Home of Jane's blog on writing for television
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    July 2nd, 2010Jane EspensonGetting the Job, Pilots

    Let’s imagine that you’ve landed a job interview for a writing position on a new show. You’ve just been shown the pilot and you need to react in the moment. What should you say? What I’m going to say here may seem self-evident, but it’s amazing what you’ll hear yourself saying when you’re nervous, so it’s best to have thought about it.

    First tip: concentrate on the positive. They may ask you what didn’t work for you, but wait until they bring it up first. And then pick the flaw wisely. If you criticize the basic premise of the show, for example, you’re not likely to come across as someone who will have loads of ideas in the room.

    You’re there because you want to work as a writer, so figure out what you liked about the writing. All the other aspects — acting, prognosis for success, production values — that’s all secondary to the writing for the purposes of this meeting. So when they ask what you thought of the pilot, talk about the best parts of the writing.

    For example: I really liked how the humor was really subtle and grounded. Like in the moment when [blah blah]. It makes the show feel very real.


    I loved the way the characters liked and supported each other. It gives the show a positive feeling. Like in the moment when [blah supported blah].


    I loved the way the show brings in a horror element. Like that bit where [blah]. It’s so effective when genres are mixed like that, because I think [blah].

    I’m not putting “blah” in there because the content doesn’t matter, or because I think you’ll be less than sincere, but just because the exact examples depend on the show.

    The more specific the better. Don’t just say the show was “good” or “funny”. Use this as a springboard to talk about specific aspects of writing. You may want to mention other widely-admired pieces of writing that use similar techniques. And then, if I may suggest, you might want to say that this particular quality is one that you strive to achieve in your own writing.

    You don’t need to pitch story ideas (unless you’ve been told to), but it’s perfectly acceptable to say that watching the pilot filled your head with thoughts about stories and about the characters. The idea is to make it clear that you’re eager and able to contribute to the process of writing the series.

    This is the time of year when many shows are interviewing new writers. I hope some of you will have meetings like this. And I hope you get the job!

    Lunch: Mango and papaya salad and a tuna-avocado thing at Rock Sugar. Nice.

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    June 18th, 2010Jane EspensonOn Writing, Pilots, Spec Scripts

    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.

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    June 7th, 2010Jane EspensonOn Writing, Pilots, Spec Scripts

    If you’re writing a spec pilot, then you’re taking on more than shaping a single story that’s worth telling. You have to decide why THE ENTIRE SERIES is worth making.

    A spec pilot has to work as an episode, but it also has to be plausible, even brilliant, as a template for a whole show. And one thing that makes a show brilliant is if it’s got a big macro reason to exist — if it’s got a point to make.

    You might find it helpful to think of your pilot as having a topic sentence, just like an essay. Here are some topic sentences that could fuel series: Sometimes crime can be justified in an unjust world. Intelligence is a social deficit that can be overcome by applying intelligence. Childlike beliefs keep us young, for good and bad. Justice needs the help of dedicated people in order to prevail. Outsiders can form a family that’s stronger than one connected by blood. Strong leaders pay an almost unbearable price. Competence can outweigh compassion. Immoral but necessary actions ultimately corrupt anyway. Times change, people don’t. Freedom and safety are opposites.

    Notice that many of these are very familiar. The number of shows that are about outsiders forming a family is staggering. It’s okay if your topic sentence has been used before. That probably just means that you know it works. It’s good if it’s something you really believe, too.

    This isn’t a task that has to be added to your already daunting list of pilot requirements. This is something that can help make the whole process easier. You might have started work on your spec pilot with nothing more in mind than a setting. Then you added characters. At some point, though, you want it to take on a shape. Having a topic sentence like this will really help you shape the story. Having something to say is better, and easier, than not having something to say.

    Lunch: home-made grilled cheese sandwich, but not grilled. Toast the bread. Apply mustard and slices of cheddar. Microwave very briefly. Perfect!

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    November 1st, 2008Jane EspensonFrom the Mailbag, On Writing, Pilots, Spec Scripts

    Gentle Reader Sharla in Boulder has a great question. She’s been writing spec scripts for existing shows, so that she’ll have some really great samples to submit for fellowships. With those finished, she’s moved on to writing spec pilots, so that she’ll have those ready for when she actually needs to get an agent and a job. Don’t you love it when someone works their plan? It’s inspiring. But she’s hitting an interesting obstacle.

    “While writing my fellowship spec, I was working with characters that had so much background. Based on what they’d done and said in the past, I was able to craft their dialogue to fit the voices I knew and loved. And even when I did write an off line, when I read back over it, I could usually tell, oh, this doesn’t sound like so and so. Now when I’m writing my own characters, I seem to have lost that intuition. Since I’ve just created them, I don’t know what they sound like! […] In a way, I feel like it should be freeing to write for my own characters, but it’s like it’s too much freedom. I just can’t get their dialogue to focus.”

    Yes! I know exactly what you mean, Sharla. I faced the same thing when I started writing pilot scripts, and that was after I’d had years of professional experience of writing for other people’s characters. This is a great question.

