How — and why — to start writing story from the inside out (Step 1)

Two worn beige armchairs sit in a display case in front of faded yellow floral wall paper, with the sign "Bunker Chairs" in front of them. (Smithsonian Institute)

When you're writing a television pilot, your goal isn't to create a completed script, but to create a complete, and resonant, character. The reader has to know in the first 10 pages how your main character enters a room, what trait they fall back on in daily moments, and what they long for most deeply in their hearts.

You could describe those things right now for your best friend and your worst enemy. It's how well you know someone that tells you what situations to avoid putting them in and being in with them. Because they won't handle it well! Those situations, by the way, are the foundations of every episode of your series — and most importantly, your pilot. So you can't spin out dozens of episodes if you haven't reached that understanding of your character first.

The reader has to know in the first 10 pages how that character enters a room, what trait they fall back on in daily moments, and what they long for most deeply in their hearts.

Try this exercise with someone you know very well in mind. What would they do if:

  • A group they're in just finished a meal at a restaurant, with some people having ordered way more than others. Someone suggests everyone just split the check.
  • They're running late for a morning meeting with someone and spill coffee on themselves.
  • They're walking down the sidewalk and see a $50 bill on the ground.

Notice how utterly basic these scenarios are? Keep that top of mind. It's a reminder that it's your character's traits that make your story interesting, not the scenarios you weave. Your scenes are only as interesting as our understanding of your character makes them — and our anticipation of how this circumstance will test them compels us to keep reading.

As you approach this exercise, don't just make anything up that comes to mind to complete it. That's what you may be doing with your scripts. You write scenes you have in mind, then move your character through them. That's writing from the outside in. Instead, examine and change the details of the scene itself to create specific circumstances that will put pressure on your main character and their core trait. Craft the scene in response to your character. That is at the heart of writing from the inside out.

Craft the scene in response to your character. That is at the heart of writing from the inside out.

Next, do a practice run on this with evergreen characters from hit TV shows. In the first example, the classic "check splitting" scene, I'm going to use Archie Bunker, start with his core trait, then explore possible beats that will put pressure on him. I've added some sample beats below that I might add to my board, knowing I can organize the best ones into an escalating flow after the brainstorm. Also, this is an exercise to illustrate this approach to character, rather than to align with or add to the entire canon of All in the Family! If you aren't familiar with this show, it wrote about '70s society from a working class white man's perspective, which informs what you are about to read:

  • Core trait: For Archie, I always need to put pressure on his superiority complex. Archie's core trait isn't bigotry or sexism; those are inevitable outcroppings of his sense of knowing better than everyone else in the room. About everything.
  • Creating the pressure cooker: To put pressure on his need to "know better" in all spaces, I have to go into who's at the table with him that he will feel inherently wiser than. So it's going to include a mix of people he would normally not be dining with or talking to so he will fall back on comfortable assumptions and biases that will cause conflict. Importantly, I'll need an organic way to make this happen. So maybe it's Gloria's 30th birthday, and her co-workers have reached out to Edith and Archie about joining them for a surprise dinner for Gloria.
  • Sample beat: external conflict. I'll make the restaurant family style, forcing Archie to have to agree on a set amount of dishes everyone will share. And the restaurant will be an ethnic cuisine, so he'll be unfamiliar with the menu items but refuse to acknowledge it, only to insist on a dish that he will not be prepared to eat when it arrives and be critical of. Worse, only for Archie, he will love this dish and not want to admit it.
  • Sample beat: interpersonal conflict. Some folks will add drinks and order a fancy dessert for everyone to share. Archie will be eyeing this and making commentary, building a competition of sorts with one of the other attendees, who will reveal themselves to be Gloria's supervisor.
  • Sample beat: internal conflict. When someone recommends they split the bill, it will be the person he's been battling with for superiority throughout the meal. Of course, he's going to insist that an equal split isn't fair, with a gesture to a woman or person of color at the table that he's sure couldn't possibly afford to do that (this may be the point of the supervisor reveal). They will archly thank him for his generosity in offering to pay for everyone, since he's a white man and therefore, must be able to. This will challenge his identity to the core, and in front of his wife and child. He'll come back with a correction about those people always looking for handouts.

This example is to show that the scene doesn't make the character, the character — and their essential trait — is what makes your scene. And your show. And your series. Continue ideating from here, with an eye on creating escalating pressure and choices for Archie and exploring all levels of conflict available in the physical, cultural, interpersonal and timeperiod space. You don't need to ever have watched this show or to like this character. You only need to understand this character and how know-it-alls behave in the world, then add the layer of 1970s America to more deeply inform the scene.

Next, give it a try with one of your favorite TV characters. Keep designing and reworking the scene until you've created a memorable, specific journey for them.

Finally, try this with your pilot's main character. Don't focus on anything you've already written, focus on truly understanding what that guiding trait is and how you can shape the scene to create conflict and choices based on that trait. The next time you revisit your script's first 10 pages, you'll be able to do so with this new lens on character at the center. Fade in.

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DMA is a veteran entertainment and tech executive and strategic consultant. She is the author of Write It, Pitch It, Sell Your Screenplay and The Show Starter Reality TV Made Simple System, both taught in media programs nationwide. DMA is a career-long member of the Producers Guild, TV Academy and American Mensa and is the founder of Korgi, digital "superboards" with the templates, training and tools you (and your team) need to succeed.
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