In Defense of The Killing

1 04 2012

Unless you are choosing to live off the grid, you all know that tonight is the Season Two premier of The Killing on AMC.

I for one am super excited. Like, planning a special meal, a nice bottle of red wine, and plan to completely block out the world to fully devote my two hours to the new episode–that kind of excited. (Plus, tonight is also Game of Thrones premier, so it’s practically Christmas for the TV dork in me.)

It seems that The Killing has been getting nothing but hate lately. Everyone was so annoyed that they didn’t solve the murder of Rosie Larson in Season One. How could they?!! I demand more clear-cut endings! Too much rain!!! While I understand the uproar, a lot of it sounded fairly whiny to me. I realize this may be an unpopular opinion, oh well, there are plenty of other blogs to read.

Here’s the thing, I enjoyed the hell out of the first season. I thought the pilot alone was fan-freaking-tastic. Great pacing, great character reveals, great world. As someone who always says that secrets are where drama comes from, the show did that extremely well. Red herring after red herring. Sure, maybe we felt a little jerked around come episodes 7,8 when we realized we were maybe on another tangential path. But, did I rush to condemn the show into the pit of TV failures alongside Cavemen and Viva Laughlin? No, because even at its most meandering and rain-soaked story moments, The Killing is still better than 95% of TV out there.

When people felt like their time was wasted by episodes that didn’t catch the killer of Rosie Larson…think of this: The Bachelor and Dancing with the Stars, and American Idol are two-hour shows. Now, those are really two hours you will never get back in your life. An hour wasted on The Killing…come on, really? Was it that painful? Did it make you miss an episode of Jersey Shore that you forgot to Tivo? Did you sacrifice your time that otherwise would have been spent feeding needy children?

And don’t forget. For all it’s Lynch-ian genius, Twin Peaks was not without its flaws, but I think it’s safe to say most of the TV appreciating society holds that show in high esteem.

Now I do agree with the haters when fans were pissed at the end of the season, and Veena Sud brushed them off. In this day of Twitter, it’s too important for showrunners to engage with their audience/fans in a positive and productive way. Fans can’t be brushed off, and their feelings should absolutely be considered. I totally agree that creating a trust with your audience is HUGE, and we felt like our trust was betrayed. Fair.

BUT, I ask you. If we somehow knew we wouldn’t catch the killer by the end of Season One…if we couldn’t blame marketing for planting the idea in our heads that we would see a killer in handcuffs by the end of the finale…would we have been so pissed?And also, would that ending have been anti-climactic to some degree? We catch the killer, great, now what?

By comparison, Pretty Little Liars, only now at the end of Season Two identified the evil “A”, an unknown tormenting our sweet teenage girls with their own dirty secrets. Their fans managed to not abandon ship even though the whole thrust of the series was about discovering the true identity of “A”. Their writers also managed not to completely alienate their fan base with condescending tweets, while also keeping the pace to match a teenager’s attention span. Is that what we wanted The Killing to do? My guess is, no.

So, our expectations were messed with, and that’s a crappy feeling. BUT, in some shows that’s also an awesome feeling. Not seeing something coming, that’s good! That’s part of the experience. (Something Game of Thrones I would argue does well for those of us who didn’t donate months reading the books.)

And yes, Season One was not without its flaws. Maybe too much rain. Over time I wanted more from Detective Linden and found her to become a little one note. But, again, none of the Season One issues are causing me to ban the show going forward. I came back to Walking Dead this season, and as far as I’m concerned, the previous season had plenty more egregious flaws.

And really…do we all go nuts if Mad Men has a somewhat unsatisfying episode? Did we all turn on Matt Weiner and Lionsgate for taking the show off the air for 18 months. Now, I know Mad Men is the holy grail of TV, blah, blah, but it too has slow and meandering episodes that don’t always pan out into perfect character/story reveals. (I know, clutch pearls, how dare I say such blasphemy.) Yet, with Mad Men we call it genius. And with The Killing we are ready to get our pitchforks and torches and walk the streets calling for Veena Sud’s head.

