Wednesday, May 30th
Tuesday, May 29th
Scott in Toronto wrote in a while back with some interesting questions. Apparently I let this letter sit a little longer than I should have, since one of Scott's questions asks if there's any point in writing an Andy Barker PI spec. At this point I'd have to say there is not.
Scott also asks a really interesting question about when you have to remove something from your spec. Here's the deal: he has a certain joke in his spec for "The Office." Recently, he saw a very similar joke actually used on the show. He wants to know if he has to change it.
Well, technically, probably not. He feels the joke is an important one that ties the story together, and I will point out that this certainly isn't as big a deal as seeing a whole plot duplicated.
But, I will ask, Scott, that you give serious thought to replacing it. The Office is a hugely popular show in these parts, and it's likely your reader will have seen the episode in question. And I bet you can find another joke that's just as good and that does the same job of tying the story together. Remember, there is always another joke. I've been amazed, over the years, at the stuff that can get pulled out of scripts without damaging them. And almost always, when a change is made, it turns out to be change for the better. This happens simply because you're being forced to really think hard about the story.
So give it a try. If you really can't beat the joke, then you can leave it in if you must, but if you can beat it, you get a better script, plus you won't be running any risk of a reader thinking you lifted the line.
(Scott also asks about spec-ing "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia". Well, a little checking does show that this FX comedy would seem to be eligible for the ABC/Disney Fellowship application. It's a more obscure show than many, so any writer will face that classic problem of weighing passion for a show against possibly dealing with a reader who has never seen it. You will have to flip that coin yourself, Scott.)
Lunch: an avocado and swiss cheese sandwich -- a very nice combination
Jane on 05.30.07 @ 01:44 PM PST [link]
Monday, May 28th
Rene from Melbourne writes in with a question that's so Australian that I literally had no idea what she was saying for a while. Delightful! Aussie Aussie Aussie! (Now you, gentle readers, say "Oi Oi Oi".)
Anyway, Rene says she loves "coloring her big print" and wants to know if that's okay. Further investigation suggests that she's referring to getting creative and figurative in her stage directions. She writes:
I know it probably depends a lot on the tone of the show, but to me, "An awkward pause" doesn't have nearly as much flavor as "Crickets chirp", for example. And, "Cameron knows a rhetorical question when he hears one" seems way juicier than, "Cameron doesn't respond."
She worries, however:
...I sometimes wonder if I'm getting too far away from the basic big print function of describing the action in my pursuit of keeping the reader interested between the lines. [...] So, do we treat the reader and the viewer as one and the same?"
First off, I'm fascinated by this use of "big print" to describe stage directions. Is that Aussie? English, too? Or is it just new and hip? It makes sense for multi-camera scripts where the stage directions are in all caps, I suppose. Interesting.
But to actually answer the question, Rene: go for it. Yes, creative stage directions are a great way to make a script into an interesting and confident-sounding sample. A reader is not the same as a viewer and they deserve to have attention paid to the special constraints of script reading. They don't get the benefit of music, editing and pretty people to look at. We have to use other ways to help set the mood of the script, and this is a great way to do it.
My only quibble is with "crickets chirp." That particular stage direction could be read as a real sound effects instruction, so unless you really want the reader to imagine hammy clammy crickets on their internal sound track, I'd steer clear of that one.
In fact, I'm reminded of one of my first jobs. We were working together as a staff on a script. We had just put in a stage direction: Fran enters, walking on eggshells. After a moment's thought we changed it to something like Fran enters cautiously. The show had a very eager and very literal crew, and we feared that actual eggshells might appear on the set.
Oh! And now I'm remembering another story. Once, in a Buffy script (Band Candy), I wanted to indicate that Giles was very embarrassed and self-conscious about something Buffy was talking about. I wrote "Giles finds something interesting on his lapel." Several members of the production staff came to me to ask about the thing on Giles' lapel -- would it turn out to be the villain of the next week's episode, they asked?
So be poetic, but careful. If there's a way to read your direction as literal, someone will do it.
Lunch: salad bar
Jane on 05.29.07 @ 03:51 PM PST [link]
Saturday, May 26th
Some jokes work better when said out loud than in print. I think I've mentioned this before, but I've just remembered a really good example of this. I remember seeing an episode of The John Larroquette Show with the following joke (approximate, from memory):
Your mother is Connie Rogers?
