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

If you've been following along in this periodic series, you'll have already done the following:

Step One: Join a Writers' Group
Step Two: Have a Great Idea
Step Three: Heroes and Villains

So now you're ready for:

Step Four: The Story

This is the step I struggle with the most, so maybe all of you have some advice for me? Right now I'm stuck in story-land on my destined-for-the-BBC pilot. I know what I want the central conflicts of the show to be, but I still don't have a solid plot to wrap them around. I should be working on it right now. Maybe by writing this blog, I'll give myself the knowledge I need to move forward.

I might not know the best way to come up with a plot, but I do know one thing:

Your pilot must have a plot!

Sounds obvious, right? But it's so easy to forget about plot while you're carefully crafting characters and creating a new world. I and the other members of my writers group have all learned the plot thing the hard way. Without exception, each of us who has written a pilot turned in a first draft that was a very entertaining introduction of the characters and their world, and... that was it. The same note came back each time.

"Yeah, but where's the plot?"

It's not enough to say, my pilot is about a small-town girl in Kansas who has a trusty sidekick in her dog, Tutu. Uh-huh? And what does she do? What happens? What's her struggle? 

You need an answer. In the pilot she gets whisked off by a tornado to a strange land where lions are cowardly and robots need oil. (Don't tell anyone it turns out it was all just a dream - or was it?)

It helps to think about your pilot on two levels: the series and the episode.

On the series level, you introduce the conflicts that will create stories for future episodes. The series conflicts, if you will. These conflicts come back again and again to haunt your characters. Lorelai Gilmore vs her mother. The siblings' nosiness on Brothers and Sisters. The weird, mystical, and dangerous behaviors of the island on Lost. They are ever-present within the series, and without them, it's not the same show anymore. 

But, on the episode level, you need another conflict. An episode struggle for your characters. It will probably grows out of one of those series conflicts, or it could give rise to a series conflict. For example, on Gilmore Girls, the pilot plot is that Lorelai needs to find the tuition money to send Rory to her chi-chi private school. Which gives rise to the series struggle of Lorelai being beholden to her mother. (Beholden. I love that word.)

It can feel artificial coming up with a plot upon which to hang all your characters. That's why you need to do it now, before you start writing your outline. Make it rise naturally out of the situation you've set up - out of your characters' dreams, their hang-ups, or their world. If you do that, the story will be unique to your show. It wouldn't work if you transported it to some other series with another set of characters. If your story would work on Lost, or Pushing Daisies, or Greek, you need a different story.

Hmm, let's see if I can make this easier. A doe, a deer, a female... wait, where was I? Oh yeah, a specific plot that will only work in your series.

Okay, we'll stick with the Wizard of Oz example. Dorothy gets whisked away from her life and transported to another world where strange things happen. You could do that to anyone, anywhere. Fox Mulder. Michael Bluth. Meredith Grey. That's because the story happens to her. It comes from somewhere far away and it takes Dorothy away from her world. 

If you want your pilot story to work, you need to have a story that comes from within.

Take Friday Night Lights. The pilot story is simple. Coach Taylor must lead his team to victory in the first game of the season. This story comes straight from the characters and the place they live. Taylor is passionate about football - so the game means everything to him. The town is passionate about football, so if they lose the game, it means everything. This story wouldn't work anywhere else, because anywhere else, we'd all be saying "It's only a stupid game". But to Coach Taylor and his team, it's life and death.

Okay, so, if you don't have a plot, get one. Something that is life or death to your characters (even if might seem petty to an outsider). And it doesn't hurt to drag them through the mud while you're at it, as long as they struggle on to victory (or emotional growth).

Now I need to go think about how all this applies to my new characters as they careen drunkenly around London, shagging each other with merry abandon.


Is the BBC doing spoof news now, too?

Hot on the heels of The Onion's Aaron Sorkin Gets Animated article, there is this very silly article.

West Wing writer tackles Facebook

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has agreed to make a film about the founders of social networking site Facebook.

Sorkin, who created US TV drama The West Wing and wrote the Tom Hanks movie Charlie Wilson's War, has even opened a Facebook account to aid his research.

