Wednesday, August 30th
Tuesday, August 29th
My parents got a new puppy this week. She's a teeny baby Bichon Frise whom they have named Zia. Can you believe these are the same people who came up with "Jane"? I suspect I'd've had a different life if I was named Zia Espenson. Not better, but different. Names can be like pins that attach us to our lives.
Or, sometimes, they make things realer. When nothing got named "zero," people started thinking about numbers in a different way. Nothing became something.
A similar interesting thing happens when you're breaking a story and you give a name to each act of your script. I find it to be totally helpful. At the very least, it makes you more aware of the overall shape of the story. Here's an example of how you might label the acts of a spec script.
ACT ONE: The building storm
ACT TWO: Self-deception adds to the trouble
ACT THREE: We strike back
ACT FOUR: Double-cross!
ACT FIVE: We win!
Or whatever. These are for demonstration purposes only.
Label the acts with whatever you feel best describes the thrust of the story in that act. I find that once I've settled on these names, I'm far better able to tell if a given scene is doing what I need it to do. If I have to let go of one of these guide ropes to reach for a scene, then I know I'm in danger of losing my way.
Lunch: a nice tongue sandwich. Loosen up! Try it!
Jane on 08.30.06 @ 06:42 PM PST [link]
WorldCon made me get all theoretical and big-picture-y. That can be fun, but it isn't always helpful if you're sitting at home with your fingers on the keys, looking for advice you can put to work right away. So, how about we go back to talking about something more practical?
Let's suppose you're "breaking" the story for your drama spec script. You're in the early stages, thinking up the basic spine of the story, and looking for the act breaks – looking for the places where the story turns. So you come up with a nice exciting event for the end of the teaser, and other ones for the three or four breaks that follow -- all the places where the story will continue after commercials.
Let's say that the act breaks you come up with are compelling and suspenseful. What could possibly go wrong?
They could be duplicates, is what. Sometimes it's very easy to end up with two act breaks that are way too similar to each other. If you end act one with your detectives at a dead-end, you shouldn't end act three with another dead end. Or if an act ends with character one betraying character two, then it's best to avoid using a subsequent betrayal of c2 by c1 as another act break in the same episode.
This trap is so easy to fall into that I've been on staffs where no one notices that we've broken a story with this flaw for a strikingly long time. Then finally, someone points it out, and we all slap our foreheads in comical unison. Sometimes, it doesn't even get fixed. You can probably find produced episodes that do exactly this. Maybe it even works, if the two scenes are purposeful echoes of each other, or if the second of the two breaks is presented as existing at an order of magnitude greater than the first. But unless things work out just right, and you can bury the similarity, you're taking a risk of turning in a script that feels circular and repetitive.
In an extreme case of repeated act breaks, you can look at the story for an episode and realize that nothing would really change if you removed, say, act three. This is a very bad sign. Test your story against this property before you begin writing dialogue. If you've got an act that lifts out like part of a sectional sofa, then something's gone badly wrong. Change it now. Everything is easier to change in the pre-outline stage. And if no one sees you slap your forehead, does it really hurt?
Lunch: no new lunch since last entry
Jane on 08.29.06 @ 09:37 PM PST [link]
Monday, August 28th
Today is special because my favorite book, Prisoner of Trebekistan, will be released one week from today. If you've been hesitating because you didn't want to pre-order and then have to wait for the book to arrive, then this is your time to strike!
Lunch: egg salad and chocolate pie (two separate items)
Jane on 08.29.06 @ 01:32 PM PST [link]
Friday, August 25th
Hi! I'm back from WorldCon. Wow, that was fun! It's a convention that focuses a lot on books, as opposed to comic books and games. This seems to lead to a more grown up and more female collection of attendees than at some other cons. The whole thing had a wonderful feel to it.
The Hugo Award ceremony went well. I got through my part of it, so I was already reeling with relief when I had the pleasure of seeing Serenity get the Drama Long Form award. How wonderful! It was a great night indeed.
I also participated in quite a few more panels, which was a lot of fun. In fact, several times throughout the weekend, I had mini-epiphanies (I call them piphanies) about what it is that I do for a living. Here is a thought you might enjoy. Or disagree with. Or both.
There is a big division in the nature of television shows. We talk about shows that are character-driven and shows that are story-driven. King of the Hill, to pick a show more or less at random, is character-driven. Law and Order is story-driven. Other shows exist somewhere along the scale.
But what if there's a third division? It seems to me that the shows which we are most liable to call "Sci Fi" are often driven by something that is neither character nor story. The Twilight Zone, original Star Trek and Trek:TNG, the Halloween episodes of The Simpsons, maybe even a show like Quantum Leap… I would contend that these are (drum roll) idea-driven.
You know what I mean? I would even include some of the earliest monster-of-the-week Buffy episodes in this category -- the ones with the strongest metaphorical underpinnings. Like episodes of The Twilight Zone, they function as sorts of little parables, with a point to make about the world. A point made by an idea-based show might be something like: racism is random, human obsession creates a barrier as strong as any wall, greed eats away the soul, vanity makes you ugly. There's a moral to these shows, as in a fable.
