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Home » Archives » July 2006 » Thundering herds of damselfish
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07/04/2006: Thundering herds of damselfish

Hi everyone! I'm back from my long holiday weekend. Spent much of the time face-down in the water. Fun! I was snorkeling with the tropical fishes. I got a new mask and a crazy looking swim top that keeps your body heat in. Fantastic, except I was literally swimming in a pink mock turtleneck. It was a very odd feeling at first. Like skiiing in a prom dress or gambling in a bride dress -- no wait, I've seen that one a lot.

Anyway, I noticed something while snorkeling. If I was in a dense swarm of fish, I didn't savor each individual as much as if I was in a more sparsely populated area where I could focus on each fish in turn and really study its coloring and actions. Less is more -- could it actually be true? Perhaps!

As you're coming up with stories for your brand new specs, this is the very most important time to look at the examples you've collected of produced episodes of the show. You don't need more story than these episodes have, *even though it might feel like it makes it easier.* Cramming an episode with EVENT makes it feel significant, fast-moving and easy to write, because there's a lot of do, but it's going to make the show feel rushed, superficial and too crowded to allow those wonderful single-fish character moments.

Read (or view) the produced episodes you have access to, and try to recreate the outlines that they began as. Pull out the beats of pure A-story. These are the beats that look like this:

1. discover crime victim
2. develop first theory: wife did it
3. wife found dead
4. develop second theory: mother-in-law did it.
5. move in on mother-in-law
6. mother-in-law threatened by real killer
7. real killer fooled as mother-in-law revealed to be hero in disguise

Count them. Don't count moments of discussing-the-case that turn into personal beats. These are character beats disguised as A-story. Count only the moments that really develop that main spine of a story. The story you're coming up with for your spec should have NO MORE beats than you're finding in the produced examples.

(And don't be overly shy about using a very similar structure for your A story as one that they've already used. It's just structure. Unless you're specing a show that is about nothing except clever structure, what will make your spec shine is the character stuff and the general elegance of the writing. Structure is just the shape of the glass into which you pour all that stuff.)

If you're writing a spec pilot, again, too much story is your enemy. Even more so than on a regular spec, because you need room to introduce all those characters! Look at some produced pilots -- they can have VERY thin stories indeed. Frasier learns his dad's going to live with him. Mary Richards gets a job. A brainy new waitress is hired at the bar. A doctor starts work at a new hospital. A cop gets a new partner and misses his old one. Even if you do a pilot that plays as more of a normal-day-in-the-life, the characters are still new to the viewers and will require a bit of time for introductions.

Give yourself character time, is what I'm saying. In other words, slow down and smell the fishes.

Lunch: snack box on the airplane. Cookies, granola bar, cheese, peanut-butter crackers and raisins. Too much sweet, not enough savory.


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