She was. She changed it to Connie Selleca.
Oh. After the...
After the car.
A very strange little joke. Whatever you may think of it, you have to admit that it works far better when heard and not read. If you end up with a joke like this in your spec you may be debating how to properly get it down on paper so that it works -- add some stage directions to clarify it, maybe?
Nope. Cut it, change it. There is always another joke. This is probably the biggest lesson of comedy writing. No matter how much you love a joke, even if a particular joke was why you decided to write a certain episode, there is always another one. I've seen scripts where a given spot in a given scene is (temporary) home to more than a half-dozen jokes over the course of a week. And those are just the pitches that made it onto the page at some stage. Many more will have been pitched in the room.
Give it a try. Pick a random joke in your script. It can even be one you like, and imagine you've just been told that the only change you need to make is to improve that joke. I bet you can do it. Now do it with every single joke in your script. It's just like being on a show!
Lunch: Vietnamese rice noodles with pork and shrimp
Jane on 05.28.07 @ 09:44 PM PST [link]
Thursday, May 24th
Another quick note about the ABC/Disney Fellowship. I included this as an addendum below, but I think it deserves its own entry. There is no advantage to writing a spec for a show that either airs on ABC or is produced by Disney or Touchstone. So don't let that factor into your choice, gentle readers.
I also wanted to let you know that I've just received an invitation to go speak to the current group of fellows. I'll do this, and while I'm there I'm going to make a point of finding out what shows they wrote specs for and why they think they were selected. Let's crack this code!
ADDENDUM: thanks to Melinda in LA along with others who asked this question.
Lunch: scrambled eggs with tortilla and avocado
Jane on 05.26.07 @ 07:26 PM PST [link]
Wednesday, May 23rd
If you're preparing a spec of an existing show to submit to the ABC/Disney fellowship, you've spent a certain amount of time by now researching your show. You've read produced scripts, you've watched all the episodes you can, and you've analyzed the structure of the episodes and the personalities and relationships of all the characters. At a certain point, you start to think like an expert.
It's tempting to let all that erudition show in the spec. Be careful. Remember that you're not writing for the creator of the show. You're writing for the people who go through the submitted entries over at Disney. There's no reason to expect an expert's level of knowledge of the show.
Keep this in mind as you write. If you've been studying The Office, you know that Andy is the one played by Ed Helms, you never confuse Toby and Oscar, and you remember all the details of Phyllis's wedding. But your reader might have a more passive memory of these facts. They know the Andy character, but they may not have the name at their fingertips. And a quick snipe from Pam about Phyllis stealing her ideas might not land, if the reader doesn't instantly recall that Phyllis recycled all of Pam's wedding plans.
So help the reader out. Avoid building plots that hinge crucially on the reader having seen one particular episode, and provide clues to help the reader remember which character they're supposed to picturing. "Stanley reacts with the deadest of deadpans." -- Ah! Now I remember Stanley.
A good test might be to have your mother, roommate or co-worker read the script. Pick someone who's seen the show but who isn't a ravenous fan. Ask them where they got confused. And pay attention even if they say they "eventually worked it out" or "it got clear later." You don't want your readers spending mental energy figuring out which one is Meredith when they should be laughing.
This obviously doesn't just apply to "The Office". Your reader may not be able to tell their Cameron from their Chase, either.
Lunch: a nice salad with grilled chicken from "Aldente cafe"
Jane on 05.24.07 @ 04:49 PM PST [link]
Monday, May 21st
I recently read one of those collections of short stories. You know the kind, the "Best Short Stories of Two Thousand and Whatever it is Now" kind of thing. In the introduction, the editor talked about how she would have thought that short stories would be increasing in popularity now, as we all lead fast lives with small amounts of leisure time. A short story for the subway ride, a short story before turning out the light to refresh for another hectic day... it seems to make sense. She was puzzled as to why this doesn't seem to be happening, that novels still seem to be the preferred unit of prose-based fiction.
Well, I can tell her why. Start-up costs. You have to invest a lot of attention in the start of a short story. Who are these people? Are they firemen? What year is this? Hey, are we in China or something? Picking up a short story requires an investment in attention and care far beyond what reading the next chapter of a novel requires. There, we already know what we're in for and we only have to worry about what our guy is going through next.
