Consultant Corner: Dan Calvisi on Mapping Out a Drama Pilot

by Angela Bourassa (@angelabourassa1)

Dan Calvisi is an expert when it comes to structuring television shows. He is a story analyst, speaker, screenwriter, and the author of Story Maps: TV Drama and Story Maps: How to Write a GREAT Screenplay. Dan gets his know-how from his past years as a Story Analyst for major studios like Twentieth Century Fox and Miramax Films. These days, Dan coaches writers, teaches webinars on writing for film and television, and speaks at writing conferences. We had the privilege of interviewing Dan last year about his book, Story Maps: TV Drama, and also about the emergence of the thirty-minute TV dramedy.

This time, LA Screenwriter’s Angela Bourassa spoke with Dan about mapping out an hour-long drama pilot.

Angela Bourassa: What do you mean when you use the term “story map”? 

Dan Calvisi: A Story Map is a very simple, yet powerful outline tool that breaks down a film or television narrative into its essential dramatic elements, central story engines, and key “signpost” plot beats. Writers can use it to construct a new feature or pilot screenplay with a rock-solid foundation of structure, or use it to analyze and deconstruct an existing film or TV series to see how it was built by the professional writers who wrote it. Whenever you are watching something or reading a script and you feel that something is wrong, it almost always means that something is wrong or missing in their Story Map. For example, maybe there is no clear central Theme, or the Protagonist has a Skill but no Achilles Heel. You can always go back to the map for the answers.

I originally developed the Story Map for feature screenplays while working as a Reader for years for major studios and production companies. But as television rose in prominence in the entertainment landscape, I began getting requests by my coaching clients looking for a “Story Map for TV.” I turned my story analysis eye toward TV and saw that scripted television also employed its own version of the Story Map. It was undeniable that most great pilots utilized a similar structure that incorporated the same basic beats in the same basic order, so if a screenwriter is armed with this template (which is a form, NOT a formula!) they can more easily beat out their original pilot story. I even have worksheets that I give to my clients and students (or pretty much anyone who asks nicely).

Angela Bourassa: Which comes first when writing — the pilot or the show bible? 

Dan Calvisi: It depends on the situation and the writer. If you are an experienced professional in the industry, you may be able to sell a pilot based only on a pitch bible, which includes a detailed outline of the pilot, without actually writing the pilot (yet). But if you’re a newbie, I think it’s essential to have a great pilot written so they can see your unique voice on the page and how you execute a concept, and then also have a bible ready to go if they ask. But this first bible doesn’t need to be this incredibly long, detailed document. It can basically review the concept (or “Compelling Crisis”), the characters, what will happen in an average episode (the “Week to Week”), the relevance and tone, and some ideas for future episodes and seasons. If it helps you to write this kind of document before you begin to write the actual pilot script, go for it.

Angela Bourassa: Can you give an overview of the core beats that should be included in a drama pilot? 

Dan Calvisi: Firstly, modern one-hour pilots are going to be broken into the “Teaser plus 4 Acts” or “Teaser plus 5” structure. Beyond that, I’ve isolated beats that occur in the same order and fall in the same basic location within the pilot, regardless of page range. For example, the “Shadow Showdown” is a direct confrontation between the Protagonist and the character who represents their total opposite, and it may fall in Act Three or Act Four, depending on how the writer breaks up their pilot and the total page count, but it will almost always fall around four fifths of the way into the script. The Shadow Showdown falls in Act Four in the pilot of Scandal and Act Three of True Detective, because Scandal has one more act than True Detective.

Some of my favorite beats are the ones that close out each Act, or the “Act-Outs.” These are the Inciting Incident, Midpoint, Assumption of Power, All is Lost and The New World. They each feature unique characteristics that I detail in my book and webinars. Ideally, each should include a hanging question or cliffhanger that makes us want to turn the page (or hang around through the commercials, if that applies).

Angela Bourassa: How should a writer go about choosing which story threads to leave open in their pilot? Do you suggest an A, B, and C thread, or is it dependent upon the genre or particular story? 

Dan Calvisi: At the least, you should have an A and a B story (a “story” being a line of action, a character pursuing a goal against conflict) and these may correspond to your Protagonist’s External and Internal goals. I suggest adding a C story so we can learn more about a key supporting character/s and to show the reader a world that feels fleshed-out and contains numerous tales to tell (like, say, 100 episodes worth of stories!). Include a D story if you really want to throw more toys onto the playground.

In general, you don’t want to tell a fully closed story or it will feel more like a feature that’s been crammed into a pilot’s running time. But what you leave open and what you wrap up is up to you. Show it to your trusted readers and gauge their opinions.

Angela Bourassa: How should a writer balance establishing character and revealing plot in a pilot? Which should get more attention? 

Dan Calvisi: On your first draft, the easiest way to allocate space is to give the most to the “A” story, then go down from there. For example — a this is a rough example for the sake of giving an example — 30 pages for the A story, 15 for the B story, 10 for the C story. But the mix depends on your vision and it will probably change with each draft. Serve the story and the arcs, and give it to readers for feedback. If you see common themes emerging in their critiques, then you should probably address those issues. But remember that if you’re telling an active story that shows and doesn’t just tell… Character = Action. If you have a strong Story Map filled with elements and beats that actively advance the story, you’ll be good.

You can read much more about this in my book, Story Maps: TV Drama: The Structure of the One-Hour Television Pilot, which is currently being used by professional TV writers (the greatest praise I can receive), and you can find it on Amazon or you can get an exclusive PDF version with a worksheet on my website. I also go into detail on my structural methods in several webinars at the Writers Store.

Learn more about Dan and his services at his website, actfourscreenplays.com. Dan is a member of eiACE. Catch him in the eiACE Power-Up Webinar on September 21.

~

Angela Bourassa is the founder and Editor in Chief of LA Screenwriter.

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