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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

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~ Ken Jennings, author of Brainiac


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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

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Sunday, April 29th
She also said, "...don't tell that to the dry foliage". Fantastic!

Last night there were localized brush fires around Los Angeles. I turned on the local news to hear a reporter deliver the following line:

Reporter: "The threatened houses are now out of the woods. The woods themselves, however, are still largely on fire."

Oh my god. I love this. Genius! And I cannot decide on the degree to which she knew how funny these two sentences are. There was a certain halting and dour quality to it, combined with the fact that later in the report she referred to "the worst fire-danger year in recorded history in the last fifty years," that makes me think it was completely unintentional.

I go back and forth on which is funnier, a character who is genuinely not aware of the humor in what they're saying, versus one who is. Usually I come down on the side of smart and self-aware. And I adore a smart character who catches himself saying something stupid.

I think it's the popularity of this combination that has led to this current virulent infestation of "that didn't come out right." (I saw it two more times this week, and I wasn't even watching sitcoms.) Clearly, we need a new way for characters to react to their own ill-considered words. Personally, I favor the silent wince, but physical reactions don't always work as well in a spec as they do on screen. Maybe just a defiant, chin-up, "Yes, I just said that."

In other news, maybe you should all wait up on those 30 Rock specs I've been urging, until we see how this Alec Baldwin thing shakes out. Geez.

Lunch: soy-based sausage patties, tortillas and avocado
Jane on 04.29.07 @ 09:00 PM PST [link]

Friday, April 27th
It stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow

In response to a recent question about where to acquire produced scripts for The Office, an observant friend-of-the-blog directs us to dailyscript.com, where I understand you can actually have scripts emailed to you in the pdf format. Oh, technology today. It's like we're all living at EPCOT.

Once you have a few produced examples, you can start examining them minutely. I mean, really minutely. If I were sitting down to write a spec Office, I think the first thing I would do is try to figure out how the show balances the Michael Scott stories against the Jim-and-Pam stories. Is one more likely than the other to drive events, to result in act-break moments? Do they always comment on each other? Influence each other? Which character is more likely to undergo change during the episode? Is Michael really the lead character, or is it Jim-and-Pam? I would want to go through every script and every logline until I understood the typical skeleton of the typical episode. Only then would I start trying to find stories that fit together, that grow out of the show's genetic material, but which also strike a little deeper than just an average ep.

Then get some 30 Rock scripts. Repeat.

Lunch: veggie dumplings, stuffed eggplant and some sort of lovely chicken dish at City Wok, a restaurant right here in the shadow of Universal Studios "City Walk" attraction. Clever and yummy!
Jane on 04.27.07 @ 11:52 AM PST [link]

Wednesday, April 25th
That's Right. I Said Dog-Fondling.

I have, in the past, advocated a fairly loose adherence to the "rules" of what can be allowed in the various parts of a script. For example, I'm cool with allowing stage directions into parentheticals sometimes. Like this:

I'm... I'm sorry... about the crying...
(blowing nose)
I just can't seem to stop.

And it's fine with me if you put some stuff into stage directions that isn't strictly visual. Like this:

John stares out at the audience, his nervousness growing with every breath. The prediction of his failure that we heard in the earlier scene just might be about to come true.

Sure, technically the writer is telling the reader what to think in that moment, instead of exactly what they're seeing, but it's only giving the reader an assist in terms of reminding them where they are in the story.

But be careful. It can be really tempting to go too far. And then you've got this:

Andy pets the dog tenderly, contrasting its rough fur with the soft hair of a human, and contemplating the unfairness, that this creature gets to live out its life in a shorter span, untormented by mysteries that take decades to unfold.

Interesting, but any reader is going to be justified in wondering how in the heck they're supposed to know what Andy's thinking when all they're really "seeing" is dog-fondling. Don't assume that a reader won't notice when they're being told things they aren't seeing; it actually really leaps off the page when this happens.

So split the difference. Let the reader into the bits of a character's internal landscape that an attentive viewer would be hip to. But don't give them the power of mind-reading. They'll notice.

Lunch: spaghetti with pesto and chicken
Jane on 04.25.07 @ 12:28 PM PST [link]

Monday, April 23rd
The Wavy Green Line

Ever notice how often, when speaking, you leave off the pronoun subject of the sentence? Happens all the time. I do it without even noticing it. Do it totally automatically.

You probably do this already when you're writing dialog, but sometimes the grammar check may intimidate you into correcting it. Don't correct it!

