How to write a spec(tacular) pilot: step 3

Good golly, am I really only on Step 3? I hope you're working slowly, because my tips for writing a Spec(tacular) Pilot are not exactly coming thick and fast.

On the plus side, you've had plenty of time to organize your writers' group and hone your idea. If you don't know what the F I'm talking about, you can catch up here:

Step One: Join a Writers' Group
Step Two: Have a Great Idea

Step Three: Heroes and Villains

Now it's time to do a lot more thinking about characters.

Activate your hero
Everyone knows this precious rule of thumb, and yet, so many scripts come out with the lead character sitting dumbly by while things happen around them, it makes me want to bash my TV in. (Not really. I love my TV.)

Let's have a little example from the (un)real world of TV.

Bionic Woman vs Sarah Connor
In the pilots for Bionic Woman and The Sarah Connor Chronicles, we were introduced to two women, both supposed to be ass-kicking ladies who had the chutzpah to lead their own shows. As such, everything (ie. the success of the show) hinged on these characters.

But, is there any doubt who would win in a fight – even if she doesn't have artificially installed super-strength? No, thought not.

Sarah Connor is not a nice person. She kills people, she's hard on her son, doesn't trust anyone, she's kinda dark, rarely smiles. Total hard ass. But she makes the decisions. She acts. She has a goal (a very noble goal) and no two-bit terminator is going to stop her from protecting her son and saving the world. Sometimes she has to do bad things for the greater good, but we don't mind, we like her, because she GOES FOR IT.

I can't speak for what happens to Jamie Sommers after the Bionic Woman pilot, because I hated her so much from the start, I never made it to episode two. But we're talking about pilot writing here, so episode two isn't important. In the pilot, Sommers is this nice, sensible, girl. Friendly, unassuming. Which might make for a nice person to go to the movies with, but a character like that really can't carry a show. Add to that her reluctance to become the Bionic Woman and her general whiny "why me?"-ness and you wonder what dark forces were at work in the creation of this character. Incidentally, compare this to the Buffy pilot, where we have another reluctant heroine. But the Buffy pilot works because there is something Buffy wants - to be a normal teenage girl - and she'll do anything to get it. (Plus, she gets to kick ass on some gnarly vampires before the episode is over.)

Anyway, you probably know where I'm going with this (since I've said it before): your lead character should be a go-getter, a force of nature, someone to be reckoned with. Think of Veronica Mars, think of Eric Taylor, John Locke, Greg House… even Jerry Seinfeld and Michael Bluth... they all want something, and they're all out there trying to get it.

What does your lead character want?

And just as crucial…

Who is standing in their way?
I'm gonna make a statement here that may not be popular. It's not something I've read in books, or learned from some sage advice-giving pro. It comes from struggling with my own pilot and watching my friends struggle with theirs.

Big build-up, crescendo in the dramatic music...

Make all (or almost all) of your supporting characters antagonists for your lead.

Or, if you're writing an ensemble show, make each character a potential antagonist for every other character.

Think about it and you'll see that this makes sense. If you want to set up a show that could run for 100 episodes or more, you're gonna need lots of conflict. If there's potential conflict from all angles, you've got a lot of meat to chew on before you have to go down to Vons and buy up some more tri-tip steak (aka. introduce a bunch of new characters).

But where can we see this on TV, you ask?

House is surrounded by people who argue, stand in his way, and make his life miserable (usually for his own good). There's not a yes-man among them, which means there's lots of personal conflict for the writers to draw on. They've gone a step further here and made House his own worst enemy.

In Friday Night Lights, the whole town is full of people who are just waiting for Eric Taylor to slip up. And his wife and his daughter, his two biggest supporters, do their share of damage, too.

Brothers and Sisters is an ensemble show where the same principle is in effect. Each sibling -- and their mom -- has the potential to cause problems for their brothers and sisters. And they do.

The Bluths make Michael miserable on Arrested Development. Every single one of them. His only (reluctant) ally is George Michael and I bet that would have changed if the show had existed much longer.

In contrast, a show like The O.C., where the main characters are all basically friends, found itself having to introduce lots of new characters each season so they wouldn't run out of stories (they ran out of stories anyway).

You'll notice that all the above shows are pretty much character-driven. In procedural and high-concept shows, there tends to be more of an Us vs. Them structure.

Lost is a good example. For a long time it was Good (the castaways) vs Bad (the others). But don't you think things got waaay more interesting when the castaways splintered off into factions and you didn't know who was right, who was wrong, and who was just plain evil?

True procedurals, like Bones, CSI, or even Buffy, get away with being even more black and white. But they can afford to be, because they have a weekly guest antagonist (the crime/criminal/demon), so they don't rely as much on inter-character conflict.

So, once again (and I cannot stress this enough), these are my observations, not hard-and-fast-carved-in-stone rules. Go ahead and worship the Golden Calf if you want. You could find lots of examples where these ideas don't apply. I'm merely suggesting, if you want to make writing your first pilot a little easier, and you want me to like you:

Activate your damn lead and Make everyone an antagonist

Got it? Good.


Polar bears make me want to cry

I was happy because I 'finished' my Pushing Daisies in time to send it to Warner today. But now I am sad because, polar bears.

Seriously, have one less $13 drink at The Standard each month and give it to the WWF instead.


F*** the casual viewer

Somehow The Wire's David Simon manages to be incredibly interesting in the face of this cheesy interview by ex-Kenickie popster, Lauren Laverne. I especially like his comments around the 3:15 mark.


