Tuesday, February 28th
Monday, February 27th
Yesterday, I was reading some interesting stuff over at whatsthatbug.com. You don’t know about whatsthatbug.com? Go there at once. It’s so cool. Anyway, I was reading about a certain beetle. It happens to look a lot like another beetle which can stand on its head and spray when threatened. The beetle that can’t spray, also stands on its head, bluffing. “I’m SO gonna spray you. I am. Because I’m that kind of beetle, I am.” Now, that’s putting some effort into an attempt to look like something else.
A spec script should look as much as possible like a produced script. Erin Dunlap, an aspiring writer who worked as writers’-PA-extraordinaire on Jake, has asked me some great questions about exactly how to accomplish that. She’s talking about the strange little technical stuff. She asks about when one should use “CUT TO” and what words to put in CAPS in the stage directions and when to use “ANGLE ON.”
The short answer is “look at the produced scripts and do what they do.” However, the things she has picked out are the ones that are often applied inconsistently. This is frustrating, but it should also be a clue that it’s hard to go too far wrong.
“CUT TO” is not usually needed. So why waste the space? If the show you’re emulating seems to use it sometimes and not other times, there may not be any pattern. Or it might be that they only use it when they want to imply a quick edit, such as when there’s a joke that relies on a cut. (You know the kind. The most hacky version of this is “I will NOT go to that party!” CUT TO: INT. PARTY - NIGHT). Using it this way – only when you want to call attention to the edit – is my default choice.
“CUT TO” is one of those things the eye tends to blip over anyway. I don’t usually encourage sloppiness, but in this particular case, chances are no one will even notice whether the CUT TO is there or not.
CAPS. If you’re writing a spec Two and a Half Men, you don’t have to worry about this. In multi-camera half-hours, all your stage directions are in caps. But in single-camera shows, some words in some directions are in caps. But which ones? Well, the first time a character appears in the script, their name is in caps. But other than that, the rule is fuzzy. Important props, actions, video effects, sound effects might be in caps. If your script were being produced, the main function of the capping would be to call attention to things that will need input from specialized professionals – stunt people, effects people, etc. Since it’s a spec, all you’re really trying to do is make sure that those elements aren’t missed by the reader, but it boils down to the same thing anyway.
Here’s an actual stage direction from one of my Buffy scripts:
Mr. Trick GRABS GILES. Giles gets in a good solid KICK, but Mr. Trick shakes it off. He grabs Giles. Then he THROWS him. Giles lands right at the T-junction... the entrance to the demon's tunnel. As Lurconis senses food on the dinner plate, THE RUMBLING BEGINS.
Here’s another one from the same script. The “she” here is Buffy, by the way.
Giles DIVES to one side and she aims the flame into the sewer pipe just as Lurconis' slimy head darts out. The flame catches it full in the face. LURCONIS is on fire. It pulls back and we hear its DYING SCREAMS.
Looking at this one now, I have no idea why “Lurconis” is in caps in this second one. It’s not the first time he appears. If I wrote this now, what would be in caps is “ON FIRE.” That’s far more important! Geez. What was I thinking? But you can see the rough logic on the other choices. Big actions, sounds. Stuff like that. It’s all very approximate. In a lot of my Buffy scripts I haven't used caps at all, except for character names and a few big "VAMPIRE POOFS INTO DUST" moments. Don’t sweat it too hard, and as always, mimic mimic mimic your example produced scripts. Spec scripts are non-spraying beetles, but that's all the more reason they need to stand on their heads, look in anticipation at their own rear ends, and give every impression that something big is about to happen.
I’ll be back soon with a discussion of when and how to use “ANGLE ON.” So you know that’ll be one wild ride!
Lunch: instant wonton soup that I added water to and then entirely forgot for like forty minutes. It’s the first and only time that the centers of the wontons actually got soft and delicious. Breakthrough!
Jane on 02.28.06 @ 02:39 PM PST [link]
Sunday, February 26th
I got another great note! This one is from Alex Epstein from the blog called Complications Ensue. Check it out! Great writing stuff -- you'll like it. Alex asks about the very non-standard act breaks that are used on Gilmore Girls. "Is there some secret dynamic?" He asks.
Fantastic observation. Gilmore Girls breaks almost every rule I can think of, and it still works. I find this completely fascinating. Here's an example of what Alex is talking about.
I wrote a Gilmore episode called "The Reigning Lorelai." This was an episode in which Lorelai's father's mother died. There's a huge moment in this episode in which Emily (Lorelai's mother) discovers that the dead woman tried to block Emily's marriage to her son. In this startling moment, Emily refuses to continue to plan the funeral, and the burden falls on Lorelai. The interesting thing here is that this moment falls in the middle of act two. The actual END of act two comes at a much milder moment, in which Lorelai struggles under the continued burden of funeral planning. For any other show, this would be a misplaced act break. But not for Gilmore Girls.
The best shows on TV are usually those in which the original voice of the show's creator is allowed to shine through with minimal interference. The voice at Gilmore is the voice of Amy Sherman-Palladino. What Amy has done is create a show that takes seriously the idea of drama holding up a mirror to life. Stories unfold along curly lines, they sometimes end long before the end of the episode, with other stories starting late; they involve long, long scenes with long speeches and long exchanges that don't further the story, and sometimes with important action happening off screen. All of these things break rules. Interestingly, it all has the effect of creating unpredictability in large portions. Wonderful unpredictability. And the lifelike rhythms help the viewers accept the characters as real people. I don't think I really appreciated what Amy has created until after I worked on the show and I was able to look back at the episodes. She has a remarkably clear and original vision and I was lucky to work there.
