Of late, my time has been taken up with shaping, filming and cutting a reality project. I’m learning the ins and outs of how not only to potentially sell a project- but really brushing up on my ideas of form and how to capture the essence of a story in a short amount of time.

The first cut of my reality project sizzle reel clocked in at 6:24. It was not a good cut. Was it interesting? Yeah, I thought so. Did it describe my main character well? Definitely. Would you learn something about the show? Absolutely.

But it sucked for my purpose. My purpose is to sell a show. My purpose is to show people who have many demands on their time something that quickly tells them exactly what sort of show they are purchasing. I failed in this regard.

My second cut was dramatically different.  I only recycled 3-4 shots from the first cut, which is hilarious in a “wow I suck” sort of way, because a few weeks ago I had set up an elaborate shoot with a rental camera which took days of prep, lighting, logistics etc over 2 days and I used maybe 4 seconds of it. 2 days for 4 seconds. Bummer. But, story first. Story always.

Who are my characters? How do they interact? What’s unique about them? These questions have to drive any writer/editor who is trying to tell a story. All those pretty shots with pretty people or lengthy informative speeches all have to go by the wayside. Story. Story. Story.

I happened to have a camera with me a few days ago doing a quick pick up for an interview when one of my characters went on a trip in his car. I asked if I could tag along, clicked the record button and what followed makes up 50% of my new cut. That’s the fun part of reality TV, at least on my end. My fancy shoot with my fancy camera in the end may prove useful (although you could argue it already has by informing me what I don’t need), but what I captured sitting shotgun on a drive through the city has ended shaping my story.

I’ve started watching one of my childhood shows, The X-Files from beginning to end on Netflix. As a kid I enjoyed the creepiness, the always wanting to believe crusading Mulder and the unfolding saga of alien abduction. Now, I’m struck by something entirely different.

Each show opens with the answer to the question that drives the episode.

Each cold open (for the most part) usually involves a murder, disappearance or whathaveyou in the exact same manner that Mulder and Scully later determine to be the cause of the murder, disappearance or what have you. In essence, we, the audience should flip the channel. “Oh, the murders are caused by vampires.” Cue X-Files open, we change the channel. But we don’t.

Why?

We know full well Scully won’t believe it’s a vampire, even though we know full well they ARE vampires. We even know we’ll watch Mulder try to convince her, while we sit in our living rooms knowing exactly what conclusion they’ll come to (sometimes, sometimes there’s a twist).

Maybe the writers behind the X-Files (and what a writing staff that was, Vince Gilligan, Howard Gordon, William Gibson, etc.) may not have had confidence in the show’s structure and felt that immediately hinting/revealing the ghoul of the week was a way to keep more simpleminded viewers glued to the tube. Once they struck upon that formula why change, right?

Whatever the case (and I doubt my simple explanation is right) it’s a terribly difficult balancing act. Once the audience is “in” how do you keep them? It’s much the same sort of question I’m wrestling with now. I’ve got a neat concept (I’m not revolutionizing TV here) with plenty of drama to be had, but it’s the characters that are unique. The characters drive the story, how they react, what they decide, why they decide it. We care about them.

The X-Files purpose was to spin a great yarn and keep us hooked for 43 minutes each Sunday. Their structure (sci-fi, believer vs. non-believer) provided enough material for 8 seasons. Season 9, sans David Duchovny’s Mulder, proved that the formula had lost its luster. The dynamic between Mulder and Scully was gone and Robert Patrick’s Doggett, while interesting, kinda, was no Mulder.

Here’s hoping I’ve got more Mulder and less Doggett.