Sunday, July 30th
Saturday, July 29th
When I first moved to Los Angeles, there was a criminal of some sort – possibly a bank robber – who was working the valley. The police nicknamed him "Radar" because, the newscasters explained, "he looked like the character from M*A*S*H." I've always wondered how that was different from looking "like Gary Burghoff." And I've always wondered how Gary B felt about the whole thing in the first place. Did he get hassled by cops a lot that year? And, how lucky were the police that the same actor played the role in the movie and the series?! Anyway, you have to admit, it is just about the most effective way I can think of to describe someone quickly and evocatively.
There's a similar trick you can use when you're working on your spec pilot. Especially when you're pitching it to friends and advisors – anyone whom you want to have a quick feel for what you're intending. The trick is to think of a show with the same tone.
Here's what I mean. Right now, I'm getting ready to pitch an idea for a series. If the premise is described baldly, it sounds a bit silly -- like it's probably a broad comedy. But it isn't. So I find that it helps a lot to explain first that I'm going for the tone of "Alien Nation." Remember that? Aliens have integrated into our society and now live and work among us. Great stuff. And although there were lots of funny moments, the tone was very realistic. It could even be quite dark at times -- even with actors looking like they stepped out of a Coneheads sketch. If you've seen the show, you know the cool effect that was achieved by treating such a wild premise with such realism and respect. Hafta say, I feel a lot more confident that I can convey the show I have in my head if I evoke the other show first.
If you're working on a spec pilot, see if this helps you. It might even help in other ways, providing a guideline as to what has worked and what has not worked with a show that has something in common with yours. I feel like Alien Nation is providing me with a sort of tuning fork -- keeping my tone pure and true.
Lunch: triscuits and a candy bar
Correction: Not "evoke." I meant "invoke." Geez. [forehead slappy noise]
Jane on 07.30.06 @ 05:57 PM PST [link]
Thursday, July 27th
You know what always bugged me on Cheers? When Diane would say something like this (hypothetical line):
Nothing could be more delightful for Sam and I.
Or "… Sam and myself." Both of these are wrong. Only "Sam and me" is technically correct, although the others are commonly used. I suspect the scripts were correct, and the actor was being imprecise. But Diane was supposed to be educated. And persnickety, at that! She should have gotten something like this right.
Letting uneducated characters speak in their own style requires some thought, if you don't speak their variety of English. But getting educated ones to speak the way *they* would is also worthy of some effort, and yet it's not often talked about.
Not sure if you've got it exactly right? Check with your aunt, teacher, librarian... find someone who knows the rules. Don't assume that just because it sounds awkward it must be right!
Professor McCubbin, the Oxford-trained medievalist character now working for the CIA in your spec pilot, knows when to use "that" vs. "which." Before you write his lines, make sure you do too.
In other news: Guess who's talking about Yours Sincerely? Ron Moore, that's who. If you want to make me blush, check out the wonderful things he says about me at: blog.scifi.com/battlestar.
Lunch: gyros, hummus… Greek delights!
Jane on 07.29.06 @ 01:52 PM PST [link]
Wednesday, July 26th
More from the mailbag. Sometimes, I get letters from the most amazing people. Daniel Wallace, who wrote the book Big Fish, which became the movie Big Fish, wrote to say he likes this humble blog – how cool is that? Check out danielwallace.org for more on him and his work. Great stuff!
Less famous 'round these parts is Monty Lo, the Hong Kong-based author of a kids' graphic novel called Captain Fried Rice. The book itself is a thick horizontally-arranged number with parallel text in Chinese and English, about a boy who has super powers only when he eats with impeccable table manners. Wild! Monty recommends spicy thai chicken feet and durian, thinking I might not have tried them. He compares the spiky appearance of durian with the demonic version of Doyle's face from Angel. Gotta love that. But, oh, Monty, I am no stranger to the stinky creamy goodness of durian. And I have had chicken feet, although not the boneless variety you describe in your letter. (Isn't it nice when people know the sort of thing that's going to provoke my genuine interest?)
Finally, Lilia from Houston, who writes of many things, includes a discussion of a number of problems with The Da Vinci Code. She provides an interesting analysis, with a specific point that I want to discuss more. She says:
"The author has Wizard of Oz syndrome, in which all the pretty characters are good and all the ugly ones are bad."
Nice observation, Lilia. It's really shocking the degree to which this particular rule is applied, not just in art, but in our actual interactions with the world. Positive qualities get attributed to attractive people. Negative ones to unattractive people. And it sucks. It sucks both if you're an ugly person trying to get respect for your good qualities, and if you're a pretty person seeking to discourage unwanted attention with your evilness.
When television writers apply this rule, of course, they are relying on human nature to do some of the work of characterization for them. Which saves time and space. If the fat guy is greedy, the short guy is petty, and the ugly woman is clingy, you don't have to do a whole lot of set up and explaining. Conditioning has the audience half-expecting those traits anyway. Another word for this sort of expediency is laziness. A clichéd description is just as bad as any other sort of cliché.
In a spec, you don't tend to rely on physical appearance as much as in a produced script. Your reader doesn't see a bald actor. But they do still read your description of the character as a bald man. And if you're using that trait as a sort of shorthand to suggest a character trait, then you're missing a chance to execute a trick of much higher difficulty – making the character's words and actions do that work. And any chance you have to show off a difficult trick – you should take it. A spec is an excuse to show off. Take it!
Lunch: a goat cheese and greens sandwich. Accompanied by a salad that was identical to the contents of the salad. Good but redundant.
