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09/19/2006: More Tech Than Trek
Did you know that in the FBI, agents are either referred to by their names or by the title "Special Agent"? None of this simple "Agent Scully," "Agent Mulder" stuff. Never done. Ever. I know that because we had a technical advisor on one of the shows I worked on recently who was a real live active FBI agent. Of course we ignored him on this point. "Special Agent Jones" sounds stilted, unlikely and long. Sometimes the truth is stranger than than fiction, and sometimes it's just wordier.
Two of the shows I've worked on recently have employed technical advisors. This is incredibly helpful to the writers on a staff. On The Inside, the advisor kept an office right there among the writers. Very helpful. He'd tell us all about what we got wrong, until he gradually gave up on the "Special Agent" thing. Battlestar Galactica has an expert too, for astronomy and, as far as I can tell, all other things scientific. I got fascinating notes on my script from him. Did you know that radiation is different than radioactivity? You did? Oh, so that was just me, then.
Anyway, this is all in service of a question from Nic in Germany. She's asking about how much research she needs to do on the diseases and medical terminology in her Grey's Anatomy spec. Of course her question also applies to everyone writing a House spec. And there's all that law stuff for the Boston Legal spec-ers. And police procedure for The Shield. And what about inside late-night-TV stuff that'll be useful if Studio 60 becomes the next hot spec? If you're a writer employed on those shows, you have resources. Some shows even allow their writers to simply indicate where the techno-talk goes, and then let the advisors suggest lines. Star Trek: The Next Generation writers were known to simply write "tech tech" as a temporary line until the advisors weighed in. But for a spec, you don't have this option.
I can only say, hail the internet. Remember how the parents in Lorenzo's Oil became experts on their son's disease? Well, that's you, and the spec script is your son. You simply have to do the work. You can make up stuff where you simply have to, but try to be as accurate as you can.
A great source can be those nonfiction cable shows like "Diagnosis Unknown," and "The New Detectives." And those "true crime" books, like the excellent ones by Ann Rule, can also be good sources for crime stories. Newspaper items are also useful. Take a real story and change it to conform to the needs of a television story, and you're starting out with data that you *know* is good.
For example, all this current spinich stuff is ripe for picking! If I were writing a House spec right now, I'd be studying all the articles and thinking about how a food contamination outbreak could complicate the diagnosis of some completely unrelated disorder. (Maybe a disease caused an iron shortage, so the person ate a lot of spinach to try to replace the iron, but the spinich was contaminated, and reacted with the original disease, masking it or exacerbating it... )
And, as always, study those produced scripts. If your characters use specialized terminology in their jobs, you can usually master those terms just from looking at how they've used them in other scripts. I don't know what a "chem seven" is exactly, but I sure heard those doctors on ER order it often enough.
Want another Battlestar anecdote? In my episode I had a character refer to a planet's "atmo," meaning, obviously, "atmosphere." It sounded perfectly natural because I knew I'd heard characters in produced episodes use the term. I was right. I had. But they were produced episodes of Firefly. Battlestar character don't say "atmo." Oops. Make sure you study the *right* scripts.
Lunch: A Whopper Jr. from Burger King. It really did taste char-broiled, but not in a good way. Kind of a lighter-fluid flavor. Bleah.