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.