Have you ever noticed that there are a lot of people out there who declare "I don't like Sci Fi" and "I don't like Fantasy"? Have you ever questioned them on what they mean… do they mean that they don't like Frankenstein, Brave New World, 1984, A Handmaid's Tale, Harry Potter? They don't like Star Wars? Indiana Jones? ET? Splash? Big? Lord of the Rings? Sliding Doors? The Natural? Field of Dreams? Heaven can Wait? Defending your Life? The Incredibles? Batman? They don't like Buffy? Quantum Leap? Charmed? Medium? Bewitched? Sabrina? Lost?
Usually they'll admit that they, in fact, like a great many of those things. They just don't put some of those works in the category of things they dislike. I'm starting to wonder if what best characterizes what they don’t like is the category of idea-driven works.
The types of stories written by Ray Bradbury, the types of filmed stories presented by Rod Serling... these appealed to me as child even without the presence of characters I knew and was already rooting for. I loved the fact that each of them was a neat little package with an idea inside. But others dislike this. Maybe it feels artificial to them, like a little puppet show that they suddenly realize is there not to entertain but to educate. It's about vegetables! It's a trap!
They may, in fact, have learned, from the example of the Trek shows, that the sight of spacecraft is a warning signal that ideas may soon follow. I've heard from a number of people who were pleasantly surprised to discover that Battlestar Galactica was about people. I think they were afraid it was about ideas. (Which is not to say it is idea-less, but I wouldn't say it is idea-driven. It is character-driven.)
What does this mean for you, the humble and earnest writer of spec scripts? Figure out the category of the show you are specing and make sure the episode you write is of the correct type. And if you are writing an idea-driven spec pilot, be aware that you are battling some strong headwinds. If you are twisting story and character in order to create a sort of parable, you may be letting an idea drive your spec. Watch out for this, my friends. I love ideas, you love ideas, but something there is that does not love an idea. They simply are not in fashion in the television world right now.
Lunch: A hot meatball sub from Togos, delivered by mistake in place of a turkey sandwich, but cherished nonetheless.
Jane on 08.28.06 @ 10:22 PM PST [link]
Thursday, August 24th
Greetings from WorldCon! I'm in Anaheim, gentle readers, where I'm appearing on panels and mingling with other SciFi fans and – get this – presenting the Hugo Award for best Short-Form Dramatic Presentation. I will get to open the envelope on stage and everything. I'm nervous about it, but I think it's one of those things, like rewriting, that after it's over, you're glad you did it.
I got to share a dais today with the great Melinda Snodgrass. She's the writer with the best claim to fame that I ever heard of. She wrote a wonderful, classic episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called "The Measure of a Man." It was about a challenge to the sentience of Data, the android character and it was one of my all time favorites. And here's the kicker. It was a spec script. This is the only case I have ever heard of in which a spec script was purchased and produced. Now that's impressive. Kinda makes you want to polish that spec a little more, doesn't it? You know, just in case it falls into the right hands?
I can think of one other case that was similar to this. Steve De Knight got hired onto the Buffy staff on the basis of a Buffy spec. Unheard of! You never even submit a spec of a show to that show, right? Well, in fact, he didn't. It was submitted to Angel. But Joss loved the script so well that he grabbed De Knight for Buffy. I never got to read the script myself, but I understand that it was about Xander and Buffy and how they are affected when Buffy loses her Slayer powers and Xander gets them.
Melinda and Steve did the same thing with their specs. They both took strong, well-established characters that were central to the show, and they put them through a trauma that drove at heart of how that character is defined. What does it mean for an android -- this android -- to be sentient? What does it mean for Buffy to be the Slayer? These questions are big pointy hooks. Throw them into the ocean and drag them around on the bottom for a while and you're going to dredge up some stuff.
If you can find an idea for a spec that cuts as close to the heart of a show as those two did, you'll be on your way to winning the show-biz lottery like they did.
Lunch: seared ahi tuna salad
Jane on 08.25.06 @ 09:03 PM PST [link]
Wednesday, August 23rd
I work right now in a writers' room with a lot of really experienced comedy writers. You better believe that I sit there with big ears, listening for comedy crumbs. Here's what one of them said today.
"It's all about who's stupid and who's lying."
This is very possibly good advice for life in general, but what he meant was that situations are rendered comically complex by all things that can happen to obscure the clear communication of information.
Kinda stiking, isn't it? Misunderstandings -- Jack thinks Crissy's pregnant! Deceptions – Lucy puts on a costume to sneak onstage! Someone is stupid and someone is lying. In fact, you'll find examples in just about any comedy you care to think of. M*A*S*H? Frank Burns is stupid and Hawkeye is lying. Of course, stupidity and deception come in interesting and complex flavors. Self-delusion and pomposity is a sophisticated kind of stupidity. Crafty creativity is a fun sort of lying. Play around, in other words, with ways to keep information away from those who need it.
