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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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Saturday, April 26th
What We Realize

Did you see my episode of Battlestar Galactica that aired last night? I myself did not, as I was on a soundstage, watching even fresher Battlestar being made. So instead, to celebrate, I reread the script this morning and I thought I might show you all a little excerpt to illustrate how simple it can be to do something that might look tricky on the screen.

SPOILERS... if you haven't seen the episode yet, you might want to wait. Anyway, there's a moment in the episode where something plays out and then you realize it didn't really happen, that it was just one character's fantasy/fear/hallucination/projection/SOMETHING.... Here's how I scripted it (I'm just showing you a scene fragment here):

...Awkward pause. Adama signals the bartender, then says:

We all miss her, Chief. I understand if you want time off. Or even if... if you want more shifts, want to keep busy. None of us knows how we’ll react to a loss. What we’ll need.
Don’t need anything special, sir.

The bartender slides a drink to Adama (he knows his preference without asking).

I guess it was just more than she could take, huh? Being married to a Cylon who made her the mother to a half-breed abomination.

Tyrol blinks at Adama. Who is JUST NOW BEING SERVED HIS DRINK. We realize that was a small moment of surreal fantasy (a la Tigh’s imagined shooting of Adama in episode three).

ADAMA (cont’d)
(to bartender)
Thank you.
She was a good woman.

See what I did? Almost nothin'. I just said what happened using emphasis so the eyes of careless reader wouldn't miss it, and then with a "We realize..." sentence. I love "We realize," because what you're really doing is conveying to the reader the intended experience of the viewer. You're not forcing them to guess about what you want the viewer to understand at that moment, and you're not using dialogue to over-explain something that a character wouldn't say out loud. I find it incredibly useful as long as it's not being used to try to convince a reader that something would be clear to a viewer when in fact it would not. It's a powerful weapon, use it well.

Lunch: shrimp dumplings, rice rolls, sticky rice and chicken in lotus leaves from Dim Sum place near the hotel. Best Dim Sum I've had in a long time. Vancouver is food heaven!

Jane on 04.26.08 @ 02:03 PM PST [link]

Friday, April 25th
2008 B.C. (British Columbia)

Hello again, Gentle Readers. Were you worried about me? So sorry to disappear for so long. I'm up here in Vancouver where they're shooting my latest Battlestar episode. It's crazy and hectic and wonderful. I'll be back to talk to you all again when I'm out from under!
Jane on 04.25.08 @ 07:52 PM PST [link]

Wednesday, April 16th
Costume Customs

A blog letter just arrived in one of those little packets you get from the post office when their equipment mangles a letter. This envelope inside is missing about a third of itself, resulting in a letter that's missing its corners, although not in that cool Battlestar Galactica way. Luckily for Gentle Reader Maryanne in [town name torn away], Australia, very little of the actual content of the letter was obscured.

Maryanne writes to ask:

Obviously, costumes are chosen by costume designers, rather than writers. But if the costume is actually mentioned in the script (like, for example, Riley's "clown pants" in The Yoko Factor.), how much specific description would the writer give in [word torn away, assume "the"] script?

Well, I don't have a copy of Doug's script for The Yoko Factor. I've found one on line, but I can't tell if it's the actual script or a transcript. At any rate, the line of stage description that I found reads: "Riley pulls a pair of hideous multi-colored weight lifter pants from the knapsack," which sounds about right. That's the degree of detail you'd generally give.

Wardrobe description, by the way, was something I found very confusing as I set out to write my very first scripts. I knew that clothing was part of what defined characters, but once I started describing the characters clothes, I felt like I needed to do it for every scene in order to be consistent. So I went overboard. I recently read a script by a new writer who had clearly fallen into the same line of thought, telling the reader what everyone was wearing in every scene. That's not only unnecessary, but it's distracting, since it makes the reader think that these details are going to be important, raising expectations that don't pay off.

Mention clothes when you first introduce someone, if it's important to the character ("She's the sort of young woman who insists on dressing like a teen-aged boy, right now in tennis shoes, jeans and a hoodie."), and when something significant is happening with the clothes ("His suit is rumpled and a pair of women's underwear dangles from his pocket."), and when they help define a supporting character ("Men in white coats enter through both doors simultaneously.")

