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06/18/2010: Pilot Blindness
When you're setting out to write a spec pilot, it's natural to be thinking about some kind of surprising (but inevitable) development for the end of the episode -- a twist that turns a story into a saga. A series has an arc, just as an episode does, and it's not a bad idea to think of the pilot as containing the inciting incident that launches that arc.
However, you can't rely so much on some late-in-the-script event that it becomes the ONLY incident you've got. In other words, the pilot episode cannot simply be a collection of interesting people puzzling over a mysterious event until a big revelation happens in the last five pages.
Make sure you've got a story, even as it is also serving as a prologue to a bigger story. So how do you have a beginning, middle and an end, if the whole episode is all beginning? One classic way to do this is to have your heroes successfully solve something, then reveal, either to them or just to the audience, that the problem was part of (or the start of) something bigger. Similarly, you can have your protagonist succeed entirely at the immediate task, but then reveal to the audience that the protagonist has larger, less concrete problems looming -- perhaps a mental or personal challenge that's going to take a lot more work. However you accomplish it, there has to be real story movement and I would suggest some measure of satisfying closure in the pilot, not just character moments and anticipation.
A good way to make sure this is happening in your pilot is to look at your beat sheet -- the pared down version of your outline in which each scene is described with one or two sentences. The beat sheet is the easiest way to see the SHAPE of the story. Make sure that the story is a story. If your characters are encountering a mysterious event, is it the same every time, or is it escalating and evolving? If they're informing other characters of what's going on, are those characters adding more to the story than just introducing themselves to the viewers? If there are villains, are they being active? And, even more importantly, is your protagonist being active, changing her own situation? This is all basic story stuff, and I know you know it, but when you're holding back cards so that you can make that big play at the end of the pilot script, it can be surprisingly easy to forget this stuff.
Pilots are tricky. In our lives as viewers, most of us see a lot more episodes of television that aren't pilots than ones that are. We just have more examples. So you have to be more analytical when you plot them. But it's still part of the same art. You can do it.
Lunch: Kaya Toast and other amazing things at Susan Feniger's Street.