Interestingly, this suggests that clear communication is the enemy of comedy. Sounds about right. There was a great Kids in the Hall bit once in which two vaudeville comics attempt to do the old Abbott-and-Costello “Who’s on First” routine. But it keeps getting derailed because one of the performers keeps clarifying. "Oh! I see the source of the confusion! I'm referring to the players' last names, you see."
Don't be afraid to populate your spec pilot with fools and liars. You will treasure them.
Lunch: tuna sandwich and lemon creme meringue pie
Jane on 08.24.06 @ 04:45 PM PST [link]
Monday, August 21st
Oh my. That little LA Times piece about this blog has just borne fruit. Fruit in the shape of envelopes! So much mail has just reached me! Oof! (I collapse under the mail bag, just my little feet sticking out, one on each side.)
Some of the mail either contains ideas for television series (which I simply CANNOT read, no matter what kind of waivers you include, seriously – in fact, they don't even get to me, having been thrown away before I receive your envelopes), or questions about how to sell such ideas for television series. These questions generally come from those of you who are in situations such that it's not practical for you to move to Los Angeles and spend ten years establishing yourself in a writing career before you begin pitching pilot ideas. So, of course, you want to know about other avenues for turning ideas into shows.
I wish I knew of such avenues. But I don't. There are so many working writers with ideas – we pride themselves on them – that there's no sense of a need to seek out other sources.
I am reminded that there was, briefly, an attempt to do something like what you are looking for. There was a fairly low-profile reality show on Bravo last season called "Situation:Comedy," that was a sort of Project Greenlight for sitcoms. Unproduced writers submitted spec pilots, and two finalists had 15-minute versions of their scripts produced. (These mini pilots were called "pilot lights".) Unfortunately, I have heard of no plans to repeat the project, although I personally thought it was great, and I wish it would continue.
And how did I happen to be reminded of this short-lived project? Well, one of the letters I received was actually from one of the "Situation:Comedy" semi-finalists! I'm delighted to learn he's finding the blog helpful! Here's wishing you continued success with your career!
Maybe other projects and contests like that one will come along. We can all keep our eyes open for them. Until then... keep thinking, keep writing... what you're doing now is very much like how I got started. It takes many hours of flight training before you become a pilot. And many hours in the writers' room before you pitch a pilot. But both are, in the end, attainable.
Lunch: steak and potatoes.
Jane on 08.23.06 @ 10:45 PM PST [link]
Sunday, August 20th
You know what I heard the other day that I hadn't heard in a while? People talking about a commercial they saw. With more and more of us using Tivo, and skipping the commercials, they are becoming less of a cultural touchstone. Interesting.
Tellingly, the ad these people were talking about was for a product marketed to men. Ah. That would be advertised during sports – something which is still watched live. That explains it.
Of course, there are all sorts of points that can be made about this particular loss of commonality in our culture. The point I'm choosing to make is possibly the most trivial of all these possible points. Commercials no longer are a great comedy resource.
Believe it or not, this is a sizable loss. Punchlines derived from commercial tag lines like "Two, two, two mints in one," "He likes it! Hey, Mikey!" "Ancient Chinese secret, huh?" "Less Filling! Tastes Great!" and so on, were a huge part of my television adolescence. (For some reason, I only seem to be thinking of really old commercials… but I know I have often referenced more recent ones when writing.)
The jokes will instead become, I suppose, references to popular YouTube-type offerings (Mentos + Diet Coke, etc). So don't despair. There's still lots of comedy to harvest. Just observe and enjoy the little seismic shift as one of comedy's staple resources undergoes a change. And stay on top of it, of course. If you want your readers to get that pleasant jolt of recognition… make sure you're working with material they'll recognize.
Lunch: chicken and vegetables. Healthy but good.
Jane on 08.21.06 @ 09:17 PM PST [link]
Saturday, August 19th
So, gentle readers. I finally did it. I finally read The Da Vinci Code. Also known as The Big Book of Act Breaks. Look at it for great examples of exactly when to interrupt the action in order to require your audience to keep going. He pulls you through the story as if you'd gotten a race horse tangled in your hair clips. Whoosh.
The writing style, however, is beyond clunky. For one thing, no character ever looks at anything without being reminded of something else. People are constantly looking out windows, at paintings, at books, and at other people, while being reminded of past trips, childhood experiences, historical events and random old relationships. Can't someone just look at a thing and see a thing, please? Or have a memory without some physical prompt? Sigh. Just a thing I noticed.
Anyway, I was interested to find that there is a good lesson for script writers in the pages of the book. There are a couple scenes in the book that are set in a classroom (in flashback, prompted, I believe, by looking at something-or-other). Our hero is laying out some facts for the reader, through the device of having a dialogue with students in his class. I find these scenes to be most problematic. The students always ask exactly the right question to prompt his next statement so that the points role out of him in the optimal order without requiring him to spout blocks of unbroken text. This doesn't feel particularly spontaneous. The students function as cue cards and are about as cardboardy.
