This question was submitted by one of my followers on instagram. I thought this would be of generic interest, so I posted it here.
Writing a series pilot is a far greater journey than writing a feature film is. Your concept has to be unique and most of all your characters have to have a really huge journey ahead of them.You need to think seasons here! I’ll be talking about how to approach a serialized series here, not a monster-of-the-week kind of series.
When I start to think about ideas for a series, I take a lot of time and think about four things:
Contrast, a fish-out-of-water setting, a microcosmos and an uberstory.
- Contrast: Great contrast has proven to be a good recipe for conflict. First you need to ask yourself: Who is your hero and what are his/her contrasting elements. Either a contrast within a character and/or in relation to others. Great examples are: Being the last male on earth, a chemistry teacher, wanting to financially secure his family, the boss of a mafia family in need of a therapy in order to go on …
- A fish-out-of-water setting (the inciting incident): Choose a setting, that clashes with the hero in many ways. May it be attitude-wise, or believe-wsie or fear-wise. Make it as uncomfortable and challenging as possible. Your hero needs this setting to grow! This is the same as the inner goal, and related to that, your theme of your series. So it is: inner goal (need of the hero) = theme. The fish-out-of-water setting mirrors the theme. For instance, if your hero hates the police, put him or her in a situation where he needs to become a policeman/woman (inciting incident). The theme could then be his inner conflict wanting to be powerful but at the same time not acknowledging his/her weakness. But the inner goal (the hero need) shouldn’t necessary be clear to your hero. It makes for greater inner and outer conflict if he/she doesn’t know what the problem is and already thinks that he/she is strong and has power but after time realizes that this is not at all true.
- A microcosmos: this is very, very important, because you need an environment where the rules are clear. For instance a police precinct. In this context you can then mirror certain needs and wants of your hero by bringing in supporting characters, that represent certain flaws. Always show the two sides of the coin. For example bring in a stuttering policeman who has trouble earning respect because of his flaw. Have him be an asshole because of it. Then show how he finally connects the dots and find s out that people are not disrespecting him because of his flaw, they do not pay him respect because he is an asshole. Your hero will see this transformation and it will kick his own thinking into gear. The hero needs to overcome his/her own flaws in order to grow, but before he/she can do so, the hero needs to understand them. That’s why you need a microcosmos. It will provide you with the ensemble cast you need to create conflict and it will also be the pool from where you fish your ideas from, for each new episode.
- the uberstory: can come in two different faces. 1. It can be the outer goal, your heros want. Clear cut like, for instance, winning a football game, building in empire and so forth, but it can also be 2. s.th like a mystery (what is the island and how to get off of it?) or a murder case. Of course, the uberstory is also related to the overall theme. If for instance the above policeman is confronted with a murder case where a killer murders weak people, you have an uberstory. Uberstories are extremely important to create a greater hook to make sure people tune in every week or every episode, even if they are not so happy with how some episodes turned out. This is your safety net. The greater the question at the beginning, the more likely it is that everyone will keep watching.
You have probably guessed it by now. A series is even more about conflicts than a feature film. You want to establish a great deal of conflicts in the pilot, so that the audience will come back to see each and every conflict resolved by the end of the show.