Home Contact Biography Works Media News

Jane Recommends
Who Hates Whom / Bob Harris

Who Hates Whom: Well-Armed Fanatics, Intractable Conflicts, and Various Things Blowing Up A Woefully Incomplete Guide by Bob Harris

"The geopolitical equivalent of scorecards that get hawked at ball games. Only Bob could make a user’s guide to our increasingly hostile world this absorbing, this breezy, and—ultimately—this hopeful."
~ Ken Jennings, author of Brainiac


Jane in Print
Serenity Found: More Unauthorized Essays on Joss Whedon's Firefly Universe, edited by Jane Espenson

Flirting with Pride and Prejudice: Fresh Perspectives on the Original Chick-Lit Masterpiece, edited by Jennifer Crusie and including Jane Espenson's short story, "Georgiana"

Finding Serenity: Anti-Heroes, Lost Shepherds and Space Hookers in Joss Whedon's Firefly, edited by Jane Espenson and Glenn Yeffeth

Jane in DVD

Jane in DVD

Now Available:
+Battlestar Galactica Season 3
+Dinosaurs Seasons 3 & 4
+Gilmore Girls Season 4
+Buffy: The Chosen Collection
+Tru Calling
+Angel: Limited Edition Collectors Set

Jane in Progress


Friday, March 30th
Not Actually How Sophie Chose

I love it when I receive a letter with a question I've never addressed before. This one comes from Adam in New York. He writes:

What is your take on writing partners/teams? I'm currently working on a spec with two other people. The writing process is a success so far, but will that become a problem when it's time to shop it to agents/producers, etc?"

Writing as part of a team can be a really smart move. I've worked with many teams, and it can be a great way to maximize your value to an employer. Teams split their salary, but they each provide much more than half the work of a single writer, so a good team can be incredibly useful and sought-after.

The ABC/Disney Writing Fellowship allows submissions from teams, and, interestingly, doesn't even require them to split the stipend.

The main problem that's generally cited in regard to writing as a team is that if the team ever splits up, both members have to start over with entirely new solo-written specs and build their individual reputations from the bottom-up again. But if a team is solid, it can be a great source of stability and confidence, and it can produce really stellar work. (Although not in half the time. Teams can work better than individuals many times, but they don't generally work faster. At least, that's been my observation.)

In fact, the only problem with what you've got going, Adam, is that writing teams are made up of two people, not three. Always. You might think that you would provide even more value as a triumvirate, but it's simply not true. Even if the system could accommodate you, there would be serious concerns: a three-person team would dominate the staff, for example.

So, Adam, I'm afraid what you've got on your hands is a Sophie's Choice. Might I suggest one potato - two potato?

Lunch: chopped salad with warm chicken. Quite good.

Jane on 03.30.07 @ 12:52 AM PST [link]

Wednesday, March 28th
Putting the Cart Before the Horse (and Getting Rid of the Horse)

Here is a sentence you sometimes hear in a writers' room: "What if we took that big event in the fourth act and moved it up to the first act?" Here is a sentence you never hear: "What if took our teaser and made it the big conclusion?" Jump-starting the action is almost always better than delaying it. And this is especially true with a spec script, because most of your readers aren't going to make it past page fifteen unless they're hooked and hooked good.

Look at the beats as you have them laid out and play around with this idea. You might find that a lot of the early scenes in your episode are there to lay out a series of logical steps to get your characters into position for a big event. Series of logical steps can feel plodding and dull. Try putting the big event earlier and see if you can move those plodding steps into "stuff that happened before the episode started". Of course, you'll have to come up with brand-new, even bigger and more exiting stuff to replace the thing you moved up, but if you find it, you can create a real rip-snortin' episode.

It won't always work, but when it does it can take a slow fuse and replace it with an explosion. And in a world of busy readers, that can really really help.

Lunch: salad bar and tortilla soup
Jane on 03.28.07 @ 09:17 PM PST [link]

Monday, March 26th
Why my clothes don't match

There is lightbulb in my closet that has needed replacing for - I'm not kidding - two months. Every day I think about taking five minutes and replacing it. But every day, I ask myself what makes today different from yesterday. In other words, "why now?" In the absence of some inciting incident, I seem to be powerless to act. (I might act immediately after the bulb goes out, but once that incitement has passed, I require a new incident.)

