Today’s reader question—which is long overdue—comes from E. Daniels. In fact, today’s reader question is DOUBLY long overdue, because I recently found a handful of emails you guys sent over the past year that, somehow, I never answered.
So first of all: I apologize to everyone who emailed me and never got an answer. I try to answer every email I get… but occasionally some fall through the cracks. I also try to answer most emails in a timely manner… but again, some fall through the cracks. Sometimes they fall through the cracks because I just get so many emails I fall behind. I also try to space out similar posts and answers (i.e., I don’t like to post two book reviews or movie reviews back-to-back), so questions occasionally get pushed around so much they never get posted. And sometimes, honestly, I just get overwhelmed and forget.
But I try not to… so I apologize for all times previously, and in the future, when your emails get delayed or forgotten or disappeared. It’s not intentional, I promise… and I’m always trying to be better!
So today’s question comes from E. Daniels… and from Peggy, who emailed me last year… and I’m tying their questions together.
E. Daniels’ asks:
“Do you have any book recommendations for people writing their first (non-procedural drama) pilot? It seems like writing a TV pilot is completely different from writing a spec of an existing show, a feature, etc. And yet, those other formats have books dedicated to them, and the most I can find on pilot writing is a couple of chapters squeezed in between sections on breaking in and working on staff. I'm looking more for a book on writing, specifically. Any ideas?”
And Peggy asks:
“I love Law & Order: SVU, and I am working on a script. Any suggestions for me?”
Now, to be fair, these are fairly different questions… writing a pilot is a VERY different process from writing an episodic spec script. However, both are also incredibly complex processes about which entire books have been written… which is basically to say, Peggy, that rather than just give you some random “suggestions,” I’d like to steer you toward some helpful resources and broad techniques… which will also help E. Daniels.
So, E. Daniels…
Here are some TV-writing books that I find helpful and interesting (or have had recommended to me) that deal with the pilot-writing process…
• Writing the TV Drama Series: How to Succeed as a Professional Writer in TV, by Pamela Douglas
• The TV Writer's Workbook: A Creative Approach To Television Scripts
, by Ellen Sandler
• Write to TV: Out of Your Head and onto the Screen, by Martie Cook
• Small Screen, Big Picture, by yours truly (I promise—I’m not just throwing it in here to promote my own book. The truth is, this book isn’t much about the actual writing process… it talks about the business/practical side of television—and how that affects the creative side of developing pilots. In other words, this book may not tell you how to write a pilot, but it may help you understand some of what networks and studios—as businesses—are looking for in pilots they buy and acquire. And as such, it'll hopefully help you understand what to do, not do, etc.-- basically, how to design a pilot that is-- in theory-- sellable.)
But I think the best thing to study when writing a pilot… IS OTHER PILOTS. (And likewise, Peggy, the best things to study when writing a spec are episodes of the show you’re writing. Which I’m sure you already know, but I think the key is actually HOW you study them…)
A cool piece of advice:
Just as you can set your Tivo to search for shows or movies with your favorite actors and directors, you can also set your Tivo to search for the word “pilot,” and it’ll record any pilots that come on TV… not just pilots of new shows, but RERUN pilots as well. So it’ll often capture everything from brand new pilots to pilots for shows like E.R. and I LOVE LUCY.
Now, like I said, the key is HOW you study your pilots or episodes. I have a very specific process I like to use…
STEP #1) I watch each episode with the timecode on, writing down every beat, or new piece of narrative information, as it happens. (Or better yet, get the scripts and analyze the beats on each page.) In other words, every time something happens that pushes the story forward, I write it down, with the exact timecode when it happens. My pen almost never stops moving. I often find there’s a relevant new piece of information almost every 30 seconds.
So—in very broad strokes—a section of “beats” might look like this (I’m making these beats up):
14:27 – Chandler brings home Sabrina, a girl he wants to date
14:50 – Chandler introduces Sabrina to Joey, Joey acts weird around her
15: 21 – Chandler goes into the bathroom
15:35 – Joey asks Sabrina what she’s doing here, Sabrina tells him to leave
15:52 – Learn Joey and Sabrina hooked up two days ago
16:19 – Chandler returns, ready to take Sabrina to the movies
17:00 – Chandler invites Joey to join them at the movies
17:12 – Joey says no
17:30 – Chandler begs Joey to come, explaining that if his best friend doesn’t like his girlfriend, he can’t date her
You get it.
