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Home » Archives » February 2006 » When Television is Radio
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02/13/2006: When Television is Radio

Visual surprises occur in lots of different kinds of scripts. Someone on 24 rips open a cockpit door to reveal, I don't know, maybe a dead pilot. Someone on The Office whips open a supply closet door to reveal, let's say, a co-worker eating someone else's clearly-labelled protein bar. These could be shocking and/or funny moments. Well, finding the dead pilot is probably less funny. But it could be effective nonetheless.

Question: When do these moments not work? Answer: When the reader skips the stage directions.

This happens A LOT. It used to frustrate me. And then I noticed I did the same thing myself, all the time. I'd come across a big undigestable blob of stage direction and I'd just blip right over it. I figured that I was rushing, that I was lazy, that I wasn't giving the writer the respect she deserved.

But now I don't think that's what's happening at all. I think that a reader who is really trying to let a spec script work its magic is trying as hard as they can to experience the episode as if it were filmed already, as if they were really watching it on TV. After all, that's typically the way you judge the pacing and voices -- by comparing them against broadcast episodes you have seen. And, when you're actually watching a broadcast episode, you don't pause the dialogue so that you can take in the visual. So when you're reading, and you want that same experience, you tend to blow on past the dense little bites of description that slow you down.

Whether or not you agree on that analysis, the truth remains that many readers over-rely on the dialogue to tell them what's going on.

So how does the writer of a spec script handle this? I'm going to go out on a limb here and advocate a spot of bad writing.

Well, not BAD writing, exactly. Just over-writing. Something along the lines of:

Ohmigod. We lost the pilot.


Hey! That's Michael's protein bar!

I know it's not pretty. And it shouldn't be used to the extent that characters are talking to themselves -- that's bad. But it is super-duper clear.

In my spec Frasier with its big visual scene of Frasier and Niles up on a billboard platform painting out the quotation marks on a promotional ad that read "Doctor" Frasier Crane, I used something similar to the following exchange:

Look as us, up here with our spray paint, like a couple of
young rebels, using an act of defiance to tell the
world "We are here!"

We're correcting punctuation.

Just in case a reader missed the staging of the scene, I made sure they got it ("up here with our spray paint"), and I got a mild joke out of it in the process.

As a test, try reading your spec without reading a single stage direction. If you can make it read well this way, without making it sound clunky, it's worth a try.

Lunch: A surprisingly good avocado salad from the cafeteria at the gym.


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