When you're constructing a story for your script, you should assume that your characters are like me. If there's no reason for your story to happen now, then you risk having it feel to the readers as if there's no reason for it to happen at all. Make sure there's an inciting incident, and make sure it's strong, recent and compelling. Everything will work out much better and everyone will have a well-lit closet.

Lunch: salad bar and what was labeled "split pea soup," but they must've split the peas on the atomic level because there was no particulate matter in it of any kind. It was a uniform green liquid. Hmmm. Can't say I care for that.

Jane on 03.26.07 @ 09:37 PM PST [link]

Sunday, March 25th
Hands are for typing, not waving

When you're writing your outline, remember that it's not a sales document. Once you're a writer on the staff of a show, the outline is going to be read and evaluated by others. But for right now, for writing a spec, no one but you -- unless you want input from friends -- is going to see this document. The purpose is not to convince anyone that the story works. The purpose is to figure out IF the story works.

This is your chance to visualize how the written script is going to work. The scenes, the transitions, any stylistic devices you might be using, these will all come to life on your inner screen as you write the outline. Problems that weren't obvious during the breaking process should start to become clear. This is your chance to find them and fix them early, so pay attention to those bits where you find yourself doing a bit of "hand waving." I'm talking about those places where you write things like "around this time we realize she loves him..." or "over the course of the next two scenes, his temper cools." It's okay if you know how you're going to accomplish this, but if you're just putting it off... that's a warning light.

If you let squishy stuff get through the outline stage, it's not like you got away with something. Because it's not gonna be any crisper when you sit down to write the scenes.

Lunch: cheddar cheese on crackers. Bad crackers, very cardboardy. (talk about not crisp)

Jane on 03.25.07 @ 12:12 PM PST [link]

Saturday, March 24th
That Darn Mella

When you're actually on the writing staff of a show, an outline isn't just something you write for yourself. You actually write it for the show runner and for the studio and network executives to read so that they can have input on the story at this stage. This means, of course, that it's a somewhat more polished document than what you might put together for your private use.

An outline written for this purpose often starts with a short summary of the episode, condensed into a few sentences. I always spend a lot of time on this, and not just because I want it to be compelling and clear. The best summaries capture the "what it really means" of an episode.

Here is a bad summary for an imaginary episode of an imaginary show:

Mella and Ben get in a fight over her immaturity, and she storms out of the house late at night. When she gets locked out of her car in a scary downtown neighborhood, she is protected by the local homeless population until she can call Ben, which she does reluctantly. He picks her up, but the fight continues.

Here is a better one for the same episode:

Mella storms out of the house when Ben suggests she's immature. When she's locks herself out of her car in a scary downtown neighborhood, she doesn't want to call him, knowing she's proving his point that she can't take care of herself. Only an encounter with the local homeless population makes her put her own ego into perspective. She calls Ben, losing the fight, but knowing she did the prudent thing. She lost the battle, but she just might have won some maturity.

First off: bleah. I don’t know what this imaginary show is that I just cooked up, but I can't say I'm that interested in it. Mella sounds like a load, and the homeless thing? A bit precious, no? But I think you can see the difference. The second summary traces her emotional arc, and tells you how each event leads into the next and what it all means.

It's often the writing of the logline, the forced condensation of the story, that brings it into focus for me. You're forced to drop out all the embroidery and just concentrate on that strong central line. This, ultimately, can actually affect how you write the episode, since you've been reminded of the importance of making that line clear and vibrant throughout the whole script. Wouldn't you rather sit down to write with the second summary in front of you than the first?

Even if you're just writing an outline for your own private use, I recommend coming up with a good strong summary you can keep in mind.

Lunch: taquitos!

Jane on 03.24.07 @ 11:04 AM PST [link]

Thursday, March 22nd
Golf Cartography

Hey there! Did everyone enjoy tonight's episode of Andy Barker, PI? This was "Fairway, My Lovely," the episode I co-wrote with Alex Herschlag. Unusual for a half-hour script, it included an action sequence, and I thought you, Gentle Readers, might enjoy looking at how it was written. Here is part of it, exactly as we scripted it:

ANOTHER ANGLE REVEALS Brian on the roof of the cart. He must've grabbed hold of the cart as it went past him.

ON ANDY as a HAND comes down over the side of the roof, catching Andy's face and pulling it back. Andy struggles to drive with a hand pulling his nose back.


