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.


Michelle Goode said...

That's a very interesting point and one I hadn't thought about for my pilot. Most of my main characters were going to end up as friends, but you are right, that would mean one-hit storylines and then nothing else thereafter for the viewers to really chew on. Thank you for the sound advice! I will certainly keep that in mind when I review my first draft and develop it further! P.S, I'm a bit of a newbie to all this, so I thank you again for producing such clear and concise advice! :)

Jane said...

Hooray. From one newbie to another - that's what this blog is all about. I hope it helps.

PS. Your characters can still be friends. Just the kind of friends who get in each other's way. Think Friends, the TV show. Perfect example.

Michelle Goode said...


I may be a newbie, but you sure seem to know a lot more than I at this stage! I'm trying to read and learn as much as I can. It's blogs like yours that I'm finding incredibly helpful in my learning process. So thank you again, and good luck!