Friday, September 29th
Thursday, September 28th
Another week, another episode of Project Runway. This week's episode was about how deadlines can sometimes make you do really good work. It's true, and it applies to writing as well as to kicky sundresses. (I promise, this site is not going to be about the dress metaphor every day.) When you don't have time to second-guess yourself, when you don't have time to compulsively question every line you write, you can write better.
Some people can assign themselves deadlines. Others make promises to friends about when a project will be done. These don't really work for me, because I know they're fake -- neither I nor my friends enjoy the power of enforcement. Under these circumstances, I still tend to let the work expand to fit the allowed time.
What does work for me? Well, save me from myself, because the answer seems to be: take on another project. Suddenly, that distant deadline looks a lot closer, doesn't it? Because I know there's that other thing that also has to get done in the same amount of time. Now I'm working -- fast, smoothly, without a lot of hand-wringing and pacing. Just writin' without thinkin'.
My father always says "give the job to the busy person." He means that the reason that the busy person has so much work on their desk is because everyone knows that they're the one who will get it done. There's a lot to be said for making yourself the busy person.
Lunch: the "carne asada burrito" lunch special at the Universal Studios cafeteria. Oh! The raw onion! My god!
Jane on 09.29.06 @ 01:40 PM PST [link]
Wednesday, September 27th
I took a sewing class in junior high school. We all had to. Everyone took one quarter each of wood shop, metal shop, sewing and cooking. I suspect it was considered quite innovative at the time, allowing girls and boys to be injured in various ways all at once. Anyway, the shop classes were kind of fun. My mother still owns the enormous wooden desk name plate I made for her. It takes up a large piece of her dresser. And I did well enough at the cooking. I'm motivated enough by the prospect of eating pie, to be willing to learn how to make pie happen. But the sewing. Oh man. Patience and fine muscle control? Oh dear me, no. I was given a passing grade provisionally, on the condition that I continue to come by the sewing room to finish up my unwearable skirt. I never went back. I didn't even wear skirts, and I had no faith that my circle of fabric was ever going to be one anyway.
But I found this entry today on a web site about dresses. Read it through. It's not about dresses! It's about writing spec scripts!
When she talks about touching all the fabrics in the store -- that's watching tv. And then there's reading about writing, natch. Hence this blog and all those 'how to write for tv' books. And picking a garment based on what you already own and like -- that's selecting a show to spec.
The only difference... you don't need to buy a new machine to write a spec. The one you're sitting in front of right now is all you need.
I swear, that web site made me feel like I could sew. I hope it makes you feel like you could write a spec. Because you can.
Lunch: a big homemade salad with cucumbers and beans in it
Jane on 09.28.06 @ 08:15 AM PST [link]
Monday, September 25th
Once, I was fortunate enough to visit Tasmania. While there, I got to meet this amazing woman, Tanya Cochran, who runs a wildlife sanctuary there. She told me a great story with an Aesop-worthy moral at the end of it. The story was about an orphaned baby echidna that she raised by hand. Echidnas look a lot like porcupines. (For a good time, google image search echidnas.) Anyway, she was watching TV one night, with her favorite cardigen thrown over her legs for warmth, and the little echidna snoozing beside her. At least she thought he was snoozing beside her. In fact, he was tunneling happily through the sleeve of her cardigan. He arrived at the wrist hole only to realize he was too big to progress any farther. Impasse! She ended up having to cut up her favorite sweater to rescue him. And here's the moral, exactly as she said it: "You can't pull an echidna backwards through a cardigan." Truer words were never spoken. I choose to think that she intended us to apply this principal fairly widely. She was speaking, of course, about the futility of looking for an easy way out, when a more drastic reframing of the situation is actually called for.
Sometimes you may be writing a spec (or other project) when you realize that something is wrong. Fundamentally wrong. Wrong because the story turn that makes the story worth telling requires characters to act in ways they never would. Or because you suddenly realize that the point of the episode goes against the point of the show in general. Or because they just aired an episode that's exactly like yours. I'm talking about BIG problems. The answer is sometimes to get out the scissors, free your echidna, and start looking for sales on replacement cardigans. Don't hesitate, don't waste time trying to make superficial changes. Your echidna might suffer.
Starting over almost always yields a better story anyway, since you get to apply everything you learned from the false start.
Lunch: packaged sushi and cold noodles from the Universal Studios cafeteria. Nice on a hot day.
Jane on 09.27.06 @ 11:16 AM PST [link]
Sunday, September 24th
Hi all. Oh, such a heart-tugging letter just arrived from Angie in (I think) Los Angeles. She's 35, has been trying to be a writer for many years now, acting as her own agent, and is wondering if the time is right to give up. Oh, Angie! I think you know me well enough to know that I never advocate giving up. And since I think you know that, I think that's what you really want to hear. So here it is:
Don't give up! You've got a number of factors working in your favor: 1. your scripts have performed well in contests. 2. as a "diverse" writer, you're a member of a protected group, which can open up some opportunities. 3. You live in LA, so the door you're trying to get through is right in your neighborhood. 4. Thirty-five doesn't seem nearly as old as it did when I was, ya know, under thirty-five. You've still got time. And in five years you're going to be forty whether you keep working at this or not. So you might as well keep working.
The sobering facts are that this is a rough time for anyone to get a television job. You really need an agent. But agents are hard to find. Lots of them don't want to take on new clients right now, with employment prospects thin. The fact that a writers' strike is looming probably has an effect too.
But these things can change -- a strike, should it happen, will end, for example. And if you continue to add to your list of contests and fellowships, eventually an agent may agree to rep you, or at least "hip-pocket" you, which is a more informal relationship that can still get your scripts to producers under an agency cover. Then you can stop having to try to do it all yourself.
