Tuesday, October 31st
Monday, October 30th
Some terms that writers use aren't used with great consistency. "Schmuck bait" is one of these terms. Most rooms use it, but they sometimes use it to refer to different things. The general sense, as the etymology would suggest, is to refer to something that the writer is doing to try to trick the audience... or to trick the more gullible segment of the audience anyway. To "bait" the "schmuck," if you will.
Sometimes, tricking the audience is a good and effective trick, and in some rooms the term is used to refer to this. If you create a creepy and menacing atmosphere and you want your audience to expect a vampire attack, when instead you've got the vampires attacking somewhere else entirely, that might be called schmuck bait without any sense that the writer has done something inelegant... in fact, they've done something very effective.
Most writers, and most writers' rooms, however, use the term to refer to an attempt to fool the audience into thinking something is going to happen which any intelligent viewer KNOWS won't happen. If Alan Shore were on the verge of death in an episode, and you hadn't read anything in Entertainment Weekly about Mr. Spader getting fired, then you probably shouldn't be too worried about his survival. This kind of schmuck-baiting, you don't want to do. (By they way, I have many friends at Boston Legal, and I assure you, they wouldn't do such a thing. Unless they thought it was funny.)
As you write your specs, be careful about that second kind. It can be tempting to want to do a big story for a spec, but don't try to build a lot of suspense around whether or not Dunder-Mifflin will suddenly close the Scranton office, or expect a reader to get worked up over whether or not House will take an offer from a hospital in San Francisco. 'Taint gonna happen. (And don't try to fix the problem by writing a spec in which... surprise... it really does happen! Now we're back to the previously described problem of writing an atypical episode.)
Lunch: one of those Japanese rice snacks in the shape of a triangle. They're cleverly packaged so the seaweed wrapper is kept separate until you want to use it.
Jane on 10.31.06 @ 11:17 PM PST [link]
Saturday, October 28th
I think a very cool name for a country song would be "C.C. from Little Rock." And, in a stunning coincidence, I got a letter recently from C.C. from Little Rock. He (she?? -- C.C. should put some gender clues in his/her letters) asks a good question about the perpetual problem of specing a show with arcs.
He points out that both Entourage and The Office are currently in the middle of story arcs that change the show's normal status quo (the re-assignment of Jim, the firing of Ari). He asks if it's okay for a spec writer to assume that these situations are temporary and can be ignored in the righting of a spec. Yep. I'd say that's exactly the right approach. I don't watch Entourage, (I have just been given the DVDs and plan to catch up when I have time), so I can't state with certainty that the Ari-firing thing isn't permanent, but it sure sounds like a pretty good gamble to me.
The alternative, of course, is to write a spec that takes advantage of the stories that can only be told during the temporary situation. But then you've got a spec that's tied to a specific time, which will be harder to keep fresh-smelling. So that's probably not the way to go. (I wonder if a Battlestar set in what turned out to be the temporary settlement of New Caprica would be an interesting novelty spec, however? Hm? Maybe not.)
Note that this contradicts advice I've given in the past, in which I cautioned against the folly of trying to "lead" a show as a hunter might lead an escaping deer, betting that you can predict the course. But in this case, where one specific future seems safely likely, I'd have to say go for it. Because what we're dealing with here is a predictable deer.
Lunch: I ignored the lovely Mexican buffet so that I could save room for the Marie Calender's chocolate pie.
Jane on 10.30.06 @ 07:16 PM PST [link]
Friday, October 27th
There's a saying in television that you hear a lot these days, "Don't save anything." It's generally used to mean "put your best moments on screen early in the run of the show." So, even if you have in mind a tender three-episode arc that culminates in a STUNNING MOMENT... well, there are very few new shows that feel comfortable gambling that they'll be around three episodes from now. So there's a tendency to cut to the chase. Mix this with the network's desire to air the episodes so that the strongest ones air first, and there's a great tidal force pushing all the BIG EVENTS up early.
There can be a tendency to do something similar in a spec pilot too. I've got two supporting characters in the pilot I'm writing now whom I adore. I know that there is great fun to be had in giving them a scene together. But the pilot story doesn't really accommodate it. So I keep telling myself that I'm "saving" their interaction for episode two. And yet "Don't save anything" is echoing in my ears. What's a writer to do?
Well, you've probably all already anticipated the problem with "Don't save anything." The STUNNING MOMENT that ends a three-episode build may not be as stunning without all the set-up. And the forced encounter between my two supporting characters won't be nearly as much fun as it will be when there's a legitimate story reason for them to be thrown together.
So, sure, don't write a pilot that does nothing but promise thrilling encounters yet to come, but don't feel, either, that you have to wring every possible drop of juice out of an unyielding orange. Sometimes, the story of the grasshopper and the ant is true, and it's okay to save.
Lunch: A new idea. Drained a can of chicken noodle soup, saving just the noodles. Put that MRE-style packaged Indian bean dish over it. A new taste treat.
Jane on 10.28.06 @ 02:27 PM PST [link]
Wednesday, October 25th
Time for another meeting of Jane's Book Club! I am heartily recommending "Scott Bateman's Sketchbook of Secrets and Shame." It's a collection of the most strange and wonderful little cartoons. If you don't know the name Scott Bateman, I think you'll recognize his cartoons when you see them: tiny little boxes containing static human figures, generally looking grave or worried and saying the most hilarious things. Sometimes they're looking off to the side, as if to assure themselves that no one is listening in. The impression you get is that these statements are deeply confessional on the part of the character. Sometimes it's a deep confession about shallowness, like this one: "I'm building a time machine just so I can go forward ten years and see VH-1's 'I Love the '00s'."
Some of the jokes are very traditional in structure, like: "You know your neighborhood's getting too gentrified when you run out of a place to dispose of a dead body." But most are very strange, like the haunted-eyed one that simply reads, "I suffer from moral fibrosis."