CLOSE ON: ANDY'S FOOT, still flooring it. And then... he moves it, STOMPING ON THE BRAKE.

The cart slams to a stop, clubs flying out of the bag, and BRIAN IS FLUNG out onto the course. Andy jumps out and heads for the crumpled figure of the fallen caddy. Brian is motionless. Possibly badly injured.

Brian? Are you all right?

He bends over to check on Brian. But Brian was playing dead and now he GRABS ANDY by the shirt front and pulls him down onto the ground. Brian stands above Andy...

First of all, I should say that I don't consider myself a great action writer. It's always the last part of the script that I write. I even tend to zone out when watching action. Just tell me who won, you know? But I've gotten better at it over the years as I've finally learned that the hard part is the visualization of the action, that writing it all down can be pretty easy and straight-forward once the hard part's done.

This is how I tend to like to write action. There are a few camera directions, like "On Andy" and "Close on:". But mostly I'm striving for a succinct description of exactly what's happening without telling the director how to shoot it. The main actions are in capital letters, but that's not an exact science. I mostly use this for things I'm afraid people will miss. Also, you'll notice I'm free with the sentence fragments. I want the sequence to feel quick, almost breathless in the writing, and fragments can help with that.

Notice also that it's not strictly true that you can only include descriptions of things that can be seen. Look toward the end. "Brian was playing dead." That's a conclusion that I want the readers/viewers to draw, and it's the intent of the moment. But it's not, strictly speaking, only visual. Earlier in the piece, "possibly badly injured" is also something that's less than purely visual. It's there to make clear to a reader why Andy is getting so close to his opponant. Don't get all hypervigilant and discard things like that on the basis of some kind of screenwriting rule. The purpose of the exercise is to be clear, not to follow the rules. So loosen up, forget about a bunch of technical stuff. Thoroughly visualize what you want, then just get it on paper as clearly as you can.

Lunch: pasta salad and banana squash soup. No one was taking the soup. I think maybe they thought it was squash banana soup.
Jane on 03.22.07 @ 09:55 PM PST [link]

Wednesday, March 21st
Mail Bag Grab Bag

Just a reminder -- my episode of Andy Barker, PI airs tomorrow night (thurs) on NBC! Check it out. After it airs, I'll talk with you all a bit about writing action sequences, since I got to write a really fun one for this episode.

But while we wait for the ep to air, I say we go to the mailbag. Robert in Orlando asks about how a novice can get an idea for a show to a network. Sorry, Robert (and everyone else with this very popular question), I'm afraid I don't know of any such open door. I was working as a writer for more than ten years before I got to pitch pilot ideas to network executives. If there were a quicker route, most TV writers would take it.

Networks like to hear pitches from writers with the experience to write a polished and producible script, and ideally with the experience to run the show themselves. In short, it's just not a system that's really set up for input from the outside. But there is a way to the inside of the system, if you want to write a spec script and use it to apply to programs like the ABC Writers' Fellowship. So pull up a chair and we'll talk specs!

Finally, to comment quickly on some other notable notes:

In answer to Richard from New York -- thank you for your letter -- I'm not allowed to use any writing submitted to me, but thanks for lovin' the blog! In answer to Andrew, also from New York -- yes, I think your interpretation of the Balzac joke is exactly right! And a thank you to friend-of-the-blog Leona for the lovely card. And to Scott from Alameda for his Battlestar insights.

Thank you everyone! Soon: action!

Lunch: an ice cream sandwich (I know, I know)

Jane on 03.21.07 @ 09:40 PM PST [link]

Tuesday, March 20th
Livin' in Minnesota?

Remember when Ricky Martin's "Livin' La Vida Loca" was the big inescapable hit song that you heard everywhere? My friends and I got into an idle discussion of what the Weird Al Yankovic parody of it was going to be called. We went through lots of options -- you know the sorts of things -- everything from "Livin' with Melanoma" to "Swimmin' in Aqua Velva" and "Lovin' the Almond Roca." We felt we'd pretty much exhausted the possibilities. It was hours later, in the middle of another conversation, that one of us unexpectedly yelled, "Livin' La Vida Polka"!

Just because you've found a joke you're happy with, doesn't mean you should stop looking. I've been amazed at how often, in a comedy writing room, a joke has been sitting in a script for days before someone hits on a better version of it. Keep working, keep thinking, be open to the better line.

