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Who Hates Whom / Bob Harris

Who Hates Whom: Well-Armed Fanatics, Intractable Conflicts, and Various Things Blowing Up A Woefully Incomplete Guide by Bob Harris

"The geopolitical equivalent of scorecards that get hawked at ball games. Only Bob could make a user’s guide to our increasingly hostile world this absorbing, this breezy, and—ultimately—this hopeful."
~ Ken Jennings, author of Brainiac


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Serenity Found: More Unauthorized Essays on Joss Whedon's Firefly Universe, edited by Jane Espenson

Flirting with Pride and Prejudice: Fresh Perspectives on the Original Chick-Lit Masterpiece, edited by Jennifer Crusie and including Jane Espenson's short story, "Georgiana"

Finding Serenity: Anti-Heroes, Lost Shepherds and Space Hookers in Joss Whedon's Firefly, edited by Jane Espenson and Glenn Yeffeth

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Sunday, December 31st
I've Said it Before, I'll Say it Again: Pants.

First off, I am told that some of you out there are finding yourself in the gratifying but agonizing position of being finalists in the ABC Writing Fellowships, and being forced to wait over the holiday to find out if you've actually made it in or not. Well, congratulations-slash-courage! I'm rooting for all of you! You're one step closer to making it in!

Which -- sort of -- leads us to a question from Reader Kris, who asks about something I rarely talk about, which is the Next Step. Kris asks, "Say you've got the perfect spec, you've got a great agent/manager, now comes the interview with the show runner/EP...what do you say or do to get the writing gig on their staff?"

This hypothetical young writer has got a great agent/manager?! Wow. That's actually the much harder step right now. But let's go with it.

The first thing is not to overstress. If your material made the show runner want to bring you in, then he or she is already impressed. Often these meetings are simply to make sure you show up wearing pants. A show runner doesn't want a disruptive personality in the room, a person with a crazy vibe or a non-stop talker, someone with a confrontational attitude -- that kind of stuff. So just show up on time and be sane. That's most of it.

You'll also be asked how you got into TV writing, so you might want to practice your story. You'll have to tell it your whole career, so it pays to have it nice and shiny anyway. If you have an interesting background, this could be your chance to bring it up.

You can also help by knowing the show and knowing the show runner's work history. Mention what you like about the show. Don't mention what you don't like. If it's a terrible show and you're asked what you like about it, it's not a trick question. Find something to like. Something about the writing, not the acting, casting or costume design. (By the way, only ONCE in my career at one of these meetings, have I been asked to name something I *didn't* like about a pilot. It was this last season, and my mind went totally blank.)

Reread your own spec before you go into the meeting, too, because it'll probably be discussed, and you might be asked about choices you made. If you're given advice about changes to make to it, thank them and say you'll change it, even if you disagree and aren't going to do any such thing.

If it's a comedy meeting, it can help to be funny but it isn't necessary. It's better to be not funny while NOT attempting a joke than to be not funny while attempting one. They've seen your joke-writing in your spec, so it's not like you're coming in cold.

Don't sell yourself too hard. The job you're going for is "staff writer," so the show runner doesn't need to hear about what your vision for his show is, although you can certainly weigh in with opinions *if asked*. But in general, just be alert, friendly, and, remember, pants-wearing.

And if you don't get the job? That's often a matter of budget-failure, not you-failure. Shows staff from the top down -- hiring the top-level producers, then lower and lower... it's very common these days for a show simply not to staff at the lowest levels because they've spent all their money. So don't assume you did anything wrong. In fact, you probably just impressed someone who will remember you next time 'round.

Also, THANK YOU, gentle readers, for your holiday greetings! Thanks to Claire for the hieroglyph card, which I'm still translating, to Lilia for the book, to Ingrid for the candy... to everyone for your cards! Gosh, guys, you're the best!!

Have a happy and safe New Year's Eve!

Lunch: Very bad fried chicken strips at DuPars (a genuinely retro, not self-consciously retro, diner). They were followed by gooseberry pie, so all was well.

Jane on 12.31.06 @ 12:38 PM PST [link]

Friday, December 29th
A Reason Never to Attempt Dignity

I once saw a well-dressed man, faced with a sudden downpour, press the button on his expensive high-tech umbrella... which instantly detached from the handle entirely and shot an impressive ten feet down the sidewalk in front of him like a crazed bat making its escape. It really was delightful.

Loss of dignity is hilarious.

The most obvious way to use this fact is to add comedy to a scene. There's a great scene in a Will and Grace episode in which two people have a pretty serious conversation about emotional infidelity while dancing The Chicken Dance. If you've got a scene that you want to leaven with comedy without having the characters crack jokes, this is a really good way to go about it. Give them something undignified to do, or an undignified place to be. Let them have that heart-to-heart on a carnival ride, or while sitting in very small chairs in an elementary school, or while dangling from a cliff-face in groin-pinching harnesses, pathetically awaiting rescue.

