Book Review: Writing the Pilot

Writing the Pilot

by William Rabkin

In a nutshell: This book details the elements that make for a successful pilot and TV series, from creating the franchise to establishing conflicts that can fuel hundreds of stories.

Recommended for: Anyone who wants to write a television series. Even if you’re a pro, you can still learn something from this book.

Rabkin notes that there’s a difference between a story that would make a great idea for a pilot, and a story that would make a great idea for a series. While movies only last for two hours, television series can last for hundreds if they are set up correctly.

“The way a series works is not to follow one story, but instead to explore a set of conflicts that have been established in the pilot.”

This tidbit of wisdom may seem simple, but it’s so often overlooked in shows that get canceled. Take, for instance, J.J. Abram’s short lived show Undercovers, about a spy couple who go on missions each week, and also run a bakery. Their relationship is perfect, their bakery can run without them, and their family isn’t impacted by them being spies. There’s no set of conflicts, no unresolved relationships, and thus the show was canceled mid-season one, leaving two episodes un-aired.

This book is a must-read for those of you who are writing a pilot because instead of providing basic step-by-step story creation tips we’ve all heard before, it digs deeper to reveal the true reasons why shows succeed or fail. The book talks about how to create characters that force the main characters to react by making them embody the conflict the protagonists face, the pitfalls of having an integral storyline revealed through flashbacks, and the importance of creating a franchise.

There’s not a whole lot of TV writing books out there — certainly far less than screenwriting books. But what makes this one special is that it skips the shallow tips we’ve all heard before (your characters should have depth!) and goes a step further (put your characters in a position where they are forced to make choices. This defines who they are.) Rabkin’s insight comes from experience, and this book is a necessity for those of you even considering writing your own pilot.

Takeaway: Without a set of central conflicts, your series will fizzle out. I’m going to leave you with this quote from the book:

“A strong conflict needs nothing more than the necessity of a choice between two equal but irreconcilable ideas.”

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