Gonna go check the doors. Wouldn't want any uninvited guests.

The missing "I'm" and "We" in this line wouldn't do anyone any good. (Of course, if you want to give a character a voice that suggests they're very correct, very precise, then always including the pronouns might be a good start.)

In general, you should ignore the grammar check when you're dealing with dialog, and often even when you're writing straight prose. I remember once being told that a grammar/style check reacted to the sentence "The boy was naked," with the suggestion that the sentence would be better not in the passive voice. It suggested replacing it with "Someone naked the boy."

I use the grammar check to help me find those sentences from which I've unconsciously omitted words -- it can be helpful for that -- but beyond that, beware.

Lunch: edamame from the Universal cafeteria. Made less appetizing by being labeled "green beans".
Jane on 04.23.07 @ 04:51 PM PST [link]

Sunday, April 22nd
Getting Away From The Office

Lisa from the Hoosier state writes in with a question that I haven't addressed for a while. She says:

"...I read somewhere that if you want to write for The Office, you should submit a spec for a different show to them? Is this true?"

The answer, of course, is a ringing, "Well, sort of". If you're established enough to have an agent, then an agent is indeed not going to submit your spec of a certain show to that show. They'd send your spec Office to Earl and your spec Earl to The Office, for example. But if you're still on the outside, trying to get into the business, then you're going to be using your spec to try to get an agent, or even more likely, you're going to be submitting it to contests and to wonderful opportunities like the ABC/Disney Writing Fellowship (follow the link elsewhere on this page). So you might as well write the spec you think you can do the best job on.

Right now, everyone seems to be writing an Office spec, the way that when I was struggling to get into the business, we all had Seinfelds. The disadvantage is that yours has to stand out compared to all those others. The advantage is that you're getting to spec a great show.

You know what, though? I feel like it's time for 30 Rock. It's feeling established enough now. Smart show, funny show... feels specable to me. That might at last provide a little variety.

Lisa also asks about finding produced scripts of The Office. Good for you! That's an absolutely crucial step. A quick check reveals that Ebay might provide what you seek. Good luck, Lisa!

Lunch: those cheese-covered prawns at Buffet City. Yum!

Jane on 04.22.07 @ 09:19 PM PST [link]

Saturday, April 21st
Don't Just Stare. Stare AT Something.

Want to know a sneaky scriptwriting trick that will instantly make your work look deep while addressing a fundamental limitation of screenwriting? I thought you might.

One of the problems with writing in script format is that, unless you're getting very abstract and stylish indeed, you can only show what's happening on the outside of a character. It's not the best medium for really internal stories, because we can't see the characters thoughts. And the one thing that can take us right into a character's internal monologue -- a voiceover -- tends to be a bit devalued, because it feels like exactly what it is, an attempt to circumvent the limitation. So we give our characters other characters or pets to talk to, hallucinations or fantasies, or the tendency to talk to themselves, in order to help illuminate their inner thoughts.

But there is another way. It's a trick, but it's a good one. And with this one, you don't have to arrange to give a character a conversation partner. Plant a physical object in the script during an important scene. Later, when a character is alone, show them looking at that same object. Boom! We know what they're remembering. It's like magic. It's especially effective if the object stands for a person or a relationship. Remember the end of Brokeback Mountain? One of the men finds the two shirts, nested together, that had been saved by the other man. It was a detail from the short story that was perfect for the screenplay because it took us inside the character's head.

An article of clothing was also a memory trigger in my episode of Firefly. Kaylee looks at her fancy party dress, now hanging in her grimy quarters, and we know she's fondly remembering the party from earlier in the episode.

And the end of the Battlestar Galatica episode Maelstrom... oh, this one's a heartbreaker. Kara has given Adama a small figure of Aurora, which we clearly identify with her. After Kara has disappeared, Adama fastens it to a model ship as its figurehead. And then, in a genius moment, he destroys the model in a fit of frustration and grief. Holy cow. Compare this to a scene in which he sits at a window and stares into space. Both tell us that he's thinking, but the version with the previously-established physical object tells us exactly what he's thinking and feeling.

A silent solitary moment of contemplation is greatly helped by any little trick you can use to clue the audience in. Give it a try... drop that toy giraffe in there somewhere. You'll want to use it again later.