What I'm getting to here is, of course, a discussion of the cold openings on House.
Typically, the House cold open (also known as a teaser), is a little game of who's-gonna-rupture. You meet a few people in an easily understood situation. Three of them cough and then one collapses in a sea of their own innards. Cut to credits. It's a neat little device, but it is a short story. If you're writing a House and you're doing one of these cold opens, you're going to want to spend a lot of time making it very clever, very suspenseful and intriguing. Make us care about the person who is about to collapse. Make us invest in the show even though we're not seeing the man we're all here to see... we're not yet seeing House. Or even Wilson or Cuddy.
Unless we are. See, every now and then, we do see a regular character in the teaser of the show. It's a minority of the time, but it happens frequently enough that I think you should consider it for your spec. In one episode, we see House because the game of who's-got-the-pathogen is happening in the Emergency Room where House is avoiding seeing patients. In another, the famous and best-episode-of-television-ever "Three Stories" episode, we don't start with a case at all, but with House being sent to teach a class. In another, we see Cuddy witness the injury of a man who was working for her at her house. In yet another, House is already working a case when someone bursts in and shoots him.
Okay, now that's more like it. Now we're talking about a chapter in a novel in which something interesting is happening to someone I know. I'm not being asked to invest in the health of someone I just met without any connection to my continuing characters. I'm being forced to care, dragged into the story by my pre-existing investment.
The actual show doesn't do these kinds of openings all the time, I'm sure, because they don't want to end up with Murder-She-Wrote syndrome in which coincidence drags our characters into the mystery every week. But you don't have to worry about the every-week-of-it. You're just writing the one episode.
Now, don't get so excited by the gymnastics of including a major character in the teaser that you flip yourself right out of the arena. You have to demonstrate that you understand the conventions of the show. You have to conform to the prototype in some ways if you're going to fool the reader into thinking this just might be a produced episode. But in this one specific instance, I think it's worth considering including at least one regular character (doesn't have to be House) in the teaser.
Other people might give you the opposite advice. They could say that doing this breaks the mold of the typical episode too much, or that involving a regular character that early on buys cheap empathy that you haven't really earned. There's no way to know what the reader of your particular spec will prefer, but in a world in which you have no idea how far into your spec a jaded reader will venture, I say hook 'em early.
I think if I were writing a House spec, I would start with Wilson (House's best friend, an oncologist) puzzling over a patient of his who has been brought in with some acute and alarming symptoms. While the patient struggles to breathe, Wilson picks up the phone and urgently demands that House come to his exam room right away. House enters (complaining) and looks confused to find the patient, still breathless and apparently alone. House is about to pivot on his cane-point and exit, when the patient points, panting, down out of frame. The camera TILTS down to find Wilson, lying unconscious at House's feet.
The reader might throw the script to the floor at this point, declaring that the writer is attempting to use shock value instead of good writing. Or they might keep reading, because they care about House and they care about Wilson and I've tapped into their little novel-lovin' heart.
Lunch: chicken salad sandwich and a hand-made version of a Ding-Dong from Big Sugar Bakeshop -- small chocolate cupcake filled with whipped cream. Yummy.
ADDENDUM: If you're already written your House, or have plotted it out, or simply have a great idea for a more standard cold open in your head, don't feel that you should change it. As I say, this is simply a suggestion to consider the option, not necessarily to exercise it.
Jane on 05.23.07 @ 11:50 AM PST [link]
Sunday, May 20th
Okay, so we just tackled the problem of how to make sure your House or Office spec isn't too different from the show. Now let's think about how to make sure it isn't too much the same. Since everyone is writing these particular specs, you have to make sure yours is better than theirs. The key is emotion. You want to find a story that affects the main character emotionally in a way that makes sense but that the show itself hasn't already beaten to death. An emotional realization is especially nice.
If I were sitting down to write a House spec, I think I'd start by listing emotional moments I want to see that character go through. Regret? Genuine undistanced anger? A need for a human connection? What would cause that emotion? What would that emotion cause? I'd start working backwards from there. Notice that I am not starting with a disease.
