Trainee Writer

Adventures of a screenwriter in training…

Who’s Flying This Thing?


One of the hardest things when trying to conceive a pilot is trying to decide what your premise is. Obviously, this will depend on the kind of writer you  are; some like to have a story come to them and tell it, then work out settings later. Others, myself included, like to come up with a vague premise, an outline, and shade in the colours later.

There’s no right or wrong way, but I just wanted to share my method with you, based upon three of my own works. We’re going to talk about the conception of Holland Park,Outbreak and Housemates.

You’ll find it amazing how closely the things you grew up with and the things you enjoy watching will influence what you write, regardless of how much you try to avoid them. When  was a kid, and even to this day, I was a massive fan of Dawson’s Creek. I’ve since moved on through almost every show in the genre: The O.C.Gossip GirlOne Tree Hill,HellcatsWildfireHeartlandThe Gilmore Girls, 90210DegrassiThe Secret Life Of The American Teenager and I’m currently loving Pretty Little Liars and Hellcats. It’s safe to say that teen drama is my ‘thing’. I even moderate over at Teen Drama Forums, so it was a natural next step for me to one day create my own teen drama series.

There’s an old saying which, paraphrased, goes a little something like ‘to get where you’re going, you have to know where you’ve been.’ Before I could write a teen drama, I had to become expert on the genre. On its nature, on its conventions and on its history. It was time to do the thing many writers dread: Research.

I sat and watched every teen drama pilot I could get my hands on, even going back to watch shows I’d never, or hardly, seen before: Beverly Hills, 90210, the originalDegrassi  series, Party Of FiveMy So-Called LifeFreaks & GeeksSummerlandYoung AmericansHidden Palms… you name it, I probably watched it. By the end of it all, I had such a tight handle on the genre that I now feel I could write for almost any teen drama show going – and I was definitely in a position to create my own.

A key convention of the teen drama is that the shows are character, not event-driven. That means they’re more about how the characters interact with each other than catching the villain-of-the-week. The other convention that most teen dramas rely on is the premise pilot – usually someone new arrives in town, or an event happens that changes everything. Just think of these five examples:

  • The O.C. – Ryan steals a car, ends up in juvi, moves in with the Cohen family, leaving Chino for Newport Beach.
  • Dawson’s Creek – Dawson, Joey and Pacey have been fiends for years. Then those pesky hormones appear… and so does Jen Lindley, mysterious reformed bad girl from New York.
  • Both 90210s – new family moves to Beverly Hills from the mid-west and has to settle into an alien environment full of rich kids and the pretty/vacant.
  • Hellcats – Marty is going to have to drop out of college unless she can find a scholarship. When she discovers she can get one for cheerleading, she rents herself a copy of Bring It On and learns to both cheer and speak cheerleader to join the Hellcats. And learns that Cheertown is not a ‘Cheerocracy.’
  • Pretty Little Liars – four friends who have drifted apart following the death of their best friend are brought back together… when they start receiving mysterious messages from the deceased.

So now I knew where to start – I needed a premise. Because new kid in school is tried-and-tested, I started there. I’d read an article in one of the trashy gossip magazine where a British pop star, Lily Allen, had made a comment about growing up in the media spotlight. Since her father was also a pop star and actor, she’s got some insight into this. So I thought ‘what if the focus of my show is kids in a similar situation? Children of celebrities, child stars, their ‘normal’ friends? And what if my premise involve another child star, an American child star coming to join them. I now had a loose idea of my show’s premise.

Now I had to come up with a story. I had to introduce my American child star, Casey, into this world. And to do so, I needed to demonstrate how big a deal he was in the show’s world – so I had my three most ‘normal’ main characters, Anna, Drew and Gwen, be the first to spot him and comment on his presence. But now I had to explain why he’s there. Add a hoard of zombie-like paparazzi and Casey’s crying ‘mom’ and the show was in business. If you want to read it for yourselves, there are several drafts floating around the net – my penultimate draft can even be found over at TDF.