I’m a tremendous fan of AMC. Their programming is awesome, they are finding very smart talented people to work with, smart properties, and my guess is, the execs there are some of the smartest working in Hollywood.  I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Afterall, no network is perfect. They couldn’t help if some episodes were slower paced or had less satisfying reveals than other episodes. It happens. The first season of Walking Dead was definitely not without its flaws…sorry to harp on it, but seriously.

The critics are already giving the Season Two premier a thrashing. More of the same, they cry. Others wisely point out that they show expands to beyond Rosie Larson and digs deeper into our characters, Det. Linden, etc. That’s a good thing. A show that brings us in with Rosie Larson but throws us into a richer world of secrets and betrayal beyond one murder case is a fleshed out world. That’s a show, more than just a mini-series, I might argue. Desperate Housewives started out with a mysterious death, but that’s not what the show was about ultimately. And that’s not how you eek out season after season.

I don’t know. I for one will be watching tonight with open eyes and ears. Sure, the show might have a strike or two against it, but I’m still willing to give it a shot.  If I was dating The Killing, I’d stick with it. Sure, I’ve seen a few red flags, but I’m not ready to dump it yet. Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment, but I’m going to be watching.  Come 8 o’clock, what will the naysayers be doing? Watching Dancing with the Stars? I doubt it.

Structure II: The lost blog entry

17 02 2012

It has come to my attention that I completely left you guys hanging on the Structure conversation.Doh!

I started it here , with helping you find ways to determine whether your idea is an hour or half-hour, or one of those inbetween cable dramedies.

So, assuming you know which genre you’re writing in now, which type of stories you want to tell, the the types of characters you want to tell it with, you need to take on the daunting task of breaking story.

Here’s a checklist on how to make sure you have the tools ready to break story.

1. You have a main character that has enough going on to contain the A story for your pilot, and kick off the season and series arc.

2. The basic theme of your pilot is the basic theme of your series. Do you know what you’re saying with your show? What the eternal struggle will be? (ie, in the Sopranos pilot, and in the series, Tony Soprano always had the struggle between his family life and his “family” life, which was reflected in his therapy sessions. The show was always about his dance between these two worlds.)

3. You want an A story, a B story, a C story, and possibly a very brief D runner story (which means it’s not really a full story, but two or three instances we’ll see a running joke, a character finally make a small change, etc.)

-Half-hours will have an A, B, and C-runner, maybe a D runner if you’re in the Modern Family realm of lots of characters

4. You have generated enough scenes for each storyline.

Generated what? Yes, this is my biggest piece of advice that might differ from some of the books you’ve read.

I recommend breaking each story on its own. Work your way through the whole A story, scene by scene. Make sure it has a beginning, middle and end. There is a climax in the episode. There are stakes. There is a moment where we really get under the skin of your MC and are rooting for them. For an hour long that could be around 8-12 scenes.

Do the same for the B story.

– This is where you find out if your side story, or ancillary characters are interesting enough. Can they sustain their own arc. In a pilot your MC might be involved with this story. Let’s stay you’ve snagged John Stamos as your lead, viewers will want to see him as much as possible, before you can leave them alone with your supporting characters.

The Mentalist is a good example here where it felt like Simon Baker was in every scene at the start of the show, but as we got to know the other actors, we could spend more time alone with them and their own stories.

– Also, consider that your B story gives you something to cut away to from your A story. So if your A story is of your cop solving crimes out in the streets, chances are you don’t want to make your B story also about another cop solving crimes in the streets. Go to someone’s house. A school, a hospital. The Good Wife does this well. What are our worlds? The law firm? Her home? Maybe her husbands office? These give us other things to look at, other worlds to explore, all of which deepens our investment in your main character because we get a broader view of them.

I know there are many shows where this isn’t possible. Grey’s Anatomy keeps us in the hospital, but they do go to different departments. So while someone is undergoing a radical brain procedure (that can only be done in 90 seconds!), someone else is having a baby born with six toes, and C story, someone is teaching a kid to ride a bike and realizing they’re gonna be a great doctor after all. (yes, weak examples, but you get where I’m going.)

