Home of Jane's blog on writing for television
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    August 11th, 2010Jane EspensonOn Writing, Spec Scripts

    I get asked a lot of questions about how I’m influenced by fans’ reactions to a show. This is a very legitimate question in a world where there are no longer a few reviewers who publish their opinions about an episode, but instead there are thousands of people blogging and Tweeting their reactions instantly.

    One of the specific questions I’m asked is “do you ever change the show to appeal to the audience, now that you have such immediate access to what they do and don’t want.” The answer I give to this is that I consider myself to be the audience I’m writing for. I write what I would want to see. Often, people are surprised by this. Not only am I saying I ignore all those fans who are desperately telling me what they want, but I’m also saying I’m writing for one very specific person who may not be at all representative of who is actually watching. Well, when you say it that way, it does sound crazy.

    But here’s how I defend it. I think there’s an analogy to be drawn with cooking. Theoretically, why does a chef need to have a good palate? If the chef is cooking what the diners like, why does the chef have to like it? Why, in fact, does she even need to know what it tastes like?

    Well, obviously, I’d rather take my chances with a chef who likes the food they’re cooking than one who doesn’t. Only the chef who likes it is going to know when it’s exactly right, not almost right. And only the chef who likes it can put passion into it, playing with the flavors night after night, augmenting and complementing and pairing the dish with wines and so forth.

    No one would want to be a chef assigned to cook for aliens with weird alien taste buds. Similarly, I would suggest that you not try writing for a show — or even a kind of show — that you don’t personally like. I’ve heard many writers talk about how their first agent told them to write a spec script that was the hot spec that year, but that didn’t fit their style. The successful writers generally found a way to write a show that fit them instead. They found a show they would want to watch, and that fit their skills.

    Keep this in mind when you pick existing shows to spec. Keep it in mind when you come up with your own spec pilot. And keep it in mind when you’re getting notes on your completed draft. If taking the note is turning your script into something you don’t enjoy reading/watching, then think about the reason behind the note and see if you can find another way to address the problem that doesn’t make you have to cook and eat literary Brussels sprouts.

    If you trust that you have a good palate — that you don’t like crap — then you can trust that when you’ve made something to fit your taste, that there will be many many people are agree with you.

    Lunch: heaps of white anchovies on glorious toasted sourdough bread

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    June 18th, 2010Jane EspensonOn Writing, Pilots, Spec Scripts

    When you’re setting out to write a spec pilot, it’s natural to be thinking about some kind of surprising (but inevitable) development for the end of the episode — a twist that turns a story into a saga. A series has an arc, just as an episode does, and it’s not a bad idea to think of the pilot as containing the inciting incident that launches that arc.

    However, you can’t rely so much on some late-in-the-script event that it becomes the ONLY incident you’ve got. In other words, the pilot episode cannot simply be a collection of interesting people puzzling over a mysterious event until a big revelation happens in the last five pages.

    Make sure you’ve got a story, even as it is also serving as a prologue to a bigger story. So how do you have a beginning, middle and an end, if the whole episode is all beginning? One classic way to do this is to have your heroes successfully solve something, then reveal, either to them or just to the audience, that the problem was part of (or the start of) something bigger. Similarly, you can have your protagonist succeed entirely at the immediate task, but then reveal to the audience that the protagonist has larger, less concrete problems looming — perhaps a mental or personal challenge that’s going to take a lot more work. However you accomplish it, there has to be real story movement and I would suggest some measure of satisfying closure in the pilot, not just character moments and anticipation.

    A good way to make sure this is happening in your pilot is to look at your beat sheet — the pared down version of your outline in which each scene is described with one or two sentences. The beat sheet is the easiest way to see the SHAPE of the story. Make sure that the story is a story. If your characters are encountering a mysterious event, is it the same every time, or is it escalating and evolving? If they’re informing other characters of what’s going on, are those characters adding more to the story than just introducing themselves to the viewers? If there are villains, are they being active? And, even more importantly, is your protagonist being active, changing her own situation? This is all basic story stuff, and I know you know it, but when you’re holding back cards so that you can make that big play at the end of the pilot script, it can be surprisingly easy to forget this stuff.

