Writing, coffee, SAVAGE!
So you have your concept, now it’s time to write your first episode. The first thing that you have to realize is that a majority of pilots are awful. I’m not talking about spec-pilots that never leave the day-job cowboy’s free-time writing room. I’m talking about goes-to-network pilots. The inherent problem is that the writing has to convey too many things at once and still feel natural and unforced. Generally, you need to wait until around the third episode of a show before the production team has calmed down enough for you to see what a show is really like. There are exceptions to the “pilot rule of terribility”—I just made that up—but the gems are few and far between. LOST, Firefly, and Wonderfallsare standouts for sure. The main problem is that the average pilot writer feels the need to explain EVERYTHING right from the beginning, so the episode is rushed and packed to the gills. The first episode of our show, The Platoon of Power Squadron (PoPS), suffers from a different setback. I tried to get around the “I-need-to-reveal-the-scope-of-my-vision!” inclination by attempting to artfully explain nothing. I posed a series of questions and waited until the last scene to reveal the particulars of their super powers in the hopes that the audience would be intrigued enough to follow it through to the end. That’s asking a lot, and I think the pilot suffered for it.
I think the best way to go about a pilot script is to focus on your characters (because that’s the only TRUE selling point of any show) and treat it like any other episode.
A lot of writers believe in detailed outlining. If you have an arsenal of character backgrounds, act-by-act breakdowns, and season arcs already in place, it makes it easier to face a blank screen and you have the ability to foreshadow any plot developments. But you can do it the other way too. Sit down and write.
Luckily, we’re not flying blind. Story structure has a time tested and commercially proven layout that unravels over 3 acts. Act 1: A problem is discovered. Act 2: Complications mount and everything seems hopeless. Act 3: A solution! Yay, everything’s okay!
The particulars of the problem can be anything, but the fact that there is one is really important. Unless something shows up in act 1 to give your characters an objective and let the audience know their rough destination, the episode is going to feel drifty and that can make audiences uncomfortable. It’s too much like real life. Audiences want to have a goal and see characters achieve it—or not achieve it, depending on the audience. But some brand of catharsis should be attained.
Also, a script should have more than one storyline running through it. I think the usual average is about 3. If there’s an episode of 30 Rock, the A-story involves Liz or Jack having a problem while the other one provides fantastic, snarky counter-comedy, the B-story will be Tracy having a problem maintaining his sanity, and the C-story has Kenneth doing something quirky. Sometimes the stories are interconnected and sometimes they’re not. With this many stories in a 22-minute show it keeps things moving and you can cut back and forth between them to keep things fresh for the reportedly truncated attention spans of the modern audience. And if each of the storylines has a 3-act structure, most of the writing is done. You just need to fill in the blanks and get some good dialogue in there.
Another approach is to find a theme for each episode and have each story reflect different aspects of that theme. Bryan Fuller’s shows revolve around this. Say you’re watching Dead Like Me. Let’s say George reaps a wealthy man and has to watch his family bicker over his money while Reggie decides to be extra considerate to their mother for an episode to “deserve” being the surviving child. Then Daisy teaches Roxy how to use femininity as a more powerful weapon than aggression and Mason causes a hilarious disaster instigating the reap-group to band together and bail him out. The theme, of course, would be personal worth as a member of a family unit. I just made that up, but now I wish that had been an episode. That show shouldn’t have been cancelled. Moment of reflection… moving on.
As to the technical aspects of formatting a screenplay, there are tons of books written on the subject and in the spirit of “no-budget” you should check them out of the library. They’ll tell you all about the INTs and EXTs and CONT’Ds. And screenwriting programs are awesome. They even have built in scheduling software which will come in really handy in a blog or two.
I used to follow the Robert Rodriguez Rebel Without a Crew rule book. The cardinal rule for low-budget filmmaking being “write what you have.” From locations to props to actors, if you already have access to everything in your script, you don’t have to spend money on it. I found that this way of thinking was limiting my scripts to a very small scale. At a certain point, you have to branch out and write what’s going to be best for the show. That will mean spending money on some props or tricks and spending a lot of time on the phone trying to get access to locations, but at the end of the episode, it’s worth it. Your episode wasn’t dictated by what you already had on hand, it was dictated by what was right for the story.
If you can’t seem to find a character’s voice, but you know their general personality, base them on someone you know in real life. It’s better if you know the person well because then more of their personality will filter into the character and less of yours will. It will give the character a unique point of view and keep all of your characters from coming from the exact same place.
If you’re writing a dialogue scene and everything is flowing really nicely, it’s easy to get lost in it and end up with an 8-page scene before you realize it. That’s way too long. A good rule of thumb to follow is that a single scene shouldn’t last more than 3 pages. More than that and you’re starting to push attention span limits. If you’re over 3 pages and it’s REALLY important that every page of the scene remains uncut, chop the scene in half, cut to one of the other storylines, and then jump back to finish the scene. That keeps things moving and you didn’t have to drop a word.
The total page count of an episode varies depending on the show. They used to say a page equaled a minute of screen time. Now I think everybody concedes that it runs faster—somewhere around a page and a half equals a minute, maybe? My scripts tend to run in the neighborhood of 10 pages fast. If I have a 35 page script, I’ll have a 25 minute episode. I think it really depends on how much description you use, how fast your dialogue runs, and how tight the final edit is. I hear that Gilmore Girls scripts were around 75 pages or more for a 44-minute episode. I think that’s pretty impressive.
At the end of the day, the particulars of this process depend on the person doing the writing. You’ll find out what tricks work for you the more you do it. The hardest part of the entire process is convincing yourself to sit down and actually write. Once you convince your brain that you’re just going to sit there until you’ve done some writing, it actually goes pretty smoothly; so turn off the tv, switch off your wifi, and stare at the blank screen and the blinking cursor. Eventually your mind will stop trying to distract you and start churning out the magic.
Any questions? Leave them in the comments. I’ll give you the no-budget solution.
also check out the page for the Jarvi Java Edit Blend roasts of coffee on Coffee by the Roast, and buy some coffee with my name on it. see that, ma? no grandkids yet, but we do have a legacy born of caffeinated deliciousness…
and the last bit of cool news is that when i woke up yesterday, there were several emails on my phone telling me that Adam Savage from Mythbusters had tweeted a link to a video i made of my dad making one of his awesome benches. ADAM SAVAGE! my dad and i LOVE Mythbusters and Adam Savage watched our 15-minute video? this life-o-mine is gettin’ a little strange. here’s a link to that video…
catch you guys later.