Lunch: chips and dips at my friend Michelle's house, where I was for a lovely Scrabble party

Jane on 04.21.07 @ 07:38 PM PST [link]

Thursday, April 19th
I Finally Get Why Some Joke Writers Don't Want To Talk About It

A big thank you to the wonderful group at USC that had me out to answer questions for them this evening. I had a blast! One of the questions made me think about what makes a good joke writer.

There are two ways to be a good joke writer. One way is to be a person-who-says-funny-things. Most sitcom writers fall into this category. They don't like to analyze jokes because they don't want to ruin what happens naturally by thinking about it. It's like when you think too hard about how you're typing -- I'm not thinking 'b,' I'm just reaching for the 'b', so where is the 'b'?? -- and then suddenly you can't type. These sorts of people write jokes by thinking of funny things and then writing them down. (By the way, this is a new revelation for me. I never really understood why some joke writers were so scared of joke-analysis. But once I realized how unconscious their process truly is, I got it.)

The other way to do it is the analytical way, like I do. If you don't think of yourself as a "funny person," this is the way to approach the job. Analyze jokes, take them apart, put them in categories, find the key to what makes them work. If you have a sense of humor, which is to say, if you laugh at other people's jokes, you can learn to do this. This is how the rest of us write jokes. We don't write a joke and then figure out afterwards why it's funny. Instead, we think of what a funny attitude would be for a character to have, and then construct a joke that reflects it.

Know which kind of person you are. There's no shame either way. The first kind of person does fantastically well in a sitcom room, where speed is valued. But the second kind of person does well in some sitcom rooms and almost every other kind of room as well.

Lunch: pumpkin-filled raviolis at Ca Del Sole, right near Universal. Sooooo delish!

Jane on 04.19.07 @ 10:03 PM PST [link]

Monday, April 16th
Smelling like a thing and another thing!

Clams revisited! Clams, remember, are jokes that have grown detestable through overuse. You know the ones. Ones like "did I say that out loud?" Gahh!

But there's a certain kind of joke that's related to a clam, and yet it doesn't get old. That's because it has little slots in it into which new material can be inserted. Let's call it a clamshell. (Thanks to friend-of-the-blog Erin for the terminology assist.)

I'm sure there are many of these out there, but tonight I'm just presenting the first documented clamshell that has captured my attention. Remember these lines?

You smell like aftershave and taco meat. (Blades of Glory)
You smell like beef and cheese. (Elf)
You smell like sweet red plums and grilled cheese sandwiches. (The Wedding Planner)
You smell like old people and soap. (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory)

Fascinating, isn't it? It's permafresh!

Lunch: I might just smell like pizza and a peanut-butter cup

CORRECTION: The above quote is from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the newer movie, not Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the Gene Wilder version. Apologies!

Jane on 04.16.07 @ 11:26 PM PST [link]

Sunday, April 15th
Start by Clenching Bits that No One Can See

Writing on the actual staff of a television show is more about talking than it is about actual writing. After all, you only get to write somewhere between one and, at the outside, four episodes a year on any given show. What you do between those writing weeks (and often during them, too), is work as a group breaking and re-breaking the episodes that others will write. That means talking. Pretty much nothing but.

Those of you who are cloistered at home with your spec scripts might benefit from getting used to talking about writing, to discussing story and all the possible directions a story can take. You have to be able to articulate your idea and to listen to contradictory takes on a story without (visible) clenching. You can do this informally with other aspiring writers, or you can join a class or other group. If you have a writing partner then you already have this built in, of course.

If your inclination while working on a story is to grab your laptop and say, "no, no, I can work it out on my own, just give me forty pages and a couple days," then you're going to need to adjust to thinking about the creative process as something more open. Let the sunlight fall across those pages, even if your inclination is to gather them to your chest, screeching, "Don't look! They're not quite done yet!"

Lunch: hot dog at the Vegas airport. No jalapenos nor sauerkraut were offered, so I tried those dried hot-pepper flakes that one puts on pizza, but they were strangely undetectable.

Jane on 04.15.07 @ 07:42 PM PST [link]

Thursday, April 12th
Usually it's not, in fact, a glass of water

Very sad news about Kurt Vonnegut. Slaughterhouse Five is a personal fave. Sigh.

Friend-of-the-blog Jeff directs us to this interesting artifact, a list of Vonnegut's Eight Rules of Writing Fiction, from Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons 1999), p. 9-10:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things -- reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them -- in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
-- Kurt Vonnegut

These are fascinating, and they can be applied, obviously, to script writing as well as to prose. (Well, except maybe rule 4 -- some of your sentences are stage directions, which are a part of different conversation than the one occurring in the fictional world.)