But here's where I grow gentle with Mr. Brown. The truth is, this kind of scene is one of the hardest you'll ever have to write. I've seen subtler writers than this one fail at it. I've failed at it myself. It's hard not to. There's even a moment in Aaron Sorkin's special "Isaac and Ishmael" West Wing episode that has always bothered me for exactly this reason.
You remember this episode? It was the bottle episode produced very quickly, soon after 9/11, in which students asked questions of our regular characters about the nature of terrorism. Here is the exchange that bumps me:
You know a lot about terrorism?
What are you struck by most?
Its 100% failure rate.
The "dabble" exchange is great. I love Sorkin for moments like that. But look at the next question. "What are you struck by most?" is a very, very strange question. The asker has no reason to think Sam has an answer to it, after all. Or that the answer will be important. It's a question asked only as the quickest possible way to get to the next point. It might, in fact, be the quickest and most elegant way out of a bad situation. It's just a weird question, is all. The problem, I assert, is not with Sorkin, but with the nature of this kind of scene.
In a scene with lots of real characters in it – regular, recurring or even guest characters - you avoid this problem. Because even when some lines are there to set up other lines, they can still be laden with character. But in the type of Q-and-A scene I'm talking about, a number of speakers don't have (or need or want) characters. They are there to be devices, not people. And that makes them ridiculously hard to write. You need them to be good little devices, and so they tend to sound like good little devices.
If you've got a ton of exposition in your spec for some reason, I would recommend finding ways to get it out without a Q-and-A scene involving a number of questioners without characters. These scenes are just too hard. Look for ways to get your established characters to pull info out of each other instead.
Lunch: shabu-shabu. Beef and veggies cooked in boiling water right on the table top. So good!
Jane on 08.20.06 @ 11:07 AM PST [link]
Thursday, August 17th
So, if I understand this internet thing, I can just swear, right? Right now, I could just cut loose with a barrage of inventive and obscene language blue enough to change the color scheme of my site? I'm tasting the freedom!
This is not the case on network television. There are rules. Now, you might think that as a writer of spec scripts, these don't apply to you, but it's a good idea to adhere to them anyway, just to demonstrate that you've got some professional savvy. Besides, joke writing is a lot easier with dirty words, and you want to prove that you can be funny without them.
Of course, if you're spec-ing an HBO show, please, swear with abandon.
Now, you know the obvious rules. You've watched television. So I'm just going to talk about the ones that I find surprising. These, believe it or not, are generally considered unacceptable: Chrissakes, goddamn, non-reverential uses of Jesus, Jesus Christ, Christ.
Maybe you're not startled by those, but I forget them all the time. I find myself typing "goddamn" into scripts, thinking of it as a fairly mild curse, as these things go. But no. "God" is fine. "Damn" is fine. "Goddamn" – go wash out your keyboard with soap! And "Jesus" as an exclamation – a fine earthy outburst that conveys a certain type of character? – nope. So watch out for these.
And here are a few delightful distinctions. On the list I have, "eat me" is listed as never acceptable, while "bite me" is fine. Interesting. And "jerk-off" is acceptable as an insult but not as a reference to masturbation – but isn't that at the heart of the insult?
When I started out as a writer, "Oh my God" was sometimes flagged for removal, at least on TGIF shows. Some writing staffs made a practice of spelling it "omigod" -- I can't imagine it made a difference, but they seemed to think it did. Now it seems to be universally accepted.
When I wrote my first Buffy, I had Buffy's mom say "screw you!" to Buffy. I was certain it would be removed. But, no! "Screw" is hunky-dory! Go for it! Also, "bitch" and, surprisingly, "son of a bitch" are generally allowed, although I'd be careful about these during kid-friendly, early-evening shows. And "pissed" is usually fine, meaning angry. Or drunk, if a British character is saying it.
Which brings us to exotic swearing. As long as it's not in common US usage, you can get away with all kinds of stuff. "Berk," "Merde," "Scheiss" -- all perfectly acceptable, although presumably sometimes bleeped when the episodes are eventually exported.
Be more conservative if you're spec-ing an 8PM show than if you're doing a 10PM show, since the rules do loosen up throughout the night. And study your sample scripts for examples of where your show draws the line. But, there you are. Reverential Jesus! That was fun!
Lunch: Chinese Avocado Salad from "Nature's Pantry." Healthy and good!
Jane on 08.19.06 @ 09:32 AM PST [link]
Wednesday, August 16th
Are you all aware of the cartoon caption contest that appears in every issue of The New Yorker? It's a pretty good way for you aspiring comedy writers to practice your punchline writing skills.
And every now and then, Bob Mankoff, the magazine's Cartoon Editor, sends out an email to participants in which he gives more details on the entries received for a given cartoon. This is the REAL reason to enter the contest -- to get those emails. I find them fascinating.
What he does is set out what he calls the the "major categories" of caption entries for a given cartoon. These are what TV writers would call "joke areas."
In this case, the cartoon was of a pirate ship. The ship's flag is a traditional Jolly Roger only with a happy face in the place of the skull. Think about the caption you might have submitted.
