I’m working on rewriting a pilot for the HBO Fellowship, including looking at current HBO shows and getting a feel for their brand and tone (this is particularly difficult since, at least for dramas, all of their current shows are based on books) and deciding what my show should be. Should it be non-linear? How many characters should I follow? What will be the “oh, shit” moment?
The “oh, shit” moment is the moment that the audience will remember forever, that makes them sit forward and swear. (The corollary is the “oh, no” moment, when a show does something so bad you can’t believe anyone ever thought it was okay. Don’t do those.) Some big “oh, shit” moments from pilots include:
Mad Men: Don Draper was married all along.
The Leftovers: 2% of the world’s population disappears at the exact same moment.
Westworld: A robot swats a fly, thus harming a living thing and violating/growing beyond her programming.
This Is Us: The show takes place in two timelines and all the characters are related.
Pitch: The dad’s not really there.
Now obviously, not every pilot ever made has one of these moments. But they are memorable, and if you’re entering a contest, that’s something you want your script to be. They cause the reader/viewer to be emotionally engaged with your show. What’s interesting is that there’s not necessarily a pattern to the “oh, shit” moment: most are at the end, but some are in the teaser (Leftovers). Some are character beats, some are functions of the narrative structure, some are the basic premise of the show. Some barely matter to the show as a whole (“ghost dad” never really came back in Pitch), but all are incredibly important to the pilot.
When you’re writing your own pilot, remember when you’re breaking the story to decide what your “oh, shit” moment will be and then build to it. If you can pull it off, you’ll be step above most of the competition.