Creating The Series

You’ve written the pilot, it’s time to create the series. Everything has changed since 2011, including the business of television. And when I say everything, I mean everything.

The way series are bought.

The way series are conceived.

The way stories are told.

The way series are consumed.

The kinds of stories that can be told.

The limitations on content at every level.

The limitations on form at every level.

It’s a whole different ball game.

My new book, Creating The Series, will discuss the new expectations that come with storytelling. You can no longer walk into a pitch with an idea. You need to be prepared to explain where the series is going. Let’s work through these new rules and move beyond the concept.

Creating The Series will be available this spring.

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Building the Perfect “Puzzle Box”

Television isn’t what it used to be, and that’s the great thing about it. What we consider to be “in” is constantly evolving.

Years ago The Sopranos,  Mad Men, and Breaking Bad were breaking the mold of what we considered a new style of writing. But today? Not so much.

Today, shows like Westworld, The Good Place, and The OA are the ones that every writer is trying to duplicate. But it’s not just gritty content that will be influencing new series for the next few years – it’s a new, bold, complex storytelling paradigm that is already taking over.

There’s a new writing style in town, and you have to keep up. The “puzzle box” show – a story that appears to be one thing until you reach the key that unlocks the mystery, and then it turns out to be something entirely different – are immensely popular.

This webinar will explore the structure of Westworld and other puzzle box hits to determine what makes one of these shows work, what elements are necessary for success, and how to avoid the traps this new paradigm offers.

You can find out more information about the webinar here.

Writing the Pilot on the Radio

If you’re going to be near a radio — or an internet! — on July 20th around 9AM PST, I’m going to be talking about pilot writing and who knows what else with Barbara DeMarco-Barrett on her show Writers on Writing. If you’re in Southern California you can find the show on KUCI-FM — anywhere else it’s KUCI.org.

A New Writing the Pilot book!

No, it’s not the long awaited sequel, Writing the Pilot: Five Great Pilots. That’s still in progress…pretty much at the same pace as the next Song of Ice and Fire. But until George R. R. Martin does figure out how to finish his epic story after killing off just about every interesting character — I mean, until my sequel is done — this new book is a great accompaniment to the first volume.

If you’ve read Writing the Pilot, you probably remember that the book’s center is devoted to an analysis of the process Lee Goldberg and I used in adapting Aimee and David Thurlo’s Ella Clah character into a pilot for CBS. It’s a step by step guide to the choices that we had to make in figuring out how to turn a series of books into a TV series, and I think it’s a pretty good demonstration of the kind of work that goes into writing any pilot.

The only thing that was missing for me was the fact that while you could follow our thoughts up to a point, you couldn’t see what they added up to. Because, alas, the pilot was never shot and the script existed only on our hard drives (and possibly in a storage closet at the network).

Until now. Until this:

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Our pilot script is now a book, Aimee and David Thurlo’s Ella Clah: The Pilot Script. And not only the script, but the pitch/treatment we used to sell the project, the story areas for future episodes we included when we turned in the script, and a brand new introduction by Lee and me, along with a new forward by the Thurlos.

It’s available at Amazon for the Kindle for only $2.99 — where it is currently #6 on the list of television screenwriting books, just four places back from Writing the Pilot — and if the beautiful edition I just received in the mail is any indication, it’s about to be available in a gorgeous paperback.

Losing the Plot

When you sit down to start plotting out your pilot, it all looks so clear. Sure, you may have no idea what’s going to happen in act three, and there are plenty of connective pieces that still need to be figured out. But you’ve got your opening, your ending and your midpoint. And most important, you know what your script is about. You know what you want to say, and that’s going to guide everything that happens along the way.

And then you start plotting. And something happens. And the odd thing, it seems like a good thing. You’ve figured out a piece of the plot. What if your protagonist does this? And that one scene breaks open the dam, because if she does this, then he is going to do that, and then they will have to respond by doing something new, and all of a sudden your plot is falling into place.

There’s only one problem: What you’ve come up with has nothing to do with what you set out to write. In fact, it directly undercuts the themes you wanted to explore.

But god damn it, it’s done! And although there must be a way to plot this thing out that expresses the ideas you set out to write about, you can’t get a handle on it at all.

So now you’ve got a choice — write the script you set out to create, or write the one that’s in front of you.

Choice number two isn’t always wrong. Sometimes it’s even better than what you’d originally intended.

But lots of times it is wrong. You’re trading a system of characters and themes you spent days or weeks or months establishing for a plot that just happens to work on its own. And while this will allow you to start writing, your script will be forever compromised, because you’ve traded away its center for a shortcut.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently — because I’ve been watching The Bridge. And they’ve fallen into this trap more completely than any first year show I’ve ever seen.