I know it's hard. But all I can tell you is to meet other writers, join screenwriting groups, take classes, keep submitting those specs to contests and fellowships. Maybe start writing plays -- some playwrighting contest wins could be impressive. And I know quite a few people who have written and shot their own low-budget features -- heck, maybe you can conquor the world through YouTube! Get creative about how you approach the problem. But don't be too aggressive with people -- if you come across as pushy, you'll burn bridges. Let your scripts do the talking, as much as possible.
And, Angie, write me again, okay? Let me know what you decide to do.
In other news, a follow-up on yesterday's five-act post. I've received two emails from working writers with completely contradictory information on the future of episodic tv structure. I am informed both that Bones has gone back to the four act structure after an attempt to work with five, and that new ABC drama pilots are being written with SIX acts (although with no teaser)! Well! So, I guess, the wise thing is probably to let your story dictate your choice! How many times does your story turn? That's how many act breaks it can have!
Lunch: tortilla chips with salsa and cheese and a chocolate cupcake
Jane on 09.25.06 @ 02:13 PM PST [link]
Saturday, September 23rd
I've had two letters recently asking me about the new five act drama structure that's popping up more and more often. People are wondering if it's here to stay and how, or if, it affects writers of specs. Great questions!
Well, I first encountered the five-act structure at Tru Calling, which actually changed over from four acts to five. And then at The Inside, there was also a five-act mandate. The pilot I'm writing right now? Five acts. It's the thing. Half-hour comedies are also being affected. They used to be two acts or sometimes three. Now some are four!
The change is being driven by the networks, who want, I assume, the additional commercial break. But it is affecting more than commerce. It's actually changing the shows. And it will change your spec. Here's why:
The act breaks are the most important moments in your show. They are the moments of suspense that bring you back, and the moments at which revelations and decisions change the direction of a story. Adding an act break is like adding a new joint between your wrist and your elbow.
You can, if you want, think of one of the act breaks under this new structure as a sort of pseudo act-break. The second act break used to be the biggest, most important break, coming as it did, at the geometric center of the show. But now it's more likely to be the third act break that really makes the big story turn. And the second act break may become less prominent -- an exciting moment along the way, but not a big story pivot. A moment that under the old system wouldn't really have deserved the musical swell and the fade out.
Of course, we aren't always happy with how that pseudo break looks once we've written it. As a result, I do believe that shows are actually getting bendier. We're putting in more turns to accommodate more commercial breaks. How weird is that? Now, shorter acts with more turns can be a fine thing. Stories move faster and shock more often. Of course, they may not feel as deep. We replace the slow deep-water turns of the big fish with the sharp surface jitters of the waterbug. This makes it sound like I don't like the new system, but actually my personal internal jury is still out. It's just different, that's all. Like that new arm joint. Hard to control... but there's a new place for pretty bracelets!
If you're writing a spec for an existing show, follow whatever it's doing in its most recent episodes. And pay attention to the breaks as you study the produced eps. Is one of them a pseudo-break? Or does the story turn at every juncture?
And if you're writing a spec pilot -- well, I'd go for the modern five-act look. It shows you've been paying attention to the latest trends. And try to sneak the depth in anyway.
Lunch: The "dynamite roll" at a local sushi joint. Awfully goopy for sushi.
Jane on 09.24.06 @ 04:36 PM PST [link]
Friday, September 22nd
Did you see the premiere of The Office the other night? I love that show! I love it even though it makes me want to tunnel backwards through the sofa sometimes. "Discomfort comedy." I think that many times the only thing that makes it tolerable is the presence of Pam and/or Jim, who are typically enjoying the discomfort. As long as I have someone to identify with who is not angry or mortified, then I'm okay. Maybe there's some sort of generally applicable principle for all sorts of writing -- you know, make sure there's an audience surrogate in every scene, or something like that, but I haven't taken the time to figure out if that's really true. Perhaps we'll address that another time.
Because what I want to talk about is -- SPOILER SPOILER -- the kiss. If you can call it that. You know what I mean. The slowest most painful build-up to any kiss in screen history. Think about it. You've seen other man-man kisses played for comedy. As far as I can recall, EVERY SINGLE ONE I'M THINKING OF has been of the ambush variety. One guy grabs another and kisses him fast. And the fastness has always been essential to the comedy. Even the Will/Jack kiss on Will and Grace was a (very funny) ambush. The only other slow build-up kiss like this that I can think of, although it wasn't played for laughs, was the Uhura/Kirk kiss on Star Trek, which must've had a similar "are they really going to..." feel at the time.
The problem is that the ambush kiss has now been played so often, and so identically, that although it still gets yelps from an audience, it isn't as dewy fresh as it once was. The Office did something valuable by taking this new run at it. It's a valuable lesson about changing bits to keep them fresh.
Oh! And, as another supporting example, I just thought of another non-ambush comedy kiss. In Dude, Where's My Car, the two guys have just been shown up by a guy making out with his hot girlfriend, so they, totally unthinkingly, try to top him with an even more passionate kiss. They also went away from the expected ambush joke, and reaped fresh funny as a result.
Always patrol your script aggressively for jokes and bits of stage business that you've seen before. And question your friends who are reading your script, make sure there's nothing there that they find too familiar either. And then look for that twist. You can use the audience's expectations to help you out, even! They'll be extra surprised if you take the bit in a new direction, and surprise is one of the main ingredients for funny.
Lunch: shabu-shabu. Beef and veggies and lovely clear noodles dipped in boiling water right on the table-top. Plus, if the steam blows right, it's like a facial!