If I were doing the same thing with a spec The Office, it's a trickier task because Michael, Jim and Pam share the emotional heart of that show. I want to see at least one, and ideally all three of them being affected emotionally in the episode. For example, if Jim and Michael connected over a shared emotional reaction to something Pam said in anger... hmm... that's a very interesting dynamic. So what made Pam angry? What do Jim and Michael do about it? And so on... Notice I'm not starting with "someone forgot to label their lunch in the breakroom."
And that's really all you need to make your script stand out. You don't need terrorists in the hospital or a fire in the paper warehouse. You don't need an episode to make a reader say, "Hoo! Nice explosion!" You need an episode that makes your reader say, "Oh, wow, I never realized House/Michael felt that way, but, yeah, that makes sense. Sigh." Yep, go for the sigh. Even in a dark show like House. Even in a funny show like The Office. Emotion rules.
Lunch: Salad bar and raisinettes
Jane on 05.21.07 @ 04:16 PM PST [link]
Friday, May 18th
Okay, let's imagine you've decided to hunt with the pack and write one of the more popular specs for your ABC/Disney Fellowship application. So you're looking at writing a House or an Office. One of the first things you're probably looking at is how to make your episode stand out.
This can be a real minefield because you don't want to overshoot the mark. The main point of the whole exercise is to "capture" the show. If you make your episode different in an effort to shine, you might just make it so different it no longer feels like the show.
Here are some guidelines that might help keep your spec bolted to the world of the existing show:
1. Use the show's established sets. Sure, House had an episode with the A-story taking place on an airplane, and The Office has gone outside for events like the "Diwali" episode and the "Booze Cruise" episode. But I probably wouldn't recommend these stories for a spec. One of the easiest ways to help your reader imagine your episode as a produced episode, is to allow them to picture sets they already know.
2. As always, beware the guest character. They have a tendency to take over the show. You reader doesn't know or care about them, and you can't show off by effortlessly capturing an established voice. In other words, your spec should not be about either Michael Scott's nor Gregory House's mother visiting the office/hospital and taking over.
3. Use all the major regular characters. If Wilson isn't in your House, it's going to feel less like a "real" episode. That relationship is important to the show, so you should make an effort to service it. This rule is less clear for The Office -- I don't need to see Creed in absolutely every episode. But I'm certainly going to expect to see Michael, Jim, Pam and Dwight.
Now, these are guidelines, not rules. If you do something totally brilliant that somehow manages to work despite violating these, then go for it. The jetliner episode of House, called "Airborne," that I reference in guideline one, for example -- well, I have to admit, it's possible that might actually have worked if it was a spec. After all, we all know what the inside of a plane looks like, and it made for a memorable variation on the show's normal patterns. So follow your own instincts, but keep in mind that you're writing a chapter in someone else's novel. Part of the job is to make the reader unaware of the shift in authorship.
Lunch: back to California Chicken cafe for that chicken Caesar salad. Zesty.
Jane on 05.20.07 @ 02:15 PM PST [link]
Thursday, May 17th
I have a notion, gentle readers. Let me run this past you. I am being told with ever-increasing (almost table-pounding) vehemence that specs of existing shows are no longer what you need to get staffed on shows. You need original material. Spec pilots, short film scripts, feature-length film scripts, plays, even short stories.
But, as we have discussed at length, to get into the ABC/Disney writing fellowship, one of the rare glittering unlocked doors in this town, one needs to submit a spec script for a show that's currently in production.
Now, traditionally, there have always been only a handful of "specable" shows every year. But it seems to me that since this spec no longer needs to be something universally-acceptable that you can submit *everywhere*, since it will, it appears, probably be used only as part of this one application, perhaps we should consider throwing the doors open a little wider as we contemplate what to send to Disney.
If you'd rather write a Battlestar or a Friday Night Lights than a House, a How I Met Your Mother or a 30 Rock than a The Office, maybe it's okay to pick something a little more off-the-beaten-track, or a little newer, like that. You're taking the chance that the person who reads your script knows the show, so keep that in mind, but you are going to do your very best writing if it's a show you're passionate about. Remember that it has to be primetime, so don't throw yourself into an "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" spec, but it might be worth taking a searching look at the primetime network and cable schedules and picking something that you think you can really cut loose and excel at even it's not the same thing everyone else is doing.