In the writers' room, there was not usually any particular effort to put the big moments at the act breaks. Nor was there an effort to put them somewhere else instead. In fact, the stories were distributed over the acts with more attention to simple number of scenes per act. Eight-ish scenes per act and then a commercial. It gives the act breaks a unique, off-hand feeling, and keeps the viewers off-balance -- the big moments can come at any point!
I hope this answers Alex's question. There was not, in fact, a secret dynamic unless it was a subconscious rule in Amy's head. Which is possible. But I really think it is more of an effort to free the writers from traditional dynamics than to create a new one.
Now. You may wonder how any of this applies to spec scripts. You probably aren't writing a Gilmore Girls. It's no longer a hot spec, simply as a natural consequence of having been on the air for a number of years. But suppose you're specing another show that breaks rules. What should you do? Mimic the show, or follow the rule?
Follow the rule. If someone WERE writing a Gilmore spec, I would tell them to ignore the fact that the show eschews standard act breaks. The person reading your spec does not work at Gilmore Girls. They want to know if you know how to construct a standard act break moment. This is a rare situation in which mimicry will not serve you well.
This is sort of analogous to a chef adapting an exotic recipe to local tastes. If your American customers are not responding well to the fried crickets in the salad, try substituting almonds. Sure, it's a perversion of your delicious national dish, but it'll get you better reviews.
Lunch: An In 'N' Out Burger from the cutest little In "N' Out that I've ever been to. Somewhere along the freeway between Palm Desert and here, there is this tiny restaurant with no inside. Just drive-up and walk-up windows and a sweet cluster of wind-swept tables and aggressive tiny birds looking for pickle fragments. Magnificent!
Jane on 02.27.06 @ 02:05 PM PST [link]
Friday, February 24th
I have very poor eyesight, and I hate wearing contact lenses (I can get 'em in, can't get 'em back out). So I wear glasses. (Did you ever think that this might be the last generation to wear glasses? We're going to look really weird in old photos with these odd little sculptures on our faces.) Anyway, I can't wear my glasses when I'm snorkeling. So I recently ordered a prescription swim mask on the internet. It arrived the day before yesterday. I haven't had it in the water yet, but it works really great for walking around my apartment looking like a freak. A freak who can SEE, thank you very much.
This will allow me to see many more fish underwater. Until now I was only able to see those who swam directly in front of my eyes. Saucy little exhibitionists.
Hey, you know what that reminds me of? Script readers who don't read the stage directions. They only look at the dialogue and therefore only see some of the fish. How can we put our fish in front of their faces?
It's terribly easy to blip right over stage directions when reading. And since spec scripts are destined not to be produced, and only read, this is of crucial importance to you, the spec script creator. We've already talked about putting some of the staging into the dialogue. Here's a way to do something similar.
What I'm talking about here is putting stage directions into parentheticals. This is of course, immoral and wrong. But it can also be effective.
Here's what I'm talking about.
Ooh. Nice place.
Character feels the fabric of the drapes.
Or maybe not.
INCORRECT but BETTER:
Ooh. Nice place.
(feeling the drapes)
Or maybe not.
Parentheticals are supposed to be used to indicate how a line is to be read. Not to describe action. But it sure makes the action harder to miss if you sometimes put it in there. It's nicely mixed in with the dialogue, like putting a fish right in front of a person's face. This is a common and unremarkable violation of the rules and I recommend it if you have any concern that the action is going to be missed. Sticklers might disagree, but I like this technique. Possible parentheticals under this system could include:
(dodging a blob of taffy)
(noticing the door is on fire)
(kicking the otter out the window)
Here's a more extreme example:
Guess they didn't find the murder weapon.
One of the nearby COPS hands him a knife. Instead of blood, the knife is covered with a thick GREEN GOO.
Am I the only one who thinks this is strange?
Guess they didn't find the murder weapon.
(taking KNIFE from cop. Re: GREEN GOO on knife)
Am I the only one who thinks this is strange?
Now, this is a really extreme example. A cop, a prop and some goo are all introduced in a parenthetical here. This is really against the rules. It is a lot harder to miss the action in the second version, don't you think? Also, look at the extreme space savings. That could totally help pull up a page if you need the space. But my instincts tell me this one is going a little too far.
Probably the best answer in this case, is to give the reader TWO chances to see the important info.
Guess they didn't find the murder weapon.
One of the nearby COPS hands him a knife. Instead of blood, the knife is covered with a thick GREEN GOO.
(Re: GREEN GOO on knife)
Am I the only one who thinks this is strange?
There. Now the parenthetical isn't quite SO ridiculously overloaded and the reader has two chances to observe that goo and to fathom the fact that a knife was found. Isn't that cool?
LUNCH: Went to a Greek street fair thing. Lamb! Innocent and delicious!
Jane on 02.26.06 @ 05:34 PM PST [link]
Thursday, February 23rd
What show do you think this exchange came from?
Coroner: I have to go take care of the guy with the javelin in his chest.
Cop (shuddering): Why'd you get into this line of work in the first place?
Coroner (deadpan): Free javelins.
Answer: Law and Order.
I probably got the words a little wrong, but I know I'm not far off. I know, because the joke made me laugh. Laughter is one of those visceral responces that help cement memories into place. Do you remember strangely specific jokes from sitcoms you watched when you were a kid? Well, then.
The lesson here is that even if you're writing a spec for a notoriously humorless show, like L&O, it will serve you well to look for a funny moment or two. If the show you're specing EVER does comedy, EVER, then you have the total right to put it in your spec.
The specs that were submitted to Joss when I was trying to get onto Buffy included an NYPD Blue spec. The first thing he said to me about my writing was to compliment a joke from the spec. Not a tense moment or a bit of action or a reveal, but a joke. Jokes stick.
