On Writing A TV Pilot

June 20th, 2006 | brainjuice

On reading the WEST WING Scriptbooks, you come to realise that the legends about Aaron Sorkin are true. Specifically, the one about directors having to lean on the actors to speak faster.

I’m writing a half-hour show. That means the script needs to come in around thirty pages (I’m budgeting the scenes today). An hour-long show — and remember this is American maths, where a “half hour” show has a runtime without ads of 22 minutes, and an “hour” currently comes in around 43 minutes on network tv — should run about sixty pages.

By the time the last act is wrapping up in a Sorkin script, page sixty is somewhere in the distance behind you. The one I re-read last night before bed came in at sixty-nine pages. That’s something like an extra five minutes of runtime.

On a lot of shows, you’d expect someone above the writer on the authority ladder to thin out the script somewhere. But Sorkin was running the show. Sorkin is also a writer who loves actors; if you watched the show in its first four seasons, you’ll note that the actors get to do their physical work. No-one’s biting into the scenes to take out Richard Schiff bouncing up and down on his heels, or Alison Janney’s pauses.

What happens is, as per the legend, the actors speak faster. They’ll put away two pages of dialogue in under a minute, and that buys forty-five seconds on the clock.

One of Brian Eno’s more famous aphorisms was “honour thy mistake as a hidden intention.” The contortions the show goes through to contain the script becomes one of its hallmarks; fast, crisp dialogue, creating the air of a place of business that cannot afford to slow down.

Reading ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT scripts is something different. Total awareness of the clock. Michael Caine once described acting for the screen as surgery with a laser, and these guys script that way. The madness of the filmed episodes is very carefully timed in the script. Every last one of those hard cuts are down on the page.

It’s perhaps notable that AMC sent me the scripts when I asked for good examples of writing for the 22-minute form.

The adjustment, for me, is going from images to dialogue as the “real estate” of the piece. Working in American comics, I’m tied to the 22-page unit. I can budget out one of those in my sleep because I know instinctively how many images get me to the bottom corner of page 22 and how many words those images can contain. Now I have to work with a clock in my head; writing very few images, and dialogue doing all the work and eating up the pages.

So if anyone wants me tonight, I’ll be speaking dialogue aloud and generally acting like a schizophrenic until 4am.


35 Responses to “On Writing A TV Pilot”

  1. Your main problem (Like i’m someone to tell you your problems) looks like it’s going to rest in the idea that, before, you were writer AND half-director, and your illustrator is half-director, as well as being Director of Filmography/Photography.

    Now you’re the writer, and your scripts have blocking notes, but you can’t tell them precisely how you want them to move, anymore.

    Unless I missed something, and you do get to have input, there, too. Which is possible, I am tired, and frustrated.

  2. Warren- I’m so stoked for the AMC show.
    You’ve hit the big leagues.
    You’re captain awesome now.

    Cheers.

  3. You sound so damn happy man! It’s even more of a pleasure than usual to read your stuff when you’re this ‘geared up’. In fact, get any more geared up and a little sign will pop out of a wall saying: Woah there fella, that’s pretty geared up!

    (note to self: must re-read Only Forward again)

  4. What new music are you finding, to keep you in this zone?

  5. Ditto your reaction on the Sorkin scripts. When I first encountered those long dark columns of dialogue, I couldn’t believe it. That broke every scriptwriting rule I’d been taught. But Sorkin makes it work, and I suspect it’s his background in theater that makes it happen.

  6. Warren, I couldn’t possibly be more excited for you with this opportunity to show the fans of another medium what all of us geeky fanboys have known for years – you, sir, are a God amongst men. Thank you for some of my favorite comic book memories. I’ll be anxiously awaiting this series along with I’m sure everyone here and the rest of your fans. Without sounding too fucking sappy or corny I just wanted to let you know that I think this is cool and I had to give you a big congrats. Knock em dead, mate. Cheers!

    Brad

  7. This is very educational

  8. Good luck writing the pilot.

  9. I’ve never worked in comics writing, but I remember something from my overexpensive education on the difference between theater and film. In theater, you act on the dialogue. In film, you act between the dialogue. Although the dialogue is the primary vehicle for the motion of the plot (and economical, as Kevin Smith said, “Talk is cheap”), it’s all the moments in between the dialogue, all the beats and double takes that really make it pop. Firefly was a great example of this, I think. Unfortunately, that’s all actors’ and directors’ job to put those in.

    And before West Wing, Sorkin did Sportsnight. I was one of the few people in America, I think, who watched it as it originally aired. That show was a half hour comedy (single camera). Every time there was a commercial break, I recall taking a deep breath, as if I was coming up for air. That show was lightning quick.

