The Helpful Reviewer

Cold Opening in a Pilot

Sunday, January 5, 2020

When writing a TV pilot, one of the hardest things to do is set up your story and main character right away, without falling into writing a premise pilot, which as we previously discussed, is when you write a pilot that tells mostly backstory and only at the end the show starts, with episode two being a real template for what the show would look like. That’s not how you prove you can write for TV, as people will normally just read your pilot. So how to go about showing what your show is about, who your protagonist is, and what to expect from the show, in as little time as possible? Using the cold opening to your benefit. The cold opening is the best way to hook an audience, with a short snippet of what’s to come in the episode. In the case of a pilot, it should be used to set up the premise and the protagonist. But how to go about it? My recommendation would be to check out some of the best pilots out there, that are known for great cold openings setting up their premises.

Some that come to mind are:

  • "New Girl": In the cold opening, Jess is dumped and ends up a mess, having to move out, and ending up with tree male roommates. That’s the whole plot of the show! So well done.
  • "How I Met Your Mother": We get that Ted, an eternal romantic, is telling his kids the story of how he met their mother, as he juxtaposes his life to that of his best friends Marshall and Lily, and to his bachelor friend Barney, which is basically the premise of the show.

These are just two examples, but very clear ones—in a matter of minutes they explain the whole concept of the show. We’re hooked. We want to watch more. So my advice is to study some pilots, especially the opening sequence, to get a better grasp of how you can boil your show down to basics, so you can hook both readers and viewers right away.

Cody Smart

Cody Smart


Cody is an independent writer and script doctor from Santiago, Chile. She attended the prestigious Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, where she double majored in English Literature and Linguistics, with a minor in Dramatic Literature. She moved to L.A. and got her MFA in Screenwriting at the New York Film Academy, Universal Studios location, while at the same time working at Sony Pictures as a reader and story analyst. She also received two Certificates from UCLA, in Development and Producing for Film and TV.

Aside from her years of experience as a studio reader, she’s a judge for multiple script and film competitions, has written some award-winning short films and feature film scripts, she’s been working as a script analyst and doctor for years helping writers take their scripts to the next level, and is currently the head of the coverage department at Story Data.