Removing dignity is comedic. But the fact that something dignified is made laughable... well, we all know that that can be tragic, too. The kind of humor I've been talking about is just a few degrees skewed from poignancy, a point well understood by anyone who's ever had the misfortune to get very angry while wearing a chipmunk costume. It's funny if you're not the chipmunk, it's terrible if you are.

A sad girl is all the sadder if she's also playing Twister -- a fact that can be played for comedy *or* drama. In other words, drama writers, don't assume that having your couple break up on the wind-swept beach is going to be more powerful than the famous Buffy-Angel break-up which was all the more horrific for taking place in the sewer.

It's easy to get lost in the dialogue of a scene, to think of the scene as being simply the words that are said. But think about the location and the business of the scene as well. A little incongruity might be just what the scene needs.

Lunch: Vietnamese food -- pork and shrimp and noodles with that amazing sweet sauce

Jane on 12.29.06 @ 09:15 PM PST [link]

Wednesday, December 27th
Syntaxentuate the Positive!

Ever get into a sentence and then realize that you've gone down a road that makes it grammatically ungettable... out.. of? This happens all the time when we're talking. Sometimes we start over, but sometimes we do what I did there, and just keep going. It happens when we're writing too, but then the tendency is to go back and adjust the sentence structure to avoid the problem.

When you're writing dialogue, it's almost always better to do what you'd do when speaking, not what you'd normally do when writing. If I get in a grammatical tangle, I usually leave it there. Recently I wrote a line -- an urgent, frantic line, that started: "He's pissed now, and if we do the wrong thing he's gonna get even...". I didn't even consider "more pissed." The only way to end that line was "pisseder". And I resisted the temptation to have another character comment on it. It's an urgent moment; people would let it go. I really like how it turned out -- it ups the funny quotient and the urgency quotient at the same time.

Writing dialogue should feel a bit like taking dictation from the same part of your brain that comes up with what you actually say all day long. If it gets tangled up, let it. If it hesitates, put in an "um". If it stumbles to a halt and trails off, well that's what ....s are for. You can massage it all later, take out all the stuff that makes normal speech so totally unlistenable... to. But the work of making dialogue sound natural gets easier if you let it come out of your brain that way.

Lunch: bagel and cream cheese with a black cherry soda at Factor's deli. I wanted a baked apple, but they didn't have any today.

Jane on 12.27.06 @ 10:40 PM PST [link]

Tuesday, December 26th
Davy Jones Collapses Under a Load of Pipe!

So... I was watching a Monkees episode on DVD just now. Because I can, that's why.

The first line of the episode was:

This is ridiculous, to come down here just because we read in the paper they may hold an embassy ball.

No, what's ridiculous is to try to put that much information in the first line of a scene. You're asking little Davy Jones to do an awful lot of heavy lifting with a line like that. Exposition is often called "pipe," and this particular line could plumb an apartment building.

Watch out for stuff like this. There's a temptation to try to set the scene quickly, and it's amazing how easy it is to put everything right up at the front of an episode, or the front of a scene. If you find yourself writing lines that start with, "I can't believe we're..." or, even worse, "Tell me again why we're..." then you're in dangerous territory.

Lunch: Spicy tuna roll from Famima, one of those cute little import shops.

Jane on 12.26.06 @ 07:19 PM PST [link]

Monday, December 25th
Christmas Fudge

Sometimes there's something in your script that doesn't *quite* stand up to logical questioning. Why didn't the villain shoot the hero on the spot? Why didn't the crew beam the alien directly into a holding cell? Why didn't they rig that door, hide the treasure, have the pivotal conversation in the cab on the way home? In general, of course, you want to avoid stuff like this.


The first priority is telling the emotional story. If there's a little "buy" that the audience has to make in the logic of the piece, it's often fine to simply allow it. Show runners, when they notice one of these little logic bumps, tend to turn to their staffs and ask: "Is the audience asking the question?" Sometimes the staff will decide they are. But often, it's pretty clear, they are not. If they're hooked into the bigger stakes, they're along for the ride and they're not asking why the hero's wife seems to know where he is when we never actually saw her get that information -- or whatever the issue is.

If there's no cost to patching the logic, of course, do it. A spec script is your chance to present something that's as close to perfect as it can be, and sloppy logic isn't ideal. If it can be fixed without long labored dialogue or damage to the emotional arc, do it.

And if you can't fix it, sometimes you can get good results by simply acknowledging the problem. This is called "hanging a lantern" on the problem. By this I mean something like having a character say, "Damn, we should've beamed him right into a holding cell!" This will at least let the audience feel that the issue has been addressed. I love this solution myself because it often adds a humorous - and human - moment right when you need one.

And then there's the fudge. You know how that goes. It's a sort of half-fix that seems to address the problem unless you look at it too closely. Have a henchman working in a way that seems to run counter to his boss's plan? Well... the henchman misunderstood the plan. Sure. Good enough.

