Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Big Choices - and what's it ABOUT?

The combination of talking with a writerfriend and also spending a slow afternoon at work reading the Felicity pilot for inspiration for my own college pilot got me thinking. I posted before about how pilots, especially for character-based shows, might not need such involved plots. But you have to make BIG CHOICES, and so do your characters. Move to a new place. Quit your job. Kill someone. Go after that girl or guy. Felicity turns her whole life plan upside down, defies her parents and moves across the country. Seth Cohen finally talks to Summer. We need to know who the characters are, what they want, why we should care for them, and what the show is ABOUT. Moreover, the best shows have conflict in their PREMISE. If your situations and character relationships have conflict embedded in them, you won't need to invent or superimpose any kind of unnatural conflicts.

Think about some of you favorite shows. Gilmore Girls is about walking line the between friend and parent. Trying to prevent your daughter from making the same mistakes you did. Making sacrifices for your family.

Mad Men is about want versus need. How you can tap into people and make them buy products. How having everything, money, beauty, etc. still won't make you happy. How we are all just trying to live up to an image. How men and women need each other but make each other miserable.

Weeds is about the failure of the American dream, the emptiness of being a corporate carbon copy in a subdivision, and how people escape their unhappiness through drugs. It's about raising a family amidst constant chaos. It''s about getting in over your head, being your own worst enemy.

Greek is about family, the kind of non-traditional family you can create with your fraternity or sorority. It's about making sense of the world and finding your place in it, with the support of your brothers and sisters.

Even Entourage - it's about the strength of friendship, the kind of people who know the real you, the people who won't be swept up in the cult of celebrity. It's about taking chances, pursuing your dreams and passions, and having people who will always support you.

So what are the big choices? Is there conflict in your premise? And, what is your show about?

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Dan Williams said...

The photo was excellent. It provided a real surprise when you website came up on-screen.

One way of trying to find out what a writer might like to write about is to read one of the current non-fiction books about business. They usually are based on the latest studies and are filled with descriptions of clashing values. That is, the old way of thinking, doing, valuing versus the new way they are presenting.

From these books, you get the up-to-the-minute trends and attitudes as well as character descriptions you can base characters on. A typical book might be titled, "HOW TO MAKE IT IN THE NEW HOLLYWOOD." From it, the writer can find out who the new players are, what they want, how they operate and how they are different. Built into these books is a description of the conflict of values that generates the plot for the TV episodes.

Anyway, these books are usually fascinating for writers, so even if a book doesn't spark a pilot in you, it'll give you lots to talk about while you network!

Unknown said...

Thanks for the post - came at the right time that I am trying to work through a similar problem.

Brandon said...

I find that this problem is very common for most writers who are just starting out. And the really bad thing about it is that you can start a script thinking you know all this stuff, but then get partially through the script and realize that what you thought your story was originally about isn't what it's about anymore. Then you face the choice: Do you re-examine your story, or drop it and start over? Does the old story benefit the characters less than the places that your new story would take them? Etc etc etc.

Katie M said...

good point. I've run into the "what's it about?/what's the real conflict?" issue in writing specs for my two favorite shows (and my own pilot, which is heavily influenced by them): 'Arrested Development' and '30 Rock.' Both have basically the same premise: Protagonist (Michael/Liz) is a reasonable human being. They are surrounded by crazies and the world is collapsing in on them. It’s their job to keep everything (the family, the show) together.

The issue here, though, is that it’s easy to fall into the trap of just dreaming up increasing ludicrous secondary characters and things to do with them, then just writing in how I would react for the protagonist. But this doesn’t yield as much potential for longevity as story/conflict-driven plots do. Anyone encountered an issue like this – finding yourself writing character after character but having no strong plot to tie them together?

Brandon said...

I have also encountered that problem, Katie. I was once working on a pilot that centered on the myseterious murder of this young girl. The protagonist of the show was another college-age girl, who had a hand in killing her. Everyone in the script--the main characters anyway (about 10)--had a secret. But I found that trying to weave little hints about all these things together in one episode was too difficult, and I wound up introducing yet more characters that were supposed to support the secret of one of the main characters. I ended up with something close to 25 characters with significant speaking parts, which was way too many. It was hard to decide who to keep and who to lose because they all seemed to intrigral to the baseline of the episode and series.