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02/27/2006: Don't Order the Cricket Salad!
I got another great note! This one is from Alex Epstein from the blog called Complications Ensue. Check it out! Great writing stuff -- you'll like it. Alex asks about the very non-standard act breaks that are used on Gilmore Girls. "Is there some secret dynamic?" He asks.
Fantastic observation. Gilmore Girls breaks almost every rule I can think of, and it still works. I find this completely fascinating. Here's an example of what Alex is talking about.
I wrote a Gilmore episode called "The Reigning Lorelai." This was an episode in which Lorelai's father's mother died. There's a huge moment in this episode in which Emily (Lorelai's mother) discovers that the dead woman tried to block Emily's marriage to her son. In this startling moment, Emily refuses to continue to plan the funeral, and the burden falls on Lorelai. The interesting thing here is that this moment falls in the middle of act two. The actual END of act two comes at a much milder moment, in which Lorelai struggles under the continued burden of funeral planning. For any other show, this would be a misplaced act break. But not for Gilmore Girls.
The best shows on TV are usually those in which the original voice of the show's creator is allowed to shine through with minimal interference. The voice at Gilmore is the voice of Amy Sherman-Palladino. What Amy has done is create a show that takes seriously the idea of drama holding up a mirror to life. Stories unfold along curly lines, they sometimes end long before the end of the episode, with other stories starting late; they involve long, long scenes with long speeches and long exchanges that don't further the story, and sometimes with important action happening off screen. All of these things break rules. Interestingly, it all has the effect of creating unpredictability in large portions. Wonderful unpredictability. And the lifelike rhythms help the viewers accept the characters as real people. I don't think I really appreciated what Amy has created until after I worked on the show and I was able to look back at the episodes. She has a remarkably clear and original vision and I was lucky to work there.
In the writers' room, there was not usually any particular effort to put the big moments at the act breaks. Nor was there an effort to put them somewhere else instead. In fact, the stories were distributed over the acts with more attention to simple number of scenes per act. Eight-ish scenes per act and then a commercial. It gives the act breaks a unique, off-hand feeling, and keeps the viewers off-balance -- the big moments can come at any point!
I hope this answers Alex's question. There was not, in fact, a secret dynamic unless it was a subconscious rule in Amy's head. Which is possible. But I really think it is more of an effort to free the writers from traditional dynamics than to create a new one.
Now. You may wonder how any of this applies to spec scripts. You probably aren't writing a Gilmore Girls. It's no longer a hot spec, simply as a natural consequence of having been on the air for a number of years. But suppose you're specing another show that breaks rules. What should you do? Mimic the show, or follow the rule?
Follow the rule. If someone WERE writing a Gilmore spec, I would tell them to ignore the fact that the show eschews standard act breaks. The person reading your spec does not work at Gilmore Girls. They want to know if you know how to construct a standard act break moment. This is a rare situation in which mimicry will not serve you well.
This is sort of analogous to a chef adapting an exotic recipe to local tastes. If your American customers are not responding well to the fried crickets in the salad, try substituting almonds. Sure, it's a perversion of your delicious national dish, but it'll get you better reviews.
Lunch: An In 'N' Out Burger from the cutest little In "N' Out that I've ever been to. Somewhere along the freeway between Palm Desert and here, there is this tiny restaurant with no inside. Just drive-up and walk-up windows and a sweet cluster of wind-swept tables and aggressive tiny birds looking for pickle fragments. Magnificent!