  10. I am currently editting an animatic for an animated feature. I find that a page pretty reliably equals a just shy of a minute. The trick seems to be that any sort of descriptive-action text should take as much space on the page as it would in time. Quite a tricky business. Our first cut of the first 2 acts ended up 9 minutes under the page count (assuming 1 page per minute).

    The balancing act is pretty tight- and we aren’t worrying about pacing story around commercial breaks. I can only imagine how much MORE challenging it is to work around the typical American TV format. Yet another reason why the shows on HBO are so great- they are completely unshackled from both the need for commercial breaks and hitting a consistant run-time. If they need to go for 54 more pages, they can.

    I can’t wait to see what you’ve got cookin’ Mr. Ellis…

  11. Yeah, animation scripts are about a page and a bit to a minute, because you have to do more direction on the page. I’ve written a couple.

  12. Well, I am done with thise job in 2008. Maybe a Nextwave animated feature should be my next gig. Stop-motion Nextwave… in 3D.

  13. “Stop-motion Nextwave… in 3D.”

    I heartily endorse this product and/or service.

  14. All half hour TV scripts should return to thr great interstitials and segues of the 70’s. The Batman logo flying into and out of the camera. The entire image rotating as if it was the wall of a secret passage, revealing a new scene on the back side. The New Captain Scarlet made great use of such items, and that DUN DUN DUN music sting that strobed us into the next scene.
    A twenty first century version of the gimmick could be in computer vocabulary. One scene minimizing, revealing the next behind it in a new window. Or scrolling between locations.

  15. Welcome to the club, Warren

    KJC (your fellow schizophrenic TV writer)

  16. You do realize that I am realizing for really real this time – just as you are finally getting down to the reality of writing this. I am going to have to get cable for the first time in over 7 yrs. That is just about the highest compliment I can offer. So please make it bright and witty, and don’t dumb it down for this bastion of mediocrity across the pond. Don’t simplify the concepts so that the lowest possible denominator in the demographic can “get it”.

    What is the target demographic for this piece anyway? Or did you already mention it and I missed it.

  17. Congratumalations on the television thing. God knows I’ll be watching.

  18. Will there be a comic of the show? Possibly to fit in things that could not happen on the TV screen or to keep interest up during seasons? Personally, I hope so because comics need more dark drama-comedy sci-fi books! A good opportunity to do a remix of sorts as well, I guess.

    AMC is part of Vivendi, who owns Marvel(I think), and I am sure a million other book publishers.

    The legal contracts with the actors must be a bear to deal with nowadays due to all the mixed media their likeness could be used in. I would be scared to act in anything if after I’m dead they can do whatever they desired with me, creeps me right out.

    Also, will you get any say over music used and opening title sequence? Hopefully, because those are such important elements, that get botched all the time. I totally agree with whoever said music is an invisible actor. Going by your comic covers and music selection in blog, viewers will be in for a treat(or at the very least something that is not bog standard) if you do. So here’s to hoping!

    Good luck!

  19. It’s not just a Sorkin Hallmark, but also that of Amy Sherman-Palladino. The Gilmore Girls, which is more of a Wilde-style soap drama, likewise runs about 80 pages per 42 minute episode.

  20. You’re waaaaay ahead there, Jonah. We’re nowhere near those kind of determinations yet.

  21. Last night I was watching an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer with friends and one of them looked away for a moment and then looked back in surprise and asked if she had missed something. The scene had transitioned directly from Buffy saying she was leaving to arriving at her destination, and my friend had expected a travel scene inbetween. I was struck by this because it speaks to the 43 minute format–in order to tell a cinematic story in 43 minutes you need that economy of storytelling. I was similarly amazed at the compression of content in Cowboy Bebop episodes years ago–but a lot of that was done with visual cues taking the place of dialogue.

    I’ve read that for Sci-Fi’s Battlestar Galactica the scripts sometimes run long, and they cut content afterward–and decide what to do with that content afterward, sometimes integrating it into later episodes, possibly having to reshoot later. But I can’t imagine this wears well on the network executives who have to pay for the unused footage and shoot times. Similarly whole scenes and storylines were cut from episodes of Northern Exposure that can be seen on the DVDs.

    I hope you are having fun with the pilot!

  22. “I’m tied to the 22-page unit. I can budget out one of those in my sleep because I know instinctively how many images get me to the bottom corner of page 22 and how many words those images can contain”

    It’s stuff like this that, if you were to code all these rules and guidelines, would make writing comics so much easier with a real kick-ass program. A WYSIWYG editor that say “That panels contain more than 30 words, are you sure?” etc.

    An open-source project maybe?