Also found amongst my lifelong televisual diet is a strong love of science fiction – though very, very rarely the aliens-in-space style of Star Trek, even if I am a Star Wars fan – I’m more a fan of the character-based human drama-type sci-fi: FlashforwardDark AngelA Town Called Eureka, Firefly/SerenityLostJericho and Fringe are favourites though, of course, I do love The X-Files, too. So when I decided I wanted to create a science-fiction pilot, it was always going to be along those lines. Never one to stray far from my teen drama roots, however, I also took inspiration from another of my favourite shows, Veronica Mars.

While this probably seems like a strange mix of shows to draw inspiration from, I went about putting the basis for the idea together in a very different way to Holland Park. ForOutbreak, I had to create the world first. In sci-fi, the setting has to be as much a character as any of the people (which I believe Joss Whedon mentioned during one of theFirefly DVD commentaries) and, as such, was the natural starting point.

I’d known for a while that I wanted to do a post-apocalyptic drama. At first, I wanted to set it against the backdrop of a nuke-based war or terrorist attack, which led to me beginning work on  a show called Archangel with my friend and fellow writer Dave Burgess. As time progressed, however, we began to discuss the implausibility of a nuclear attack on the scale we needed and couldn’t avoid comparing our show to Jericho. And, if you’re comparing the show you’re writing to another in the room, it’s going to continue as the idea progresses. That said, when the time is right, we’ll probably pick up Archangelagain

Having been forced to go back to the drawing-board and reexamine my approach to the post-apocalyptic sci-fi genre, I started looking for a new premise. It was whilst watching an episode of The West Wing (Season 1, episode 5: “The Crackpots and These Women” – written by Aaron Sorkin) that I was almost gifted the premise, the germ of the idea. In that episode, C.J. Cregg (played by Allison Janney) learns that thee are only seven(?) doses of smallpox vaccine in the world and that, if one were to be released in Times Square, you’d have to surround the infected with 100 million uninfected people to contain it. Inspiration can come at you from all angles, even the C story in a popular television show.

Thinking that it had to be a made-up stat, one that couldn’t possibly be true, I took to Google to research it. Whilst exaggerated (there are about 7 million doses of the vaccine in the US and the CDC action plan calls for another 30 million to be imported from South Africa) the story had enough legs for me to make it a viable backdrop for a show.

So my story begins with a smallpox outbreak? No. although I tied that, it required so much narration that the viewer would’ve lost interest. The golden rule of screenwriting is ‘show, don’t tell’ – I needed to create a visibly decimated world. Enter Jimmy O’Brien, one half of my dynamic duo of lead characters:

FADE IN:

EXT. NEW YORK CITY (MET MUSEUM) - DAY

TITLE: NEW YORK CITY - APRIL 7TH, 2031

A busy New York street, so run-down that it could be the
Bronx, Queens, Havana... or Sarajevo. The street bustles with
life as decades of old posters peel from the wall.

Despite the obvious signs of urban decay, there’s not one
single homeless person on this street, no street vendors.
Yes, it could be Cuba, but this ain’t Havana. This is the
Upper East Side.

A WELL-DRESSED WOMAN - well-dressed for 2012, anyway - in her
early forties stops outside the Metropolitan Museum Of Art,
where the historic building has started to fall into
disrepair, some of its windows boarded.

As she stops to check a message on her cell phone, she’s
knocked screaming to the floor by a passerby, but this is no
accident. A MUGGER grabs her phone and purse and begins to
make a run for it.

Her scream alerts JIMMY O’BRIEN, 19. He’s tall and handsome,
a fully-uniformed member of New York’s Finest. And he’s been
interrupted whilst buying coffee. He quickly spots the mugger
and gives chase.

JIMMY
Van Zyl, call it in!

His partner, JOHANNES VAN ZYL, 28, radios the mugging in
immediately. The mugger cuts around the back of the Met and
sprints straight into Central Park as Jimmy gains on him with
almost every step.

The park looks the same as it always has until they cross
East Drive and the mugger makes a break for the softball
field with Jimmy only a few strides behind.

