Lost was my first serious tutor in writing for TV.
Understand, I never watched the show when it was super popular in the early 2000s. I tend to avoid shows that everyone is talking about. I’ve never seen The Sopranos. I don’t watch House of Cards. Game of Thrones was six seasons in before I started following it. The Walking Dead was in its seventh season when I binged it on Netflix.
Call it a contrarian tendency but it’s the way I roll.
I do however often read the teleplays for these shows—and that has been far more important. A good script makes you feel like you’ve watched the show because the visuals on the page are so clear, and that’s what television writing is supposed to do. In this way, writing a teleplay isn’t that different from writing a decent novel:
- You want the words to create a picture in the reader’s brain.
- You want to jump into the middle of an action in the story—something that will grab the reader’s attention and make him or her curious to read more.
- You flesh out the world but try not to bore by revealing details and backstory up front.
I was still having some trouble adapting the Ashes, Ashes novels into a good pilot. Since Ashes, a post-apocalyptic story that begins with a nuclear blast, I certainly had the makings of a startling opening. But if felt wrong to start the story with a literal BANG! and introduce the characters afterwards. Then a fellow screenwriting friend in one of my writing groups suggested trying an approach like the pilot of Lost. When I admitted I hadn’t seen it, he gave me something truly helpful:
A zip file of the scripts of the first six episodes.
Of course, Lost starts with a plane crash… but you don’t actually see it. Instead, you see a guy coming to consciousness after the crash and immediately rushing to save others, taking charge and interacting with other characters. Ultimately he comes to the realization that there probably won’t be a rescue anytime soon. By the end of the pilot, we have:
- a quick sense of all the major characters and the seeds of the conflicts between them;
- evidence that this island isn’t just an island and something strange is going on here;
- the suggestion that there’s a possibility that these survivors aren’t alone in this mysterious place;
- a cliffhanger ending that creates deep desire to find out what will happen next!
All of that in 60 pages? WHEW!
And that’s why writing a pilot is one of the most difficult writing assignments there is.
I set to work on the Ashes, Ashes pilot. I wrote and revised and did my best. But after a couple of months, I realized I needed input from someone who knew more than I did about what was working and what wasn’t. In other words, it was time to consult an expert.
Check back to read about what I gleaned from my experiences with consultants and coverage.