  23. Blake- There is a terrific book by the great film editor Walter Murch titled “In the Blink of an Eye” that you may enjoy reading. It is a non-technical examination of why and how film editing works in relationship to story telling and emotion. It has a great many parallels to the screenwriting process as well. The compression you mention is touched on quite often in his theories of what is import to story and what is not. Travel scenes are wholly unecessary to a story if they do not move the plot forward or evoke an emotion. Essentially, film is like life with all of the boring parts cut out. Quality writing and editing make these omissions invisible to the audience.

    Since the birth of montage, audiences have become used to jumping from place to place, forward and backward in time, point of view to point of view, without it being confusing- but only when the synergy of script, staging and editing maintains the illusion across the seemingly illogical leaps.

    When you notice one of those leaps, it isn;t usually the theory or technique that is odd, but the execution.

  24. Blake- There is a terrific book by the great film editor Walter Murch titled “In the Blink of an Eye” that you may enjoy reading. It is a non-technical examination of why and how film editing works in relationship to story telling and emotion. It has a great many parallels to the screenwriting process as well. The compression you mention is touched on quite often in his theories of what is import to story and what is not. Travel scenes are wholly unecessary to a story if they do not move the plot forward or evoke an emotion. Essentially, film is like life with all of the boring parts cut out. Quality writing and editing make these omissions invisible to the audience.

    Since the birth of montage, audiences have become used to jumping from place to place, forward and backward in time, point of view to point of view, without it being confusing- but only when the synergy of script, staging and editing maintains the illusion across the seemingly illogical leaps.

  25. Christopher – Oh yes, I’m definitely aware of the how that compression works. What fascinated me in that instance was that it became noticeable, and the circumstances in which it became noticeable. Afterward I realized it was kind of an abrupt jump, in many cases a show or film would cut to a different scene to create a sense of the passage of time or distance–not always, but you get what I’m saying.

    Similarly I had an experience where I was watching Bridge on the River Qwai, and I paused it, to take a phonecall, etc., in the middle of the sequence where the commandos are moving down the river to plant plastic explosives. When I came back I could see that not only was that section of the film shot during the day (with glints of the sun coming off the water) but they hadn’t used that kind of standard blue day-for-night treatment; instead they had flattened the values so that no particular part of the composition was more visually striking than another. It was clear it was day when paused, but in the context of the film itself, it matched perfectly with the rest of the film. It’s hard to beat David Lean.

    But also I’ve been watching a lot of films by directors like Tarkovsky, Takeshi Kitano, and Mamoru Oshii, where a lot of focus remains on the elements of the journey or the mundane, or quiet aspects of life in progress. Often with long still shot establishing a different mood or context for the characters (or in Kitano’s case, maybe more of creating a distance between the audience and the characters).

    Thanks, I’ll have to check out “In the Blink of an Eye.” The best book I’ve read on filmic writing was John Sayles’ “Thinking In Pictures” where he mainly takes you through the process of wriitng and making the movie “Matewan.” I actually enjoyed the book more than the film.

    What do you do at Laika? (I kind of applied online a couple days ago, and am curious).

  26. I am editing Coraline. Being adapted from Neil Gaiman by Henry Sellick.

  27. Cool!

  28. I looked in the “players” section of the website and wondered if that was you.

  29. In the Blink of an Eye is one of the best books on filmmaking you can buy. It really helps to decode film language.

  30. Dave – Thanks to you as well, I’ll definitely have to check it out.

    Christopher – If you ever did get to do a Nextwave 3D Stop-Motion Project I’d love to help work on it in whatever capacity I could.

    Warren – Thanks for letting us hijack the comments for a bit.

  31. […] Link to original post […]

  32. I hope the tv job goes well for you. And am crossing my fingers, I’ll actually get to see it.

    Considering I saw this on IMDB today
    Haim and Feldman Reunite for Comedy Show

    Former teen heart-throbs Corey Feldman and Corey Haim are teaming up to star in a comedy series based on fictional versions of themselves. The Coreys picks up with Feldman living the comfortable suburban life with his wife Suzie and their son, until circumstances bring his old pal Haim back into the picture. Episodes would follow Haim – who is single and the total opposite of Feldman – as he shakes life up for his more conservative namesake. RFD USA vice president Greg Goldman said because Feldman and Haim have been friends on and off screen for several years, the chemistry between the two “just pops off the screen.” He explains, “Everyone feels like they know the Coreys.” Feldman and Haim met on the set of The Lost Boys and appeared in several movies together, including License To Drive, Dream A Little Dream and Blown Away.

    Corey’s, in stereo. On telly. HELP!

  33. […] On Writing A TV Pilot […]

  34. Is Technical Book Writing Becoming More Feasible Again? Notes from the Coalface…

  35. […] Know the format style. Writing MSDN documentation is infinitely different to writing a book which is inifitely different to writing a script. Research the format you want to write. Figure out why you like it and what you want to do with it. Let your editors know and put it in your initial proposal so they know what you want to achieve. […]