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Home of Jane's blog on writing for television
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    Hello again, Gentle Readers! I’m fascinated by all the parts of the television writing world that don’t generally communicate with each other. Even sitcoms and dramas often seem to live in very different worlds. Get farther out and it’s a different galaxy: game shows, daytime dramas, late-night comedy… it’s all TV writing, but it can follow totally different procedures. I recently corresponded with Friend-of-the-Blog Syndi, a writers’ assistant at Sesame Street. Here’s her account of their process.

    Syndi:

    The Sesame Street writing process seems so simple compared to what you’re used to. We have a team of 10 writers, which includes our head writer. The entire group meets a couple of times for some general brainstorming. Then, the producers decide how many of the 26 episodes will be assigned to each writer. Then, to each writer, I assign a show number (we use show numbers instead of titles), a letter of the day, a number of the day, and an assortment of muppet and human cast (per script).

    Each writer takes their assignments and brainstorms on ideas for their episodes, then meets individually with the head writer to talk it out. From there, the writer goes off and writes their first draft. The head writer reviews the first draft and speaks with the writer about any changes he would like to see made. A second draft might be turned in, a third, etc.

    Eventually, the head writer signs off on it, and the script gets typed up into our script template by our script coordinator. Then I proofread it, and clean copies are distributed to our Research department. The folks in Research all have Master’s degrees and PhD’s in education, child psychology, etc. Research will review each script and give their comments to our head writer, who has the ultimate power to veto anything (of course, if Research feels very strongly, they’ll push hard.) I’ll put those research comments that were approved into the script and then the producers will meet on the script.

    Any changes that the producers would like to see are communicated to our head writer via our Executive Producer. (The Exec. Producer has ultimate say.) Once those changes are put into the script, it’s pretty much ready to be met on in a production meeting. Any changes that come out of the production meeting would constitute a revision, or at the very least, revised pages.

    How cool is that? Can you imagine getting your assigned letter of the day? It’s easy to get very near-sighted about TV writing, and to think that the whole world is primetime drama and comedy, but there are many fine streets in the world, and one of them is called Sesame.

    Look around and make sure you’re aiming at the job that really interests you, because there’s more than one way to do this.

    Lunch: a Caesar salad with garbanzo beans — nonstandard but delicious

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    I’ve mentioned the amazing Friend-of-the-Blog Jeff Greenstein before, and here he is again with a great idea. He suggests that I talk about the right way to open your spec pilot. Yes. This is huge — a lot of people never read past the opening, so making it as perfect as possible is crucial. Jeff says: I am a big believer that the opening line of a pilot (or the opening image, or the teaser) should be the series in microcosm.

    Yes. Exactly. I agree. I do this and I suspect many other writers do as well. In fact, Jeff is prepared to prove that they do. Here is a darn impressive list he composed:

    In the Cheers pilot, the teaser is Sam with an underage kid who’s trying to get a drink using a fake military ID. Kid says he was in the war. Sam asks what it was like. “It was gross,” the kid replies with a shudder. “Yeah, that’s what they say — war is gross,” Sam replies. The teaser gives you a sense of the place and the guy.

    The Battlestar pilot has that great opening scene with Number Six and the emissary from Earth. The scene says, “Remember those metal robots? They look like humans now. And they’re going to fucking kill you.”

    The Lost pilot starts with a close-up of an eye opening, and the aftermath of the plane crash. This show is about consciousness and strandedness and tragedy.

    Will & Grace starts with Grace in bed with her sleeping fiancé, yet on the phone dishing with Will about George Clooney’s hotness. It’s the perfect encapsulation of their odd relationship.

    The Desperate Housewives teaser: In the midst of tranquil suburban splendor, Mary Alice blows her head off.

    The West Wing pilot: In a bar, talking off-the-record with a reporter, Sam Seaborn is distracted by a hot girl who’s giving him the eye. This show is about politics and sex (well, it started out that way), and the “backstage” lives of people in government.

    Wow. That’s a fantastic list. I would add the teaser of the pilot of The Wire, in which a detective gently interrogates a neighborhood kid about a senseless murder — the gross illogic of which the kid takes in stride. The series’ whole sense of an overwhelming inescapable system of crime is there in that scene.

    And the Buffy pilot teaser? Remember, it was that bit that looked like the girl was about to be munched by a vampire, but in fact SHE was the vampire? It told you to throw out your dramatic expectations, that danger could come from anywhere, and that women were going to have some power in this world. It was Buffy’s own story, but told from the vampire side first.

    Writers tend to agonize over their teasers, especially that first page, and especially if the project is a pilot. If you’ve just shrugged and started with your main character waking up in bed, then I’d suggest that you might’ve missed a really good opportunity. Think about the heart of your show — what’s the central dynamic? The central message? Is there a way to capture it in your opening sequence? Go ahead, agonize. It’s good for you and your spec.

    Lunch: wonton soup at Noodle Planet.

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    October 17th, 2008Jane EspensonComedy, Friends of the Blog, On Writing, Spec Scripts

    Breaking News. What went wrong with your writing program submission? I found out.

    I’ve pinned down three reasons why scripts don’t make the cut when they’re submitted to scriptwriting competitions like the one profiled yesterday. Two of the three key errors that have been flagged are no surprise to me. But one is, so hold onto your space bars, there’s something interesting ahead.