Here are the joke areas that were mined, with representative jokes for each area, as reported by Bob Mankoff. (I hope, Mr. Mankoff, that you won't object to these being reprinted here for educational purposes.)
"Certainly it's jolly. My concern is that it's seen as cloying."
"A bit TOO jolly if ye asks me!"
"Aye, matey. 'Tis proud we are to be sailin' under the flag of the Jolly Melvin."
Yo Ho Ho
"Yo ho ho and a bottle of milk!!"
"Yo ho ho and a bottle of fun!"
"Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum daiquiris!"
"I wonder if Wal-Mart has good 'burial at sea' benefits?"
"Now that we're with Wal-Mart, we just pillage mom-and-pop stores."
"Avast, ye Wal-Mart shoppers."
"In between floggings he's quite a cutup."
"I don't mind the floggings, but I wish he wouldn't call us 'associates.'"
"Then, once they heave alongside, we're all supposed to yell: 'Just kidding!'"
"Gone are the days of pillaging. Now all we do is tickle people."
"I feel ambiguous."
"He's cruel, but fun."
"New rule: Everybody dies happy."
I find this to be about as clear a dissection of possible joke areas as I've ever seen. Thanks, Mr. Mankoff!
Which category did your caption fall under? Did you only think of one of the possible joke areas? Or did you jump around as you worked on it? Jumping is a good sign.
A room full of comedy writers does the same thing this email does, in a way. Someone seizes on a joke area, and then other pitches accumulate that represent the same area, and then someone else pitches a joke from a different area, and then people start piling into that area. This is one reason that comedy is written by such large groups of people -- to find all the areas.
As a solo spec writer, it's important to take the time to think of areas you haven't found yet. Don't just look for new ways to craft a joke around "Wal-Mart," in other words. Instead, think of other points the joke could be making.
Lunch: onion rings and a root beer from Bob's Big Boy
Jane on 08.17.06 @ 04:41 PM PST [link]
Tuesday, August 15th
A very cool site called popgurls.com did an interview with me the other day. You can jump right to it here.
Anyway, they asked me if I had a Ten Commandments for spec writers. Here's what I came up with:
1. Don't spec a show you don't respect.
2. Don't make your spec about a guest character. Focus on the main character.
3. Get sample scripts of produced episodes. Study them.
4. Follow the show's story structure exactly.
5. Find a story for your spec that plays on the show's main theme.
6. Don't write an episode that resolves the show's mystery or consummates its romance.
7. Place the story turns at the act breaks, and give us reason to come back after the commercials.
8. In a comedy, spend time polishing the jokes, especially the last one in each scene.
9. Spelling, formatting, clarity of stage directions - they really matter.
10. Use strong brass brads.
Even with more reflection, I'm pretty well pleased with these. Maybe the thing about brads doesn't deserve to make the top ten, but it's not a bad list. I was interested to see that the first one is one I haven't touched on much in this blog. About only spec-ing shows that you respect. It's a topic that's tricky, because sometimes there may not be a lot of choice in this matter.
For example, if you really want to be a multi-cam comedy writer, and you aren't a fan of Two and Half Men... well, where does that leave you? With a spec pilot, I suppose.
Now, this isn't to say you CAN'T write a show you don't like. Once you're hired on a staff, it's not uncommon to have to write for a show you wouldn't actually be a fan of. (I've been ridiculously fortunate in this way.) But I think if you ever find youself writing *down* -- writing lines that are perfect for the show but that you personally don't like -- well, it's hard to see how that spec is gonna sparkle.
For you drama writers too, if everyone around you is clamoring for you to write a show you don't like, because it's the hot show to spec, well, it's probably best to resist. Find a show you love and do that one instead, even if it's not the "Must-Have" spec.
Lunch: heirloom tomatoes and store-bought tabouli
Jane on 08.16.06 @ 12:41 PM PST [link]
Monday, August 14th
I have a friend who is a wonderful screenwriter. The dialogue sparkles, the stories glisten, the jokes are sharp and the emotions strong. So what pulls me out of it every time? Apostrophes. I know it seems trivial, but I think the incorrect placement of apostrophes drives many of us crazy. Am I right? Show of hands.
Here's the problem, of course. We all know that apostrophes mark possessives. So why isn't "it's toy" correct? It all seems so counterintuitive.
Well, here's the insight that finally helped me. Think of possessive "its" as the ungendered version of "his" and "her." Note that they don't have apostrophes either! It's a set! An unapostrophed set!
In fact, throw "your" in there too! Now you won't get it mixed up with "you're"! And... look! "Their" -- that's a possessive pronoun too, and there's no apostrophe! Now you won't spell it "they're"! It's not random! It's consistent!
I have no idea why more teachers don't teach it this way. I find it very illuminating.
Double check your apostrophes and other punctuation pitfalls before you turn in any spec. Crazy as it seems, it will be worth the effort. Nothing will get between the reader and the script.
Lunch: escargot and a butter lettuce salad. Mmmm.
P.S. I got the most wonderful note and Tshirt from Steven at the great Spamusement.com site! Thanks so much!