You'll have to decide, of course, on a case-by-case basis, whether a logic problem needs to be eliminated, acknowledged, fudged or ignored, but it's worth noting that those are all valid options. You don't have to be on a water-tight ship to get where you're going if you don't mind getting a little bit damp.

Lunch: warm fresh-baked cornbread with butter and honey, and grapefruit picked fresh off the tree.

Jane on 12.25.06 @ 12:19 PM PST [link]

Sunday, December 24th
Happy Christmas Eve!

Here's something I've seen happen over and over again when I've been working on a writing staff. Sometimes a change has to be made that we're not excited about. Maybe we couldn't get a location that we wanted, or we have to make a night scene into a day scene to fit the shooting schedule. Or maybe it's an actual creative note that we don't all agree with, but that we've agreed to do. But whatever it is, imagine that it requires a bit of reworking. So we go back in and rewrite the scene.

Here's the weird thing. Often, although not always, the scene gets better almost in spite of itself. I mean you *know* it's not a brilliant note. Sometime you don't agree with the note at all, in principle. But, the mere process of rewriting sometimes -- often -- leads to improvements. I think this is simply because everyone knows the script so much better with every pass through it.

I suspect you might find this to be the case with spec writing, too, although it's certainly harder to set up the right circumstances -- you don't have to worry about locations, shooting schedules or network notes. But at least this should make you, I hope, feel a bit better about diving back into a scene for the dozenth time after you realize on your own that something needs fixing.

Remember, just because writing a scene took some labor, it doesn't mean that it will *sound* belabored.

Lunch: Fresh-baked mincemeat pie. Fantastic. Traditionally, mincemeat had actual meat or suet in it, but now there is no reason to be afraid. It's apples and raisins and such, highly spiced. You'd like it just fine.

Jane on 12.24.06 @ 03:52 PM PST [link]

Friday, December 22nd
Overused Comedy Word: Festive. And Yet...

A simple post in praise of the holiday season. Because of the Peace and Love? Sure, fine. AND because this can be a wonderful time to get some writing done. The spec that started everything for me was the second of the three Star Trek: The Next Generation specs that I wrote. I wrote it over a Christmas break during grad school.

I know that a lot of you are in college. Those of you who have just finished a round of exams and find yourself with a bit of time and some mental ease, might consider doing some writing. Not stressy, gotta-get-it-done writing, but fun writing. I remember working on that Trek spec, pen-on-paper, smiling to myself. I was just playing around with scenes, having fun moving the characters around like hand puppets. Stranded in an airport? Bored in Grandma's guest room? Looking for an excuse to stay home from caroling in the bitter cold? I recommend writing a spec Heroes -- could anything be more festive?

Lunch: Cup o' Noodles has these great varieties now -- I assume these are new? All picante chicken and spicy lime shrimp or whatever. I had one of those. It still benefited from adding lemon juice, but it was an excellent start.

Jane on 12.22.06 @ 01:08 PM PST [link]

Thursday, December 21st
The Mistakes of Others -- The Greatest Gift of All

Casting sessions are videotaped. The camera is turned on for the few minutes of each actor's audition, creating a fascinating video document of the same few lines over and over with a different actor performing them every time. I mentioned casting tapes to an actor friend of mine who startled me by mentioning that actors would be helped by seeing such tapes. I was startled not because I didn't get the concept. The concept is crystal clear -- see what a producer sees and you'll become better at impressing producers. I was startled because it had never occurred to me that actors wouldn't have already seen such tapes for exactly that reason.

Similarly, I became much more confident about writing pilot scripts after I started routinely reading, every year, every script that the networks ordered produced as a pilot. I could pretend I was the network, make my own decisions about which scripts "popped," which ones had the elements that could make them work as a series --- and which ones seemed to me to have taken wrong turns, and I could think about all of that when I was writing my own.

In both the casting-tape and pilot-script scenario, there is something incredibly helpful about seeing other peoples' mistakes. This is an opportunity you don't often get -- you only see the actor who got the role, the pilot that became a show. But wouldn't it be nice to learn from mistakes without having to be the one who makes the darn things?!

So, after all this time in which I've repeatedly urged you all to read produced scripts of a series, I'm going to expand that mandate. Read specs too. If you're already in Los Angeles, it should be pretty easy to find a group (like The Scriptwriters Network) of writers with specs you can trade and collect, while also getting valuable feedback on your own specs. If you're elsewhere, you might have to find other spec writers over the net, but I suspect that won't be hard. Agree to give your suggestions, and to listen to those of others.

Now read the specs and think like a showrunner. Which ones manage to sound like the show and which ones do not? After all this time that I've warned against building a spec around a guest character, you'll be able to actually see the effect that's created, because I'm pretty sure that *someone* in your circle will have done exactly that. In fact, you will have access to a whole garden of mistakes that you can avoid!