Usually, in a cop show spec, you will have a serious A story, balanced with a funny B story or runner of some kind. Spend a lot of time on the funny bits. They may very well be the thing that gets your script noticed. B stories are sometimes neglected by the writer, since they take up less acreage, but they are the spice that makes the dish.
Lunch: Chicken in Mole sauce (is that redundant?) The Mole was sweeter than I've usually encountered. Can't say I'm against it.
Jane on 02.24.06 @ 02:21 PM PST [link]
Wednesday, February 22nd
I know that I haven't made it especially easy to contact me about this blog. So I'm blown away by the great notes that have made their way to me. Thanks to Pat in Texas who sent me a note on a beautiful post card, and included information on her lunch! I love it! I also got a sweet note from Jesse Jackson. But I think it's not THAT Jesse Jackson. And a great card from Ken in Virginia, who groks my love of scifi as well as of Jane Austin! Thanks to all of you!
The most inspiring letter was from Alicia in Australia who started watching Buffy when she was eight (!) and is going to start studying film-making next year. She thinks she's not a writer, but her letter sounds exactly like a person talking, so I suspect she'd be great at dialogue.
So, let's talk a little about dialogue! You know what your character is FEELING, but you don't want them to just say it out loud, right? So how do you let your audience KNOW what they're feeling? You can't rely on acting to do this -- not in a spec script! Somehow you have to do it on the page. Well, I'm going to show you a little trick. Credit Freud for this one.
Here's a tiny little bit from a Buffy script of mine. Buffy has finally decided to let her boyfriend, Riley, know just how strong she is. They spar, and she throws him across the room. She hurries to him and they have this exchange:
Are you hurt?
I... I'm... I don't think so.
The trick here is having someone START to say something, then change their mind. Riley started to say "I'm..." something. "Okay," probably. Or "fine." That's what you normally say. When he changes his answer to "I don't think so," he has decided not to commit to being fine. We know he IS hurt, even if not physically injured.
In that case, a character started to speak, then realized what they were going to say was a lie, and took it back. The reverse works too, in which a character starts to let the truth spill out, then stops herself.
I wrote an Angel script in which Cordy mourns the life she used to have as the Alpha girl of Sunnydale High. At one point she's looking around at a beautiful apartment and she says:
I... I used to have this. I was...
She decides not to finish the thought, and just trails off there. Someone else speaks, and Cordy never comes back to what she was, but we've heard enough to know that she's thinking about her change of circumstances as a change in what she "was," as a genuine change in identity.
I love this trick. It's easy and efficient. It reveals character without a bunch of words. Give it a try! But only use it when a character is REALIZING something, because that's when they're distracted, when their censor is not engaged, when things can slip out.
Lunch: Chicken and waffles at Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles. Wonderful as always.
Jane on 02.23.06 @ 04:57 PM PST [link]
Monday, February 20th
Back from my mini-vacation! Very refreshing! But it has gotten harder and harder to be out of touch with my life. I was emailing friends, getting calls on the cell phone, and feeling guilty about the times when I was genuinely unreachable. I recently changed vacation plans when I realized I'd have no internet access at my intended hotel. I couldn't face such a thing. Breathing is input, and increasingly, input is breathing.
When I was getting started as a writer, I sought out support, eager for the input of the other writers in the Disney fellowship. But I thought that as I moved out into genuine employment, that I would begin swimming on my own, with less and less input from friends as I learned more and more skills. But that hasn't been what has happened at all. I've actually become more collaborative as I've gone along.
When I was starting out I would NEVER have let a friend read an outline of mine. I would've felt like I wasn't ready to be judged until I had some kind of finished script -- that's the point at which the "idea" started to feel like an "entity." But once you're employed on a show, the outline is treated as an entity, too. Your show runner reads the outline and gives you notes. Then it is sent on to the studio and the network, and they have input too. You rewrite the outline until it's right. This process avoids lots of horrible huge changes after you've already fallen in love with dialogue. Even if I'm writing a spec pilot on my own, and have no boss, I will get input at the outline stage now.
If you have friends who know the show that you're specing, have them read your outline. Even if they're not writers, they are viewers, and they know if something feels like the show or not. This will encourage you to write a strong, clear outline, and it will help you catch story problems at an early stage. I know an outline feels like a private thing, and this is a little like bringing friends along to help pick out underpants, but if you can stand it, it can be really helpful. Have you ever regretted an underpants purchase? Then you know the kind of discomfort you'll be avoiding.
Okay. I think I'm finally done with story-and-outline stuff. Soon we'll get to dialogue! The fun stuff!
Lunch: A perfectly dreadful chicken wrap thing on the plane. The ingredients were fine, but they were wrapped in a flavorless white paste. Yuk!
Jane on 02.22.06 @ 01:15 PM PST [link]
Wednesday, February 15th
Hello all! I'm writing to you from my long weekend. I've been doing a lot of snorkeling on said weekend. This is a very new skill. Once I'm in the water, I do great, floating around with minimal movement, staring at the pretty fishes, admiring the amazing colors and wondering which ones taste best in lemony sauces. But the transition from standing in three inches of water with a worried look on my face to floating about hungrily, is very very hard for me. I have, in fact, discovered that the only way I really can get myself fully into the water is to fall. I wade out into the water and trip over something. It works GREAT! Serendipity with extra dip.
Sometimes accidents lead to great results. Keep that in mind as you write. You've got an outline. But if something better comes up while you're writing, you should feel free to explore it. Add a character to a scene or subtract one. Fiddle with a transition between scenes or change the order of scenes. You've got time, since it's a spec. Time is your one advantage over the pro writer with a due date and this is one of the ways you can take advantage of it. Maybe your experiment will only end up reminding you why you put things in that order in the outline to begin with, but maybe it will lead to something interesting. Feel free to fall. Sometimes it leads to fish.
