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Writing for TV: Six Feet Under Pilot

As monumental of a task it can be for anyone to write a full-length feature film, there is another school of thought that’s equally as challenging, which is writing for TV. Writing for TV comes with the added bonus of having enough material and ideas to have the show continue going for as long as a studio wants it to.

Whether it’s a show like The Walking Dead that appears to have no end in sight with its length or a mini-series like The Queen’s Gambit, writing for TV can be a very rewarding yet challenging feat for an aspiring screenwriter. Fortunately enough, tere are plenty of fantastic television shows that allow aspiring screenwriters to analyze them for what makes them so special.

Created by Alan Ball, Six Feet Under certainly falls under the role of an iconic television series screenwriters should pay attention to for its writing. The show follows the lives of a dysfunctional family who run an independent funeral home in Los Angeles, and stars Peter Krause, Michael C. Hall, and Frances Conroy. Nevertheless, let’s take at the pilot of Six Feet Under to see how this show was originally sold.

Photo credit: Amazon

Every Character Thinks Differently

Six Feet Under’s pilot does an excellent job at displaying how every character thinks differently. Generally speaking, you don’t want to write a television script with too many similar characters, since that can cause the audience a lot of boredom. It’s more ideal to have conflicting characters that’ll lead to more interesting dialogue and scenes.

For example, right off the bat, we’re introduced to the patriarch of the family Nathaniel Fisher (played by Richard Jenkins) who is right away met with his demise. His sons Nate (played by Peter Krause) and David (played by Michael C. Hall) is very different from one another, with Nate wanting to experience a relaxing vacation before discovering his father’s death and David trying to hide his sexual identity from his family.

The rest of the family is equally different from one another with the mom Ruth (played by Frances Conroy) having secrets of her own, while the only daughter Claire (Lauren Ambrose) just got into meth for the first time. All of these characters conflict personality-wise and having that in a script adds an entirely new layer for the show itself.

Don’t Overthink It

As great as it is to have every character think differently, there’s also the notion of not overthinking your script. Oftentimes, novice screenwriters try to make every facet of their script overly complicated, thinking it’ll benefit their story without realizing that they’re possibly doing more harm than good.

Six Feet Under’s pilot does an excellent job of having a wide range of characters without overly complicating everything in it. For example, we see Claire as the character with a drug issue, Ruth as having secrets of her own, David having to hide his sexuality, and Nate being the oldest man in the family now.

Less is More

Similar to the notion of overthinking a script, the same can be said for what it means to have less is more. Six feet under does an excellent job with the family dynamic in the show, meaning it’s a straightforward parent and three children family set-up, all of whom are vastly different from one another.

Rather than craft a totally different family set-up like you might see in Breaking Bad, the show instead sticks with a family format that most people are familiar with. In return, the show pays off in a significant way and does an excellent job at presenting a number of characters we can all relate to.

Writing in the Moment Instead of Explaining

When it comes to writing for TV, it’s especially important to realize that you need to write at the moment instead of explaining every detail. For example, with Six Feet Under, we see that Ruth has a secret, but we don’t find out right away. Forcing the audience to wonder what’s going on makes for much better TV.

Oftentimes, novice screenwriters get in their head about explaining everything since they don’t want their script to be overly confusing. What they need to realize is that audiences are much smarter than what can be initially thought. Definitely plan ahead to explain a specific plot point, but take your time with it like Six Feet Under does.

Ambiguity is Better for TV

Going back to the notion of forcing the audience to wonder what’s next, that’s where the thought of ambiguity comes into play. Usually, audiences get upset with any sort of ambiguity, especially for films that fall more in the abstract realm. Still, ambiguity tends to make for better television, primarily when it comes to a pilot.

Ending a pilot on a potential cliff-hanger or causing the audience to want more like Six Feet Under did, is an ideal point to have with a pilot. After all, you’re going to want to try and sell the idea that your pilot can have multiple episodes moving forward.


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