Also, you'll have a better sense of when your spec is finished, since you'll have already scouted the competition and you'll know what you have to be better than.

Lunch: sushi at Echigo -- Mmm!

Jane on 12.21.06 @ 02:43 PM PST [link]

Wednesday, December 20th
Deep Thoughts at the Coffee Bean

I was at my local coffee shop just now where they're stocking lots of mugs and coffee kits or whatever, hoping for holiday sales. My eye fell upon a mug that read "Happiness is a Journey not a Destination". I was filled with sadness/anger. That is too meaningful a sentiment to fall into common usage. I suppose it's too late, but that is not a thought that I want to see degenerate into meaningless syllables through overuse. I suppose, if it does (or already has), as least it has the virtue of being true, unlike "Everything Happens for a Reason," which is both untrue and dangerous. Really, have you ever heard a slogan that argues more against the concept of free will? Against any notion of self-determination, ambition or even charity, empathy, compassion? It's just an inch away from "Nothing I Do Matters" and "Whatever Happens, You Deserved It," and their neighbor "I Got Mine, You Get Yours." Geez.

Thinking about world views like these isn't a bad place to start looking for meaning for your spec scripts. After all, the thing that will make your spec stand out above all the others is that yours is going to MEAN something. What makes Groundhog Day a spectacular movie and not just a fun one is that isn't really about time loops, it's about living every day AS IF you had eternity in front of you... in fact, you could argue that Groundhog Day EQUALS Happiness is a Journey.

Your script shouldn't preach. And it doesn't have to be about a big principle either. It can be about a small observation. But it needs to be about something, and it would be nice if it was something you really believed. Think about your personal philosophy and the philosophies of the characters you're writing about. What principles guide Gregory House? ("Compassion Blunts Excellence"? "Distance Lessens Pain"?) What events would bring out or test those guiding principles?

By the time you're done writing, the meaningful underpinnings may be so subtle that the "about" is almost subconscious. But it's going to serve you well to have it there.

Lunch: Udon with Mentaiko -- do you know this? A hot Japanese noodle soup with a sort of casing full of fish roe in it? Like noodles with caviar. Fantastic.

Jane on 12.20.06 @ 02:47 PM PST [link]

Tuesday, December 19th

More and more writers seem to be doing what I do, namely, moving back and forth between writing for hour dramas and writing for half-hour comedies. Maybe this will ultimately result in more similarities between the way the two kinds of shows are written. But for now, there are still some stark differences.

Unlike drama writers, comedy writers spend a lot of time looking at dialogue *together*. This is because comedy staffs do the group-rewrite thing, going through every line of the script over and over as a group, usually while looking at it projected on a monitor in the writers' room. Lots of time is spent changing jokes, looking for a funnier take on a situation. But I would estimate that just as much time is spent on minor wording tweaks. Usually, this involves removing words, looking for the fastest, tightest version of any line, whether it's a joke or not.

Tightening lines like that is especially important for comedy, where timing is an integral part of the whole point of the exercise. As a spec writer, you don't have the -- advantage? distraction? -- of a whole room full of people chiming in on the best way to tighten a line, so you have to do it on your own. It's worth making a whole separate pass through your script, just looking for words to cut.

Do you have someone saying: "That's what I've been trying to tell you!"? Does it maybe work better as, "I've been sayin'!"? In comedy, faster is almost always better (there are exceptions, but in general, fast = good). Make the cut.

Drama doesn't rely as crucially on speed, but timing is still important, and lengthy chunks of speech tend to be boring, and intimidating to the eye of the reader. It's not as important, I would say, in drama, to shorten an eight-word sentence to three words, but it's really important to shorten a five-sentence speech down to two sentences.

Remember, it's a sculpture and you're Michelangelo. Chisel away enough stone and there might be a naked guy inside.

Lunch: poached eggs on a bed of spicy Indian beans

Jane on 12.19.06 @ 12:28 PM PST [link]

Sunday, December 17th
What's Wrong With Meredith Gray?

I love spell check. I have friends who dislike it because it atrophies our natural spelling muscles, but I say that a language as orthographically complex as English requires a bit of help. Help without shame.

The problem with spell check is that it has no way of knowing that you didn't mean "causally". No way to know that, in fact, you meant "casually." Nor would it catch the mistake in the title of this post. This is why, when you have your friends read your specs and give you notes, you need to tell them that you also want to hear about typos.

Often, people don't want to waste your time with typo corrections, and they will assume you'll catch the errors yourself. So let them know you welcome the corrections. If you're like me, you can read your own typo a remarkable number of times without seeing it, so don't trust your own eyes. (My personal signature move is the omitted word. Or, as I like to call it, the omitted.)

And while we're talking about it, really do double-check the spelling of your characters' names -- nothing looks more amateurish than a misspelled name.

