My 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 Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.