STEP #2) I identify how each beat functions in the show. For instance (I change the character’s name to “A-Character” to help distance myself from the actual characters)…
14:27 – Chandler brings home Sabrina, a girl he wants to date – LEARN A-CHARACTER’S WANT
14:50 – Chandler introduces Sabrina to Joey, Joey acts weird around her – A-CHARACTER INTRODUCES HIS “WANT/PRIZE” W/ THE B-CHARACTER, MOST IMPORTANT IN HIS LIFE – INTRODUCE MAIN CONFLICT
15: 21 – Chandler goes into the bathroom – A-CHARACTER LEAVES HIS WANT/PRIZE WITH IMPORTANT PERSON
15:35 – Joey asks Sabrina what she’s doing here, Sabrina tells him to leave – ILLUMINATE CONFLICT BETWEEN B-CHAR & WANT/PRIZE
15:52 – Learn Joey and Sabrina hooked up two days ago – HISTORY/EXPOSITION OF B-CHAR AND WANT/PRIZE
16:19 – Chandler returns, ready to take Sabrina to the movies – A-CHAR TAKES ACTION TO OBTAIN WANT
17:00 – Chandler invites Joey to join them at the movies – A-CHAR UNKNOWINGLY STOKES CONFLICT
17:12 – Joey says no – OBSTACLE TO A-CHAR’S ACTION
17:30 – Chandler begs Joey to come, explaining that if his best friend doesn’t like his girlfriend, he can’t date her – RAISE STAKES FOR A-CHAR
STEP #3) I remove the specific beats of the show, leaving me with just the “beat definitions.” Like this…
14:27 – LEARN A-CHARACTER’S WANT
14:50 – A-CHARACTER INTRODUCES HIS “WANT/PRIZE” W/ THE B-CHARACTER, MOST IMPORTANT IN HIS LIFE – INTRODUCE MAIN CONFLICT
15: 21 – A-CHARACTER LEAVES HIS WANT/PRIZE WITH IMPORTANT PERSON
15:35 – ILLUMINATE CONFLICT BETWEEN B-CHAR & WANT/PRIZE
15:52 – HISTORY/EXPOSITION OF B-CHAR AND WANT/PRIZE
16:19 – A-CHAR TAKES ACTION TO OBTAIN WANT
17:00 – A-CHAR UNKNOWINGLY STOKES CONFLICT
17:12 – OBSTACLE TO A-CHAR’S ACTION
17:30 – RAISE STAKES FOR A-CHAR
You now have a step-by-step outline, a map, to structuring a work-able story in the style/tone of a show similar to yours… so you can simply lay your own story beats right on top of the structure. Like this…
14:27 – LEARN A-CHARACTER’S WANT – Jason wants to convince Mr. Stony to buy his business proposal
14:50 – A-CHARACTER INTRODUCES HIS “WANT/PRIZE” W/ THE B-CHARACTER, MOST IMPORTANT IN HIS LIFE – INTRODUCE MAIN CONFLICT – Jason introduces Mr. Stony to his business partner, Tommy
15: 21 – A-CHARACTER LEAVES HIS WANT/PRIZE WITH IMPORTANT PERSON – Jason gets called away to take a phone call
15:35 – ILLUMINATE CONFLICT BETWEEN B-CHAR & WANT/PRIZE – Tommy and Mr. Stony begin discussing sports
15:52 – HISTORY/EXPOSITION OF B-CHAR AND WANT/PRIZE – Mr. Stony is a die-hard Red Sox fan… and Tommy is a die-hard Yankees fan
16:19 – A-CHAR TAKES ACTION TO OBTAIN WANT – Jason returns, ready to discuss his proposal
17:00 – A-CHAR UNKNOWINGLY STOKES CONFLICT – Jason asks Tommy to stick around for the discussion
17:12 – OBSTACLE TO A-CHAR’S ACTION – Mr. Stony tries to leave to avoid being in the room with Tommy
17:30 – RAISE STAKES FOR A-CHAR – Mr. Stony says he’ll call Jason later to discuss the proposal, but he must make a decision by tonight (ticking clock)
Now— I am NOT saying this new story is a GOOD story. (I literally just scribbled down these beats over 45 seconds as an example.) But the point is… once you have a workable template, it becomes VERY easy to lay down beats and structure your story.
Of course, like with any map, you are allowed to deviate from the path to explore other routes. If you have a great brainstorm or a flash of genius—by all means: follow it. The map is simply meant to illuminate how other successful stories have worked; it’s giving you a blueprint for the house—your job is to paint the walls, buy furniture, hang art, etc.
So E. Daniels—why this isn’t exactly the question you asked, I hope those book suggestions help, but I also think the best research is to really deconstruct pilot episodes of shows that work similarly (narratively and thematically) to yours.
And Peggy—my best advice for your Law & Order: SVU spec is to analyze as many episodes as you possibly can. You’ll begin to notice patterns in how they reveal information, build acts, etc. And this will be more helpful to your spec than any book or tidbits of advice.
Anyway, I hope this helps… and sorry it took so long to get to your questions! And for the rest of you out there… please keep writing! I have some questions in the cue, which I promise to get to ASAP, and we have lots more great things coming up!
Talk to you all soon…