And remember, you can only be as good as the show, so don't aim low in the belief that you'll impress readers by elevating a mediocre show. Impress them instead by capturing an excellent show.
Lunch: spicy hot wings with many many napkins
Jane on 05.18.07 @ 03:13 PM PST [link]
Monday, May 14th
There are some shows that have two distinct types of episodes. Usually the distinction is between "arc" episodes and "stand-alones." I imagine you already know the difference -- one concentrates on developing the ongoing storyline of the season or series, and the other presents a complete story through to a conclusion that doesn't progress the overall arc. "The X-Files" was a show that had a very clear division between the two types of episodes.
Some episodes have elements of both types: maybe a stand-alone B-story paired with an arc-driven A-story, or maybe an episode that appears to stand alone but that turns out to have a surprising impact on the season arc in its last scene.
Your spec script, even if it is for a show that is predominately arc-driven, will need to have at least some stand-alone elements. In fact, it should probably have as many stand-alone elements as you can get away with. So when you're looking at produced scripts, using them to try to put together a template for the structure of your spec, try to use stand-alone episodes as your examples as much as possible. If you're purchasing your scripts and can only afford a few, make them the most highly regarded episodes plus the stand-alone episodes.
Don't think that stand-alone episodes are somehow less satisfying than arc-driven ones. There can be a temptation to dismiss stand-alones as "skipable" or as easily-resolved-crises-of-the-week, but it doesn't have to be that way. A stand-alone might not push the storyline, but it can totally push character development. And character development TOTALLY trumps storyline.
Lunch: egg foo yung at the Universal Cafeteria. Very omelet-like.
Jane on 05.17.07 @ 04:57 PM PST [link]
Saturday, May 12th
Eagle-eyed readers will have already noticed that the link to the ABC/Disney Writing Fellowship on this page has been updated. (Thanks to various readers who wrote in to let us know the link had gone stale.)
I was a Disney Fellow myself, and am in the business today because of this program. I cannot recommend it highly enough. It provides instruction, connections, money and lifelong friendships. Check it out, read all the new info. The most important thing, of course, is to note the (postmarked by) July 1 deadline.
Deadlines are wonderful things. By my math we've got approximately six weeks to get all of your specs ready to submit. So let's get started!
First off, it occurs to me that some of you may be under the impression that you need to submit something family-friendly because of the "Disney" name. Not at all. Submit your strongest material, and if it's a show with sex and swears and smokin', leave it all in. As always, your highest goal is to sound like the actual show.
And remember, no spec pilots for this application. You have to write a spec for a show "currently being produced." By the way, I have no idea if they would consider, say, a "Sopranos" as falling into this category or not. The show has had its wrap party, so I'm guessing, to be safe, no "Sopranos." If there are other shows that seem to be flirting with the edges of the definition, I'd say play it conservatively and give them something that's clearly inside their rules. You don't want to be out of the game before it starts.
Six weeks is enough time to get a spec ready to submit, even if you have nothing on the page right now. Pick a show, get those produced scripts and start breakin' 'em down. Find that definitive structure for an episode of your show and then start brainstorming premises. Really consider what you want the episode to be about. Make it something that strikes right at the emotional core of the main character. You can accomplish all this in the first week, and if you do, it will be a week very well spent.
Lunch: "Cincinnati Chili" from the Universal Cafeteria. They must've put about a half-pound of jalapenos in my serving. Very nice.
ADDENDUM: In addition to there being no bias toward "family friendly" material, you should also note that there's no bias toward ABC material. Please don't feel there's any advantage toward picking an ABC show.
Jane on 05.14.07 @ 02:12 PM PST [link]
Thursday, May 10th
Interesting. I have now received two letters from young straight white male writers who have expressed (joking) frustration at a perceived interest from agents or managers in representing "diversity writers." Both letters hinted around at the possibility of trying to present oneself as gay in hopes of appearing more desirable (as a client, presumably).
Clearly, this is a terrible idea and I will assume you guys were joking. But let's look, for a second, at the assumptions behind the joke. One has to assume:
1. Gay writers are in demand. Is it true? I checked with writer and friend-of-the-blog Drew Greenberg for an informed opinion. Drew?
