case each of these questions should be answered twice.)
Believe: Do we recognize the hero (or co-heroes) as human?
Does the hero have a moment of humanity early on? (A funny, or kind, or oddball, or out-of-character, or comically vain, or unique-but-universal “I thought I was the only one who did that!” moment?)
Care: Do we feel for the hero (or co-heroes)?
Invest: Can we trust the hero (or co-heroes) to tackle this challenge?
Does the hero use unique skills to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody else on the show would do)?
Part 3: Is this a strong ensemble (beyond the hero or co-heroes)?
Powerful: Is each member of the ensemble able to hold his or her own?
If this is a network TV series, are there at least two more roles that are strong enough to get TV veterans to sign their own five-year contracts? (And even if not for TV, are the characters still that strong, simply for narrative purposes?)
Does each member of the ensemble have a distinct and defensible point of view?
Do all of the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others? (Good characters don’t serve good, evil characters don’t serve evil.)
Do most of the main characters have some form of decision-making power? (And is the characters’ boss or bosses also part of the cast, so that major decisions will not be made by non-regulars?)
Balanced: Do the members of the ensemble balance each other out?
Does each member of the ensemble have a distinct metaphor family (different from the hero’s, even if they’re in the same profession)?
Part 4: Is the pilot episode a strong stand-alone story and good template for the ongoing series?
Template: Does this match and/or establish the standard format of this type of series
If this is intended for commercial TV, does every act end on a cliffhanger or escalation, especially the middle one (and, if not intended for commercial TV, does it still have escalations happening in roughly the same places, simply for narrative purposes)?
Pilot Story Fundamentals: Does the pilot episode have a strong story?
First Half: Is the problem established in a way that reflects human nature?
Does a troubling situation (episodic pilot) or major change in the status quo (premise pilot) develop near the beginning of the episode?
Second Half: Is the mini-goal resolved as the ongoing trouble escalates?
Are the stakes increased as the pace increases and the motivation escalates?
Does a further setback force the hero to adopt a wider view of the problem?
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has the hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
Part 5: Is each scene the best it can be?
The Set-Up: Does this scene begin with the essential elements it needs?
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character?
Are one or more characters in the scene emotionally affected by this interaction or action as the scene progresses?
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
The Outcome: Does this scene change the story going forward?
Are new questions posed that will be left unanswered for now?
Part 6: Is this powerful dialogue?
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world and each personality?
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
Is there a minimum of commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
Part 7: Does the pilot manage its tone to create and fulfill audience expectations?
Genre and Mood: Does the series tap into pre-established expectations?
If there are multiple storylines, do they establish the spectrum of moods available within that overall mood?
Framing: Does the pilot set, reset, upset and ultimately exceed its own expectations?
Are there framing devices (flashforwards, framing sequences and/or first person narration) to set the mood, pose a dramatic question, and/or pose ongoing questions?
Is there a dramatic question posed early on, which will establish in the audience’s mind which moment will mark the end of the pilot?
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
Is the dramatic question of the pilot episode’s plot answered near the end of the story?
Part 8: Does the pilot create a meaningful ongoing theme?
Pervasive: Is the theme interwoven into many aspects of the show?
Does the pilot have a statement of philosophy and/or theme, usually either at the beginning or ¾ of the way in. (Sometimes this will be the ensemble’s stated statement of philosophy, sometimes this merely be the implied theme of the series itself.)
Are the storylines in the pilot thematically linked (preferably in an indirect, subtle way)?
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimately irresolvable?
Does the end of the pilot leave the thematic dilemma wide open and irresolvable?
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