By the way, I don't think Weird Al ever did release a parody of "Vida Loca," although another parodist did one called "Livin' La Vida Yoda." Hmm. Didn't even think of that one. We should've kept going.

Lunch: Minestrone and salad
Jane on 03.20.07 @ 09:56 PM PST [link]

Monday, March 19th
Slimming Down

In an observation related to the previous post, I've decided that there's a definite advantage to turning in a spec that runs a bit short. Or, at the very least, I can now see a distinct disadvantage to turning in one that's on the long side.

I used to think that one of the plusses of writing a spec was that you don't have to make quite so many hard choices about cutting it down to the right length. After all, since it's not going to be produced, making it producible isn't quite as crucial.

But now I'm thinking about the busy agent, executive or show runner looking at the stack of specs they're supposed to read. Which one would you grab first? The big fat long one? Or the one that looks like a quick read, an easy accomplishment?

If I were writing, say, a spec "House"? I'd look at my produced examples and turn in a spec that was several pages shorter, and certainly not longer than they are. It might not make a difference, but I sure don't see how it could hurt.

Lunch: Something at the Universal cafeteria called "Cincinnati Chili." It turned out to be served over spaghetti, which is how I like it anyway. A triumph!

Jane on 03.19.07 @ 09:56 PM PST [link]

Saturday, March 17th
Comedy Concentrate -- Just Add Pie!

Okay, here is another chapter in the continuing saga of whether or not you're going to need some other kind of material in addition to your specs of existing shows.

I've reported here before that writers are being urged by various agencies around town to have short stories, short plays and scripts for short films available in addition to traditional specs. But this week I heard a new spin on this.

Aspiring comedy writers are now being urged to have short comedy pieces available for busy executives and even show runners to read. And we're talking really short, like a few pages!

The kinds of things that are being used for this seem to vary. Parody pieces suggest themselves immediately: a spoof of a catalog, or of a children's book, or of a museum guidebook, or of a MySpace page, or of the "Harper's Index," or of the "cuteoverload" website, complete with pictures? ... maybe an excerpt from a scholarly analysis of The Pussycat Dolls... maybe a school-lunch menu that devolves into a rant from a clearly deranged lunch lady. A parody of a travel guide or an obituary...? A funny series of newspaper retractions that build off each other...? An amusingly bad translation of The Rosetta Stone...? I assume comedy sketches and funny short stories would be good for this kind of purpose, and I could also see a humorous dialogue written as an exchange of emails, or as a series of text messages. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if soon execs are just given the address to the YouTube clip you've written and produced for them. Maybe we're already there.

Be creative in thinking of your approach to what you pull together for this. If the concept itself is unique, that in itself might just be the thing that opens that door. Take a while to decide what to do, take a few practice passes at it. When a piece is short, it often takes far longer to write than something long, because every word of it has to be precisely right.

Now, recall that this does not replace a script. You will still need a spec script of some kind. Possibly a spec pilot, although I still advocate also having at least one spec of a show currently in production. So write your spec "The Office". And then keep writing just a little bit more.

The idea, if this isn't clear, is that reading a script takes time and concentration. Gems can be missed because the reader is rushed and tired. Something short and punchy that shows off your comedy skills in a concentrated fashion is going to have a heck of a lot of appeal.

Lunch: "Eggs Ranchero" at some random restaurant on the 3rd St. Promenade.
Jane on 03.17.07 @ 11:56 PM PST [link]

Thursday, March 15th
ABPI is on the air!

So I've literally just now arrived back home fresh from the Andy Barker, PI premiere party. Large fun was had by all and the pilot episode looked great, didn't it? I'm told that my episode (co-written with the delightful Alex Herschlag) airs next week, so tell your Tivo all about it.

One of my favorite lines was cut from the pilot -- so much always has to be cut to bring an episode to broadcast length. And I ask you to consider the question: is this a joke?

The moment was Andy watching himself on surveillance video, while searching for a clue in the background. He winces at what he sees and says, "Uch, I walk just like my dad."

Now, obviously, that is not a joke in any traditional way. And yet it is a line that draws a big laugh. It's a great lesson that all you need to be funny is character and observation. Andy's comment is totally recognizable to all of us -- we've all had reactions like that when looking at ourselves on film. That's the observation part. The character part is that Andy is the kind of character who is willing to voice the thought even while searching earnestly for a clue.