Lunch: wasabi peanuts, dried cherries with salt and licorice, chocolate coffee beans and an apple. Eclectic!
Jane on 02.20.06 @ 07:41 PM PST [link]
Tuesday, February 14th
Hi all! I'm heading out of town for a long weekend, so starting tomorrow the blogging will be slow for a little bit here. But know that I am thinking of you all. Special thanks to friend-of-the-blog Maggie for her continuing feedback on these humble posts. It is so helpful when I know what people need to know.
In that same flavor, another-friend-of-the-blog has registered a very interesting question. Take it, friend!
Friend: "When I first started writing, I pretty much only wrote what I wanted to write. Meaning, I wasn't thinking of my portfolio much. Just concentrating on learning (still am). Now that I'm taking a more business-y look at my writing, especially as I read the pilots for this season, I notice what holes are in my portfolio. Now, obviously I wouldn't write a Supernatural spec to get on Grey's. But, I was wondering if it would be odd... if I were to write a Desperate Housewives where one of the women has to be in the hospital for the entire episode? Like a B or C story, if you will. But something that would showcase my medical range? Is this good business sense or is this the over-thinking of a neurotic writer?"
Fantastic question. One that really made me stop and think. She is referring to the fact that you never write a spec of the show that you are hoping to be hired on -- let's call it the "target show." (Note that you may not have a target show. That's cool, too.) Showrunners don't read specs of their own shows for a number of reasons, some legal, some practical. That means that if you are targetting a specific show, you might want to get clever about it -- think about what OTHER show will best allow you to demonstrate the skills that the target show will be looking for.
I bet the showrunner at House is given a lot of Grey's episodes to read as specs, and vice versa. They're an obvious pairing. And what do you want to bet the Commander in Chief showrunner read a heck of a lot of West Wing specs? But our friend is suggesting a way to mix this up. And it's pretty interesting -- giving a not-already-built-in spin to your spec to make it more deliciously appealing to the target show.
My inclination is that this is a pretty good idea, but one with a lot of possible pitfalls.
1. This should only be attempted if the show being spun isn't twisted out of recognition in order to acheive the desired effect. I'm not a regular Housewives viewer, so I'm not certain if they would do a medical subplot. It certainly sounds possible, but this is a huge concern. If your spec House suddenly features Dr. House whispering to a ghost, then you've got a problem.
2. This depends on the assumption that Grey's showrunner is actually looking for an ability to write medical stuff. They may not care. Shows with technical content have advisors. The ability to write characters is almost certainly a higher priority. But, of course, a person can do both...
3. Finally, story should come from character. Setting artificial requirements on the setting or subject matter of a story may make it harder to come up with a truly emotional story.
But if you're satisified that what you've come up with is an emotional, non-distorted spec that shows off skills your target showrunner values, then I see no reason not to try it.
Lunch: Thai papaya salad. Spicy and tart!
Jane on 02.15.06 @ 05:47 PM PST [link]
Monday, February 13th
I tried to make my own mocha frappe yesterday. I figured that if I just bought some espresso from Starbucks, I could take it home and mix it with really good cocoa powder, skim milk, Splenda and crushed ice... mmm. Well, it seemed like a fun idea at the time (It'll be extra chocolatey! Extra fat-free!). Actually it was disgusting. I think I got the proportions all wrong. It tasted very much like a script written without an outline.
Hah! That one snuck up on you, didn't it?
Once you know what your story is, what the basic events and emotional evolution is, it's so incredibly tempting to start writing. Each scene, you reason, will carry you organically to the next one. Besides, you know what your act breaks are, so if you sort of aim at them, they'll keep you anchored.
No! Turn back! You simply cannot write without an outline. I've read a few scripts written without outlines and I can always tell right away.
There's a way to ease into it. You can start by writing what TV writers call a "beat sheet." This is a skimpy little document. It just indicates location and the barest hint of what happens in the scene. A beat sheet entry for a scene might read:
INT. GILES'S APARTMENT - NIGHT
Buffy and the others discover the apartment damaged, Giles gone.
You could start writing from there. But it would be even better if you fleshed out the beat sheet into an outline. This is an excerpt from my outline for the Buffy episode "A New Man":
EXT. GILES' COURTYARD / INT. GILES' APARTMENT - NIGHT
Buffy, Willow, Xander and Anya walk into the courtyard, with Xander still telling them what happened: "It had horns. And hair. Tufty ears. Ugliest thing you ever saw." They arrive at Giles' broken door. They enter the apartment to find the destruction. Xander: "Guess I wasn't the only one it visited today." Buffy and Willow try to stay calm -- we've all been kidnapped by vampires and demons before. It doesn't mean that Giles is hurt. Anya finds Giles' torn shirt. Anya: "I think it ate him up."
This is a very short scene. In the final script it's exactly one page long. Other scenes occupy much more room. In fact, the outline for A New Man is fifteen pages long. With an outline like this, the actual script can be written in days if it really has to be. You've already used the outline to work out how you're going to transition in and out of scenes, in what order information is going to be revealed, and even some sample dialogue. It frees you up to make the actual writing a really fun stress-free process! And the script tastes right when you're done.
Lunch: a veggie burrito from Poquito Mas and a very bad homemade mocha frappe.
Jane on 02.14.06 @ 02:33 PM PST [link]
Sunday, February 12th
Visual surprises occur in lots of different kinds of scripts. Someone on 24 rips open a cockpit door to reveal, I don't know, maybe a dead pilot. Someone on The Office whips open a supply closet door to reveal, let's say, a co-worker eating someone else's clearly-labelled protein bar. These could be shocking and/or funny moments. Well, finding the dead pilot is probably less funny. But it could be effective nonetheless.
