Short and Sweet Advice for Writers – Think of Your Opening Like a TV Pilot

nurse jackieMy beau and I are always looking for good movies and shows to watch on the weekend. Unfortunately, they aren’t that easy to find. (Anyone else ever spend twenty or thirty minutes filtering through the latest on-demand movies and Netflix releases only to come up empty and resort to rewatching a favorite series that you’ve already seen two or three times? It’s painful.) Still, we soldier on – curled up together on the couch with our wine glasses and high hopes for good stories with strong production value.

One of our more recent experiments was the Showtime drama Nurse Jackie (now available on Netflix). My parents had raved about it, so we decided to give it a try. It didn’t quite hit the mark for us, but I was impressed by how much the writers were able to convey about Jackie (played by the lovely and indomitable Edie Falco) in the pilot episode. Every single word out of her mouth, every action, reaction, and interaction was designed to tell us something about who Jackie is and what her life is like.

TV pilots are microcosms of plot and characterization. The writers have to show enough of the story and the characters to get viewers hooked. If they miss the mark – if viewers are confused or bored – they rarely get a second chance.

Try this two-step research exercise while you watch a few pilots with a notebook and pen handy:

Step One: Keep a running list of everything you are learning about the characters, setting, situation, themes, and stakes. Each time you discover a new fact, write it down. What do you know about the protagonists’s personality, lifestyle, beliefs, fears, hopes? What have you learned about his or her relationships with others? Can you tell anything yet about the protagonist’s values, morals, or personal code of conduct? Do you know what journey the protagonist is on, and what dragons might need to be battled along the way?

Step 2: Next write down how the writers conveyed each fact. Was it a piece of dialog, a facial expression, or something concrete in the setting? Was there a flashback of some kind? Did another character tell part of the protagonist’s story? What different techniques did the writers use to piece together the puzzle for viewers?

Do this for a few pilots and then look back at your lists and think about how you can successfully use similar elements and techniques in the opening of your story or novel.

For bonus points, pay extra attention to places where the writers came up short and the exposition felt contrived or manipulated. For instance, did one character do way too much explaining in a context that didn’t seem to warrant such play-by-play? Was half the initial episode done in tedious flashbacks that bogged down the momentum of the current timeline? Make notes of these flaws, and then try to be sure to avoid them in your own writing.

Any favorite pilots you’d like to share as good (or bad) examples of how to hook a viewer/reader? 

Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Join me each Saturday for the Weekend Edition – a long-form post on writing and the writing life – and/orintroduce yourself on FacebookTwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

48 thoughts on “Short and Sweet Advice for Writers – Think of Your Opening Like a TV Pilot

    • You’re so welcome, Sheila. I agree that movie openings are another great place to look for different techniques to get the viewer/reader up to speed quickly. Hope you have fun analyzing! 😉

  1. Great advice! Since we joined a writing club last year, my daughter and I have been noticing things like this as well. At times we even debate the choice of words used in a commercial. Not my idea of a fun Friday night but I kinda can’t help myself lately.

    • That’s so cool that you and your daughter joined a writing club together. I’d love to hear more about that. 🙂
      RE: debating word choice in commercials – I totally hear you. Sometimes writers just can’t help themselves.

      • It is definitely cool that she goes with me, gives us another thing to bond over. The group is local and smallish (9-14 regular attendees) with a variety of writing styles. We critique each others work and discuss trends, styles, etc. It’s a blast and I’m so blessed to have found the group! I’ve mentioned it in passing in my own blog before but you’ve got me thinking I should do one just on them!

  2. Hi, I love how this can become for me a great reason to watch tv-shows that wouldn’t involve guilt over staying inactive. )) I kind of struggle when it comes to stop. BUT your advice is great, and I actually am doing a quite similar thing when I’m watching shows or movies. Sometimes the ropes are so bluntly visible, but not easily avoidable: for example when you have to catch up the viewer on something that happened with a character, and you have that character say things about him/herself that sound weird in real life, making them suddenly recap their own experiences, but with obviously someone else’s words. Do you know what I mean? The other time I was re-watching an old show I love, the O.C., and there’s a scene in the third season where one of the main characters of the show talks to her dad about how she is sad on Christmas because it reminds her of the time her mom left. The viewer doesn’t have this information yet (the viewer knows she lives with a stepmom, but doesn’t know why). So she says to her father something of the sort: “Dad, why did mom leave us? I mean, I was thirteen years old at the time.” Maybe I’m wrong, but to me it sounded weird. The age/pain ratio is something we use as external observers, very rarely (unless the person is completely self absorbed) when speaking about ourselves (or maybe when we are old and grey and speak about our childhood. The child we were is almost someone else in this case). The character is this case is 16 or 17. I think a much subtler approach would have been either to have the father say it (it would have been cheesy but more realistic), or to have the girl say: it’s been only three years since she left (for instance).

    Sorry for the ramble, what do you think?

    Also, if you’re looking for shows to watch, I recommend The Americans, The Good Wife, House of Cards.


