Story Structure: Linking Your Series Dilemma To Your Pilot Dilemma

During my story consults, the current most-discussed topic is the idea of “linking dilemmas” in the 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.

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.

'The Americans'

‘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.

Your series arc bookends your pilot and could have one or two scenes in the middle.

Pilots with strong examples of this structure include:

The Good Wife;
Luther; and
The Americans.

In The Good Wife, the series arc is that Peter betrays Alicia by committing a crime and going to jail. Alicia must decide what to do to bring financial and emotional security to her family; this is her dilemma. The series dilemma bleeds into the pilot dilemma in that Alicia, after many years as a stay-at-home mom and political wife, needs to secure an attorney position in a law firm, and, thereby, achieve financial security for her family, by winning her first case. Her personal dilemma that links directly to the series arc drives her professional goal. If she doesn’t win the case, she could lose the position. If she loses the position, she won’t bring security to her family. Alicia’s major obstacle is Cary, a fellow attorney vying for the same position. The stakes are high as Alicia starts her first case. The pilot dilemma only occurs due to the series dilemma.

In Luther, the series arc sets up Luther’s wound, his anger and the trigger incident, which occurs when the criminal Luther is chasing is hanging from a building, several stories up, and we learn that the criminal is a pedophile who abducted and killed many children. Should Luther let the pedophile fall and then report that he did not arrive on the scene in time to save the criminal as justice for the children or should he pull the criminal to safety? After making his choice, Luther suffers a mental breakdown and takes months off before returning to work; thus, his choice leads to the pilot dilemma. When Luther returns to work after several months spent in an anger management program, he knows that he is in a probationary period. We learn that Luther’s boss fought to get Luther back on the force and put her reputation on the line for him so Luther needs to solve his first case back while wrestling his demons. The pilot dilemma would not exist if the series dilemma was not in place. The series dilemma links to the pilot dilemma. The choice Luther made in the series dilemma is the personal dilemma that drives him toward the professional goal.

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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How to Write a Screenplay, How to Write for Television, How to Write Pilots and Spec Scripts, Screenwriter Blogs, Screenwriting How-To Articles, Story Structure by Jen Grisanti
Jen Grisanti

About Jen Grisanti

International speaker Jen Grisanti is an acclaimed Story/Career Consultant at Jen Grisanti Consultancy Inc., Writing Instructor for Writers on the Verge at NBC, a former 12-year studio executive, including VP of Current Programming at CBS/Paramount, blogger for The Huffington Post and author of the books, Story Line: Finding Gold In Your Life Story and TV Writing Tool Kit: How To Write a Script That Sells and her new book, Change Your Story, Change Your Life: A Path To Your Success. Grisanti started her career in 1992 as an assistant to Aaron Spelling, who served as her mentor for 12 years, and she quickly climbed the ranks and eventually ran Current Programs at Spelling Television Inc., covering all of Spelling’s shows including Beverly Hills, 90210, Melrose Place and Charmed. In 2004, Grisanti was promoted to Vice President of Current Programs at CBS/Paramount where she covered numerous shows, including Medium, Numbers, NCIS, 4400 and Girlfriends. In January 2008, Grisanti launched Jen Grisanti Consultancy Inc., a highly successful consulting firm dedicated to helping talented writers break into the industry. Drawing on her experience as a studio executive where she gave daily notes to executive producers/showrunners, Grisanti personally guides writers to shape their material, hone their pitches and focus their careers. Since launching the consulting firm, Grisanti has worked with over 900 writers specializing in television, features and novels. Due to her expertise and mentorship, seventy-five of her writers have staffed on television shows and forty-four have sold pilots, five that that went to series. Grisanti has taught classes for the Toronto Screenwriting Conference, TV Writers Summit (in LA, London and Israel), The TV Writers Studio (in Australia), Story Expo, The Big Island Film Festival, Chicago Screenwriters Network, Scriptwriters Network , Screenwriting Expo, the Great American Pitchfest, the Writers Store, the Northwestern Screenwriter’s Guild in Seattle, and the Alameda’s Writer’s Group. In addition, she has served on panels for the WGA, iTVFest, UFVA, PGA and The Writer’s Bootcamp, telling her story to inspire others. Grisanti attended USC where she received a B.A. in Communications

2 thoughts on “Story Structure: Linking Your Series Dilemma To Your Pilot Dilemma

  1. donag

    Thank you for this article. Your description shows me that the story structure I have for a novel and screenplay is also good for a TV series or movie franchise. Who knew? Not I. Bless you.