(A final word to letter-writers. Although I was tickled to look through a comic book from Hong Kong, that was pretty much the one exception. I cannot read your specs, or fan fic or screenplays or plays, or even scripts for shows that are no longer on the air. This protects you, and it protects me and my time. )
Jane on 07.27.06 @ 06:29 PM PST [link]
Tuesday, July 25th
Hi all -- just wanted to call your attention to the new "Jane Recommends" feature on the page. It's over there, up and to the left.
"Prisoner of Trebekistan" is available for pre-order right now. Click on the pretty cover to go to the Amazon page! I promise you that this is an amazing book. Seriously.
In other news... I do get the nicest letters! Thank you to Susie in Maryland, Shoshana in New York, Marisa, also in New York, and Stephanie in Wisconsin, to name a few.
Stephanie asks a question that comes up now and then. Some of you out there aren't stopping after you write a spec pilot. You're writing additional episodes of shows that you are developing on your own, and wondering if there's any market for this kind of project. I applaud the work ethic even as I tell you that there's no real use for these episodes in the traditional world of television. Beginning writers are expected to provide writing samples, not entire series. In fact, I'd been writing for television for more than ten years before I was given the opportunity to tell anyone about ideas that I had for entire series of my own.
BUT... things are changing. Product is being developed for other media now -- including cell phones and toaster ovens (or whatever). It's possible that in these exciting new worlds things won't work in the same way. If you're excited by your series idea, and you're having a good time -- and learning -- by writing the episodes, go ahead. I don't yet know of anywhere that will look at them... but I wouldn't be shocked if such a place is just about to start existing!
P. S. Someone told me that they had heard of some kind of program, similar to the ABC Writing Fellowship, that helped young writers develop pilot ideas, but I haven't been able to track it down. Remember, I'm not an expert in writing opportunities -- I just want to offer writing tips. Anything beyond that, and I'm out of my comfort zone.
Lunch: tongue sandwich from Art's Deli. It's exciting because it tastes you back!
Jane on 07.26.06 @ 09:22 PM PST [link]
Monday, July 24th
I noticed something interesting on one of my new colleague's office walls today. A framed story -- just a few sentences long, written in large letters in a shaky hand. I thought at first that it might have been written by his small child. But it was written by HIM when HE was a small child. Isn't that great? Makes me want to dig out my old stuff. The best part of the framed story was the title. An account of a childhood accident, it was called "The Hammock and the Blood." Wow. Great title. Seriously. A classic structure, a promise of violence, and a concrete visual image -- the dangerous dangerous hammock.
One trick I have employed to find a cool and memorable title is to find an unusual and concrete word that connects tangentially to something in the episode. Early on at Buffy, I got to write an episode that involved a creepy guest appearance by Hansel and Gretel. I named the episode "Gingerbread." Love that one.
Later on, I tried the same technique again. I wrote an episode which dealt a little bit with a love triangle. I called it "Triangle." Total failure of a title. The love triangle part of the script wasn't highlighted enough to make this work. People still ask me where the heck the triangle was hiding in that episode. Win some, lose some.
Okay. One last final point about titles, using another example from my own career:
If your script has a surprise, make sure the title doesn't give it away. My Buffy episode "The Replacement" was originally called "How the Other Half Lives." The original title is actually more apt, since the episode was really about how Xander's personality is split in half, and how one half ends up staring in awe at what the other half is able to accomplish. But the episode contained a huge mislead, in which the audience needed to think that Xander was being supplanted by an evil look-alike. The eventual title sold the mislead, and was therefore better.
Is there more to say about titles? Oh, probably. But I do believe I'll be moving along...
Lunch: a simulated mustard and grilled cheese sandwich created at work by using a combination of toaster-and-microwave technology.
Clarification: the mustard wasn't simulated. The "grilled" was simulated.
Jane on 07.25.06 @ 09:10 PM PST [link]
Saturday, July 22nd
We're in for a treat today! Jeff Greenstein, the extraordinary showrunner/writer (Dream On, Partners, Will & Grace, Jake in Progress...) has been persuaded by this very blog to compile his favorite episode titles of the ones he has written. I adore this list and I thought you all might enjoy it too!
"Lows in the Mid-Eighties." A flashback to 1985: Will and Grace have been dating for six weeks, and Will is increasingly certain he's gay. When he finally comes out to Grace, it nearly ends their friendship. David Kohan told me at the wrap party he thought it was the best title we ever had. Certainly it was one of the few that didn't contain a gay pun.
"Polk Defeats Truman." My very first W&G, with a suitably smarty-pants title. A hubristic Will Truman cuts loose all his faithful clients in order to service wealthy Harlan Polk (serendipitously, the character was already named that when I got there!); shortly thereafter, Polk cuts Will loose, and Will's business collapses. I even Photoshopped the famous photo for the script cover. These are the sorts of things you do when you're in a new job and are trying to impress people.
"The Weekend at the College Didn't Turn Out Like They Planned." This was the last of my Dream Ons, the longest episode title in the history of the series, the longest episode title I've ever seen, and a cool steal from a Steely Dan lyric (it's from "Reelin' in the Years"). When Martin and Judith take son Jeremy to visit Ithaca College, Martin and Judith end up sleeping together, rekindling their relationship; meanwhile, Jeremy thinks a hot coed has blatantly offered to sleep with him, but she definitely, definitely hasn't, and much embarrassment ensues.