And remember that, if you're using Final Draft, spell check doesn't work on any dialogue that is in "dual dialogue" configuration. (Jeers, Final Draft!)

Lunch: A Whopper Jr. from Burger King. Loads of mayo on that baby. Cheers, Burger King!

Jane on 12.17.06 @ 06:11 PM PST [link]

Friday, December 15th
Don't Look at the Mug! Don't Look!

There's a thing that happens that makes actors hate themselves. Sometimes, every now and then, in a big group scene, they'll turn and look at the actor who is going to speak next. Or they'll look at a prop the second before another actor moves to pick it up. Oh, gosh, they get so mad at themselves.

Just as actors try very hard not to let on that they actually know what's going to happen next, we can make our characters feel similarly moment-to-moment. Look at this little made-up exchange:

Are you crazy? We're gonna wait out here all night?

Hey, what kind of a stalker am I if I give up now?

There's nothing wrong with this. It's perfectly fine. But, if there's room in your script, I'm a big fan of the following kind of exchange:

Are you crazy? We're gonna wait out here all night?

It's not that cold. You've got thin blood, dude.

I'm not talking about the cold! I'm saying, you're a stalker!

And not a very good one if I give up now.

Barbara is missing the point of Melanie's opening line. The writer knows what Melanie is getting at, but is letting Barbara misunderstand for a beat.

I love to have characters misunderstand each other, mishear each other, and jump to conclusions that have to be corrected or which they correct themselves at the last moment. I wrote a Buffy episode once in which Willow momentarily misunderstood some "Kiss Rocks!" graffiti as an exhortation to kiss rocks, until the real meaning clicked into place. I always thought it was neat human moment.

Characters who always grasp the situation instantly, who understand each other's most obscure questions and who follow each other's logical leaps aren't behaving like the rest of us do. We can learn a little something here from our cousins the actors -- make sure your character is in the moment, not looking at the coffee mug that the other actor is about to start reaching for.

Lunch: A small drink and large fries from McDonald's. You know their fries are beef-flavored, right? Genius.

Jane on 12.15.06 @ 11:11 AM PST [link]

Wednesday, December 13th
What I Learned From Stephen Colbert

I was lucky enough recently to get to hear the writers and producers of The Colbert Report talking about what they do. Stone Phillips moderated, asking Stephen (I like to call him 'Stephen') and the others questions of his own and some submitted by those of us in the audience. It was absolutely fascinating. The very idea of putting together a new show four days a week is stunning to me. I know how long a half-hour can be.

But anyway, there was an answer to one of the questions that I thought you'd enjoy hearing about, Nation. Stone (I like to call him 'Stone') asked about what they look for in a guest. The answer was "someone with a strong opinion." That, more than issues of subject matter or position on the political spectrum or degree of fame, is what guides their choice. It makes perfect sense. They want a guest who comes on with something to advocate, a position to argue.

It occurred to me that spec scripts are like that. A spec *pilot*, especially, is populated with people we've never met before. One of things that's going to power that script is a good guest-screening policy. No one gets on that page until they've got a position to take.

This doesn't have to apply to Waiter 1 in the restaurant scene, but your major characters are going to work together really well if they've got strong clashing opinions and a willingness to let you know about them. Battlestar Galactica is a great example of a show that seems to have an infinity of stories to tell, because every character on there has passionate beliefs, often about things as important as how best to ensure humanity's survival. Big beliefs, big stakes.

If your spec pilot is feeling pale and wobbly, reconsider your booking policy.

Lunch: cold meat and cheese selection, white wine, fresh-baked cookie. High-class lunch.

Jane on 12.13.06 @ 04:43 PM PST [link]

Tuesday, December 12th
You Really Should Visit My Unicorn Farm

Ever recommend something even though you know it's probably a mistake? (Anchovies? You'll love 'em! You don't? Oh.) Anyway, I recently heard an interesting idea for novel way to approach writing a spec script. It's challenging, fun, attention-getting and probably a really bad idea.

The idea is to do a crossover episode as your spec. You know what I mean -- Dr. House is brought in to help the young doctors of Grey's Anatomy with a tricky diagnosis! Or Ugly Betty's magazine hires the lawyers from Boston Legal!

It's a tempting notion because it cuts right through the confounding problem of spec scripts: they have to be both typical and extraordinary. How do you capture the *exact* feel of a produced episode of something, and still have the script stand out? Well, a crossover spec stands out by virtue of the concept, and gives you twice the opportunity to capture tone and voices, therefore showing off your ability to emulate. If it was done well, a script like this could be quite the showpiece.

But it would be SO HARD to do well that I just can't recommend it. Both shows would need their own emotional arcs (probably one as A-story, the other as B-story). So both, say, Gregory House and Meredith Grey have to be emotionally affected by their contact with the opposing team of characters. And they have to be affected in ways that feel natural and even inevitable. And they have to do it in such a way so that the two arcs don't fight each other, don't radically affect the status quo of either show, and aren't tonally discordant with their home show.