It can seem like a challenge, especially in a spec pilot, to write jokes based on character, when the characters are brand new. You don't have established traits to poke fun of. But these cartoons manage to be character-based jokes, and there isn't even an actor fleshing out the role -- just a sketch with an uncomfortable look on its face. There's something about a quick reveal of an obsession or a fear or a transgression that creates an instant connection. I'm going to be thinking about these cartoons as I play with some dialogue over the weekend.
Lunch: A nice post table-read buffet from Chin Chin. (Is that a national chain?) There were noodles.
Jane on 10.27.06 @ 10:33 PM PST [link]
Tuesday, October 24th
You know how, when you're trying to fit in with a new bunch of friends, how you know they've accepted you when they begin insulting you? It's that thing where they can start teasing you because they've assured themselves that you know they have affection for you. So the tease itself becomes proof of the affection. But if a stranger walked up to you and said some of the same things, they'd be railing for a nailing, if you know what I mean.
Well, there's something kind of similar in writing a spec for an established show. The people who are on the inside of the clique -- the employed writers -- are allowed to take some liberties with the show that you, as an outsider, aren't allowed to do. Until you're hired.
Keep this in mind as you pick your spec stories. The writers of House can do an unusual episode in which Dr. House is trapped in an airport far from the hospital and has to do his diagnosis long distance. In their hands, this is clearly a creative choice to mix things up. But as a spec writer, I would strongly recommend against this story. It's just too different from a typical episode. Instead of demonstrating an imaginative mind, you look too much like you simply don't get that the heart of the show is about House's face-to-face interactions with the other characters.
This leaves you, of course, with a tricky road to walk. You want to stand out. But how can you stand out with a typical episode?!
My instinct is that you CAN do exactly that. You can do it by mining a new emotional layer, not a new physical configuration. You can make an amazing House spec by finding some thrilling (though in character) emotional moment for him, far more effectively than you can by using a trick of atypical plotting.
So I would suggest no episode-long road trips, please, for the Grey's Anatomy surgeons, no extended trips to Pam's new apartment in your spec The Office, no Battlestar spec that consists entirely of a pre-disaster afternoon on Caprica… EVEN IF these are episodes that could easily be done by the show's own staff.
(Now, I will point out here that every now and then, some spec will come along that breaks all the rules and somehow works anyway. If you feel like you've got one of those, ignore me. When giving advice about something this subjective, you should all assume the privilege of ignoring me comes built into every post.)
But all else being equal… keep your characters at home!
Lunch: Pizza from California Pizza Kitchen followed by cookies at the first Andy Barker, P.I. table read. I got to see Tony Hale being funny, guys. So much fun!
Jane on 10.25.06 @ 05:14 PM PST [link]
Adam in West Hollywood has sent in an interesting question, Gentle Readers. He asks for clarification on whether or not spec pilots should be, can be, or must not be "premise pilots." He says he has received advice saying that premise pilot specs are problematical.
Hmm. I can't say I really see why. A premise pilot, for those of you who don't know, is a pilot in which the events occur that set up the dynamic of the show. A non-premise pilot has all the characters and relationships already in place.
Lost had a premise pilot. West Wing had a non-premise pilot as I recall, which is unusual, since most shows have at least some element of premise in their pilot. It was Carter's first day of work in the ER pilot, although the other elements were in place. Rachel ran away from her wedding, and into her Friends and all their pre-existing relationships, in the Friends pilot. Heroes spread their character intros and premise-setting-up over the first two episodes, extending the premise pilot concept to Heroic new lengths. Having something new happen in a pilot, something that requires all the characters to adjust and act or react, is a great way to explain characters, relationships and situations. At the very least, having even one "new guy" requires the old hands to explain things to them, which facilitates exposition.
The argument against premise pilots, I assume, is that you're not giving the readers a "typical episode." But this, it seems to me, is a more potent argument against actual network pilots than it is against spec pilots. You guys, presumably, need your spec pilot to function mainly as a writing sample and as a contest entry. You don't have to worry so much about whether or not viewers got a representative slice of the show that will bring them back next week. (And since shows that began with premise pilots seem to be the big hits right now, I'd say even this isn't really a serious concern.)
So I say premise it up! Hire people, fire people, move people across the country, have people fall in or out of love, shake up their lives! When you're specing an existing show, you don't have the opportunity to change the basic dynamics of the show. So a spec pilot is your chance to demonstrate this skill -- why not use it?
Lunch: scrambled eggs with cheddar cheese
Jane on 10.24.06 @ 05:56 PM PST [link]
Monday, October 23rd
Jane on 10.24.06 @ 05:55 PM PST [link]
Sunday, October 22nd
Suppose you're writing a spec pilot, and you've got a lot of characters whom you want your readers to keep straight. You've got Brian and Courtney and Flagg and Sharon and Henderson and Nigel... But let's say that Henderson and Nigel are fairly minor. They've got names and all, they'd be regulars if the pilot somehow became a series, but let's say they're only in two scenes of the pilot.
In these circumstances, you might want to consider:
Nigel the Butler
Good morning, sir.
Now the reader will be reminded who they are whenever they speak, and the burden of keeping all those names straight will get a lot easier.
Whenever you make the reader's job easier, you make your own job easier.
Lunch: In 'n' Out burger, Dr. Pepper
Jane on 10.23.06 @ 08:15 PM PST [link]
Friday, October 20th
Well, I'm back from my trip! Las Vegas says "Hi." And also "Hey, Sailor."
Get this, gentle readers. I own a lovely big "Once More With Feeling" poster that I had reframed recently. (OMWF is the musical Buffy episode.) When I went to pick up the finished poster, someone had attached a note to it! I guess it was sitting in the store, looking all... mine (my name is on it because I had Joss sign it to me). And someone left me poster-mail! How cool is that?