"One Ball, Two Strikes." Also Dream On. Martin's obnoxious boss Gibby (Michael McKean) is convinced that all of his failures with women stem from the fact that he has only one testicle. Seriously. One of the funniest scripts I've ever been involved with (and the whole thing was David Crane's crazy idea). "It makes them ill, you see -- the thought of a man with only one plum in his lunch sack."
Dream On had lots of great titles, many of them smart parodies: "Three Coins in the Dryer" (Martin finds romance in the laundry room); "The Rocky Marriage Picture Show" (a photo album prompts Martin and Judith to revisit scenes from their stormy relationship); "The Trojan War" (Martin and a girlfriend debate whether to get an AIDS test so they can stop using condoms); "The Undergraduate" (Martin dates a college girl, then falls for her mother)...
All the Partners episode titles were questions, an idea I stole from a Garson Kanin novel, Cordelia? Hence gems like "'Why are the Blumenthals living in my house?" "Who's afraid of Ron and Cindy Wolfe?" "Soup or a movie?" and the inevitable series finale, "Will you marry me?"
The much-discussed Friends "The One..." bit initially hamstrung any writer's attempt to make a title interesting, but once Jeff & I entitled an episode "The One with the East German Laundry Detergent," all bets were off. And I loved that they called their hundredth episode "The One Hundredth."
Thank you, Jeff! Well, gentle readers, I think I'm going to have to work on a similar list myself! Stay tuned!
Lunch: the "kung pao spaghetti" from California Pizza Kitchen
Jane on 07.24.06 @ 09:23 PM PST [link]
This is an expansion of an idea I presented yesterday. But this time it comes with an anecdote!
When I was in grad school at UC Berkeley, I got a part-time job at a company that named products. It was a fantastic job and I loved it. While I was there, I heard a few rumors about a just-completed project in which the company had generated hundreds of fake movie titles. Some of the namers wondered out loud what the project had been *for*. Were they really naming movies, they wondered; is that how it's done?
Within months, I got into the Disney fellowship. Although I was a television fellow, we all mixed freely with the feature fellows. Some of them told me about a brainstorming exercise they participated in as part of the program. They were given a long list – hundreds – of fake movie titles. They had to pick their favorites and then pitch stories to fit the titles. Where could such a list have come from, they wondered; do studios really have piles of potential titles lying around?
I will never know *for sure* if there was a connection.
But I'm sure that this is a pretty great brainstorming technique. And not just for features.
Pay in Pain
Those are titles of episodes of The Shield. Great titles. Evocative. Don't they just make you all… speculative? What if your House spec had one of those titles? Your Battlestar Galactica? THEN what would it be about?
Playing this game doesn't mean the resulting spec will even have this title, of course. It's just meant to be a springboard, freeing your brain from its well-worn tracks. Personally, I have a great title for a series, that I've been rolling around for a while now. Someday, I'll know what the show is.
Coming up: Oh, I've still got more to say about titles.
Lunch: Starbucks ice-blended mocha and a scone. Sound more like breakfast? Maybe, but breakfast was pasta in putanesca sauce.
Jane on 07.22.06 @ 03:14 PM PST [link]
Friday, July 21st
This is a special supplemental post to tell you about a project from one of the other writers in the Andy Barker, PI writers' room. Josh Bycel, a really sharp and funny writer, is also the founder of a non-profit organization that's setting out to do some really great stuff. I'll let him tell you about it:
"One Kid One World started with bringing a few soccer balls and some pens and paper to
a refugee camp in Darfur, Sudan. It has now blossomed into an organization
dedicated to making a difference in the lives of children around the
globe…one kid, one school, one refugee camp at a time.
OKOW’s first project is a campaign for the Nyamasare Girls School and
Orphanage in the Suba District of Kenya.
We are committed to raising a minimum of $20,000 to benefit the girls who
attend…most of whom have lost at least one of their parents to AIDS.
Nyamasare is the only girl’s school in Suba. It is an amazing refuge for
young women in a place where close to 70% of the population lives below the
poverty line, less than 10% of girls are able to attend secondary school and
the HIV/AIDS infection rate currently stands at 41% - the highest rate in
Kenya and one of the highest rates in East Africa.
The school desperately needs YOUR help. Your donation will allow 75 girls
to attend school for a year as well as buy them books, school supplies and
uniforms. In addition, the money will help build an athletic field and
dormitory and buy generators to power the school.
Please visit our new website at onekidoneoworld.org for
more information on:
1. How to DONATE or get involved.
2. The Nyamasare School and the Suba district of Kenya.
OKOW is committed to making sure that %100 of your donation goes to the
school. Not many other organizations can make that promise."
Jane on 07.22.06 @ 12:06 PM PST [link]
Tuesday, July 18th
Someone I know sends out a semi-regular email questionnaire with really cool thought-provoking questions. The most recent one asked what the reader would call their first album, should they ever have one. It's one of those questions where you think you're talking about a trivial physical object, and then you realize you're being asked to summarize your own soul. Titles are huge.
The lovely Jeff Greenstein (our showrunner at Jake in Progress, with whom I had a delightful lunch today), had a standing rule that an episode title should not be the title of a preexisting work. Until he let me call my episode "The Two Jakes."
I think he must be almost the only showrunner with that rule, since finding a name of a pre-existing book or movie or popular song or Shakespeare play that fits your episode is, of course, a classic trick. Sometimes a twist or a pun is added (allowing the title to skirt Jeff's rule). As a variant, sometimes the reference is to a *quote* from a pre-existing work. Titles like this, that refer to previous works, are so common, in fact, that this blog entry will talk only about titles of this type.