Rule 8 is making me think a bit, and not just about the cockroaches. I assume he meant that readers should be able to imagine a satisfying ending, not that that they would be able to anticipate the exact ending you're giving them. Don't you think?

Rule 5, "Start as close to the end as possible," is genius. Remember when I talked about taking the events that happen late in your script and using them instead as a starting place? Remember when I talked about cutting into scenes after the main action of the scene has begun and joining them in progress? I had never thought of these as part of the same impulse, but they are. They're part of starting near the end. Beginnings are often boring, endings are not.

And yet there are things we never wanted to see end.

Lunch: salad and some of a jelly doughnut

Jane on 04.12.07 @ 10:17 PM PST [link]

Wednesday, April 11th
Long Tall Funny

Generally, it's a good rule of thumb that shorter jokes are better. But every now and then it's the length and complexity of the joke that makes it work.

When I worked on Ellen we did a bit once where she was stuck at the top of a rock-climbing wall in a gym. She yells down instructions to her friend. The line was something like this:

Okay. I need you to find out where the manager is, then I need you to go to his office, and ask him to please turn off the gravity.

You may disagree, but I contend that this is funnier than simply:

Turn off the gravity!

For me, this line is funny because she's presenting it as if it were rational, and the hyper-rational beginning is what achieves that. Here is another joke from Ellen that relies on its sincere and elaborate set up. The line was delivered by Karen, Ellen's girlfriend's ex-girlfriend (take a moment to figure it out) who is trying to intimidate Ellen by implying she had a better relationship with Laurie, the girlfriend, than Ellen does. The line was approximately:

I remember once I came home to find that Laurie had filled the place with candles, and there was a note that said, "Every one of these flames will eventually burn out, except the one in my heart." And then we did it.

The sincere build-up makes the crudity hit all the harder. So don't panic if some of your jokes look a little long. You might be using something like this to your advantage!

Lunch: iceberg salad with chicken. I love warm chicken in a salad.

Jane on 04.11.07 @ 08:42 PM PST [link]

Monday, April 9th
Speaking Irrelevance to Power

Here's a joke from an episode of Andy Barker, PI. Andy is pointing at a series of stickers.

Inspected by number seventy-eight, seventy-eight, seventy-eight. Notice a pattern?

You keep saying "seventy-eight" the same way.

I love this joke, and it occurred to me that it was probably a recognizable joke type. "True but irrelevant" has to be type. I tried to think of another example, and I instantly remembered this exchange that I saw years ago on an episode of "Perfect Strangers." Balki is testifying about a piece of evidence in court. This is from memory, but it's very close:

Do you notice anything odd about this photograph?

It is borderless.

Oh, here's a similar one. Do you remember this (approximate) exchange from the episode of The West Wing in which the president was rushed to the hospital after he was shot?

Are you in good health?

Well, I've been shot.

These are almost always good jokes because they play off character. If the character is being disingenuous, as in the last example, the joke makes him smart and snarky, which can be useful to illustrate. If the character is answering genuinely, as I would claim is the case in the first two examples, it tells us about his unique world-view. This is even more useful. A character who sees the world a bit differently is the kind of character who breaks out, who is instantly memorable. If I were still writing for Buffy, this is the kind of joke I would give to Anya. It's possible, in fact, that I did write jokes of this type for Anya. If you're writing for a character like that, you should probably play around with this joke type. I think you'll find it very useful.

Lunch: salad bar and a creamy mushroom-artichoke soup that caused great distress later.

Jane on 04.09.07 @ 10:40 PM PST [link]

Sunday, April 8th
Remember, a Clam is an Overused Joke

Clam alert! I'm calling clam on the following construction:

"She's what you call -- how can I put this nicely? -- oh yes, a skanky ho."

And its clam-cousin:

"He's a thieving bastard, but I mean that in the nicest possible way."

Both of you. Out of here and into the chowder. Go through your spec scripts, everyone, and toss 'em out. Seriously, I'm done with 'em.

Lunch: stuffed jalapenos from Jack in the Box

Jane on 04.08.07 @ 07:27 PM PST [link]

Saturday, April 7th
It Wasn't Really a Family Reunion, But I Can't Remember What It Was Exactly

Years ago, I was working on a sitcom about a family with three kids. That meant that there were frequent family meal scenes in which everyone had to be given lines. This is a common situation; if you've got a big group scene, you pretty much have to make sure everyone has something to say.

