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Writing Exercise: The TV Pilot Game

If you’re a writer, you’ve probably heard this piece of advice or discovered it on your own: by the time you finish a draft of your short story or novel, it’s important to go back and take a hard look at the beginning.

Why? Because by the time we get to the end of a draft, we know our characters inside and out. It’s unlikely we started the draft knowing them so well, which means you probably need to flesh them out a little more so they’re fully three dimensional and jump off the page.

An analogy I like to use is this: compare pilot episodes of TV shows to one of the shows from a few seasons out. You will see the difference. This happened to me recently when I got sucked into Criminal Minds marathons.

I had never watched the show in its normal time slot, so when I came to the show it was already a season or two in. But at some point during one of the marathons, the station played the original pilot. And it was noticeable — very noticeable — how the writers were still figuring out the characters.

For example, Hotch, the leader of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit is known for his dour, serious, never-cracks-a-smile demeanor, at least that’s how I knew him in later episodes. During the pilot, it was obvious that this characterization hadn’t been fully developed, since his character in this first show was chattier, friendly even.

TV shows, of course, don’t have the luxury of going back and re-doing the pilots. But as writers, we can go back and rework the early chapters or pages so that the fully developed character on page 303 is the same character who appears on page one.

Note: The TV show Bones did something quite clever last season (another show that I got sucked into during a marathon). It spent a whole episode in mostly flashback where the main characters recounted the very first case they had worked on together. The pilot episode for Bones hinted there was some history between Booth and Brennan, but it wasn’t until many seasons later — after the characters were fully known to the writers — that the show filled in the blanks of this first case.

As a fun exercise, watch the pilot episode of one of your favorite series — it could be any series: Seinfeld, Lost, you name it, since I think my theory will hold true no matter which one you choose. Then watch an episode from at least three seasons out. What differences in characterizations do you notice?

Do you find this to be true in your own writing? Do you need to go back and rework the early chapters? Or do you spend a ton of time on characterization up front? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

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