Beyond that, if you assume your characters are dressed appropriately, given their characters and their surroundings, your readers will assume the same and it'll be fine to leave everything unspecified.

And if, like Riley's pants, you need to describe some oddity, do it clearly and succinctly, and don't feel like you can't convey an attitude about it, as "hideous" does in the example.

Hope that helps, Maryanne from mystery town!

Lunch: cup o' noodles, fig newtons

Jane on 04.16.08 @ 01:37 PM PST [link]

Tuesday, April 15th
Places, Everyone!

I love it when people write in with concerns I never would've thought of. We all know the frustration of having some question that everyone else seems to know the answer to, so it's never even discussed in the books.

Gentle Reader Carrie writes in with one of those questions. She asks:

After reading about copyrights regarding song lyrics not long ago, I got to wondering if there might be any copyrights associated with place names? For instance, let's say San Francisco. Is there process I would need to go through to use a certain place in a script, or would it be okay to just plunk a story down in the middle of any given town?

Plunk! Plunk away! You can set your show anywhere you want, without fear of legal problems. From San Francisco to the Pope's bedroom, you can use it all without fear.

Your main concern about setting should have to do with (imaginary, for a spec script) shooting expense. I mean that if you had a big exterior shot in which your actors have to interact with some big iconic piece of the landscape that cannot be recreated on a soundstage, that you might have a problem. For example, if your script called for your hero to blast through the canals of Venice on a jet ski, well, that sounds a bit pricey and it might be off-putting to a reader looking to see if you can write to a TV-sized budget.

The only other setting problem I can think of regarding locations is that U.S. network television has been traditionally wary of shows set overseas, but I'm not sure that should stop you from writing a London-set spec pilot (or wherever), if you've got a seriously brilliant idea. Just be aware of the bias because, again, it might, might, make a reader peg you as unsophisticated in terms of the preferences of the market.

Lunch: avocado, lettuce, tomato on olive bread. Too much mayo, but good.
Jane on 04.15.08 @ 11:11 AM PST [link]

Sunday, April 13th
But Go Crazy with the "Frak"s!

Friend-of-the-Blog Jeff sent me this link which I'm delighted to find references not only an interesting script style, but also a couple mentions of moi-self. Heh!

The issue is the use of earthy expletives in the non-dialog portions of your script. Apparently this is done with frequency and enthusiasm over at Lost. There is some talk in the referenced piece about whether or not this is a good thing. Someone speculates there that I might not approve. Well, it depends. I like a script to have force and energy and enthusiasm. I dislike scripts that read like gas grill assembly instructions. And these certainly look like scripts with verve. If I were on that staff, I think I'd probably have fun varying my style by tossing in a few zesty words.

Friend-of-the-blog Jeff raises the even more important issue, however. What if you're writing a Lost spec? Should you follow the general rule of making it look like a produced script, and thus "fuck" if all up? Or should you avoid the dirty talk?

My inclination is to either refrain, or to split the difference. If you're comfortable doing so, you can certainly write your stage directions with rather more punch than you might otherwise do, perhaps even get profane here and there. But be very careful about going overboard, because while there is little cost to avoiding the profanity, there might be a big one to overdoing it. And I'm not talking about easily offended readers. I don't think that's the hazard. I'm talking about coming across as flippant about the contents of your own script.

Joss never liked it when Buffy was referred to as "camp," because that word suggests a style that doesn't take its characters seriously, and we always took our characters very seriously. Similarly, you don't want to seem to be making fun of all the people and actions in your spec script, and if you think about how a script with flip and exaggerated stage directions might read, I think you'll see how it could easily give that impression.

Lunch: those darn stuffed jalapenos at Jack In The Box again. I can't stay away!

Jane on 04.13.08 @ 08:35 PM PST [link]

Friday, April 11th
Character Moments on the Run

Someone reminded me, yesterday, of this moment from "The African Queen." My recollection was that there was a moment in which, even in a tense situation, Katharine Hepburn's character was charmingly concerned about having possibly used the wrong word. Just now I looked up the relevant exchange.

