In just 42 minutes I have to set up a huge plot engine that will generate years of stories…but I also have to introduce the large cast that will be dealing with this problem. The temptation is to quickly introduce all the characters on the fly and set them up for future stories, but focus on plot engines and world-building for now. There’ll be plenty of time for the characters to react to all this stuff later, right?
No, there won’t. A spec pilot isn’t really something you sell, it’s just something that gets you hired to write for another show, so this is the only episode that will ever actually exist, so there’s no point in saving the emotion for later and coldly piling on the plot points now.
TV is a characters’ medium. If this were a real pilot, you’d not only have to get the audience to fall in love with those characters, you’d have to convince actors to fall in love with those characters, because they would each be asked to sign seven-year contracts. Is every ongoing character strong enough to get an actor to make that sort of commitment? That’s the mark of a great pilot.
I have all these scenes in which big plot points happen, but we’re not in anybody’s head when they happen. The audience is just supposed to say “Oh my god, what a big story development!” But I forgot that audiences never care about the story, they only care about the characters.
This was driven home by another recent Entertainment Weekly interview, this time with legendary director William Friedkin (The French Connection), who’s just published his memoir:
- Friedkin: I got a call from an agent in New York and he said, “Would you be interested in writing an autobiography?” And I said, “No.” And he said, “Why not?” “Because I wouldn’t be interested in reading it.”
- EW: What changed your mind?
- Friedkin: I met with publishers and one of them said to me that the book shouldn’t be so much about the facts and details of my life but my attitude towards those facts and details. Then I kinda got it.
(But, as it turns out, tomorrow’s Checklist movie totally breaks this rule...)