Here's how common it is: the first 13 eps of Battlestar include ones called "You Can't Go Home Again," "Six Degrees of Separation," and "Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down." (which focuses on the character of Colonel Tigh.) House, which usually has very spare titles like "Kids" or "Autopsy," has also had "Clueless," "Failure to Communicate" and the especially amusing "TB or not TB." Grey's Anatomy eps include "A Hard Day's Night," "The First Cut is the Deepest," and "Shake your Groove Thing." One Buffy episode title is even a play on a product name! ("Life Serial")
Note that it's best if you don't have to reach too far for the title. "Devil in a Blue Dress" might be a cool title, but not if you have to painfully insert both a devil and a blue dress into the episode just to make it make sense. On the other hand, if the title is SUPER cool, it might be worth a BIT of a stretch. The fact that the Frasier ep "Miracle on Third or Fourth Street" required that Frasier be unable to recall the street number, somehow made it even more charming.
You can even use titles like these as part of your I-need-an-idea-for-a-spec brainstorming. Since Grey's Anat seems to use a lot of song titles, it wouldn't be insane, if you want to write a Grey's spec, to write down every song title you can think of, and then use that list as part of your brainstorming process as you're casting about for stories. What would an episode called "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman" look like? Hmm.
So why would Jeff have a standing rule against these types of titles? Here's what he says: "Look at Aaron Sorkin's West Wing titles. They're all provocative, interesting, distinctive, memorable, and not one of them is the title of something else." I looked them up, and he's right. These West Wing titles include: "Five Votes Down," "Let Bartlett be Bartlett," and "What Kind of Day Has it Been." And it occurs to me that another reason to abjure name's-the-same titles is because the practice helps reinforce the idea that television is the lesser medium, eating the crumbs that fall from the corners of the mouths of Motion Pictures.
By the way, while we're on this topic, one of my regrets in this career has to do with the title of my Ellen episode, in which she sleeps with her girlfriend for the first time and finds herself feeling shy and reluctant and virginal. It was called "Like a Virgin." But I wish I had called it "Maidenhead Revisited." Classier. In other words, don't jump on the first virgin that walks by. Think it over, make sure you've got the best title for your spec. And consider Jeff's advice... maybe there's something even better than someone else's slightly-used title.
Lunch: Spicy BBQ chicken from Ribs USA! And the leftovers will make an excellent dinner, too!
Jane on 07.21.06 @ 11:43 PM PST [link]
Monday, July 17th
When I opened the letter from Shelah of Studio City, I was excited to see a page from a produced script fall out. It was like being a spy and getting a coded note. She enclosed the page, from an episode of Medium, so that she could call my attention to the show's stage directions. She asks about the degree to which someone writing a spec Medium should imitate the show's style when it comes to writing stage directions.
Here is a sample of what she's talking about, taken from the script page:
…HEARING the DOOR CLOSE behind her. And she looks at the small mountain of files. And after a moment pulls herself up and out of her seat and makes her way over to them. And without all that much enthusiasm, picks one up and opens it, turns herself around and leans against the table as she reads…
…filled out in pen. And as Allison and we SEE IT, Allison HEARS IT…
Hmm. They're good, evocative directions. But they're very detailed ("… leans against the table…"). Especially for a series of actions that aren't especially complex. To me, they feel like the writing of someone who wants to make very sure that a director films something a certain way, and that an actor gets the mood of the moment. They're directions tailored for a production.
If I were writing a spec Medium, I would probably dial it back a bit. I want the script to *feel* like a real ep of the show, but I simply don't want or need to go into this much detail. Although I want a reader to be able to "see" the actions, I don't want to exhaust their patience with a lot of detail about who is leaning on what. I'm not writing for a director or an actor.
And what about the "Ands"? I've never seen that particular quirk, of starting so many of the directions with "And." It's clearly a device the writer is using as a sort of substitute for bullet points. If EVERY produced ep of Medium uses this technique, I would probably adopt and adapt it for my script… it could be done very subtly. But if it doesn't seem to be an established trademark of the show's scripts, I would probably just write the directions in the way that feels the most natural to me. After all, whoever reads your spec probably won't have read so many produced Mediums that they'd notice or care about that particular difference.
Shelah apologetically uses the title of this blog entry in her letter. And I think it's very apt as well as delightfully punny. Sometimes a compromise between your own style and the show's style is the best solution.
Lunch: Chicken from Koo Koo Roo. No yams though. Sigh.
Jane on 07.18.06 @ 08:38 PM PST [link]
Sunday, July 16th
When I decided to try to get onto the staff of a drama -- when I set my sights on Buffy -- I needed a drama spec. So I wrote a spec NYPD Blue. In it, I had Andy Sipowicz believe in the innocence of a young suspect. "If that boy's guilty," he told the lieutenant, "then he's the best actor since Charles Bronson." Later on, when Andy was alone with his partner, the partner turned to him and said "Charles Bronson?"
When I got my Buffy meeting, Joss talked with me about this spec. He loved the fact that Bronson was Andy's yardstick of acting ability. He went on: "I know why you did it," he said, "but I wish you didn't have the second reference." He was right. If I were writing a similar line today, I wouldn't have the partner call Andy on it. The line was only there to call attention to the joke like a little arrow pointing back at it. It didn't further the joke.
