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The Art of Television: You Have One Episode

Updated on August 3, 2012

Gather 'Round

Come hear the tale.
Come hear the tale.

Just One

You have exactly one episode to sell the entire viewing public on your television show. Such a simple statement, it almost goes without saying. So, why am I saying it?

We consume media at such an astounding rate, it's a wonder we have any attention span left at all. If you can't sink your hooks into the audience after one episode, there's no guarantee they will give you a second episode, let alone an entire season.

Sadly, this is a pattern I see all too often, especially on network TV - an excruciatingly slow build of character arcs and plot lines that culminate into a season finale designed to blow us all away. The only problem is, most of the audience stopped watching months ago.

I can't count the number of programs that had the potential for greatness, but simply couldn't keep enough people interested. That first season might evolve into a massive orb of pulsating brilliance, but if the pilot episode doesn't enrapture your audience, no one is going to be around to care.

The 15 Minute Rule

One of the first things they teach in film school is "the fifteen minute rule." You have fifteen minutes to attract and retain the attention of your audience when they sit down to watch a film on the big screen.

In writer's terms, you have fifteen pages (each page represents one minute of screen time) to set up the entire film and hook your audience, and motion pictures average ninety minutes/pages.

With action films, you have even less time - you've got to fire a gun, blow something up, or kill someone in under five minutes or your audience will collectively pick up their cell phones and start texting their friends and family.

Since television shows average 12 episodes per season, and each episode is 22-30 or 42-60 minutes, it's counterintuitive to assume your audience is going to sit through hours of programming for a payoff that might not ever happen.

Your entire pilot episode needs to be treated exactly like the first fifteen pages of a screenplay. Not only does it need to establish and set the tone for the entire show, but it must clearly define a main character (even with an ensemble cast), and be just as powerful as the epic season finale it will eventually lead to.

There's no reason to hold anything back, because there's no guarantee you're going to have an audience after that first episode - it's that simple.

Good luck, and happy writing!

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    • GoForTheJuggler profile imageAUTHOR

      Joshua Patrick 

      4 years ago from Texas

      Au fait - Thanks so much, and I'm glad you enjoyed it!

    • Au fait profile image

      C E Clark 

      4 years ago from North Texas

      Writing here on HP, a person has about 10 seconds to grab and hold a reader's attention. This is a very good information and advice for wannabe writers of all different kinds of work.

      Voted up, AUI, pinned to my "Writing' board, and will share with my followers.

    • carol7777 profile image

      carol stanley 

      6 years ago from Arizona

      Interesting about TV. I know when I see the first episode I am either sold or not..and impatient enough not to come back sometimes. I know challenging writing scripts are. Great Hub.

    • alocsin profile image

      alocsin 

      6 years ago from Orange County, CA

      I do write plays but have never attempted television scripts because I feel they're more challenging. Voting this Up and Useful.

    • GoForTheJuggler profile imageAUTHOR

      Joshua Patrick 

      6 years ago from Texas

      wrenfrost56, thanks for commenting, and I'm glad I helped you learn something new!

    • wrenfrost56 profile image

      wrenfrost56 

      6 years ago from U.K.

      Great hub, 15 minutes seems like no time at all, I did not realize that. Full of really useful information. :)

    • GoForTheJuggler profile imageAUTHOR

      Joshua Patrick 

      6 years ago from Texas

      SayItWithFeeling - I'm like you, very rarely will I stop watching something... it has to be REALLY bad for me to give up on it. There's always something to learn, even in bad films/shows. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

    • SayItWithFeeling profile image

      SayItWithFeeling 

      6 years ago from Spanish Fort, Alabama

      While I personally try and stay through until the end, I definitely understand having to get the audience in the first 15 minutes. I just had someone comment about one of the movies I reviewed and said that they watched 10 minutes of it, lost interest and turned it off. This is very solid advice that anyone who's trying to make it into the film industry should take into account. Very good article!

    • GoForTheJuggler profile imageAUTHOR

      Joshua Patrick 

      6 years ago from Texas

      LetitiaFT, thanks for stopping by and commenting - I'm glad you enjoyed it, and I too hope more writers out there realize this!

    • LetitiaFT profile image

      LetitiaFT 

      6 years ago from Paris via California

      Terrific article. I don't write screenplays (yet) but I translate them. Some have me typing from the edge of my seat from the get-go, others having me getting up for coffee every five minutes. Would that every screenwriter follow your advice!

