Monday, November 24, 2014

Wake Up and Smell the Character Development

After years of calling myself an aspiring TV writer, pounding out 7 original pilots and 5 spec scripts of existing shows, I recently had what can only be described as a rude awakening --

I don't know what the f#*% I'm doing.

Seriously, when this realization hit me, it was bad. An absolute whopper. A hundred times worse than every writer on the planet feels on any given day.

Allow me to explain --

My rude awakening was about how I've been approaching the writing of a new original TV pilot. Up until now, I've been coming up with ideas - imaginative worlds, cool conflicts, plot twists and cliffhangers. I've filled pages and pages in my brainstorming journal with discoveries and stakes that spill forth as the concept takes shape - "And then this happens, until so-and-so realizes they're the same person! Oh SNAP!"

Then I would create a whole series proposal that includes season arcs and mythology tracking. Story beats would be thrown onto my board, reorganized, and rewritten until an outline was finally formed. Then I would start writing the pilot script.

And it would be around this time that I would ask myself, "Now who are these characters and what do they want?"

Wrong, Teresa. Wrong.

I recently attended an event at the WGA with Jason Katims, creator Friday Night Lights, Parenthood, and About A Boy. The evening opened with a series of clips from his shows, including a hospital scene from Friday Night Lights.

Fans of the show will recognize it just from this screenshot, I'm sure.)

Within minutes, I was in tears. Free flowing, can't-stop-even-when-the-lights-come-up tears. I didn't know the show's logline or underlying theme or anything, but I was hooked. In a heartbeat, I loved these characters, connected with them, felt they were alive, organic, and real, and I wanted to see more.

That's good writing.

And I realized that everything I've been doing - the plotting and the organizing - doesn't mean anything if I don't have characters who captivate and excite - like every single character in a Jason Katims show does. I've been trying to birth characters inside these meticulously planned worlds, when I should have been doing it the other way around.

I should be creating incredible characters and letting the world unfold in my mind around them. Develop a character I connect with first and then develop the conflicts, relationships, and story engine that will send that character on a compelling journey that I want to watch for 4 seasons and a movie.

It's all about character, stupid. It's television.

I've seen true fandom at Comic-Con - t-shirts, cosplay, action figures. Would anyone create fan art of the characters I've created in my 7 original pilots? Big fat NO. live, you learn.

That's why this pilot rewrite I'm working on is a page one rewrite. The first iteration was an action-packed script with plot twists and oh-no moments, but the characters didn't sing. In fact, they could barely hum a tune. They were just pawns in my plot game.

So I'm taking my concept and turning it inside out. Starting with the characters and rebuilding the story from there. And so far so good! I'm liking it much more and I think the concept is stronger. More importantly, I'm enjoying the writing process more. It feels less like managing a chess game and more like telling a story.

I guess you really can teach an old dog new tricks. Writing is a never ending journey of learning. Thank goodness I found this breakthrough.

1 comment:

  1. I agree and disagree with your assessment. Given that I know your works, I'll communicate directly to you about it.

    Consider this: there are three people, each on their own raft on the ocean. One reacts to the rocky waters but otherwise lets the ocean mandate his actions. The next, an athlete,paddles 100 miles to the nearest land. The third, a crafty survivalist, tears her shirt to make a sail and uses driftwood as paddles.

    Action is exciting but can be more so if your characters are driving it by acting in a way that's uniquely their own.