Jane on 09.23.06 @ 11:20 AM PST [link]
Thursday, September 21st
I dined with a dear friend last night, who is writing for one of the new fall shows. She happened to bring along an outline for one of their episodes. I noticed that it had a feature I'd never seen before on such a document. Usually there's a "logline" at the top of an outline, a sort of "TV Guide" summary. But now, I was seeing TWO little headlines at the top of the first page. They read something like this (story details totally changed to avoid spoilers)...
What it's about: Our main character's boss quits, and she has to hide his absense from her co-workers for a whole day.
What it's REALLY about: Her love for her boss fades, as she realizes the considerate man she loved doesn't really exist. No other virtue can make up for a lack of kindness.
Call it the "logline plus" system. I love it. The writers of this show find it useful because the outline is sent to studio and network executives who need to be able to make a quick evaluation of the document. But of course it's also invaluable for the writer.
It's a great idea to have both of these written out at the top of every document you produce as you write your spec. The "really" line, of course, is what I was talking about in the last post. This is the reason to write the episode. The other line, the more traditional logline, lays out the literal events. Having both of them under your eyes as you work is going to help keep you on track. Maybe print them up and tape them to the computer? Or maybe that's a bit much. Just keep them around somewhere.
On another topic, I got a sweetly determined letter recently from Stephanie in Platteville, who declares her intention to move to LA and make a writing career happen! She's got more courage than I had, I'll tell you that. Best of luck to you, Steph! I'm rooting for you!
Lunch: BBQ pork and noodle soup from a Thai restaurant. Yummy.
Jane on 09.22.06 @ 09:46 AM PST [link]
Wednesday, September 20th
Hey, Gentle Readers, get 'em while they're hot! Copies of Bob Harris's new book Prisoner of Trebekistan are sailing off the virtual shelves! And along the way, I'm learning so much about this whole other side of the business of writing. It's fascinating. Turns out that authors don't get Nielsen ratings. How do they stand it? Anyway, exact sales are hard to judge. But the anecdotal evidence is piling up that people are reading / people are loving. There was a rave review in last weekend's Wall Street Journal, for example, that burned up the pages with the warmth of its praise. Run on over to Amazon and grab yourself a pile o' copies!
And as long as we're in the neighborhood, the book also serves as a great example of the "what is it about" school of writing. This was the phrase that Joss Whedon drilled into our heads over at Buffy. It's an important approach to writing that will, guaranteed, make your spec scripts sparkle and stand out from all the others.
Plot is hard. So when you find a series of events that actually string together to make a story -- a beginning, middle, end -- it's tempting to consider the job done. In fact, it's tempting to throw your arms in the air and caper in circles singing "We Are As Gods." But unless the story is *about* something, all you've done is come up with a pile of stuff that happens. And that can leave readers and viewers with a sense of arbitrary action, a sense that a different pile of stuff could've happened without it making a lot of difference.
When writing a spec (or even an episode of a show for which you're being paid), the mistake is in starting with the story. Instead, think first about what you want the episode to be about -- is it about the triumph of love? The destructive quality of envy? About how expecting the worst in others brings out the worst in oneself? About how emotional resiliancy is better than virtue? About kindness trumping truth? About how love isn't blind, but wishes it were? About how emotional infidelity is worse than physical? About how an anticipation of betrayal can cause that betrayal? About how denial can sometimes be a choice? About how living a happy life is also a choice and not an event?
Find something like that -- something you believe in. Now, you're ready to find a story.
Non-fiction, of course, makes this whole process harder, because you *can't* change the events to reflect what you want the story to be about! You have to find a marriage of events and meaning that doesn't distort either. That's hard. That's why, when a nonfiction book manages to do it, it's so darn satisfying. Remember that book "Into Thin Air"? It accomplished this. And "Prisoner of Trebekistan" does too. In it, we see how an attempt at becoming a Jeopardy champ leads to a tentative embrace of learning, which then catches fire and turns into a transformative quest. It's about how knowledge changes your life in touching, unpredictable and hilarious ways. Now that's something to be about.
If you've already got a spec story that you love, you might have already done some of this subconsciously. See if you can articulate what the script is about. Then go back through the script and find places to make the "about" powerful and clear. You'll end up with a script that will justify all that capering and god singing.
Lunch: Left over garlic-cheese bread from the Smokehouse restaurant and canned beans from Australia.
Jane on 09.21.06 @ 11:50 AM PST [link]
Tuesday, September 19th
I'm more invested, this year, in the new television season than I have been in recent years. I'm hopeful about a number of shows, and I feel like I'm in the market for a new favorite scripted drama. I hope I reflect America in this way.
I'll be really interested to see which shows click instantly with audiences. Some shows really do seem to just lock in right away. They don't always stay locked in, but a strong start guarantees that they at least are given a chance to get going, to find their voice.
Now, let's imagine that, say, Shark or Heroes or whatever, is a hit. Should you start writing a spec for it? Kira from Santa Monica wrote me a letter with, essentially, this question in it. She has been told not to write a spec for any show in its first season, and yet she points out that some shows, like Lost and Desperate Housewives, are so quickly hits that there doesn't seem to be any reason to wait.
Hmm. A good and timely question. I'd say it wouldn't hurt to sit up and pay attention when an instant hit is annointed. Start looking around for produced scripts to study, and read recaps and do all that good research. But if it was me, I'd probably wait until that first season was at the very least half over -- probably even entirely over -- before I started actually writing. This isn't so much because the show might disappear, as it is that most shows are still in flux during season one. It's still finding its tone, and figuring out which kinds of episodes serve it best. Heck, it could still be firing and hiring actors and changing all its locations around and all kinds of things -- "Ellen" even changed its title after season one! (Remember, it was "These Friends of Mine"?) Anyway, it's best to let a show settle down, find a rhythm, before you jump in. You don't want to have to shoot at a moving target.