Watch out for this tendency to want to put arrows like this into your specs. For example, if you have a character say something like: "Half of me is touched and half is sad and the other half wants to kick her ass," then it's very tempting to have another character point out the arithmatic mistake. But the joke is almost always better, subtler, funnier, if it goes uncommented-upon. If you think it won't be clear enough, call attention to it in a stage direction, as in "Marjorie hesitates, but doesn't point out the arithmatic error."
A joke that the reader misses will slide past them painlessly, but one that is over-explained, over-talked-about, will drive them nuts.
Lunch: The "Cabbo-Cobbo" salad at Poquito Mas
Jane on 07.17.06 @ 10:11 PM PST [link]
Thursday, July 13th
Hello again! I'm just back from a weekend trip to Las Vegas. It was 113 degrees there! I was outside for less than a minute, but the experience was very similar to being ironed. It was fun to laugh and exclaim and run from the air-conditioned interior of Treasure Island to the air-conditioned interior of the Venetian, but if I'd been outside any longer, the fun would have evaporated, along with all the moisture in my eyeballs.
Fun often depends on the amount of time spent doing something.
Shelah from Studio City writes to talk about the evaporation of her fun. She actually asks another question in the letter, which I will get to in another post, but along the way she makes this observation about what happens as one writes more and more spec scripts, and I just had to comment. She writes:
"… quite frankly, this whole experience has sort of made me lose confidence in my skills. Instead of getting better, I feel I have regressed. When I wrote my Sopranos, I didn't know all the rules, just the basics, but at least I was having fun. But now, knowing the rules, I am always second guessing myself."
Raise your hands if you're with Shelah. Holy cow, that's a lot of you. I went through this same thing myself. When I wrote my Star Trek: TNG scripts it was like writing Fan Fic. There was an almost guilty pleasure in the doing of it. I can control the characters and make them say whatever I want? I can make anything happen? *Anything*? Whee! It's like making your Ken dolls kiss each other!
Then you slowly start to realize how much you don't know. And you second guess yourself. And everything you write starts feeling formulaic and stilted, while your original stuff had this great original chaotic surprising rhythm that you've lost.
Well, the horrible truth is, if you're writing a spec of an existing show, you're not really being asked to demonstrate an original chaotic rhythm. You're supposed to capture the existing rhythm of the show. A spec pilot can have more chaos in it, but it still will benefit from learning about structure and act breaks and all that. So some of what was lost was an illusion to begin with. What felt like unrestrained exuberance to you might have looked like an unmade bed to a reader. I'm sure that's of tremendous comfort. Ah, well. There's always real Fan Fic if you want to run wild. (If you don't know about Fan Fic, google it. An interesting subculture or subgenre.)
But can it still be fun, coloring-within-the-lines? Yep. It sure can. When you get more comfortable with the skills and techniques, you stop second guessing yourself because you're confident in your choices. And then you can have creative fun while still playing by the rules.
Be patient. Everyone goes through this. I think, in fact, that this is the bit of the process that separates the writers from the dreamers. Push through this part, and it'll all get better. Really. Every script I write has at least a couple scenes in it that make me genuinely joyous.
Lunch: One bite each of every kind of food in the world from "Cravings" buffet at the Mirage. Try the bao.
Jane on 07.16.06 @ 09:07 PM PST [link]
Tuesday, July 11th
There's a radio ad that's playing a lot these days during my commute and it's driving me crazy. I bet you can figure out why. Here's the offensive excerpt. A wife and husband are complaining about how busy they are:
... we hardly have time to breathe!
Oh, don't worry, honey. I've got breathing scheduled for, oh, let's see... SOME TIME NEXT WEEK!
At this point I grip the steering wheel, clench my teeth, and swear a bit. What's wrong, of course, is that the joke is already well over by the time he gets to the (shouted) last four words. It's certainly over by the word "scheduled," and you could even make the case that the joke is contained entirely in the wife's line. After all, the funny is limited to the notion of a busy schedule interfering with breathing, which is the whole and sole point of her line. Of course, her line isn't funny because it's so familiar it's almost a cliche. Aaaaarhgh!
Stuff like this is one of the reasons that I'm not opposed to thinking about jokes, to analyzing them. Things like this can be avoided if you notice where the joke breaks -- where is the laugh? What is the humorous concept? You can certainly continue a line past that point, but you shouldn't expect to still get laughs out of the same joke once it's over.
This excerpt, by the way, is a perfect example of something that has the rhythm of a joke, even though it's not really a joke... the pause before those final four words, the husband's feigned hesitation ("let's see..."), the sudden increase in volume... that's rhythm stuff. The more you invest in a big shiny rhythm like that, the more you need to have a punch line that pays off. A huge shiny box better have a nice present inside, that's all I'm saying.
Lunch: roast chicken and yams at the NBC commissary. Good!
Jane on 07.13.06 @ 07:50 PM PST [link]
Monday, July 10th
This is a bite-sized post, designed to go along with a full-sized working day. I noticed something interesting in the funnies of the LA Times yesterday. Two, count 'em, two references to the movie "Deliverance." That was 1972, people! 1972! What is it that makes this movie memorable enough that it can be casually referenced in 2006, with a general expectation of having the reference understood?
Shock. Shock is memorable. When you're coming up with the story for your spec, it wouldn't hurt if there was a little something extra zingy in it. Sometimes, an attempt to come up with a story that the show could actually produce results in a bland, middle-of-the-road spec. This isn't very memorable. Remember that you're trying to write something that looks like the *very best* episodes the show ever does. A hint of shock might be just what you need to put your story over the top.
