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Home » Archives » August 2006 » Ideas and How to Avoid Them
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08/28/2006: Ideas and How to Avoid Them

Hi! I'm back from WorldCon. Wow, that was fun! It's a convention that focuses a lot on books, as opposed to comic books and games. This seems to lead to a more grown up and more female collection of attendees than at some other cons. The whole thing had a wonderful feel to it.

The Hugo Award ceremony went well. I got through my part of it, so I was already reeling with relief when I had the pleasure of seeing Serenity get the Drama Long Form award. How wonderful! It was a great night indeed.

I also participated in quite a few more panels, which was a lot of fun. In fact, several times throughout the weekend, I had mini-epiphanies (I call them piphanies) about what it is that I do for a living. Here is a thought you might enjoy. Or disagree with. Or both.

There is a big division in the nature of television shows. We talk about shows that are character-driven and shows that are story-driven. King of the Hill, to pick a show more or less at random, is character-driven. Law and Order is story-driven. Other shows exist somewhere along the scale.

But what if there's a third division? It seems to me that the shows which we are most liable to call "Sci Fi" are often driven by something that is neither character nor story. The Twilight Zone, original Star Trek and Trek:TNG, the Halloween episodes of The Simpsons, maybe even a show like Quantum Leap… I would contend that these are (drum roll) idea-driven.

You know what I mean? I would even include some of the earliest monster-of-the-week Buffy episodes in this category -- the ones with the strongest metaphorical underpinnings. Like episodes of The Twilight Zone, they function as sorts of little parables, with a point to make about the world. A point made by an idea-based show might be something like: racism is random, human obsession creates a barrier as strong as any wall, greed eats away the soul, vanity makes you ugly. There's a moral to these shows, as in a fable.

Have you ever noticed that there are a lot of people out there who declare "I don't like Sci Fi" and "I don't like Fantasy"? Have you ever questioned them on what they mean… do they mean that they don't like Frankenstein, Brave New World, 1984, A Handmaid's Tale, Harry Potter? They don't like Star Wars? Indiana Jones? ET? Splash? Big? Lord of the Rings? Sliding Doors? The Natural? Field of Dreams? Heaven can Wait? Defending your Life? The Incredibles? Batman? They don't like Buffy? Quantum Leap? Charmed? Medium? Bewitched? Sabrina? Lost?

Usually they'll admit that they, in fact, like a great many of those things. They just don't put some of those works in the category of things they dislike. I'm starting to wonder if what best characterizes what they don’t like is the category of idea-driven works.

The types of stories written by Ray Bradbury, the types of filmed stories presented by Rod Serling... these appealed to me as child even without the presence of characters I knew and was already rooting for. I loved the fact that each of them was a neat little package with an idea inside. But others dislike this. Maybe it feels artificial to them, like a little puppet show that they suddenly realize is there not to entertain but to educate. It's about vegetables! It's a trap!

They may, in fact, have learned, from the example of the Trek shows, that the sight of spacecraft is a warning signal that ideas may soon follow. I've heard from a number of people who were pleasantly surprised to discover that Battlestar Galactica was about people. I think they were afraid it was about ideas. (Which is not to say it is idea-less, but I wouldn't say it is idea-driven. It is character-driven.)

What does this mean for you, the humble and earnest writer of spec scripts? Figure out the category of the show you are specing and make sure the episode you write is of the correct type. And if you are writing an idea-driven spec pilot, be aware that you are battling some strong headwinds. If you are twisting story and character in order to create a sort of parable, you may be letting an idea drive your spec. Watch out for this, my friends. I love ideas, you love ideas, but something there is that does not love an idea. They simply are not in fashion in the television world right now.

Lunch: A hot meatball sub from Togos, delivered by mistake in place of a turkey sandwich, but cherished nonetheless.


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