Writing the Ensemble Pilot
We all have those moments, right? Where you’re just completely over everything? You’re totally fed up, energy levels are shot. Patience gone. Zero F's left to give. I’m sure you know the feeling.
That’s me. Right flipping now. As the masterpiece film Network proclaims: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore!!”
I am so so SO over all of you. Literally everyone. Especially you, person who’s reading this thinking, “Well, he can’t possibly mean me!” I’ve had it up to here and you are ALL on Spike’s shit list.
“But why?” you ask meekly. “Whatever did I do to land on this unceremonious index??”
You really want to know? I’ll be happy to tell ya …
You tried to write a spec pilot. Specifically, one that has an ensemble cast. Generally, with a dozen or more characters.
No, I’m not kidding.
Yes, this is what I’m actually fed up with.
Since July, I feel like I’ve read a thousand of these types of scripts. And since July, damn near EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM ARE DOING THE SAME FEW THINGS WRONG! I feel like a broken record in my notes. Just repeating myself over and over and over. Like I’m stuck on a carnival Tilt-A-Whirl and the operator stepped out for an indefinite lunch break.
Clearly, there’s a pattern here. There’s an information gap that needs to be filled. And dammit if I’m not going to be the one to fill the void. Because I love "Game of Thrones," too. The first three seasons of that series are some of the best ever, in my opinion. But wayyyyy too many of you are looking at the whole of this saga and not the beginning. There’s a way to structure this type of content so that the reader has a chance to actually understand it. And so many of you aren’t doing it right. Sorry. Just being honest …
Let’s all take a moment, sit down, and talk about exactly HOW to write an EFFECTIVE ensemble pilot for a TV series.
Before I dive in too deep, let me get the precursors out of the way: I have never written a spec pilot myself. I’m not an optioned writer. I have no credits in this field. But if you’ve read me before, then you know I read. A lot. Some would even call it a metric fuck ton. I’ve worked with writers for over ten years. I’ve analyzed pilots for a production company. I spent four years making series behind the scenes at a network. I’ve read brilliant opening episodes … pilots that pull at your heartstrings, make you cry, and demand that you read an episode two. I know what I’m talking about.
So, listen up, and listen good y’all. Cause I only want to say this once:
MISTAKE #1 - YOUR STORY LACKS A VIEWPOINT CHARACTER
Every story needs to have a viewpoint. Yes, even ensemble pilots.
Viewpoint is simple in shows that have a clear protagonist. Walter White is the viewpoint character of "Breaking Bad." Duh. He’s the lead. Of course, everything is going to be seen through his eyes. But too many writers seem to think that viewpoint doesn’t matter. That it’s an optional piece of the narrative pie.
Newsflash: it isn’t.
I understand where this instinct comes from. You’ve seen "Game of Thrones," or "Lost," or "Orange is the New Black." You’ve seen all the amazing story threads happening at once and think, “Wow, look how they cut in and out of so many people’s lives. This is so dramatic and interesting! I’m going to do that, too!” Except, this belies the work that goes into the opening of a series to get the audience to this point. All those series expanded their viewpoint as the show went on. If you look at it, the scope was rather narrow in the opening.
Think about it: the pilot from "Lost" takes place from Jack’s perspective, right? Yeah, there are a whole bunch of people who are stranded on the island with him, but do we go into all their backstories right away? No. Jack is the clear lead. He gives the audience a pathway from which to see things from. All the action channels through him. Honestly, the entire first season is anchored through Jack. It’s in future episodes that they begin expanding into everyone else’s past. By season two, the writers have laid the foundation to start branching out. But they don’t do that right away.
"Orange is the New Black" does the same thing. You aren’t thrown into this prison immediately and expected to follow a dozen stories happening at once. No! Piper is the person we’re seeing things through. She is the viewpoint character. As the show settles, and the audience becomes comfortable with what they’re seeing, then the story is in a place where you can branch out. But this doesn’t happen right away.
And before anyone starts tweeting at me about the number of characters in "Game of Thrones" … that series is based on a best-selling book series. It has the backing of huge IP to justify the decision there. It’s an outlier, people. But even then, the writers do great work in creating viewpoints. The A story is pretty much seen from Ned’s perspective. There are scant scenes that don’t include him. And the B plot is seen from Dany’s perspective. We don’t cut to Drogo’s viewpoint as he rapes her. It’s all focused on her experience as the victim of this situation.
