There is a term bandied around TV writers rooms called the ENGINE. What exactly is the engine of a TV show?
As its name suggests, the simplest way to describe your story engine, is to define what drives every episode in the series. The engine is the nerve center of your TV series. It defines the starting point of your TV series as well as the trajectory of each season.
What are the key elements of an engine? Most importantly, the engine defines what your story isn’t and what it isn’t. Your engine keeps your story on track.
The premise is really the concept of your TV show. For example, 2 Broke Girls is a workplace sitcom about two financially-challenged waitresses in a Brooklyn diner.
The Bing Bang Theory is an urban tribe sitcom about nerdy scientists.
Girl Boss is a semi-biopic about Sophia Amoruso, the founder of the online Nasty Gal fashion label.
We start drilling deeper into the TV series here. The world is more than just the setting. It relates to the look and feel of the show. What is its thematic focus? What is the scope of the world the TV series takes place in? Does your story change locations, timelines, dimensions or planets?
This is one of the most important ones. to consider. It relates to character dynamics. Not only do you need to strongly define the dramatic functions of each character, you need to define their interactions and their level of interactivity.
Interactions relate to whether they assist or hinder the main character. Are they friend, foe, mentor or shapeshifter?
Interactivity relates to the frequency and intensity of the character interactions. How do they service the story engine?
Each character should have a signature defining traits that drives their behaviors and interactions. This is more than simply stating that Leonard is Sheldon’s roommate and best friend, despite the fact that Sheldon drives him crazy.
Drill deeply into their world views. Sheldon is intellectually self-aware to the point of arrogance. What he possesses in academic prowess, he lacks in social skills. This level of precision articulates what is organic and authentic to your characters. If, for the sake of argument, Sheldon decides he needs to clothes shopping to be hip, we know this is out of character and would not withstand the scrutiny of his fans. However, if Penny (who’s all about image) went with him, it would be a different story.
Defining your characters really helps you nail all their choices, actions, reactions and dialogue as a writer.
It’s also worth mentioning that TV characters should remain reasonably static for the life of a TV series. Sure, they learn lessons and gradually evolve over the seasons, but their core values and traits should stay the same. Films are different in that the characters experience a more radical character arc.
This relates to both the situation and the characters. Consider Lost In Space, a TV series from the 1970s. The situation is two astronauts, a family, a stowaway and a robot who are are lost in outer space and trying to get back home.
The character backstories shape their motivations, decisions, flaws and outlooks on life. 2 Broke Girls has the classic “Odd Couple” main character setup. Max is from the wrong side of the tracks, has poor self-esteem, no real goals and a grifter with poor prospects. Caroline is the antithesis of Max. She’s s a spoilt trust fund baby, who’s circumstances have led her to work in a diner with Max.
We know where they’re coming from. We get them.
Plots are the storylines that are explored throughout the series. Once we establish the world and characters, you can start generating story lines. They can be situational, such as Caroline and Max flying to LA to work on a TV show or character-driven, such as Max trying to find her mother.
This is the secret sauce of being a screenwriter. This is something that no other writer can emulate. It is your uniqueness. When you write an original TV pilot, there are personal elements that must shine through on every page. Every character you create is a manifestation of your personality. Even if you are modeling your characters after people you know, your are interpreting them through your lens. This is your voice.
Have faith in yourself and trust the journey.
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