Then the C story.

– Same thing. New face, new worlds, keep it interesting, yet still in the realm of your series. Often you see a show, let’s say In Plain Sight, that will have an minor inner-office squabble, passive aggressive argument over a cupcake, someone stole my stapler, kind of thing. I’m not totally a fan of these, but if you can keep them fun, give yourself something to cut to to maybe lighten the tone if you’re dealing with heavy subjects, then fine. Just don’t make this tonally that different from the rest of your script.

And then, this might not fit into any of the categories above….(and this applies more for dramas than comedies), a scene to play into your series arc. In Alcatraz they have the scene at the end of most episodes of moving the photo of the captured criminal to the opposite wall. Or Revenge, she makes an X with that evil red pen!!!! on someone’s face from the company photo. (Maniacal laugh. Maniacal laugh!).

You can put all these scenes on note cards, you can write them in a word doc, final draft, your call. But, keep the story lines separate.

Only when you have sufficiently beated out each storyline, do you merge them into the episode.

My favorite thing, and this is just me, is to write each scene in a short phrase onto a small post-it. I use the ones that are the long rectangles for putting into books or documents, as opposed to the desktop reminder square size. I pick a color for each storyline.

Then I draw a big six act structure, this is generally Cold Open/Teaser, and then Act I – Act V.

Then I can place my color-coded sticky pieces down on my grid.

Start with A, place them all down. See which scenes might make good act outs. Not all of your act outs, but most will come from the A storyline, so if you dont’ have interesting enough act out moments, something is missing from your story.

Then place down all the B.

You know you are going to have to cut to something from your A storyline, you know time is going to have to move forward, people have to change clothes, get back home from the office, sleep, etc. So you use your B and C scenes to help you finesse moving your A story forward.

From there you just have to adjust and play around to keep those post-its working for you. The color coding helps to see visually if you’re weighting the whole B story in the third act, or if you let the C story drop from act 2, 3, 4. You kind of bounce between the three, while still keeping us mostly invested in the A story, until the end.

I often take a picture with my iPhone when it’s done to save this post-it masterpiece. Never know when a gust of wind could blow your outline away.Plus, you could even make major changes, but have an old “draft” of your outline still available to check in with.

From there, I throw the whole thing into an outline in Final Draft, and then start writing.

Sometimes I need to write the shitty first draft to find the holes in the story, the scenes that led to nothing, the characters that were coming up flat. But, that requires writing the draft. I’ve seen many writers not even write the first draft because something wasn’t working in the outline for them. I get that. But if can’t solve it in outline, if you’ve tried a few different ways, but you have a solid enough base to go on, sometimes you have to dive in to see how cold the water really is.

I generally budget a week for breaking, and a week for knocking out the shitty first draft. This is working from home full time. And, this is also after a few weeks, months, years, of an idea brewing, a character forming, so I am coming to the table with something that has a shape, but I need to keep refining it as that shape turns into a series.

Best thing I heard about a pilot I wrote recently. “I could see this as a show somewhere.” That’s the goal folks. Well, the goal is to sell the show, make a ton of money, win Emmys, drink whiskey with Matt Weiner, make a guest appearance on True Blood, but…on the page, if done correctly, you haven’t just written a good script, you’ve written a show.

Thoughts? Questions?

The DIY Writer

9 02 2012

I have a confession. I thought I’d be a millionaire by the time I was 30. When I was 22, an overworked development assistant and aspiring screenwriter, I was pretty convinced that if I just came up with one good idea, knocked out a script (after my 15 hour work days), it would miraculously hit the spec market, cause a bidding war, and sell for $500,00.00. One of those every year or two, I was guaranteed millionaire status and a house in the Hills before 30. (And don’t forget my successful marriage and cute babies that were supposed to come with that package. Ahh…22 was a great age.)
Back in those days, there actually was a spec market, and I did know a few people who hit such a lottery number, but, it was still a far-fetched pipe dream.