The idea is supposed to be that you can have guest stars who bring with them all of the beautiful baggage of established characters, but I fear that the effect will be the opposite: every single character you're writing will feel like a guest star. And you're likely to end up feeling like you're directing traffic, trying to give a double-sized cast their individual moments in the spotlight. And all of those introductions? No one wants to make an audience sit through that. And how DOES one stay true to the tone of both shows, anyway?

So, I'm not recommending it. And yet... it's worth thinking about if you're really confident in your skills. Which shows would you combine? Is there anything themic that connects them in an interesting way? If you were *creating* a show, would you ever have put these characters together? If you think you've found a story worth telling, some value in crossing the series other than novelty-value, then give it a try. Because, if I understand genetics at all, one out of every ten times you manage to breed a horse and a narwhal... you get a unicorn.

Lunch: A chicken and swiss cheese sandwich, hot and melty.

Jane on 12.12.06 @ 11:18 AM PST [link]

Sunday, December 10th
Or Staple a Candy Bar to Every Page

I hope you guys enjoyed my Battlestar Galatica if you happened to check it out. Hope you weren't too traumatized. There was some "Espenson brings the funny" anticipation for this that had me a bit concerned since the ep wasn't so much, ya know, funny. But I did get to write the line "You've got goo in your hair" which I find hilarious in a Cylon context. Anyway, I'm just as proud as a proud thing to have been involved with that show, so... Thank You Ron! Whooo!

All right, back to our business at hand, the business of writing spec scripts. Here is more of what I learned at the round-table discussion at the Writers' Guild. The question on the table is about the dramatic build of your script. It's all right, isn't it, to let the script start out slow, setting things up for a big finish where everything pays off in a big meticulously conceived action/comedy sequence. Right?

Turns out, you've got fifteen pages. If you haven't gripped the agent, executive, or whomever in those fifteen pages, they're not going to bother finishing the script. There is nothing requiring anyone to whom you send your script to read the *whole* script. So you've got to work hard to keep them turning pages. The 15-page cut-off is one person's yardstick by the way, others will give you more or, often, less -- maybe even just the Teaser. It's not that they don't want to like your script, they do want to. But if they don't like it right away, the thing they want more than anything else is to pick up the next one on the stack, hoping that *this* one is the winner. And then there's one on the stack beneath that...

Now, that isn't to say you can let everything fall apart in the second half of your script. You still have to bring it on home. But pay special attention to the opening. If you're writing a spec pilot, consider all the different ways to introduce your characters -- if you just start with them waking up in the morning, well, it's classic, but you might want to see if you can find some other situation, some image, that tells us who they are right off the bat. If you're writing an existing show, think of all the episodes produced so far -- which one had the best opening? Is yours as good as that? As gripping? As tantalizing? Is there any way to start in the middle of some action? Consider playing with the time line of your episode to bring action to the front. If your show has jokes, pay special attention to the early ones, they're going to set your reader's expectations for what you're capable of.

Fifteen pages. Count 'em off and look at 'em. Make 'em sing.

Lunch: leftover cucumber salad and edamame from last night's sushi dinner. Even better than when they were fresh.

Jane on 12.10.06 @ 12:37 AM PST [link]

Friday, December 8th
Frakkin' ay!

Okay, everyone. Tonight's episode of Battlestar Galactica is, indeed, mine. I have not, myself, seen the final cut, so we'll all be watching it together. Hope you enjoy it!

In other news, I got to be part of a roundtable discussion at the Writers' Guild this morning about spec scripts, and I got some new insights into things I can tell all of you. I'll be sharing them over the next few posts, but here's a little one to get us started: original material. Make sure you have something in your portfolio, alongside the specs of existing shows, that is entirely in your own voice. It can be a screenplay, spec pilot or a play. (Some also say short stories will work for this, but I think something in script format is more likely to be useful, myself.) I heard an agent, a show runner and an executive all stress the importance of having something that demonstrates that you can create your own world, your own characters. So take off those shackles and run free through the fields of... um... making stuff up!

Lunch: boneless chicken wings from Johnny Rocket's. Could've been spicier.

Jane on 12.08.06 @ 04:08 PM PST [link]

Thursday, December 7th
Trying Times

Just a small tidbit today. This is something I've been doing forever, and I find it helpful, so here it is. There's always that big jump in the scriptwriting process, when you're done working on the outline, and you start writing the dialogue. At this point, you're opening a new file on your computer, right? (Or you're renaming the file you've written your outline in so that you can gradually turn it into dialogue.) Either way, you need to name the file that will contain your first draft. Let's say your script is called "Happiness," okay? Instead of calling the file "HappinessFirstDraft," you might want to try what I do, and call it "HappinessFirstTry."

