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Writing for TV: Fargo Pilot

Many were excited, myself included, about the potential of the Fargo television series when it premiered in 2014. Anything related to the 1996 film is going to garner attention, and this experience was elevated thanks to the excellent writing, directing, acting, and cinematography of the show.

Though related to the film with the same name, Fargo could exist on its own and isn’t solely what it is because of the iconic Coen brothers film. It stands on its own, and there’s a lot we can learn from its pilot as writers. In this article, let’s discuss what we can take from Fargo’s pilot, how it works as a show, and what to know writing-wise.

Still from 'Fargo'. Photo credit: High Def Digest

Shocking Writing and Unexpected Plot Points

Fargo’s biggest strength centers around its shocking writing and unexpected plot points. Now this writing isn’t solely here to make us confused or take a turn down a path that goes nowhere. It instead makes for a story that’s impossible to pinpoint what’ll happen even as the final act of the pilot closes up.

Much of the inability to predict where the story will go is thanks to its setting. Fargo, despite not being a horror story, gains an eerie quality through the character of Malvo and its small-town setting.

Placing the narrative in close-knit communities, where everyone knows each other, adds an extra dimension that almost feels like a horror tale. With a near-monster on the loose, committing heinous acts and evading capture, the chilling atmosphere intensifies in these small winter-bound towns. The sense of isolation akin to what you find in horror films permeates the narrative.

The significance of the setting in fiction cannot be underestimated and is often overlooked. Taking the setting seriously can elevate your story to new heights. Analyze this pilot and the plot and envision what kind of setting would enhance your story further.

Some stories demand specific settings that make the decision easier. However, when you have the freedom to choose, invest time in thoughtfully considering the options. The setting should be as crucial as your main characters, so dedicate effort to fleshing it out.

Setting Up Your Characters

Characters make or break a television series and the same rules apply to Fargo. The pilot is vital for setting up the characters and the respective decisions they’ll make throughout the story. Take Lester Nygaard, a luckless life insurance salesman from Bemidji who accidentally causes the death of his wife, sending him into a panic-stricken state.

Desperate for help, he reaches out to Malvo, setting in motion a chain of events that’ll drastically transform him. Throughout the pilot, we don’t view Lester as a killer and more-or-less a sad chap who hasn’t gotten the best out of life. It’s a character we’re familiar with, and his heinous act elevates the story because it makes his character unique.

It’s a great writing lesson that highlights how characters breathe life into a story, whether you’re talking about a book, film, or television series. No matter how captivating the plot may be, it’ll fall flat if the characters fail to leap off the page and seize the reader's imagination.

One of the most common pitfalls writers encounter is creating characters that appear strikingly similar, lacking the uniqueness that sets them apart. A skillful writer aspires to craft characters so vividly that readers can distinguish their voice in every phrase they utter.

When the audience can predict how a character would react or speak in a given situation, that's when a connection forms. However, if characters merely serve as superficial variations, like different hair colors on the same template, the reader's emotional investment dwindles, and they may never truly embrace the people who inhabit the story.

In such cases, audiences might lose interest and, sadly, abandon the journey before reaching its conclusion. As a writer, it’s vital to infuse each character with distinctive qualities, endearing them to the readers and ensuring they forge lasting bonds with your story.


A further issue with television writing is the necessity of great dialogue. What might sound decent on a script might not translate well to the real thing. Much of this depends on who’s cast for the part, the real-world setting or set, and its execution.

Fargo, similar to the film, has an excellent dark comedic charm with its dialogue, utilizing its setting and atmosphere to the fullest. You have the fish-out-of-water maniac in Malvo, the innocent yet slimy Lester, and the easy-to-root-for Molly.

Embrace the idea that your dialogue isn’t bound to be straightforward. Characters are complex beings with hidden agendas, and often, those intentions may not align. Even simple conversations can carry significant implications for the storyline.

A single lie spoken in dialogue has the power to alter the entire trajectory of the narrative. Consider the potential of using dialogue as a tool to set events in motion, sparking the chain reaction that propels your story forward.

With Fargo, characters manipulate one another through their words, weaving a web of intrigue and deception. Allow dialogue to be the vehicle for revealing crucial information that certain characters may not yet be aware of, creating dramatic irony that engages readers and keeps them on the edge of their seats. Play with the idea of an unreliable character, skillfully deceiving your readers and leading them down unexpected paths.


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