Monday, September 19, 2005

Writing: The Pilot Pitch - Prep

(All standard disclaimers apply, your mileage may vary, etc.)

So, you’re pacing in a network/studio hallway, trying to ignore the posters of failed 80’s sitcoms on the walls, waiting to go into the pitch. What do you need to do once you get into that exec’s room?

Yes, you in the back.

“… blow someone.” No. Don’t be stupid. You don’t blow someone for a pilot script commitment.

You blow someone for a time slot.

As we’ve discussed, beyond the purely “write the show” issues, television seasons (as they exist currently) require your pilot idea to generate literally a hundred-odd story variants in order to make sense from a business/programming viewpoint. Yes, this is changing. But having a show that'll run a hundred means pitching your 13-a-year will be a piece of cake. So master the Big Network Pitch, and your kung fu will be strong.

To know what to do in that room, you need to have done a shitload of work before that room. In a TV series, you have to sit down and create, very explicitly, what I call the story engines and story lenses. All of this depends on the very simple idea that story = conflict. Or, at least, story seeds grow from conflict-rich soil.

The story engines are: the exterior conflicts – obstacles—for the characters to overcome; the circumstances (setting, genre, etc.) within which the characters must work to solve the obstacles; the different viewpoints each character has that will bring them conflict as they overcome said obstacles; those different viewpoints that’ll put them in conflict regardless of any exterior issues; and the differences in approach to those exterior circumstances that’ll bring characters into conflict when attempting to overcome exterior obstacles.

Let’s take – hmm, was going to say CSI, but those characters are ciphers. Noooo, don’t want to do Lost, I have friends on that show – ah, the classic. X-Files.

Big whoop. Mulder’s a believer, Scully’s a skeptic. Moving on – no, wait up. Humor me for a moment.

First, exterior conflicts: the cases. Every week some new inscrutable mystery will need to be solved by our intrepid agents. Because they are working for the FBI these cases will run the gamut from normal-seeming crimes to government issues, homicides to white collar crimes to complete bug-nuts sci fi mysteries, they will be nationwide. One of our characters has connections outside the FBI and so more cases will come from the shadowy conspiracy world he is connected to.

Nice. No lack of legitimate exterior conflicts for Mulder and Scully (… Scully in the top hat. Ahhhh, Scully …) to solve.

Our characters also work in very specific circumstances – a world where apparently malign sci-fi forces do seem to exist, AND shadowy conspiracies, AND a bureaucracy which both empowers and constrains them. For each exterior problem, you then get to see if one of these conflicts will aid you building story. Does the FBI want them to solve this case? Are the government’s near-limitless resources an aid to them, or are the bureaucrats over them an added obstacle? Are they throwing the FBI’s weight around, or are they working just under the radar, stretching the limits of their authority? Is this case somehow linked to the agenda of some larger authority, be it government or conspiracy, which will offer resistance beyond that of the already formidable problem of solving this week’s mystery?

Note that these two engines often overlap. In hospital shows, for example, the circumstances of, oh, bureaucratic strictures of the hospital, the physical layout or inherent dangers of working with crazy/sick people, the lack of funding – all those can manifests as explicit exterior conflict. Either can be a primary conflict with the other as a modifier.

Back to the X-Files. Each character has a very specific attitude that will put them in conflict as they approach each problem. Mulder will go in with an open mind, no theory too wild—while Scully insists on the scientific method – hypothesis, experimentation, repostulation – and will in fact dismiss many possibilities out of hand as being fanciful. Mulder’s the people person, the old-school investigator while Scully’s the forensic whiz. Just their attempts at solving the problems from such different points of attack will generate conflict.

But they will also be in conflict without a mystery (exterior conflict) to solve. Those two worldviews are so different, if Mulder and Scully were accountants working at adjoining desks at Budget Rent-a-Car, they’d be in constant conflict over coffee conversation. A good story has a conflict illuminated by the opposing viewpoints of the characters. A GREAT story is really about the characters’ viewpoints, with the traditionally pitched “story” as a means to draw them out.

Where was – oh, and this one’s a bit subtle. “…the differences in approach to those exterior circumstances that’ll bring characters into conflict when attempting to overcome exterior obstacles.” Mulder and Scully, to varying degrees of importance in the episode:

-- will be in conflict with the exterior problem,
-- will be in conflict with the exterior circumstances constraining their solution to the exterior problem,
-- will be in conflict over how to solve the exterior problem
--, will be in conflict with each other regardless of whatever exterior problem they’re facing, but ALSO
-- – they will also attempt to manipulate/overcome the constraining circumstances in different ways. Hence, conflicto-gasm.

