One piece of writing advice I’m hesitant to give not because it is less effective (it’s the centre of my philosophy), but because for a lot of people, it’s pointless to give: do more work, write more scripts, write more pages per script, think more about what you’re doing and find strategies to improve your methods. It’s an extension of that age old idea of ‘work hard, then work harder‘, and whether someone will take it often depends on how much they want it in the first place. Because, if you want it so hard, why aren’t you already working as hard as you can?
After the jump, a story from my writing about how doing a little extra work can result in genuine results in a bit of an offbeat way…
I find pilots really frustrating to write, a lot of the time. If your concept is even a little complex, you have to spend your pilot on a pile of exposition – at a time where you are still learning the rhythms of your characters’ voices and dynamic with one another. You are juggling so many balls, and the story has to hit so many beats, that often it’s hard to remember to spend the proper time establishing the characters and their voices… despite that being the thing that will keep your viewers coming back for more.
You can also run the opposite way: write a pilot where you have the characters bouncing off one another, but completely undercook the plot. And then, happy with the character work and knowing that it’s strong enough to hook a reader, you use it anyway. I’ve had both of these happen, with the utter failures of Lifeblood and Villainous, specifically. It’s hard to handle, producing a pilot that’s just not very good, and it can discourage you from trying it again… despite the fact that, even with a great concept and potentially stellar cast, it’s very easy to write a bad pilot. In fact, many of my favourite series did not have particularly great pilots: Parks and Recreation, Community, Fringe, Revenge. There were hints of gold, but all were pretty shaky. All developed into some of my favourite shows.
(And, in fact, some shows that fell to some pretty astonishing depths started with some of my favourite pilots. Lost might be my favourite pilot ever; it was so good, I watched for three years after I started actively disliking the show.)
So, pilots, despite their importance in the grand scheme of things, pilots are a pretty impossible balancing act that don’t even, necessarily, prove much about the show on a week-to-week basis. However, I have begun experimenting with a way that helps the problem of trying to do too much inside of one script. And it takes quite a bit of work, but I’ve seen some pretty strong results in my limited experimentation.
Write an episode, from any point in the season, before you write the pilot.
Not only does it allow you to establish the week-to-week formula, something not every pilot has a chance to do, it also takes away the cumbersome mountains of exposition you need to deliver to ‘introduce’ everything to the reader. By entering the world free of explanations, by not writing a ‘pilot’, you can simply spend time telling a story in this universe with these characters, giving yourself more experience writing in this world and more comfort with their voices before tackling those tasks, plus more, in a proper pilot.
There are those who would decry this method. In some cases, it can hurt your pilot, if your pilot, in your mind, becomes treading water before the episode you wrote previous. I do, in fact, have experience with this. My first pilot, The Grey, was half-written when I decided to write episode three on a whim. I deeply enjoyed writing the third episode of the series, so much so that going back to the pilot was an act in frustration. None of the characters’ relationships had developed yet, and I ‘had to’ go through the motions of the pilot’s plot before I could push forward from where I’d left off at the end of the third episode. There is real danger in doing this…
However, I suspect this problem comes from issues that are not inherent in the method. If you encounter this issue, you are probably dealing with one of two big issues: you have a plot-based series where you aren’t connected enough to the characters to make the ‘pilot story’ enjoyable regardless of when it takes place; or, your pilot story needs a jolt of excitement as you have gotten bored with the story you are telling. When I wrote The Grey, I was sixteen and impatient, as well as writing my first pilot ever. I expect I had both of these issues. My pilot outline was also pretty messy, and the series was very serialised, so I was mostly delivering exposition and cueing up things for later.
I found much more success three years later, when I wrote my ‘pilot’ for Black Dog in my Dramatic Writing class. And the funny thing is, I did it completely by accident.
A great writer friend of mine once told me, never wait to tell the story you’re interested in. If you truly love a story, don’t spend ten episodes fooling around with establishment, just write it. For the first time, I had reason to take it: “God Loves His Children”, a dark story about the challenge between keeping the peace and pursuing justice, was a story I really wanted to tell in the Black Dog universe, despite knowing it wouldn’t really work for a pilot story. But with vigor I tackled it, plotting it out and finding that the story played out, even when written as a pilot, as a midseason story. And I loved writing it that way; it fit like a glove.
“God Loves His Children” is not a very good pilot. The leads do not spend nearly enough time developing their dynamic; this is, after all, the story where that years-long relationship begins to break down. It takes the lead to the breaking point, which would only mean something if you knew him before said breaking point. And it ends with a twist that doesn’t work, precisely because you don’t know enough of the leads to be surprised. All of these notes came back after the draft, and they were expected; after all, I’d been living with these characters for months, so it was easy to slip into a story that elongs after the pilot. As a midseason episode, it needed a few more passes; as a pilot, it was pretty much unworkable.
However: The extra work paid off, because when I reenvisioned the pilot with a new story, the experience I’d gotten from telling a story with this cast, and in this universe, made writing the pilot easy*. In the pilot, you have to slip character revelation within and around the exposition, and that’s much easier when you have more unconscious experience with their voices. I knew what these characters felt and sounded like, and what the universe around them looked and felt like. And when someone else read it, they read the draft of the new pilot first, then the draft of “God Loves His Children”. And it was shocking how, suddenly, things that were disastrous with the original readers worked exactly as intended once there had been a chance to establish the characters: it was clear what was going on, and the twist ending, originally a lame duck, was very effective.
Writing a midseason episode before the pilot, though it added a ton more work to the process of writing a pilot, paid off in ways I don’t think writing a thousand drafts of the pilot could have. It’s why, for a new project promising an exposition-heavy pilot, I’m taking this approach on purpose to see if I’m right here. This is one of those experiments that can, unexpectedly, change everything about how you approach new projects. Keep that in mind as you either start developing your writing habits, or re-evaluate them for 2012. Be open to new ideas, and to revamping your writing process to get the best scripts you possibly can out of yourself.
* The pilot is still in progress six months later, but for entirely different, mythology- and research-related reasons preventing me from writing elements of the episodic story.