Question: When do these moments not work? Answer: When the reader skips the stage directions.
This happens A LOT. It used to frustrate me. And then I noticed I did the same thing myself, all the time. I'd come across a big undigestable blob of stage direction and I'd just blip right over it. I figured that I was rushing, that I was lazy, that I wasn't giving the writer the respect she deserved.
But now I don't think that's what's happening at all. I think that a reader who is really trying to let a spec script work its magic is trying as hard as they can to experience the episode as if it were filmed already, as if they were really watching it on TV. After all, that's typically the way you judge the pacing and voices -- by comparing them against broadcast episodes you have seen. And, when you're actually watching a broadcast episode, you don't pause the dialogue so that you can take in the visual. So when you're reading, and you want that same experience, you tend to blow on past the dense little bites of description that slow you down.
Whether or not you agree on that analysis, the truth remains that many readers over-rely on the dialogue to tell them what's going on.
So how does the writer of a spec script handle this? I'm going to go out on a limb here and advocate a spot of bad writing.
Well, not BAD writing, exactly. Just over-writing. Something along the lines of:
Ohmigod. We lost the pilot.
Hey! That's Michael's protein bar!
I know it's not pretty. And it shouldn't be used to the extent that characters are talking to themselves -- that's bad. But it is super-duper clear.
In my spec Frasier with its big visual scene of Frasier and Niles up on a billboard platform painting out the quotation marks on a promotional ad that read "Doctor" Frasier Crane, I used something similar to the following exchange:
Look as us, up here with our spray paint, like a couple of
young rebels, using an act of defiance to tell the
world "We are here!"
We're correcting punctuation.
Just in case a reader missed the staging of the scene, I made sure they got it ("up here with our spray paint"), and I got a mild joke out of it in the process.
As a test, try reading your spec without reading a single stage direction. If you can make it read well this way, without making it sound clunky, it's worth a try.
Lunch: A surprisingly good avocado salad from the cafeteria at the gym.
Jane on 02.13.06 @ 11:44 AM PST [link]
A quick update. I got permission from the Mystery Man show-runner whom I quoted a few posts back, to use his name. He is Tim Doyle, a fantastic writer, who was the show-runner when I wrote on Ellen, and who has also been involved with Grace Under Fire, Andy Richter, Still Standing and lots more. Now you know!
Jane on 02.12.06 @ 01:53 PM PST [link]
Saturday, February 11th
"Espenson" is a tricky name. People don't know how to pronounce it. They either stress the middle syllable (instead of the first), or they say "Epsenson" which is unpleasant to the ear and the mouth. If I were reading a novel and a character had such a stopper of a name, I would hesitate, unsure of how I was supposed to imagine it being pronounced. I remember reading The Color Purple and being bothered by the first occurrence of the name "Shug" -- was it intended to rhyme with "shrug," as the spelling would suggest, or was it supposed to represent the first syllable of "sugar"? I figured it out, but still, there was a moment of disconnect.
Your spec script isn't centered around a guest character, but it is likely to have some guests in it nonetheless. You're going to get to name these characters. Keep in mind that you're constructing a very strange document: a script which is not intended to be performed, but simply read to oneself. If your script were being produced, you could name a character "Espenson" -- as my friends at Boston Legal did this season to my giggling delight. Since it was heard by the audience, not read, no one was troubled by the pronunciation issues except the poor actors. So even if you promised to name a character after your Aunt Cacille -- well, maybe not.
Another thing to look out for is a character name that looks too much like another character name. A guest character in a Buffy episode was originally named Harper. Then we realized that Harmony was in the same episode. So Harper became Parker. The two "Har-" names would've looked confusing on the whiteboard as we broke the episode. And if this had been a spec script, destined to be read and not said, it might have been confusing on the page as well.
Similarly, I wrote a "Jake" episode this season featuring a guest character named "Jordan." I needed her name to be the name of a country for a certain joke I had my heart set on. So I decided I could live with the two J-names. But it only took one day in the rewrite room before her name became Lindsay. The Js just made the page too hard to look at as we were working with it, and we anticipated confusion at the table read as well. Even this far into my career, I'm trying to learn some of these lessons. (By the way, the bigger lesson here is to never compromise anything for the sake of one joke you have your heart set on.)
A tiny technical point: Avoiding two characters with names that start with the same first letter will also save you some frustration as you work in Final Draft. It'll keep Smart Type from continually offering you the option of both names as you're trying to swiftly capture a run of dialogue.
Back by Popular Demand! Lunch: A selection of Australian crackers and candy given to me as a gift by my Aussie friend Jono. Especially good: Jaffas ("choc-orange in a crisp shell")!
Jane on 02.12.06 @ 11:36 AM PST [link]
Friday, February 10th
Is this an act break?
Our hero is crawling through fire. What we see, that he doesn't see, is that a flaming beam is about to fall onto him from above. The beam breaks lose! It's falling! Our hero rolls and the beam lands, missing him by inches!
The answer: no. THIS is an act break:
Our hero is crawling through fire. What we see that he doesn't see, is that a flaming beam is about to fall onto him from above. The beam breaks lose! It's falling! We hear a horrible crash, and then… silence, except for the harsh roar-and-crackle of the fire itself.
