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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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    August 3rd, 2007Jane EspensonDrama, On Writing, Pilots, Teasers

    Eric in West Hollywood wrote in a very long time ago, with a question that I’m finally getting around to answering. He asks about the act structure for a one-hour drama. Eric:

    In your opinion are five acts a blip or a trend? If I’m writing a [spec] pilot, should I write it in four acts? And which act break is the most important?

    Ooh, those are great questions. Most hour shows seem to have gone to the five-act structure now, although the show I’m currently working on (Battlestar), is still holding to the older four-act structure. It’s hard to tell, of course, if something is a blip until it blips out, but I think this has the feel of a something more permanent. Networks like commercial breaks and they like a longer opening sequence to hook viewers, and those impulses have created the additional act. (I hear that some shows are even toying with a six-act structure, although I wonder if, in that case, maybe that first act feels a bit like a teaser and that last act like a tag.)

    The nice thing for you spec pilot writers is that the transition is still transitioning. You can choose with complete freedom whether to tell your show with four or five acts. I’d suggest that you let your story determine that. Look at how many times it turns, and number your acts accordingly.

    As to the most important act break, that’s a very interesting question. I’m going to rephrase it a bit, and ask how the four-act act breaks line up with the five-act act breaks. Traditionally, the end of act one is the moment that defines the main problem of the script — the obstacle the characters face. This should still be the end of act one, certainly not any later. The end of act three in a traditional four-act show is often the “all is lost” act break. I’d suggest that the end of act four plays this role in a five-act show, certainly you don’t want it earlier. So it’s not that you’re tacking on an extra act of set-up at the beginning, nor an extra act of resolve at the end. The new act is made out of the cloth in the middle.

    Unfortunately, it’s hard to get more specific than that, because shows differ so much in what they require out of an “act break moment,” so you’ll have to do some exploration of this on your own, by playing with your own story. And remember, it’s all right if the length of your acts varies. Acts early in a script are often longer than later ones. I’ve seen first acts that are over twenty pages long and final acts as short as five or six pages. If the reverse is happening with your script, that’s a bit strange. You might want to have that looked at.

    Try, as much as you can, to let the natural shape of your story determine how it fits onto the pages. Let the demands of page-count and the number/placement of acts keep you from formlessness, but don’t let them dictate your story.

    P.S. thanks to Loyal Reader Lilia for the fine gift!

    Lunch: a “Boston Cream Pie Cupcake” from Big Sugar Bakeshop. I love self-contradictory treats.

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    May 23rd, 2007Jane EspensonOn Writing, Teasers

    I recently read one of those collections of short stories. You know the kind, the “Best Short Stories of Two Thousand and Whatever it is Now” kind of thing. In the introduction, the editor talked about how she would have thought that short stories would be increasing in popularity now, as we all lead fast lives with small amounts of leisure time. A short story for the subway ride, a short story before turning out the light to refresh for another hectic day… it seems to make sense. She was puzzled as to why this doesn’t seem to be happening, that novels still seem to be the preferred unit of prose-based fiction.

    Well, I can tell her why. Start-up costs. You have to invest a lot of attention in the start of a short story. Who are these people? Are they firemen? What year is this? Hey, are we in China or something? Picking up a short story requires an investment in attention and care far beyond what reading the next chapter of a novel requires. There, we already know what we’re in for and we only have to worry about what our guy is going through next.

    What I’m getting to here is, of course, a discussion of the cold openings on House.

    Typically, the House cold open (also known as a teaser), is a little game of who’s-gonna-rupture. You meet a few people in an easily understood situation. Three of them cough and then one collapses in a sea of their own innards. Cut to credits. It’s a neat little device, but it is a short story. If you’re writing a House and you’re doing one of these cold opens, you’re going to want to spend a lot of time making it very clever, very suspenseful and intriguing. Make us care about the person who is about to collapse. Make us invest in the show even though we’re not seeing the man we’re all here to see… we’re not yet seeing House. Or even Wilson or Cuddy.