    I’ve found two different approaches that can be helpful:

    1. Borrow and combine. There’s nothing wrong with continuing to write for characters you know and love, just grafting them into your script. Got a tough, interestingly flawed character? Try using Starbuck’s voice. Got a blowhard character? Ted Baxter’s voice isn’t busy. It’s like dream casting only with characters instead of actors. Since the circumstances of your story will make new and unique demands on the characters, the voices will naturally have to be adapted, which will prevent your script from sounding like a series of clips from other shows. You can also combine traits — give House’s way of speaking to a female character or combine two characters to make someone new. It’s not stealing, it’s adapting. There’s nothing wrong with using someone else’s springboard to dive into your pool.

    The second option is harder, but much better:

    2. Identify a type and use it to create your own breakout character. Sometimes, when you meet someone, you realize they remind you of someone else you know. And it’s not a physical resemblance, but something else — a way of dealing with others and a way of interpreting the world. When that happens, you are identifying a type. It’s most obvious with crazy people. If you’ve had encounters with crazy people, you’ve probably found that some of them remind you of other crazy people you’ve encountered before, and you’ve probably developed your own way of dealing with them based on what’s worked before. You’re predicting their behavior. You do it with less extreme personalities, too. Your cab driver suddenly reminds you of your father-in-law, or your new boss reminds you of your college roommate, and you form certain expectations about how they’re going to act, what they’re going to find funny, what they’re likely to say in a situation. It’s the meticulous observation of types that can allow comedic actors to create instantly successful and memorable characters, and it always works best when a type is familiar to us from interactions, but hasn’t yet been presented to us as an archetype. The “aging Brit rocker” type is now growing familiar, but not long ago, he was running wild in the world, not yet pinned to the collection board. The “cougar” hadn’t been captured regularly since Mrs. Robinson and now she’s everywhere. The “teen girl cynic” — new-ish and ubiquitous! What’s the next type to be observed and captured? Find it, pin it down, write the heck out of it! You’ll have Barney from How I Met Your Mother or Tracy from 30 Rock and your script will sparkle.

    ADDENDUM: Please note that these aren’t the only options. They’re just two that I have found helpful. You can also, of course, come up with a unique character unlike anyone you’ve seen or met, or you can pattern a character after one person you know — there are many ways to go about it. I just happen to like the two I listed.

    Lunch: the 2 cheeseburger meal from McDonalds in the car on the way to Norwalk to vote early. VOTE EARLY!

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    I’ve mentioned the amazing Friend-of-the-Blog Jeff Greenstein before, and here he is again with a great idea. He suggests that I talk about the right way to open your spec pilot. Yes. This is huge — a lot of people never read past the opening, so making it as perfect as possible is crucial. Jeff says: I am a big believer that the opening line of a pilot (or the opening image, or the teaser) should be the series in microcosm.

    Yes. Exactly. I agree. I do this and I suspect many other writers do as well. In fact, Jeff is prepared to prove that they do. Here is a darn impressive list he composed:

    In the Cheers pilot, the teaser is Sam with an underage kid who’s trying to get a drink using a fake military ID. Kid says he was in the war. Sam asks what it was like. “It was gross,” the kid replies with a shudder. “Yeah, that’s what they say — war is gross,” Sam replies. The teaser gives you a sense of the place and the guy.

    The Battlestar pilot has that great opening scene with Number Six and the emissary from Earth. The scene says, “Remember those metal robots? They look like humans now. And they’re going to fucking kill you.”

    The Lost pilot starts with a close-up of an eye opening, and the aftermath of the plane crash. This show is about consciousness and strandedness and tragedy.

    Will & Grace starts with Grace in bed with her sleeping fiancĂ©, yet on the phone dishing with Will about George Clooney’s hotness. It’s the perfect encapsulation of their odd relationship.

    The Desperate Housewives teaser: In the midst of tranquil suburban splendor, Mary Alice blows her head off.

    The West Wing pilot: In a bar, talking off-the-record with a reporter, Sam Seaborn is distracted by a hot girl who’s giving him the eye. This show is about politics and sex (well, it started out that way), and the “backstage” lives of people in government.

    Wow. That’s a fantastic list. I would add the teaser of the pilot of The Wire, in which a detective gently interrogates a neighborhood kid about a senseless murder — the gross illogic of which the kid takes in stride. The series’ whole sense of an overwhelming inescapable system of crime is there in that scene.

    And the Buffy pilot teaser? Remember, it was that bit that looked like the girl was about to be munched by a vampire, but in fact SHE was the vampire? It told you to throw out your dramatic expectations, that danger could come from anywhere, and that women were going to have some power in this world. It was Buffy’s own story, but told from the vampire side first.

    Writers tend to agonize over their teasers, especially that first page, and especially if the project is a pilot. If you’ve just shrugged and started with your main character waking up in bed, then I’d suggest that you might’ve missed a really good opportunity. Think about the heart of your show — what’s the central dynamic? The central message? Is there a way to capture it in your opening sequence? Go ahead, agonize. It’s good for you and your spec.

    Lunch: wonton soup at Noodle Planet.

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