Jane on 02.11.06 @ 01:30 PM PST [link]
Thursday, February 9th
The plot thickens. I got an answer from the final show-runner on my list. I wrote back and asked him if I could quote him and haven't heard back yet, so this one is going to be an anonymous quote for now. But I assure you he's a big-deal half-hour show-runner type. Here's what he says:
Mystery Man: I've read and enjoyed many "vintage" TV specs over the years and generally I give the writers extra credit for hipness. Especially in this age of quickly-forgotten new sitcoms, I'm more likely to hook into the characters and tone of a "Taxi" than an "Emily's Reasons Why Not." There are a couple of traps however. If you write a spec of a beloved classic sitcom you better nail it, because it might be my favorite show and I might know it better than you do. I've read a few specs where writers spoof the show or where the "Beverly Hillbillies" get into a space ship and crash on "Gilligan's Island." If you're going to goof this aggressively on something I might hold dear, your script better be damn funny to earn it. Another pitfall speaks to the difference in "jokiness" between shows of the past and now. The original "Andy Griffith Show" and "Dick Van Dyke" are amazingly light on actual jokes comparatively. It was a simpler time without all the table reads and run-throughs (and, in most cases, live audiences) and that desperate hunger for big jokes three-a-page. So the danger is that, in sticking to the tone, your spec might feel joke-light to our modern sensibilities and cause a cynical reader to suspect that you can't write jokes very well. It would certainly put more pressure on the cleverness and originality of your story idea. The best balance might be a tonally correct sample that goes a little heavy on the jokes. The bottom line is that I'm looking for two things when I'm reading a spec: Is this a good story? Are the jokes funny? If specing a classic TV show allows you to display these two skills, then nanu-nanu to you!
This is new.
Mystery Man is advocating the NON-post-modern version of the novelty spec. This would seem to contradict everything we've heard up until now. What is new here isn't the warning about the postmodern option. MM's caveat, ("If you’re going to goof this aggressively on something I might hold dear, your script better be damn funny to earn it.") is really very similar to what everyone else has said about this option.
What's new is his taking seriously the idea of writing a straight episode of an older show – it would have to be a genuinely great one – while upping the joke ratio. This is the first time I have seen this path advocated. But the point is well-taken. Sure, a great contemporary show would work as well, but we're not exactly overflowing with great contemporary shows. Did Taxi have more great episodes left in it? Did Buffy? Hmm.
So how do we sum all this up? Look at the bottom line that MM lays out above. Good story. Funny jokes. To which I would add Accurate Voices. Showing off your skills in these areas are all that really matters. Skills are the peanut butter. The kind of script is only as relevant as the kind of cracker. It changes the experience somewhat, but it's still all about the peanut butter.
Your main task is clear. Write two (or more) specs that you love for current shows. Not "Emily." Something with some sticking power. And then, when those are done, get creative. If you have a great idea for a postmodern dissection of The Patty Duke Show in which we learn that her "identical cousin" is a figment of her own imagination, and it shows off your skills, then go for it. OR if you have an amazing episode of M*A*S*H that doesn't deconstruct the show, but that simply lays open the characters like a funny filleting knife, if it's the episode they should've done but didn't, and it shows off your skills, then go for that. Personally, I think that is by far the harder option. Which leads us to the meta-lesson:
Show-runners differ from each other. There is no show-runner school. Which makes it very hard to teach a making-show-runners-happy school. Don't listen too much to what you’re told in books about TV writing. Don't even listen too much to me. There is so much in this business that is subjective. If you take anything away from this little three-posting exploration, it's that there is no one right answer. Do your compulsory exercises, but when it's time to try something more adventurous, write what delights you. Create your own cracker.
Researching this question, dear readers, has reminded me of what it felt like when I was just dreaming about getting into this business. When I was writing what delighted me. When writing for television seemed to mean walking into the screen and talking to the characters themselves. Are there characters you wish you could write for, but they belong to another time? Is there a story you're dying to write because it breaks every convention? This is your chance and I urge you to try it. A lot of the time, you won't get to use it. It'll be too difficult to finish, or to sustain, or an agent won't want to send it out, or won't even agree to read it.
But it might work. And it will certainly be fun. It will be re-energizing, liberating. And it won't be an exercise in fanfic (fan-written fiction using established characters), because as you write, you will be thinking about how to demonstrate your skills as a television writer. In other words:
Show me the peanut butter!
Jane on 02.10.06 @ 08:26 PM PST [link]
Wednesday, February 8th
We're talking about novelty specs. Those comically oversized eyeglasses you get in gift stores. Hee! Also, that's how I'm referring to any non-standard spec script. The examples we've been talking about are specs written for shows not currently on the air. I contacted showrunner friends about this.
So, Tim Minear (Angel, Wonderfalls, The Inside), what do you think of novelty specs? Like, say, a brand spankin' new Bonanza?
Tim: "It's so funny you would ask this -- I did a seminar at the screenwriting expo and when asked about specs I said write an I Love Lucy. Maybe even a dark hour version. I'd sure read that! But not Bonanza. No, no. Classic Trek, sure! An old Night Stalker? Okay! Alias Smith and Jones, even! But not Bonanza."
Notice that Tim went right away to the postmodern version of the novelty spec. It really does seem to be the only version worth considering. It's the dangerous option that Joss spoke of above -- I mean, below. You know, in the previous post. This kind of spec is difficult. It's risky. But...
Big risk, big possible payoff. Here's a story as related by show-runner Jeff Greenstein (Will and Grace, Jake in Progress).
Jeff: "I once hired a young writer based on a spec That Girl, a very cleverly written script that boasted what was possibly the best cold open I've ever seen in a half-hour comedy. We open in a grim, squalid whorehouse in a bad part of New York City. A fourteen-year-old punk is doing shots at the bar as the madam shows him one filthy crack whore after another, and the kid just keeps turning them down: "No. Nope. Nah."