    Unless we are. See, every now and then, we do see a regular character in the teaser of the show. It’s a minority of the time, but it happens frequently enough that I think you should consider it for your spec. In one episode, we see House because the game of who’s-got-the-pathogen is happening in the Emergency Room where House is avoiding seeing patients. In another, the famous and best-episode-of-television-ever “Three Stories” episode, we don’t start with a case at all, but with House being sent to teach a class. In another, we see Cuddy witness the injury of a man who was working for her at her house. In yet another, House is already working a case when someone bursts in and shoots him.

    Okay, now that’s more like it. Now we’re talking about a chapter in a novel in which something interesting is happening to someone I know. I’m not being asked to invest in the health of someone I just met without any connection to my continuing characters. I’m being forced to care, dragged into the story by my pre-existing investment.

    The actual show doesn’t do these kinds of openings all the time, I’m sure, because they don’t want to end up with Murder-She-Wrote syndrome in which coincidence drags our characters into the mystery every week. But you don’t have to worry about the every-week-of-it. You’re just writing the one episode.

    Now, don’t get so excited by the gymnastics of including a major character in the teaser that you flip yourself right out of the arena. You have to demonstrate that you understand the conventions of the show. You have to conform to the prototype in some ways if you’re going to fool the reader into thinking this just might be a produced episode. But in this one specific instance, I think it’s worth considering including at least one regular character (doesn’t have to be House) in the teaser.

    Other people might give you the opposite advice. They could say that doing this breaks the mold of the typical episode too much, or that involving a regular character that early on buys cheap empathy that you haven’t really earned. There’s no way to know what the reader of your particular spec will prefer, but in a world in which you have no idea how far into your spec a jaded reader will venture, I say hook ’em early.

    I think if I were writing a House spec, I would start with Wilson (House’s best friend, an oncologist) puzzling over a patient of his who has been brought in with some acute and alarming symptoms. While the patient struggles to breathe, Wilson picks up the phone and urgently demands that House come to his exam room right away. House enters (complaining) and looks confused to find the patient, still breathless and apparently alone. House is about to pivot on his cane-point and exit, when the patient points, panting, down out of frame. The camera TILTS down to find Wilson, lying unconscious at House’s feet.

    The reader might throw the script to the floor at this point, declaring that the writer is attempting to use shock value instead of good writing. Or they might keep reading, because they care about House and they care about Wilson and I’ve tapped into their little novel-lovin’ heart.

    Lunch: chicken salad sandwich and a hand-made version of a Ding-Dong from Big Sugar Bakeshop — small chocolate cupcake filled with whipped cream. Yummy.

    ADDENDUM: If you’re already written your House, or have plotted it out, or simply have a great idea for a more standard cold open in your head, don’t feel that you should change it. As I say, this is simply a suggestion to consider the option, not necessarily to exercise it.

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    March 28th, 2007Jane EspensonOn Writing, Spec Scripts, Teasers

    Here is a sentence you sometimes hear in a writers’ room: “What if we took that big event in the fourth act and moved it up to the first act?” Here is a sentence you never hear: “What if took our teaser and made it the big conclusion?” Jump-starting the action is almost always better than delaying it. And this is especially true with a spec script, because most of your readers aren’t going to make it past page fifteen unless they’re hooked and hooked good.

    Look at the beats as you have them laid out and play around with this idea. You might find that a lot of the early scenes in your episode are there to lay out a series of logical steps to get your characters into position for a big event. Series of logical steps can feel plodding and dull. Try putting the big event earlier and see if you can move those plodding steps into “stuff that happened before the episode started”. Of course, you’ll have to come up with brand-new, even bigger and more exiting stuff to replace the thing you moved up, but if you find it, you can create a real rip-snortin’ episode.

    It won’t always work, but when it does it can take a slow fuse and replace it with an explosion. And in a world of busy readers, that can really really help.

    Lunch: salad bar and tortilla soup

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    December 10th, 2006Jane EspensonComedy, On Writing, Pilots, Spec Scripts, Teasers

    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.

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