Some of you may be alarmed by the idea of having to "write funny," because you're not confident in your ability to structure a joke. Well, look at that one... no darn structure at all and it's a gem.

Character and observation. You can do it!

Lunch: egg foo yung and rice. Quite good!

Jane on 03.15.07 @ 11:11 PM PST [link]

Tuesday, March 13th
Moses Presupposes his Toeses Are Roses

You know, I had fun discussing that fragment of an Andy Barker, PI scene yesterday. Yes, I think I'd like to look at the rest of that scene. Note that this exchange does not appear in the final version because it was cut for length, but it's still a joke I like very much:

/The bit we discussed yesterday leads into.../

Nope. Wait! Yes I can! I mean, they taped the lesson! They probably still have the tape at the club.

Lew gets up.

All right, then. Let's go. It's three in the morning. The place'll be deserted. We can break in and lift it easy.

It's three in the afternoon.

Then we'll need a plan.


I'll call this a presupposition joke. It's much funnier to have a character be wrong about something they're presupposing than about something they're asserting. When Lew says "It's three in the morning," even though in this particular joke it's phrased as though he's asserting it, it's very clear that he doesn't think he's telling Andy something he doesn't know. Lew is presupposing that it's the middle of the night, and therefore, in the absence of other evidence, the audience will assume he's right. Then, when they realize he was wrong, the result is humor. Humor!

I remember attending a taping of some sitcom when I was new in town. (Perhaps it was Blossom? Perhaps not.) There was a joke in which a not-very-bright teenager, AFTER announcing that she'd been given a school assignment to write about "Women of the Nineties" asked, "Wouldn't they be really old?" Another character corrected her. "Women of the nineties, not in their nineties!" The joke, if I recall the audience reaction, fell somewhat flat. You might think the joke is a lost cause, but I actually think, by reworking it as a presupposition joke, it could've worked. If we started the scene with the girl collecting a lot of information about osteoporosis and needle-work, explaining to her friends that she had this assignment about "really old women," then it's possible that it would've been amusing to have someone glance at her assignment and point out that she'd misunderstood it -- that she'd made a wrong presupposition. At least, I suggest, it would've had a slightly better chance.

Lunch: bowtie pasta with marinara sauce and artichoke hearts

Jane on 03.13.07 @ 08:46 PM PST [link]

Monday, March 12th
This American Blog

Did you know we're famous, Gentle Readers? This very blog was mentioned on stage as part of the hilarious and wonderful This American Life Live Tour '07, which I attended in Los Angeles tonight. Ira Glass mentioned on stage that this blog sometimes engages in joke analysis. So I've decided, in honor of that, to indulge in some joke analysis this evening. The twist is... I'm not sure why this joke works.


Here is an excerpt from the script for "Fairway, My Lovely," the episode of Andy Barker, PI which I co-wrote with Alex Herschlag. (You can watch it here). I wrote the following exchange, which had to convey loads of information, but which also needed to have some funny in it. (Note that Lew is an aging retired private-eye of the hard-boiled variety.)

It does all add up. The affair, the pills, the condo, the fight they had during his lesson. Of course, she says they were just arguing about his grip...

There's always loose ends and you have to let 'em go. After all, you can't go back and listen to the fight.


Can't time travel.

Of course not.

Can't travel in time.

Nope. Wait! Yes I can! I mean, they taped the lesson! They probably still have the tape at the club.

And the scene continues from there. Lew's repeated rephrasing of the same information just struck me as funny. And even though I wasn't sure why, I kept it in, and I still find it hilarious, and I'm still not sure why!

It's absurd, of course, but absurd never really works on its own. A character doing something nonsensical might make us laugh for a moment, but if it's truly random, it's not all that funny.

So I think the joke works because it reflects so much about both characters. It speaks to Lew's dogged persistence combined with creeping forgetfulness, and it also illustrates Andy's infinite patience. I also think the joke plays with the viewers' expectations of how a scene is structured. We're so used to scenes in which a character lists a series of good reasons to do or think something, that there's something startling and refreshing about a scene with the rhythm but not the content of such a list.

Of course, if you don't find the exchange amusing, then that is also a valid answer to the puzzle. Why does the joke work? "It doesn't" is also an answer. (I still think it's funny.)

Lunch: Universal Studios salad bar and a very dry granola bar that caused me to have an impressive coughing fit in the writers' room.