Lunch: lobster bisque, croque monsieur
Jane on 07.11.06 @ 10:12 PM PST [link]
Sunday, July 9th
Hi! Last time I asked if y'all know why Dr. House is named "House." Maybe this is common knowledge, and I suppose it's possible that it's apocryphal. But here's what I heard. I heard that "House" is like "Homes," i.e. "Holmes." Hee! Isn't that great?
Those of you writing spec pilots will have to name all your characters. You others will have to name guest characters. It's worth really spending some time on this. I like to do a little research about names that were popular in certain years. If your character was born in the sixties, he'll have a different first name, most likely, than someone born in the eighties. It used to be that every inappropriately young wife or girlfriend on television was named "Heather." But now, Heathers are older than they used to be. Believe it or not, I suspect Hannahs are the vixens now!
And then there are those subliminal names, like House. And I've always thought that Detective Stabler on Law and Order: SVU was probably named that to suggest to the audience that, compared to his partner, he was… stabler. (This was true in the very earliest episodes. He got less stable later on.) Then there's sunny blonde Buffy Summers. The Gilmore family on Gilmore Girls was named after a wealthy family from Los Angeles history. The associations can be personal to you, or used to suggest a personality, or your certain dream casting of the role, or you can simply pick a name that feels "real" to you.
The only thing I would suggest that you avoid is something too overt, like a villain named "Blackheart" or, you know, "Underhand." And watch out for names that sound too much like they were inspired by other people's characters. I was once chided (chid?) for naming a rich girl something like "Angelica Cathcart." It was just too romance novel-y, fakey, and horrible. I cringe.
Sometimes, finding the right name will inspire you. I recently was struggling with a character until I decided she was named Jeremie. Something about that struck me just exactly right, and I saw her much more clearly.
Lunch: It was the first-day lunch at Andy Barker PI, so we were all taken out for a fancy lunch at Arnie Morton's. I had the steak salad. Lovely.
Jane on 07.10.06 @ 10:54 PM PST [link]
Saturday, July 8th
All my snorkel equipment gets carried around in a pink mesh backpack. Mesh, so that everything has at least a fighting chance of drying off. Also, I seem to remember that Joss used to have a pink mesh backpack and I always thought it was adorable. (One of the many reasons why Joss is cool is his unashamed love of things like pink mesh backpacks.) Anyway, part of the glory of the pink mesh backpack is that it can go into the washing machine smelling like a dead fisherman, and when you pull it out again it's as fresh as the silk rose pinned to a debutante's dress.
Ooh, didja catch those analogies? I've talked about these before, about using them in stage directions to quickly paint a picture. Like this one:
The ship is tossed like a bird in a storm.
Or in dialogue, to get a clear image of what a character is thinking, such as in this line from my old pilot about showgirls. Here, Holly is trying on her false eyelashes for the first time:
Whoa. They’re heavy. Blinking is like doing pushups.
Recently, I got a letter from Dr. Ingrid Glomp, in Gernany, asking about how one can learn to "think and write in analogies." Hmm. Interesting. I can't think of any tricks for this except to just make a sort of checklist when you're looking for a line, remind yourself to stop and think about what the experience *feels* like. If you ever find yourself hunting for the words to describe the effect you want, just consciously go looking for analogies. You do it naturally anyway. Every time you describe a victory as "tarnished," or a laugh as "grating," you're using analogy (metaphor really, but who's counting).
Now, I must admit, I may not be devoting my full attention to answering this question. I'm totally distracted by the name Ingrid Glomp. It's fantastic. Ingrid Glomp – great name. Seriously. Next time we talk, I'm totally going to talk about naming characters. Quiz: Why is House named House? Answer coming soon.
Lunch: popcorn with parmesan cheese and hot sauce on it. Yippee!
Jane on 07.09.06 @ 04:23 PM PST [link]
Friday, July 7th
I knew someone in college who worked in a sort of upscale housewares store. He told us once that there was a trick to selling overstocked items. Say you have too many black mugs in your inventory, and too few white ones. Here's what you do: make a display of all white mugs with one black one. Everyone will buy a black mug. Don't you love that? The power of opposites. Using one thing to sell the opposite effect... somehow this feels connected to something I've noticed about some scripted jokes:
We talk about comedy as a "relief" from the drama and tension elsewhere in a script, because it's supposed to be the opposite. But sometimes a joke can actually heighten the tension. And then you, the writer, totally score, because you're playing both notes at once. You're making 'em laugh! You're making 'em sweat! You're the conductor of an orchestra of human emanations!
Here's the thing that makes it work. Humor *does* lighten a moment. And the characters that you're writing about know that. So if a character cracks a joke in a tense moment, the audience is going to infer that the character is scared, reluctant, and generally tense.
Here's an example from an Angel script I wrote. Doyle has arrived home to find a monster named Griff in his apartment:
Doyle faces Griff. Doyle tries to look calm, but his hand shakes as he puts his keys back in his pocket.
I think you have the wrong place. I was very clear about canceling the maid service--
You owe money.
The fact that Doyle is finding it necessary to joke, despite his obvious fear, makes that fear all more evident.
Here's a similar example from a Buffy:
Buffy is in her room, deciding on a pair of earrings. She's considering hoops when she looks up
to see Giles standing in the doorway.
You know this is very dangerous.
You've just heard horror stories, that's all. Wear hoops and they'll catch on something, rip your lobes off, lobes flying everywhere...
That's not what I mean.
Buffy, of course, knows exactly what Giles is really talking about. She's just trying to defer the conversation because she's nervous about Giles' reaction. Her nerves come through extra-clearly because she's making a joke.