Cut to the present day. Nothing sells easily. Scripts need attachments, product tie-ins, viral marketing plans. Execs need sizzle reels. Showrunners and writer’s rooms are expected to tweet about their shows, interact with the audience, write webisodes, and go to Comic-Con.
Gone are the days where the writer can write something and let their agent handle the dirty work that comes next.  Especially in TV, the showrunner has become a personality. Josh Schwartz. Kurt Sutter. J.J. Abrams. Bill Lawrence. Liz Meriwether. They have to play the part of the willing Wizard, allowing the audience to take a slight peek behind the curtains of their shows. Or at least, give the audience a sense that they got a peek behind the curtain.

Thankfully technology has caught up to make some of these things easier to come by, but still, it more incumbent on the writer these days to find a new and inventive way to promote their project BEFORE anyone has given them money to make said project.

All of which brings me to the point of this: what are you going to do to stand out from the pack?
Sure, you already came up with an idea that no one has done, in a way that no one has done, with a voice that no one has heard. Yeah, yeah…that’s the easy part. (Please note the sarcasm here because the majority of writers get stuck on this phase because it is VERY difficult to do well.)
But how will you get anyone to read your amazing project? How will you be remembered after you leave a meeting with a potential producer, exec, showrunner, agent, manager?

Writers are wearing more hats these days, one of which is getting smart about making sizzle reels or trailers for their future projects. It makes it harder to forget a project when a script is accompanied by a trailer, sizzle, poster, website, twitter feed, etc.

Books even have trailers now. I found that a little shocking, but that’s where we are. I’m already throwing around ideas for the trailer for my YA book.

I came across one of these DIY writers, who is calling in favors and thinking outside the box to give his pilot script an extra boost. Adam Gaines is a writer who teamed up with a childhood friend, Ryan Lathey , an animator who also wanted to create a calling card, and together they made a potential title sequence for his pilot, ORGANIZED.

ORGANIZED Concept Titles from Adam Gaines on Vimeo.
Does the title sequence give away the pilot story? No, not really. It doesn’t have to. I haven’t read the script, but I can extrapolate that this is about the dark underbelly of high school. Add the title, “ORGANIZED”, and we are probably in the area of  ‘organized crime in high school’.  (I’m going to go out on a limb and assume this isn’t a show about how to organize one’s locker.)
Do I totally know what the show is? Not necessarily. But, there’s a voice or tone that’s coming through through that gives us a sense of the show. I’m closer to knowing who my audience is, the tone of the pilot, and I can already think about which outlets this would be right for.
There’s something tangible for an agent or manager to get excited about beyond the script. Especially when agents bring home stacks of scripts for a weekend, wouldn’t it be nice to give them something different to look at that still sells your project?
This is also a great way to circulate the project to create your own momentum. And it speaks well for the writer that he wasn’t sitting around waiting for someone to come knocking on his door…he took action and made something.

I for one am a major fan of those risk-takers. The It’s Always Sunny crew is being rewarded for their risks. Louie CK’s recent stand-up act that he sold on his website, also a risk, and definitely one that paid off. (Plus, it was f*cking hilarious!)

That’s really what it boils down to. There isn’t a storm of sales and “Buy! Buy! Buy!” orders around town. It’s up to us, especially in this hands-on day and age, to do something different to get noticed.
BUT, I also caution you to not go so far overboard that you creep people out or do something totally inappropriate. This is still a business. So that idea of giving your script to a producer’s kids outside their elementary school first? It’s creepy. Don’t do it. And leaving your script on an agent’s windshield on their car outside their office….also creepy. Oh, and avoid anything that requires you to dress in costume.  That usually never works out as well as you thought it would.

What about you guys? Any other suggestions for getting noticed?

The Misfit

22 11 2011

I was flipping through channels last week and found this show on PBS: AMERICA IN PRIMETIME: The Misfit. It was filled with interviews with Alan Ball, Diablo Cody, Mitch Hurwitz, Mike Judge, Judd Apatow, Alex Baldwin, Jeffrey Tambor, Larry David, Ron Howard, Paul Feig, among others that are drool-worthy talents, talking about character, and what draws them to story and what makes comedy tick, and ultimately, why the “misfit” character works on TV.