So thanks to Jason Lee for the great note -- I wonder, people, do you suppose that's Jason Lee, the star of My Name is Earl? I think it would be very strange and wonderful if famous people were leaving notes for me in poster shops. Thank you, Jason, however famous you are or are not!
In other news, I just watched the latest episode of The Office. In this particular episode, one of the story threads was a bit surreal. For those who saw it, I'm referring to the "Dwight takes Ryan on a sales call" story line. It was right on the edge, for me, of being not realistic enough for the show. (Did you buy the thing where he took him to the farm?) However, it was largely redeemed, for me, because the ABOUT was working. It was about Dwight trying to make Ryan into the friend/acolyte that Jim could never be -- and because that rings true, the rest of it is saved, or at least mitigated. It's amazing how much you can get away with if you have some real human emotion underlying it.
Conversely, even a very grounded, totally realistic story can feel wrong if the emotional underpinnings are false. So take a step back from the events of your spec and look one more time at the emotional arc. Does it work? Is the progression logical and believable for your characters? Then you're probably on good solid ground, no matter what crazy events you might be dealing with.
Lunch: two chicken soft tacos and a cherry coke from Del Taco. Get the Del Scorcho sauce.
Jane on 10.22.06 @ 04:02 PM PST [link]
Wednesday, October 18th
Hi all -- I'm on my way out of town on an impetuous last-minute weekend trip. So I'm typing this on one of those airport terminals. At least this one has only had its keyboard slightly tampered with - the "D" is upside-down. Much better than the last one I tried, on which the "M" and "N" had been switched. You might think you don't look at the keys that much anymore, but I promise you, this is a pretty effective trick, and you should try it out on your co-workers' computers at once.
Anyway, I only have time for a tiny post, and here's a little tidbit I've been saving for just this kind of circumstance. Let's suppose that you're using Final Draft, and you're in that frustrating situation where there's a page of your script that contains nothing but the line "End of Act One," or whatever act it is. Well, if nothing else works, try this. See that little window that tells you if the line is Action or Dialogue or whatever? Select that stray line, and change its category to "General." Now it's weirdly close to the line above it. Pulling it onto the previous page. I am told that at least one writing staff used this trick often enough that the procedure got a name: "Calling in the General."
All right, it's not terribly useful. Probably not even advisable. I think the best part is the name!
Lunch: The "Nature's Grill" burrito at Poquito Mas. Surprisingly good.
Jane on 10.20.06 @ 09:09 PM PST [link]
Monday, October 16th
Did you watch Studio 60 this week? Apparently not, according to the ratings. However, those of you who did got to see a lovely example of irony. During the last episode, they showed a pitch. A Mark Burnett type reality show creator pitched a show to the network. The irony is that while the show was being held up as an example of all that's wrong with television, it was, in fact, an example of an excellent pitch.
It was polished, confident, short and precise. The guy explained the basic premise: a reality show in which committed couples find their relationships tested. He explained what made it unique, and made it clear that it was *about* something (i.e. a premise that love can triumph over everything but full disclosure). He gave an example of a sample episode to give an idea of the kinds of issues the show would tackle. Then he wrapped it all up with a big, confident, "And that's our show!" (That's my favorite part. I always do this as well... otherwise there can be a tendency to let a pitch kind of dribble out at the end.)
In an amusing straw man argument, Sorkin then spends much of the episode pointing out that something is wrong with a television culture that celebrates homewrecking as entertainment. But simply as a student of the form of the pitch as separable from the content – that was a good one. Very comparable to a non-reality show pitch, too, if you were wondering about that.
In real life, in a pitch for a scripted show anyway, the meeting continues past "And that's our show," with the network asking a lot of questions about the characters and the arc of the season and tone… but the front bit of the meeting? The presentation part? Well, those of you who saw the episode got to see a rare example of natural writer-executive behavior rarely captured on film.
Lunch: sushi at Echigo, the place with the warm rice. Heaven!
Jane on 10.18.06 @ 10:08 AM PST [link]
Sunday, October 15th
I think I might re-read some Jane Austen soon. You know that mood? Jane Austen was funny and romantic. Emma Thompson's take on her was the best of any screenwriter yet, I'd say. So what's the trick to, you know, titrating two different emotions like that?
Let's imagine that you're writing a spec for a comedy with heart or for a comedic drama. (A recent letter-writer referred to one of these as a "coma". Is that really used? It's hilarious.) So you're mixing jokes in with some more serious content. A good rule of thumb is that when the going gets really serious, the joking should stop. Jokes, generally, undercut emotion. When an audience laughs, they're relieving tension. So you don't want that happening when you're trying to build up the tension. This can be a hard lesson for those of us used to comedy writing – if a page goes by without a joke, we're certain that we are failing to be entertaining. But, in fact, the sudden lack of jokes can be part of what makes these scenes riveting. Like the sudden absence of the sound of running water, turning off the joke faucet can attract a viewer/reader's attention. This is particularly true if there's a character in the scene who is normally a joke factory, or if something about the situation would normally be seen as laughable. Playing it straight can be mesmerizing.
But what if you can't stand it? What if you really want to joke, but without relieving tension? There are a few specific types of jokes that you can use here.
1. When the character himself is joking to try to relieve their own tension and it isn't working. We used this a lot on Buffy – something horrible appears and Xander jokes about its appearance and no one laughs.
2. When the character is bitterly self-deprecating. Someone who is laying open the contents of their heart can make a comment about how it's no better organized than their closet, and it doesn't decrease the tension because their pain is so obvious and exposed.
3. When the character is trying to appease someone who is angry with them by trying to make that person laugh. Add some jeering humorless laughter in response and you've got a real heartbreaker.
There are probably other categories here, but you've got the idea.
The interesting thing about these jokes is that they aren't funny. They look funny, and some part of your brain gives them credit for having joke content. What they convey is bravery and intelligence in the face of anger or pain or fear. They're endearing. Heart-crushing. But they're not funny. And they're great.
