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    April 18th, 2010Jane EspensonComedy, On Writing

    There’s a good example out there right now of what my friend and fellow writer Jeff Greenstein (@blue439) calls “Clams Casino” — that is, an old over worked joke (or “clam”) used as an ingredient in a new exciting mixture. Note that Clams Casino is a classic garlicky recipe, presumably good for making sure dinner guests don’t realize how old the clams were until they’re halfway home.

    The clam dish in question is featured in the latest Progressive Insurance ad. This is the series of ads featuring the perky salesgirl, Flo. I often find that these ads have the rhythm of jokes without being genuinely funny, but this one worked for me. In the ad she cracks some kind of mild joke and then adds, “I’m here all week.” This particular phrase has been clammy for at least a decade. It’s often accompanied by “Try the veal,” and/or “Remember to tip your waitress”.

    The commercial rescues itself by having the girl continue, a bit abashed, “I will. That’s my schedule.” This is a great save. Not only is the attitude right, clam-shamed, but the word “schedule,” by referencing the *actual* venue that’s represented, a retail store, pulls us out of the implied world of 1980s comedy clubs in a grounded way. The joke was made literal and became a joke again. Nice work, some ad writing person!

    You can do the same thing if you find yourself in a clammy situation. Look for a way to make the joke literal by tying it to the setting, character or plot that’s specific to your script. Here’s another example in which the same trick was used. Strikingly, it’s also a comedy club reference — because that is of course the source of the clammiest clams. This is in an episode of the Simpsons: Moe tells a joke, gets no reaction from a crowd, taps his mike and nervously jokes, “is this thing on”? Angle on Barney, who realizes the mike is in fact unplugged. He apologizes and plugs it in. Just as in the Progressive ad, the joke is saved by making it literal.

    An aside: What I find interesting about both of these clams is that they are clams ABOUT clams (or at least about failed jokes). The “here all week” joke is used exclusively as a follow up to a joke that the speaker is trying to gently disavow. By pointing at the image of a hacky standup from the age of hacky standups, the joke is designed to allow the speaker a chance to gently distance him or herself from what was just said. The fact that this clam occurs so often tells us, I suppose, that there’s a real social function being served here. We clearly need jokes that fill this ecological niche– can you be the one to coin the fresh replacement?

    Lunch: whitefish with artichokes and string beans at Toscanova at the Century City Mall. So fresh and delicious!

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    April 10th, 2010Jane EspensonOn Writing

    I’m doing a lot of reading about old Hollywood right now, with particular emphasis on the transition from silent films to talkies. Oh, this is such good stuff, you have no idea.

    The screenplays for silent movies obviously were about action and mood and intention instead of dialogue. I’m not talking about the dialogue that appeared on title cards, but the scenario for what happened in the film. The skills of a novelist were very appropriate for this kind of screenplay writing, which was descriptive, evocative, and internal. By “internal” I mean that it was concerned with what the character was thinking and feeling.

    When the arrival of Talkies necessitated the writing of massive amounts of dialogue, new writers were hired, usually brought in from the East Coast. Novelists and journalists were both hired and given the chance to try their hands at this new kind of screenwriting.

    So who thrived and who didn’t?

    The journalists won. They had an ear for naturalistic dialogue and they knew how to write concisely and tell stories with clear-eyed details, not evocative prose. The novelists tended to write longer and more stylish (or stylized) speeches and descriptions. Beautiful stuff, but not as valuable as something short and potent.

    Three of my colleagues in the writers’ room at Battlestar Galactica were former journalists. That’s about half the room. They were some of the finest writers I’ve met in the business. It looks to me like the skills still mesh.

    I’m obviously not telling you to go out and find a newspaper to write for — that doesn’t seem like a particularly easy assignment right now. But I still think this information is useful for all you aspiring writers. Think like a reporter — pare the story down, find the bones of it, and listen to your characters talk in the language of whatever street they come from — even if you let them ramble on a bit in the first draft, eventually try to find the succinct quote.

    You get to make up the facts and the people, but the core truths that you’re uncovering should be just as real as if the story had happened. Be a reporter.

    Lunch: Wheat Thins and cheese today. But I went to “Street” the other day, Susan Feniger’s restaurant, and it’s amazing. I was not surprised to see her do well on Top Chef Masters this week. Try the “Kaya Toast”.