Eighty writers in one small room

Holy Toledo. The first night of the LA TV Writers meet-up / get-together / hoe-down / shindig was:

1. Wonderful
2. Packed (60 people? 80? more)
3. Kinda scary, actually

Scary in that there are so many talented, driven people out there, all trying to get those few, precious jobs. Of course, the scary was totally drowned out by the fact that, for once, everyone in the room was walking around proudly saying "I'm a TV writer".

The question of the night was not "What do you do?" but "What are you writing?"

Here are the hot specs of the season, as determined by me in my wholly unscientific poll of all the people I talked to.

In comedy, Samantha Who? and 30 Rock are the clear winners.

In drama, I spoke to several Dexters and Friday Night Lights, a couple of Pushing Daisies, a Mad Men or two, and one House. Everyone agreed that there was no definitive drama this year, and we could pretty much write whatever we want.

The bloggers were out in force. Amanda was there, of course. And Josh. But I also got to meet Our Man in Los Angeles, Red Right Hand, and Writerling. I know I’m missing out at least a few others. Damn this short-term memory. Check Josh's blog for a more complete list.

More bloggers who where there. Susanna, who has a cute picture of the event, and Hollie, who I didn't get to meet.
**End update**

I met people who had been Writers on the Verge, ABC Fellows, NBC Fellows, and Warner Workshoppers. I met someone who had just sold their pilot, and people who had done freelance episodes for shows, and people who were looking for their next staff job. I also met a few people who were writing their very first TV spec ever. There was range in that room, baby.

Writers were getting groups together and talking about agents and sharing tips on how to be funny and talking about the future of TV on the internet (not to be confused with TV on the Radio) and trying to decide if there were any shows that were just too damn arc-y to spec... we were pontificating, ruminating, and often spouting complete and utter crap. It was marvelous. Weirdly, not one person asked me what I thought of Dr Horrible's Sing-along Blog (love it, obviously).

In my attempt to talk to everybody (didn't even come close), I also met actors, agents, assistants, insurance adjusters, internists (the medical kind)… all connected with TV in some way or another. And judging by the wide mix of colors, genders, and ages in the room, the diversity initiative people have nothing to worry about with their next generation of writers. We come in all shapes and sizes and from all backgrounds.

And we all have stories to tell.


Strange and foreign places

Yay! I got a question in my comments section that I now have to answer in a post. Gosh, I feel just like a real blogger now.
Anon said... I noticed that you moved to L.A. from Canada and I was wondering if you wouldn't mind giving me some info on how that went for you? What steps you took, where problems arose, etc.

I bounce back and forth on wanting to move to L.A. and I'm just... curious.
It just so happens that I have moved to a few strange and foreign places in my time. So far I’ve lived in Grande Prairie (ahh, Northern Canada), Vancouver, Victoria, Geneva, Oslo, London, and Los Angeles. LA is not as strange as London, or as foreign as Oslo, but it’s still pretty far out there.

As a Canadian moving here, your big advantage is that you already speak the language, even if you can't quite spell "colour" the right way or say "about" without causing people to crack up. You'll also find yourself wishing you spoke Spanish as a second language instead of French, but mostly you can get along in your Canado-English.

In terms of adjusting to the city, you shouldn't have any more trouble than your average American who comes from Minnesota or Schenectady or wherever. You have to find a house, a job, a car (I know three people here that don't have cars – they are crazy), a boyfriend / girlfriend, and a favorite coffee shop, just like anyone else would.

If you're coming from a relatively small town – relative to LA even Toronto is pretty small – be prepared for the culture shock of living in a huuuge city. I still get goosebumps when I'm at the top of Mullholland Drive looking down over the city at night. It's not crowded like New York or London, but it just goes on and on and on... Also, in LA it's trendy not to put a sign up outside your bar or restaurant, so unless you know already know where the hip places are, you can't find them. Just one of the ways LA rewards people who are in and punishes newbies. Just like any new town, LA can seem pretty unfriendly and scary at times. Unless you know people here already, expect to have an adjustment period when you're mostly miserable. While you're still adjusting, take the time and opportunity to laugh at how crazy Americans go on holidays, like the 4th of July and Thanksgiving.

Loneliness and misery shouldn't last too long because most people in LA want to meet as many people as they can for networking purposes. It's much easier to meet people here than in Northern Europe, where no one will talk to you unless you're, like, standing on their foot or something. In LA, strangers talk to you wherever you go. Especially if you're female and they're not. If you're into something specific, like Indie Rock, or Ultimate Frisbee, or Stamp Collecting, you'll easily be able to find a gang of people who share your interests. If you're into TV writing, I can hook you up with the coolest kids in town...

A major problem for foreigners coming to the US (aside from the work visa thing, which I discuss in this post: Canadian special-interest edition) is getting a credit rating. They can't just check into your Canadian credit history – that would require computers connected internationally via some kind of crazy, I dunno, net or something. No, I don’t understand why my international credit card company could not issue me an American credit card. Anyhoo, I digress.

Without a credit rating, you have to pay cash deposits to get gas hooked up and get a mobile phone service etc. If you're looking into renting a house, you won't have any references and your credit check won't go through, so that might limit some of the places you can move into. But, if you're looking for, say, shared accommodation on Craig's List, that shouldn't be too much of a problem. Just make sure you account for that extra cash outlay when you're saving for your move.

Finally, like I said (perhaps unwisely) in my Writers On the Verge application, I think everyone should leave home and move to a foreign place, at least for a little while. It’ll give you a broader perspective on the world, which will, ultimately, make you a better writer.