There are times Mulder will attempt to bargain, cajole, lie, abuse the FBI in his quest. There are times Scully, considering the same FBI, will believe it’s right to just straight-ahead call them in and certainly as shit not lie to them. There will be times Mulder wants to enlist the aid of, say, Lone Gunmen fellas, while Scully prefers to work with more established/credible figures. Yes, some of this relates to their different worldviews, but those worldviews don’t always create a consistent approach to operative authority.

You’ll note that in serial/soap-opera style shows, struggling with the constraining circumstances can actually become a lead source of conflict. Much of the shenanigans (… much or many? Is “shenanigans” a collective noun?) on Desperate Housewives consists of the housewives dealing with the societal expectations of their micro-world. Dealing with an illicit affair is tricky: it is considerably complicated by the spatial intimacy and (surface) propriety of Wisteria Lane.

Stepping back, we see that X-Files was, well, amazingly conflict-deep. At no point would any one episode put equal weight on all those conflict engines. But a season as a whole would draw on all of them to construct the episodes. Each show will be a little heavier in one attack approach. But you need that arsenal to aid you in generating 100 stories.

Each showrunner, hell each writer, tends to focus on certain types of conflicts to generate stories. It becomes their swing. When we had the three writers pitch for Global Frequency, each person came in with very distinct styles. Diego Garcia tended to focus on the person of the week, how that new innocent would deal with the world and draw Sean and Kate closer together He seemed to really dig the “You are on the Global Frequency” aspect. Dave Slack pitched darker – how the weirdness of the world would test the characters, really slam them against each other to either bond or destroy them. (Dave also … killed a lot more people in his pitches. Just saying.) Ben Edlund had a great change-up. It would seem like he was pitching typical genius Edlund high-concepts, but then he’d show it was really just a flashy way of expressing some conflict in Sean and Kate’s relationship he found fascinating. Someday, Ben, someday, I will find a show for Paco the Pearl Diver and his Oyster Knife of Justice. (And someday if we’re lucky enough, one of you will have a staffing question for me, and we can continue this conversation)

Okay, those are the story engines. Now the story lenses are much more a style concern. I’ve never actually articulated this before, so bear with me.

Your lenses allow you variety in storytelling style and tone. Usually, your characters act as lenses. Mulder-centric X-Files tended to be conspiracy-heavy, or … wackier. Scully-heavy ones tended to be more emotional, and deal with religious faith in a very specific manner. To use another geek example, on Buffy a Xander-heavy episode not only tended to have a different type of conflict, it felt different. In a more explicit way, I had three primary characters on GF: Sean, a “retired” homicide detective: Dr. Finch, science girl: and Miranda Zero, enigmatic conspiracy secret agent. By adjusting the weight of each character in a episode, or picking which character’s lens we told the story through, you could modulate the feel of the show up and down for more variety over the years. Sean-heavy eps are going to feel more 24-ish, street-level. Kate will be more X-Files or more properly Andromeda Strain; and Miranda-heavy shows will – sorry, would have been – a bit more of the old ultra-violence, high-spy style.

Again, that’s a bit more down in the clockwork than most approaches, but I like the idea that you have yet another tool for creating variety within a show without breaking the genre of a show.

Does every Hollywood writer do this work? No. Many times -- several shows a year, in fact -- a writer has a great, GREAT high-concept or a piece of talent, and that’s enough to get a pilot script. And that writer writes a barn-burner of a pilot, and the pilot gets shot. And the pilot is GREAT, and the show gets picked up because that was forty-five minutes of ass-kicking television!!

And that writing staff has a gun in its mouth by January.

You know who you are, people.

Now, quick aside. The great thing about all this conflict-centric prep is that you may find one of your characters is not generating nearly as much conflict as the others. Or, their conflicts tend to overlap other character’s story ideas too often. You have found some deadweight. Sometimes you will find two characters seem a little poorly defined, or aren’t quite popping. Try combining them into one. Find the strongest combination of need and limitation. A character must be unique and contributing strongly to the story engines—or cut them. Ruthlessly. Each character on a show is like a prism, transmitting a distinct element of the overall story. No matter how much you love the concept of a character, if they are not generating conflict (or at least goddam jokes no one else can do), you will grow to hate them. Because week after week they will eat your page space and not give you anything in return. Trust me, you will learn to hate the actors all on their own after a while, never mind with the head start of being scene deadweight.