Lunch: McDonalds. That Big 'n' Tasty Sandwich, the one with tomato. You know the Big Mac doesn't have tomato, right? Sing the jingle – it's true.
Jane on 10.16.06 @ 09:20 PM PST [link]
Hi everyone! Hmm… there was a bunch of stuff caught in my spam filter just now. (That would have been a much more disgusting sentence years ago than it is now.) You know the kind, with the subject lines like "remember me?" or "I'm back from Japan" or "an interesting thought." The kind where I think, well, just maybe it isn't actually spam, but some interrupted communication that I've forgotten. Well, I accidentally hit "delete all" before I could look closer and… whoosh… all gone. Doesn't even show up in the "recently deleted" place. Hmm. I suppose it was probably for the best.
It's just like cutting lines out of your spec. You regret losing them as it's happening -- there's a reason you put them in to begin with, after all -- but once they're gone, everything's better. I often have such a hard time making these cuts that I find it's helpful to have another file open when I'm working a script, reserved just for putting the cut material in, in case I need it back later. I never go back and get it, but it makes it easier to make the cut knowing that, in theory, I can. If you have a hard time making cuts, you may want to give this a try. I think of it as a bucket into which I can throw scraps of fat, but now we're back to that spam-filter image, so you may not want to go there.
Remember, sometimes a line just isn't needed, even it was the reason you created the scene in the first place. Even if the audience isn't going to know something you were sure you wanted them to know. There are probably lines in your script that you would never even consider cutting, but that are actually totally unnecessary. (If you've got two people having a fascinating conversation for four pages – it's probably not as fascinating as you think.) When you have friends read your scripts, it's often good to specifically ask them to look for cuts -- they'll find things you never thought of.
And, when you're the one doing the reading, I find it's best to make two separate passes through a script. Once, to read for content and make suggestions in that area. And a separate time just to read for cuts. I don't know why, but these two agendas don't seem to work well together when you try to do them simultaneously.
Cleaner, leaner, shorter, faster. It is almost always better.
Lunch: Cup o' Noodles, drained and heated in a fry pan with hot sauce. Try it!
Jane on 10.15.06 @ 01:57 PM PST [link]
Saturday, October 14th
Jane on 10.15.06 @ 01:57 PM PST [link]
Thursday, October 12th
So, all right, let's talk more about that thing about not building a spec around a guest character. I've tended to follow that up by saying that centering a spec around the show's main character is best. And certainly, there are shows where that's the case. Most shows, in fact. A House without House at the center will not stand. BUT...
Friend-of-the-blog and dazzlingly successful writer Jeff Greenstein has told me of the specs he wrote, with his then writing parter to get into the business. Specs that got attention, that got them meetings. Their trick? Write to the underdeveloped character. Hmm. Interesting, no? This only works, of course, in a show with a strong ensemble, in which the series can shift the focus around a bit. And, of course, the main character should come into it somehow... crucially affecting or being affected by the story.
A good way to approach this technique might be to think about the main story being centered on the *relationship* between the main character and the underutilized ensemble character.
The example Jeff told me about was a spec episode of Murphy Brown, in which the story was created to center on Miles' 30th birthday. Miles was a strong supporting character, who hadn't, at the time the spec was written, been given tons of air time. And the topic of age/accomplishment is obviously well-chosen to get a reaction from Murphy.
I'm reminded of some of the Buffy episodes I wrote -- "Superstar," and "Storyteller," specifically. This is one of my favorite things to do (although I have to say that the original ideas for these episodes came from Joss). I love taking a character who is secondary (or tertiary), especially if they tend to be discounted by the others, and showing how they are the masters of their own house, the centers of their own universes. In real life, no one is a tertiary character -- everyone's feelings count for as much as everyone else's, so I like it when the same thing holds in Fictionland.
Be careful, gentle readers, don't lose sight of the center of the show, make sure it's an episode you think the actual writers of the show might write. Then pick part of the ensemble that has been out of the spotlight... and light it up!
P.S. Such good mail lately! Thank you to Micky in Long Beach for a great letter -- good luck on the writing career, Micky! And a generous note from Cheryl in Lodi offers encouragement to Angie, the recent correspondent who contemplated giving up our ink-stained pursuit. Cheryl is finding that success in screenwriting doesn't have to be limited to the under-30 crowd. She encourages Angie to hang in there. Thank you, Cheryl! I haven't heard back from Angie -- I hope that means she's too busy writing spec scripts!
And candies! German chocolates from faithful German reader Nic! Wow! Thank you!
Lunch: scrambled eggs and cream soda
Jane on 10.14.06 @ 01:40 PM PST [link]
Wednesday, October 11th
I had a very spec-writer-y experience today, gentle readers. I was writing my pilot in a deli, when the waiter asked what I writing. "A TV script." "Oh? What show?" "It's a pilot." He instantly looked deflated-slash-encouraging and lost interest. Sigh. I know you guys face this all the time. Interestingly, it tends not to get better. Buffy writers were routinely asked if the show was animated, or if it was a kid's show, or even just told "never heard of it." And that was pretty much the MOST well-known show I've worked for. When I mentioned Battlestar Galactica recently, I actually got a, "Oh, is that a magazine?" So... I guess... chin up, it doesn't get much better.
Anyway, here's a thought that might actually be helpful!
You know how I'm always talking about the most common spec-writing mistake? Namely, centering a spec around a guest character? Well, you know when this is even more important? When what you're writing is a spec pilot.
And it would be really easy to make this mistake, too, since in a pilot EVERYONE feels like a guest character. The detective's client has been known to the reader just as long as the detective, after all. But resist! You've got to establish new characters here, make the reader/viewer fall in love with them and want to see that next case. And you've got limited room to do it in.
So get 'em in, make 'em interesting, and then get 'em the heck off the stage. Let your fine new regulars get down to work. They've got readers to seduce. They're gonna need room.