EXT. CENTRAL PARK (SOFTBALL FIELD) - DAY

The softball field looks like hell. The grass is a little too
long, as though maintaining it hasn’t been a priority. It’s
here that Jimmy finally catches the mugger, bringing him down
with a tackle that’d make Ray Lewis proud.

JIMMY
You’re under arrest, dirtbag.

[Apologies for the formatting, WordPress doesn’t allow for proper script formatting.]

With this opening scene, I’ve set up the show’s world. We now know that we’re 19 years (ish) in the future  – you should always spec a time-related pilot for the next year, it probably won’t be made the same year you write it – and that New York is stuck in 2012, in much the same way that Havana s often said to be stuck in 1955. Also, note that I’ve made a point of mentioning the urban decay and that we’re on the Upper East Side. The two would rarely be synonymous in the modern day – it tells the reader that something isn’t right in this world right from the start.

What was very important to me with Outbreak was that it shouldn’t be overtly sci-fi. As important as the smallpox-related backstory is to the show, it’s something that can be revealed over time as necessary. This show is about characters, but it’s also a mystery giving me the perfect opportunity to marry it with two other genres: The police procedural – Jimmy is promoted to become a homicide detective during the first ten pages – and, showing elements of my Veronica Mars influence, the teen detective show.

Whilst the overall arc of the show is about finding out who is responsible for the original outbreak, Jimmy and his high school senior girlfriend, Robyn make for a formidable team, each solving their own cases and, in the process, gaining a nugget or two of information about the outbreak itself – one step closer to their overall goal.

This type of show is often said to be the hardest to create – and they’re right, it’s no cakewalk – because of the complexity involved. You have to know from page one who your ultimate villain is. You have to know how you want the pieces that track him down to come together but, more importantly, as with all television, you need to know how to go about keeping the audience interested in your show. I’ll discuss devices for that in another post.

Finally, because I’ve realized how long this post as been – verging on a novella – I want to talk a little about the conception of HousematesHousemates is a pilot borne of necessity; like several of my friends, I’m a frustrated actor. I don’t live in London, where most of the work is, nor can I afford to. So I decided to create a project that we could all use to showcase our abilities. Noting the success of web series such as The GuildAnyone But Me and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog, I decide that what we needed was to make a web show of our own. However, that wasn’t without its problems – when self-producing, you’re responsible for both the budget and the fundraising on your show. And since I’m no millionaire, I had to do the near-impossible: Eliminate the budget. Housemates had to be a show we could make for free. But how?

Webcams. In the 21st century, almost everybody has the privilege of owning one, making them an ideal tool for the low-budget film-maker. I knew I could eliminate my budget simply by writing a show in video diary format. Such shows are rare and because, in our case, the actors are so spread out that it’ll be impossible to have them in the same room, I needed to aim for two things: strong characters and funny dialogue. On a show where you don’t have the budget to show the fridge, let alone blow it up, you need to get creative.

You need to capture your audience’s attention and you need to make them laugh. Fast.

So on that note, I’ll leave you with the opening scene of Housemates:

OVER BLACK

GEMMA speaks first, with a lazy Essex accent.

GEMMA
That thing you were saying in class
today?

The rustling of activity on a desk can be heard as she
pauses.

GEMMA (CONT’D)
“You only get one chance to make a
first impression.”

The sound of a CIGARETTE LIGHTER.

INT. GEMMA’S ROOM - DAY

Meet Gemma (18). She’s an attractive brunette, dressed
stylishly but wearing just a little too much make-up. She
takes a long drag from the cigarette in her mouth, then
exhales it upwards, slowly, just like Katherine Hepburn
might.

GEMMA
Well, I think I make a great first
impression.

She pauses again and starts to dig inside her nose with a
pinky finger. She inspects her findings and, satisfied, wipes
her finger somewhere out of shot. She then inserts the
cigarette back into her mouth.

GEMMA (CONT’D)
(slightly garbled by the
cigarette)
Don’t you?

FADE OUT.

TITLE: HOUSEMATES

Until next time,

Peace x

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May 14, 2011 - Posted by | Holland Park, Housemates, lessons, Outbreak, screenwriting | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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