Monday, December 22, 2014

Writing My First Television Pilot.

Inspiration comes from strange places. I had an idea in my head for a television pilot that I'm hopeful I will one day produce. It's a mash-up of ideas that I think has some real legs, and that I think audiences would really enjoy. It involves a fresh take on a well traveled franchise, and is combined with an well developed format. I had my idea for the plot in my head, and had already sketched out characters. The thing really driving the development of the show was resources I had at hand. From the experiences I gained writing and producing Loadout:Going In Hot, I decided I wanted to write a script whose action and location were based almost entirely on assets I believed were available, and low cost. Similarly, I wanted to write it for characters that already existed, and could be portrayed by actors I have already worked with. The primary goal of this script was to tell a story for a budget that I knew I could acquire.

The plot came together quickly, as did the characters. Since I am basing the characters in this pilot on already existing characters, all I really had to do was modify them to suit my purposes. It proved to be a fun and interesting experience, as it felt like I had a guiding hand in expanding those characters. Characters that I already love, care for, and have gone on adventures with. Good stuff.

There were some holes in my character lineup that needed to be filled. I needed two new people, supporting characters, to do some of the b-story plot development. You know, the kind of people who are in the room when someone mentions a character that is familiar to people in the universe, but not to the audience? That way, one of those characters can say "Hey, who is this so-and-so person they're talking about?" and the other person can so "oh, that's the guy who does the thing to the other thing" and then the audience is back on board. In coming up with something as simple as the names for those two characters, I ended up falling down a rabbit hole.

I had an idea for a punny set of last names for these two characters, which I came up with pretty quickly. I thought it would give the primary cast a good foothold for interaction with them, as they would always be easy to make fun of. But I REALLY liked the names I came up with. So much so that I immediately wanted to give them their own series, because I very quickly had a bunch of great ideas for character development for that man and woman. My attention completely shifted from writing character descriptions for this mash-up pilot into writing a pilot for these two characters. I removed them from the original universe in which the pilot was set to take place, and created a brand new idea that I thought would be really fun, very interesting, and was also structured so that it could easily run as a multi-year series, should a network show any interest in it.

And so, my SECOND television series idea was born. This one puts a supernatural twist on a popular style of story telling. (I'm being ambiguous here on purpose, by the way. The details aren't important at this point) This story came together so quickly. Writing the background and mythology for this show was so much fun, as there is all kinds of crazy stuff going on. It gave me the opportunity to be really creative, within a framework that seems very cookie cutter and devoid of originality.

I sat down and wrote out a very flimsy outline. I knew what point A looked like, and I knew what point B looked like, but I didn't really have much of an idea of what all the stuff looked like in between the two, or where the connective tissue would go. I just wanted to get started right away and write some dialog between these two characters who I had already gotten to know in my mind.

I started with a blank page and it just poured straight out of my brain onto the page. Act 1 of the story just flew out of me, with barely a glance at my outline. The characters really took on a life of their own, and I'd never experienced anything like that. I could see in my head each scene so clearly, and could see how each character would react, how they would speak, how they would interact with the other characters and the world around them.

And just like when I'm watching a TV show or movie, surprises happened. There were plot developments that just occurred naturally as I was writing. I was stuck for an idea in the latter half of act 1. There's a scene where our protagonists find something. When I sat down to write this, I had no idea what it was they were going to find. I was typing up the scene where the two were in the car, driving to a location. The one where the "thing" was to be found. The dialog was coming along nicely, and I was enjoying watching these two characters grow. I then got to the scene where they arrived at the place where they find the "thing". I still had no idea what the "thing" was going to be. They get there. They get out of the car. They walk towards a place. They arrive at the place. And at the same time my characters lay eyes upon the place where the thing is, THAT is when the idea came to me for what that thing should be.

It was surreal. It all had a very "Neverending Story" vibe to it!!! And that's very much how the entire process went for me. The pilot is very much a journey of discovery for my two protagonists, who have been thrown into a situation that they both need to work through to understand. Time and time again, my characters would discover something at the same instant I did. Or they would makes sense of something confusing at the exact same moment I did. I'd be writing dialog where they would be saying "I need to figure this out" or something like that, and then right after that, as the other character goes to open their mouth to lay out the obvious, THEN it becomes clear to me what the answer is.

I wrote about fifty pages like that. Barely an outline, no real thought put into the story beats. Just a beginning and an end, and a good understanding of my characters.

I re-read it. And I re-read it again. I was already a big fan of these characters, and really enjoyed the way they interacted. But there were of course things missing from my story. I had yet to wrap up the main plot line, and there were a bunch of things that my characters knew that they had no way of knowing. I needed to go backwards and fill in those gaps.

It was an immense pleasure thinking through how to spackle closed holes in the story. It allowed me to introduce new characters that had a very specific purpose, and discover new locations that served them. And the script grew. What I had originally envisioned as a 42 minute pilot now grew into a target of 84 minutes. I realized that the story was too big to tell in a 42 minute opener, because it's actually two stories. It's not only something of an origin story, but it's also a quest story. Of course, the origin drives the quest, but they are two very different stories. Because of the supernatural component of the origin story, much time and effort was put into establishing the rules of this universe. It's unlike anything I've ever read or seen, and thus needs some explaining. The beauty of the larger format is that it allows me the flexibility to really explore these characters and their struggle without moving too quickly, cutting corners, or leaving too much explanation for future episodes. As it stands now, my story falls short of 84 minutes, which is a true blessing, as I still have so much story I want to tell, and so many components of the "quest" story that need to be fleshed out.

I guess the punch line to this whole post is that inspiration often comes from strange locations. What started out as an exercise in developing b-story support characters spiraled into a two hour pilot that practically wrote itself. And from that, I think the conclusion is one that has been repeated to me again and again over the years. Momentum is the best kind of inspiration. Once you start moving, staying in motion is easy. It's the getting off the couch that's the hard part. So if you have a story that you're struggling with, or some idea that you're having trouble getting off the ground, just sit down and write SOMETHING. Create SOMETHING. Getting your brain up and running, and your fingers pounding on the keyboard is often the best medicine for a lack of ideas. You might not end up writing the script you wanted to write, but you just may end up writing something. And hopefully, that something will be something great.

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