TWIC/Decoding the Note: Slow Down Your TV Pilot

Yesterday morning, I was sitting down with a TV writer who had given one of the members of his writers group the note: “Slow your TV pilot wayyyyy down.” Sharing this with me, the writer smiled as, no stranger to this particular note himself, he mused:“That note used to drive me nuts. Took me a while to understand what people meant when they said it.” Now that the writer had developed his craft further, getting ongoing input from  his managers as well as other trusted working writers, he was finally and totally getting it. 

Which got me thinking… do writers, especially new and emerging writers, understand, when they get this note, what the note-giver is actually saying?

Over the many years I’ve been working with both professional and emerging TV writers, I’ve come to understand this note to mean one (albeit simplified) thing, whether given by a writing instructor, teacher, rep or executive: The writer is pushing too hard on plot and desired plot points, and therefore rushing through and neglecting authentic character development. The note, therefore, becomes: Pull back on plot in favor of more thoughtful character work, the sort that allows us to really understand how the protagonist of any particular storyline, and potentially other characters, get from point-A to point-B (developmentally speaking) in the pilot in a way that feels honest, believable, and true to character. In other words, make sure that every plot point is earned by the character. 

Often, TV writers will come to a new pilot with clear intentions for what they want to do and where they want to get to: A specific scene. An attention-grabbing sequence. An exciting climax. This is the equivalent of those big trailer moments for feature writers, but in the end, TV writing is entirely different. While a feature screenplay tells a complete story from beginning to end, a TV pilot is just the first piece of a story told in many parts.

The desire to cram as much as possible (plot-wise) into the pilot for the majority of writers comes from knowing that the likelihood of the pilot getting made and them getting the opportunity to write, break or develop Episode 2 and beyond is not high. Add to that directives heard again and again from reps, execs and showrunners: Don’t save it for Episode 2. Give us what’s exciting about your show up front. You have to hook them from the start. Utilize your pilot to display what the week-to-week of the show would be… And I completely get why it is that so many writers throw into the pilot everything but the kitchen sink, making implausible character leaps in favor of exciting story turns and memorable, explosive scenes.

But as exciting as story turns, act-outs and climaxes can be, TV writing is all about characters and world: Digging deep into character development in order to create substantive, rich protagonists and antagonists operating authentically in a unique, fascinating and exciting world. In order for a character to be rich and substantive, its choices and action have to feel earned, authentic and true to character. The questions and comments I often hear about character development as it relates to TV pilots include: “Is it clear how she gets from here to there emotionally?” “Do we really believe that this character would make these choices?” and “Do we really buy that he would do this already?”  The authentic evolution of a character is what we’re really talking about here.

The good news? Most writers are expert observes of the human condition. This makes them entirely capable of slowing things down, and developing exciting and authentic plot that emerges out of earned and effective character circumstance, drive and immediate need.

While the protagonist of any particular storyline in a pilot should have a specific and complete arc, whether that arc takes the character from A to Z or from A to H is dependent upon what would be deemed authentic evolution that would keep the reader reading and the audience engaged. Lack of authenticity, as well as unearned choices and progressions, can make any character feel incomplete, a caricature of a character, rather than one that is well rounded. And it’s a well rounded, convincing character that both reader and audience can understand, that inspires both emotional investment and a real interest in whatever it is that comes next.