Jane on 08.15.06 @ 01:58 PM PST [link]
Friday, August 11th
Ever go on vacation and realize you haven't packed quite enough clothing to get you through the trip? Turn something inside-out and it's fresh again!
The same trick can work for jokes. Here's a very old joke form:
He'd never go out with me. I'm old and fat and I can't dance.
I think you can dance.
This form is very very familiar, and you wouldn't expect to find it on a show like The Office. But what happens if you turn it inside out?
You don't find a lot of people who are as attractive and generous as you are, who are also so talented!
Oh, I don’t know if I’d say 'talented.'
Now that it's a list of positives, not negatives, is it a totally fresh joke – so fresh it'll pinch your bottom? Not really, but it feels a little fresher, I submit, than the original. Not because of anything inherent in the joke, just because of degree of familiarity.
Here's another example. The original joke:
What a disgusting harpy!
That was my mother.
Here it is, turned inside out:
What a lovely woman!
That wasn't my mother.
Maybe it's just me, but the second version is slightly less familiar, slightly fresher. If the first joke is from the 50s, the second one is from the 80s. Is there a thoroughly modern version of this joke? Maybe this?
So, I met this woman in the lobby…
Are you being noncommittal until you find out if she was my mother?
I thought it would be wise.
That might be the 90s. Kind of Frasiery. Anyway, it's worth looking hard at jokes with a familiar structure. Play around with them, flip 'em this way and that… see what they've got on the other side!
Lunch: Lamb chops.
Jane on 08.14.06 @ 05:39 PM PST [link]
Wednesday, August 9th
So. Project Runway. Don't you think Robert's last two outfits have been too similar to each other? It was the same coat. Well... not the SAME coat. But both coats filled the same square in the great cosmic fashion grid. Know what I mean? Well, it's just like with jokes...
Sometimes a room full of television writers will look at two jokes in the same script and realize that one of them has to be cut. Why? Because "they're the same joke." It seems weird the first time you hear it. They're not the same. All the words are different! What is meant is that both jokes have the same *point*, they're funny for the same reason.
Here's an example. Consider the following sequence of lines. (Remember, this is an exhibition only. It is not real professional comedy.)
Mom! I can't find my phone!
Dig through the stuff in your room. When you hit Indian artifacts, you've gone too far.
I looked through everything!
Better you than me. I'm always afraid I'll find the puppy we lost when you were three.
Both of Mom's lines are jokes. But they're the same joke. Both have the same point: the kid's room is a dump.
These two jokes are especially identical. They even exaggerate the messiness in the same way – by suggesting that things are buried in the mess. They clearly cannot both remain. Comedy relies on freshness of observation. If the observation has just been made… well, you're not going to get a laugh on the second joke.
Sometimes, the one-joke-or-two issue is not as clear cut as it was in the example. Sometimes a writing staff will disagree about whether or not two jokes are the same. In your spec, if two jokes are far apart in the script, if one is an escalation, if the point is similar but not exactly the same… then you'll probably get away with it. Note that Friends could load up a script with Joey-is-dumb jokes and every one would be delightful. But if they had two really specific Joey-can't-count jokes on the same page? Nope. Same joke.
I think sometimes, in writing a spec, a writer can't decide between two jokes. Which one will the readers like better? So he puts 'em both in, thinking he's building a joke run. It can be very tempting. Resist the temptation. Close your eyes and point if you have to, but make the choice, Sophie.
Lunch: Hot polish dog from a little food stand/restaurant with the best name ever: Pappoo's Hot Dog Show. I was hoping for puppets.
Jane on 08.11.06 @ 07:20 PM PST [link]
Tuesday, August 8th
Friend-of-the-blog Lani wrote to me with a contribution to the ongoing discussion of when one cuts out of scene early versus when one cuts late. I thought her analysis was so good, not to mention poetic, that I'm presenting it to you here. Take it, Lani!
Lani: "You can cut on the lightning or you can cut after the thunder. I don't think choosing one is a criticism of the other, but they definitely do give a different flavor to each choice. I haven’t seen "Little Miss Sunshine," but I think that method [cutting early] would work because it's so engaging. The viewer has to actively participate, to anticipate, in order to get it. And it's interesting that directors are trusting their audiences' sophistication and ability to do that. Yay for that! But with "The Office," it's more real. In real life, we can't cut at the lightning – the thunder's always coming. And even though we know it's coming, there's something that bonds us in the experience of it. The same way we've all lived through the awkward aftermath of a Michael Scott moment."
Wow. Well said. Thanks, Lani!
Now, moving on a bit, I want to address a question I was asked recently about scene length as seen in a more mathematical light. A writer noticed that the produced scripts they'd acquired for the show they were specing had scenes as long as 4 pages in them, and asked me if that was unusual. Actually, it is not. Have no fear of writing scenes of any particular length, as long as the show customarily does so. Buffy sometimes had big group scenes that could be as long as 6 or 7 pages, while Gilmore Girls scenes often ran --and run -- far longer than that! Do as your show does and you won't go wrong. Some scenes simply contain a lot of stuff that needs to happen. If you get really nervous about it, break the scene up by making the characters move to another location during it, or maybe cut away to another story in another location and then come back to your monster scene.
