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    September 25th, 2006Jane EspensonDrama, From the Mailbag, On Writing, Pilots, Teasers

    Hi all. Oh, such a heart-tugging letter just arrived from Angie in (I think) Los Angeles. She’s 35, has been trying to be a writer for many years now, acting as her own agent, and is wondering if the time is right to give up. Oh, Angie! I think you know me well enough to know that I never advocate giving up. And since I think you know that, I think that’s what you really want to hear. So here it is:

    Don’t give up! You’ve got a number of factors working in your favor: 1. your scripts have performed well in contests. 2. as a “diverse” writer, you’re a member of a protected group, which can open up some opportunities. 3. You live in LA, so the door you’re trying to get through is right in your neighborhood. 4. Thirty-five doesn’t seem nearly as old as it did when I was, ya know, under thirty-five. You’ve still got time. And in five years you’re going to be forty whether you keep working at this or not. So you might as well keep working.

    The sobering facts are that this is a rough time for anyone to get a television job. You really need an agent. But agents are hard to find. Lots of them don’t want to take on new clients right now, with employment prospects thin. The fact that a writers’ strike is looming probably has an effect too.

    But these things can change — a strike, should it happen, will end, for example. And if you continue to add to your list of contests and fellowships, eventually an agent may agree to rep you, or at least “hip-pocket” you, which is a more informal relationship that can still get your scripts to producers under an agency cover. Then you can stop having to try to do it all yourself.

    I know it’s hard. But all I can tell you is to meet other writers, join screenwriting groups, take classes, keep submitting those specs to contests and fellowships. Maybe start writing plays — some playwrighting contest wins could be impressive. And I know quite a few people who have written and shot their own low-budget features — heck, maybe you can conquor the world through YouTube! Get creative about how you approach the problem. But don’t be too aggressive with people — if you come across as pushy, you’ll burn bridges. Let your scripts do the talking, as much as possible.

    And, Angie, write me again, okay? Let me know what you decide to do.

    In other news, a follow-up on yesterday’s five-act post. I’ve received two emails from working writers with completely contradictory information on the future of episodic tv structure. I am informed both that Bones has gone back to the four act structure after an attempt to work with five, and that new ABC drama pilots are being written with SIX acts (although with no teaser)! Well! So, I guess, the wise thing is probably to let your story dictate your choice! How many times does your story turn? That’s how many act breaks it can have!

    Lunch: tortilla chips with salsa and cheese and a chocolate cupcake

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    August 29th, 2006Jane EspensonDrama, On Writing, Spec Scripts, Teasers

    WorldCon made me get all theoretical and big-picture-y. That can be fun, but it isn’t always helpful if you’re sitting at home with your fingers on the keys, looking for advice you can put to work right away. So, how about we go back to talking about something more practical?

    Let’s suppose you’re “breaking” the story for your drama spec script. You’re in the early stages, thinking up the basic spine of the story, and looking for the act breaks – looking for the places where the story turns. So you come up with a nice exciting event for the end of the teaser, and other ones for the three or four breaks that follow — all the places where the story will continue after commercials.

    Let’s say that the act breaks you come up with are compelling and suspenseful. What could possibly go wrong?

    They could be duplicates, is what. Sometimes it’s very easy to end up with two act breaks that are way too similar to each other. If you end act one with your detectives at a dead-end, you shouldn’t end act three with another dead end. Or if an act ends with character one betraying character two, then it’s best to avoid using a subsequent betrayal of c2 by c1 as another act break in the same episode.

    This trap is so easy to fall into that I’ve been on staffs where no one notices that we’ve broken a story with this flaw for a strikingly long time. Then finally, someone points it out, and we all slap our foreheads in comical unison. Sometimes, it doesn’t even get fixed. You can probably find produced episodes that do exactly this. Maybe it even works, if the two scenes are purposeful echoes of each other, or if the second of the two breaks is presented as existing at an order of magnitude greater than the first. But unless things work out just right, and you can bury the similarity, you’re taking a risk of turning in a script that feels circular and repetitive.

    In an extreme case of repeated act breaks, you can look at the story for an episode and realize that nothing would really change if you removed, say, act three. This is a very bad sign. Test your story against this property before you begin writing dialogue. If you’ve got an act that lifts out like part of a sectional sofa, then something’s gone badly wrong. Change it now. Everything is easier to change in the pre-outline stage. And if no one sees you slap your forehead, does it really hurt?

    Lunch: no new lunch since last entry

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