Jane on 03.12.07 @ 11:39 PM PST [link]

I Think the Sheriff is Steamed

Well, gentle readers, you will notice that I'm actually posting this very late on Sunday night. Although it is late, I wanted to post a tidbit for you! You know how, in a short story you might write something like this?

"You two," the Sheriff began, looking back and forth between the two men, "have a great deal of explaining to do."

That technique, of splitting the dialogue to suggest a pause or simply to create suspense, might feel like something that's very specific to prose writing. Screenwriting by its very nature is about the raw dialogue, after all.

But look. You can create exactly the same effect in a script just by doing this:

You two...
(looking back and forth between the two men)
...have a great deal of explaining to do.

It's a little unorthodox to put an action in a parenthetical like this. Technically it should be a stage direction, but I think that doing it this way more clearly recreates the pacing and intent of the prose. And if you can make reading your spec feel like reading a short story, you've just made it transparent, readable, enjoyable in a way that scripts often are not. And can't you just hear the Sheriff's slow boil?

By the way, use this sparingly. It's a spice, not a sandwich. Too much, and the script will start to feel choppy and labored. Just here and there, please.

Lunch: Buffet City again! Coconut shrimp and prawns with cheese and loquats and other wonderful items!

Jane on 03.12.07 @ 12:38 AM PST [link]

Friday, March 9th
Not a Theme: "Funny Things People Do"

Observant readers will note that the "Who is Jane" header on this page has changed to reflect my new position on Battlestar Galactica. Now, I am still involved with Andy Barker P.I., of course, so you need to watch that too, starting on March 15. (You can also check it out here!)

Battlestar is a blast -- a great room and a great show runner, making the best show on television. So much fun I cannot express it. Really.

But I can talk more about the importance of theme in a spec script! While we're on the topic, I just want to warn you about something I used to do, early in my career. I could convince myself, quite skillfully, that any two stories were thematically linked. I'd have an A-story in place, and I'd try to come up with a B-story. As soon as I'd have an idea for one, I'd declare it themic because both stories dealt with, um... "Lies!" or "Secrets!" Well, an awful lot of stories have lies and secrets. They're perfectly good themes, but they're better when they're cut into tailored suits, not thrown over stories as if they were horse blankets.

Also beware of using word play in place of a genuine theme. Check-kiting and kite-flying both have "kite" in 'em. Doesn't make 'em themically linked. This is an exaggeration, but it's not far off from what a writer eager to locate a theme will settle for.

So give it some thought. If you really want two stories to resonate with each other, engineer the theme, don't just mine for it after the fact.

Lunch: bacon cheeseburger. Ate every bite of it, too. Yummy.

Jane on 03.09.07 @ 09:32 PM PST [link]

Thursday, March 8th

Let's imagine that you've looked at all the example produced scripts you've collected for the show you're specing. And let's say that you've noticed that the show's A and B stories are usually united by theme. Well then, it's pretty clear that your spec should do the same thing. Now let's say they're only sometimes united by theme. What should you do?

Theme! I say use it. I say use it even if the show only does it rarely. Gilmore Girls scripts, for example, don't tend to have unifying themes. But if I had ever written a spec GG, I would've made it totally themalicious. If you want your spec to feel deep, unified, professional, there's nothing better for doing that than creating that sense that these stories are together for a reason.

You don't need to make the connection explicit, nor too neat. But if there's just a subtle sense that the stories comment on each other, it can really kick the script up a notch.

Lunch: More from the Universal salad bar. Love those beets.

Jane on 03.08.07 @ 09:19 PM PST [link]

Wednesday, March 7th
One Last Clam

Ooh. I saw another example of a rehabilitated clam last night! Recall that a "clam" is an old familiar joke. I posted recently about the process of using clams as the basis for newer, fresher jokes. Well, they did one on The Daily Show last night.

Correspondent Rob Riggle: "What part of 'no doubt' didn't you understand? Was it the silent 'b'? Because that's kind of tricky, actually."

The "what part of" clam is one of the clammiest clams in the sea, so I give 'em lots of credit for trying to do something new with it. I'm not sure it really works -- jokes about orthography are really tough sells under the best conditions -- but I love that they gave it a try.

Lunch: Universal Studios cafeteria salad bar.

