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Home » Archives » September 2006 » Prisoner of Trebekistan, Revisited
[Previous entry: "When Hits are Misses"] [Next entry: "More About the About"]

09/21/2006: Prisoner of Trebekistan, Revisited

Hey, Gentle Readers, get 'em while they're hot! Copies of Bob Harris's new book Prisoner of Trebekistan are sailing off the virtual shelves! And along the way, I'm learning so much about this whole other side of the business of writing. It's fascinating. Turns out that authors don't get Nielsen ratings. How do they stand it? Anyway, exact sales are hard to judge. But the anecdotal evidence is piling up that people are reading / people are loving. There was a rave review in last weekend's Wall Street Journal, for example, that burned up the pages with the warmth of its praise. Run on over to Amazon and grab yourself a pile o' copies!

And as long as we're in the neighborhood, the book also serves as a great example of the "what is it about" school of writing. This was the phrase that Joss Whedon drilled into our heads over at Buffy. It's an important approach to writing that will, guaranteed, make your spec scripts sparkle and stand out from all the others.

Plot is hard. So when you find a series of events that actually string together to make a story -- a beginning, middle, end -- it's tempting to consider the job done. In fact, it's tempting to throw your arms in the air and caper in circles singing "We Are As Gods." But unless the story is *about* something, all you've done is come up with a pile of stuff that happens. And that can leave readers and viewers with a sense of arbitrary action, a sense that a different pile of stuff could've happened without it making a lot of difference.

When writing a spec (or even an episode of a show for which you're being paid), the mistake is in starting with the story. Instead, think first about what you want the episode to be about -- is it about the triumph of love? The destructive quality of envy? About how expecting the worst in others brings out the worst in oneself? About how emotional resiliancy is better than virtue? About kindness trumping truth? About how love isn't blind, but wishes it were? About how emotional infidelity is worse than physical? About how an anticipation of betrayal can cause that betrayal? About how denial can sometimes be a choice? About how living a happy life is also a choice and not an event?

Find something like that -- something you believe in. Now, you're ready to find a story.

Non-fiction, of course, makes this whole process harder, because you *can't* change the events to reflect what you want the story to be about! You have to find a marriage of events and meaning that doesn't distort either. That's hard. That's why, when a nonfiction book manages to do it, it's so darn satisfying. Remember that book "Into Thin Air"? It accomplished this. And "Prisoner of Trebekistan" does too. In it, we see how an attempt at becoming a Jeopardy champ leads to a tentative embrace of learning, which then catches fire and turns into a transformative quest. It's about how knowledge changes your life in touching, unpredictable and hilarious ways. Now that's something to be about.

If you've already got a spec story that you love, you might have already done some of this subconsciously. See if you can articulate what the script is about. Then go back through the script and find places to make the "about" powerful and clear. You'll end up with a script that will justify all that capering and god singing.

Lunch: Left over garlic-cheese bread from the Smokehouse restaurant and canned beans from Australia.


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