Sick of being controlled by other people’s plans? Frustrated by rules nobody asked you about? How would you like to play God and create a world according to you? Well, you can – write a pilot! Because that’s what a pilot for an original series is: A whole new world. And you get to create it – in your own image.
God being God, it took Him/Her a week (depends how you choose to interpret your Bible, of course) to create the world, but you being you – with many more needs than God, like getting another cup of coffee, buying your brother a wedding gift, indulging in the miracle of on demand TV, and most irritating of all, showing up at work – it will probably take longer. On the other hand, unlike the scientists, who tell us it took a couple of billion years to create the world, you’re a creative artist and don’t have to prove your facts, so it won’t take you nearly that long.
Let’s go back to the Bible for a minute. You know that line – “In the beginning was the Word and the word was…” In your case, the word was – WRITTEN DOWN. So if you want to create a whole new world, aka a pilot, you begin by writing something down. But what? Where do you start?
Anywhere! Start with whatever you know, no matter how little or unformed it is. Write down one simple thing you know about your pilot idea. Anything, but it must be in simple words on paper (okay, the computer screen). What if you know way too much about your idea and are overwhelmed and confused about how to focus? Do the same thing. Choose one simple thing you know and write it down.
"Take the first step in faith. You don't have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step."
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
For example, do you have a character? Excellent! Write down the character’s first and last name.
Don’t have the name yet? Make one up right now and write it down. Don’t worry about making it the “right” name – you can change it later as many times as you want (thank you, Find and Replace tool). Write down a placeholder name; any name except your own – especially if the character is based on you. A pilot is fiction, even if it’s highly autobiographical. It’s a fictionalized version of your life, not your memoir. You need some distance, so use your initials if you are having separation anxiety, but change the name.
Okay, you’ve got a name written down. Write one thing—one specific thing—you know about this character. Oh, but wait a minute – not something from the backstory. Make it something you know about who your character is right now. Present tense – that’s key! He’s 15. She’s an office temp. He’s divorced. Something you know about this character that’s simple, concrete and NOW. Only one thing. You can add more later, but for now, only one. For those of you who are struggling with too much information, identifying your character only in present tense is likely to eliminate a lot of stuff that is keeping you from seeing your character clearly. It doesn’t mean the backstory stuff isn’t true or valuable, it means it isn’t relevant right now.
But what if you don’t have a character yet? No problem—start with what you’ve got. How about the arena? Do you have an idea of where this pilot takes place? High school? Another planet? Single-parent family? Great! Write it down. And now write one specific thing you know about this arena. Elite boarding school? Suburban? Inner city? Math & Science for the Specially Gifted? Is the planet 25 years in the future? Or 2,000? Is it colder than Earth? Hotter? Is the single parent an older dad? A young mom? Is the kid a baby? A teen? Twins?
Look at that – you’ve taken two steps on your journey! What’s next?
IF YOU STARTED WITH A CHARACTER
Next Step: Identify the arena that this character lives or works in and write down one thing you know about that arena.
For example: George Moore is 30; he lives on his family’s Texas ranch. They raise beef the old fashioned way, free range. Or, Cathy Vega is 25 and a rookie cop in a big city Police Department; the head of her department is an alcoholic.
If you think you may have a buddy show where two characters are equally important, then pick one and go with that one first, then do the other.
IF YOU STARTED WITH AN ARENA (or anything else)
Next Step: Identify a character who lives or works in this arena. Probably the one you want to be the Central Character, and write down one thing you know about him/her. A character is the beating heart of any story, so even though you don’t have to start with one, you need to get one as soon as you can.
"You might do a magnificent job of creating an unfamiliar world -- a far place, a far-off time, or both – with the most skilled film-makers and the best technology available. But you have to make sure that world is inhabited by people whose lives and fates we care about and whose story has something to say to us."
– Ridley Scott
Now you’ve got a place and a character. You may think that’s not much, but you’ve started a solid foundation. You can build on that.
Next Step: What do you think a potential problem for that character might be?
Consider the one thing you wrote down and if you have an idea how that one thing can be a problem for your Central Character put it down.
For example: That family ranch that I said George Moore lives on—it’s split between him and a sister and she handles the finances. George needs approval from her for his operations. Or, in that Police Department where I put Cathy Vega – to keep her case on track, Cathy covers for her alcoholic boss who then gets credit for solving the case.
If you don’t have any idea what kind of a problem your character has with the information you wrote down, make one up. Yes, right now. You are a writer; that’s what you do – you make stuff up and WRITE IT DOWN.
It doesn’t have to be good, by the way, it just has to be written down. Making it good, better, best – that’s important, but that comes later. First you’ve got to write stuff down without worrying about whether it’s right.
A painter has paint. A musician has an instrument. A writer has words. Words are your tools, your medium. Words are all you’ve got. Words are your oil paints, your guitar, but if they’re in your head, no matter how good they are, they don’t count – you’ve got to write them down. You can make anything you’ve written down better. You can’t do a thing with something that’s still in your head. Your job is to make choices and write them down. That’s what makes you a writer – it’s that simple. That’s the whole secret – there are lots of other guidelines and suggestions you can learn, but nothing really matters unless you’re writing it down.
"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."
- Lao-tzu, founder of Taoism
Congratulations, you have started. And, if you followed my advice, what you’ve got is not about the backstory; it’s present tense, functioning in your character’s world right now, which is what you must have to develop a pilot.
So go ahead and play God – create your own world. As the saying goes, God is in the details, and you get to choose them. You set the parameters. The rules. The values. You decide who stays, who goes, when they fall in love, what they fight about. Everything. It’s your world. If somebody wants to change it – they have to pay you. Wow! Imagine that.
Don’t you love having control? Now if you could get control of your own life… hey, you know, creating a pilot is a big step in that direction. So write one. Write now.
Excerpted from Ellen’s forthcoming book on "How to Write a TV Pilot." Due out next year.