Lunch: Chicken salad sandwich and pie, purchased from -- get this -- a Marie Calendar's guy who came to our office to sell stuff directly from his travelling caravan of coolers! Wonderful!
Jane on 08.09.06 @ 08:54 PM PST [link]
Monday, August 7th
Hi all! This is a brief supplemental post to remind everyone that I am recommending an amazing book called Prisoner of Trebekistan. It's coming out next month and is available for pre-order now. I have read it, and although I don't want to give too much away, I think I can promise that those of you who enjoy this site will have reason to feel affection for this book. Pulse-pounding game play! Jeopardy backstage secrets! Funniness! Baboons!
Click on the book cover in the "Jane Recommends" box at the top left of the site to be taken to the appropriate Amazon page.
In other promotional news, you might be interested to read about this very blog in today's LA Times. A very nice piece. You are all involved in this blogging transaction with me, gentle readers, so congrats to us all!
Lunch: It's, like, midnight... no lunch since the last time I wrote. I can only do so much.
Jane on 08.08.06 @ 12:33 AM PST [link]
Sunday, August 6th
One more word about Little Miss Sunshine, if you will indulge me, gentle readers. The movie is as good an example as you’re likely to find of cutting out of a scene at the earliest possible moment. The INSTANT that a scene has done its job, we’re moving on. And the implied sentiment of “you don’t really need to see what happens next” is funny in itself.
I was going to praise this dynamic as an unimpeachable positive. Who wouldn’t want to write a script full of scenes that march along in this swift and entertaining manner? But then I realized there is another type of aesthetic. Does The Office cut out of scenes at the earliest possible moment? Or does it wait up for agonizingly funny awkward pauses and horribly diverting endless embarrassments? Albert Brooks movies also can live in those moments that never end, and that get funnier the longer they hang there.
The first kind is funny because it suggests what happened in the missing moments, and you laugh at the way the situation has led to an inevitable and universal moment that we all understand without seeing it. It's the funny of understanding -- a conspiratorial wink at the audience. The second kind, the late cut, is funny -- I think -- because it tends to be about the utter relentlessness of human nature. The hapless tourist just keeps arguing with the unmoved casino boss. Michael Scott won't give up his determination to make an employee concede a point. It's less of a wink and more of a pointing-at, I'd say. A "look at this guy not giving up" kind of funny. At any rate, that's my first guess. Feel free to discuss this among yourselves.
I’m reminded of the rule about jokes. Tell a joke once, it’s funny. Twice, it’s not funny. Eight times… it gets funny again. (The oft-cited example of this is the Simpsons bit in which Sideshow Bob steps on a very long sequence of rakes.) Could it be that the rules of cutting out early versus cutting late follow a similar pattern? Short good, long good… medium bad. Hmm?
At any rate, if you’re writing a spec of an existing show, do whatever your show does. Pay close attention to the moments in which their scenes end – do they end with everyone exiting and one character left alone to settle back into their chair? Or with everyone still up on their feet? With the sense that something is about to happen, or the sense that it just has? With a focus on inevitabity of the outcome? Or on the nature of the character in the situation? Emulate!
If you’re writing your own spec pilot, you get to find and apply your own style here. Which aesthetic speaks to you? I’m a early cutter outer myself. But your mileage may vary.
Lunch: Half a pastrami sandwich and a cucumber salad from Art’s Deli.
Jane on 08.07.06 @ 08:42 PM PST [link]
Friday, August 4th
Here is a super cool thing about having this blog. The other night someone asked me how to add dimensionality to a character. At a party, they asked me! I love that – party conversation is a lot more fun when you can talk about aspects of writing instead of just praising the appetizers and gossiping about which celebrities smell bad (a surprisingly long list).
The problem this person was having was that they were working on a spec pilot featuring two main characters. The lead character was coming across as sparkling and vibrant, but the slightly more secondary character (the sister of the lead), just wasn’t as interesting. Here’s what I eventually came up with:
A neat trick to quickly devising an interesting character is to think about the contradictions in their nature. You probably do this already when you’re trying to describe an interesting actual person whom you know. You say things like “He’s this big bruiser of a guy, who writes the most amazing poetry.” Or “She’s so quiet and shy, except when she’s arguing a case in court.”
Imagine character traits that all support each other as a field of arrows all pointing in the same direction. When you add arrows that point in other directions, you start getting a more interesting dynamic… shapes and forces and complexity. Of course, the traits don’t really contradict each other; they just support each other in non-obvious ways. Ways that make you want to dig deeper into the character’s psyche, to find the connection.
I think Starbuck on Battlestar Galactica is a great example of a character who seems all the realer because of her contradictions. Fierce yet vulnerable (or is it fierce *because* she’s vulnerable?). Smart and skilled but impulsive and intuitive. Self-destructive, self-deluding, but also capable of startling insight. You want to get to know her better to figure out where all these traits come from.
