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  • Although Wilson is a Best Friend, He is Not Also a Volleyball

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    May 23rd, 2007Jane EspensonOn Writing, Teasers

    I recently read one of those collections of short stories. You know the kind, the “Best Short Stories of Two Thousand and Whatever it is Now” kind of thing. In the introduction, the editor talked about how she would have thought that short stories would be increasing in popularity now, as we all lead fast lives with small amounts of leisure time. A short story for the subway ride, a short story before turning out the light to refresh for another hectic day… it seems to make sense. She was puzzled as to why this doesn’t seem to be happening, that novels still seem to be the preferred unit of prose-based fiction.

    Well, I can tell her why. Start-up costs. You have to invest a lot of attention in the start of a short story. Who are these people? Are they firemen? What year is this? Hey, are we in China or something? Picking up a short story requires an investment in attention and care far beyond what reading the next chapter of a novel requires. There, we already know what we’re in for and we only have to worry about what our guy is going through next.

    What I’m getting to here is, of course, a discussion of the cold openings on House.

    Typically, the House cold open (also known as a teaser), is a little game of who’s-gonna-rupture. You meet a few people in an easily understood situation. Three of them cough and then one collapses in a sea of their own innards. Cut to credits. It’s a neat little device, but it is a short story. If you’re writing a House and you’re doing one of these cold opens, you’re going to want to spend a lot of time making it very clever, very suspenseful and intriguing. Make us care about the person who is about to collapse. Make us invest in the show even though we’re not seeing the man we’re all here to see… we’re not yet seeing House. Or even Wilson or Cuddy.

    Unless we are. See, every now and then, we do see a regular character in the teaser of the show. It’s a minority of the time, but it happens frequently enough that I think you should consider it for your spec. In one episode, we see House because the game of who’s-got-the-pathogen is happening in the Emergency Room where House is avoiding seeing patients. In another, the famous and best-episode-of-television-ever “Three Stories” episode, we don’t start with a case at all, but with House being sent to teach a class. In another, we see Cuddy witness the injury of a man who was working for her at her house. In yet another, House is already working a case when someone bursts in and shoots him.

    Okay, now that’s more like it. Now we’re talking about a chapter in a novel in which something interesting is happening to someone I know. I’m not being asked to invest in the health of someone I just met without any connection to my continuing characters. I’m being forced to care, dragged into the story by my pre-existing investment.

    The actual show doesn’t do these kinds of openings all the time, I’m sure, because they don’t want to end up with Murder-She-Wrote syndrome in which coincidence drags our characters into the mystery every week. But you don’t have to worry about the every-week-of-it. You’re just writing the one episode.

    Now, don’t get so excited by the gymnastics of including a major character in the teaser that you flip yourself right out of the arena. You have to demonstrate that you understand the conventions of the show. You have to conform to the prototype in some ways if you’re going to fool the reader into thinking this just might be a produced episode. But in this one specific instance, I think it’s worth considering including at least one regular character (doesn’t have to be House) in the teaser.

    Other people might give you the opposite advice. They could say that doing this breaks the mold of the typical episode too much, or that involving a regular character that early on buys cheap empathy that you haven’t really earned. There’s no way to know what the reader of your particular spec will prefer, but in a world in which you have no idea how far into your spec a jaded reader will venture, I say hook ’em early.

    I think if I were writing a House spec, I would start with Wilson (House’s best friend, an oncologist) puzzling over a patient of his who has been brought in with some acute and alarming symptoms. While the patient struggles to breathe, Wilson picks up the phone and urgently demands that House come to his exam room right away. House enters (complaining) and looks confused to find the patient, still breathless and apparently alone. House is about to pivot on his cane-point and exit, when the patient points, panting, down out of frame. The camera TILTS down to find Wilson, lying unconscious at House’s feet.

    The reader might throw the script to the floor at this point, declaring that the writer is attempting to use shock value instead of good writing. Or they might keep reading, because they care about House and they care about Wilson and I’ve tapped into their little novel-lovin’ heart.

    Lunch: chicken salad sandwich and a hand-made version of a Ding-Dong from Big Sugar Bakeshop — small chocolate cupcake filled with whipped cream. Yummy.

    ADDENDUM: If you’re already written your House, or have plotted it out, or simply have a great idea for a more standard cold open in your head, don’t feel that you should change it. As I say, this is simply a suggestion to consider the option, not necessarily to exercise it.

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