I have yet to be on a writing staff where the show runner said, "You know what this show needs? More gay men. Hire me some of those!" Never heard it. Not once. Even on shows run by gay men. We still live in an era where being gay is considered being an outsider. Even in television.
Plus, I will point out that sexual orientation is not currently one of the criteria that is even credited with making a writer "diverse". So there's that.
Then there is a second assumption:
2. White male writers have a hard time getting hired. Is this true?
One of the reasons that agents or managers may be looking for writers with different backgrounds is because there are so many white male writers. That must mean someone is hiring them. Drew?
Here's the bottom line: I did some math. On the five staffs on which I've worked since Buffy, 77% of the writers were white men. 77%. That's three out of every four people, with an extra, what, arm or something. So if your agents tell you that you're less desirable as a client because you're a white man, tell your agents to come hang out on my staffs. I have something to show them.
I can support Drew's math here. In fact, I'm surprised he gets a number as low as 77%.
This is a hard business to break into. But it's hard for absolutely everyone. And you can do yourself the biggest possible favor by just worrying about your spec scripts since that's the part of this you can control. Be great and you will get noticed where it counts -- on the page!
Lunch: the chicken Caesar salad at California Chicken Café. It's got little toasty pieces of pita in it instead of croutons. Delightful!
Jane on 05.12.07 @ 04:26 PM PST [link]
Wednesday, May 9th
Rachel in Los Angeles writes asking about finding a writing partner. Well, Rachel, you're in the right city! I'd suggest attending meetings of a group like Scriptwriters Network, or any of the similar organizations that meet in the city. Or sign up for a screenwriting class through UCLA extension. Talk to people there, make friends, read their work, and I bet you'll find the right partner.
You'll also benefit from all the other reasons that people join these groups and take these classes -- mentorship, creative criticism, connections, encouragement... and sometimes the chance to enter a competition. If you're fortunate enough to be in Los Angeles, you've got a great opportunity to meet others who are working toward the same goal you are. Take advantage of it for as long as you find it helpful.
By the way, you can do some of this even if you're not in L.A. Years ago, when I wanted TV writing instruction, I found an inexpensive teacher in the Bay Area who met with small groups of aspiring screenwriters. Just that small weekly contact with others who were trying to do what I was trying to do was very encouraging to me.
Just always keep the goal in mind. You're not here to be the best in the group, the leader of the group, to define yourself in terms of whatever group or class you choose. You're here to get a job. So keep your eyes raised up out of the crowd.
Lunch: enchildas from the Universal Studios cafeteria. I didn't think there would be so much potato in them.
Jane on 05.10.07 @ 05:22 PM PST [link]
Tuesday, May 8th
Well, as long as I've got my snout in the mailbag, let's root around and see what else is in there, shall we, gentle readers? Ah... a very good letter from Zach in L.A. who is finding himself frustrated with looking for comedy writing work.
The interesting thing here is that Zach has done everything right -- he's moved to L.A., worked as a gofer in writing rooms; he has several polished specs and other material, has met and impressed established comedy writers... those are all great ingredients. But, as most established comedy writers are themselves out of work right now, he's finding it hard to get a foothold.
He asks, Should I take four months to write a feature-length? Should I do more "alternative media" stuff? [...] Do I bite my cheek and do stand-up?
Well, Zach in L.A., those are all good things to do -- the feature in particular would be good to have anyway -- but I also have another idea. You mention in your letter that your two specs for existing shows are "The Office" and "American Dad." Why not supplement those with a "Desperate Housewives," or, even better, an "Ugly Betty"?
Half-hour comedy is a bit of a hiring wasteland right now. There simply aren't enough shows to support all the experienced writers, so it's very difficult for new writers to get in. And while television drama writing isn't an easy gig to get, it's substantially easier than comedy. And, in writing a spec for a show like "Betty," you still get to use your comedy skills. In fact, you get to use them every bit as much. A comically-inclined hour-long spec pilot is also something you could try.
Hang in there, Zach. Luck is opportunity plus preparation plus luck. (I made that up and I think it's fantastic. Feel free to borrow it.) Keep writing, keep polishing the specs you already have, keep adding new ones, keep making those connections... just keep on doing more of what you've been doing. I can't guarantee that you will get hired, but you've got a better shot than all the people who haven't done what you've done.
