The bread and butter of dramatic network television, no matter your grander ambitions, is procedural storytelling. From the whimsy of Castle to the grimness of Criminal Minds, television is saturated with procedural storytelling, so an aspiring TV writer had best master this skill. One thing that seems to trip me up every time I work on a drama pilot with procedural elements is choosing the beginning ‘case of the week’ for the characters to solve in the first episode. It’s an intriguing question: How do you choose which procedural story to start with?
I’m currently outlining a new pilot. It’s a concept I’ve had in my head for over a year now, and I’m excited to finally dig in. I’ve had a brief series bible document for all that time, and when looking through it having dug it out of my ‘development’ pile, I was really happy with it. Except for one thing: the procedural story.
It’s a supernatural procedural, and my original pilot story was a complicated affair involving murderous shapeshifters that, on hindsight, was a bad fit for the show and a terrible pilot story. Why? Because shape shifter stories are much more useful at least a half season in when the audience knows these characters better, so that you can play with how accurate the shifters’ impersonations are. A pilot with shape shifters will typically just distract the viewer from the key job of the pilot: establishing this cast and why they’re the most interesting people in the world.
In building a new procedural story, I’ve tried to go for one that will force the characters to show sides of themselves to interest the audience and establish their basic personas and immediate subtleties, while speaking to the theme of the piece. One I’d narrowed that down, finding the story was really about sifting through ideas until one felt right. Then you interrogate it: does it allow for all the necessary beats to establish the setting, characters, conflicts and driving engine? Will it offer you the chance to write scenes that will excite you – and, importantly, your readers? Does this concept have the potential to make folks who read it fall in love with your cast?
Two big mistakes I’ve made:
- Moving too fast. For Black Dog, I wrote a pilot that complicated the characters rather than establishing them, and it was only once I’d finished and gotten some feedback that I realised I’d written a script that belonged at the episode ten mark! In redeveloping it, I broke down a story that would allow me to explore key themes and character dynamics, and response was much stronger. Because I spend so much time with the characters in development, I’m often too eager to throw life-changing transitions into the story – when we need to know the characters to care about said transitions.
- Putting plot over character. A pilot I wrote last year, Lifeblood, was absolutely savaged. Why? Because instead of exploring fascinating characters in a dynamic story, I focused too much on the mechanics of the plot and worldbuilding. The script that resulted was terrible. By not offering a great character to centre the audience’s viewpoint, the response was, instead of excitement, puzzled boredom with a hint of outrage.
Good procedural pilots give you plots that explore and establish great characters. The opening episode of Elementary, for example, showcases Sherlock’s observation skills, his brilliance, his arrogance, his fury, and his reluctant shame, all through how he and Watson operate through the mechanics of the plot. They made sure the standalone plot hit a number of specific, important markers that forced the characters to open up to the audience, and it worked.
Now, you don’t have to worry much about this with an origin story for a serialised show. You still have to hit the same marks, but you can build that into how the story unfolds, and you don’t have to worry so much about building a procedural story that reflects character, which is something I think is monumentally difficult for someone still learning the skill.
What are your favourite techniques, either in your own writing or from TV? Is there an example of a pilot you think pulled this off really well, or other pilots (sometimes from later-successful shows!) that you think failed to nail this?