But watch out for this little trap that we fell into. Early in a breakfast scene the older sister said something like "I don't want to go to the family reunion this weekend." Then the other four people in the scene all weighed in with their jokes about this and that, and the next time Big Sister spoke she said something to her brother like, "You're just jealous because we're all going to be having fun at the family reunion." Hmm.

It was an unintentional contradiction, and it actually was in the script that way through at least one run-through without any of us catching it. I think the actress was young enough that she just figured we must want it that way -- I blanch to think of her trying to come up with the story in her head that justified this strange uncommented-upon turn.

The moral is that sometimes it helps to read any big group scene like this to yourself several times, with each character in mind, just to make sure that the character is consistent. It can be surprisingly easy to write the line that comes most naturally off the line preceding it, and that will set up the line that follows, without making sure it lines up with that character's stated attitude.

Lunch: beef shabu shabu

Jane on 04.07.07 @ 09:20 PM PST [link]

Thursday, April 5th
A Betta is a Kind of Fish

So, who is the main character in your House spec? In your Ugly Betty spec? House? Ugly Betty? Are you sure?

You might be very confident that you've centered your story on the main character. After all, they've got the most scenes, and they're the one driving the story, making the choices. But if they're not the one who is changing during the story, then they may not be as central as you intended. Sometimes, during the process of breaking, re-breaking, outlining and writing, you might find that the story has shifted out from under you as you've become interested in some minor character, or as you've tried to satisfy other requirements. Without your even being aware of it, the spotlight might've moved away from your main character, leaving the good doctor in the dark.

I was fortunate enough to go snorkeling this last weekend. (Oh the fishes/ So lovely/ And delicious.) It's remarkable how your eyes are drawn to the one element in your landscape that's moving. Be it a Ugly Betty or Ugly Betta. If your main character moves -- changes -- during the story, the readers won't be able to take their eyes off of him or her. If someone else is doing all the moving, you risk having a spec that feels off-center and beside the point.

Lunch: egg salad sandwich, Fig Newtons

Jane on 04.05.07 @ 09:09 PM PST [link]

Tuesday, April 3rd
Putting the Car in your Career

Interesting. Recently (March 30), I observed that writing teams are always composed of two, and only two, writers. But then I got a note from a Friend-of-the-Blog, saying:

Believe it or not, there may have been a three-partner writing team on the original staff of "Everybody Hates Chris." I knew one of the original writers for that show... and he mentioned one of the teams had three people. I know it's rare, but I guess it can happen...

Well slap my flank and call me Bessie. Who knew? I have to say, though, that this is very rare indeed. And it gives me the image of trying to navigate the streets in a vehicle that's three cars wide. How do you steer it? How do you park it? How do you keep it from splitting into three cars that want to go different directions? The metaphor might be breaking down, but I think you get the point.

While we're in the area, here's more on teams. It's not usual for a writer to be part of a team that writes features, while also pursuing a solo TV writing career. Entering into a partnership doesn't have to mean that you're partnered for every aspect of your career. So feel free to seek out writers you're compatible with. Just make sure you're very happy with the shape of the car that results.

Also, a big thank you to the lovely people of Equality Now and the Browncoats who were involved in my trip to WonderCon. They sent me a deeply appreciated gift of exotic spices which I am currently sprinkling on everything in my home. Thank you!

Lunch: cafeteria sushi. Oh, the cold chewy rice. Sigh.

Jane on 04.03.07 @ 08:26 PM PST [link]

Monday, April 2nd
A Strong Showing

Friend-of-the-blog Danny Strong (you know him as Jonathan on Buffy) has done something very very right. I keep trying to put up links to the news articles, but for some reason they're not working, so you might have to cut and paste this one:
or this other one:

Or just Google the words “Recount” and “Pollack”. Holy Cow.

How did he make this wonderful thing happen? Spec scripts. In this case, feature specs. Danny wrote several of them. They got him noticed, gained him a good reputation, which led to him writing this project (not a spec) for HBO. Fantastic. That’s exactly how it’s supposed to work.

No one is born with a good reputation. You get there by working. And then reworking. Not just by producing masses of product, but by concentrating on learning how to improve the product.

Congratulations, Danny!

Lunch: chicken cacciatore at the Universal Cafeteria
Jane on 04.02.07 @ 07:24 PM PST [link]


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