Lunch: My favorite "Johnny Rockets" burger place is now called "Beverly Hills Diner." Quite a shock. But they served me a fine Jalapeno Burger and a chocolate coke, so it's all good.
Jane on 05.09.07 @ 06:57 PM PST [link]
Monday, May 7th
Eddie in San Mateo writes in with two really good questions. First, he's wondering why I referred to him as "Erik from San Mateo" when I addressed a previous question of his. Oops. Sorry, Eddie.
His second question has to do with politically incorrect humor:
Does this brand of humor satirize stereotypes and prejudices or promote them? If a joke is funny, does it matter whether it's offensive or not? Should aspiring writers attempt to replicate this humor in their spec scripts at the risk of stepping into a minefield?
This is a really interesting area. I myself am not a huge fan of comedy that sets out to amuse us by shocking us. The humor, generally, is supposed to come from a jolt of recognition, a sort of "Hey, we're not supposed to say that, but ain't it the truth" kind of thing. Personally, I think this is pretty dangerous stuff, since it's clearly promoting stereotypes or at the very least reinforcing cultural barriers. You might get a laugh, but it's got a mean edge to it.
Of course, there are other types of politically incorrect humor. On The Office, Michael can say something absolutely appalling, and the purpose of the line is to reflect badly on him. I've got no problem with that.
And, of course, there's the strange forcefield that surrounds offensive jokes made by members of traditionally oppressed groups. This might seem like a simple rule, but it becomes really complex when the character is a member of such a group, but the writer giving voice to that character is not.
I guess the key is in Eddie's middle question, "If a joke is funny, does it matter whether it's offensive or not?" It seems to me that if a joke offends me, I'm never going to find it funny. This is the risk you take with material like this -- if you misstep, you don't just have an unamused reader, but a pissed-off one.
If you're writing a spec for an established show, you can, as always, use the produced episodes as examples. They should give you a good idea where the line is for that particular show. Veronica Mars, for example, draws the line in a very different place than, say, Family Guy, which has no line at all. You generally can't go wrong doing what the show already does.
But if you're writing a spec pilot or are otherwise in uncharted territory, I would tread very lightly. And not only for moral reasons, either. I believe that a lot of writers of specs try to use shock value to make their spec stand out. This backfires when others have the same idea. Your ultraspicy (and potentially offensive) chicken wings don't stand out at the potluck when the neighbors brought the same thing.
Lunch: Indian food with tortillas. See? Cultures can collide in a delicious way.
Jane on 05.08.07 @ 05:50 PM PST [link]
Friday, May 4th
More news from the front! Remember the friend-of-the-blog who is currently reading stacks of spec scripts as he sets about staffing a show? Well he's moved on from reading crushingly unemotional specs of The Office to reading spec pilots instead. And you should perk up at what he's found, gentle readers, since once again your work is improving by comparison with underperforming professionals!
The problem this time? Voiceovers. Now, a voiceover can sometimes be a stylish choice, often used to good effect in stories where you want to feature an unreliable character whose internal monologue doesn't actually match the events around him or her. And of course, there have been many successful and/or well-written shows with voiceovers: Sex and the City, Wonder Years, and Arrested Development, for example. But it takes a very specific situation or a very light hand to do it well.
The problem, of course, is that it can be a tempting way to avoid the inherit limiting feature of what we do. We are not novelists; we have chosen to work in a branch of fiction which takes an external, not an internal, look at characters. We get the tricky but rewarding task of giving viewers/readers clues that allow them to infer inner motivations, rather than making them explicit. We're just brimmin' with subtext and that's on purpose. Voiceovers often make it too tempting to just make the subtext into text. Which makes for a very boring and obvious read.
But let's imagine that you've managed to do it well. You've used a light touch, some ironic touches, a bit of magic, and you've employed a voiceover effectively in your spec. But you're going to be sending that script out into an environment that, for whatever reason, seems to be unusually full of voiced-over scripts right now. Our friend-of-the-blog reports that the concentration of them is as at an all-time high; he's finding one-third of the scripts he's reading have voiceovers. It's not going to be easy to make your use of the device stand out in that talky crowd. So think hard about it.
