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Home » Archives » April 2006 » They Came with Mustard to Dip Them In
[Previous entry: "Don't Throw it Out, Throw it Away"] [Next entry: "Again with the Grilled Cheese"]

04/30/2006: They Came with Mustard to Dip Them In

Hi all! I had the chance to go to a fun and interesting event last night: a party for women televison writers. Since each staff typically only has one or two women writers (although this is changing), it's not often that we all get a chance to really connect in big groups like this. And the fact that staffing season is just getting underway guaranteed a lively night. We were bombarding each other with questions about pilots we'd read, meetings we'd taken, staff openings we'd heard about, the reputations of various potential bosses... Great stuff. I saw some old friends and met some impressive people I hadn't had a chance to meet before. Also, there were these mini grilled cheese sandwiches. Fantastic. I had five.

It was fun being in an environment both social and writerly. It reminded me of why I like writing on a staff. So, (awkward transition), this might be a good time to address a question that someone asked me a while back about how the process of writing on a staff differs from writing a spec. Specifically, about the outlining part of the process: how much goes on, and of what kind. I've said some of this stuff before, but there's also new material in here. Check it out.

In theory, there shouldn't be much difference in this aspect of the job. You start on a whiteboard, or notebook, or index cards, and you get your story in order. You figure out the theme, the basic events, the big turns in the story. The A story, the B story. What the act breaks are, and then what all the scenes are. This is the "break." It can take, literally, weeks – more time than it takes to write the script. When it's done, the story is "broken." The process of the break is one that is almost always executed by the entire staff together, under the direction of the show runner. If you're writing a spec, this is obviously accomplished by you alone (with input from friends and colleagues) – a harder process, but purer. You get to tell exactly the story you want. You simply have to do it more carefully, since there's no one there to say, "Gee, we tried telling a story like this once on Nash Bridges, and that third act break never really popped…"

Anyway, now you start creating documents. The first is the famous "beat sheet." This is, of course, a preliminary form of an outline. It simply tells you the location of each scene and the briefest version of the events in that scene. This is a chance to re-evaluate the breaking of the story. Problems that were invisible during the breaking might become evident here, so changes might have to be made to the story. On an actual staff, this will sometimes involve putting everyone back to work on a rebreak.

The difference between a "beat sheet" and an "outline" is one of degree. Personally, I often find it hard to generate a genuine beat sheet because I think of lines and jokes and details and I write them in there so I won't forget them. I end up with something in between the two stages. But a real outline is long, many many pages. Mine come out somewhere between 9 and 14 pages for an hour episode. Some shows seem to lend themselves to shorter ones, some to longer ones. Gilmore Girls outlines are incredibly long and detailed, with whole runs of dialogue spelled out.

Writing the outline, of course, gives you another chance to find problems with the breaking of the story. Sometimes you start completely over at this stage. Plus, on a real staff, this is the point at which the studio and the network start having real input. So that can change everything. All the writers -- back into the room for a rebreak!

On an actual staff, there is often not enough time to create a full outline. This is because of all that time spent breaking and re-breaking, of course. So, one often has to write from the beat sheet. Honestly, I always kind of like this, because it leaves me a little more wiggle room in the writing to change my idea of how a scene lays out as I write it. With a long outline, you sometimes feel like the actual writing process is reduced to reformatting.

So now you take the outline and write the script. This part can actually be done in a weekend if you have to. But, here's the kicker: once you turn in the script, there can often be another rebreak! So all of that rebreaking earlier was meaningless! In theory, all of it represented some type of progress, but sometimes that's simply not the case. I think the best measure of the quality of a staff/show runner is the ability to solve story problems early in the process. Here's where you, the spec writer, gain your biggest advantage. That time thing again. You can take the time to fix problems in an unrushed way, whereas the staff writers have the looming blade of the production schedule.

(By the way, there's another interesting thing that happens as production nears. When the production people are scheduling the actual shooting of the scenes, they have to create a short description of each scene, for all the people involved in production to have at hand. This generates a new document called a "one-liner." It lists the location and the briefest version of the events in the scene. In other words, they recreate the beat sheet, which they have never seen. I find this amusing.)

To sum it all up: I like little grilled cheese sandwiches.

Lunch: A chicken stir-fry thing I made using something I bought in Tobago called "wet green seasoning." Unique.


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