They're talking about repairing a broken boat part -- about how to reattach it after it's fixed.

And tie it on, I suppose.

(missing his irony)
Yes, if you think that will do. But
wouldn't it be better to -- weld it?
That's the right word, isn't it?
Weld it on?

You're a one, Rosie. Really you are.

Isn't weld the right word, dear? You
know what I mean even if it isn't,
don't you?

Oh, it's the right word, all right.

He laughs again. At first, Rose is afraid that his laugh is
caused by desperation, but when she sees that it is not, she
laughs with him.

This is an amazing example of sneaking character moments into plot moments. This is my favorite kind of writing in the world. They're focused on finding a solution to their problem. Really, really focused, and yet look at all the character stuff -- first, it says something about her that she misses the irony, and then there's more character because she's embarrassed about having possibly used the wrong word, and EVEN MORE about her that she thinks the two of them can attempt a solution on such a large scale. On his side, we get to see, first, his ironic inclination, and then his reaction to all those quirks of hers that I just mentioned. My god, this is dense. (Also note the wonderfully specific stage direction at the end. Perfect.)

Analyzing it that way makes it look impossible to write, I know. But it's not. Just always think, even when you've got characters frantically pushing through the moves of your story... always think about what they're really thinking and feeling, especially about the other characters in the scene, and let them express it in some little way. Are they nervous or confident? Who feels subservient to whom? Is someone playing dumb, being coy, or trying to impress? If you let those considerations come out in how they talk, you're going to end up with lovely dense character-rich exchanges even when the plot is galloping along.

Lunch: chicken quesadilla

Jane on 04.11.08 @ 02:23 PM PST [link]

Wednesday, April 9th
Addendum to Yesterday's Post:

Guess what happened in the room today? The nature of the episode we were breaking caused someone to say, "Hey, you know what we should do? Go back and look at the show bible!" So, well, there you go. Sometimes it really is used in the room. How 'bout that?

Lunch: grilled cheese sandwich, tomato soup.

Jane on 04.09.08 @ 06:52 PM PST [link]

Tuesday, April 8th
How to Give Maris Hives, Alphabetized

Gentle Reader Julie in New Jersey writes in to ask about show bibles. She wants to know how they're organized, what exactly is in them, whether they're ever published for the general public, whether they're updated as the show continues, etc. These are all great questions.

My impression is that this varies. Not all shows have bibles, and when they do, they can look very different. There is no standard format. In fact, there is no standard function.

Once, years ago, I got my hand on a copy of the "Frasier" show bible, and it was a wonderful and meticulous document that was scrupulously maintained to reflect everything known about the characters and their history. If something was established on air -- the name of Frasier's mother, Niles' favorite professor, Martin's favorite bar, it was reflected in the bible which then served as a resource for the writers to keep everything consistent. I remember with particular delight a list of Maris' food allergies that must have been fifty items long.

That's the only bible I've seen that worked that way, though. (It may be a half-hour vs. hour distinction.) The other ones I've come across (and there have only been a couple) have generally been sales documents used to help a television network or studio understand a new show, and are sometimes given to new writers as they join the staff, for the same reason. They discuss the characters, especially their back stories, and the world of the show. In the sales document version, essentially a much-expanded pitch, there may be a discussion of plot lines projected into the future of the show, perhaps in the "season one will be about..." form. But since shows often take off in unexpected directions, this kind of feature is quickly outdated and irrelevant. It's possible that a bible may contain some firecracker of information about the way the creator envisions the eventual end of the series, but since everything is subject to change, that firecracker may be a dud. Especially if the fuse was lit many years earlier.

I haven't seen this kind of bible get updated as a show continues. This means that they often contain information about the characters or their world that has been changed by subsequent scripts and is no longer valid.

Often, shows rely on their writers' assistants or script coordinators to be walking bibles, in that they're often tasked with remembering or researching questions like, "What did we name our lead character's childhood pet hamster?" or "How much time passed between episodes two and three?"