Also, being a hit isn't enough to make a show specable. It has to be watched and respected not just by America, but by agents and show runners -- the people you want to have read your script. And, besides that, you don't know if it's going to *remain* a hit. Some shows quickly fade. Remember Commander-in-Chief? Huge pilot tune-in numbers. But gosh, not a good spec to have now.
More and more, I find myself seeing the wisdom in writing a spec pilot. So many hit shows are serialized, which makes them tough (though not impossible) to spec. And others are such niche fare (Nip/Tuck, The Shield), that it's hard to know if enough of your readers will really know the show. You'll want at least one spec of a real, existing show, I think, but beyond that... I really have to say, write a pilot.
I'm writing one myself, right now. Come on. We'll do it together.
Lunch: Nibbled on a burrito at the Farmer's Market.
Jane on 09.20.06 @ 05:32 PM PST [link]
Saturday, September 16th
Did you know that in the FBI, agents are either referred to by their names or by the title "Special Agent"? None of this simple "Agent Scully," "Agent Mulder" stuff. Never done. Ever. I know that because we had a technical advisor on one of the shows I worked on recently who was a real live active FBI agent. Of course we ignored him on this point. "Special Agent Jones" sounds stilted, unlikely and long. Sometimes the truth is stranger than than fiction, and sometimes it's just wordier.
Two of the shows I've worked on recently have employed technical advisors. This is incredibly helpful to the writers on a staff. On The Inside, the advisor kept an office right there among the writers. Very helpful. He'd tell us all about what we got wrong, until he gradually gave up on the "Special Agent" thing. Battlestar Galactica has an expert too, for astronomy and, as far as I can tell, all other things scientific. I got fascinating notes on my script from him. Did you know that radiation is different than radioactivity? You did? Oh, so that was just me, then.
Anyway, this is all in service of a question from Nic in Germany. She's asking about how much research she needs to do on the diseases and medical terminology in her Grey's Anatomy spec. Of course her question also applies to everyone writing a House spec. And there's all that law stuff for the Boston Legal spec-ers. And police procedure for The Shield. And what about inside late-night-TV stuff that'll be useful if Studio 60 becomes the next hot spec? If you're a writer employed on those shows, you have resources. Some shows even allow their writers to simply indicate where the techno-talk goes, and then let the advisors suggest lines. Star Trek: The Next Generation writers were known to simply write "tech tech" as a temporary line until the advisors weighed in. But for a spec, you don't have this option.
I can only say, hail the internet. Remember how the parents in Lorenzo's Oil became experts on their son's disease? Well, that's you, and the spec script is your son. You simply have to do the work. You can make up stuff where you simply have to, but try to be as accurate as you can.
A great source can be those nonfiction cable shows like "Diagnosis Unknown," and "The New Detectives." And those "true crime" books, like the excellent ones by Ann Rule, can also be good sources for crime stories. Newspaper items are also useful. Take a real story and change it to conform to the needs of a television story, and you're starting out with data that you *know* is good.
For example, all this current spinich stuff is ripe for picking! If I were writing a House spec right now, I'd be studying all the articles and thinking about how a food contamination outbreak could complicate the diagnosis of some completely unrelated disorder. (Maybe a disease caused an iron shortage, so the person ate a lot of spinach to try to replace the iron, but the spinich was contaminated, and reacted with the original disease, masking it or exacerbating it... )
And, as always, study those produced scripts. If your characters use specialized terminology in their jobs, you can usually master those terms just from looking at how they've used them in other scripts. I don't know what a "chem seven" is exactly, but I sure heard those doctors on ER order it often enough.
Want another Battlestar anecdote? In my episode I had a character refer to a planet's "atmo," meaning, obviously, "atmosphere." It sounded perfectly natural because I knew I'd heard characters in produced episodes use the term. I was right. I had. But they were produced episodes of Firefly. Battlestar character don't say "atmo." Oops. Make sure you study the *right* scripts.
Lunch: A Whopper Jr. from Burger King. It really did taste char-broiled, but not in a good way. Kind of a lighter-fluid flavor. Bleah.
Jane on 09.19.06 @ 04:58 PM PST [link]
Friday, September 15th
Well, I've got some hot news for those of you writing spec pilot scripts. The news comes from Nic in Germany, who has directed my attention to the Fox diversity program. I hadn't heard about this program before, but it sure looks good to me. And this exerpt from their site makes it clear that the admission standards are likely to include many of you out there:
"The emphasis in our Writer's Initiative will now be to support the development of original television series ideas by diverse writers, or by non-diverse writers who are writing about inherently diverse themes and/or diverse lead characters. African-American, Latino, Native American and East and South Asian writers are particularly encouraged to apply. You must be at least 18 years old to submit."
You can read more about the program here. If I were an aspiring writer with a spec pilot, I'd be casting an eye over it right now, looking to emphasize or add "diverse themes."
In other news, a letter from Heather at Harvard really made me smile. I wrote a line, years ago, for a Buffy episode ("Pangs"), in which a character referred to the fact his grandparents live on a farm just outside Huxley, Iowa. Heather's grandparents live on a farm outside Huxley. As you can imagine, she was tickled by the line. Hee! How funny is that? I love when stuff like that happens. Notice that this is one of the benefits of specificity -- if you give enough details, not only does a situation *feel* realer, but it's also more evocative for the people who are actually *in* that situation.
Lunch: a potato knish from Junior's deli. Mmm.
Jane on 09.16.06 @ 04:28 PM PST [link]
Thursday, September 14th
Remember when I told you all, a while back, about Melinda Snodgrass? She's the writer who actually had her Star Trek: The Next Generation spec script produced. Amazing. Specs are supposed to be writing samples only! The only interaction an actor is supposed to have with a spec script is to ignore the person typing one at his local Starbucks. When I told you about Melinda, I said she was the only writer I knew of who had ever accomplished this feat.