Meanwhile, over at the front door, an anxious-looking Anne Marie enters and looks cautiously around. She turns to the bouncer. "Hi," she says brightly. "I'm here for my audition." (then, looking around uneasily) "Um... is this 336 West 86th Street?" "No, Sissy," grunts the bouncer. "This is 336 East 86th Street."
At that moment, the punk spots Anne Marie across the room and levels a finger at her. Turning to the madam, he barks, "I want... THAT GIRL!!"
CUT TO: Main titles.
Really, really funny script. I met the writer and hired her on the spot."
Jane here again. With a little story of my own. I once read a spec Caroline in the City in which a sexually-transmitted ass-rash was passed from character to character throughout the script. It's the only spec I ever kept. It's in a cabinet in my home right now. If I were in a position to hire writers, I would want to meet that writer.
If you do it well, a novelty spec can get you noticed. It will certainly get you read. ALL the showrunners said they'd reach for something, anything, different. But if you do it poorly, if it's unclear, crude (the ass-rash was walking a very fine line), unfunny, if it doesn't demonstrate your skills, it can burn you bad. Because if you guaranteed that someone will remember your name... make sure you want them to remember your name.
So what's a writer to do? Next entry, we'll sum it all up.
Jane on 02.09.06 @ 04:58 PM PST [link]
Tuesday, February 7th
Hi. I have received a special request (from friend-of-the-blog Maggie) to talk about what I call "novelty specs." What I'm referring to are specs written for shows not currently on the air. For example, a spec I Love Lucy or Mary Tyler Moore Show or Taxi or Dragnet or Hill Street Blues. The first thing to note, is that these cannot be used to apply for the ABC Writers' Fellowship. Their rules clearly state that your spec has to be for a show currently on the air. But the fellowship isn't the only fish in the supermarket. Specs are also used to get actual writing jobs.
I have yet to be in the position of reading spec scripts with an eye to hiring a writing staff. But a lot of people whom I know have done exactly that. So I sent out an email to a selection of show-runner types, asking for their opinion of novelty specs. Their answers were so interesting and thought-provoking that this is going to be a multi-posting discussion. It's just so fun!
First up, (ta-da!) Joss Whedon! Joss, what's your opinion on novelty specs?
Joss: "The problem is, no matter how good the show might have been, it's bound to be a bit archaic in its dialogue (and possibly subject) which leads to the question: is this person just aping an era that's over, or are they writing a postmodern reaction to their perception of what that show (and era) was like? The first is just a stunt, and the second could be interesting but requires explanation. Most show-runners don't have time for explanations. So while it's always fun to read something that's not what everyone else is writing, this scenario is dangerous for anyone who's not damn sure of themselves."
It's crucial to understand the two approaches that he's talking about. Suppose you decide to write a Mary Tyler Moore Show episode. You could write a sort of "lost episode" (this is the "stunt" option). The story could be something like, "Mary and Lou temporarily change jobs, creating a hilarious shift in power in the newsroom." Or maybe something better. That was off the top of my head. The point is, this is an episode the original staff COULD have done, but did not (unless they did and I missed it). This would demonstrate your abilities, but not in as relevant a way as if you'd just done the same thing for a contemporary show.
It's the second option that makes things interesting. The postmodern option. It's not for the faint of brain. It's a risk. It's a challenge. It is, as Joss points out, "dangerous." And even if you pull it off, it couldn't be your primary spec. And yet... mmm... there is allure.
Maybe you're wondering what such an effort would even look like. You will find out in my next blog entry, which will have other show-runner insights and which will contain a description of a scene from a very dirty spec episode of "That Girl." You know you don't want to miss that.
Lunch: a veggie burger. Not bad. It wasn't trying to pretend to be meat. It was doing its own thing.
Jane on 02.08.06 @ 07:42 PM PST [link]
Monday, February 6th
I had dinner with fellow ex-Buffy Doug Petrie last week at a popular Beverly Hills steak house. So much butter! From where I was sitting, I had a view of an aging woman with piles of jet black hair held back by an exotic-fur hair accessory that framed a taut face with dramatic eye-liner and shocking plump glossy red lips and a beauty-mark as big as a toenail. The effect landed somewhere between Cruella De Vil and Cruella De Vil's mother.
Again, this is relevant to the topic at hand. I was talking about the problem of writing spec scripts for a show with arcs in it. A lot of writers who are just starting out worry, more than they need to, about trying to keep their spec scripts totally up-to-date. And there's an approach they sometimes take that I didn't talk about yesterday.
Here's the trick I'm talking about. Sometimes writers will make an effort to keep their spec fresh by making frequent changes to it. After each new episode of their show airs, they adjust their spec to reflect what just happened. That way, whenever they get an agent to agree to read it, it'll smell like a freshly-picked flower. This is trick I used myself, by the way, early on.
But there's a problem. Sure, a script that looks fresh is a plus. But reaching for freshness quickly puts you into the land of diminishing returns. Eventually the script will suffer from the repeated intrusions. You're sticking things into it that aren't organic. And it's often not as seamless as you think. One line added to a scene usually looks very much like one line added to a scene.
It's better to let a spec show a few of the signs of aging than to keep fattening its lips and lifting its keister until even you can't recognize it anymore.
P.S. More lovely letters! A huge Thank You to Ingrid in Germany and Leona in Alabama!
Lunch: a fairly nasty egg-salad sandwich from a gas station and a Kinder Bueno candy bar. Transcendant!
Jane on 02.07.06 @ 08:10 PM PST [link]
Saturday, February 4th
Have you seen these new plastic plates and bowls? They’re the sort you might find on a picnic or a patio party. They look completely normal except the edges are sort of extra bumpy. Turns out, they lock together! One plate or bowl locks, upside-down, onto another one, creating a very solid little storage chamber. It’s genius! Is this the kind of thing I no longer know about now that I tivo through the commercials? It’s harder and harder to keep up.