When it started, The Bridge seemed really promising. For once we were getting a single-crime mystery series in which the crime was actually interesting. It wasn’t the murder of a high school student or the disappearance of a pregnant teen or the death of a young boy, so we wouldn’t be spending a quarter of each episode watching the incredibly boring grieving of the victim’s parents. (Realistic, yes; interesting, no.) No, this started out with a body found on a bridge that spanned the border between the US and Mexico — and even better, it turned out to be not one body but parts of two, one American, one Mexican. Weird, creepy, ominous.

And even better, it really promised to be about something. It wasn’t just another in-depth exploration of the minutiae of a police investigation — and haven’t we had enough investigatory minutiae to last a lifetime? This was a show that was going to cross back and forth over the border, even teaming up an American detective with a Mexican one. It really seemed to want to explore issues about the gulf between the two countries and the two cultures. It was going to be cable TV’s answer to Roberto Bolano, only something would happen and finally there would be a solution.

And then they started plotting it…

Now I was never in the writers’ room for this show. For all I know, on the first day the showrunners assembled their staff and said “We know this pilot makes it look like we want to create a smart thriller that explores issues of life on the border, but really we want to make something really disappointing and stupid.” But somehow I doubt that.

I think the showrunners started out plotting based on their themes and characters… but as episodes went by and it got harder and harder, they started plotting based on what they’d already plotted. They let the plot’s twists and turns determine where they’d go next. Without realizing it, they’d abandoned their story logic and started relying on plot logic.

But here’s the problem — your plot is only the vehicle for conveying your themes. And twisting your entire series around to fit it is like tearing down your house because it doesn’t match the light fixture you just bought.

So week after week, The Bridge started following the logic of its plot. And what started out as a fascinating mystery centered on an important cultural issue turned into a ridiculous revenge story with yet another Blofeld-esque supervillain who can go anywhere, do anything, and hack into and control any computer anywhere in the world, because that’s what bad guys can do. The last few episodes have been dreadful — as the plotting has been wallowing in the stupid, the tone and style have remained as ponderous and self-important as they were when the show looked like it might actually be as serious as it took itself.

This past week counted as one of the low points in recent television, as the killer, now with a bomb strapped to his chest, demands that the hero murder another character so that “you will be just like me.”

Which is doubly stupid, because there’s nothing in the villain’s motivation that would make him want the Mexican detective to act like him. It’s just that this scene has worked in other places, so maybe it will work here.

And then when the hour is finally almost over, the American detective takes out the bad guy by… shooting him in the leg. Apparently that’s all it took. I kind of figured the bomb would have been on a dead man switch, so if villain wasn’t pushing the button it would go off. (I was assuming because by this time I’d started fast-forwarding through a lot of the increasingly pompous and ludicrous dialogue.) But nope, no dead man switch. And the entire assembly of SWAT members from two countries massed around couldn’t figure that out.

And it’s still not over. Now the previews are promising that finally the storylines about the widow’s tunnel and the weird werewolf-looking guy are finally going to be connected to the main story.

But for me, anyway, it’s too late. The showrunners gave up on their show. They decided that following plot was more important than following story — or they just found it so much easier to go this way they never realized what they’d lost. And it’s lost forever.

Don’t make the same mistake.

Stop Kicking Yourself!

I know, you’ve been sitting at home these last couple of days, kicking yourself. You had the chance to sign up for my five-week course on Writing the Pilot that started two days ago, and you let it slip away. Now you’re stuck in act two again and still searching for that way out.

Well, I’ve got some good news! My good friends at Writing Pad decided to push the start of the class for a week. Which means we don’t actually start until next Wednesday, 9/25. So you’ve got a second chance to get inspired — don’t miss it a second time.

For all the information you could ever need, click here.

Six Weeks to a Great Pilot

So, it’s September. The new TV season starts in a couple of weeks. Boardwalk Empire starts on Sunday, The Good Wife a couple Sundays after that, and we’re already seeing promos for the fourth season of The Walking Dead. There’s going to be a lot of great television drama out there really soon. And there’s only one show that’s missing:

Yours.

Uh-huh. The summer’s over and your pilot script still isn’t done. Maybe you’ve got a draft that isn’t working; maybe you’re still trying to get that concept right. Don’t beat yourself up over that — writing a pilot is really, really hard.

I’m going to make it a little easier. I’m teaching a six week course on writing your pilot. It’s going to be on Wednesday nights starting September 18 through my old buddies at Writing Pad. It’ll be part lecture and part workshop, so I’ll be giving you the tools you need to make that script work and then helping you put them into action. And when your pilot is done, I’ll be back for a one-on-one consultation.

You can find all the details here.

The class starts in twelve days, but enrollment is going to be limited and I hear it’s filling up fast. So check it out today. Because next October do you want to be watching season five of The Walking Dead or season one of your own show?