But today I learned of another such case. One of the writers on the Andy Barker P.I. writing staff was working as a P.A. on Third Rock from the Sun when he wrote a Third Rock spec. He was able to convince one of the writers on staff to read it... and the next thing he knew, he was sitting in the writers' room, watching his script being polished up before it went in front of the cameras.
How 'bout that? It happens, Gentle Readers. It happens. Maybe it'll happen to you.
Lunch: steak and baked potatoes and strawberries at Arnie Morton's. The steak did not arrive as rare as promised. Sigh.
Jane on 09.15.06 @ 07:51 PM PST [link]
Wednesday, September 13th
Did you see Project Runway last night? It was an odd task in which the designers were required to use every bit of fabric that they purchased. Every scrap of postcard-size or larger had to be on that model. (Me, the moment they announce the rules, I'm cutting every scrap into smaller-than-postcard subscraps.)
Some of the designers were really stuck, ending up with big superfluous shawls of material, or with a purse stuffed with scraps. It was exactly the opposite of the writer's task, which is so often to pare away, pare away words and throw them into the trash heap. If we had to use every word of our first draft in our final draft, we'd have an awfully bulgy purse.
You want to cut words not just to address problems of overall script length, but also to make individual lines shorter. A page full of long clumps of monologue is uninviting and tiring to read. You want your spec to have more white on each page than black.
Look at the following lines (all pulled from different non-existent scenes) and consider what can be done to simplify them:
I think you're the most beautiful woman I've ever seen.
I promise to keep you safe forever.
I suggest we take a little walk, you and I.
I apologize. I shouldn't have insulted you.
You're probably already seeing what I'm seeing. These lines can be made simpler, more direct, more effective if they are cut back to:
You're the most beautiful woman I've ever seen.
I will keep you safe forever.
Let's take a little walk, you and I.
I shouldn't have insulted you.
The lines as originally written had a sort of redundancy about them. Why say you think something? If you're saying it, it's implied that you think it. And why say you're promising, when you can just promise? Why, ever, say you're suggesting something?
Now, sometimes, you want to keep the longer version because you're writing a character with a certain style of speech. And a very strong proclamation of some kind can often do with a bit of the drumroll that these words provide. Scarlett O'Hara probably shouldn't just say "I'll never be hungry again!" The "As God is my witness" adds an important little somethin' there.
But often, the shorter version is clearer, neater and, get this, more emotional, because there is less distance between the speaker and the acts they're performing with their speeches -- less words getting in the way of the doing.
Lunch: the "Mediterranean chicken sandwich" from Togos. Very good! I recommend it. It's the Thursday special, so you’ll have to wait a week. Then, go for it. (Quiz: What sentence could be cut from this lunch description? Answer: "I recommend it." I already performed the act of recommending through my simple praise.)
Jane on 09.14.06 @ 06:16 PM PST [link]
Monday, September 11th
So, I was flipping through my favorite book the other day, and I came across an excellent example of a certain kind of joke which I simply must discuss with y-- Oh, my favorite book? That would be Prisoner of Trebekistan, by Bob Harris. So funny! Available right now on Amazon. You can go get it now, and then come on back. We'll wait.
Okay, so here's the joke. (It's on page 277.) Harris is talking about the eensy animals known as chevrotains:
"They're also called 'mouse deer,' despite being neither deer nor mouse. If that sounds confusing, consider the woodpecker."
This is a kind of joke that requires the audience to do some math in their head. If you've ever heard a joke of this kind performed in front of a live audience, like at a sitcom taping, it produces a rolling laugh... one that progresses through the audience as people arrive at the conclusion with varying degrees of speed. The laughter of one person sometimes even triggers the rest of the audience into figuring out there's a joke to be got, so then they start doing the work. It's a comedy version of "The Wave" or a communicable disease.
I love this kind of joke. I remember one from my childhood, that occurred during an episode of Match Game. Remember that old game show? The celebrity panel was supposed to fill in the blank: Kissing ____. Richard Dawson held up an answer card that read "-er." A rolling laugh followed, as the audience performed the appending of the suffix to reveal the famous name.
You may be told by others that this kind of joke is too "thinky." "Maybe we can hand out pamphlets to the audience, explaining it," you might be told, snottily. And sometimes, in fact, a joke does require too much work. But the fact of the delayed laugh should not in itself be enough to make you cut the joke. Audiences like to feel smart, and this kind of joke does that.
Give them the tools, and let them build the punchline themselves. I love that.
Lunch: cheeseburger and banana cream pie. A good day indeed.
Jane on 09.13.06 @ 12:32 PM PST [link]
Sunday, September 10th
Five years ago, I woke up to news of the attack. Numb, I called everyone I knew, and then, still numb, when it was my normal time, I drove to work at Buffy. I thought we'd probably be sent home, but I wanted to see my friends anyway.
There was a television in David Fury's office, and some of us collected in there to watch as the coverage continued. Soon, Joss was in the doorway. We all talked quietly, and then he sent us home.
To get from the Buffy offices in Santa Monica to the apartment where I then lived, my route required that I drive for a long time toward the building immortalized in film as "Nakatomi Plaza" from Die Hard. It towered at the end of the wide street, constantly in my frame of vision, with no other tall buildings nearby. I couldn't take my eyes off it.
I watched it not because I thought it could be another target, but because I was trying to comprehend the scale of events, to understand what it meant that what had just happened was real. It's like it was still too large to understand, and I was trying to bring it closer to hand, so I could see it all, believe it was real.
It didn't help.