    Pilots are tricky. In our lives as viewers, most of us see a lot more episodes of television that aren’t pilots than ones that are. We just have more examples. So you have to be more analytical when you plot them. But it’s still part of the same art. You can do it.

    Lunch: Kaya Toast and other amazing things at Susan Feniger’s Street.

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    June 7th, 2010Jane EspensonOn Writing, Pilots, Spec Scripts

    If you’re writing a spec pilot, then you’re taking on more than shaping a single story that’s worth telling. You have to decide why THE ENTIRE SERIES is worth making.

    A spec pilot has to work as an episode, but it also has to be plausible, even brilliant, as a template for a whole show. And one thing that makes a show brilliant is if it’s got a big macro reason to exist — if it’s got a point to make.

    You might find it helpful to think of your pilot as having a topic sentence, just like an essay. Here are some topic sentences that could fuel series: Sometimes crime can be justified in an unjust world. Intelligence is a social deficit that can be overcome by applying intelligence. Childlike beliefs keep us young, for good and bad. Justice needs the help of dedicated people in order to prevail. Outsiders can form a family that’s stronger than one connected by blood. Strong leaders pay an almost unbearable price. Competence can outweigh compassion. Immoral but necessary actions ultimately corrupt anyway. Times change, people don’t. Freedom and safety are opposites.

    Notice that many of these are very familiar. The number of shows that are about outsiders forming a family is staggering. It’s okay if your topic sentence has been used before. That probably just means that you know it works. It’s good if it’s something you really believe, too.

    This isn’t a task that has to be added to your already daunting list of pilot requirements. This is something that can help make the whole process easier. You might have started work on your spec pilot with nothing more in mind than a setting. Then you added characters. At some point, though, you want it to take on a shape. Having a topic sentence like this will really help you shape the story. Having something to say is better, and easier, than not having something to say.

    Lunch: home-made grilled cheese sandwich, but not grilled. Toast the bread. Apply mustard and slices of cheddar. Microwave very briefly. Perfect!

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    April 6th, 2010Jane EspensonOn Writing, Spec Scripts

    Hi! I’m back. I don’t know for how long, but I missed talking with you guys in chunks of more than 140 characters!

    I’ve been off writing shows (Dollhouse, Caprica), and speaking to young writers and pitching pilots and writing freelance eps of wonderful shows and generally recharging my blogbatteries!

    Is everyone out there watching Community? I love this show and it’s a master class on new and fresh ways to tell jokes. And on how to actually be about something at the same time.

    You can tell that the episodes are conceived in the same way you guys should be conceiving your spec scripts — they start with something to say and then the humor comes out of that. I guarantee you that they did not start working on the latest episode by thinking of funny things that could happen in a pottery class. They started by thinking about their characters, what they believe, and where they’re weakest.

    Find your characters’ vulnerable spots and poke them and you’ll find a story. The idea that Jeff was over-praised as a child, resulting in a self-image that needs correction is not hilarious. It’s grounded and real — which allows for more license when writing the jokes. For example, the writers were able to go to the surreal place of having Jeff’s childhood memories change retroactively at the end of the episode only because we were invested in an emotional change that we really bought. You have to be really careful with surrealism because it can make an audience check out unless careful groundwork has been laid.

    A lot depends on the show you chose to spec (or the tone you’re looking for in your spec pilot), but in general I would recommend that you should be able to produce a non-funny answer to the question, “what is your script about?” Answers like, “My main character is afraid his kids don’t respect him” or “My main character is scared that he’s more feared than loved at work,” or “My main character thinks her lover is growing bored with her.” Very non-funny. But the way that character takes action to address the problem — now you’ve got a whole vista of comic possibilities that the viewers are going to actually empathize with. And that’s golden.