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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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    December 8th, 2008Jane EspensonOn Writing

    Dear Gentle Readers,

    As you have probably noticed, the frequency of these posts has declined in the recent months. I have been telling myself that I will recapture the fire and drive that powered this blog for these last several years, but I suspect that it is now time to face the truth:

    I simply have said almost everything that I have to say about writing for television.

    It used to be the case that every time I wrote a scene — or watched a scene — a little nugget of writing advice would occur to me. But now I find that I’m consistently being reminded of points that I have already made, examples at which I have already pointed.

    I have received hundreds, possibly thousands, of letters during the time I blogged here, all of them kind and thoughtful. Thank you. In fact, some of the letters which remain unaddressed may still be answered in this space as I stumble across answers and notions.

    I’m not abandoning this space. I will probably post here from time to time as I continue to learn how to write, and I’ll pass my realizations along to you. I may also use this space as I originally had planned to: as a place to notify you of airdates and personal appearances.

    I hope that I will get a second wind, discover an untapped well of writing wisdom to share — I think sometimes it’s necessary simply to practice what one does in order to learn more about how to convey the secrets of doing it.

    And, of course, I hope to organize the thoughts I’ve presented here into a book at some future date.

    But in any case, I thank you SO MUCH, Gentle Readers, for your time and attention. I have loved talking with you through this medium and I hope I’ll return to it in the future!

    Love, Jane (Your Gentle Writer)

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    November 20th, 2008Jane EspensonOn Writing

    I promised a very long time ago that I would talk about the process of comic book writing. I’ve already mentioned that comic book scripts vary enormously from author to author and publisher to publisher, so it’s possible that the process I’m going to describe is only one way that these things are accomplished, but this is how I’ve experienced it.

    First, I come up with a story, remembering that it generally has to be quite simple. You can’t get a lot on a page, so you have to keep that in mind. I also try to make the story more action-packed than I normally would do in a similarly long stretch of television. It’s worth thinking, too, about things that would be hard or expensive to do on TV, since this is your chance to, say, make a character shrink or fade away or turn inside-out, or make a city burn, crumble or float. You can think big on the comic book page. (Although some things stay the same — huge crowd scenes can still sometimes be problematic, I was told, since you’re burdening the artist with a very complex drawing.)

    Next, I try to carve my story up into roughly page-sized pieces. I will find out during the writing process (every darn time) that I’ve overestimated the content of each page and I’ll have to simplify the story. Presumably, a better writer would learn how to anticipate that.

    It’s a good idea to look for act-break like little moments of suspense at the end of each odd-numbered page so that the reader is compelled to turn the page. But, honestly, I don’t sweat these too much. If I can make it happen, great. But I don’t want to twist the story around to the tyranny of the page break.

    Some parts of comic book writing are incredibly specific to the genre, like sound-effects words. You get to figure out how (and where and when) to suggest the sound of a body hitting the ground or a bullet being fired, or a blob of taffy flying through the air. (Answer key: k’thumph, blamm and fweeee!)

    My scripts give pretty detailed descriptions of what I imagine for each panel, so when I’m writing the script I have to think visually. I picture an action, and then have to figure out if there’s a single snapshot that would capture that action, or if I’ll need to spread it out over multiple panels. If there’s a conversation, I have to boil it down to its essentials so I don’t have pages of nothing but drawings of two people on a park bench. It’s a challenge. If you read a lot of comics it will undoubtedly come easier to you. As in all writing, there is no need to re-invent anything. Others have worked out a lot of this already and you can learn a lot by studying how other writers have tackled these challenges.

    Once the script is turned over to the artist, I get to communicate back-and-forth with him or her. Artists are, of course, uniquely equipped to tell you what will and won’t work to communicate your idea visually, and they have loads of creative ideas of their own. Let them run with it! I find it’s best to just make clear what I was HOPING to convey and then let them convey it, because their ideas about this are always better than mine. (On my most recent effort, I got to work with Georges Jeanty, who is a genuine genius — fantastic.)

    I got to weigh in on preliminary drawings and even colors during the latest issue I wrote, and it’s fascinating, seeing it all come together. Comic books feel both very autonomous and very collaborative at the same time — it begins entirely under your control, without the limitations of a filmed production, and it ends entirely in the hands of others. It’s one of the most satisfying final products, too, for a TV writer, since it’s both a physical object and a lot faster than a novel.

    Lunch: juice and Tylenol (home sick with flu)

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