    • I know just what you mean about awkward exposition. That kind of thing makes me nuts. There are a couple of police procedural shows that I enjoy EXCEPT when they get to that part in the episode where someone has to explain a process to someone else because otherwise the viewing audience would be left in the dark. It always feels like lazy writing to me. I probably wouldn’t pick up on it so much except that I sometimes watch (don’t laugh) 2 or 3 episodes in a row on Netflix. When you do that, the plot pattern and narrative techniques are really easy to see.

      Thanks for your picks for good shows. I haven’t watched any of those yet, so I’ll add them to my To-Check-Out list. 🙂

      • One show where they turn this big minus into a plus is Burn Notice. I think it’s a stroke of genius having Mike tell the audience how it be a spy. They don’t try to hide it. It is part of the convention of the show and part of the character which is why it works so well.

  3. Having just started a story which will hopefully one day turn into a proper book, I can honestly say that whatever the idea, starting it in the right way is the hardest part. The story needs to start at the right point, not too far back or in with enough backround to tell the reader the story line as it is. I started about five times at least before settling on something and I was very much thinking about a TV plot when I decided. So it’s good to know that I’m not the only one to think on that line.

    • Where/When you start your story is a critical decision. I hear all the time about people who write their first few drafts before finally realizing that the “real” beginning of their story is in chapter three and all the stuff before that needs to be woven into the story later on. It’s a common mistake, but one that can be deadly to reader engagement.

      Cool that you were thinking about your opening in terms of a TV plot. Glad it worked out for you!

      • The rest engagement is the thing. Other stuff can be handles later. I was going to have two or three chapters of twaddle. I’ve got one book that I need to try again with that has the first part of it telling the reader who everyone is what side they’re on and why. I was like what??
        I’m going to see if it gets better but I was like switched off straight away. Which is sad we’re so easy to deactivate

    • Not that I want to be accused of enabling excess TV viewing 😉 but – yes – this is a great way to justify your guilty pleasures. Enjoy!

    • Maybe you could make a game of it! 😉
      I think it does take a little practice to get the hang of recognizing certain techniques. Our big brains are so quick to interpret information that we sometimes miss the clues that are feeding us the answers, so to speak.
      Good luck & have fun!

  4. I have three. Breaking Bad Pilot. It opens with a middle aged man in the desert with a gun he’s in his underwear. How could you not continue to watch? Numbers pilot; we don’t meet the main character, Charlie, until almost three quarters of the way through. Pay attention to how his entrance is set-up. House pilot; pay attention to what you learn about the character and as an added bonus how much the right actor brings to this.

    It’s not a pilot, but look at Jack Sparrow’s entrance in Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. Stop the movie right after it and write down everything it shows about the character. It is the root of the success of the entire franchise.

    • Thanks so much, Cynthia, for the suggestions. I can’t wait to check these out. I haven’t watched any of Breaking Bad, but have – of course – heard great things. I actually really like the show Numbers, but haven’t paid close attention to the pilot. I’ll definitely revisit that. And – hey – any excuse to see Jack Sparrow in action … I’m on it. 🙂

      TKS, again!

  5. As I live in Italy and work mainly in English, my TV time until about a year ago was 20 minutes a day maximum. This was to keep up evening reading to keep my English up to par. But then I discovered TV series, and the usefulness of keeping up with updated spoken dialogue. And I also realised some of them are very well packaged in terms of plots, characters etc. After reading this post, I’ll aim at watching more attentively. I thought the second Fargo series was very well crafted – I just close my eyes during the gory parts 🙂

    • I’m with you about closing my eyes during the gory parts. My dad is my go-to show/movie guru, but some of the things he recommends are way too intense for me. He loves, for instance, the show Blacklist, but I couldn’t get past the third episode. It was just too much. I was disappointed, because I liked the premise and the actors; but I know my limits.

      • Blacklist I watched a few times too, good plots but I found some of the characterizations a bit simplistic. Apart from good action and grotesque Fargo-esque situations, Fargo had surprisingly multi-faceted characters. I also got started (I know, I know, it’s years after the series was created!) on Soprano, and the two main characters there also develop along interesting psychological lines

      • Multi-faceted characters are so important to a show’s longevity and a book’s ability to keep the reader turning pages. I’ve become mercilessly picky about the shows I watch and many of my complaints have to do with poorly drawn characters.
        I have never watched The Sopranos … or Mad Men or Boardwalk Empire or any of many, many other critically acclaimed shows. I’m often not up for anything too dramatic in the evening. By the time I reach the end of the day, I just want something to make me laugh. This is why you’ll most often find me watching Parks and Rec or 30 Rock … someday I’ll learn to watch them in the context of learning how to create humor in a story; but for now I mostly just watch so I can end my day with a smile on my face. 😉

    • I have mixed feelings about TV, too; but all things in moderation, right? It depends on what you take from the viewing experience. You can choose to be entertained, educated, informed, enlightened … or, you can just use it to numb your brain. It’s really up to HOW we watch.

      Hope you enjoy your viewing a little more! 🙂

  6. Pingback: How to critique a scene without tears | jean's writing

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