Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Lesson from Pilot Episodes

Since I gave up on regular cable and just pretty much use Netflix and Hulu, I have developed a strange addiction. I love watching pilot episodes of television series. This past week,  I watched the pilot of West Wing, Ally McBeal,  and The Following. It fascinates me how they set up an entire series, introduce characters, and fill you in on backstory, all while still being interesting enough to keep you intrigued for that episode and hooked to come back for the next.

As writers, we can learn a thing or two from a pilot on how to set up our own stories. We can use the examples they provide to show not tell, provide backstory sparingly, introduce characters dramatically, and entice the readers to keep on reading. I will examine the pilots of the three series that I mentioned to show you what I learned from them.

The West Wing Poster 
West Wing is an excellent example in how to bring in your actors. It set up the characters by making them have a grand entrance. You get a strong understanding of each character by their actions, dialogue, and the predicaments in which they land.We should strive for this in our characters.

The action was front and center. The characters were always moving or involved in quick, witty dialogue. There is not a bit of drag. Every inch of that script is used to tell show the story, move it forward, build drama, or for character development. Not one scene superfluous.

Ally McBeal is on the opposite side of the spectrum. Its opening episode was also filled with lessons that a writer can learn, but more along the line of what not to do.   It was a poorly done pilot, and if I didn't already know the series--there would have been no way that I would have come back for more.

Ally McBeal PosterWhat's worse--I was showing the episode to a friend who had never seen Ally McBeal. I raved about the show, but truth be told -- I had never seen the pilot. I came into the series, originally, around season two. During watching the episode, I found myself continuing to say things like it gets better, it's not always filled with so many flashbacks, and just keep watching, I swear.  If a book started this way, I would shut it and not return--unless I had received those same pleadings from a fan who had already read the whole thing.

New writers don't get this luxury with an agent or publisher. You have the first five pages to grab someone, buckle them in, and pull them into the book. They don't care about the spectacular scene on page 56, not if they never made it to page 3. 

It consisted of too much back story, too much inside-the-head commentary, and a full fledged, glitter-free pity party. Most of the jokes and scenes were just for the cheap laugh. There was not a consistent structure, the characters contradicted themselves, and too many scenes of Ally just walking down a sidewalk thinking.

The Following PosterThe Following overall was a wonderful first episode. It let you know early on what type of series you were watching, started with drama and action, slipped in back story as needed, showed you the flawed characters, and ended the episode with a cliffhanger to pull you back the very next week.

If we view the first ten pages or so of our novels as the pilot episode, then we should try to accomplish what The Following has accomplished. I was engrossed from the moment the show started, and was covered in chill bumps when it was over. Had there been a second episode already in existence, I would have been watching it. Translate that into a novel. If you can invoke excitement and fear in your readers and have them craving more, then you have won. You will create your own following.

A lot of weight is put on the pilot episode.  It is make or break. The show will not see a regular viewing audience if it does not test well among sample audiences or TV executives. It has to introduce the characters, show why you should care for them, communicate what type of show it will be, and above all else, entertain and hook the audience. For the writer, we must accomplish this in the span of five to ten pages. Take some time to watch a few pilot episodes of television series. Make notes of what works and what doesn't. Never stop learning how to be a better writer. 

What are some of your favorite television shows? Did you start with the pilot episode, or did you come into the series later? Do you have a favorite pilot that demonstrates how to hook an audience?

1 comment:

  1. I've become a Netflix fan for this sort of thing too. You can learn a lot that can be applied to writing by taking pilots, episodes and an entire series apart to see what makes it tick.