Julie asks if show bibles contain "rules" for how that particular series' universe operates. Yes, this is one of the things a bible can contain. I haven't looked at it for a while, but I remember that the Battlestar bible has lots of detailed explanation for how the ship itself operates, including the function of various features of the hangar deck, and a discussion of the technical language used by the pilots, and even a neat little essay on why it's not plausible for anyone to abscond with a viper.

As you've probably gathered, show bibles sound really cool -- and they can be -- but they just aren't as important as you might think to the daily life of the staff. The truth is that once you're living inside a show, you're swimming as fast as you can from one island to the next, and there is neither the time nor the need to record decisions that have been made (these are in the scripts), or that are in the process of being made (these are in the notes taken in the room as the writers work).

I don't know for certain of any show bibles that have been published the way that scripts are sometimes collected and published. If anyone has done this, it would probably be one of the Trek series. Let me run to Amazon... Yes, it looks like a version of the Voyager bible is included in the "Star Trek Voyager Companion." You might want to look at that, Julie and other interested parties, to run your eyes across one of these in the flesh.

If I receive any emails from my friends on various shows saying that what I've written here doesn't reflect the role of a bible on their show, I will let you know.

Lunch: avocado, lettuce and tomato on olive bread. The olive bread tends to dominate.

Jane on 04.08.08 @ 06:15 PM PST [link]

Monday, April 7th
And Maybe Looking in the Mirror Will Make Him See Himself

Recently, I was watching an old re-run episode of a series that I rather like, when a character said-- okay, let me set it up for you. Imagine a detective, holding something. I think was an old book of mug shots. Let's say it was. He carries it into the interrogation room where the suspect is pleading ignorance of some crime. And our detective says... no really, I swear, he says,

Maybe a walk down memory lane will jog his memory.

But, but... but walking down memory lane already means-- Oh my. Try saying it out loud. Try emphasizing different words. It doesn't get any better, does it? It's a bad line. Well, actually, it could be a great line in the right context, if you specifically wanted to suggest a self-important but unintelligent character. I've talked before about incorporating awkwardly repeated words for precisely that effect. But that's not what's going on here.

I actually suspect that this might've been a case of a problem born on the stage, not in the script. Sometimes things change during the shoot and a line ends up being hastily re-written, or perhaps even mis-remembered by an actor. And then something like this can happen. This line has that kind of "place holder" feel to it, like the intended line would be in that semantic area, just not involving the odd redundancy.

You don't have to worry about that kind of stage-born problem in a spec script, but you do have to make sure that lines like this one don't make it onto the page. Sometimes a line like this gets through because you yourself wrote it as a place holder and then forgot to fix it, or because the moment is so inconsequential that you never really looked at what you wrote to make sure it made sense. Keep an eye out. If a line seemed to write itself because you've heard similar lines a million times, it's probably worth reviewing for several reasons: if it isn't holding your interest as you write it, it probably won't interest the reader either. And at worst, it might be nonsense.

Lunch: chinese chicken salad.
Jane on 04.07.08 @ 01:01 PM PST [link]

Sunday, April 6th
Zoeae Doesn't Refer to Baby Clams, But it's Good For Scrabble

When is a clam born? How many times do you need to have heard a joke before it becomes too familiar to be used? I've thought of this question a couple times recently. Once was after I wrote my post of April First in which I jokingly used the phrase "I don't roll that way." Hmm... there's almost certainly a whiff of clamminess there. I've heard people saying that a lot recently, and it's always in quotes, never a genuine use of the phrase. That's a bad sign, when the genuine uses disappear.

But what about this one? The other night, Stephen Colbert referred to his new Peabody Award as "...the turducken of awards," because it's "...like an Oscar wrapped in an Emmy inside a Pulitzer". The word "turducken" immediately set off my clamometer. There was a time when no sitcom Thanksgiving episode was ready to air until a turducken joke had been included. But this metaphorical usage? What of that?

I did a quick search for "the turducken of" and found references to "the turducken of cycling," "the turducken of monsters," "the turducken of flea markets," of cheese and politics and spy gadgetry and air travel. But the results were in the hundreds, not the thousands. And many of them referred specifically to Colbert's usage. My verdict: not a clam. Not yet.