In terms of shows currently on the air, look at how often House uses this technique. A character like that is almost defined by the thing's he DOESN'T want to talk about, so this is the perfect technique to use with a guy like that. Give it a try.
Lunch: sauted mushrooms, leeks and bits of tofu dog with Chipotle Tabasco sauce. Try the Chipotle Tabasco -- good stuff.
Jane on 07.08.06 @ 04:27 PM PST [link]
Thursday, July 6th
On Monday morning, gentle readers, I am headed off to a new job. I'm going to be on the staff of the new Andy Richter comedy "Andy Barker, PI." I'm so excited – the pilot is great and I think it's going to be a really strong show. The new staff had our first get-to-know-you dinner last night, and I can report that it's a fun and accomplished group. The new schedule will mean I'm going to be a lot busier all of a sudden, and the blogging frequency may drop a bit – from once a day to once or twice a week, but I'm going to be here as much as I possibly can, my friends.
I'm way behind on addressing all the fine questions that arrive in the mail – I love these! And I wanted to talk about what may be the most delightful one yet. Jenn in L.A. asks "How do you deal with henchmen?" Oh my. Well, I punish them harshly if they fail to protect my mountain lair.
She explains what she means: "Lots of times in Buffy, she'll come across a cluster of vampires, only one of whom has a speaking role. Still, the rest of these vamps might appear throughout the episode / die in interesting ways. How do you keep them alive on the page without taking up too much space?"
Thanks Jenn! That's an interesting question. And, I should note, it's not just relevant to Buffy and similar shows with an action element. Doctors, for example, might have to break some hard news to a gathering of a patient's family members, and those might also be characters that reappear throughout the episode. This is a very similar situation since, again, it's likely that only one of the group will have a speaking role. (You have to pay people a lot more to speak – even if it's only one line – and writers will go to great lengths to keep extra characters from piping up.) For the sake of making me laugh, let's continue to refer to these silent supporting characters as "henchmen."
Usually, these kinds of characters don't really get names, just the barest of labels. Here's a chunk of stage direction (I believe this was written by the impressive David Fury) from a Buffy episode in which she fights some silent henchmen-types. Note that in this case there was no central speaking villain, just a band of silent equals:
BACK ON BUFFY as she is about to engage the Monster. When she hears a SNARL and turns to see ANOTHER ONE on her right.
NEW ANGLE as she takes a step back, sizing up the beasts, when a THIRD MONSTER leaps in behind her. She's surrounded.
She spins around, catching the third monster in the head with a roundhouse kick. MONSTER #3 is knocked back as MONSTERS #1 and #2 charge her.
If you want to give them each visual defining characteristics, these could well have been called "bumpy-headed monster," "extra-strong monster" and, I dunno, "mangy-furred monster" or something.
In our analogous doctor show, you could imagine something very similar:
BACK ON HOUSE as he straightens up from questioning the patient's DEVASTATED MOTHER. He hears a CLEARED THROAT and turns to see the patient's ANGRY-LOOKING SISTER on his right.
NEW ANGLE as he takes a step back, sizing up the sister, when a RED-EYED BROTHER steps in behind him. He's surrounded.
At this point, he might dodge through the group to the safety of his office. Buffy's roundhouse kick is cool, but House has got that bum leg…
Now, as the writer, you can just refer to ANGRY-LOOKING SISTER and RED-EYED BROTHER as being present in any scene in which you need them to be standing around silently. That's all you need to do to keep them alive on the page. If they had importance to the story, you'd give them names and lines. But since henchmen really are just there to fill up the room, you should spend as little ink as possible on them. Similarly, if the Monsters in the Buffy story stuck around, you'd simply mention in stage directions something like "the three MONSTERS from earlier glare at Buffy from across the crypt." Nothing more is needed.
Note that you can also fill up scenes with extras just by mentioning: "The deli is moderately busy" or "The halls are full of students." Silent people are pretty cheap when producing an episode, and even cheaper in a spec.
Lunch: chicken and salsa in scrambled eggs
Jane on 07.07.06 @ 11:39 AM PST [link]
Wednesday, July 5th
So, I spoke to the ABC Fellows this morning. A good group – cheerful, engaging, full of good questions. And I did a little intelligence-gathering, too; finding out what specs *they're* writing so I could run back here and tell all of you. I have to say, there were a couple of surprises. A lot of "Criminal Minds" – that one wasn’t even on my radar. And there was at least one "The Closer." No "House"s – "Grey's" seemed to be winning the battle of the medical specs. "Medium" was in there, too. In half-hour, it was "Earl" and "The Office," just as you might expect.
I got the impression they were feeling the lack of specable shows, just like I think many of you are. I bet lots of them will end up writing spec pilots to round out their portfolios. So I talked a little bit with them about spec pilots. About the importance of finding something for the show to be *about.*
You might feel like it's already about something. You know, it's about your childhood on the Bikini Atoll, watching the nuclear testing and wearing a two-piece swimsuit. Well, that suggests some events, but it doesn't really tell me what the show is about. What is that main character going through? Is this a show about the lessons of adolescence? About feeling different? About losing touch with old friends and finding new ones? About the strength of family? About making a family that isn't your birth family? About redemption? Self-learning? Reaching out? Looking in? Stuff like that – that's the heart of the show. Figure that out, and then suddenly the nuclear testing ground isn't just a pretty setting – it can be an illustration of the show's real content – maybe a metaphorical symbol of how things can change in an instant, or about how we don't always recognize destructive forces when we first see them, or simply about emotional outbursts…
Your story is still original. But once it has an emotional heart, it's also universal, because you found the common ground that every reader can identify with. It might help to practice pitching your pilot idea as if you had to sell it to a network. Don’t just tell the story, but think about how to present it as something identifiable for an audience. I pitched a pilot two years ago that I eventually wrote, although it never made it to the air. Here's how the pitch began:
"Every teenager is convinced that every adult in the world is lying to him, keeping huge important secrets from him. In my show, that teenager is right."