Lunch: corned beef hash and poached eggs. Yum!
Jane on 10.12.06 @ 08:07 PM PST [link]
Tuesday, October 10th
I was just talking yesterday with friend-of-the-blog Alisa about Scott McCloud's fine book Understanding Comics, and then today I come across this. (This is the Kevin Kelly site, which I reached through Boing Boing) The excerpts are from McCloud's new book, Making Comics. Scroll down. The illustration that blows me away is the one where he illustrates how faces displaying simple emotions can be combined to create faces displaying complex emotions. Look at the math of it! It's beautiful. And somehow shockingly true. Just knowing that a fear face and joy face create a desperation face... yes! Yes, of course they do! And anger + joy = cruelty. Yes! My only disagreement would be with joy + sadness, which creates an expression he calls "faint hope" but which I would call "brave front." Maybe it's a matter of the recipe: two parts joy to one part sadness or vice versa.
I'm not even sure what this has to do with writing for television. But it's making my writing cords vibrate, so it must in some way. I'm certainly struck by the way the complex faces make me want to write dialogue. McCloud clearly has the same instinct -- disgust + surprise = "you *ate* it?!" Sounds about right.
I think what I'm struck by is how some of the ingredients in complex emotions had escaped my conscious awareness. The ones with 'joy' in them seem to particularly capture the imagination. The joy that's part of cruelty... and the one captioned "Eww" -- disgust + joy... I feel like I've just learned something about human nature, you know?
I'm also left wondering about emotions that aren't here -- smugness, for example. Is it maybe joy + anger, just like cruelty, but with more joy and less anger? Hmm. Or is this all way too reductive? Human emotions can't simply be reduced to formulae better suited for combining Jelly Belly flavors. But it sure serves as a nice springboard for thinking about feelings.
Even a static scene of two people talking about their life philosophies can be fascinating if you track the emotions of the characters. I don't know, but I feel maybe like now I'm a little more attuned to what that means.
I think we should all run over to Amazon and buy this book. We're all there buying Prisoner of Trebekistan anyway, right?
Lunch: scrambled eggs with salsa and tortillas
Jane on 10.11.06 @ 01:41 PM PST [link]
Monday, October 9th
We were talking about action sequences, in answer to a question from Karen in Virginia. And I promised to tell you a little about writing action on some of my more recent non-Buffy shows. So here goes:
On Battlestar, I was confronted with something different than Buffy. Space-adventure type action, with CGI effects. Turns out, it didn't really make any difference. Just like at Buffy, it was all about picturing it first, then writing it. And, as always, just as it is when writing spec scripts, the secret is to study the produced scripts. I studied how the 'real' Battlestar writers wrote the action stuff, and then made mine sound like theirs. Very lean and spare, just like they do it.
It's probably worth noting that I still left the action stuff for last, but this is for different reasons than it used to be. I used to dread it, and leave it for last in the hope that the script elves (Tinker, Polish and Tweak) would take care of it for me. Now I leave it for last because the emotions in action sequences tend to be really straight-forward, so I can just skip over them while writing, without any fear that something subtle will happen in the scene that will affect the emotions in the next scene. These scenes get left for last because they're the least important, not the most feared.
And that, really, leads up to the only trick-of-the-trade that really matters for writing action, now that I think about it: confidence, writing without fear. Action is just all about making a decision. This will happen, then that will happen. She'll kick him first, or the Viper will be hit from the left. You can't be vague with this stuff, so commit.
This became really clear when I got to write an action sequence for my latest project. On Andy Barker, PI, the Andy Richter half-comedy I'm working on now, my script required an unusually long action sequence in which Andy grapples with an attacker. Since I had more experience writing action than the other writers (who have spent their writing years becoming far far funnier than me), I tackled the sequence with more confidence than I usually do. And I love how it turned out -- I used the props well, came up with cool little moves. I just generally wrote my little heart out. Confidence, I recommend it! And it should be easy to be confident about your action-writing skills since the greatest action-writing skill IS confidence. It's a moebius strip of self-bolstering rationalization! Hop on!
Lunch: Chinese BBQ pork and noodle soup from Noodle Planet. Mmm.
Jane on 10.10.06 @ 11:29 PM PST [link]
Sunday, October 8th
I got a lovely letter recently from Karen in Virgina, asking about writing action sequences. She asks me to compare writing action for Buffy versus for Battlestar Galatica and if I "...have any tricks-of-the-trade for mapping an action scene?"
Ooh, thanks, Karen. This is an interesting area. When I started at Buffy, I was totally stumped by the action sequences. My favorite fall-back phrase was "Buffy responds with a flurry of kicks and punches." I had the right instinct, to use figurative language ("flurry") when I needed to convey the general effect I wanted, but I didn't have anything specific in mind to back it up.
I quickly realized that I needed to come up with more than that. I don't think I ever brought the imagination to these sequences that some of the other writers did -- Doug Petrie, in particular, lived for this stuff. But I did get better at, for example, thinking about the props that a given set might furnish that could be used in a fight. Remember in "A New Man"? Buffy fights Monster Giles in a hotel room, using the little folding luggage stand.
And I got to where, instead of freezing up and trying to bluff my way through an action sequence, I would instead lie down and close my eyes and seriously try to visualize it. And I'd go and look at the set if it existed. (A wonderful option that eludes spec writers unless you're good at sneaking onto studio lots, which I cannot recommend.) But I still found it helpful to sometimes make the descriptions more evocative than literal. This is from my second draft for "Harsh Light of Day," when Buffy is fighting Spike:
Buffy slams him, a powerhouse punch. He's back up like one of those pop-up clowns...
Later on, as the scene continues, the action gets more precise. I'm eliding the dialogue here, for the sake of space:
Buffy deflects the pipe again, the impact jarring.
She throws a kick, he rejects it with the pipe.