In fact, this specific trick, taking something hilarious that's been overused in its literal sense, and retricking it out in a metaphorical sense, may be an excellent device for reviving worn-out jokes. Sure, the Thigh-master is a dead joke. But if a character was relating seeing an older woman "working the pool boy like he was a Thigh-master," well then, ahem... that might be new territory.

You're generally better off with references that are fresh all the way through, but if your perfect metaphorical reference is to something slightly less-than-fresh, you might just get away with it anyway.

A quick note to Gentle Reader Samiva -- I got your note and I hope you found my recent posts about comic book scripts helpful!

Lunch: bean and cheese burrito from Poquito Mas. Doused with a combo of Red Rooster and Green Tabasco hot sauces. Spicy!

Jane on 04.06.08 @ 04:26 PM PST [link]

Friday, April 4th
Another Voice to Master

Have you given any thought to your writing style? Sometimes script writing teachers can give you the impression that a good script is as styleless as a blueprint, purposefully bearing no mark of an author in order to be an impartial conduit of what-the-viewer-will-see-and-hear.

Nonsense! Scripts can have as much style as a novel or short story. Stage directions are nothing less than you, whispering directly into the ear of the reader. That's your voice. You can choose to be dispassionate and precise, to stay out of the way. Or you can be breezy and whimsical and conversational. Or poetic and evocative. You can choose a style that fits the scene, if you want, toning down the joking asides and turning up your inner Poe when a scene is dark.

Now, here's the amazing part. You can even employ style when you're writing for a show that already exists. Even if you're on staff at that show. One of our Battlestar writers has a distinctive straight-from-the-id style that makes his scripts stand out from the rest of ours. Listen:

"The room is so quiet you could hear the sweat trickle." That's from a stage direction. And notice that although it's got whimsy to it, it's also incredibly economical. Stylish stage directions don't have to be long-winded. I could give you a half-dozen examples from the same script with the same degree of conciseness and style. They don't distract, they enhance.

In general, it's usually good to try to write like the show runner, but if you've got a good light hand and a vibrant style, you should experiment with letting it shine through in your scripts. In fact, you may find that that nagging urge to put voice-over in all your spec pilots will go away, if you let the stage directions serve a bit of that need you feel to talk to the audience.

Lunch: hot dogs (no buns), cucumber salad

Jane on 04.04.08 @ 02:43 PM PST [link]

Thursday, April 3rd
You Don't Need to be a Secret Agent to Find Out Agents' Secrets

I hope you all already read the blog by Amanda The Aspiring TV Writer. In particular, check out this entry and, ooh, this one. This is amazing stuff from INSIDE AN AGENCY. Fantastic. Note that there's material here that applies directly to the topic we recently discussed about the possibility of contacting agents directly through query letters or submissions.

And those of you debating whether to try to break into the industry in the come-to-Hollywood-and-make-connections way will learn a lot about the nature of that experience by following Amanda's adventures. I certainly do.

Even though this humble blog tries to focus on the writing process itself, the getting-a-job-process is just as important, and finding resources like Amanda's blog can be a big help.

Lunch: Get this. The cafeteria was offering a "spinach-strawberry salad" with a very yucky-looking pink dressing. I got them to give me my strawberries on the side, no dressing, and all was wonderful.

Jane on 04.03.08 @ 02:45 PM PST [link]

Tuesday, April 1st
Frenzy. An Excellent Noun.

Oh my. April already? By the way, have no concerns that there might be an April Fools prank here. I don't roll that way.

Instead, I'm going to promote the annual April event, Script Frenzy! I recommend this event. Note that it's not a writing contest, exactly, but more of a motivational framework that helps you write one hundred pages in thirty days.

If I were an aspiring writer, as many of you are, I would use this as an opportunity to write two spec pilots. (Or perhaps write one and then thoroughly rewrite it.) Often the hardest part of writing is the pushing-through of it. Don't skip structure, of course, but often getting that first words-on-paper draft completed is the way to break through that writing bottleneck.

Go, check it out, and start writing!

Lunch: they had an omelet bar in the cafeteria today, but really, they were more like scrambles. It was okay.

Jane on 04.01.08 @ 11:09 AM PST [link]


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