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  • Be a Type Writer

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    November 1st, 2008Jane EspensonFrom the Mailbag, On Writing, Pilots, Spec Scripts

    Gentle Reader Sharla in Boulder has a great question. She’s been writing spec scripts for existing shows, so that she’ll have some really great samples to submit for fellowships. With those finished, she’s moved on to writing spec pilots, so that she’ll have those ready for when she actually needs to get an agent and a job. Don’t you love it when someone works their plan? It’s inspiring. But she’s hitting an interesting obstacle.

    “While writing my fellowship spec, I was working with characters that had so much background. Based on what they’d done and said in the past, I was able to craft their dialogue to fit the voices I knew and loved. And even when I did write an off line, when I read back over it, I could usually tell, oh, this doesn’t sound like so and so. Now when I’m writing my own characters, I seem to have lost that intuition. Since I’ve just created them, I don’t know what they sound like! […] In a way, I feel like it should be freeing to write for my own characters, but it’s like it’s too much freedom. I just can’t get their dialogue to focus.”

    Yes! I know exactly what you mean, Sharla. I faced the same thing when I started writing pilot scripts, and that was after I’d had years of professional experience of writing for other people’s characters. This is a great question.

    I’ve found two different approaches that can be helpful:

    1. Borrow and combine. There’s nothing wrong with continuing to write for characters you know and love, just grafting them into your script. Got a tough, interestingly flawed character? Try using Starbuck’s voice. Got a blowhard character? Ted Baxter’s voice isn’t busy. It’s like dream casting only with characters instead of actors. Since the circumstances of your story will make new and unique demands on the characters, the voices will naturally have to be adapted, which will prevent your script from sounding like a series of clips from other shows. You can also combine traits — give House’s way of speaking to a female character or combine two characters to make someone new. It’s not stealing, it’s adapting. There’s nothing wrong with using someone else’s springboard to dive into your pool.

    The second option is harder, but much better:

    2. Identify a type and use it to create your own breakout character. Sometimes, when you meet someone, you realize they remind you of someone else you know. And it’s not a physical resemblance, but something else — a way of dealing with others and a way of interpreting the world. When that happens, you are identifying a type. It’s most obvious with crazy people. If you’ve had encounters with crazy people, you’ve probably found that some of them remind you of other crazy people you’ve encountered before, and you’ve probably developed your own way of dealing with them based on what’s worked before. You’re predicting their behavior. You do it with less extreme personalities, too. Your cab driver suddenly reminds you of your father-in-law, or your new boss reminds you of your college roommate, and you form certain expectations about how they’re going to act, what they’re going to find funny, what they’re likely to say in a situation. It’s the meticulous observation of types that can allow comedic actors to create instantly successful and memorable characters, and it always works best when a type is familiar to us from interactions, but hasn’t yet been presented to us as an archetype. The “aging Brit rocker” type is now growing familiar, but not long ago, he was running wild in the world, not yet pinned to the collection board. The “cougar” hadn’t been captured regularly since Mrs. Robinson and now she’s everywhere. The “teen girl cynic” — new-ish and ubiquitous! What’s the next type to be observed and captured? Find it, pin it down, write the heck out of it! You’ll have Barney from How I Met Your Mother or Tracy from 30 Rock and your script will sparkle.

    ADDENDUM: Please note that these aren’t the only options. They’re just two that I have found helpful. You can also, of course, come up with a unique character unlike anyone you’ve seen or met, or you can pattern a character after one person you know — there are many ways to go about it. I just happen to like the two I listed.

    Lunch: the 2 cheeseburger meal from McDonalds in the car on the way to Norwalk to vote early. VOTE EARLY!

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