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Home » Archives » June 2006 » looking for Burbank in all the wrong places
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06/06/2006: looking for Burbank in all the wrong places

Yesterday, I drove to the wrong place. Most of my meetings lately have been at Universal Studios. The one you're thinking of, the one attached to the theme park with the Jurassic Park ride. It's become very automatic to drive to Universal. But yesterday my meeting was actually at NBC. The one you're thinking of, the one with Jay Leno inside. This led to a very confusing exchange between me and the guard at the gate at Universal. In the end, I got where I was going, and I wasn't even late. If Jay Leno ever wants to go on the Jurassic Park ride, he can comfort himself knowing it's only about ten minutes away. (I *knew* the meeting was at NBC. I can only blame motor programming. And my own general hilarity as a person.)

So, let's talk about the guard at the gate at Universal. How important is it for you to know that his name was Jimmy? Not at all, I'm guessing. In fact, if I had told you this, you might have wondered if there was a reason for my mentioning it. Is he going to show up again later in Jane's life? (So far… no. He hasn't.)

When you're writing your spec, you sometimes need to create incidental characters. Maybe it's a guard at a gate. Or maybe one of the regular characters goes to the hospital, so you write a scene with a three-line-having doctor in it. A doctor whose lines should probably all be slugged with the name DOCTOR. Even if all the characters in the scene are calling him "Dr. Franklyn," this is still my personal preference for how to label his lines. He might have gone to fictional medical school, but he's not very important. Writers will differ on this, but that's how I do it. Jimmy the guard is named: GUARD unless he pulls a gun and is revealed to be a much bigger part of the story than I thought. Then, he gets a name.

I was recently asked about a different kind of minor character. What about the kind who are introduced, not because your regulars go to a new venue, but because they've been there all along? For example, what if you need a Viper pilot for your Battlestar spec beyond those who have been established? Or another doctor we've never met before for your House or Grey's spec? Or a sibling for one of the characters on Veronica Mars? I'm talking about someone whom the regulars are assumed to know, but who will be new to the readers.

Again, if they only have a few lines, I would still slug them as: PILOT or LITTLE SISTER. But if they're going to be a significant part of the story, which is more likely now that they have an assumed pre-existing relationship with your main characters, then you are getting into the area where they will need a name.

Here's how I would do it. (Others may disagree.) The stage directions would introduce the character, and they would also make his status clear in the following way:

House is looking over the shoulder of the staff urologist, let's call him DR. PATEL.

That little phrase "let's call him," tells the reader that this is a character you are introducing and naming. The dialogue that follows will make it clear that this is someone House already knows. This way, no reader will be confused into thinking that *they* should recognize this person.

The question I was actually asked about these characters had to do with how many of them you can have. A certain friend-of-a-friend-of-the-blog spec writer is finding that they're having trouble keeping these people out of the story. Well, you don't want to create bunches of them. If the actual show generally gets by without them, then your spec, ideally, should do so too. If you find yourself needing lots of extra people, lots of extra-canon relationships, then you might be going a bit astray. Cling to your produced examples, cleave unto them and do as they do. What has your show done in the case of stories that require these sorts of introductions? If you can't find out that they've ever done stories that require them… uh-oh. Cleave! Cleave before you drive off the road!

Your one advantage over every other kind of writer is that you have a road map. Reread your produced examples until they fall off their brads. I cannot say this enough.

Lunch: poached eggs on canned artichoke hearts with a layer of taramosalata (that Greek whipped caviar stuff). It was an experiment. Not bad, a little weird.


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