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Creating A Pilot: Lesson One

January 12, 2015

You’re tired of all the garbage on TV and you want to create your own pilot. The first thing you should do, before you write your own TV show is write an episode of a current hit television show. Both are considered spec scripts, but one will get you more attention than the other. For this lesson I’m going to discuss coming up with your own idea. I’ll talk more about current TV show spec scripts in another post.

First, come up with an original idea/premise or an exceptional character. What makes an original idea or exceptional character? That’s an excellent question. I wrote briefly about original ideas in an earlier blog: High Concept. Technically there are no more original ideas. Someone somewhere has already come up with the idea that’s floating around in your head. The trick is to put an unusual twist on your story, something to make it stand out. A good way to come up with one of these ideas is to ask yourself “What if?” What if an alien race visited Earth and gave the most ordinary of men a special suit that allowed him superhuman abilities, but he lost the instruction book? This is a premise for a 1980s TV show, but if you can get the rights to it, feel free to bring it back. That seems to be all the rage these days, making the old new again.

Other than an original idea, you can create a show based on an exceptional character. What’s an exceptional character? That’s another great question. An exceptional character is one that has some sort of extraordinary ability, but is placed in a situation where he can’t let anyone know about it or everyone sees him as a freak of nature. Say your character has an uncanny ability to detect people’s personalities from quick and astute observations. Most people aren’t that observant, but to him it’s quite elementary.

Now you’ve got an original premise and/or an exceptional character. Where do you start? You start by creating a setting fitting of your premise or character. To keep it interesting you could put your character somewhere where his abilities can flourish. Or you could decide to make things a little harder on your character and put him in a setting that works against his abilities. This brings us to conflict and antagonists.

An antagonist is an opposing force that is going to make your character’s (protagonist) life a living hell. The antagonist can be anything from your own protagonist to the setting, something that causes conflict with your protagonist. This conflict can come from man vs man, man vs nature, man vs society, man vs self, etc. Click here for a list of examples of the four mentioned. Conflict is what causes action in your story. Without it all you have is a-day-in-the-life-of type of story. Yawn. Keep it interesting.

Now you need a plot. A plot is the sequence of events that make up your story. These events will tie together an interwoven pattern to guide your audience. It is the goal of your character and the events that take place as his journey takes him from point A to point B. This is the journey that will usually cause your character to change in some dramatic way. But, in a television series, characters don’t change. They may learn a lesson for an episode, but they will always return to the same character they were before. Why? Because people tune to watch their favorite characters be the same person they were the week before. Plot changes with each episode, but characters do not. There can and should be an overall plot that stretches over each season or even several seasons, but the plot of each episode should be different. Yes, you can have more than one plot. The overall plot of Castle is: A fiction mystery writer helps a NYPD detective solve murder cases and each episode had it’s own who-dun-it plot.

Lastly you need a theme. This should not be confused with plot. Theme is the underlying idea or meaning of your story. It can be stated directly or indirectly. Relationships are most frequently used as themes. Each character will have his/her own version of the same relationship problem. If the theme is trust, then several of your characters will have a trust issue with some other character in your story.

I’ll give you a week to create all of these elements of your TV pilot idea. Next week I’ll help you put it all together to come up with an outline. The outline is essential for guidance, kind of like a path for your script. Until next week, happy writing.

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