I was hoping to hook the listener right there, before they heard about when and where the show was set or what the secrets would turn out to be. I made sure they knew this was a story about teen paranoia, suspicion and alienation… before they knew anything else.
Lunch: big salad with avocado and warm chicken.
Jane on 07.06.06 @ 02:48 PM PST [link]
Tuesday, July 4th
Know what I get to do tomorrow morning? I get to go speak to the current crop of ABC Writing Fellows. This is the program that I trumpet constantly, the one that gave me my start (as the Disney Fellowship), and that pays its participants to learn to write for television. Such a good deal.
I won't have a ton of time to speak to them, and I'm going to have to figure out how to convey the most important advice quickly. It's an interesting group to tailor advice to; they've got their foot in the door, but it's a very heavy door. A foot-crushingly heavy door. The advice that I give them has to help them not give up any advantage they have gained. It would be a shame to complete the program without having gathered any momentum. It would be like an evolutionary false start -- starting to turn your flippers into feet and then sliding back into the ocean.
Well, one thing I know I will tell the fellows is "play nice." The friends I made in the program are still my best friends. And the very young executives who patted our heads in the Disney hallways included David Kissinger and Jordan Levin, both of whom went on to be powerful forces in the television business. And I've already told you about the importance of being nice to assistants. The wheels that roll under Entertainment are made of assistants.
If you, like the fellows, ever find yourself in a position to talk to people who are already doing what you want to do, or who know those people, or who hire those people, or who provide water for those people – go beyond being professional with them. Be genuinely friendly. Ask questions. Make a friend. Don't hand them a spec, don't offer to send it to them, but tell them you're writing one and ask some lovely general questions about what shows they think make a good spec, whether or not they think writing a spec pilot is a good idea. And ask what they like about their jobs... stuff like that.
Maybe this idea -- make friends to get ahead -- seems completely obvious. Not to everyone. Not to the guy in the airport yesterday whom I heard yelling at the gate agent. "I'm in entertainment!" He declared. "I know you're holding back some seats!" What a charmer.
So play nice. And remember that having a connection only accomplishes something if you've got the scripts to back it up.
Lunch: Thai spicy eggplant
Jane on 07.05.06 @ 07:24 PM PST [link]
Hi everyone! I'm back from my long holiday weekend. Spent much of the time face-down in the water. Fun! I was snorkeling with the tropical fishes. I got a new mask and a crazy looking swim top that keeps your body heat in. Fantastic, except I was literally swimming in a pink mock turtleneck. It was a very odd feeling at first. Like skiiing in a prom dress or gambling in a bride dress -- no wait, I've seen that one a lot.
Anyway, I noticed something while snorkeling. If I was in a dense swarm of fish, I didn't savor each individual as much as if I was in a more sparsely populated area where I could focus on each fish in turn and really study its coloring and actions. Less is more -- could it actually be true? Perhaps!
As you're coming up with stories for your brand new specs, this is the very most important time to look at the examples you've collected of produced episodes of the show. You don't need more story than these episodes have, *even though it might feel like it makes it easier.* Cramming an episode with EVENT makes it feel significant, fast-moving and easy to write, because there's a lot of do, but it's going to make the show feel rushed, superficial and too crowded to allow those wonderful single-fish character moments.
Read (or view) the produced episodes you have access to, and try to recreate the outlines that they began as. Pull out the beats of pure A-story. These are the beats that look like this:
1. discover crime victim
2. develop first theory: wife did it
3. wife found dead
4. develop second theory: mother-in-law did it.
5. move in on mother-in-law
6. mother-in-law threatened by real killer
7. real killer fooled as mother-in-law revealed to be hero in disguise
Count them. Don't count moments of discussing-the-case that turn into personal beats. These are character beats disguised as A-story. Count only the moments that really develop that main spine of a story. The story you're coming up with for your spec should have NO MORE beats than you're finding in the produced examples.
(And don't be overly shy about using a very similar structure for your A story as one that they've already used. It's just structure. Unless you're specing a show that is about nothing except clever structure, what will make your spec shine is the character stuff and the general elegance of the writing. Structure is just the shape of the glass into which you pour all that stuff.)
If you're writing a spec pilot, again, too much story is your enemy. Even more so than on a regular spec, because you need room to introduce all those characters! Look at some produced pilots -- they can have VERY thin stories indeed. Frasier learns his dad's going to live with him. Mary Richards gets a job. A brainy new waitress is hired at the bar. A doctor starts work at a new hospital. A cop gets a new partner and misses his old one. Even if you do a pilot that plays as more of a normal-day-in-the-life, the characters are still new to the viewers and will require a bit of time for introductions.
Give yourself character time, is what I'm saying. In other words, slow down and smell the fishes.
Lunch: snack box on the airplane. Cookies, granola bar, cheese, peanut-butter crackers and raisins. Too much sweet, not enough savory.
Jane on 07.04.06 @ 11:26 PM PST [link]