Writing your script without voiceover may seem dauntingly difficult, but that's actually a good sign. Every time you up the degree of difficulty, you're giving yourself a chance to show off. And the scripts that show off best get the jobs.
Lunch: instant noodle soup with added hot sauce, followed by an apple
Jane on 05.07.07 @ 10:50 PM PST [link]
Thursday, May 3rd
Is there conflict in your spec script? Yes, of course there is. You might even have a scene of two people disagreeing, arguing, maybe even screaming and throwing punches. Great stuff. But here's a little trick to make that scene even better:
Imagine that at some point in the scene, you are required to give one of the characters this line:
Oh my God. Is that what this is really about?
Don't actually give them the line, just imagine that they had to say it. What would the "that" be? What is the underlying emotion that's being expressed in the conflict between the two characters? Is there one? It'll be a much better fight if there is. They don't have to comment on it explicitly, but if you go into the fight knowing what underlies their animosity - beyond the immediate issue of the script - you'll find all sorts of tricky little ways to let the audience in on the fact that there's something deeper going on, without having to actually use the on-the-nose line above.
And remember that the "that" which the fight is "really about," doesn't actually have to be a conflict in itself. It can be a denied attraction, or a self-hatred, or a too-long-suppressed secret, or whatever. If you're writing a spec for an established show, then you can draw on existing dynamics for the "that." If you're writing a spec pilot, a fight like this in which the deeper motivation is exposed can be a great way to clue the audience in to a history between two characters -- exposition and backstory are always better if fists are flying when they come out.
Deeper! It's good for pizza and it's good for scripts.
Lunch: In 'n' Out burger, fries, Dr. Pepper
Jane on 05.04.07 @ 02:16 PM PST [link]
Tuesday, May 1st
Let's talk about underwear lines. No, that can't be right. Here it is. Let's talk about underlines. You have to be careful with them. Produced scripts usually don't have a lot of them, possibly because actors don't like them. (They're too much like giving an actor a line reading, which actors really don't like.)
Now, in a spec script, you don't have to worry about actors, but you do want to look like a produced script. So you probably don't want to throw too many underlines around all willy-nilly. Besides, underlines can tend to run away with you. Once you start selecting a few words for emphasis, you start measuring every word in the script against that standard. If I underlined "do" in that sentence, how do I not underline "am" in this sentence? (Or, to put it another way, "If I underlined 'do' in that sentence, how do I not underline 'am' in this sentence?")
Here's a little trick if you want to make sure something reads as emphasized, but you don't want to spend an underline: eschew the contraction.
This line can be read with emphasis on the word "got" or "biggest" or "world":
I've got to be the biggest fool in the world.
But this line simply must be read with emphasis on the word "got":
I have got to be the biggest fool in the world.
Neat, huh? It's like a sneaky way of giving the virtual actors of your spec script a virtual line reading.
Jane on 05.03.07 @ 11:15 PM PST [link]
I talked this morning with someone who has been reading stacks of half-hour spec scripts in anticipation of hiring a staff. So I used the opportunity to find out what's going on out there.
The answer? Well, it's bad news for show-runners, but very good news for you, gentle readers. This show-runner is reading, of course, dozens of "The Office" specs. None of which -- none of which! -- have any emotional pay-off.
Gasp! (Not a sarcastic gasp. An actual gasp.)
This is the thing I keep saying about having to be better than the average episode of a show. We all know that the very best episodes of The Office are more than simply piles of jokes. Remember, in the episode that Joss directed, when we were expecting Jim to show up at Pam's art show, but it was Michael instead and he loved her art? Remember the "Booze Cruise" episode where Jim confessed his feelings for Pam to Michael? Those moments of connection, of vulnerability, of hurt, of unexpected nobility... those are the reasons to even sit down and try to tackle a spec "The Office." If you're not driving toward a moment like that, you need to start over.
And the fact that specs from professional writers are floating around out there without those moments? That means that there is room for you, gentle readers, room for your excellent specs to catch the eyes of agents, or those people who read for contests, or whomever. Fill the gap.
Lunch: cheddar cheese. And one of those "doughnut cupcakes" from Big Sugar Bakery.
Jane on 05.01.07 @ 06:04 PM PST [link]