The pipe swings down again, connecting with her arm.
He's bringing the pipe up for another blow.
He just went a bridge too far. When he swings again, she ducks it and comes up under him, throwing him down on his back. The pipe goes flying, hitting [unconscious] Xander again, who moans. Buffy jumps and lands on Spike, pinning his arms down with her knees, pressing his head into the ground with one hand, twisting his neck. He bucks, but she's pulling at the ring.
Audibly breaking a finger in the process, she gets the ring. Spike ROARS in pain and bucks again, in panic, knocking her off. He scrambles up and away, starting to SMOKE and SIZZLE in the sunlight. He drops into an open manhole and is gone. Buffy sinks to the ground, exhausted. But she holds the ring.
You see I'm still relying a lot on the stunt team to come up with glitzier moves than my description really provides, but there are a few nice touches, like the pipe hitting Xander, and the audible finger break. I was getting better at it, anyway.
And I had picked up a few tricks of the trade beyond just searching for usable props: Get your hero in a very bad, almost defeated position right before they rally. And wrap up the action quickly after it's clear who has won. (No need to kick Spike's butt all the way home, for example. Just down the manhole and he's gone.)
Next time: I'll continue, with tales of action on Battlestar and... Andy Richter Engages in Fisticuffs!
Lunch: Something called "fig cake with chocolate" from that same import grocery where I got yesterday's sandwich. Compressed fig with teensy little chocolate chips. Teensy chocolate chips should totally be a Newton option.
Jane on 10.09.06 @ 01:33 PM PST [link]
Saturday, October 7th
I have just finished reading the oddest little novel. "As She Climbed Across the Table" by Jonathan Lethem. It's a nifty little scifi/philosophy/humor/physics love story. You know the kind.
I want to call your attention to the following character introduction: "Georges De Tooth was our resident deconstructionist, a tiny, horse-faced man who dressed in impeccable pinstriped suits, spoke in a feigned poly-European accent, and wore an overlarge, ill-fitting, white-blond wig." Holy cow. Talk about painting a picture. What I love about this description is that other than the information about field of study, all these things are observable. And yet, they tell you so much about his nontangible qualities.
This man clearly cares deeply about appearances, about hiding his true self. But he also isn't interested in appearing especially normal. He wants to wear a metaphorical mask, but an unconventional one. And, since the accent is apparently transparent, and the wig is ill-fitting, this man, who is all about the masking, clearly isn't very good at it. Even before he speaks, I expect him to be pedantic, defensive and self-consciously outrageous in his opinions. But how cool is it that I never had to read any of those words? (I do wish, however, that I knew how the wig was styled. I keep imagining a page boy, but I don't know. I feel like it would help me understand Georges even better. Don't you think?)
So I've started to think about how details in a character description can be better than piling on the abstract adjectives. A breathless woman in high-top sneakers, a twitchy boy with his shirt buttoned all the way up, an old man with a bandaged ear, a girl who giggles and tugs her sleeves over her hands, a college boy with hair over his eyes, a man with a thin smile and James Bonds' wardrobe… all these details make us start inferring things about the characters, without ever having to write words like "nervous," "dangerous" or "shy."
I've been thinking a lot about this lately, because I'm writing a pilot. Those of you writing spec pilots are probably thinking about it, too. How much should we describe these new characters were creating?
Out of curiosity, I looked at the Twin Peaks pilot script. Some amazing characters were born there after all, I was curious about how they were introduced. I found that some were barely described at all. The series lead is merely:
FBI field agent DALE COOPER, mid-thirties, handsome in an unremarkable way.
Or course, he immediately begins talking into his tape recorder, making his character unique instantly through dialogue. Other characters are given more of a picture:
JAMES HURLEY, a handsome, clean-cut young man with intelligent eyes, in a black leather jacket, seated in the back corner, his motorcycle boots up on the back of the chair in front of him.
GIOVANNA PACKARD, wearing a coat over a brocade bathrobe, her beautiful hair and make-up in stark contrast to the harsh surroundings...
AUDREY HORNE, a delicate, Botticelli-like beauty, with a halo of wavy black hair and dark, haunted eyes.
Look at the last one. When you look at the literal meaning of this apparently physical description, all he's really saying is that he hopes to cast a dark-haired, dark-eyed girl. But the poetry of the description tells the reader a lot more than that. Does she sound peppy or languid? Vapid or deep?
Scripts are a unique form of literature. Even a spec script has to behave as if the roles in it will be inhabited by actors. So you can't create every mole on their shin, as a novelist can. But that doesn't mean you can't find clever, poetic, visual ways to start building their personalities in the readers' minds. I'm going to try it in my pilot. You can give it a try in yours, too.
Lunch: A veggie sandwich on a crusty Italian roll from Bay Cities Imports in Santa Monica. Wonderful!
Jane on 10.08.06 @ 06:47 PM PST [link]
Friday, October 6th
One of the ways in which linguists gather data about language is to ask speakers of a language whether or not they would ever produce a given utterance. Would you ever, for example, say a sentence with this form: "Beans, I like." Or "Him, I'd vote for." Sometimes people will say that, no, they would never do that, put the object of the sentence at the front like that.
And then you listen to them and hear them produce sentences exactly like that. It happens all the time. This phenomenon, I totally love. It turns out that the part of our brain that produces sentences is completely different than the part that evaluates them. Seems like a bad set-up, but what are you gonna do?
I think something similar happens with scripts. I've seen the most critical of viewers produce scripts that would never meet their own viewing standards in some very basic ways.
Here's the most common way in which I've seen this happen. Suppose you were watching a show in which someone overhears some vague planning going on. They're certain that what they're hearing is a plan for a surprise birthday party for themselves, although they didn't hear their own name. Do you, as a viewer -- or as a reader -- believe that this person has made the correct inference? I don't think you do.
