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    May 23rd, 2010Jane EspensonDrama, On Writing

    A couple weeks ago, I was sitting in the audience at a classic film festival in here in L.A. and I overheard two young women having this exchange:

    Have you seen “Seventh Heaven”?

    I’ve seen the television series.

    Have you seen director Frank Borzage’s classic 1927 film “Seventh Heaven”?


    You’ve probably got a good sense of how these lines were said. I’ve helped cement this impression with the names. But here’s how they were actually said:

    Have you seen “Seventh Heaven”?

    Ditzy hesitates. She knows this isn’t the right answer, but:

    I’ve seen the television series.

    (affectionately amused)
    Have you seen director Frank Borzage’s classic 1927 film “Seventh Heaven”?

    (laughing at herself)

    What I love about the way this exchange actually happened is that it was unexpected and warm and human. It’s got subtler shadings than just a dumb girl irritating a bossy one. Sure, Ditzy is still a little ditzy and Bossy is still a bit bossy, but they’re tempered and real, more like people we know. That makes me more interested in getting to know them. Some might say that drama has been lost, but I think the old “drama is conflict” mantra can be a dangerous oversimplification. Simple conflict is less interesting than subtle conflict, even if that subtler conflict is less conflict-y. And you don’t need conflict between every pair of characters that has a scene together. Complicated shaded friendships are really interesting to watch, too.

    I chose this example because I enjoyed overhearing this interaction. It made me start speculating about the girls. I imagined them to be college classmates who didn’t know each other very well. Perhaps they’d met up at the theater by chance, not design? I got curious because the interaction seemed to reveal so much about them — about Ditzy’s desire to be liked, about Bossy’s ability to make clear she was laughing with, not at, the other girl. There was a lot going on in a very few lines.

    Pay attention to conversations around you when you’re out on your own. See if you can identify conversation molecules, the smallest pieces of conversation that capture important facets of all the characters involved. It’s really good training to help you write conversations that sound like they were lifted from real life, not from other writers’ screenplays. Even without collecting examples, I think you’ll find it’s a simple adjustment to look at dialogue you’ve written and play around with subtling up the attitudes.

    Lunch: a BLT with a fried egg. It would be a BTLE, but the E is silent. 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 fiancĂ©, 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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    March 2nd, 2008Jane EspensonDrama, On Writing

    Here’s an exchange I just heard today on an episode of The Wire. It went something like this:

    A GUY
    I got a little problem.

    Not uncommon in a man your age.

    Fantastic, right? Funny without being unrealistic. But what’s the next line? It’s tempting to feel that the next line has to be a topper, or at least a “very funny” or “f— you” sort of acknowledgement of the joke. But that isn’t what happened. Instead, the first guy acknowledged the joke with a sort of wry grimace and went on to outline what he actually needed from the other guy. And, I swear, the joke was funnier for it, and the scene retained a sense of urgency that might’ve been lost behind a whole string of jokes.

    Jokes breed jokes. You want a little comedic head-piece to a scene, and it’s easy to end up with a whole joke run, just because you feel like everyone has to keep responding and one-upping. Great for a sitcom, but if you’re in a drama, consider letting a joke line just stand alone.

    Lunch: Vienna sausages, canned oysters, “spicy thai” potato chips, strawberries and a variety of candies

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    February 5th, 2008Jane EspensonDrama, From the Mailbag, On Writing, Spec Scripts

    Oh my, what a busy picketing day tomorrow will be. In addition to “Sci Fi Channel Day” at NBC from noon to 2, as detailed in my last post, there is also a “Spooky Wednesday” picket at Warner Brothers from 9 to noon. If you want to attend both and don’t want to walk for five hours, may I suggest that like any good screenwriter you get into the scene late and cut out early.

    You’ve already seen the Sci Fi Day info. Here is the info on the Spooky Wednesday event as provided by the organizers:

    Not sure you’re witty enough to write Sam and Dean Winchester’s dialogue? The writers from “Supernatural” can help! Want to know how to raise the stakes for a Vampire detective? Writers from “Moonlight” know! Worried that your spouse may be a cyborg? The writers from “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” probably won’t be able to help (but they will be on hand for your other brilliant questions!). Yes, writers from these shows (plus a few surprise guests!) will be there to answers these questions and more…

    The usual disclaimers:

    If you’re a writer for a genre drama (or have been one) and want to show up, please know:

    No one will solicit you to read their brilliant spec script. No one will ask for your phone number or email address. No one will expect anything of you other than your ability to answer some story/structure/dialogue questions.

    If you’re an aspiring writer who wants to take advantage of getting some truly great advice from the folks who have lived, eaten, breathed it:

    Definitely join us — all you need to do is pick up a sign! What you should not do: solicit the writers to read your brilliant spec script. Do not ask for phone numbers or email addresses. Do expect brilliance, because that’s what you’ll get!

    SPOOKY WEDNESDAY: February 6th, 9 AM-12 PM, Warner Bros Gate 2.

    Since I’ve already committed to the NBC event, I’m choosing to attend that one, but if you’re an aspiring writer, both events obviously have a lot to offer.

    Lunch: leftover veggie fajita

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    January 16th, 2008Jane EspensonDrama, From the Mailbag, On Writing

    I’ve been looking over past entries from this our shared blog, Gentle Readers, and I’ve noticed that I’ve talked a lot about making sure that, as often as possible, your jokes are used to express character. It occurs to me now that there’s no reason to limit this idea to jokes. You may find yourself writing the dourest darkest drama unleavened by any humor (although I hope not — everything’s better with some funny in it), and you should still make an effort to make sure that the lines your characters speak are constructed to illuminate who they are.

    In order to accomplish this, it helps if all of your characters have attitudes, actual opinions about what’s going on in the story. Got a character who isn’t invested in the story? How about making him SO uninvested that he’s advocating not going on the adventure at all? Now he’s got a positive agenda, something to argue for, not just against. (“Hey, guys, if we call off the assassination, we can still get to the park by the third inning…”)

    Got two characters who don’t have opinions about the A-story? Maybe they could have an unrelated B-story conflict that makes them instinctively take opposite sides on some A-story issue. Again, you’re finding a way to make every line they say reveal something about what’s going on with them.

    By the way, that’s a great rule of thumb for any scene… if a character doesn’t have a logical reason to take a certain action or advocate for a certain position, then give them an emotional reason. Like, for example, antipathy toward the hero or a desire to sleep with the villain or an unconscious identification with the victim… find a way to keep them invested.

    Characters who care deeply, even if it’s for bad reasons, are going to make every scene about themselves. Which you know, if you’ve ever been in the middle of a group of people who think every scene is about themselves, is very, very good for drama.

    STRIKE NEWS: I’ll be picketing at my new usual location tomorrow: NBC Burbank, but at a special time. I’m going to be there, I believe from 11:30 to 2:30 with the Women of Sci Fi! This is an amazing group, and if you can stop by and walk with us, I think you’ll be inspired. UPDATE: I think now that I will actually be there from 10 to 1, due to a conflict with another obligation. Come early to see me, or later to see the rest of the Sci Fi group.

    Lunch: scrambled eggs with a chopped-up potsticker and crumbled Doritos scrambled in. A triumph.

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