This is the kind of stuff that I loved studying in film school. When theory finds common ground with what makes TV (or film, or theater) tick. What makes this bright box and talking heads draw us in and keeps us captivated, for years, generations. Hearing icons talk about what thrills them, what quirks they brought to the table….this is the stuff I could soak up all day long.
What immediately drew me in, wasn’t that Alan Ball was talking about what’s cool about vampires, Mike Judge wasn’t talking about how he found Beavis and Butthead’s laugh, but they discussed how their personal philosophies trickle into their work. Why Ron Howard was attracted to the Bluth Family in Arrested Development. Why Judd Apatow and Paul Feig had similar goals at the outset of making Freaks and Geeks.

The commonality is that they all brought themselves into their work. Paul Feig had a more horrific and embarrassing high school experience than most of us (seriously, read his books, they are hilarious yet painful at the same time), Alan Ball’s sister died in a car crash when he was 13, is often why death is something he explores so often and readily. Who these writers are trickles into their work.

All of them are willing to put themselves into their work to make their characters as honest and real as possible. What makes writing work so often, especially comedy I would say, is honesty and relate-ability. If an audience can’t find your high school horror stories at all real, they are not going to laugh in the same way.

In the PBS Show Judd Apatow said a great thing, “How many people actually relate to Brad Pitt?”

That’s kind of a great point. That’s why there has never really been a movie about Brad Pitt struggling to get a girl, because really? Would anyone buy that? Would anyone relate to that? Seth Rogan? Yep, audiences gravitate to that version because it’s more honest and speaks to the everyman.

Freaks and Geeks

Another great quote:

“It has to have some element of truth that we recognize.” – Julia Louie Dryfuss.

While all of this might seem like writing 101, it’s amazing how often that honesty gets lost in the process.
This is why writers rooms often create such close bonds, because writers have to be willing to share their embarrassing stories with each other to find these kernels of truth to lay into their characters.

Apparently Judd Apatow and Paul Feig had all their writers fill out a questionnair about their most embarrassing high school moments at the start of the Freaks and Geeks season in order to capitalize on that brutal truth of adolesence.

If you find yourself glossing over the truth because the truth isn’t interesting or dramatic enough, chances are you might be missing the point somewhere. The truth in writing is what hooks readers and takes them into your world; it’s what takes your project from feeling like a movie to feeling like an experience.

Be real, be honest, and I think you’ll be surprised.

I can’t quit you…

9 11 2011

After much debate, many conversations, and a few crying sessions (okay, not really crying sessions, but I’m trying to amp up the drama here),

I’ve decided that This Is Your Pilot is not a title I am willing to part with. And the reality is, even though I have fallen in love with writing fiction, TV is, and will always be my first love. So, This Is Your Pilot is just going to have to get used to incorporating a few more posts here and there about the YA world, publishing in general, and fiction, but really, TV is what is all comes back to.

Thanks for being patient as I wandered this meandering path of decision-making.

More posts to come, especially now that the identity of the site is settled.


The Lit Life

1 11 2011

Okay folks,

I know some of you have commented either to me or yourselves about my lack of web site skills…and you’re not wrong.

I’m working on it. Which means, I’m also sadly changing the name of this site so I can incorporate more of the fiction world too (specifically YA).

But, I want to get opinions from you guys too.

What do you think of: as the new site name?

Good, bad, hate it, love it? Please let me know.

Also, suggestions are welcome.

TV Done Right: Once Upon a Time

24 10 2011

I gotta admit, I was skeptical that fairy tales wouldn’t look totally cheesy on network television. However, if Game of Thrones is any indication of what’s possible when you add sword fighting to TV, I was curious where ONCE UPON A TIME would land in that spectrum.

And frankly, I was very impressed with the ONCE pilot. There’s a lot of great elements for all of us to take note of.

