Podcast

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

The Ultimate Pilot Story Checklist v4!

Welcome to version 4 of The Ultimate Pilot-Story Checklist! The list is rewritten, newly subdivided, and broadened to apply to more types of series (comics, webseries, book series, etc.)!

I’ve used this list to evaluate my favorite pilots and my own work. The result: my favorite pilots all pass and my own work always fall short. This tells me what I’m doing wrong. Of course, every story is unique and no pilot that I’ve evaluated has answered yes to all 128 questions, nor should it. Check out the pilot roadtests in the sidebar to see how each does on the list. If you want to play along at home, you download a copy of this checklist in doc format here

Part 1: Is this a strong concept for an ongoing series?        

The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
 Does the concept satisfy the urges that get people to love and recommend this type of series?
 Does the series establish its own unique point of view on its setting?
 Does the ongoing concept of the series contain a fundamental (and possibly fun) ironic contradiction?
 Does the concept meet the content expectations of one particular intended network, venue, or audience?
 Even if the setting is unpleasant, is there something about this premise that is inherently appealing? (Something that will make the audience say, “Yes, I will be able to root for some aspect of this situation to recur episode after episode.”)

Series Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong ongoing series?
 Is there one character (or sometimes two, in separate storylines) that the audience will choose to be their primary hero (although these heroes should probably be surrounded by an ensemble that can more than hold their own)?
 If this is a TV series, is the hero role strong enough to get an actor to abandon a movie career, come to work in TV for the first time, and sign a five-year contract before shooting the pilot? (And even if not for TV, is the hero role still that strong, simply for narrative purposes?)
 Is the show set in an unsafe space?
 Will trouble walk in the door on a regular basis?
 Will the heroes be forced to engage in both physical and cerebral activity on a regular basis?
 Are there big stakes that will persist episode after episode?
 Will the ongoing situation produce goals or mini-goals that can be satisfactorily resolved on a regular basis?

The Pilot: Will this pilot episode be marketable and generate word of mouth?
 Does the pilot contain all of the entertainment value inherent in the premise (rather than just setting everything up and promising that the fun will start next week)?
 Does the pilot feature an image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the show)?
 Is there something bold, weird, and never-before-seen about this concept and/or pilot? 
 Is there a “HOLY CRAP!” scene somewhere along the way in the pilot (to create word of mouth)?
 Does the pilot build up potential energy that will power future episodes (secrets that will come out, potential romances, etc.)?
 Even if this is episodic, is there a major twist or escalation at the end (though sometimes this twist will only be new to, or only revealed to, the audience) that will kick future episodes up a notch?

Part 2: Is this a compelling hero? (Note: some shows have two almost-co-equal heroes, who will tend to star in separate storylines in each episode, in which case each of these questions should be answered twice.) 

Believe: Do we recognize the hero (or co-heroes) as human?
Does the hero have a moment of humanity early on? (A funny, or kind, or oddball, or out-of-character, or comically vain, or unique-but-universal “I thought I was the only one who did that!” moment?)
 Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
 Does the hero have three rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
 Does the hero have a default personality trait?
 Does the hero have a default argument tactic?

Care: Do we feel for the hero (or co-heroes)?
 Does the hero feel that this flaw cannot be resolved until it’s time to abandon the world of the show?
Invest: Can we trust the hero (or co-heroes) to tackle this challenge?
 Is the hero good at his or her job (or family role, if that’s his or her primary role)?
 Is the hero curious?
 Is the hero generally resourceful?
 Does the hero use unique skills to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody else on the show would do)?

Part 3: Is this a strong ensemble (beyond the hero or co-heroes)?  

Powerful: Is each member of the ensemble able to hold his or her own?
 If this is a network TV series, are there at least two more roles that are strong enough to get TV veterans to sign their own five-year contracts? (And even if not for TV, are the characters still that strong, simply for narrative purposes?)
 Does each member of the ensemble have a distinct and defensible point of view?
  Is each character defined primarily by actions and attitudes, not by his or her backstory?
 Do all of the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others? (Good characters don’t serve good, evil characters don’t serve evil.)
 Do most of the main characters have some form of decision-making power? (And is the characters’ boss or bosses also part of the cast, so that major decisions will not be made by non-regulars?)

Balanced: Do the members of the ensemble balance each other out?
 Whether this is a premise or episodic pilot, is there one point-of-view character who needs this world explained (who may or may not be the hero)?
 Does it take some effort for the POV character to extract other characters’ backstories?
 Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut (or various forms of 2-way or 4-way polarization)?
 Does each member of the ensemble have a distinct metaphor family (different from the hero’s, even if they’re in the same profession)?
 Does each member of the ensemble have a different default personality trait?
 Does each member of the ensemble have a different default argument tactic? 
 Is there at least one prickly character who creates sparks whenever he or she appears?