Also, if anyone wants to give me shit and bring up the "West Wing" example (one of the only pilots I can think of that doesn’t have a true viewpoint), let me ask you this—is your name Aaron Sorkin? No? That’s what I thought. Pipe down.
The bad scripts I read in this vein will list out between twelve and fifteen characters within the first ten pages, and by the midpoint are branching out the rest of the way following all of them. Not only do I have little context as to who these people are, but I also do not have the brain capacity to remember what it is they're doing or why it’s important to them.
And this is a problem because …
MISTAKE #2 - YOU’RE OVERWHELMING THE READER WITH TOO MUCH INFORMATION
If you have a dozen characters in your ensemble, and you try to set them all up at the same time, you’re asking for trouble. More specifically, you’re asking for your reader to get lost and confused. It’s more than likely this will lead to your audience failing to connect with anyone.
That’s not to say that you can’t have large casts … having a ton of characters is fine. But you don’t need to introduce all right away. You need to focus on the amount of information that the reader can handle in one sitting, not serve them an entire season of television in sixty minutes.
There’s a reason a five-course meal is brought to you in pieces. Because you can’t eat it all at once. Similarly, you don’t need to introduce and follow six story threads in your first episode either. You need to give the reader a consumable amount of information.
Let’s count some of the characters that "Game of Thrones" didn’t introduce in episode one: Little Finger, Gendry, Shae, Ramsay Bolton, Sam, Ygritte, Jaqen H’Ghar … even freaking Tywin Lannister wasn’t in the pilot! Again, the show kept things as contained as possible by saying, “OK, we’re only going to focus on these two stories. Nothing more, nothing else.” They did what they had to do to kick off the series.
And yet I read so many spec pilots that would have cut to King’s Landing. That would have included dragons, and epic battles, and witchcraft—all in the pilot!
A reader has a lot thrown at them when starting a series. It’s the writer’s job to focus what on what they need to see, and slowly pull back the veil as things progress.
You’re excited to get to the really good parts of your series, I know, but the quickest way to ensure you never get there is to rush the process and dissuade the audience from tuning in.
Which is why you need to implement my next note posthaste …
MISTAKE #3 - YOU’RE FOCUSING ONLY ON THE MACRO STORY
Way, way too many of you are forgetting the golden rule of TV writing—you have to tell two stories at the same time. Television is not just a medium where you tell sweeping narratives that take 10-12 episodes to finish. It’s also a medium where people go for entertainment that day. And that means telling a micro story, as well as progressing your macro one. And yes, this is something you must do in your pilot.
Before anyone @’s me—no, this does not just apply to episodic procedurals. Serialized shows follow this rule as well. You still have to follow three-act structure within your sixty pages. Meaning you need to have a protagonist with a goal, and by the end of the episode, he needs to have accomplished it. You need to have a mini movie every week that continuously builds a bigger story at the same time. (This is why TV writing is so damn hard.)
In the "Breaking Bad" pilot, Walt has the goal of cooking his first batch of meth. The second act is him setting out to enact this plan. The third act is him completing the cook and getting away with it. That’s a strong micro story.
"House of Cards" has Frank Underwood decide to get revenge on the sitting President. At the beginning of the episode, he sets out to remove the nominee for Secretary of State from consideration. By the end, he has accomplished that task. He is one step closer to achieving this ultimate goal WHILE also finishing something in the first episode.
"The West Wing" opens with Josh in hot water over some controversial remarks he said on a highly watched news program. By the end of the pilot, he has apologized for saying it, and the President warns him to never do it again. But he doesn’t get fired for it. Open and shut story.
Am I making my point clear here, or do I need to keep going? Because as Captain America once said: I can do this all-freaking-day.
Too many pilots focus only on the macro narrative. They think that the sixty pages they're given to start their series can be entirely dedicated to setting up a bunch of elements and next episode is where things will start happening. That’s where they’ll give the reader a narrative thread to follow. Trust me, there is no faster way to get your material passed on than doing that. There’s too much other good shit to watch these days.
Do I think that writing this article is going to completely stop the stream of bad pilots from landing on my iPad? No, no I don’t. But if this can help shut the valve and get a few of you on the right track, then I’ve done my job.
Until next time … Godspeed, and happy writing.
*Feature image by Dashk (Adobe)