CHARACTER: The Cold Open perfectly lays out Emma Swan, a character that doesn’t know anything about family, only to be confronted with her long lost son. We know somehow it ties into this fairy tale world. Great, we’re in for the ride. And wasn’t that Cold Open a great example of how to hook an audience in 10 minutes or less? That’s what I’m talking about when I preach about making Cold Opens count.

In terms of CHARACTER: The rest of the episode does a great job keeping Emma’s character clearly defined (hardened by life/job, guilty about giving up son), but also giving us a glimmer of where she might evolve to. Despite her guilt for putting Henry up for adoption, she uses her lie detector skills on Henry’s mom/Evil Witch and decides to stick around for the week.

It’s really simple, but so clean, and so well done. When I push writers to give their Main Characters some trajectory, this is what I’m talking about. I don’t need to know EVERYTHING about Emma’s life, but I get a sense of who she is, and where she WAS going, UNTIL this story happened and now we see that she’s along for the ride. Which, in turn, takes your audience along for the ride.

STORY: They did a great job working between the fairy tale world and the modern world, and using the fairy tale book to tie things together. Great transitional device. (Notice, Voice Over not necessary.)

Also, note how smart it was to cut between the fairy tale world and the curse taking hold, to the present world where the curse has already been in effect. It saves the script from becoming a premise pilot where this played out more linearly. The curse takes over in Act Three, which is a great place to build the climax of the episode. And it means much more to us now that we’ve gotten a better sense of what’s at stake rather than if the COLD OPEN was the curse coming over the fairy tale land.

By the end of the episode, we have seen all the players we’ve got to remember, and we’re in for what comes next. Emma being in Storybrook has caused a change and we’ll tune in next week to see how that all unfolds. Again, it’s not terribly specific, like, next week we’ll see her face off with the evil dragon, but we know something fun will come and we hope the curse on this town will be lifted week by week.

Also, in the world of CHARACTER, the super smart thing with Rob Carlyle as Mr. Gold is that he predicts the future. So we know at some point that Emma Swan must have a battle with the Evil Witch. In a 12 ep order, that will probably happen in episode 11. But, who knows how you end a season on a show like this. Point being, again, the audience has something to look forward to. We want to be there when this happens, which, only brings me back to the show week after. That’s what TV is supposed to do.

ENTERTAINMENT VALUE: This show also changes what we might have thought possible on network TV. I’d be curious about their shoot schedule, but my guess is each episode is shot in maybe 8 days. GLEE crams in at least three musical numbers, which previously might have been thought impossible to do in that schedule. ONCE gets in a lot of different sets, special effects shots, fight scenes. Sure, there was more money in the pilot than we’ll see in future episodes probably, but still, I’ll bet that crew is busting ass on this one.

Which only circles back to reminding us how important it is to make this enterprise entertaining. One, ABC was smart to go back to 8 o’clock programming and find something FAMILIES want to see. I always say this, but family material pretty much always plays. TWO BROKE GIRLS, definitely not family material. I would guess parents can only watch so much iCarly before wanting to throw themselves out windows, so this fits perfectly.

Plus, Disney used to show family movies on Sunday nights. Maybe I’m old, but I used to really love that. Nice job of  utilizing their brand.

The attention to detail was really well done. My favorite was Emma staying at “Granny’s Bed and Breakfast”..great touch..but did you notice the key that Granny gave Emma? Such a fairy tale-shaped key. It’s a small prop, but everything was true to the world, which only makes it more fun for the viewer to notice all the little gags and details.
Btw, this is where the show being from LOST Executive Producers really shows. These guys gave the audience credit and knew that if there were pieces to connect, the audience would find them. They don’t talk down to the audience, but somehow subtly engage in a conversation with us. A little, joke within a joke here, a small fairy tale reference there. This is a smart move on their parts. This is how you create fans, not just passive viewers. I’m also a firm believer that if you keep the bar higher, people will rise to it. We want to rise to it; it’s more fun that way.

And overall, the show really hit all the right beats. A story that keeps the audience guessing and wanting to solve, high production value, sword fights, true love, witches, cute quirky kid, and a main character to root for. Can your pilot do all that?

What did you guys think of ONCE UPON A TIME?


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