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Writing for TV: Snowfall Pilot

Writing for television demands patience and expertise, qualities not always inherent in every writer. Even with a compelling script, the challenges of garnering interest, securing an adequate budget, finding a suitable studio and network, and addressing other issues are challenging. Thankfully, aspiring writers have the opportunity to study and draw inspiration from successful shows such as Snowfall (2017-2023).


Initially featuring an ensemble cast, the show shifts in later seasons to focus on its central character, putting it at the same level as recent crime shows such as Breaking Bad and Ozark. How the show eventually pivots and regains focus dates back to the original pilot and its period, setting, and characters. Let’s dive in!


Still from 'Snowman'. Photo credit: IMDb


Picking a Period and Setting


Snowfall has an intriguing period and setting, making it appealing before anyone sits down and views it. The series is set in 1983 in Los Angeles and revolves around the onset of the crack cocaine epidemic in the United States.


19-year-old Franklin Saint (Damson Idris) is at the forefront of the character ensemble. Across six series, the narrative unfolds as Franklin, his family, and adversaries conflict over drugs, deals, and dollars.


At times, the most impactful settings expose aspects of a character or compel them to act in ways they wouldn't under different circumstances. In certain instances, the setting in a movie operates as a character with its personality, desires, and even adversaries.


When crafting a new drama series, the narrative's setting and essence must carry equal importance. An intriguing setting alone is insufficient, and the significance of the theme can be heightened by selecting the right setting to support the show with its distinctive voice.


Creating High-Stakes


From the jump, Snowfall is a show with plenty of high stakes and action. With writing, no matter the genre, you want to develop a show with suspense and appeal in some capacity; otherwise, the audience will lose interest in following along.


Given Snowfall’s setting, story, and characters, there’s plenty for audiences to wonder what’ll happen regarding rats, drug busts, character conflicts, and more. A straightforward premise establishes the protagonist's desires or needs early on, providing a clear trajectory for the story.


Additionally, it offers audiences insight into potential challenges and complications. Raising the stakes is an effective method to weave tension into your narrative, tapping into the universal fear of losing or failing that resonates with everyone.


Overarching Theme - Starting it With the Pilot


There’s an overarching theme no matter what show you’re discussing. While Snowfall’s pilot may not cover every theme related to the show’s six seasons, there’s plenty developed from the jump that the writers intended for early on.


Themes and topics such as systemic racism, community, outside influence, trust, and image are prevalent from the start. Much of the show’s writing conveys a serious tone, knowing the weight and gravity of its subject matter.


Using that knowledge, have a few ideas while developing your script with a tone that fits it. If you’re covering a depressing or heartbreaking topic, don’t have a tone that feels obtuse or unfitting. While you don’t need to stick with a distinct tone, having a general idea can enhance your writing and strengthen your script.


A Complex Central Character


Our central character is Franklin Saint, a youthful narcotics leader and head of The Family, a group engaged in the production and distribution of crack cocaine situated in South Central Los Angeles.


In writing for TV, protagonists, also known as lead or central characters, propel the narrative through their actions and emotional growth. These characters typically require extensive development, complete with a comprehensive backstory. Viewers connect deeply with these characters as they accompany and experience their journey.


In Snowfall’s case, the show introduces us to Franklin brilliantly. Kicking off on June 14, 1983, in Compton, a group of children rush up to an ice cream truck, grab some candy, and make a quick getaway but are pursued by the vigilant driver. Franklin intervenes, halting the kids and reclaiming the stolen candy before returning it to the ice cream truck driver.


Observing this, Franklin's friends, Leon Simmons, and Kevin Hamilton, playfully tease him about it, recalling their childhood candy theft adventures. Franklin emphasizes the need for the kids to learn and asserts that such actions are not how things work in America. It shows that while Franklin is involved in crime, he has morals and is a more nuanced and layered character than many shows would portray.


Writing Antiheroes


With antiheroes, think of characters like Tony Soprano, Walter White, or Dexter. These characters do something bad—usually related to the crime world if it’s a television character—yet we root for them somehow.


While the show’s progress alters our perception of Franklin—with some arguing he’s a full-blown lead villain by season 3—the show sets him up as an antihero and someone we can root for even though we know most of his actions aren’t morally sound.


When writing an antihero, remember to create a complex character with internal conflict who isn’t confused as the antagonist and has plenty of supporting characters who bring out vulnerability and more profound layers.

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