    Lunch: Yesterday I had a movie theater hotdog without seeing a movie. They had a spicy relish that I quite liked, although I still wished they had ‘kraut.

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    November 1st, 2008Jane EspensonFrom the Mailbag, On Writing, Pilots, Spec Scripts

    Gentle Reader Sharla in Boulder has a great question. She’s been writing spec scripts for existing shows, so that she’ll have some really great samples to submit for fellowships. With those finished, she’s moved on to writing spec pilots, so that she’ll have those ready for when she actually needs to get an agent and a job. Don’t you love it when someone works their plan? It’s inspiring. But she’s hitting an interesting obstacle.

    “While writing my fellowship spec, I was working with characters that had so much background. Based on what they’d done and said in the past, I was able to craft their dialogue to fit the voices I knew and loved. And even when I did write an off line, when I read back over it, I could usually tell, oh, this doesn’t sound like so and so. Now when I’m writing my own characters, I seem to have lost that intuition. Since I’ve just created them, I don’t know what they sound like! […] In a way, I feel like it should be freeing to write for my own characters, but it’s like it’s too much freedom. I just can’t get their dialogue to focus.”

    Yes! I know exactly what you mean, Sharla. I faced the same thing when I started writing pilot scripts, and that was after I’d had years of professional experience of writing for other people’s characters. This is a great question.

    I’ve found two different approaches that can be helpful:

    1. Borrow and combine. There’s nothing wrong with continuing to write for characters you know and love, just grafting them into your script. Got a tough, interestingly flawed character? Try using Starbuck’s voice. Got a blowhard character? Ted Baxter’s voice isn’t busy. It’s like dream casting only with characters instead of actors. Since the circumstances of your story will make new and unique demands on the characters, the voices will naturally have to be adapted, which will prevent your script from sounding like a series of clips from other shows. You can also combine traits — give House’s way of speaking to a female character or combine two characters to make someone new. It’s not stealing, it’s adapting. There’s nothing wrong with using someone else’s springboard to dive into your pool.

    The second option is harder, but much better:

    2. Identify a type and use it to create your own breakout character. Sometimes, when you meet someone, you realize they remind you of someone else you know. And it’s not a physical resemblance, but something else — a way of dealing with others and a way of interpreting the world. When that happens, you are identifying a type. It’s most obvious with crazy people. If you’ve had encounters with crazy people, you’ve probably found that some of them remind you of other crazy people you’ve encountered before, and you’ve probably developed your own way of dealing with them based on what’s worked before. You’re predicting their behavior. You do it with less extreme personalities, too. Your cab driver suddenly reminds you of your father-in-law, or your new boss reminds you of your college roommate, and you form certain expectations about how they’re going to act, what they’re going to find funny, what they’re likely to say in a situation. It’s the meticulous observation of types that can allow comedic actors to create instantly successful and memorable characters, and it always works best when a type is familiar to us from interactions, but hasn’t yet been presented to us as an archetype. The “aging Brit rocker” type is now growing familiar, but not long ago, he was running wild in the world, not yet pinned to the collection board. The “cougar” hadn’t been captured regularly since Mrs. Robinson and now she’s everywhere. The “teen girl cynic” — new-ish and ubiquitous! What’s the next type to be observed and captured? Find it, pin it down, write the heck out of it! You’ll have Barney from How I Met Your Mother or Tracy from 30 Rock and your script will sparkle.

    ADDENDUM: Please note that these aren’t the only options. They’re just two that I have found helpful. You can also, of course, come up with a unique character unlike anyone you’ve seen or met, or you can pattern a character after one person you know — there are many ways to go about it. I just happen to like the two I listed.

    Lunch: the 2 cheeseburger meal from McDonalds in the car on the way to Norwalk to vote early. VOTE EARLY!

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