The TV Pilot’s Many Jobs!

The TV Pilot’s Many Jobs!

In last week’s blog, I shared that I shifted from writing novels to writing for the screen after a demoralizing experience with my self-published novel series, “Ashes, Ashes.”  At the Booksellers Association Expo BEA) in New York City, I realized that my books were just a tiny drop in an ocean of words, virtually indistinguishable from a dozen others. So of course, after realizing my dreams of becoming a bestselling author had crumbled to dust,  the only logical thing to do next was… go after a career in Hollywood.

Even now—when I’m closer than ever to making an actual career out of writing for the screen—that plan seems ridiculous. If success in the world of publishing was a steep and unlikely uphill climb (e.g. the odds of becoming a household name as a writer are about as unlikely as a winning a $500 million jackpot in PowerBall), then breaking in and achieving success in Hollywood has to be on a par with surviving alone on the moon– without a spacesuit.

Fortunately for me, I didn’t set out to conquer Hollywood. My intention was to write something for my friend Tom and his production company to shoot (you remember him from an earlier blog). Something longer than a short film and shorter than a feature length movie. I settled on the length of a TV episode—an hour long drama.  I learned that the name for the first episode of TV series was “pilot”, went to a local Meetup where I met some screenwriters who recommended various resources (including this site of sample scripts). I attended a couple of workshops on adapting novels for the screen and bought Final Draft (I’ll tell you why I invested in FD from the start in another blog). I was ready to write.

Writing pilots is one of the most difficult tasks in TV writing. That’s because the first episode of a potential new show has many jobs. Among them:

  • Introduce the characters and their conflicts (within themselves and with each other);
  • Introduce the major plot;
  • Introduce significant subplots;
  • Place hints to future storylines and major character developments;
  • Set the tone of the show (upbeat, dark, adventurous, romantic, etc.);
  • Hook the viewer into wanting to watch subsequent episodes.

And you’re supposed to achieve all of this in 57-62 pages.

Ashes, Ashes is the story of a group of eight young people—mostly teens and their younger siblings—who shelter together in a bunker after a nuclear attack. They aren’t all friends—in fact there are some real enmities in the group—but they are thrown together by Fate and dire circumstances. They have to learn to work together to survive—which is hard enough in the bunker. But when they run out of food and water and realize they have no choice but to go UP and face whatever has happened to the world they once knew, things really fall apart.

That paragraph probably covers the events of the first 100 pages of the book—and gave me a tremendous advantage over someone writing a pilot from scratch because I had the books. I already knew the characters, what would happen to them four books down the line, how their relationships would change. I knew what they looked like and who their friends were and why their enemies were enemies. I even already had key pieces of dialogue.  I knew how the plot would progress.

But the books were a disadvantage, too. I quickly realized that, in the effort to adapt the book into a teleplay, I couldn’t just track the books exactly.  Books are words—but a screen play is PICTURES.

What would help me transition from one to the other? The answer came in a single word—which also happens to the title of a wildly popular television show of the late 2000s:

Lost.

What did I learn from Lost?  I’ll tell you in the next Producer blog.

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