The reader will be way ahead of the writer of such a script. Just as the writer would be if HE were the reader, instead of the writer. But somehow, it's very easy to write things like this -- to somehow assume that the script is going to be read in 1955, when tv plot twists were new. I've seen seasoned staffs do the same thing. It's bizarre.
It has to be the brain thing. I think sometimes we read our own material with the part of the brain that wrote it, when we should turn on the evaluation part. Don't collaborate with your creative mind's desire that the reader approach the script all blank, trusting and without any interest in anticipating where the story is going. Read with your crafty, suspicious, "televisionwithoutpity.com" critical viewer brain instead. If you fool IT, then you've got something. This I vow.
Lunch: The chicken and cheese omelet with a waffle, from Roscoe's Chicken & Waffles.
Jane on 10.07.06 @ 10:57 PM PST [link]
Wednesday, October 4th
I'm in terrible rush today, gentle readers. So I only have time for a brief post. I've decided to present you with a brief list of interesting parentheticals. Sometimes you can do things with these that you might not have thought of.
(for the thousandth time)
(suddenly working class)
(bitter yet fighting it)
(around a swollen tongue)
Neat and compact, these can to do the work of great globs of stage direction. And these don't even include the ones that are little cheats like (while opening the envelope), in which genuine action is brought into a line.
Lunch: a "Sassy Garden Avocado Sandwich." More cucumber than avocado, but still good.
Jane on 10.06.06 @ 11:46 AM PST [link]
Tuesday, October 3rd
Here's a little riddle for you: How is Desperate Housewives like The Love Boat? Well, until Ted McGinley is added to the DH cast in season eight, the best answer I have is that they share an interesting writing peculiarity -- the stories are divided among the writers by thread instead of by act.
Sometimes a writing staff splits up episodes and writes them as piecework. This is very common on comedies, but often happens on dramas as well. The name that appears on screen as the author of the episode may or may not indicate something meaningful about the contribution made by a particular writer. Now, obviously, one can imagine different strategies for splitting one script's worth of writing among a milling and embittered clump of writers. One common way is to assign continuous chunks of the script. Usually this is done by acts, but sometimes it's more like: "I'll take act one up to but not including the least scene. He'll take from that scene up to the middle of act two, then..." The other way, which I call the Love Boat way, is to give a writer responsibility for one of the story lines all the way through. (On the original Love Boat, the episodes were actually credited this way, with the different story lines each having titles and the writers of each identified in the opening credits.) This is how Desperate Housewives apportions the work.
The Love Boat method, of course, only works under very special circumstances. It requires that the stories be fairly separate. A few scenes in which the threads overlap and influence each other -- that can be worked out, but if the story lines are very dependent on each other, things will quickly get difficult. The method also requires additional writing to smooth out the transitions in and out of scenes and figure out those scenes that are influenced by more than one thread and do whatever else is needed to unify the whole.
On Buffy, we used this method exactly once that I recall. For an episode named "Conversations with Dead People." The episode had an atypically modular structure. The episode named "Life Serial" was also split up by thread, but since each act was a separate thread, it actually was also an example of the other method as well.
Usually, if we needed to split an episode, we did it by acts. This method allows the writers more control over their own transitions, but it also requires a very good outline. No one wants to sit down and write Act Four if they're not entirely sure what led to this point. Even given an outline, it's always amusing to read that first assembled draft in which the output of different writers is just slapped together. There will always be exposition that is covered two or three times, and sometimes, interestingly, the same joke will appear more than once. Again, more writing is required at this point, to sand down the joints where the splinters stick up, and to make it all read like a genuine whole.
By the way, I think there's a lesson in the Love Boat method for those of you writing specs. Sometimes, instead of writing your script straight through, you might want to power through all the segments of your script that relate to one thread. There is something to be said for the mental focus you get when you tackle a single thread from beginning to end. Maybe you'll find it exciting and new!
Lunch: the sirloin and cheese ciabatta sandwich and jalapeno poppers at Jack in the Box. Wonderful.
Jane on 10.04.06 @ 01:16 PM PST [link]
Monday, October 2nd
I was sitting here writing just now -- working away on my pilot script -- and I had a little epiphany. A very small one. Just a 'phany really. Something I'd known and employed forever, but had never really thought consciously about. But it's true and it's important and it clarifies some stuff you're probably already doing instinctively when writing dialogue. So I thought I'd sneak on over here and whisper it to you guys.
People get inarticulate when they have to tell the truth.
I don't mean all truths. I mean here the kind of truth that either makes the speaker vulnerable, like a proclamation of love, or the kind that has the potential to hurt the listener, like a retraction of a proclamation of love.
This has two consequences. Number one, it should make you write hesitations, false starts and circumlocutions in moments like these . Number two, it means that a reader or a viewer, encountering a character engaging in hesitations, false starts and circumlocutions KNOWS that a truth is at hand. Even if she doesn’t yet know what it is. You can use this to create suspense.
Why did you want to see me?
Oh. Right. You… There was this thing you did earlier… And I just wanted… Um, do you want to sit down?…
And, of course, one natural reaction to suddenly finding oneself inarticulate is to push too hard to get through it. And then you get the blurt. Also effective, and also all wrapped up with the truth. You don't blurt a lie. (Unless you're a really good liar who is turning the above principal to your own advantage by feigning a spontaneous blurt.)
Truth implies tongue-tied. Tongue-tied implies truth. Only the liar is glib.
Lunch: Chinese chicken salad and edamame at Universal
Jane on 10.03.06 @ 12:03 PM PST [link]
Sunday, October 1st
First off, a big "thank you!" to everyone who has written to say they have read and loved Bob Harris's "Prisoner of Trebekistan." The general consensus seems to be that it's a book that gets read in one sitting. Not because it’s that short, but because it’s that suspenseful. Click here, and you can stay up riveted all night, too!
