Tuesday, April 14, 2020

How to construct a pilot

I’m often asked “How do you construct a pilot?” Pilots are very different animals. Obviously, my background is in sitcoms so that’s the genre I’ll address.

Because of my TV background, I tend to construct stories very differently. Most people construct them linearly. First this scene then that scene then the next scene, etc. Once I have my overall premise for the story I figure out the end first, then the act break in the middle, and then start at the beginning of each act and build up to the end. The important thing is that every scene is necessary. If you can just lift out a scene without it affecting the story it doesn’t belong there.

Then I take each scene and determine what needs to be achieved here? At that point I figure the most interesting, surprising, funny, clever way to do that scene. Early scenes can be particularly hard because you’re generally setting things up that will pay off later. But you still have to make those scenes entertaining on their own even though they’re often filled with exposition. This is especially true in farces.

That said, some stories start off with a bang and the narrative sweeps you along.

And then there are pilots. In addition to constructing the story you have to introduce all the characters, establish the relationships between them, set the tone, explain the premise, have a story that has a satisfying ending but still hooks the audience to want to keep tuning in for future episodes. And in a comedy it must also be funny throughout.

So I’m always looking for devices — clever ways to introduce characters quickly. Is there a specific bit of behavior that defines them? Is there an attitude that instantly tells the reader/viewer who he is?

The TAXI pilot had a great device. The pay phone in the garage was broken and everyone could make free phone calls. Who they called defined who they were.

One often used device is having a new character enter the world. As characters are introducing themselves to him they’re really introducing themselves to us.

Another hurdle: through interaction, how can I best show the relationships between them?

And it all has to flow and not seem like I’m dumping too much information on the audience at once.

Lots of plates to keep spinning in the air, huh? All that is to suggest before you start writing you take the time to really define the characters, clearly plot out the story, and know beforehand just how you’re going to introduce everybody. Also remember, with television you have a time restriction. Even with relaxed times in streaming, a half-hour sitcom needs to be about thirty-minutes.

One tip: Make the story simple. Don’t heap on lots of complications and twists. Give your audience a chance to process who all these people are and what they do. I would shy away from B and C stories in the pilot.

Now you could say, I have a fresh voice and want my pilot to break all the rules. Okay, but you do that at your own peril. Most pilots are bad because the writers don’t really know how to tackle them. Pilots have certain requirements. You can be innovative and express your unique voice, but you still need to satisfy those requirements. Once the audience or reader is confused you’ve lost them, no matter how fresh and unique your voice is.

If you struggle, don’t feel bad. I struggle when writing a pilot. Pilots are hard! But you can’t get a show on the air without one. And if you’re trying to break in, you can’t get any traction without one. So roll up your sleeves. And as always, best of luck.


FFS said...

Ken, I’m not sure your process is the current norm. Often when a new sit com debuts I wonder how truly awful the competition was for this to be the one selected for production. Two recent examples are Indebted and Broke. Watched the first episode of Indebted because of the cast and thought I’d give it another chance but couldn’t get past the first commercial break of the second episode. Missed the first episode of Broke. Couldn’t get past 10 minutes of the second one. Didn’t laugh and the actors seemed to be “saying” their lines instead being a character. Nothing subtle. So called jokes telegraphed from the get-go. Full disclosure - I’m in my mid-seventies so clearly out of any target demographic and grumpy most of the time. Absolutely love The Kominsky Method so I do have a sense of humour.

Jack said...

Actually, that was a really good and concise lesson. I keep seeing these advertisements for this online thing, Masterclass, or whatever that is. You should teach one of those.

By Ken Levine said...

THE KOMINSKY METHOD is a well-made pilot that follows the rules. It establishes the characters, relationships, sets up the tone (it doesn't have to be multi-camera), and launches a storyline all the while being funny and entertaining.

PJ said...

FFS: It's not you, those shows are not funny. Also, I thought they were the same show until I realized they're just the same plot. The fact that they air at the same time doesn't help.

I loved Sports Night, and I'm still amazed when I watch the pilot, because that show was amazing out of the gate. It didn't really feel like a pilot.

Orangutanagram said...

The Taxi pilot is great for the broken payphone. Then it does something that always struck me as strange for a pilot: it leaves the world it's introducing as the guys go to some airport to meet Alex's daughter, who we may have seen again but wasn't a part of the series. At the end, IIRC, the John Burns character announces that he's going to become a cabbie. It looks like an afterthought and may be a sign that the character woulnd't work out.
Contrast to the Cheers pilot, which sets up the premise of the show efficiently and ties it with a know by the end.
Can you comment of this structure of the Taxi pilot?

brian t said...

If you want an example from the drama world, I can't recommend the pilot of The West Wing more highly. Though it sure contains plenty of comedy too e.g. Leo McGarry walks through the "bullpen" on the way to his office, which is when we first meet several important characters. For example, this is our introduction to Donna, Josh's assistant:

Leo: JOSH!

Donna: Morning, Leo.

Leo: Hey, Donna. Is he in yet?

Donna: Yah.

Leo: (deliberately) Can you get him?

Donna: JOSH!

Leo: (deflated) Thanks.

E. Yarber said...

One way to think of the process is that you spend the pilot arranging the pieces on the board and explaining the rules of this particular game.

Buttermilk Sky said...

I loved the WEST WING pilot. Leo then calls the NY Times to point out an error in the crossword. Established: he knows a lot about a lot and isn't shy about saying so. This will be a show about very smart people, if nothing else. If that doesn't appeal to you, try TWO AND A HALF MEN.

Joe said...

Ken, pardon me if this two-part Friday questions brings back memories of AfterMash, but here goes.

I've been watching a lot of MASH during social distancing, and it seems like Charles Emerson Winchester was Frasier Crane before Frasier Crane: Smart, snobbish, thrown in with a group of zany characters, with whom he's initially standoffish but comes to be more a part of the gang and displays a lot of depth. So with that long-winded intro, I think if any MASH spinoff would have worked, it would have been with Charles. What do you think?

Also, on Frasier, the Charles brothers got credit (and I'm sure lots of cash) for creating the character. If there had been a Winchester spinoff, would you and David Isaacs have been credited with creating the character.

Troy McClure said...

A few years ago you mentioned a pilot you and David sold to the USA network, which was then put into turnaround when new management came in. Have you tried taking it to another network or one of the streaming services like Netflix or Hulu?

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

I kept waiting for David Ogden Stiers to show up on "Frasier" because I thought he'd be perfect for it. When he finally did appear on the show during its 11th and final season, I wasn't disappointed. Stiers was tremendous.

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

Sorry...Stiers appeared in the 10th season of "Frasier."

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Buttermilk Sky: Take another look at the TWO AND A HALF MEN *pilot*. It is very, very well-constructed. Introduces all the characters (except Berta, who doesn't show up until episode 4) and their emotional connections to each other. The later seasons of that show cause a lot of people to forget that the first year or two were actually good. I thought that showed particularly in THE KOMINSKY METHOD when a couple of acting students perform part of that pilot, and it holds up remarkably well. (Chuck Lorre, taking a dig at his own aging.)