Wednesday, January 14, 2015

How Hit TV Pilots Can Help Us Write Novels Agents Want

I recently discovered something really interesting: some of my favorite TV Shows all started out with the same director of their pilot episode (first show of the series). I decided to do a little research on the director and found he came to make seventeen out of his nineteen pilot shows get picked up by a network and stay successful. For writers, this is like having a first chapter sent to an agent and having seventeen out of nineteen agents request to publish your book just from the first ten pages. How cool is that?

Now who is this crazy successful director? His name is David Nutter and he is my new idol.

David Nutter, Director

Before I go into the stuff I've read on him and how he has made his these shows successful, I think we all need to know what shows this director has worked on:

Millennium (1996)
Sleepwalkers (1997)
Roswell (1998)
Dark Angel (1999)
Smallville (2001)
Dr. Vegas (2003)
Tarzan (2003)
Jack & Bobby (2004)
Supernatural (2005)
Traveler (2006)
The Mentalist (2008)
Eastwick (2009)
Chase (2010)
The Doctor (2011)
Arrow (2012)
The Advocates (2013)
The Flash (2014)

Now I bet you can look at that list and pick out at least three or four shows that have been your favorites. He's actually been the director/producer on many other shows (including X-files, Game of Thrones, and ER). How's that for a list?

A pilot is most commonly thought of as the first episode of a television series… the first story in a series of many more stories… and while this is often the case, it’s not entirely accurate. The truth is: a pilot, whether in script form or actually produced, is a selling tool used to illustrate what the TV series is about and how it works.  In other words, a pilot is designed to convince network or studio executives that this series a good investment of their money and airtime.  Some pilots never even make it to air… they’re simply used to get the series “picked up,” then discarded. The first few chapters of our books are just like that. Hopefully our editors let us keep most of what we have written, but either way, our first ten pages are what sell our book to agents and publishers.

So what makes Nutter's pilots successful and how can that help us make our first chapters shine and step out of the slush pile?

1.) A Likable Main Character - Does that mean the main character is good looking, perfect in everything they do, makes the right choices, and has super powers? No (though that may be true for some of Nutter's pilots). Nutter says that one of the common threads in all of his pilots is that the main character has a void in their life and "it's that deep emotional thing that the audience can grasp onto that I try to bring out as a director." 

Take the pilot of "Arrow" for example. In the first episode, we meet Oliver Queen. We find out the billionaire was a player who actually ran off with his girlfriend's sister and that sister died on Oliver's boat when it capsized. Does that sound like a likable character? Not exactly. But then we see that he was shipwrecked for five years and he has changed and we like him because he wants to bring justice to those that have poisoned his city. We find out he still loves the girl he left behind, protects his family and friends at all costs, and has to hide how much he has changed from the ones he loves - even pretending to still be a playboy so that he can moonlight as a hero. Now we can like him because all of us at one time or another has had to hide a part of who we are and we've all made mistakes and want to make up for them. Every one of us has family or friends that we would do anything for. 

I watched many of Nutter's pilots and read several articles from the director himself. Then I put together a list of what I believe makes his shows successful. Now some of these are pretty much self-explanatory or you've heard before, but I think when you take into account all of these ideas and use them when you revise, you can make your novel and, specifically, your first first few chapters - your pilot, if you will - successful.

2.) Quick Audience Connection with Main Character - Everyone wants to be able to relate with the main character of their show. That's why we keep watching. The audience needs to identify with something early on with your main character. If your characters are generally unlikeable, even if you think they're interesting, it won't carry a reader/viewer to the next scene. Nutter did this with the series "Flash" in the character of Barry Allen. Straightaway in the first episode we see this awkward forensic scientist who clumsily walks into people in the street and talks fast, but notices things like Sherlock Holmes. The first time he's on a crime scene we already like him because he ignores what everyone says and gets right into the dirt to find the killer. 

Barry Allen in "The Flash" 
3.) A Character with a Past (Deep Characterization) - Few pilots start off with the main character's birth and the audience seeing him grow up to be the doctor or super hero. Most pilots start somewhere in the middle of the story, and rightly so. BUT, every character has a past and we need to see bits and pieces of it right at the beginning. We don't have to have all the answers. We just need a glimpse of their past or how they got to where they are when we first meet them. Maybe it's something they think, a look between two friends, or something someone says to that character that lets us in on who they are. Every character we write isn't just a character. Character refers to the essence of who anyone in your novel truly is on the inside. Is he or she a good person or a bad person? A hero or a villian? Character is the spirit of that person, while characterization is the quantifiable result of who they are. Every character we write should have a back story and several pages of characterization. Does that mean we share that in our first chapter? NO! But it will influence how we write the character.

Max from "Roswell" telling about his past.

4.) A Compelling Story - I know this is kind of obvious, but true more than most of us think. If you don't have a good story to begin with, doing #1-3 won't matter. When choosing scripts that he has directed, Nutter said, "I guess the simplest answer I can give you is that I've got to fall in love with it. It’s got to move me in some way. I've got to be touched emotionally by something. It can’t be just flash and no substance or, ‘Just the facts ma’am,’ without any heart. And at the end of it I say to myself, ‘Do I want to watch the next episode?’ That’s really what it’s all about."  

5.) A Variety of Emotions - 
Whether we are a female or male, we are all drawn to emotion. It drives us in our decisions, it gets out blood flowing, brings tears to our eyes, and makes us laugh. Think right now of your favorite book or movie. Now think of why it is your favorite. I can guarantee that there is some kind of emotion associated with it. Lust. Anger. Joy. Heartache. These feelings are what make us come back for more. And this is where we find good writing - in the emotions.

The main difference between TV Shows and novels is that in TV shows the emotions have already been read from a script and interpreted by actors and directors on the screen for us to see. In novels, we have to write what we want the reader to interpret as emotions. We do this through the tone of our words, the setting, dialogue, and the actions of our characters. 

Laurel in "Arrow" telling Oliver off after he returns.
So to sum it up, your "pilot" chapters of your book should have: a likable main character, quick audience connection with the main character, a character with a past (deep characterization), a compelling story, and a variety of emotions. 

Now get that agent to "pick up" your book!

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