Moving on, can you stand another spoiler from The Office? This is from the latest episode. Here's the exchange (this is from memory, so it might not be exact.):
I watched Oprah today. And… I'm going to be a father.
(long beat, then)
What was Oprah about?
This is one of those wonderful moments with two punchlines in a row. Sitcom writing is often characterized as being all "set-up, punch, set-up, punch." But sometimes, it’s "punch, punch…" And that’s a beautiful thing.
And this example also illustrates that the resulting effect doesn't have to be "jokey" or unreal. In fact, you could make the case that the best, most natural way to get funny line following funny line WITHOUT any set-up, is when the comedy comes out of character, as it does here. Michael's self-importance and Pam's sensible mind and appalled tact fuel these lines, so they're totally natural, and not at all forced or jokey. To say it another way, writing lines that come uniquely out of character eliminates the need for a lot of set-up, allowing funny to follow immediately upon funny.
Note that the example also illustrates a perfect use of a "beat" – I have no way of knowing what was indicated in the script, but I called it a "long beat" in my transcription. Not only is the beat necessary for the funny, but, within reason, the longer the beat, the funnier, since it's that elapsed time that allows us to imagine the mental work that Pam is doing, trying to figure out what Michael could possibly mean. Writing teachers may caution against "directing" in your script writing, but in a case like this, it's crucial. The "beat" tells us everything about the nature of the interaction.
Lunch: "Rajma Masala" -- that MRE-style Indian food I like, over spaghetti
Jane on 10.02.06 @ 12:42 AM PST [link]
The mission statement for this blog is to talk about the writing of spec scripts. But, fairly frequently, I meet people who don't write at all, but who read because they're simply interested in the process of writing for television. Hi, non-writers! Welcome! And, I suppose, you writers might also sometimes be interested in knowing something about the process beyond the spec script part.
Which leads us to a cluster of questions sent in by gentle reader Jason in Tennessee. He's a Buffy/Angel fan, intrigued by the shows' complex mythology. Take it, Jason!
"I'm curious about the way a mythology is developed -- is it planned out at the beginning of a series by one person, or is it built slowly by several writers? Where does a seasonal arc come from, how is it broken up from episode to episode, and what sort of flexibility do writers have for including pieces of overall seasonal development into their own individual, stand-along episode?"
He goes on to ask "how the demands posed by outside forces (network politics, sponsorship, special effects, budgets, guest directors, etc.) impact the writers, and also the integrity of the show's seasonal story arc."
Holy cow, Jason. That's a lot of questions. The answers, unfortunately, tend to vary wildly from show to show, so it's going to be hard to be coherent here. Let me try.
The mythology of a show sets out the rules of the world and how the main characters fit into it. The basics of the mythology are actually part of the initial pitch when a writer is trying to sell a series to a network. So, yes, that is generally the work of one writer -- the show's creator. Of course, that creator will have had help and input from all sorts of places, including his or her friends, fellow writers and certainly from studio or network execs.
And, as you might expect, the mythology as initially devised doesn't cover enough to take a show though many seasons without being augmented, altered and affected, as you point out, by outside forces. So the writers have to be a bit flexible. And sometimes of course, they have to ask for an audience's indulgence. Androids don't age, so please ignore our actor's subtle wrinkling. Or, we know we had Frasier say his father was dead, but now he's not, so... um... I guess he lied before?
Seasonal arcs, the continuing story lines that shape a season of a show are sometimes developed seasons in advance, but usually are planned during the first meetings of a show's staff at the beginning of the writing year. They might be developed committee-style, or they might be decreed by the show runner. Sometimes arcs are sketched out separately for a number of main characters (Desperate Housewives, clearly, has this). And some shows, undoubtedly, don't even have the arc planned, but rather let it develop. So I'm afraid there's just no one answer to this one either.
But let's imagine we have a seasonal arc in place. It doesn't, obviously, come broken into 22 different segments. So, as the staff works together to "break" (i.e. devise a rough outline), for each episode, they have to figure out how, how much, and if, they are going to advance the arc in any particular episode. Since a writer is never sent out to write an episode until they have an outline, no individual staff writer really ever has to decide during the writing of an episode if they're going to advance the arc or not. That's already been determined during the break. But, again, there is variation here between shows -- some allow writers more or less autonomy in making changes during the writing process. One show I know allows writers so much autonomy that an individual with a brainstorm could end up changing the whole season arc -- you know, if the show runner liked what they did and didn't send them back to change it. Other shows are very rigid.
Finally, we reach the question about outside forces. Again, it just serves to underline the need for flexibility in questions of this kind. Many a staff has laid out a season arc and started writing scripts only to discover that an actor is pregnant, quitting or untalented enough that they need to simplify some emotions. Or perhaps the network vetoes a choice. Or issues of cost might curtail the big season-ending parachuting sequence. Or maybe someone just comes up with a better idea.
However, two of the factors that were listed in the question aren't really forces to worry about too much: sponsorship and guest directors. I've never been on a show where a sponsor affected our story-telling. And I'd be pretty pissed if it happened. And in TV, most directors are "guest directors" and they also have limited powers to affect how we write the show. They might have notes, and often they have suggestions for cool ways to shoot something that the writer might not have thought of. But it would be, I think, fairly unusual for a director to do anything that would affect a seasonal arc, or even the main point of any one episode. They simply usually weigh in too late in the process, after the script has been written, rewritten and approved by everyone involved.
So, there you go. The short answer: Every Show Is Different. This is one reason that I think it's valuable to work on a variety of different staffs before you run your own show -- you get exposed to many different ways to handle these issues. Television isn't written by only one procedure. Even the Very Best Television is created in many different ways. Clearly, there's more than one way to skin a cathode ray tube.
Lunch: I reheated a left-over Croque Monsieur from Campanile. Grilled cheese that tastes like fondue. Wonderful.
Jane on 10.01.06 @ 11:06 AM PST [link]