Then every time I go to work on that file, the first thing I'm reminded of as I open it, is that this is just a first try. It doesn't ever have to become a complete draft, in fact. It can be full of stops and starts and experiments. It's just a first TRY. Once I've got the whole script written, even if it's a "garbage draft" or a "words on paper draft," then I can rename the file "first draft," but until then, hey! No pressure! It's just a try.

Lunch: A veggie reuben sandwich from Aroma Cafe. Made with tofu. Somehow these are always even better than the meat variety. Isn't that crazy?

Jane on 12.07.06 @ 11:13 AM PST [link]

Tuesday, December 5th
We Need an Arc Angel to Tell Us Where the Story's Going

Hi! I got a great letter today from Lisa in Indiana, who is new to the notion of writing television specs, and who is asking all the right questions. This made me realize that it's been a very long time since I've covered the basics of this strange little enterprise.

1. First off, Lisa, yes, it's true that spec scripts are not usually submitted to the show they represent. In other words, you don't generally use a spec "The Office" to get hired at The Office. This is because it's simply too hard to execute a show so perfectly that your mistakes will go unnoticed by someone on the inside. It's like trying to do an impersonation of someone to their face. But, as a beginning writer, your scripts are unlikely to get to a show runner anytime soon anyway, but will instead be submitted to contests and to programs like the ABC Writing Fellowship. So write the show you love best.

2. Your instinct is right, not to use a spec to change the status quo of the show. Don't get the romantically-sparring couple together, for example. You want your episode to look like a typical episode of the show, only better, because you will have more time to work with it than the staff writers do. Think a lot about what the show's actual writers are going to do next.

3. A "shooting script" will work fine as an example script to teach you formatting. The only difference is that you shouldn't number your scenes, nor should you include a cast or set list. (And if the script you're looking at has asterisks in the margin, or pages printed in different colors, those are used to indicate changes made during different drafts. Don't worry about them.) There are lots of books out there, too, that will help you learn proper script format. Final Draft, which is the screenwriting program most commonly used by real shows, also does a good job of helping you pour your story into the proper format. But keep trying to get all the example scripts you can. Some shows publish their scripts in book form -- Buffy and The Sopranos both did this, and you can learn a lot from reading them.

4. And finally, Lisa asks the question that just keeps coming around, more and more. How do you spec a show with on-going arcs? You know, when I started writing this blog, I was convinced this didn't have to be a problem. I used an out-of-date Roseanne spec for years when I was getting established -- my spec had Darlene graduating high school for years after she was out. So I advocated simply picking a moment in time and not worrying when the arc continued past your show.

However, Roseanne was very different than, say, Heroes or Lost or 24 or even Grey's Anatomy. Shows with fast-moving arcs that affect the heart of the relationships you're trying to capture can be very hard to spec. Some agents even discourage the attempt, as they're worried that the script will start very quickly to look old. And I guess I now have to grudgingly accept that that is true. Certainly readers of scripts can't expect you to be psychic. But they also are going to prefer reading something that feels fresh and new.

I've heard various solutions to the problem. For example, I met someone who was writing a spec 24 -- by writing the first hour of a new adventure. I think that's brilliant. And although there is plenty of arc-driven stuff in House or Desperate Housewives, a story could certainly be chosen that starts and finishes off some stand-alone crisis. As for The Office, my instinct would be to ignore all the office re-org stuff, and settle everyone back into the relationships they had last season until and unless a new steady-state emerges.

But if a show persists in feeling unspecable, and you're throwing out everything you wrote every week when the newest ep airs? Then it just might not be the right show to spec.

Okay, Lisa! Those are the basics! Start writing!

Lunch: a BLT from The Daily Grill. So much bacon! Are they trying to kill me? Kill me with love?

Jane on 12.05.06 @ 11:39 AM PST [link]

Sunday, December 3rd
Surgical Strikes

So, here I am, reading the televisionwithoutpity recap of "The Amazing Race," and the recapper goes on a lively little digression about the movie Gladiator. She doesn't like the movie, and slams it with this comment: "The only thing missing from that movie was little robot silhouettes at the bottom." Oh my god, that made me laugh. And here's what made me love it. It's a two-percenter about Mystery Science Theater 3000, which was a show that was itself all about two-percenters. It's like a microscopic examination of a microscope and I love it.

A two-percenter, as I'm sure you've figured out, is a joke that the writers estimate will be understood and enjoyed by two percent of the audience. Sometimes the number cited varies, but the idea is the same, it means you're dealing with a fairly obscure reference. As an audience member, when you're part of the two percent that gets it, there's nothing better than this kind of joke because it feels like the writer is reaching into your own personal brain. In a good way.

You can try to include some of these jokes in your specs, but be careful. I suggest that you go out of your way to ask every person who has read your script if they got the joke. And make sure they're telling the truth. People don't like to volunteer that they didn't get something, so you might not find out if you don't ask. If you're getting too many blank stares, you might've written a joke that delights only you, the ultimate audience of one. That would be called a, let's see, an ideolaugh. Ha! No?