Jane on 09.11.06 @ 01:51 PM PST [link]
Friday, September 8th
Hello, Gentle Readers! I just spent a wonderful weekend on board the Queen Mary, where I was a guest at a convention for Buffy fans and, specifically, fans of James Marsters (Spike). Oh, what fun! Buffy fans are generous and amazing. Plus, the green room for us presenters was the ship's old boiler room. It was cavernous and dark and musty and full of clanky noises and creepy echoes and ramps that led down into murky shadows and floorless floors. Atmosphere like you wouldn't believe. I loved it.
One fan asked me whether I preferred writing drama or comedy, and I said I loved them both. Thinking about it now, I realize that was a pretty useless answer. I love them differently. The way a person might love both artichokes and throw pillows, you know?
And it occurs to me that some of you out there may be trying to decide this same question for yourself. So I'm gonna lay out some of the nature of the contrast. Comedy is funny. Ha! No, there's more!
First off, comedy is a hard, hard world right now. No jobs to be had. And the ones that do exist are being given to all the experienced comedy writers who have development deals; the studio is invested in keeping us working. But this will change, I am convinced -- the pendulum will swing and comedy will ride again. Since comedy writing is harder, there is something to be said for having a good solid comedy spec all ready to show off that skill, if you have it.
The working experiences on the two kinds of shows are totally different. Comedy writing is vastly more of a team experience. Every line is evaluated as a group, and most jokes get rewritten. This is true for both single-camera shows (like Earl), and multi-camera shows (like Two and a Half Men). Often, the script that is currently being rewritten is projected on a TV screen in the writers' room, and the writers all shout out their suggestions for gutting-- improving it. When a change meets the approval of the show runner, the writers' assistant types it into the script.
The comedy room tends to be a loud and riotous place -- lots of shouting and laughing. One notable exception I've heard about was the Frasier room, which was, by all accounts, quiet and thoughtful.
Drama writing is much more of an individual pursuit, and often the show runner is the only one who changes your lines. Some drama shows don't even have a writers' room at all -- the writers rarely or never assemble to discuss stories together. House, I understand, works this way. When a change is mandated, the writer goes home (or to her office) and makes the change herself.
You probably already know, at this point, which kind of writing appeals to you more. If you were the class clown, and always found yourself getting funnier when other funny people were around, if you enjoy 'topping' someone else's joke, if you like the verbal by-play, then you are a comedy writer. Now, you might also be a comedy writer if you're more introspective, and are funny on the page if not in person... that can work too. That's more like me. But the comedy rooms of Hollywood tend to be more frequently populated by the first type. These kinds of writers often cringe at the thought of the drama writer's lonely and contemplative life. And they often don't like the idea that they won't get to weigh in on their colleagues' scripts. The collaboration in a comedy room gives the entire staff more of a sense of ownership of *all* the episodes, which is usually lacking in drama.
If you find jokes mysterious, or if you insist on a certain level of taste and respect, then stick with drama, and don't even bother with a comedy spec. You might be able, though hard work and study, to cobble one together, but it'll be really hard to follow it up. And you'll probably find the environment of the room nerve-wracking.
So, which do I like better? Well, I think I like the center of a continuum that slides along from pure procedural drama to really broad jokey comedy. I love watching Law and Order, and I love watching Family Guy. But one is too far to the 'drama' side and one is too far to the 'comedy' side, for me as a writer. I like the middle: comedies with grounded characters that are willing to let us have an emotion or two, and dramas that show us the world complete with a sense of humor.
And, of course, I like aliens and robots. Everyone likes aliens and robots.
Lunch: A peanut butter cookie and a cappucino from the deli on The Queen Mary.
Jane on 09.10.06 @ 06:23 PM PST [link]
Thursday, September 7th
I love writers' room terminology. I felt like I was part of a room for the first time when, on Dinosaurs, I said that a certain line "didn't bump me." Meaning that I wasn't bothered by a potential misunderstanding or problem with the line. It was actually heady, like speaking French in France for the first time. Like, "let's try this out and see if it really works."
"Handle" is one of my favorite writing terms, and one of the most common. It refers to those words at the beginning of a line of dialogue. Handles include, but aren't limited to:
Well, Look, Listen, Hey, Oh, Say, Um, Actually, So, Now, I mean, C'mon, Anyway, Yeah, You know, and the name of any character used when speaking to that character.
I hear that some show runners object to handles in general, and will cut all of them out. I heard today about an editor who did the same thing when cutting episodes. But usually, handles are freely employed, with certain limits.
The most common thing to look out for is adjacent use of the same handle. It's not uncommon for a room filled with comedy writers to look up at the screen and realize that the last four lines of dialogue all started with "Well." Keep an eye out for this as you write your script. Mix it up.
There is another, more subtle problem with some handles. I just had this pointed out to me today, in fact, and I think it’s so interesting, I have to tell you. Look at this exchange:
I think I've lost weight, don’t you?
Actually, I think you might've found it again.
(Remember, this is demonstration comedy, not actual comedy.)
Certain handles, like "actually" and, sometimes, "well" are used to contradict the previous line. That means that when Character Two starts the line with "actually," the reader/audience already knows they're about to hear a contradiction. In the example I've given, they know, in fact, that they're about to hear a slam.
On some shows, you can actually hear a studio audience anticipating a slam. They hear the "actually" and start laughing.
A writer in my room pointed this out today, that "actually" anticipates the turn. He argued that leaving off the handle in this case leads to a sharper, smarter joke, since the audience doesn't get ahead of it. I agree. Reread the lame demonstration joke without the "actually." It's still lame, but isn't it --fractionally -- just a little bit sharper?
Now, some of you may have a different aesthetic. It wouldn't be crazy to argue that audiences enjoy knowing a joke is on the way. You will have to decide for yourself which kind of writer you are.
But for me, I plan to start cutting "actually."