"I figured a good first step in my preparation would be finding out what Facebook is, so I've started this page," he wrote.

Um, I think I'd rather see an animated West Wing but, sadly, this article comes from the BBC. So unless today is April 1 in England, I think we might be forced to endure a movie about a website sometime in the not-too distant future.

I'm pretty sure even Aaron can't pull that off convincingly.

BTW, if you can find his official Facebook page, let me know. Do you think Aaron will say yes to my friend request?


Sorkin to get animated

Big news!

Aaron Sorkin Announces New 'West Wing' Animated Series at SorCon

On Day two of the 2008 San Diego SorCon, the biggest Aaron Sorkin convention in the world, screenwriter and producer Aaron Sorkin revealed plans for his next project, an animated continuation of his most popular franchise, The West Wing.

"I'm excited to bring my Emmy Award-winning writing to the field of animation," Sorkin said in a speech before approximately 30,000 screaming fans, many of whom were dressed up in the business-suit costumes of their favorite Sorkin characters. "The costs of live-action production restricted me to a set only slighly larger than the actual White House and an ensemble cast of under 15 actors. But animation technology will enable us to provide fans with extended 40-minute walk-and-talks, digitally compressed dialogue for faster delivery, and a cast of over 70 main characters...

Events scheduled for day three at SorCon include a panel discussion on rapid-fire dialogue, an American President debate on what sorts of policy deals would cause the president's girlfriend to break up with him in the modern day, and a seminar on how freebasing cocaine can improve your screenwriting.

Hilariously specific article in The Onion. Do most people know who Aaron Sorkin is? Is there a regional LA issue of The Onion? Is everyone as obsessed with the West Wing as I am? Would this be funny if you'd never heard of Aaron Sorkin?

I like to think these are the questions The Onion's editors ask before saying "Aww, screw it. It'll be funny to someone out there."

And they were right. It was.


When life gets in the way

I finished my Disney application, and then I fell off the earth.

It happens sometimes – you just can't find the time (or the energy) to write.

The trick is to make sure it doesn't happen too much, or for too long. One week? No problem. You're back on the horse before you notice you fell off. Two weeks. A little worse. A whole month? Whoa. You've got some splainin' to do, Lucy.

When it happens, I think the trick is to not let that become the norm. Set yourself a strict schedule if you have to. Book yourself as busy at least a couple evenings a week, and maybe one morning on the weekend. Go somewhere that is not home. Take only your laptop and your ideas. (And maybe your iPod and your wallet, cuz coffee always helps.) Don't use the old "I'm watching TV – it's the same as writing" excuse too often. Yeah, watching TV is crucial, but if you're always watching and never producing, then you're no different than the rest of America, watching your eight hours a day.

It's tempting to sit back and take it easy, now that all the fellowships are applied for and it's summer. Sure, give yourself a little break. Fair enough. You've earned it.

Then start a shiny new project, or dig out something that you've been avoiding polishing, find a writing partner, a group, a great café. Do whatever you need to do to make sure you're still a writer, and not just a couch potato with a laptop.

Me? I'm working on a brand new pilot to send to the BBC. Figure I might as well use my British-living background to launch some work through one of the only open doors in the business.


Disney application details

Just working on my Disney application, and I noticed this sentence on the application form itself:

Please include on a separate page in 500 words or less why you are interested in the fellowship and how your voice would add to the diverse landscape that is television.

That's a lot more specific than the generic "statement of intent" phrase they've used elsewhere. Also a little harder to do, I think.

I'm kinda stuck right now, to be honest. Maybe I should go back and polish my Pushing Daisies for a while instead.

30-Second Restaurant Reviews
Casa Bianca Pizza Pie
1650 Colorado Blvd, Los Angeles, CA

A line of hungry patrons waits.
And for what?
Greasy pizza pie.
Over-cheesed and under-sauced.
Am I the only one who feels this way?


Duck, cover, hold

Does the California Governer's Office of Emergency Services have no sense of irony whatsoever? These are their instructions in the case of an earthquake.