Part 4: Is the pilot episode a strong stand-alone story and good template for the ongoing series? 

Template: Does this match and/or establish the standard format of this type of series
 Does the pilot have (or establish) the average length for its format?
 If this is intended for a form of commercial media, does the pilot have the right number of commercial breaks for its intended venue?
 If this is intended for commercial TV, does every act end on a cliffhanger or escalation, especially the middle one (and, if not intended for commercial TV, does it still have escalations happening in roughly the same places, simply for narrative purposes)?
 Does the pilot establish the general time frame for most upcoming episodes of this series?
 If this is a premise pilot, is the basic premise established by the midpoint, leaving time for a foreshortened typical episode story in the second half?

Pilot Story Fundamentals: Does the pilot episode have a strong story?
 Does the pilot provide at least one satisfactory stand-alone story (even if that story is just the accomplishment of a mini-goal)?
 Is this episode’s plot simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
 Is the pilot’s challenge something that is not just hard for the hero to do (an obstacle) but hard for the hero to want to do (a conflict)?

First Half: Is the problem established in a way that reflects human nature?
 Does the hero start out with a short-term goal for this episode?
 Does a troubling situation (episodic pilot) or major change in the status quo (premise pilot) develop near the beginning of the episode?
 Does the hero eventually commit to dealing with this situation personally?
 Do the hero’s efforts quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
 Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
 Does this culminate in a major midpoint setback or escalation of the problem (whether or not there’s a commercial break)?

Second Half: Is the mini-goal resolved as the ongoing trouble escalates?
 Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
 By halfway through, are character decisions driving the plot, rather than external plot complications?
 Are the stakes increased as the pace increases and the motivation escalates?
 Does a further setback force the hero to adopt a wider view of the problem?
 After that setback, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal?
 Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has the hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
 After the climax, does either the hero, the point of view character or a guest star have a personal revelation and/or life change, possibly revealed through reversible behavior?

Part 5: Is each scene the best it can be? 

The Set-Up: Does this scene begin with the essential elements it needs?
 Were tense and/or hopeful (and usually false) expectations for this interaction established beforehand?
 Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
 Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
 Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
 Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?

The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
 Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character?
 Are one or more characters in the scene emotionally affected by this interaction or action as the scene progresses?
 Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
 Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
 Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
 Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
 Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
 Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?

The Outcome: Does this scene change the story going forward?
 As a result of this scene, does at least one of the scene partners end up doing something that he or she didn’t intend to do when the scene began?
 Are new questions posed that will be left unanswered for now?
 Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)
 Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?

Part 6: Is this powerful dialogue? 

Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
 Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
 Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
 Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
 Do the characters interrupt each other often?

Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world and each personality?
 Does the dialogue capture the culturally-specific syntax of the characters (without necessarily attempting to replicate non-standard pronunciation)?
 Does the dialogue capture the jargon of the profession and/or setting?
 Does the dialogue capture the tradecraft of the profession being portrayed?

Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
 Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
 Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
 Is there a minimum of commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
 Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
 Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?

Part 7: Does the pilot manage its tone to create and fulfill audience expectations? 

Genre and Mood: Does the series tap into pre-established expectations?
 Does the series fit within a pre-established genre?
 Are unrealistic genre-specific elements a big metaphor for a more common experience (not how life really is, but how life really feels)?
 Separate from the genre, does the pilot establish an overall mood for the series?
 If there are multiple storylines, do they establish the spectrum of moods available within that overall mood?

Framing: Does the pilot set, reset, upset and ultimately exceed its own expectations?
 Are there framing devices (flashforwards, framing sequences and/or first person narration) to set the mood, pose a dramatic question, and/or pose ongoing questions?
 Is there a dramatic question posed early on, which will establish in the audience’s mind which moment will mark the end of the pilot? 
 Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
 Is the dramatic question of the pilot episode’s plot answered near the end of the story?

Part 8: Does the pilot create a meaningful ongoing theme?           

Pervasive: Is the theme interwoven into many aspects of the show?
 Does the ensemble as a whole have a unique philosophy about how to fill their role (and competition from an allied force with a different philosophy)?
 Does the pilot have a statement of philosophy and/or theme, usually either at the beginning or ¾ of the way in. (Sometimes this will be the ensemble’s stated statement of philosophy, sometimes this merely be the implied theme of the series itself.)
 Can the show’s overall ongoing theme be stated in the form of a classic good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
 Throughout the pilot, do the characters have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
 Are the storylines in the pilot thematically linked (preferably in an indirect, subtle way)?
 Will the heroes grapple with new moral gray areas in each episode?

Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
 Does the series’ set-up reflect the way the world works?
 Does the ongoing concept include twinges of real life national pain? (See here and here)
 Are these issues presented in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
 Do all of the actions in the pilot have real consequences?

Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimately irresolvable?
 Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the pilot episode’s story, forcing the audience to do that?
 Does the end of the pilot leave the thematic dilemma wide open and irresolvable?

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