Wow, that brings us effortlessly to the question of how one writes a spec script for a show that keeps changing. What if your spec relies on a character who is killed off in the very episode that is airing as you lick the stamp on the envelope to send it off to an agent? What if the story turn that you’d cleverly anticipated and incorporated into your spec never happens?
Well, in the case of the character that died, you actually might still be able to use the spec. It’s the other example that’s a bigger problem. Anticipating, projecting ahead so your script will seem current even into the future, is more dangerous than simply picking a moment in the current season and saying “Here. I’m making a script that will fit in right here.” If you pick a moment, the worst thing that happens is that eventually it’s obvious when the script was written – and that’s not a terrible thing. Every script has to be written some time. But if you project into the future and do it incorrectly, the script will seem to have been set in some alternate universe version of the show. Interesting, certainly, but probably confusing.
The fact is, spec scripts can have a surprisingly long shelf-life, especially if the show stays on the air. I once wrote a Roseanne spec that I used for years and years. When I wrote it, Darlene was in high school. In fact, the spec was about Roseanne’s reaction to Darlene announcing that she wanted to join the navy after she graduated, so it’s not like her age was inconsequential in the story. And yet, it was still getting me work three seasons later.
Writers who are already working have to write specs too. And most of the time, they will have no more idea than you do of what’s going to happen on the show they’re specing. Your script will not appear amateurish simply because it occupies a specific place in the time-space continuum.
When a showrunner is reading through a pile of spec scripts, looking for a good, cheap staff writer to round out their staff, they aren’t looking to find one who is clairvoyant. They’re looking for story, structure, voice, and some specifics like joke-writing or action-writing. They just don’t care that much if the episode would make time-line sense if it suddenly, magically, were on the air tonight.
So relax. This is one case where it's easier than it looks.
Jane on 02.06.06 @ 10:38 PM PST [link]
Friday, February 3rd
I was at the gym today and I overheard two women talking. They looked like they were in their late sixties. They thought a young man who was also in the club was being too noisy. This is what they said:
Lady 1: You know what it is, don’t you? It’s this generation.
Lady 2: So rude. No consideration.
I couldn't believe what I was hearing! Don't they hear themselves?! "Consideration"?! Are they doing it on purpose?!
Remember the toy called (I think) See ‘n’ Say? “The cow says… moo.” It’s like that. The Boss says, “I need that right away or you’re fired!,” The Teenager screams, “You don’t understand me! You never understood me!” The Mobster whispers, "Come along quiet now, if you know what's good for you."
Beware these. They're terribly easy to write. Even experienced writers let stuff like this slip through now and then. It's just too easy. Especially when the ladies at the gym are making themselves part of the problem.
Lunch: The “Traditional Vegetarian Burrito” from Poquito Mas. Fantastic!
Jane on 02.04.06 @ 04:51 PM PST [link]
Wednesday, February 1st
Hi all! Did you know they’re marketing cross-sums (the number version of crosswords, and a mild fave of mine since childhood) as “Kakuro” now, to capitalize on the Sudoku craze? I think writing a spec should from now on be referred to as “working a Supeko.” I can jump on a craze as lamely as the next guy.
We’re still talking story here, and I have a cautionary tale from my own experience. My first entrée into the business was pitching story ideas at Star Trek: The Next Generation. (This was the prize for my one successful Trek-spec.) After one pitch session they took me to an office and showed me a special white board. It had about eight or nine story titles on it, with hash marks under each one. I don’t know what they called this board, but I doubt it was the Whiteboard of Happiness.
These were the story pitches that they heard every single day. They included, among others, “Body Switch” – an evil or mischievous alien scrambles the bodies of the crew. “Jack’s Back,” in which Dr. Beverly Crusher’s long-gone husband reappears, or is it really him after all? And “Egg,” in which a mysterious floating space object is taken into the ship only to turn out to be… well, the title gives this one away. They told me (although I wasn’t sure if they were joking) that one hopeful writer had even combined these last two: the egg is taken into the ship and it hatches, revealing Jack Crusher.
I watched as another hash mark was added under “Body Switch" -- the result of my pitch session that day. Sigh. The lesson is this. If there’s a story that seems to you so obvious, so necessary, so perfect for the show that you really cannot believe they haven’t done it yet – then this is NOT the story to spec. If it’s really that obvious, then it’s almost certain that they haven’t done it for exactly that reason.
Addendum: A big hello to Maggie, at http://bootstrap-productions.blogspot.com/. I stumbled across this blog and discovered a fellow linguist-turned-scifi-writer. Go Maggie!
Lunch: A hot-and-sour noodle soup that I made myself!
Jane on 02.03.06 @ 01:17 PM PST [link]
Here is a neat little thought experiment that can sometimes lead to a good jumping-off place for a spec. You might want to give it a try, just to see if it works for you.
Make a list of all the regular and recurring characters on your show. Pick two of them who rarely are in scenes alone together, and try coming up with a story that throws the two of them together (but don't trap them in an elevator). It’ll probably turn out to be more of a B-story than an A-story, unless one of the characters you picked is the lead. If you find an interesting and believable way to put these two together, you’ll have an opportunity to demonstrate your ability to write for existing characters, AND to write good chewy relationship material the show hasn’t already exhausted.
Remember on Buffy, when Spike and Andrew tackled a mission together? That’s what I’m talking about. Good stuff.
Lunch: turkey and vegetable salad from the gym.
Jane on 02.01.06 @ 10:46 PM PST [link]