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I've been working on a series. However, the series is very long and incomplete, so it's difficult to get feedback on it from others.

So I’ve been considering writing a “pilot” episode. A short story or novella that I can focus all my attention on and actually create a finished product that I can give to prospective readers to see if they would actually be interested in reading further. I've seen other written series do something similar, including novel series, webnovels, and manga.

I've tried just giving them chapter 1 but that...doesn't work, at least partially because my skills as a writer have improved since I wrote it and I'd like to try again with a better idea of knowing what I want to pitch, and partially because my chapter 1 doesn't do an ideal job in "showing the most entertaining aspects of the series" due to it only being the inciting incident. Yes, that is something I should probably adjust.

I've been trying to figure out what actually needs to be in a "pilot episode". That is, given the limited space, what does the story need to accomplish to give the reader an idea of what the overall series is like?

  • The story should introduce all the major characters. Specifically in a way that encapsulates who the characters are. Do not use "throwaway protagonists" if you can, yes Jujutsu Kaisen got away with this, but generally it creates an atmosphere of "who the heck are these people and why should I care" when they read the story.
  • The story should introduce the setting and as many of the major concepts the story utilizes as necessary. E.g., magic system, major themes that establish tone, etc.
  • The story should focus on a small, self-contained problem. The broader conflict(s) of the series can be mentioned, but they cannot be resolved within one short story.
  • The tone should be as close as possible to the "general" tone of the series, as this is basically a trial version to see if they'd like it.
  • Major twists that occur in the story should not be shown, for obvious reasons.

Notably, I've noticed that writing a pilot episode is very different from writing either a short story, for several reasons.

  • For one, a short story doesn't need to go anywhere. It's usually self-contained and doesn't have any continuity.
  • In short stories it is generally recommended to focus on a limited number of characters. E.g., in manga pilot chapters it's suggested to have no more than three focal characters: protagonist, antagonist, and "helper". But in a pilot episode it may be useful to signify that more characters exist in some way.

But other parts are less clear. Two examples are below...

  • For example, with regards to setting elements and magic systems. I've tried writing previous pilots, but I've noticed that one has a lot of the typical "exposition dump on the history of the world and why things are the way they are" that are considered mood-killers in fantasy novels. Yet, given a lot of the character's reactions and personalities are influenced by the social system they find themselves in, how does one provide enough background to make the pilot make sense? And at the same time one would want to spread out setting exposition as best as possible.
  • Another example regarding "major twists". My deuteragonist, whom previous readers have told me is a major selling point as to "why you should read this story", is introduced as a villain before joining the heroes (a la Zuko) at the end of book 1. This is part of why "just give them chapter 1" didn't work. If I set the pilot before the start of the story, one of the best selling points of the series doesn't show up. If I set it after that, it makes the reader think "wait, why don't these people know each other?" or spoils potential plot twists.

I'm not necessarily asking for answers to the above questions, what I'm more asking is more generally what does a writer need to keep in mind when deciding how to write and structure a pilot episode? I.e., how do you decide what information to put in there, what needs to be left out, and overall make a coherent "proof-of-concept" story that leaves people wanting more?

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Try looking at Wikipedia for examples. Wikipedia-search a novel you are already familiar with. You can find plenty of good examples. Notice how everything is in short, informative sentences that can convey a lot in a short space. This is how I would recommend you go about writing your pilot episode.

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