Lunch: a pastrami reuben sandwich. Some element of the sandwich was unusually sweet. I have to say, I did not enjoy it.
Jane on 09.08.06 @ 07:40 PM PST [link]
Tuesday, September 5th
Hello, Gentle Readers! I have to tell you, I've been wracking my tiny brain, trying to come up with more to say about writing using metaphors and analogies. I talked about it a while back, and Ingrid from Germany has asked me to say more on the topic. I haven't, until now, simply because I couldn’t think of more to say.
What I said so far was that analogies can be useful both in stage directions and in dialogue. In stage directions they allow you to economically and often humorously capture the effect you want. Something like:
As Gloria enters the party, the sea of guests parts for her as if she were an ocean liner.
And in dialogue, they can quickly give a quirky touch to any character, and they allow the audience a peek into the character's mental process. Here is the sort of thing a character might say, employing a common metaphor:
It's like, no matter how high I climb on the career ladder, the only view I get is of the bottom of the next person up.
What more, I wondered, could I possibly say? Ingrid wanted to know, in particular, about how to train oneself to think in terms of metaphor. Hmm. I guess… look at stuff and think about how it's like other stuff? I was stumped.
But, upon more thought, I remembered that I know a lot more about metaphor and analogy than just that! Notice that in both these examples, something complex is described in terms of something simple and concrete. That's how metaphor works. Metaphor exists to allow us to conceptualize complex things in a simpler way. The movement of a crowd at a party is complex… so many separate individuals with their own motions. But the image of the ship cutting through the sea is visually simple.
And career advancement being mapped as upward movement, specifically as movement on a ladder? Again, complexity becomes simple, physical, concrete.
If you find yourself wanting to employ metaphor in your writing, and you feel that it's not coming naturally to you, look for moments where you're struggling with the complexity of what you want to say. Is there a mapping you can construct such that the complex situation can be understood in terms of a simpler one? If so, it might be a good moment for a metaphor.
Here's another example. A character talking about how angry they are might easily sound boring if they just say "God! I’m so angry!" You want to know how it FEELS. But how do you do that? Wouldn't it be clearer if that emotion were somehow understandable as a physical object?
God! I'm so angry you could see it on a MRI!
Hmm. The notion of anger as a sort of mass inside you. That's physical, understandable, and a bit quirky.
Metaphors. Making the complex simple. Buy some today.
Lunch: I was home sick today, eating grocery store sushi. Not too bad. Feeling better.
Jane on 09.07.06 @ 07:32 PM PST [link]
Monday, September 4th
Is there a moment in your spec script in which your main character takes a big decisive action that changes everything? Probably, huh?
If your spec script were being filmed, the actor and director and editor would extend that moment. Music, camera work, acting would all come together, and the audience couldn't possibly miss that something huge was going on.
But unless you get lucky, and the person reading your spec happens to be listening to a providentially synched-up iPod, you won't have the advantage of any of that great stuff.
So here's a great place to use a big obvious stage direction. Something like:
Ralph takes a breath and squares his shoulders. His moment has come.
Tony picks up the shovel and turns slowly to face Marjorie. He knows what he has to do.
Bethany whirls toward the door, her eyes wild. For the first time, she's acting without thinking, doing the right thing without overanalyzing it.
I know these examples sound a bit over-dramatic, lying here all defenseless and out of context. They may even seem to violate a principle of screenwriting as taught to you by others, in that they essentially tell the reader what to feel. So what? Telling a reader what to feel *is* telling them what to see, because these directions are the equivalent of heroic camera angles and all those filmic tricks. They help a reader understand your story.
And they can have a bit of poetry to them, as well, which gives you a chance to show off your confidence with manipulating prose. And any time you can demonstrate confidence, your perceived competence goes up. Niiiice.
Lunch: focaccia and hummus from California Pizza Kitchen.
Jane on 09.05.06 @ 10:00 PM PST [link]
Sunday, September 3rd
Well, well, well. I was doing some housecleaning today, and lookee at what I found. Some of my old spec scripts. My Frasier, my Larry Sanders, and the best of my three Star Trek:TNG scripts. The Trek spec is dated January 15, 1991. Yikes! Can that be right? Holy cow.
Looking through the Trek (titled "Ruling Passions"), I was both gratified and horrified. The dialogue is pretty good, with some humor that made me chuckle, although the lines are way too long. And the ideas are solid -- the concept of the episode works. But the script is so darn talky!!
Which leads us to the main problem. (Drumroll...) Nothing happens! The A story is about Data the android being given a guided tour through a set of emotion-building exercises by a hologram of the man who created him. Fun, but full of theorizing about emotions and neural pathways and the role of irrationality in evolution. A story this internal and analytical needs to be put together with an action-packed B story to provide the thrills and chills.
The B story is about Captain Picard and the other bridge officers trying to extract a stranded Vulcan scientist from a small battle-damaged research vessel. They talk, and puzzle, and futz around with this and that, until they finally succeed in beaming the entire small ship into the cargo bay, where it is revealed that it was in fact a disguised Romulan warship! Pretty exciting no? Pretty exciting yes, except that this happens on page 43!! In the middle of an act! The only surprising event in the whole story, and I didn't even get an act break out of it.
This happened because I did not adequately outline my story. I didn't have a developed sense, yet, of how many pages it would take to cover the events I had picked. So I wrote things too long in the front part of the script, and rushed them in the back part, and simply popped the act breaks in where the page numbers dictated them. Oh, I blush to think of it.
This would all have been avoided if I had studied produced episodes with more care. I should've converted produced episodes back into an approximation of their original outlines. Then I could have made sure my outline had the same amount of "event," spread out over the same number of scenes.
