“So what if you write an original TV pilot? What do you call it?”
An original TV pilot.
It blew my mind too.
What I want to share with you here is the step-by-step process I took, in 27 days to be exact, to get from concept to final draft. For a feature, the process would indisputably be longer, but the essential steps would be the same.
DISCLAIMER: This is by no means a prescriptive formula. You do you, I do me. This is me.
NOTE: I specced my favorite forensic procedural, Bones, now in its sixth season on Fox and going strong. I chose it because it possessed both a strength of character and the open possibility for an interesting plot that didn’t interfere with the continuity of the existing story lines. In fewer words, I could contain a good concept in an episode without interfering with what the show’s writers had already created.
FROM CONCEPT TO FINAL DRAFT IN 10 EASY STEPS:
1. Go for a run: No paper, no pen, no recording device; just a clean mental palate and a few miles of pavement. This is the intercourse for (my) creative conception. I can’t sit still and think up a decent concept, it comes between strides. (I think it has something to do with the whole spaghetti vs. waffles theory. Men, correct me if I’m wrong.) I run and I ask myself questions. I answer those questions with more questions until an overarching plot or idea starts to rise to the surface like foam atop a pumpkin spice latte. Then I go home and proceed to step 2.
2. Free-write: Before my run I laid out a stack of paper and my favorite pen on my kitchen table, so that when my brimming brain got in the front door, there was no obstacle between the purity of the original line of thought and fleshing it out in ink. I wrote down names, ideas, the basic plot, the crime scene, the murder itself, the reasons Bones and Booth had to get involved, how it connected the rest of the Jeffersonian, etc., etc. I made primitive charts and lists and numbered and lettered things all over about 6 sheets of notebook paper. And then I left it for about 24 hours.
3. Analyze the garble: After a 24hr-ish incubation, I went back to my free-association vomit and tried to make sense of it all. I asked more questions, answered a few, and made a more intelligible outline that connected my A, B, and C plots. This is where the real research happens. For a feature, this is the part where you study your characters profusely…better than BFF status…thicker than blood bonds. You are their god. With a TV spec, all I had to do was copy the palate of emotion, mannerism, characteristics, traits, and dialect provided me by the show’s creator, Hart Hanson. But I still had to research the forensics, the anatomy, the FBI protocol, the scientific jargon, the crime scene dialect, and other fringe details. I spent the most time on this stage. Research is hard, taxing work. But it has to be done to create a plausible, relatable piece of art. I also started a running list of dialogue quotes that popped into my head here and there that I knew I wanted to use in a certain scene, or the way a certain scene would make a new piece of the mystery fall into place. This was direct preparation for step 4.
4. Step it Out: My method of choice? Pastel colored index cards, divided by color according to act. Of course, with television, there’s anywhere from 4-6 acts, but in film, you’re looking at a mere trinity of colors. This way, it was easy for me to see where scenes fit or didn’t fit into the overall line up. I wrote out every scene, including on the card the location of the scene, the characters involved, and the major and minor plot steps that occurred. I didn’t number them, because I predicted needing to rearrange some. And I did. Many times. Some scenes even changed card colors. My advice is to never number scenes until the final draft, if at all. There’s no point in creating more structure than necessary. It’s really quite debilitating.
5. Edit Each Step: At this point, I have absolutely written too many scenes with too many details. Some writers may have the opposite problem, if there is not enough story to be told, but more often than not, it is the writer’s special burden to make skim milk out of heavy cream with nothing but a fork. Notice I haven’t put a single word into Celtx or Final Draft yet. At this point, I laid out all my cards on my kitchen table, in order, from beginning to end. I followed from scene to scene asking questions about the strength of each scene and how taking out “A” would affect “Q” down the line. How do I explain unanswered question “X” back at “C” so I don’t have to write a whole scene in the last act to account for “X”? This step is pertinent for writers (me!) that tend to get attached to what they write. I can’t let my emotions influence my judgment about whether a scene stays or goes if I haven’t even written it yet. Once I’m confident I have a steely, ripstop nylony plot line, I can move on to step 6.
6. Write the Damn Thing: Finally, I opened Celtx for the first time and started fleshing out scenes. It was pure delight for the first few days; ideas pouring like a Seattle storm drain, dialogue popping together like a K’Nex kit. But then the honeymoon period ends and, like all things that are worth an investment of time, Lady Discipline has to reach her stiletto across the center console and give the gas pedal a steady thrust to the finish line.
7. Grab a Scalpel and Start Cutting: Next to research, this is the most arduous, painful, and necessary part of the creative process. See my blog post here for the gritty details of my loathe/love relationship with the rewriting process: MY FIRST SPEC: Re (gulp) Writing. The task here is to nip, tuck, trim, scrape, peel, and cut whatever you can that isn’t an essential part of English grammar, doesn’t move the story along, or doesn’t leave an important plot question unanswered. I started by paring down my action blocks, then my dialogue. It wasn’t just about hitting a page limit; it was about finalizing the very best version of what I’d written. Here’s some crucial cutting advice I got from the Business of Show Institute (which I highly advise you to check out) via screenwriter Manny Fonseca via screenwriter Jessica Bendinger:
- Cut dialogue sentence starters: “so,” “yeah,” “I mean,” “oh,” “well,” etc. etc. Just start the sentence and lose the clutter.
- Cut pre-action action: No one “starts to” stand. They just stand.
- Cut repetition: If it’s going to be in the dialogue, it doesn’t need to be in the action right before that dialogue. “For example,” says Fonseca, “Character A reaches for a book. Then says, “Have you seen this book?’” It’s just more clutter. Pare it down.
- Cut extra description: Flourishes of language should be saved for poetry and novels. Script action is “quick and dirty.” Get to the point.
8. Hide your flash drive: After a bloodbath of editing, I put the script away for a few days. Didn’t touch it or think about it. Give the wounds time to heal. J
9. Hand it over: Once the whole thing has been cleared from my mind for a few days, I pulled it out again and gave it straight to the first person who asked to read it. I’m not suggesting anyone should take every bit of criticism from any hapless enthusiast, but there will inevitably be something someone can offer that you didn’t think of or didn’t answer, at least not in writing.
10. Weigh the evidence, pass a verdict: After a few reads, both silently and out loud; by others and by myself, I played both jury and judge on each note I received until I had a final draft I was actually excited for people to read. That’s when you know you’re finished.
11. BONUS STEP: No brooding allowed. I’m convinced we writers could work on the same piece for years if we let ourselves. Perfection is subjective, so put your best version forward, and be done with it. If you brood, you’ll miss contest deadlines, never move on to marketing and selling your work, and procrastinate starting new projects. And that’s no way to be the great writer you know you are.