One word: Boone. 'nuff said.

All right, one more thing and we’ll tighten and summarize for the pitching room. It is said “Television is the art of rewriting the pilot every week.” As I’ve discussed before, many TV writers have a hard time making the jump to film because the overall goal of a television episode is to return to the staus quo. To bring you, by the end of the ep, to the same place which made the show interesting for the viewers to first tune in.

This has changed enough that you may wish to have in your back pocket some examples of how you will change the characters and some of their relationships over the course of the five years. Talk of radically-evolving characters tends to spook execs, who quickly form visions of confused viewers fleeing the show they once loved but now no longer know. However, showing them that you’re changing the characters enough to constantly generate new fields of conflict is good.

Oooookay. So, you’ve done all this spiffy work. You have a bunch of characters you want to live with over five years.* You have a unique, or at the very least interesting, setting to slap those characters into. You have a whackload of stories you want to tell with those characters in that setting, and maybe even one over-riding meta-story or theme you’ll be expressing over those multiple seasons. Now how the hell do you get that across to the suited humans with the checkbooks?

We’ll cover that next time. But, short version, to consider before we meet again:

-- no pitch ever sold because it was longer then ten minutes.
-- A pilot pitch has two parts:
“Why this show should be on the air.”
“How this show will stay on the air.”








* (yeah, didn't think about it that way, did you? Pretty scary, huh? But don't worry -- a bit more success and you can abandon your half-baked ideas to doomed writing staffs as you move on to the next high-profile project. Viva Hollywood!)

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

Everyone seemed to hate Boone...but wasn't he the only character who both Jack and Locke seemed to have formed some sort of "relationship" with. Early on it seemed if Jack was going to be the father figure figure for Boone to follow, but soon Locke showed him the dark side of the Force and he strayed away from good Jack.

Jack would have been his real father who was too concerned with his responabilities and work to be there for him, while Locke was the step-father who really was only using him in order to get inside his mom's hatch.

John Seavey said...

I'm probably the most pathetic person on Earth, but my primary response to this was, "omigodomigodomigod, you actually got to _work_ with Ben Edlund?!?!?!"

What can I say, the man's a legend in his own lifetime.

Joshua James said...

Awesome lecture, Professor, my thanks to you . . .

Sean Warren said...

When you say "Ben Edlund", are you talking about Ben "The guy that wrote The Tick, one of the greatest comics ever" Edlund?

Why was I not informed of this before?!

More Ben Edlund stories, stat!

said...

Strangely enough I also thought "Oh my god, Ben Edlund was going to be writing on that show. You were going to be Ben Edlund's boss!?!"

That's a nice piece, but I have to wait until next time to find out the parts I can't yet comprehend... like, how you can sell anything to the kind of people that cancel shows with Joss Whedon, Tim Minear and Ben Edlund all on staff, and who pass up on great high concepts with truly limitless character potential (a world of possible new agents) like Global Frequency, without sticking "Law & Order: " or "CSI: " in front of the title.

I suppose I should take a little solace in the thought that the chances of my ideas ever getting to that stage are miniscule at best.

Man, now I miss the X-Files too.

Rogers said...

I will be blunt -- in no way shape or form would I have been Ben Edlund's boss. I would have been the guy who ran the show Ben was working on. The very second he finished his first story pitch, I thought "Shit, now I"m going to have to spend a year pretending I don't secretly know he's a much better writer than I am."

And I geeked out at the first meeting I had with him, too. He seems pretty used to it by now.

Bill Cunningham said...

I can see you now, Rogers. Ben walks in the room to pitch and you leap over the coffee table and yell, "SPOON!"

Viewfinder said...

a useful and timely lesson... many thanks.

Kid Sis said...

I would have taken a more subtle approach...named the production offic dog Spoon, so that you could continuously justify yelling it throughout the season.

MikeyMo said...

Any network decision that results in less Edlund-written stories is categorically evil.

I laughed so hard when I read the word "conflicto-gasm".

I've got to agree that Boone was kind of worthless (and creepy looking!). I remember Whedon saying something about how, by Angel's 4th season, he had no idea what in the hell to do with Gunn.

failrate said...

Boone was plot fodder. His character had to be sacrificed to do the Big Reveal with the hatch.

Also, there are huge similarities between the conflict schema described herein to the Relationship Maps in games like Dogs in the Vineyard and Sorceror?

The Diamond Guru said...

Great thoughts... You are helping to make me appreciate the story writing even more.

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Daisy said...

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