Here’s one of the first lines I ever wrote for the character of Cordelia on Buffy:
I do well on standardized tests.
(off their looks)
What? I can’t have layers?
I was so tickled with that line, and completely delighted when it actually made it into the final episode. I just love those moments of unexpected revelations of character. This one was done with purposeful obviousness, for the sake of the joke, but it got the job done anyway.
Come up with the main traits first. You don’t want “contradictory” to be the only thing that shines through. Figure out who this person *mostly* is. Then add some arrows jetting off in other directions. I bet you’ll get interesting results right away!
Lunch: wonton soup from Noodle Planet.
Jane on 08.06.06 @ 12:56 PM PST [link]
Wednesday, August 2nd
I just saw Little Miss Sunshine. One of those movies with such a complex tone that it's hard to talk about, since the events add up to so much less than the movie as a whole. I thought it was wonderful. And such a cast! Caution: Spoilers ahead.
After I got home, I took another look at the documentary "Living Dolls," which is all about child beauty pageants. Sooo interesting. It's so fascinating, in fact, that it was one of the first things I ever put onto my Tivo, and I've kept it stored there for several years now.
Anyway, I'm certain the makers of LMS looked at this film. In addition to pageant moments that are captured perfectly, I spotted the most lovely overlap. Both films feature a character working on one of those little handheld slide puzzles. In both films it's the same one: when solved, it forms a picture of a happy face. Nice. Isn't that a perfect symbol? "Want to be happy? Then work it out."
And the thing that’s best about this little puzzle-symbol? You don't notice it! I didn't remember seeing it in the movie at all until I saw it again in the doc. The effect is subtle to the point of invisibility. Anything more obvious than that, and the artifice of the script will jump out at you and then you’re in trouble.
So use symbols if you want to, but use a light touch. We've all seen torn photos, empty shoes, empty picture frames, wilted flowers... and they tend to smell like... huh... what is that? Oh yeah, writer.
Lunch: a movie theater hot dog with tons of jalapenos
Also… a big thank you to Lilia. She knows what for!
Jane on 08.04.06 @ 03:43 PM PST [link]
Tuesday, August 1st
So, tonight after Project Runway -- the best show ever created -- I watched an episode of House. It was one that I seem to have missed during this last season. This one featured the gorgeous Mel Harris, whom I worked with on Something so Right, and the equally gorgeous Michelle Trachtenberg, whom I worked with on Buffy. I guess eventually I’ll have worked long enough that some episode of something will come on with an all Jane's career cast.
Anyway, I noticed something about one of the act breaks that I thought everyone should notice. Here's how it went. First, there was a lot of hinting around about 'paralysis,' but without really spelling out what it would mean for the patient. Finally, the mother said:
She's going to lose the use of her legs?
This was a pretty big moment. A bit of a thunderclap, since it hadn’t really been clear that this is what everything meant. And then:
To start with.
Now THAT's an act break. The punch after the punch.
This act break works the same way a literal one-two punch works. The second punch lands harder because the first one knocks the air out of you. The key to making this work is the speed with which you land that second blow. Three words, they used in this script, and it works great.
Note also that the first revelation has to be big enough that the audience thinks that was the big moment. And the second revelation has to be substantially bigger than the first, so it doesn't read as an afterthought.
Given those requirements, this might seem like such a specific situation that you'll never be able to use this trick. But, in fact, I use it all the time. If you've got a nice big shocker in your script, you might try having some character guess at a milder version of it RIGHT BEFORE you reveal the true surprise.
Here are some examples I'm making up as I type them, top of my head:
Oh my god. All those years ago, your brother killed your boyfriend.
And then he BECAME my boyfriend.
Oh, no. You stole a car to get here.
I stole a time machine to get here.
I think maybe there's something here in the dark with us.
I think there's lots of somethings.
See? A little something shocking. And then something shockinger. You will be amazed at how useful this is. Really, it's like act break in a box.
Lunch: Caesar salad
Jane on 08.02.06 @ 09:12 PM PST [link]
I recently received an extremely cool book in the mail. Alex Epstein, of the fine "Complications Ensue" blog, has sent me a copy of his book "Crafty TV Writing." I've been waiting to tell y'all about it until after I finished reading the whole thing, but my schedule has conspired against me. So, although I haven't finished it yet, I'm going to tell you right now that there's a lot of really valuable stuff in there. Alex covers some of the same joke types, in fact, that I've discussed here.
So far, my favorite bit of advice in there is this:
"It takes many bad jokes to find a good one."
Mm. I nod and murmur "how true." One of the tricks to spec writing is to keep trying to beat your own jokes. You have the luxury of time, remember. It's okay to work on a joke -- shorten it, rethink it, reverse it, try a whole different joke area... until you find the approach you like best.
Thanks for the book, Alex!
Lunch: the Tomato-Basil Spaghettini from California Pizza Kitchen. Get it with the added goat cheese.
Jane on 08.01.06 @ 08:06 PM PST [link]