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    April 25th, 2010Jane EspensonOn Writing

    So I watched another episode of Community last night, and I realized something wonderful and deep about the way complexity of character interacts with theme. More complex characters = more precise themes. Okay, maybe it’s not that deep, but it is wonderful.

    The episode had to do with Jeff realizing he’d lost his position of authority over the group. Thematically, it was very similar to the episode I talked about a couple weeks ago, that was about Jeff resisting a challenge to his inflated perception of himself. Similar. But not identical. One was about needing to be in charge, the other was about needing to project coolness. And that’s marvelous, because if you can write your episodes with enough focus that those become distinct character flaws, then you get two great precise stories instead of one mushy one about Jeff feeling usurped in some general way.

    When you’re looking for a story to tell, you may want to think of it as looking for a way to provoke your character. Look for their weaknesses, but do so with precision. This may lead you to despair that you haven’t created a complex enough character, but that’s okay — the secret is that it’s stories like this that CREATE character. If you don’t know how your character would react to a very specific provocation, then this is your chance to find out and tell the viewer/reader about it. You’ll look like a genius and your character will grow.

    The other really good trick that the writers of Community use is that it’s never just one character acting out. Get two characters provoked at once, spurring them into actions that put them in conflict and you’ve got a lot of activity — with all of it coming out of character. Beautiful!

    Lunch: I was a baby shower where I ate many exciting cheeses, veggies, chicken satay and a delightful scallion pancake!

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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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