    • GoForTheJuggler profile imageAUTHOR

      Joshua Patrick 

      6 years ago from Texas

      Thanks so much for the kind words, barbergirl28! I hope more writers out there come to this realization, for the sake of the industry.

    • barbergirl28 profile image

      Stacy Harris 

      6 years ago from Hemet, Ca

      These are absolutlely great - and goes well with your cure to writer's block as well. If more writers used the thought that you only have one... things might be a lot more different. Every piece has to be brilliant. Great advice and great hub!

    • GoForTheJuggler profile imageAUTHOR

      Joshua Patrick 

      6 years ago from Texas

      Thanks for stopping by, Nell - I'm glad you enjoyed the hub! Good luck finding good TV out there. I swear it exists, but it can be hard to find sometimes. I guess I'll have to write a hub about good TV shows! =P

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 

      6 years ago from England

      Yes this does make sense, I know that when I am watching something for the first time I give myself five minutes to like it or hate it! lol! not much gets past me! haha! seriously though its great advice. we get so many programs over here that are the same, and of course we get the American ones too, I will give you an example of the sort of thing I mean, most programs these days seem to aim at the teen audience, long nails flowing hair and boring themes, but then I saw an episode of Revenge, which is similar, but was completely hooked within the first five minutes, they got that right! and now I am addicted, so yes great advice, and nice to meet you! lol! nell

    • GoForTheJuggler profile imageAUTHOR

      Joshua Patrick 

      6 years ago from Texas

      Yes Jools99, the 15 minute rule has stuck with me since I learned about it. It seems a bit daunting at first, but the best way to figure out how to conquer that challenge is to study successful films and TV shows and find out what they did right and wrong.

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 

      6 years ago from North-East UK

      Very interesting article - and a bit scary too that all you get is 15 minutes of viewing time to grab an audience's attention but understandable I suppose. I have seen movies which have failed to do this and there's nothing more frustrating than going the distance with a movie and being disappointed. Character development needs to be pinned down early, we need to engage with characters in a movie quickly to make the action more exciting.

    • GoForTheJuggler profile imageAUTHOR

      Joshua Patrick 

      6 years ago from Texas

      @TIMETRAVELER2 - That's a great point. I'll make sure to keep 'em coming.

    • TIMETRAVELER2 profile image

      Sondra Rochelle 

      6 years ago from USA

      What you say here is very similar to the advice you get for writing online: grab em quick, keep it simple, readers are often fickle! This was very interesting and I'm waiting to read more. Voted up and interesting.

    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 

      6 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Hey, GoForTheJuggler . . .wow, you mean something "I" thought of actually sounds sensible??? Sometimes even an unknown like me 'can' give someone talented like yourself a spark of something worthwhile. Loved the hub. You are a terrific writer.

      Peace and Sanity,

      Kenneth

    • GoForTheJuggler profile imageAUTHOR

      Joshua Patrick 

      6 years ago from Texas

      That's a great idea Kenneth! I will try to work that in the first chance I get, or maybe even add another section to this hub.

    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 

      6 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Absolutely fantastic work. Voted up and away. Enjoyed your advice about filming and shows, but could your "15 minute rule," be adapted to hub-writing, you know, "we" have only "two minutes," in the opening paragraph to sell our hub idea to the reader? I think you are onto something. Loved it.

      Kenneth

    • GoForTheJuggler profile imageAUTHOR

      Joshua Patrick 

      6 years ago from Texas

      Thanks for the feedback, StegToDiffer - my goal here on Hubpages is to teach and be taught. Never stop writing and never stop learning!

    • StegToDiffer profile image

      Spunk Nellie 

      6 years ago from New York, NY

      This article is neat, especially coming from someone who went to film school. Screenwriting I think is something that interests a lot of people, especially on HubPages.

    • GoForTheJuggler profile imageAUTHOR

      Joshua Patrick 

      6 years ago from Texas

      Thanks for the comment! By the way, I felt the same way when I first got to film school - everything was so simple, but equally powerful.

    • KEV84 profile image

      KEV84 

      6 years ago from UK

      A concise and easy to read article. Advice about a page a minute is glaringly obvious......once its put like this. Excellent reading.

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