Jane on 03.07.07 @ 09:16 PM PST [link]

Monday, March 5th
My Favorite Moment of the B

Last time I was in New York, I thoroughly enjoyed a performance of "The 25th Annual Putnum County Spelling Bee." The play contains several intertwined stories of the various children in the bee, with the stories given differing degrees of time and focus. That means, of course, that there was a B-story in the bee story. Mwuph! (That's the sound of my muffled laughter. Oh, I love the wordplay.)

So let's talk about B-stories. The B-story is the secondary story in your episode. It's the thing that Toby and Oscar are doing while Dwight and Michael are carrying the A-story, to put it in Official terms. You might have more than one story in addition to your A-story, and sometimes you'll hear the term "C-story," but often all the non-As are called B-stories. (Unless a supporting story is so small that it's really just a few moments here and there -- then it's called a "runner".) If two stories share an episode and are of equal importance, they're sometimes called "Co-A-stories."

Developing a B-story is often a matter of playing with negative space. It's determined to some degree by whatever the A-story is not. It involves the characters you have left over, and it often takes on an opposite tone: it's humorous if the A is dark, it's talky if the A story is full of action.

In other ways it's similar to the A-story. It has to take place in the same amount of time, for example. I remember a very tough story breaking session at Gilmore Girls because we had an A-story that played in real time that for some reason we really wanted to pair with a B-story that took place over a series of days. Something, ultimately, of course, had to give. It's also often the case that the B-story and the A-story share a theme, sometimes dealt with in a contrasting way. If the A-story is about someone dealing with grief by becoming grim and self-destructive, the B-story might be about someone dealing with the same loss by becoming manically life-affirming.

The key, as always, is to consult the produced episodes of the show you're specing. This is one you can do using the scripts, and also just by making close observations as you watch. Make a chart of the A and B stories in each episode and note how they relate to each other. Do they share a theme? Do they explicitly comment on each other? Does one story influence the events in the other story? As always, try to emulate whatever your show is already doing.

If you're writing a spec pilot, you can decide to combine your A and B-stories in whatever way you find the most effective. (You might want to think about how your favorite show handles the issue and try doing it how they do.)

And remember that the B-story might just be more important than the A. Because it's often the more emotional, more internal story while the A story has the action and explosions, it's often the B-story that ends up being the more memorable, more affecting story. In my old NYPD Blue spec, it was the comedic Martinez-and-Medavoy B-story that caught everyone's attention. The same thing can happen with that funny little Chase-and-Wilson story you've built into your "House."

Lunch (yesterday's): hot fresh char sieu bao in Chinatown, SF. Wow.

Jane on 03.05.07 @ 10:51 AM PST [link]

Thursday, March 1st
Currently Alternating

There's a trap that's very easy to fall into when you're breaking a story, and that's when you trick yourself into thinking a story is progressing when instead it's just alternating.

The very first (never submitted) spec script I ever wrote was an episode of M*A*S*H I attempted when I was 12 or 13 years old. One of the many things wrong with it was that I structured it around a simple choice: would Charles commit to the young woman he had been engaged to back in Boston? At first he didn't. Then he did. But she didn't. Then she did and he didn't. Then they both didn't. When I finished the script I looked at what I'd written, changed the name of the episode to "The Seesaw," and added a scene in which they talked about how they kept changing their minds. (Already I was a big believer in "hanging a lantern" on a problem.)

Now, I'm sure you haven't done things this badly, but it is pretty amazing how this kind of story-telling can still occur even now that we're all grown-ups. If your spec is about a choice, make sure that the act breaks are about more than just alternating which choice is made. If your plot is about whether or not something will occur, make sure you're not just alternating a "yes" and "no" answer to whether it will or not.

Look for more than a reversal, look for an escalation. Change the question.

Lunch: a baked potato with broccoli and cheese sauce. Waaay too fatty.

Jane on 03.01.07 @ 08:00 PM PST [link]


Get Blog Updates Via Email

Enter your Email

Preview | Powered by FeedBlitz


Walt Disney Writing Fellowship Program
UC Berkeley
Jane recommends you also visit BobHarris.com



March 2007

Valid XHTML 1.0!

Powered By Greymatter
Greymatter Forums

Home | News | Works | Biography | Frequently Asked Questions

Site design Copyright © PM Carlson
This is a fan site owned and operated entirely by PM Carlson with the cooperation and assistance of Jane Espenson. This site is not affiliated in any way with Mutant Enemy, 20th Century Fox or ABC.