    First off – Guest stars! If your spec script centers around a guest character, then that could well be why you didn’t get into the program. This was one of the first things I talked about when I started this blog. One of the very few reasons that someone would ask you to write a script for a show that’s already on the air is to see if you can capture the voices of the characters. The reader is listening to the show in their head as they read, imagining the literal voices. A guest character, no matter how well-written, causes silence. And it’s not just a pseudo-auditory problem — your regular characters need to drive the story, if someone else is coming in and doing a lot of talking, chances are that you’ve got them acting and all your regulars reacting. Big problem. It’s an episode of The Office, not Michael Scott’s Mother Visits The Office. Use original characters in small doses. If you’ve got a stranger given material that approaches the amount given to one of the regulars, then that’s almost certainly why you didn’t get in.

    Second — Spelling! Grammar! Punctuation! Imagine that the fellowship reader is filling out a form about your script, creating a score. Imagine that you get points automatically taken off for (real or perceived) errors. How many points do you want to lose because you forgot to have your mom/professor/friend proofread your script to make sure you used the right form of “your,” that you spelled “precede” correctly, that you’ve got your apostrophes in the right place? Seriously, find an apostrophe fiend and make him or her study your script — I find apostrophe errors in every script I read. Imagine the advantage you’ll have when everyone else’s script takes a scoring hit in this category and your script does not.

    And here is the third, surprise factor:

    Failing to observe the difference between multi-camera versus single-camera formatting. This one I did not see coming. Multi-camera, traditional sitcoms like The New Adventures of Old Christine, Two and Half Men and Big Bang Theory use a very specific style of formatting — stage directions are capitalized and dialogue is double spaced. Some sitcoms also put all the stage directions in parentheses. They also label the scenes with letters of the alphabet (but not ALL letters of the alphabet, some are skipped). I also seem to remember from my comedy days that some shows even had the peculiarity of omitting the period from the last sentence of every clump of stage directions. In a nutshell, sitcom scripts are strange and need to be studied closely. Get a copy of a script for the show you are spec-ing. Study it! Mimic it! If you try your hardest and simply cannot get a script for your show — well, I think that’s a big problem, but the least you can do is to get one for a show that resembles it in format. Again, this mistake is easy to avoid but could cost you.

    Submitting a script to a writing program is like submitting your college application. It’s worth taking the time to do it right.

    Lunch: In ‘N’ Out burger, “animal style”. So good! I wish it was easier to combine this with an order of McDonald’s fries.

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    Friend-of-the-Blog Jeff Greenstein comments on the last entry. He says: I always pick out a special font for each show and put it (fairly) big on the title page. I’m looking at his most recent pilot script and it’s true. However, his own name appears below the title in 12-point Courier. This seems to me to be a fine compromise — the script looks unique without looking over-puffed.

    Jeff also points out the importance of making it clear that a script is, in fact, a pilot (as opposed to a spec feature or a spec episode of an existing show). He does this with the simple subtitle (without quotation marks) “a pilot,” while I do it by listing the name of the episode (with quotation marks) as “Pilot.” They’re both perfectly fine options.

    EVEN MORE ON ENTITLEMENT:

    I had just completed this post when I got another email from an experienced writer. Friend-of-the-blog Mark Verheiden checks in on the other side! …the first studio script I submitted, I did a title page where I put the title (that’s it) in 16 pt type. The executive practically hurled it in my face. […] I don’t do that anymore.

    Fascinating, no? I’m not sure what to advocate anymore! I suggest that this choice should probably be dictated by your own personality and values, and perhaps even the tenor of the script — free-wheeling comedy might allow for looser rules than a restrained drama. If anyone else weighs in, I’ll let you know!

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    ADDENDUM: I found the letter that prompted this entry. Thank you, Eddie in Van Nuys! Eddie is a Friend of the Blog. He adds this helpful tip: Fortunately, it’s an easy mistake to fix. In Final Draft all one has to do is open the “Document” tab and hit “Title Page.” That brings up the script’s title page and it can be formatted from there. Problem solved.” Got that? Thanks!

    Original Post:

    I’m back in Los Angeles again, gentle readers. And I’m awfully glad to be home. I’m hoping that I’ll have more time to blog with you than I’ve had in recent weeks. Production is fun and exciting, but it is all-consuming.

    Now, as I’ve mentioned before, my blog-mail has been tossed like a salad as a result all the moving around. So while today’s entry was inspired by a letter, I can’t quite put my hands on the letter. One of you wrote in a while back with an excellent point that I’ve never seen before and I’ve decided it’s worth mentioning even with a shameful lack of attribution. When the original letter emerges from the chaos, I’ll let you know!

    Sometimes you convert your script to PDF format for emailing, right? At least I do. Well, when a Final Draft script is converted to PDF, a generic title page is generated. Be aware of it, because when the recipient prints out the file, that generic page is going to be on top. Apparently, some operations around town literally have stacks of these indistinguishable-from-the-top scripts. Don’t let yours be one of them! You want your title — and more importantly your name — visible, front-and-center.

    But, and here I go off-road to make an unrelated point, in my opinion you don’t want that name to be too big. I’ve been organizing my script files here at home, and I’ve realized that one of the ways I can instantly distinguish a script from a working colleague from a script by an aspiring writer is that the aspiring writer uses a big font on their title page. Now, others may disagree with me here, but I would advocate an all twelve-point title page. I think it looks more professional.

    This is a classic battle, actually — professionalism vs. self-promotion. Aspiring writers have to do a lot of things that professionals don’t have to — introducing themselves to working writers without a name to drop to ease the intro, and writing self-puffing essays about their qualifications and dreams, for example. It can be very hard to balance aggression and grace. The art of humble self-promotion can be as important in the early stages of career-exploration as writing skill, and I’ve seen it misplayed in both directions. You’ll have to find the tone that’s right for you. But on title pages, I recommend a soft and steady voice.

    Lunch: the “studio plate” from Poquito Mas. Do you have Poquito Mas? It’s a chain, but they make their own tortillas right there — mmm.

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