Riding Bitch

The daily musings of a writer.


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Anatomy of a Television Pilot

For those unfamiliar, a “spec” television script is written for an established show. A “pilot” is written to sell an original, new show, be it comedy or drama. I’ve written mostly film screenplays to date, and one spec television script (for the show HUNG). These days I’m writing my first ever television pilot, and I gave it to my manager two weeks ago for notes. She sent me back three television pilot scripts to read, all being produced this year on major networks, all similar in tone to mine and to each other, but with distinctly different plots.

Reading these scripts was incredibly helpful and inspiring. They were all great scripts, easy to read and compelling. I will watch these shows. More importantly, they were very well structured and well-developed… both areas in which my own script needs improvement.

The following are some things I picked up from these scripts:

They were all one-hour dramas, one clearly meant for cable, the other two meant for network. How could I tell? Because of the controversial subject matter, curse words, nudity, etc.

They were 62, 67 and 69 pages long, respectively.

They all had 5 acts. An Act is basically how the show is divided (like chapters). On channels with commercials, the commercial breaks separate the Acts.

Each Act ended with a twist that made me want to know what happened in the next Act. Put another way, each twist propelled the plot in a different (forward) direction. And the Really Big Twist was on the last page of Act 5, the last-minute or two of the pilot. This is what gets viewers hungry to know what happens in the next episode.

I’m going to focus the rest of my analysis on Script A because it had the clearest structure.

Script A was 62 pages long and had a total of 79 scenes:

Act 1 – 17 pages, 16 scenes
Act 2 – 8 pages, 4 scenes
Act 3 – 15 pages, 28 scenes
Act 4 – 11 pages, 10 scenes
Act 5 – 11 pages, 21 scenes

You can tell from this that Acts 3 and 5 had a lot of very short scenes, indicating perhaps a chase sequence. In general, scenes are no longer than 2 or 3 pages (most are shorter).

The narrative set up of Script A was established in Act 1. So, basically by the first commercial break you have an idea of the show’s main dilemma and the main characters.

The characters were established as follows:
5 main characters were introduced in Act 1
1 main character was introduced at the top of Act 2
1 main character was introduced at the top of Act 3
1 minor character was introduced in Act 5

The title of script was explained in Act 4.

The location of the story shifted dramatically in Act 5. It’s hard to say if the whole show was going to move there or if it was just for the pilot (me thinks the latter).

Without knowing anything further, you basically now have a rough structural guide to a one-hour dramatic television pilot script. Obviously, these numbers are not set in stone and you can deviate from them. Personally, I don’t plan to deviate from them that much because I want my pilot to resemble the pace of Script A.

But you need more than a rough guide. You need to read some scripts for yourself, preferably scripts that are similar in tone to yours.

Here are three sites for free scripts you can download:

https://sites.google.com/site/tvwriting/us-drama/pilot-scriptshttp://www.simplyscripts.com/tv.html
http://www.dailyscript.com/

Try breaking a couple down like I did and see what you come up with. If you have more tips and/or advice, by all means chime in.

Happy creating!


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Adapting Non-Fiction for TV and Film

You’re probably familiar with films based on novels, but did you know that many award-winning films are based on non-fiction books or articles? Here are eight such films:

On the Waterfront (1954) – Screenplay by Budd Schulberg, based on “Crime on the Waterfront”, a series of articles in the New York Sun by Malcolm Johnson, which won the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_the_Waterfront

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) – script by Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern, Peter George, based on the book “Red Alert” by Peter George

Into Thin Air: Death on Everest (1995) – screenplay by Robert J. Avrech, based on the book “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer

A Beautiful Mind (2001) – screenplay by Akiva Goldsman, based on the book “A Beautiful Mind: A Biography of John Forbes Nash, Jr., Winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics” by Sylvia Nasar

Iris (2001) – screenplay by Richard Eyre, Charles Wood, based on the book “Iris: A Memoir” and “Elegy for Iris” by John Bayley

Seabiscuit (2003) – screenplay by Gary Ross, based on the book “Seabiscuit: An American Legend” by Laura Hillenbrand

Into the Wild (2007) – screenplay by Sean Penn, based on the book “Into the Wild” by Jon Krakauer

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) – screenplay by Ronald Harwood, based on the book “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” by Jean-Dominique Bauby

In a lecture I attended last October given by Brad Schreiber, an accomplished writer/teacher/consultant who was kind enough to share with us the Writer’s Pledge (Industry Friday #8), I learned some interesting facts about adapting books or articles for film.

1. If you think your story would make a great film, here are some reasons to write the book first:
– You will have more control over the material.
– You will most likely automatically be a producer on the film.
– The other producers won’t be able to get rid of you.
– Adapting the book is usually a faster process than writing an original screenplay.

2. On the other hand, these are some of the challenges of adapting:
– Books have interior dialogue. In film this becomes Voice Over Narration, and too much narration is usually not a good thing.
– Books can have a lot of non-action. Film is all about action (even a non-action film).
– Books can be non-linear. Films are generally (but not always) linear.
– Books are culturally specific. Films are intended to have a global appeal.
– Books leave much to the imagination. Films rely on specific images.

3. Another important consideration is thematic focus. Generally, a film focuses on a certain aspect of the book or subject matter rather than the entire story captured in the book.

Two examples:

In the film A Beautiful Mind, the producers decided to leave out the fact that Nash was apparently bisexual and instead focused on the love story between him and his wife.

Dr. Strangelove was based on a non-fiction book about nuclear disaster. The director Stanley Kubrick thought it was so bleak to the point of being absurd, so he made into a dark comedy.

