Home » Archives » June 2007 » Getting Sick in the Elevator in your Cabin
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06/14/2007: Getting Sick in the Elevator in your Cabin
When I was first working in sitcoms, I was told about an aging comedy writer who was still working as a freelancer. I was told that he would come into an office and sit down and say, "I got two stories. One, your main guy gets sick and he's a pain in the ass about it. The other is, everyone's trapped in a cabin and they have a big fight. Which one do you want?"
I was told that he still occasionally got a sale. I suspect the whole thing was an urban legend.
But those two stories are interesting to contemplate. Why were these the two stories that our fictional man took all over town? And why, for god's sake, would they still sell?
I don't think I have to tell you what makes these stories bad, at least in their most traditional form. They're familiar. And they're predictable. As soon as someone sneezes and says "I'm not getting sick. I'm NOT!," we know they're getting sick. And when they promise to be the best patient ever, we know we're really in for it. Similarly, we've probably all winced more than once when someone on a television show lets a rooftop door fall closed behind them. Frankly, I'm always surprised when it doesn't lock them up there. (Note that I'm assuming rooftops, and elevators, as cabin-equivalents.)
The stories are also too universal. We've all been forced to talk to someone we didn't want to talk to. We've all been sick and we've all had to tend to a sick person. There's nothing about the situation that's really specific to any one character. In my Frasier spec, I thought hard about what he valued so that I could find a story that poked him where it hurt most. I ended up pricking his professional pride. I found a problem that hurt that character more than it might hurt someone else. But feeling trapped, and feeling sick -- those just are not specific.
So why would anyone ever do anything like either of these ideas? Why would they ever sell? Because, at the core, the idea is right. Exactly right. Stress people and they get vulnerable. And vulnerable people open up, which is great stuff. Sickness stresses us. Being forced into prolonged contact with another person stresses us.
Remember Archie and Meathead trapped in the basement? It's a classic All in the Family episode with moments I remember vividly. I also have very fond memories of Lou Grant and Joe Rossi trapped in -- I believe -- an actual cabin on Lou Grant. Again, there are moments that hit me very hard in that episode.
So, avoid cabins and elevators and rooftops in your spec. And don't tell the "I'll be a great patient" story, either. Find a situation more specific to your character to act as their stressor. But once you find it, use it like those writers did. Get to the vulnerability. Get to the revelations. Get to the emotions.
If any part of the story of the old freelancer is true, I buy that he still made a sale now and then. The way he got to the moment when a character opens up may have been hacky, but if he wrote those moments with sensitivity and insight, well, maybe it was worth it.
Lunch: corn bisque