The bright side is, this script was good enough that I got that magic phone call from Trek that started my career. So as bad as this spec was, structurally, there must've been plenty that were worse. Which leaves you, gentle readers, with two options: work hard to perfect your specs, or gamble on the incompetence of others.
Or both. There's nothing wrong with doing both!
Lunch: A BLT from Johnny Rockets and a chocolate coke. (For our Croatian readers, that's a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich, a traditional and beloved combination. It's like meat-salad on toast!)
Jane on 09.04.06 @ 06:36 PM PST [link]
Friday, September 1st
A fellow named Steve from Nantucket... sent me a letter recently. He makes a very good point about writing. It is hard, as I have pointed out, to begin a television-writing career if you are either mature in years or distant in geography. But Steve reminds me that there are other kinds of writing. Prose, for example: novels, articles, short stories, non-fiction books of all kinds. It's an excellent point. And I should tell you that I meet people all the time who mention that they read my blog, even though they are writers of other types. They claim that they can find things in my discussions of script writing that resonate with their very different pursuit. If this is the case, then I'm thrilled and I pat myself on the back so vigorously I risk harm to my elbow.
So, for those of you who are simply not positioned for tv writing, welcome to the table, pull out a computer, and, please, write whatever shakes your tree! I've had a few (mostly Buffy-related) short stories published, so maybe I'll even tell a few stories about my own experiences writing prose. (First observation: It's hard. Right away, there are so many choices! First person? Present tense? I'm not used to having to make those decisions!)
Another great letter also arrived recently, from Branko in Croatia! Don't you love that?! He points out something I hadn't consciously noticed, which is the tendency of aspiring television writers to get hyper-critical about television. Good point. This does happen. In order to acquire tv-writing skills, you have to start applying critical thinking to those shows you want to emulate. And the side effect of critical thinking is that you start thinking critically. You notice things: Hey! That important event happened off-screen! Hey! That moment sold out that character! Hey! That act break didn't leave me wanting more!
Keeping Steve's letter in mind, I wouldn't be surprised to hear that the same thing happens to writers of other kinds as well.
For all the young writer/gripers out there, I just have to caution you that a negative attitude can seep into your spec and be detectable there. And it might seep into your other interactions, too. I once -- years ago -- got a letter from an aspiring writer who wanted advice, but who also pointed out that he didn't think it could be very hard to write an episode of something like "Yes, Dear." Hmm. In fact, it is hard to write an episode of "Yes, Dear." Sit down and try it.
The truth, of course, is that our ability to detect flaws is far stronger than our ability to avoid producing flawed product. So gripe if you will, but avoid feeling superior until you've got that shiny sparkly spec script finished. It's harder than it looks.
Branko also asks for more detail in the lunch descriptions. I think the "butter lettuce salad" conjured up some slippery images. Butter lettuce is a kind of lettuce with a lovely soft leaf, not a two-ingredient melange. So this one's for you, Branko:
Lunch: In-n-Out burger, animal style! (This is a burger from a very prestigious burger place, prepared with grilled onions and a tasty sauce.) Mmm!
P.S. A hearty wave and thank you also to Margaret from LA, who also sent a great letter! She wasn't able to come hear me speak at a local bookstore a few years back -- don't worry, Margaret! I don't recall saying anything especially good. Besides, there were visible traces of some kind of missle test in the sky that night, which make the sky look like it was literally ripping open. Some people were understandably distracted by what appeared to be an impending apocalypse.
Jane on 09.03.06 @ 07:46 PM PST [link]
Hi all! I'm visiting my parents and their new puppy this weekend. While Zia the Tiny Fuzzy Bundle slept, we ended up watching two episodes of a British sitcom called "My Hero," on BBC America. I hadn't seen the show before, and it was quite by chance that the first episode that was on tonight was the series pilot. The second episode was clearly from a later season. I'm guessing from the hair length of the lead female that it was perhaps two years later.
The show is about a relationship between a normal woman and a superhero. Already I'm smiling. The pilot was nice. Superhero approaches woman and woos her in his goofy naive non-hero guise, charming her, winning her. Then, he loses her when his Superheroism is revealed, and has to convince her that he's not as "super" as she fears. Simple, sweet, romantic, silly. And it was about something; about recognizing the person you're meant to be with no matter what the obstacles are. Not Earth-shaking news, but it was relatable as a metaphorical mismatched relationship.
But the later episode was a mess! They're married now, and have a freaky talking baby that needs to eat more vegetables, so Super-dad brings him alien radioactive veggies, which makes Wife think he's not concerned enough about the environment, which leads Superdad to enter into wacky proenvironment activities, which all backfire on him until he, out of desperation, is led to move the planet farther from the sun, thereby eliminating global warming. (I know, I know. We shan't even discuss the science of that.) And that's not even bringing the B stories into it! Yikes! It felt like there wasn't an outline, like the writers simply jumped from joke to joke, from scene to scene, without a sense of telling a coherent story. Imagine a chain, zigging or zagging with every link. That's what the structure felt like. What were the writers saying about environmentalism, the force of public opinion, or the loyalty and support of a spouse? These were all touched on. Picked up, held into the light, and then put back down as the chain linked off in a new direction.
I suspect it wasn't the writers' fault. Time pressures, notes, rewrites, and the inevitable empty story well that you can fall into on a show with this kind of premise... I sense all of these were at work. However, as the writer of a spec script, you don't have those excuses.
When you come up with a story for your spec, try very hard to contain it. Make it about something. Don't make it about nothing. Don't make it about everything.
When you describe the story of your spec, try to come up with a single, complete sentence that says what it's about. A single sentence to ensure simplicity. A complete sentence to ensure coherence. It'll keep you out of the chain gang.
Lunch: chicken salad sandwich with cranberries mixed in. A nice surprise!
Jane on 09.01.06 @ 09:31 PM PST [link]