If you’re in the book-writing stage, you need not worry about these things now, but keep them in mind for later. If you’re a screenwriter, then think about what your angle would be on the non-fiction book or article you want to adapt. What is the central story and how will you approach it? If you’re a producer, realize that the person who wrote the book or article might not be the best person to write the screenplay, but they will probably be the most knowledgeable about the subject.

Happy creating!


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Switching Gears

I miss blogging! Only have 6 more days to go at writer residency. The time has definitely flown. My current dilemma is how to switch gears from writing/editing a deeply personal book to finishing the TV pilot which was due to my manager last week. I think if I can at least outline the rest of the pilot in the next few days, then I’ll be able to finish the draft rather quickly when I get home. It’s just very different mindsets. The book is the passion project. The pilot is work. I should probably stop whining and just do it, right? Right. 

How is everyone out there in the blogosphere doing? I’m going to need a week just to catch up on all your posts!

Here’s a pic of today’s Vermont sky for your enjoyment.

Image


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10 Problems/Solutions for Writers (Industry Friday Series #5)

This post is a bit late for Industry Friday, but technically it’s still Friday in my time zone.

In the previous post “To Vermont or Not to Vermont” I debated whether or not to go to a writer’s residency and the possibility of quitting my job if they didn’t grant me a leave of absence. Well, the good news is they did grant me a leave of absence. But of course this means, now I actually have to WRITE SOMETHING… which brings me to today’s post.

These are my top 10 problems/solutions as a writer (perhaps you can relate):

Lack of inspiration – Staring at the page or screen, not knowing what to say, hating every idea that pops into my head OR loving every idea that pops into my head and not knowing which one to commit to. The worst is when there is a looming deadline.

Solution – When not feeling the muse, basically I write anyway. I’ll write in my journal, write an imaginary letter to one of the characters, write a potential scene, write some dialogue, write even a few words of the idea. Sometimes I will talk with others about the project. Other times I’ll walk around the block and talk to myself, or I’ll talk to my dog. The main thing is to write something even when the well is (or seems) dry.

Lack of discipline – Not writing every day, but writing when you feel like it.

Solution – I’ve tried writing at different times of the day but it seems I’m the most productive in the morning. These days, I’m waking up at 5:30am to write. I have been known to write at night into the wee hours of the morning, but this is only when I’m in an obsessive state.

Obsessing about what to name my characters – Believe it or not, not knowing what to call my characters can sometimes totally stump my creative flow. I have been known to spend hours trying to find the perfect name for a character.

Solution – If I really can’t find a name I love, I force myself to use a temporary name, like of an actor, friend or family member who reminds me of the character, promising myself that I can and will change it later.  

Feeling like I need to read or watch other books/films in order to write my own – It can be helpful to reference other material especially when seeking inspiration. But it can also be very time consuming and easy to feel discouraged.  I start thinking, “well, what’s the point of writing this if so-and-so wrote it and so much better?”

Solution – Monitor how much time is spent reading/watching other people’s work instead of creating my own. When it feels like I’m just using it as an excuse not to write, I stop.

Being distracted – This is a huge problem for me. Sometimes I think the hardest part of writing is just sitting in the chair long enough to get anything done! I’ll come up with any excuse to get out of it, physically or virtually (via the internet).

Solution – Turn everything off! I will turn off my cell phone and even disconnect the home phone and the internet. If I need the internet for research, I’ll turn it back on only for that, but basically I have to sequester myself. I also find that music helps to get me into the mindset of the piece – and stay there.

Being a perfectionist – Another huge problem. I’m a slow writer in part because I am constantly self-editing, going back over the same sentence to phrase it better or differently. On the other hand, it is good to be an excellent proofreader. Sending work out that has all kinds of typos is never good.

Solution – When I sit down to write I allow myself a little bit of “overlap” (i.e. starting a scene or two from where I stopped) so I can get into the world again. But when I find myself obsessing about a sentence that I already wrote, I have to literally force myself to stop and move on, telling myself “I can always fix it later.” Also, I get other people to help me proofread. A fresh pair of eyes is always good before sending out work.

Fear of showing anyone what I’ve written – I don’t feel this as much as I used to, but earlier in my career I used to have panic attacks when I would give work to mentors or colleagues I thought were better writers than I am.

Solution – I try not to put anyone on a pedestal anymore. Also, I try not to be as emotionally invested. Just because someone doesn’t like what I wrote, doesn’t mean I’m not a good writer. I have trained myself to actually love getting notes and be able to weed the stupid/bad ones from the real gems.

Inability to rewrite – Ugh. Rewriting is seriously painful but, as all writers know, absolutely necessary.

Solution – Whereas in earlier years I would get emotionally invested in my first drafts, now I don’t. As previously stated, I am eager to receive notes so I can get on with the rewrite. Also, knowing that rewriting is necessary allows me to mentally prepare. I have grown to love it, up to a point.

Inability to finish – I have several scripts which needed one more rewrite to be great but I never did it, usually because I had already moved on to another.

Solution – While it’s easy to beat myself up for having unfinished material, I also feel like not all material is meant to be finished. Some will be revisited later. Some work is also meant to be a learning experience. That said, it is something I still struggle with and am trying to improve. At least I finish posts!

Inability to write something new (i.e. “fall in love again”) – When I finish a piece I have loved and lived with for a while, it’s hard to jump into another one right away. Also, I’m usually depressed.

Solution – I like to go out of town to clear my mind, or at least allow myself a brief “mourning period.” Now I actually plan for them.

 What are some of the problems you face as a writer? And what are your solutions?

Happy creating!