By the way, the perfect joke is one that *feels* to an audience like a two-percenter when in fact it's reaching far more of them. That's why observational stand-up is so good when it's done well, because Ellen or Jerry or whoever is describing events and reactions that you thought were specific to you, but which are surprisingly universal.

Any one script can probably only support one genuine two-percenter. But go ahead, write a great joke that almost no one will enjoy. Know that they'll enjoy it a lot.

Lunch: leftover noodles from Chin Chin

Jane on 12.03.06 @ 09:51 AM PST [link]

Saturday, December 2nd
A Visit From Ken Levine!

The amazing Ken Levine weighs in today! Ken has written for shows including M*A*S*H, Cheers and Frasier, and is as impressive a writer as you're ever gonna find anywhere. You can, and should, check out his blog

Ken has a comment about my last post. He says:

"You make wonderful points about comedy scripts needing to be real and grounded even at the expense of additional laughs. That was a cardinal rule on shows like CHEERS and FRASIER. But I think today's show runner and network executive would look at that as 'too traditional,' and 'not edgy enough'. The standards have been so lowered on the current crop of sitcoms that what passes for good wouldn't be passable ten years ago... I think the advice you gave was dead on, but as I was reading it I was wondering whether most of your readers even had a clue as to what that meant. And you can't blame them..."

Ooh. Feisty and interesting. If I'm reading Ken right, he's suggesting that writing a *good* spec might be somewhat different than writing a *spec that gets you hired*.

He makes an excellent point. If you look at shows that are older than the ones he mentions, like, say, The Odd Couple or Barney Miller, they often genuinely had the feeling of a filmed stage play, with all the quiet moments left in. A spec that felt like either of these shows now would probably feel slow and under-joked. I'm not certain that a Cheers or Frasier spec would have the same feeling, but I'll bow to Ken's experience on that.

However, I still think that a spec that manages to land a genuine emotional moment is going to stand out above one that offers nothing but empty calories. I'm going to have to trust that today's show runners and network executives know that hiring a writer who can write something real is going to pay off in the long run. You'll have used the rest of the spec to prove you can churn out jokes. Most writers who are writing comedy specs are pretty good at churning out jokes, in fact. But not every writer can strike one o' those emotional chords that suddenly makes an audience care about a character or a relationship.

And, although many of you are probably quite young, you watch shows in syndication, and you're seeking out the best of what's out there. You've probably seen some of those wonderful moments they did so well on, for example, Friends. The Ross/Rachel moments, for example. And you've seen the Jim/Pam stuff on The Office. Even a show as kinetic as Arrested Development had some touching father-son interactions. I would advocate reaching for moments like these.

Now, I could well be wrong here. Ken is a very smart guy, and he's making a more complex point than I think I'm giving him credit for. Writing for the purpose of being hired is a very tricky business indeed, and you'll each have to decide for yourselves how you're going to strike the balance between what you want to write and what you think someone is going to want to read. Just don't let the winds of television fashion blow you so far over that you're no longer doing what inspires you.

Lunch: pizza somewhere in West Hollywood.

Jane on 12.02.06 @ 10:50 PM PST [link]

Friday, December 1st
Czech Marx

Comedy shows (and many dramas, as well) hold "table reads," in which the writers, producers, directors and executives get to hear the actors read the script out loud. As the writers sit and listen, they make a check mark next to every joke that gets a laugh. (For extra precision, many of us vary the size of the checkmark to reflect the intensity/duration of the laughter.)

Usually, at the end of a table read, every script page has at least one check on it, and many have three or sometimes even more. And the general rule for evaluating a script is usually "more = better." Check marks are treasured like gold, uncomplicatedly loved and desired. And yet...

A script can be overjoked. A script in which every line strives to earn a laugh is as effective as a football team in which every play is an attempt at a touchdown. You end up with an exhausting, overreaching mess that doesn't have room to slow down and breathe. And it doesn't feel like it's about anything other than its own pace.

Something that I myself have witnessed is a progression that sometimes occurs during the production week of a pilot. Writers are brought in to "punch" the script, to make last moment changes intended to sharpen the script. Invariably, piles of jokes are inserted into the script at this point. And sometimes, the show gets worse as a result. Funnier, perhaps, but more manic, less thoughtful.

It's worth being careful about this when you're writing your specs. It's so imperative that the spec be your very best work, so it's easy to push. Letting a joke have some breathing room, letting characters have a real moment, letting an emotional moment land for a second before you undercut it, these can all be powerful events in a script. Even if they don't earn themselves a check mark.

Lunch: Sushi at Echigo. I've told you before about how their morsels recline on tiny beds of slightly warm rice. Holy cow.

Jane on 12.01.06 @ 04:33 PM PST [link]


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Jane recommends you also visit BobHarris.com



December 2006

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